stepping the mast Lady B

bnr#65 => stepping the mast Lady B

In the Mud and Blood of Networks: An Interview with Graham Harwood

By Anthony Iles, 12 October 2010 for Mute

Image: Graham Harwood, from Aluminium: Beauty, Incorruptibility,
Lightness and Abundance, the Metal of the Future, 2008

Graham Harwood and Matsuko Yokokoji (YoHA) build contraptions that
expose and collapse down the productive chains linking
telecommunications media to some of the raw materials that constitute
them. In this interview with Anthony Iles however, Harwood rejects
theoretical discourses of resistance in favour of a more direct and
technical method of ‘action research' which skirts art and politics

In the 1990s Graham Harwood's work with the media arts and education
group Mongrel plotted a characteristically antagonistic approach to
cultural hybridity and the social uses of technology. Since the
scattering of the group's original members (Richard-Pierre-Davis, Mervin Jarman, Graham Harwood and Matsuko Yokokoji), Harwood's collaboration with Yokokoji, as YoHa, has produced, among other projects, a series of works which examine the material qualities, histories and applications
of industrial materials, namely coal, aluminium and tantalum. Each of
these materials has particular relevance to the manufacture of computing
and telecommunications technologies. Investigating their materiality
provides multiple lines of flight from the mystifications excused by
terms such as ‘immaterial economy' or ‘immaterial production'. These
terms encourage contemporary production's camouflaging of labouring and
suffering bodies. Attention to only the ‘immaterial' falls short of
showing how capitalism puts materials, machines and bodies to work to
produce value. YoHa work with the media that each of these particular
materials create, and treat the materials themselves as media which
simultaneously condition human bodies and communicate human conditions.
Each project forms collaborations with individuals and groups whose
lives are intertwined with these materials at the level of extraction
and industrial application, and the social networks supported by the
communications technologies they drive. While the materials are deployed
in machines which are made to recursively research themselves and their
effects, they also inscribe records of the bodies they decimate.

One of most celebrated of these projects was initiated this year at
Newcastle's AV Festival. The project, /Coal-Fired Computers/ involved
powering computers directly with coal via a steam-engine. As the
computers crawled the internet searching for data on coal-related
deaths, a pig's lung inhales and exhales exhaust fumes from the coal
combustion visually registering the extent of pollution and decay
induced in living matter through coal's use as a source of energy. The
project involved extensive research carried out by Jean Demars into the
coal-mining industry in the UK and engaged mining communities and former
activists. Rather than a simple catharsis, as in Jeremy Deller's work on
the miners' strike in which history's losers get to play the victors,
/Coal-Fired Computers/ opens historical wounds to the salt of
contemporary world production. Jean Demars, speaks of the difficulty of
approaching people ‘to participate in a project where sick flesh is
resuscitated by what killed it in the first place, and speak up on what
they lost and never quite recovered from.'^^i

In a talk given at the AV festival, ex-miner and NUM activist, Dave
Douglass, drew direct connections between the closing of the UK's coal
mines, statistics about UK miners' compensation claims for health damage
and the conditions of ‘invisible' workers producing the six billion
tonnes of coal imported yearly by the UK from China and India.^^ii The
shift in the UK, under Harold Wilson, to an economy oriented towards
‘the white heat of technology' can be understood as a shift not from
dirty technology (coal) to a clean one (nuclear) but rather a
displacement of the burden of labour used up to produce this fuel on to
distant, less visible and less recalcitrant bodies. The UK presently
imports the same amount of coal it used to produce domestically in the
1960s. This imported coal powers the computer and communications
technologies which support the UK's service sector. In the 1980s miners'
compensation claims enriched legal and insurance companies which
contribute significantly to this service based economy. Even after the
closure of the mines, miners' bodies were put to work as the bedrock of
the ‘new' economy, whilst in China and India workers produce the raw
fuel and the microchips essential to the UK's finance, insurance and
real estate sectors.

Throughout our interview Harwood uses the term ‘contraption' to describe
the works discussed. The term is fitting, in that YoHa's projects
involve the building of machines, or assemblages, which only barely
‘work'. Rather than smoothly functioning, these assemblages motion
towards a demystification of technological apparatuses. They produce
allegories in the place of utilities and these allegories in turn output
images which infect and taint historical representations.

