Tim Maughan interviews Liam Young

RESEARCH SERIES #7 ‘The Shadow Cast by the Luminous Screen...’ One of the speakers at the next Sonic Acts Festival is speculative architect Liam Young. Together with Kate Davies he runs the Unknown Fields Division, ‘a nomadic design studio that ventures out on annual expeditions to the ends of the Earth exploring unreal and forgotten landscapes, alien terrains and obsolete ecologies’. Their purpose is to trace the lines and maps of the contemporary, distributed city; to find and observe the structures and landscapes that exist behind the scenes – that remain invisible to most people living in the West, but on which we depend to maintain not just our standard of living but increasingly our very existence. In the summer of 2014 Tim Maughan joined the Unknown Field Division as an embedded writer as they trekked back up the global supply chain of consumer electronics, via the vast container ports of Asia, the factories, wholesale markets, and the underpopulated, freshly built ‘ghost cities’ of China’s Special Economic Zones, all the way to the toxic lakes, refineries, and vast open-cast rare earth mines of Inner Mongolia. They started the trip with seven days as guests on a huge Maersk line container ship. Late one night, far from land after leaving Kaohsiung port, Tim Maughan sat down with Liam Young to try and get a better grasp of what he was trying to achieve. We offer an excerpt of their conversation as Sonic Acts Research Series #7. The full interview is published in the printed book The Geologic Imagination, which you can order here. Tim Maughan: So what are we doing here? Why have you dragged me out onto this ship? Liam Young: We’re interested in exploring behind the scenes of the contemporary city. We hang out in London and for most people an experience in London is a singular point on the map. But London is not a singular point on a map; it’s this atomised set of places that’s constructed by a huge array of distributed landscapes and systems. In order to understand London, in order to understand what it is as a contemporary mega-city, you’ve got to ride the supply chain. You’ve got to unpick and unravel the infrastructural systems and travel through the territories that we talk about as being behind the scenes of the city, the hidden or invisible landscapes that are fundamental to shaping and constructing our cultural experiences and relationships. We’re in a privileged enough position to be able to go out and see them. Most people don’t have access to the stuff that we get to see. Part of our role is bearing witness, bringing back stories, and re- presenting them in a way that people who don’t have the opportunity to see them, can meaningfully connect to these territories. Hopefully we start to engender new kinds of cultural relationships with what these landscapes might be; because I don’t know what the end game ultimately is, but I think there’s something critical in revealing them. On a previous trip we went to a nickel and cobalt mine in Madagascar. The mining company refused us permission to take pictures, so we all took photographs secretly, shooting through our bags and stuff like that. The earth in and around the cobalt nickel mine is really red. On Madagascar, you have this amazing, rich green landscape, the most precious rain forests on the planet, ninety per cent of the animals don’t exist anywhere else on Earth. And there’s this blood red scar cut into it. You sit there and think, ‘How the fuck could we let this happen?’ Click, click, click. Take the photo. At a certain point you realise that your camera is battery-powered, and the minerals that make that battery work most likely came from the same ground that you’re standing on. That landscape is complicit in both its own redemption and destruction. We’re all wrapped up in this massive network of industry and infrastructure and it’s important to talk about our complicit nature in it, because then you might start to relate differently to it. You might start to think about it in new ways. You might be able to engineer these infrastructural systems and use them for something positive or productive. TM: What about wind turbines? LY: That’s one of the greatest ironies. The landscape that we’re going to in Inner Mongolia is the world’s largest raw earth mineral mine. One of its biggest outputs is neodymium, which is also refined there and manufactured into the magnets that make wind turbines possible. The whole process is hugely destructive to the surrounding environment. So when a wind farm pops up somewhere in Denmark, we talk about Denmark as an extraordinarily forward thinking country for using this form of energy. But the shadow that wind farm casts stretches from Northern Europe all the way to a hole in the ground in China. That’s why you have to go to these territories and unravel the stories. All these things are only presented to us through very particular media narratives, if at all. Most of the time they’re invisible, part of a hidden system that lies behind the scenes and bubbles beneath the surface. When we do hear about them it’s always through very obscured and tinted lenses. TM: And we’ve got people in the UK complaining that wind farms are spoiling their view LY: People complain wind farms spoil their view of a pristine landscape. That landscape isn’t natural or pristine at all. It’s conditioned by centuries of farming and manipulation. It’s just as constructed as the wind farm is – that’s the condition of the anthropocentric world we live in. Nothing is natural, but this goes well beyond issues like wind farms spoiling the view. I’d like to add to the analogy of the shadow. The shadow cast by the luminous screen that we hold in our hands stretches across the planet, it stretches from the wind farm, stretches across to this area of mineral mine in China, and to a toxic lake in Batou. That’s quite extraordinary, but you can’t preach about this stuff. You can’t be utopian about it, nor can you be pessimistic about it. All we’re doing is exposing complications and