Writer and curator Justin McGuirk investigates the complex Triennial commission Ore streams, 2016–17, by Amsterdam-based design duo Formafantasma. Shining a light on the revolutionary concept of ‘above-ground mining’, the designers comment on modern manufacturing, recycling procedures and universal design aesthetics.
It is clear by now, or it ought to be, that design in the twenty-first century will have to develop rather different principles from those used in the twentieth century. The modernist notion that good design is achieved through a perfect balance of form and function is no longer sufficient – nor indeed are older notions, such as William Morris’ maxim that you should own nothing that ‘you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’. In the twenty-first century, a product can no longer be seen as an endpoint, as a thing in and of itself. Instead, it must be seen as one stage in a complex cycle that began when its materials were extracted and ends, or is reborn, when those materials are reconfigured into something else. This means that the way we make things – the materials we choose and the processes we use – must change.
This is especially true of the electronic devices that have become the most fingered tools in our lives. We have been lured into patterns of consumption that encourage us to upgrade our smartphones, laptops and games consoles at the earliest opportunity, without much thought as to what happens to our old ones. Every year, thousands of tonnes of e-waste accumulate in dumping grounds such as Agbogbloshie in Ghana, where old computers and televisions are picked over for copper wire and then burned. Everyone knows that the situation is dangerously unsustainable, but manufacturers and governments alike have been slow to make our devices more recyclable.
Formafantasma is one of a growing number of design practices obsessed with the origins and endpoints of materials. Amsterdam-based Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin have variously explored pre-industrial forms of plastic, volcanic lava from Mount Etna and limestone from an underground Slovenian quarry. For the NGV Triennial, they have turned their attention to e-waste. Ore streams is a body of work commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria in which Formafantasma have used recycled electronics to create a series of office furniture pieces. The set includes desks, cubicles, a filing cabinet and a chair. None of these objects conform to the utilitarian frumpiness of standard office furniture, with its black plastics, wood-effect laminates and clunky ergonomics. Rather, the objects are fine-boned and give off the rarefied sheen of a new iPhone. Indeed the metallic greys and rose golds seem chosen to evoke that object in particular. But before we study the aesthetic statement being made here, we should dwell for a moment on how these objects relate to the country in which they are being shown.
The premise that Formafantasma put forward for this series is the notion of ‘above-ground mining’ – in other words, the mining of metals and minerals from objects that already exist rather than from within the earth. Electronics are packed full of metals, from aluminium, copper and steel to gold. Your phone probably contains 0.2 grams of gold, used at crucial points of electrical contact because it doesn’t corrode. The University of Edinburgh has estimated that about 300 tonnes of gold are used in electronics every year, and that about 7 per cent of the world’s gold supply is trapped in electronics. Suddenly, a phrase like ‘above-ground mining’ starts to make sense. One estimate is that by 2080, the largest metal reserves will be circulating in existing products.
The focus on ‘mining’ at all for the NGV commission is, in part, a response to Australia’s vast extraction industry. Gold may be the most valuable metal in electronic equipment, but its usage pales into insignificance compared to aluminium. And Australia is the world’s largest producer (though now vying with China) of bauxite, the ore required to produce the aluminium alloy. Drilled and blasted out of the red earth of Western Australia, bauxite is turned into alumina, which is then smelted into aluminium through electrolysis. This process is so energy intensive that aluminium is sometimes called ‘congealed electricity’, with much of that electricity generated by coal-burning power stations, so already we can see how the collateral damage – to the landscape and to the atmosphere – piles up just in the production of one metal, before it is even shipped off to China to be turned into laptop cases.
It stands to reason that any material that is the product of intensive extraction, refinement and global supply chain logistics should be reused as often as possible rather than simply thrown away into landfill. In Ore streams, waste is the very topic. Formafantasma used recycled aluminium and electronic dead stock to create this series of one-off furniture pieces. Of course, these are not intended for mass production but are rather exercises in how we might begin to re-evaluate the global flows of waste produced by the burgeoning electronics industry.
Largely composed of folded recycled sheet metal, the pieces incorporate elements of existing products. A table leg features the aerating grid from the back of a microwave, while the tabletop rests on two stacks of iPhone cases. Another table leg incorporates half of a Mac laptop, while a cubicle screen features a gold-plated keyboard. The filing cabinet uses emptied computer towers as drawers, while the chair is inlaid with the innards of a smartphone. In all of these cases, such recognisable components are merely signifiers of our device dependency and their flows of waste. Their presence would be unnecessary, silly even, if these were not polemical objects designed more to illustrate a point than for popular use.
In making office furniture, Formafantasma have said that they wanted to allude to the culture of efficiency epitomised by the modern office. Funnily enough, the cubicle world they reference is one that we imagine to have died in the new ‘creative’ working culture, but then we remember that is probably not the case in global logistics companies. And then, on top of the office motifs, another visual language is overlaid: images of the surface of Mars adorn the filing cabinet and the occasional lever-arch file and clipboard. Is the red planet an analogue for the red continent? Apparently not. This is a reference to the fact that some of the precious ores we mine were pounded into the Earth’s crust by meteorites. The images are meant to widen the provenance of our devices, not just to a planetary scale but an inter-planetary one. Ironically, I read these images more as a cautionary tale: with the new space race being spearheaded by Elon Musk and others, it may be easier to mine the ores we need from Mars and asteroids than by stripping apart smartphones – alas.
The aesthetics at play in Ore streams are a commentary in themselves, one that says something about the perception of value. The slim profiles and shiny car-paint finishes allude to the language of expensive products. I have often baulked at recycling or upcycling projects in the past for their implication that the future will be a bricolage culture – a post-collapse world neatly cobbled together, Mad Max style, out of whatever we could scavenge from our consumer excesses. That world has never particularly appealed to me. Ore streams indulges in that tendency up to a point, with its symbolic keyboards and so on, but it is also at pains to create a language of original, rather than merely reclaimed, value. This is a polished, industrial aesthetic appropriate to the idea that recycled metals can have a different, and not just a second, life. And here and there are touches of the bounty at our disposal – a pinstripe of gold in the chair points to the rich seam locked in our phones.
Formafantasma’s furniture is accompanied by a series of video interviews with recycling experts, all of whom agree that there are ways to make the electronics industry more recycling-friendly: for instance, stop gluing parts together, and instead use standardised materials and screws. While designers cannot control such disparate manufacturing processes, understanding the complex context in which products are made is becoming central to what it means to be a conscientious designer. And mining materials from existing products only makes that picture more complex. In short, the whole culture of design and manufacturing needs to adjust its horizon and look beyond the happy customer to the one after that, and the one after that.
This was originally commissioned for and published in NGV Magazine Issue 9 Mar–Apr 2018.