For the book /Aluminium: Beauty, Incorruptibility, Lightness and
Abundance, the Metal of the Future/,//YoHa used a number of promotional
films for the aluminum industry keen on promoting its use. These films
were used as source material from which to generate a series of images
which break down the framing and editing of their sources. ‘Because we
despise the precise, mechanical, glacial reproduction of reality in
these films, and as we are not interested in the movement which has
already been broken up and analysed by the lense, we code up ways for
time to occur across the division of the frame.'^^iii A string of code
associates, search terms and internet search engine results with each
film frame and re-renders the film to predict movement between frames
and sometimes between the previous editors' cuts. The effect produces a
mesmerising liquid sequence of images in which the separation between
frames and therefore between activities - consuming and producing - and
materials is collapsed, merged into a startling alchemy of humans,
foodstuffs, information, machines and materials. It is as if the regular
division of time of the old film stock has been exposed to the
illumination of continuous duration and convergence of matter it had
sought to hide.

A critical understanding of technology is central to a transformative
understanding of the means and relations of production which make our
world. Do particular technologies produce particular social formations,
or do particular social formations need particular technologies?^^iv
Furthermore, if we can answer either of these questions in the
affirmative, then how exactly are we integrated into capitalist
technologies and how are they integrated into us? Often left
perspectives fall into two basic camps - those who believe the means of
production are basically neutral but just in the wrong hands and those
who believe that technology is inherently oppressive. These works and
the interview which follows hazard the argument that artistic means can
show us something about these relations that critical theory or the
critique of political economy cannot. As Harwood notes, YoHa's work
moves between any number of artistic strategies to achieve its ends. My
own thinking privileges some of these above others. If there is a
weakness in the practice at all then I think it is where the work
sometimes softens its charge by being too easily read as simply
participatory or ‘relational'. Like an edu-science diorama, /Coal-Fired
Computing/ is persuasive and invites curiosity, it runs the risk of
being perceived as superficial illustration of the elements and themes
it compounds.

Therefore, it is important that its complex intertwining of the human
and material be followed beyond its immediate support and into the
networks it moves through. What appears as most aesthetic is, on the
contrary, material and what appears most materialist should be conceived
on aesthetic terms. Therefore, what appears as given, /natural, /should
be made strange and alien. What appears unchanging should be seen as
transitory and pregnant with potential change. It is crucial that such
meaningful work forces a slide in these categories that would otherwise
be crudely brought to bear upon it. YoHa and Harwood's work does just
that, feeding pre-existing theoretical categories into their
contraptions along with all the raw materials, tools and human labour
power. It is a grizzly process that mirrors the application of
technology to the satisfaction of needs determined by domination.
However, in diverting its operations towards novel outputs, so begins
the work of excavating from this mess its opposite. If we are not yet
ready to ask ‘what might an emancipatory technology look like?', it is
because the instruments currently shaping the terms of the question must
first be turned into their own criticism.

*Anthony Iles: These three projects, /Coal Fired Computers/, /Aluminium/
and /Tantalum Memorial /deal with a social history and social present of
material. Was it a conscious move to specifically approach issues - like
globalisation, exploitation, environmental pollution and related health
issues - through these discrete materials (their extraction, industrial
production and use)*?
*Graham Harwood:* We are just beginning theoretically to explore media
systems and media ecologies. I've been irritated by Matt Fuller's work
for the last 20 years, and as a practitioner always want to see what
works and hopefully irritate him back some. I'm not an academic, not a
theoretician, not an historian, but I do have respect for theory, and
the history of ideas. But what excites me is the process of doing,
that's how I explore the world. The histories, methods of practice, are
not the same as the history of ideas in literature or critical theory,
while it may borrow from, misread, or misdirect both.

Material is also a media. Tantalum, aluminium and coal contain physical
properties; aluminium is lightweight, does not degrade and is easily
recycled, but needs enormous amounts of electricity to turn the bauxite
into metal. Tantalum, allows very high temperature compactors. Coal is
combustive, releasing a force that can be measured and harnessed.

