Libita Clayton: Quantum Ghost
GASWORKS | JANUARY 24 – MARCH 24, 2019
The British county of Cornwall has been mining tin since the early Bronze Age, its subterranean deposits synthesized into tools and weapons across the Mediterranean. By 1845, Friedrich Engels reports in The Condition of the Working Class in England that 30,000 people were employed in the mines, perhaps a third of them children. Referring to cases in which low oxygen and prolonged exposure to sulfur precipitated the development in young laborers of emphysema, tuberculosis, and heart disease, Engels writes: "the workers did not know any better than that they were there for the purpose of being swindled out of their very lives." Cornish ores featured prominently in the international tin, copper, and china clay trades until the late 20th century.
The 1980s were a tumultuous decade for miners: at the very same time as British miners were striking against Margaret Thatcher's plans for mass colliery closures, another mining region was embroiled in an explosive war of liberation. Namibia, the uranium- and diamond-rich mandate of Apartheid South Africa, was fighting for autonomy. Libita Clayton's father was one of the members of the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), a Marxist-oriented vanguard organization leading Namibia's anti-colonial battle. For his part in the conflict, Clayton's father was exiled, and relocated to Cornwall, where he studied mining engineering at the Camborne School of Mines.
The Bristol-based Clayton's new show at the southeast London gallery Gasworks uses archival material to simulate this emigration from one international mining hub to another. Titled Quantum Ghost, the installation considers inorganic matter is the vital agent driving international flows of capital and the coerced movement of bodies. Employing a lexicon of field recordings, elementary raw materials, and found consumer detritus, Clayton immerses the viewer in a meditation on the permeation of time, memory, and heritage by global capitalist regimes of resource extraction. In a requiem for her lost history, Clayton addresses the structural inseparability of political injustice and geophysical trauma.
Near the entrance, recalling a mineshaft, feet shuffle through bedrock as they move to the center of a cave-like structure made of clay, sand, straw, and chicken wire. Inside this formation, deep red safelight softly colors a three-part scaffolding. Playing from speakers affixed to wooden beams, a 21-minute audio work mumbles, hums, and reminisces. Framed as a sound archaeology, sound sources obfuscate themselves as one folds onto another; natural soundscapes weave in and out of sonic testimony. The torsions and movements of molecular chains and microenvironments become indistinguishable from the disembodied voices of imperial subjects, as both are defined by their instrumental functions within systems of economic exploitation.
Sound archaeology presents an artist with two difficulties. First, the aural footprint of a given activity rarely characterizes the totality of the situation from which it was recorded. Second, the sound artist must strike a delicate balance between didacticism and stylization. The exception to this first problem is that of recorded speech. Monologues that are intended to transmit specific, precise meanings do often communicate precisely what they intend to, in addition to providing implicit or nondiscursive presuppositions like tone and accent. Clayton indeed uses field-recorded monologues from local inhabitants of both Namibia and Cornwall, however she fails to circumvent the second problem. Rather than presenting these fragmentary archaeological snippets in unadulterated form—in order to draw attention to particularities of the narrative that the individual speaker is trying to convey—she overindulges in a stock toolbox of post-production effects, often rendering the semantic content indecipherable. As a result, the piece loses some of its rhetorical punch.
Quantum Ghost traverses several orders of time. Outside the cave, six photograms hang in the gallery. Each image is a variation on a single method: crystalline compounds and chemical forms are placed on photosensitive paper alongside dated print media and e-waste before exposure. Resonating with last October's dire prognosis by the IntergovernmentalPanel on Climate Change, the photograms reify a scenario in which the deep-time of geological plate tectonics, the human time of daily news-briefings, and the superhuman time of electromagnetic currents crisscrossing submarine lattices of fiber-optics become synchronized as the planet heads toward climate extinction.
The clumsy language of critical theory has a useful term: deterritorialization. Introduced by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their landmark takedown of French bourgeois society, deterritorialization names late industrial capitalism's tendency to strip societal values—material, sociocultural, geographical—of their previous relations, setting them in motion to serve capital's transient operational needs. Libita Clayon's installation enacts the deterritorialization engendered by global finance capitalism as tin becomes bronze, silicon becomes semiconductor, and human lives become generators of surplus value. Past associations of all things earthly are discarded, as they become refashioned into mere variables within mechanical apparatuses of profit. Once planetary-scale networks of geological extraction reterritorialize raw minerals into handheld electronic devices, recode familial ties across vast geographical distances, and redraw national boundaries in their own image, previous personal narratives and histories seem a distant fog. Quantum Ghost gathers scant traces from the excesses left behind, building an elegy for lost time.
MICHAEL EBY is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.