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<nettime> Pits to Bits, Interview with Graham Harwood
Matthew Fuller on Sun, 1 Aug 2010 08:17:49 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Pits to Bits, Interview with Graham Harwood

Pits to Bits, Interview with Graham Harwood

This interview follows on from a project called âCoal Fired Computers 
(300,000,000 Computers - 318,000 Black Lungs)â carried out in Newcastle 
in spring 2010 for the AV Festival. The project, by Graham Harwood, Matsuko 
Yokokoji with Jean Denmars involved a means of producing a physical diagram 
between components in production as they undergo transformations across 
different kinds of time, politics, matter, knowledge, and vitality. The 
project found a way of working with such things that was particularly 
powerful. The interview begins with a discussion of CFC but also moves off 
into databases and a certain understanding of their material force.
One thing we donât cover in the interview is the detail of the Coal Fired 
Computers projectâs work with miner activists, including the 
inspirational Dave Douglass. (See information on his memoirs here ). More 
of this can be found in a booklet about the project here, including links 
to all the groups involved.
The interview was carried out by email in May and June 2010.

Matthew Fuller: If we are to list the visible components of the project it 
would go something like this: pile of coal -> fair ground steam engine -> 
power transformer -> computer / software -> air compressor -> blackened 
lungs. But there are a lot of things missing from that set of components 
that are integral to the project, what are they and how do you see them?

Graham Harwood: This list should really start with Jean Demars who set up 
the collaboration with the miners, being French and youngish gave him 
little knowledge of the UK class struggle of the miners strike in the 
1980âs. He use his political enthusiasm, critical analysis to re-examine 
the strike in the context of globalisation with the people who struggles 
against it back then. If they had not been defeated they would have 
picketed every port to stop the everyday atrocity that powers our world.

Matsuko on the other hand is always the leader of all things organised, 
productive, efficient. Iâm much too lost in my own space to ever 
accomplish much on my own. Matsuko takes this raw material of todays 
obsession and forms it into graphics, budgets and how the exhibition will 
look and act. She does not like to talk in public she just likes getting on 
with things.

MF: So perhaps you have some considerations about how the kinds of work we 
are speaking about involve collaboration, within this âlist of 
componentsâ, about yourself, about Jean and Matsuko and the kinds of 
collaboration you have been developing with them and others, with Richard 
Wright and earlier, as part of the group Mongrel

GH: Collaboration is a necessary minefield, if youâre interested in the 
place where media systems and the social clash, unfold and get really dirty 
then they are mandatory. It would be far too easy to claim everything under 
my own authorship but anyone with an ounce of nous would see that all 
imaginings are dependent on the context in which they arise or are seen, 
Iâm just a bit more explicit about that.

MF: So to return back to the list of componentsâ

GH: Then the place, Newcastle Upon Tyne a former mining and industrial 
district in Englandâs North East with a geographical propensity for coal, 
then - people maybe â firstly the miners who displayed their literature 
and spoke about their lungs, then the Discovery Museum, with itâs 
cleaners who were also Miners, itâs exhibits, Charles Parsonâs 1884 
steam turbines the descendants of which produce the worlds electricity. 
Then there is the 3000 visitors who had some familial relationship with 
Coal mines, lung disease.

It could be said that coal dust gets into everything. Sealed into the lungs 
of miners it forms visible blue streaks, like veins of coal. According to 
the World Health Organisation, 318,000 deaths occur annually from chronic 
bronchitis and emphysema caused by exposure to coal dust. The common 
perception is that wealthy countries have put this all behind them, 
displacing coal dust into the lungs of unrecorded, unknown miners in 
distant lands, however coal returns into our lives in the form of the cheap 
and apparently clean goods we consume.

Coal fired energy not only powers our computers here in the UK, but is 
integral to the production of the 300,000,000 computers made each year. 81% 
of the energy used in a computerâs life cycle is expended in the 
manufacturing process, now taking place in countries with high levels of 
coal consumption. The UK currently produces less that one third of the coal 
it uses, importing the majority of it and therefore displacing 150,000 tons 
of coal dust into unknown lungs.