Image: Graham Harwood, Richard Wright & Matsuko Yokokoji, /Tantalum
Memorial/, 2008

*AI: In each instance the centrality of these minerals to
post-industrial economies is threaded through the ‘social' application
of technologies like search engines, telephony, databases etc. Could you
talk about this relationship in terms of modelling and in terms of use?*
*GH: *In the art space, or more usually on the boundaries of art, the
works are contraptions made up of situations, peoples, geographies,
networks, technicalities that bring the historical, social, economic,
political into proximity with each other to create a moment of
reflection and imagining.

The constituent parts usually operate in many contexts at the same time,
technical journals, political groups, Congolese telephone networks,
radio stations, Universities, schools, museums, curatorial practice,
urban regeneration. I do not have any problem with creating media
systems that have utility from my art methods. The utility, though, must
reveal something about the nature of power in which its mediation is
taking place. This happened with /Telephony Trottiore/ or /TextFM/
amongst many others or Jean Demars' /Freemob./^/^v /

*AI: In my understanding these projects could be described as producing
‘practical materialist allegories of materials'. Could you talk about
how collaborative projects such as */*Telephony Trottiore*/*, navigate
vicissitudes between user communities, utility and the material
relations of power?*
*GH:* Matthew Fuller and I built /TextFm /in 2001. It allowed anyone
with access to a mobile phone to send a message to a specified number. A
computer received the message and read it out using a text-to-speech
program. This speech was then broadcast by a radio transmitter over a
specific geographical area. It was a way of creating a simple,
lightweight, open media system by bolting together two simple
components, radio and SMS. The media system then had to negotiate the
placement of its transmitter of open content.

So the question: ‘Who could have open content?', was the first vector of
power that the media system reveals, then the laws and regulations of
radio transmitters, then the linear ordering of messages and the cost of
each SMS and of course censorship. The object of a contraption like this
is to watch it awkwardly unfold and reveal the conditions that surround
it or are embedded within it.

Another more complex and long term project was /Telephony Trottiore/
produced by Matsuko Yokokoji, Richard Wright and myself working closely
with ‘Nostalgie Ya Mboka' a Congolese radio programme that goes out on
Resonance FM.

Working with Nostalgie since 2003, we slowly got to understand that in
Central Africa people defy media censorship using ‘radio trottoire' or
‘pavement radio' - the passing around of news and gossip on street
corners. The system allowed people to pass a phone message on to another
person, spreading like a grapevine or, as Richard Wright coined it, a
‘pass the parcel' model. At the core of this system is an automated
telephony server that can phone people up at random from a database of
phone numbers and play them any pre-recorded audio content. After being
played a story, the listener is invited to join in by recording a
comment on the clip they have just heard. They can also pass the story
on to a friend by entering their telephone number on the keypad (which
is then added to the database). This new user will then be dialled and
can also listen, leave a comment and pass it on - building up a string
of users like a daisy chain.

Once activated the system worked well and in the first six weeks we had
660 users and 58 percent chose to pass their stories on. As the system
operated it unfolded into their use of mobile phones and the Coltan
Wars, the most devastating yet least publicised conflict on the African
continent. An ordinary device such as a mobile phone connects us not
only by wireless transmissions but also through a process of
globalisation that includes historical currents, technological
proliferation and the traffic of refugees which we explored further by
creating /Tantalum Memorial/.

*AI: How do these projects depart from existing forms of ‘representation'?*
*GH:* I don't do representation, I build contraptions for people to
manifest themselves based on the cultural context of those people using
them. I like to see what happens when different systems collide. As an
example, the Congolese were not represented or pictured in /Tantalum
Memorial/. /Telephony Trottoire/ created an informational architecture
that the Congolese community could manifest themselves in using their
own networks - for me to represent this in an Art Gallery would have
been unnecessary for obvious reasons. This was their content, their
system. All the people in the gallery needed to know was that there was
a more or less intangible telephone network, full of refugees from the
Coltan Wars and it was triggering a set of redundant telephone switches
historically invented by a funeral director.
*AI: Though these projects do not work solely within a logic of
‘representation' they do, almost as a side effect, produce powerful
images. I am thinking in particular of the film stills from
*/*Aluminium*/*and the blackened lung hooked up to the the coal fired
computer. If the ‘contraptions' you make can be thought of as diagrams
of socio-technical relations, what are the qualities of the images they
produce? To what extent are these images necessary by-products of the
*GH: *We can see the images arising out of the forces that threaten to
break the machine, or assemblages arising out of its in-betweenness. Its
unfinished nature always requires the imagination of the
participant/viewer to finish the job, fill in the details. This is a
powerful strategy.
*AI: Could you explain the process applied to the industrial films
*/*Metal in Harm*//*ony */*and */*Aluminium on the March*/*?*
*GH:* The work takes ‘The Futurist Cinema' manifesto from 1916 and turns
it into a Perl programme and applies it to the still frames of/Aluminium
on the March /and some American industrial footage in homage to the USA
aluminium industries' historical support for fascism.

