Wednesday, September 3, 2008


While reading Jon Agar’s Constant Touch this summer, I was struck by the following passage on page 13:

Tantalum, in the form of columbite-tantalite (‘Coltan’ for short), can also be found in the anarchic north-east regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where more than 10,000 civilians have died and 200,000 have been displaced since June 1999 in a civil war, fought partly over strategic mineral rights, between supporters of the deceased despot Laurent. Kabila and Ugandan and Rwandan rebels. As the price of tantalum increased, the civil war intensified, funded by the profits of coltan export. However, the mobile phone manufacturers are distanced from the conflict. Firms such as Nokia, and Motorola buy capacitors from separate manufacturers, which in turn, buy raw material from intermediaries. On each exchange, the source of tantalum becomes more deniable.*

It seemed to me that this must be a lesser known fact amongst the majority of mobile phone users (even though there was a “No blood on my cell phone” campaign in Europe for a time) and thought this might be an area ripe for creative exploration (not by me, but by someone.) As I was researching the art history of the cell phone, I came across this recent piece that was shown at Manifesta 7:

Tantalum Memorial – Residue , 2008, Graham Harwood, Richard Wright, and Matsuko Yokokoji

Tantalum Memorial - Residue, by England-based Graham Harwood, Richard Wright, and Matsuko Yokokoji, is a telephony-based memorial to the people who have died as a result of the tantalum wars in the Congo. The installation is constructed out of an old electro-mechanical 1938 Strowger telephone exchange, discovered amongst the remains of the Alumix factory. The switches are reanimated by tracking the phone calls from Telephone Trottoire - a social telephony network designed by the artists in collaboration with the Congolese radio program Nostalgie Ya Mboka in London. The TT network calls Congolese listeners, plays them a phone message and invites them to record a comment and pass it on to a friend by entering their phone number. This builds on the traditional Congolese practice of “radio trottoire” or “pavement radio”, the passing around of news and gossip on street corners in order to avoid state censorship.

It appears to be a clever incorporation of old technology and new technology. The guts of the old telephone switchers are a strong visual counterpoint to the microchip, electrical and cellular signal. How can vapor be made flesh? It’s hard to tell (from what information I can find on the project) what level of success the work is having in terms of the social networking and political aspects of the piece, but if blog coverage is any measure, it has struck a chord with viewers in the art & technology world. This will be an interesting body of work to follow.

More on the Tantalum Wars

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