Then thereâs the recent histories of media and my preoccupation with 
itâs interrelation to death. But more about that later.

MF: Part of the interest of the work it seems to me is that in a context in 
which âthe world is too complicated to describe or to understandâ, it 
provides something like a diagram, or a formula which shows how a series of 
things are joined together, how certain kinds of momentary connections are 
made, but does not renounce the difficulty of such work of abstraction, and 
really gets into the very different kinds of qualities, materialities, 
knowledges, histories and powers of the things that are nevertheless 
joined. The work doesnât make itâs argument through affirming a set of 
categories but by drawing out these formulae in uncannily clear ways 
through this process of conjunction. What kind of process of searching and 
sifting goes into making this diagram of formula?

GH: Itâs probably best if it starts as a joke, a completely unrealisable 
funny fantasy that will not go away. Yet every time you tell someone new, 
you can see it connects and they recount stories or expressions that affix 
to the initial idea. Next you formulate a contraption whoâs structural 
operations can leak out into the domains you want to contest, play with and 
the areas people have spoken to you about. I leave as much work undone as 
possible, so as it unfolds it can contest the space in which itâs showing 
and the space/geography can contest the contraption. As the physical/code 
machine begins to take shape it creates complex negotiations, apprehensions 
and upsets as the speculation grows.
Then there is fear, violence and the dead. I need to be scared of what I 
make, It needs to put me in embarrassing, difficult, hurtful and 
potentially violent situations or itâs just not interesting.

MF: A number of projects you have been involved in over recent years work 
with âprimaryâ raw materials, stuff dug out of the ground and refined, 
such as the metals aluminium â in the film âAluminiumâ presented at 
Manifesta7 - and coltan â which is explored in the various iterations of 
the Tantalum Memorial and Phone Wars projects. What are the stakes in this 
coupling of elementary or primal materials with computational systems?

GH: What interests me is the materialâs ability to recursively unfold 
possibilities, transforming the flesh, the social, political and economic. 
Essentially what a material makes possible and what it shuts down when 
itâs ripped from the earth and itâs context and contaminates human 

Simultaneous with the material properties, they are contagious concepts 
that move around technical cultures growing on the jelly of science 
embedded with itâs own philosophical speculations about the nature of the 

The materials also come into to existence as a force when the political, 
geographical and economic situations are right for them to do so. Aluminium 
âneedsâ Italian Fascism to âneedâ a national metal, It âneedsâ 
Italy to lack coal, iron and have bauxite instead. Coal for a long time in 
the UK was dug from deep cast mines and the shafts required pumping out 
which creates the steam engine which in turn requires more coal and more 
labour. Tantalum ârequiresâ political unrest in the Congo, kids playing 
Sony games.

Then there is the flesh and death, the material bends the flesh to suit 
itself, miners lungs, bones shattering, light, fast munitions ripping into 
countless bodies, rapes and murders.

MF: And the place of mines in our clean modern world?

GH: Mines are everywhere in everything once you start looking, you cannot 
have humans without them, we seem to be preprogrammed to burrowing blindly 
underground like worms. The main difference from us and worms is that we 
have a compulsion to burn or explode whatever we find.

For the CFC project I wanted to look at the steam engine as a physical and 
conceptual machine simultaneously in a popular setting like the Discovery 

In the 19th century the great engines of change at that time were built 
around coal-fed steam. This was a society that rested on its mines; its 
products dominated life and determined its inventions and transport 
infrastructure and its politics. In this way, the coal mines of England 
recursively transformed the bodies of those who touched them and redirected 
large parts of its society to feed its machines.

This is still the case, but the mines and production are displaced to India 
and China. Itâs like contemporary media tries to obscure itâs origins. 
When we use an Ethernet cable we rarely think of the poor bastard who had 
to mine the copper or think about the effect of early copper mines on our 
cultural, social evolution.