Image: Graham Harwood and Matsuko Yokokoji (YoHa), /Coal Fired
Computers/, 2010

*AI: There is a basic underpinning of this moving image residue in
language, i.e. code, but could you also detail the application of
language in the form of key words, search strings and how these relate
to the process?*
*GH: *The /Aluminium/ book, was formed from my work with Raqs Media
Collective for Manifesta07 in which I was looking into the media
ecologies of the disused Alumix Factory in Bolzano, Italy. This meant I
had to understand the geographical, political, social, economic forces
at work to bring about Alumix and also its regeneration. So I did a lot
of groundwork going over toxicology results, electrical power
production, labour migration, futurism etc. I was immediately struck by
the 20^th century as the Futurist Century. How the atom bomb in all its
awe and beauty acted out a futurist finale.

At the same time I constructed a /Netmonster/ to track aluminium, and
also used Richard Roger's Issue Crawler software to see what
relationships companies with interests in the aluminium industry had to
each other and governmental agencies.^^vi At the end of this process I
did a word frequency analysis of the texts to find keywords that I'd
scraped. I then sprinkled the words over each frame in the film, then
each word/frame searched the internet for a sentence containing the word
aluminium and the keyword.

I was interested again in this idea of the book as a machine, the
Futurist relationship to aluminium. What would a 21^st century narrative
look like through an Essex Futurist's eyes? The /Aluminium/ book is a
completely logical construction but has no logical outcome.

*AI: Through the application of these processes some sequences in the
finished film and stills (from the publication) show workers merging
with both products in the process of production and the tools used to
shape them. In a sense this exposes the horrible reality of labour under
capitalist production as expressed by Marx, that commodities contain
labour power that is human sweat (the expenditure of the human body)
congealed into value. To me the film sequences show this very directly
and allegorically. Is this something you were interested in showing?*
*GH:* I was interested to see what a largely pre-film Futurist manifesto
would do to film of a Futurist metal. I'm interested in the things you
speak of and have witnessed them in my family's health and conditions,
but did not explicitly intend them and it would not surprise me if they
are there. I'm interested in exploring the way the material transforms
us as we transform it.
*AI: What do you make of the contradiction between the history of the
miners' strike - a struggle to perpetuate the mining of coal in the UK -
and the aims of the latter day environmental movement to shut down the
remains of coal mining in the UK?*
*GH:* We still use coal, only produced under worse conditions,
elsewhere, and its use is increasing globally. The miners were removed
for bringing down two governments and having a vision of working class
power that lay outside of governmental structures. How could we have had
globalisation with such a vision intact?

Most mining in the UK is open cast which is terrible for the environment
compared with deep cast mining which was relatively better but meant
poorer profit under safe conditions. If we stop mining then we have no
contemporary world, no copper wires, no phones, no electricity, no
computers everything stops.

*AI: How does the /Coal Fired Computers/ project span these contradictions?*
*GH:* /Coal Fired Computers/ burns coal for its own sake, it is not
outside the process. It is a self-induced crisis bringing those diseased
humans, their activism into proximity with the engines that transformed
them, linking to the conceptual engines, (databases, computers) that
transform us as the steam engine transformed the Victorians to Empire.
*AI: Do your contraptions also work in a different direction, so as to
reverse, thwart or break the constitutive links between productive
chains? Are your works interested in creating contraptions of
resistance, of new bodies, of new lines of flight?*
*GH:* I don't know, perhaps such projects don't really resist anything,
as it just makes power flow down other lines of lesser resistance even
though I used to think more of the term. I make contraptions to explore,
see what happens, find out. If this dislodges, reveals oppressive
practices, relations then good - but it's not my main intention. I just
want to see what happens, support friends, feel scared, excited and
embarrassed about what I make.

