Scarcity Radio Workshop 5: the Geology Museum

Hello IYP!

Our next workshop on April 29th will conclude the section of workshops I’ve been doing with you – focusing on me sharing my research about radio and scarcity, watching films and hosting guests – and move towards a phase of the project where we will produce a work together. So I thought I’d write a blog post that would share a little of the direction of this in advance, because any project like this involves learning on the part of the leader / artist as well as the group.

This photograph shows the rather fantastic but little-visited Lapworth Geology Museum at Birmingham City University, which will be the main location we’ll be working in. I’m drawn to this place not only because of its beautiful display architecture and amazing crystal collection, but also because the idea of placing ourselves within the surrounds of a geological collection somehow makes sense to discuss ideas of scarcity, abundance and the mining of resources. Being surrounded by objects that seem impossibly old -  including a cast of dinosaur footprint, a huge lump of Spanish pyrite and a T Rex tooth – it also potentially connects us to a much longer trajectory of time and history than we might be familiar with.

Unexpectedly, there is a direct connection between mining and telecommunications too. You already know of my interest in fool’s gold, used as a detector in early crystal radios along with galena or germanium. Crystals such as these are still vital for electronics: coltan for example (the African name for the minerals in the spectrum of columbite – tantalite) is aggressively mined for its applications in a diverse range of consumer electronics, including video games and mobile phones. And this article points out why it’s due to mining resources, rather than cheap labour laws or lax environmental regulations, that the iPad must be made in China. Crystals and minerals such as magnetite, loellingite (nickel ore), cinnabar (mercury ore), phlogopite (mica ore), wolframite (tungsten ore) and quartz are vital for the production of watches, LCD screens, resistors, capacitors, transducers and circuit board components.

I was invited to work with IYP not long after the 2011 riots, and this moment of crisis has always formed something of an implicit backdrop to my interest in pirate radio and telecommunications. Many pirate radio stations in the 1980s, including PCRL, were formed after the 1981 or 1985 Brixton and Handsworth riots, and were imagined and articulated directly in relation to scarcity: not a scarcity of radio bandwidth so much as a scarcity of political representation and participation. Many of the films we have looked at together were also made around this time in the late 1970s and early 1980s, during the last period of major global recession (the oil and energy crises in the USA spreading globally, with massive unemployment and government cutbacks in both the United States and Britain, some of the factors which led to the 1984/5 the miner’s strike). Even though the films included genres such as horror and sci fi, it’s arguable that this social backdrop remains present in films that pluck scenarios from fantastical contexts.

I’m imagining the space of the museum in our film as a little like the space of the radio station in some of these films we’ve seen  – The Fog, Pontypool for example – a space for discussion and relative safety as we can reflect on issues happening on ‘the outside’. Our point of connection with these events will most likely be a customised radio – perhaps the pyrite radio that you’ve seen already, or a version of that made for / in the museum. The unlikeliness of this object should underline that our film will not be a straightforward documentary, and even though we’ll be trying to connect with these events, there is still a space for the unknown. Our discussions may not be direct either: the riots for example may be present through the use of archival film footage or audio recordings. We’ve touched on how radio in its early days was seen as something rather magical, a connection with an ethereal world. (The contemporary Radio Spirit World makes good use of these occultist overtones!) Our film will likely also connect with a different sense of time, or shifting senses of past and present, than might be expected.

Our first filming session will be this Sunday April 29th and I hope we can complete the shooting of the film in a further two days in May – its direction and content will continue to be refined as we keep working on it. Two important texts we’ll be looking at reading and discussing are Stone Age Economics, by anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, and Resistance through Rituals, by the then Birmingham-based cultural theorist Stuart Hall. Chris Keenan will be our cinematographer, who some of you will have met before. While I’m directing the film and providing the overall context, it’s content will be very much shaped by you and your thoughts. Some of you may be happier in front of the camera, behind it, speaking as narrator, handling objects, or not speaking at all… No one will be put on the spot, and no one will be forced to participate! The idea is to release the film in instalments, or episodes, online over the summer, in parallel with your Scarcity Radio broadcasts as Slow Boat travels to London.

Photo by Jon Hancock on Flickr, 2011.  ‘Reading the Riots’ infographics found on The Guardian website, here; there’s also an interesting rumour-tracker of Twitter here. Detail of Sarah Browne, How to Use Fool’s Gold (Pyrite Radio), 2012. Tyrannosaurus tooth from Lapworth Museum, photo by Sarah Browne, December 2011.

About Sarah Browne

Sarah Browne‘s research-based art practice explores our understanding of ‘the economy’, particularly its moral, irrational and ritualistic workings, as the dominant metaphor for contemporary social and political relations. She is interested in forms of non-market exchange and communication such as gift economies, subsistence, subsidies and poaching, and the creation or documentation of intentional economies and temporary ‘communities’.
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