complexity. Hopefully, we’re developing work and writing and telling stories that cut through that complexity. TM: First, I’ve been impressed by the scale of everything. It’s the 45th anniversary of the Moon landing, right? I keep hearing people saying that we don’t do any big engineering projects anymore; we don’t go to the Moon anymore. The truth is we do, we just don’t see it. It’s moonshot-scale engineering to solve the problem of one country selling things to another country. Secondly, I’m horrified by the obvious environmental impact. Thirdly, I find myself going, ‘I wish I had a better camera. I wish I had a better phone, as I keep running out of space on the one I’ve got. I wish I had a GoPro because they look like fun. I wish I’d brought a digital SLR. I wish I had a MacBook Air; I could’ve brought it with me, because it’s lighter’. Do you know what I mean? LY: Yes. Our generation had no great war to fight. Our generational project was the acquisition of wealth and objects. We’ve gone about that with exactly the same fervour as soldiers went into the Great War. We’ve invented technologies. We’ve created systems. It’s all about globalised production, which is about outsourcing labour and maximising costs and beneficences. We’ve ended up creating this super-scale planetary infrastructural system, which is so big that it ceases to be visible. That’s our great work. It is amazing. What this does is really quite incredible. At the moment, the system is engineered purely for efficiency and profit. But you could imagine co-opting the same system to do other things. TM: It could feed people, I guess. LY: It could feed people, yes, but I think what we’ll see in the next phase, is what outsourcing production really does. An economist would argue that this system distributes wealth, and that distributed production means that someone who would otherwise be working in a little village – on a farm, on subsistence – now has a job in a factory and is making enough money to live in the city, and also sends money back home to the family in the village. To a certain extent that could be productive. They can be paid much more than they were before. Still, someone is taking a massively unfair cut of that process. You can imagine engineering the supply chain of a particular object to really redistribute wealth globally. Let’s say that I’m going to make a computer, and that computer consists of components that are produced in 50 countries around the world. All these components come together via the infrastructural network. This one computer is a world object – through this object we’re connecting all these disparate communities all over the planet, and we’re distributing wealth. If you engineer it for those ends, you don’t engineer it because labour costs in Bangladesh are way lower than in India. (China is outsourcing to Africa now. China is slowly moving up the tier, from being a manufacturing nation they become a management nation.) There must be ways to make this infrastructure work in fairer ways for everyone. It’s naïve to say we will go back to only consuming local food, and all that. It’s naïve to think we will grow crops on our roofs and manufacture locally, like these co-op movements do that are popping up in San Francisco. TM: I just wonder if you see an end to this system at all, further down the line. There’s still all the buzz about 3D printing. There’s still all the buzz about molecular engineering... LY: I wrote about 3D printing from the perspective of the raw materials that go into producing 3D printed objects. With 3D printing you still need a supply chain. It needs bulk carriers full of rubber from India. It needs grain and limestone from quarries in Africa. With 3D printing we move even more shit around than we do at the moment. It’s just changing the resolution of the material. It’s no longer an object that you move, it’s the pixels that object is made from. It changes the nature of how we relate to objects. The form of something becomes just a very temporary moment in the life of material. We’ll figure out a way to make something, to recycle it, make something else again. But still this stuff is shifting all around the planet. And we still need an infrastructural system. 3D printing isn’t going to change all that. It will probably accelerate the system. We’re going to need more stuff coming out of the ground. Huge areas of the Earth will become raw plastic manufacturing plants. Most 3D printing uses oil and petroleum products as a base. Take an iconic 3D printer, like the Makerbot, and explode it into all its bits and see where they all come from. This thing, which is supposed to be this extraordinary teleportation device, which is going to destroy global manufacturing, is produced in 18 different countries on the planet. That’s it. Read the full interview in the Sonic Acts book The Geologic Imagination, which you can order here. Liam Young (UK) lives and works in London as an independent designer, futurist, critic and curator. He teaches around the world and is a founder of the think tank Tomorrows Thoughts Today, a group whose work explores the consequences of fantastic, perverse and underrated urbanisms. Young’s projects deploy fictional near-future scenarios as critical instruments for instigating debate about the social, architectural and political consequences of emerging biological and technological futures. Young is also part of The Unknown Fields Division, a nomadic design studio that explores unreal and forgotten landscapes, alien terrains and obsolete ecologies. He teaches at the Architectural Association and Princeton University. Twitter: twitter.com/liam_young Tim Maughan (UK) is a writer who uses both fiction and nonfiction to explore issues around cities, art, class, and technology. His debut short story collection Paintwork received critical acclaim when released in 2011, and his short story Limited Edition was shortlisted for the 2012 BSFA short fiction award. He sometimes makes films, too. Website: timmaughanbooks.com

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