Image: YoHa, cover of /Coal Fired Computers/ pamphlet, 2010

*AI: A key interest in the */*Coal Fired Computers*/*' project seems to
be to do with bodies, making bodies of data present and showing the
material deformation of bodies by industrial processes and work. Is this
a preoccupation across several of the projects discussed here? How does
this preoccupation with bodies shift in each project?*
*GH:* There are a few preoccupations at play across the projects, one is
the proximity of death to media. Contemporary media arises partly out of
the reanimation of corpses with Galvanism, or trying to contact the dead
through electro mechanical means (William Crookes, Cornelius Varley), or
power generation and execution as exemplified in /Blood and Volts,
Edison, Tesla and the Electric Chair/ by T.H. Metzger, or death caused
by resource wars, or how media ends up containing the dead in early
films, sound recording, portraiture, books etc.

The second preoccupation is illness as an altered state in which work,
and the normal relations to capitalism are not possible, which can
manifest as a social, political, cultural force.

Then there are the machines that compose the body as they have been
invented across time, the mouth machine, site of infection, social
hygiene, health observatories. The systematic offering up of parts of
our body to be reordered by authorities. The effects of the
systematisation of contagion and its ability to transform our
relationship with ourselves.

For me, a key turning point was the production of /Lungs/ as a software
poem memorial to the 4,500 slave labourers that worked in Hall A of the
former Deutschen Waffen und Munitionsfabriken A.G. During the Second
World War (now the main exhibition hall of ZKM). I computed the vital
lung capacity of these forced workers from a set of Nazi records, a
nascent database, then the program re-emited their last breath of air
into the exhibition hall. I was interested in doing this on machines
descended from Hollerith's punch card machines and exploring IBM's
relationship to such conditions in helping the Nazis to process the
slave workers.

*AI: Mainstream media has recently begun to pay some attention to the
constitutive role of the exploitation of cheap labour, particularly in
China, underpinning the production of the hardware with which we
interact on an everyday level: mobile phones, netbooks, Iphones, Ipads
etc. This attention reveals something of the conditions of assembly and
supply chains which produce and deliver these consumer goods, but stops
short of the study of the energy generation which drives this
production. Does your work close the gaps in this analysis? Is this a
question of the form of an enquiry or its content?*
*GH:* For me there is very little difference in coal, coltan, computing
and the labour (sometimes forced) that produced them or their
consumption, which can be seen to unfold into other forms of production.
Without wanting to belittle the important distinctions you make between
consumption and work, and the historical struggles this implies, I have
a very different perspective that I approach this area from.

As I see it, all organisms negotiate with the medium in which they live
and of which they are not entirely a part. This simple biological
predetermination allows us to unfold the negotiation with media as a
pathological or compositional influence on the human species and the
construction of its power structures. From this, we can then speculate
on its role as a force equal to other biological ones such as sex or the
need to reproduce or acquire calories.

This perspective requires us to look at what kind of physical/conceptual
machines exist within a given media system. What social, cultural,
political, geographical forces were at play that enabled a particular
media system to emerge, or be superseded at a particular time.

*AI: How do the ‘media ecologies' you work with and create within
overlap with the ecology of art itself? How does your approach resituate
art and the artist on the edge of these spaces of art?*
*GH:* This is a little complicated, as I hold hypocritical positions on
art and media. I'm completely uninterested in people with loads of money
hanging the absurd on their wall, validating it as a symbolic structure
of taste.

The success of modernist or post-modernist art methodologies in the
21^st Century have normalised art into the everyday universe of
capitalist promotions, representations and the structures of power. In
this more popular context, art has become a calming anaesthetic, warmly
suffusing our social bodies, blunting the convulsions as everything goes
critical. Art fills the gaps of economic Darwinism's lack of imagination
- and in the UK, it's become a cheap panacea for social inclusion,
economic regeneration, and the maintenance of an unfair world.