I like to imagine the matter of contemporary media crawling out from the 
satanic pits of the early 19th Century, struggling to evolve in the winding 
towers. Then laying rails for itself to feed, spreading out creating denser 
and denser webs of interconnection for itself.

One you suspend seeing transport and communication in contemporary terms 
and think about them as the same thing, as they once were, then different 
histories of media emerge. Like in the 1840âs, physical machines, steam 
engines force the compression of landscapes into manageable chunks of 
aligned time-tables, co-ordinating the bodies on to trains and into mass 
Submarine telegraph cables start to criss-cross the Atlantic, 
re-compressing the oceanâs trade routes into global markets realigning it 
into the rows and columns of the ledger, birthing scientific management and 
unifying markets. The mines transformed the body as the body transformed 
the mine, feeding lungs into the hungry boilers of empires.

MF: Coal Fired Computers doesnât attempt to resolve the problem of 
energy, but using a wonderful but rather inefficient engine turns coal into 
heat, into movement, into electricity, this in turn transmuted into a 
machine that handles data, and drives a compressed air machine feeding a 
pair of blackened lungs. The machine is a diagram, but also composed of an 
enormous different kinds of things, timescales and eras, of sorts of stuff, 
and of different kinds of expertise and âstates of natureâ things that 
are worked and transformed in various ways. The project is also, as you 
say, very much about transformation, of matter, time, knowledge, media 
systems, communities, flesh.

GH: Yes itâs a dark futurist contraption â a strange, unnecessarily 
intricate, improvised machine, dreamed up to bring power, media, histories 
and flesh into proximity with each other. When I plugged the electricity 
from a hundred year old steam engine into the computer, I was elated to 
feel the symbolic power of that, I did not care what anyone else thought 
â I needed that fix.

Then bringing the miners who dug the coal that was shovelled into the 
boiler to watch the diseased lungs inflate with every database record made 
it orgasmic. The miners have a fantastic vision of class power that I 
recall from when I was a child and they bought down two Governments in the 
1970âs. The melancholy of all those lungs, death, disease, power, 
electricity - we just donât have a vision of power like that anymore.

I deliberately wanted to burn as much coal as possible, pollute a massive 
area for no purpose other then to feed my contraption, I needed to see what 
it felt like to be completely wasteful. Originally we wanted to gather the 
coal from child labour in India but this proved too difficult, but it led 
ultimately to our discovery of the nameless labourâ the lack of datasets 
that fuel our wealth and power.

MF: And the connections run on?

GH: I suppose the other fix was the lack of separation between flesh and 
the machine. The lungs hanging on the front of the steam engine with wires 
poking out and pulsating. For me, this reflects my own reality of having 
big bits of steal screwed into my body with nylon screws that I have 
carried for the last 35 years, and having endless cameras and other bits of 
medical technology inserted into my flesh, or conversations with kidney 
dialysis patients about where their life ends and the machine begins, and 
the simple reality of those bodies that feed the machine of our power.

MF: You have also worked with databases that provide statistics on the 
conditions of work, (such as the Lungs: Slave Labour project of 2005). Work 
records, health records, the registrations of populations in figures 
becomes something that you see both as means to tell some kind of truth or 
story about the conditions of life, but also to make them physically 
palpable, through breaths, but also tender, bodily and ephemeral. These are 
two different means of registering peoplesâ lives, two ways of knowing 
the world but here they are brought together in a way that is both very 
sad, mournful, but also somehow irrefutable. What are your thoughts on the 
relation between statistics, record keeping, the infrastructural cruelty of 
the systems you record, and the kinds of expression that they yield in the 
systems you assemble at a tangent to them?

GH: Death and media excite me, itâs one of my kinks. In what might be an 
unhelpful nutshell, Memorial is where the database combined with death 
changes conduct.

MF: Could you explain that a little more?