Having said this I find myself addicted to ‘art' as a space of
reflection, a looseness that I cannot find elsewhere. In order to
navigate this rupture in my thinking I make a somewhat artificial
separation between between ‘/art/' and ‘/art methodologies/'. To clarify
this: ‘/Art/' is the construction of conceptual images that allow those
engaging with them to reflect on the current conditions that surround
the art work. ‘/Art methodologies//' /are skills and tools developed by
artistic traditions, practice that can be applied, sold, traded with
other specialisms to bring about potential social, material benefit.

This separation between art and its methods enables me to see where an
artist's ‘professional' methods may be serviceable to the utility of
communities of interest and wider social goals. It also clarifies where
art can be seen within an ‘action research' agenda for a commissioning
partner in which the artist becomes part of a community of practice,
engaged within the process of progressive problem solving to help open
up situations.

I usually use the art methodologies to negotiate a pathway. I'm sure
many artists will shudder at such a definition of practice, but as I'm
mostly interested in socially active aesthetics, I'll prostitute any art
methodologies to smuggle myself into an interesting position to make my

Image: Graham Harwood, from /Aluminium: Beauty, Incorruptibility,
Lightness and Abundance, the Metal of the Future/, 2008

*AI: How does the introduction of technology into the spaces of art
conversely introduce a broadly critical attitude to media into the
spaces of technology?*
*GH:* Other than the introduction of electricity, software/computational
culture is the largest media system that humans have known. Yet very
little work has been done analysing the agency of algorithms,
semiconductors or database management systems. We have very few cultural
spaces, critical tools that allow us to understand multifarious ways in
which these systems are unfolding into the present. Art as a
construction implies reflection and so if you place some of these
media-systems in that space it will be afforded some thought at least.

On the other hand most people working within database or software
construction have no critical training. As an example there is no
professional body for data analysts working in the NHS therefore no
collective ethical standards or protection from an employer wanting an
extra 0.0005 on some target figure, other then the programmer resigning.
In my experience any introduction of art methodologies, or art as action
research into these spaces is met with a huge sigh of relief.

Currently I'm working with a small number of NHS staff to understand how
the conduct of an enterprise (an NHS Health Trust) is transformed by the
modelling, creation and implementation of a database. I'm interested in
what key stages of the database's technical realisation and
implementation results in changed conduct and what the relationship is
between the enterprise's changed conduct and the theoretical machine of
the database management system.

So I'm working with NHS data analysts to help them use data
visualisations/art methodologies in the production of informatics about
poor housing and cancer rates and at the same time proposing
contraptions as action research that will reflect critically on the
acquisition of data and the monetary costs of giving birth.

*Graham Harwood and Matsuko Yokokoji, YoHa (English translation
‘aftermath') , have lived and worked together since 1994.
YoHa's graphic vision and technical tinkering has powered several
celebrated collaborations. Harwood and Yokokoji's co-founded the
artists' group Mongrel in (1996-2007) and established the Mediashed, a
free-media lab in Southend-on-sea (2005-2008). In 2008 they joined long
time collaborator, Richard Wright, to produce /Tantalum Memorial
/winning the Transmediale first prize for 2009. /Tantalum Memorial /also
featured at (ZeroOne Biennial San Jose - USA, Manifesta07 Bolzano,
Italy, Science Museum London, Ars Electronica, Plugin Switzerland,
Laboral Spain)*

*Anthony Iles is a freelance writer, editor
and contributing editor of /Mute/*


*/Coal Fired Computing/**and**/Tantulum Memorial/****are showing at the
Arnolfini, Bristol **25 September to 21 November,

Full documentation of the projects discussed can be accessed at

i Jean Demars, AV talk notes. Unpublished and courtesy of the author.


iii From the algorithm for the book reproduced in /Aluminium: Beauty,
Incorruptibility, Lightness and Abundance, the Metal of the Future,
/Bolzano: Manifesta, 2009. Available from

iv In a recent interview with Matthew Fuller, Harwood poses exactly this
question in terms of the project around Aluminium: 'Did Italian fascism
need aluminium, or did aluminium need Italian fascism?'


vi Issue Crawler is a software that locates and visualises networks on
the web,