GH: Record keeping is still seen by many as being separate from lived 
experience, a model, a trace, residue if you like. But we are transformed 
by the use of indirection, modeling, creation and implementation of our 
record keeping or by not keeping records at all.

Simply putâ the database, the need to create a conceptual-view for our 
records, necessitates the implementation of sets of formal rules that are 
contained within the database. These theoretical machines are used to 
dissect an enterprise into sets of discrete normalised fields from which 
comparisons can be made which, in turn influences the conduct of the 
records input.

You can see the raw power of the database at The Tower Hill Memorial, 
Trinity Square to the Merchant Navyâs 28,000 War dead in Londonâs East 
End. The ordering of names, ships, dates forces you to iterate over the 
data in specific physical ways. The enlistment system records its victims 
by inserting a date in the death column. The collection of the data, to 
include commonwealth dead, but not those of the USA, echoes empire and the 
order of international relations at the time.

MF: Yes, this is a neo-classical monument that conflates masses of dead 
with architectural masses, columns covered in metal plates bearing the 
names and details of dead sailors, which in turn support a roof structure. 
The allegory is there for the turning.

GH: Or to put it another way, the normalisation and categorisation of the 
experience of an enterprise distilled into the conceptual-view creates an 
encoded expertise of the enterprise which reproduces its power in new and 
unexpected ways.

In Coal Fired Computers we tried to unpack this materialist view of 
software, its histories and engines. Open it up to a live experiment, see 
with others how the conceptual machines of the 19th Century have unfolded 
in to the everyday conditions that are now defined by perpetual crisis 
management, in the economy, ecology, security and financial systems.

MF: How important then has the key requirement in statistics and database 
design for data normalization to be maintained had an effect on other kinds 
of normative process, such as social normalization?

GH: There is almost no separation. If we think again about the Tower Hill 
Memorial as a physical manifestation of a database laid out in space. The 
body of the visitor is moved to access information, by ship, name, date. We 
order ourselves to read the fields as the ships, crews were ordered by the 
records kept on them.

The space between data and the management systems that processes the data 
points to a history of conceptual machines at least going back as far as 
Samuel Pepysâ days at the admiralty where he introduced examinations 
rather then class privilege as a means of evaluating officers, 
standardising ship types across the country, the provision for officersâ 
pensions and payments for sailorsâ widows; amongst other things. His 
great innovation in all this was a distinct separation of information from 
the methods of its own representationâ scrupulous, absolute record 
keeping as a machine to produce Empire. In contemporary terms we would see 
this as a form of standardisation. In turn building the ability to 
reference something using a name, reference, or container instead of the 
value itself.

MF: One aspect of a number of the projects you have produced in recent 
years is that of the incorporation of pseudo-code, bringing instructional 
sequences, written in an idiom that is close to Perl, sometimes with a 
degree of functionality, sometimes not: what are the stakes in working with 
this material?

GH: Hmm, there is no great difference between pseudo-code and functional 
code. There is just one level of abstraction or another. Maybe Iâm too 
old but all my early experience of coding was with algorithms written in 
pseudo-code to get over the problems of language specificity. I have 
produced pseudo-code that has done much more processing then the more 
functional stuff. Maybe another way to see this is that I build software 
contraptions that enable me or whoever Iâm working with to speculate 
about the world.

Iâm completely uninterested in software thatâs useful or works too 
well. I have no desire for a seamless integration in to my desktop and the 
systems it implies.

MF: To return to CFC then, the question of seamlessness is one that often 
occurs in the rational discourse on sustainable energy, in terms of 
creating energy systems that donât loose power, that donât leak. You 
are saying that in computational terms, another kind of consideration 
arises, that leakiness creates the possibility for excrescences, for 
imagination, the expressivity of data in relation to slightly mismatched 
algorithms or visualization schemes?

GH: Code leaks all the time, thatâs whatâs worrying, hopeful about it 
when itâs received uncritically. You create it with intention, a 
technical fix, but in implementation it leaks into the social enabling, 
disabling as it iterates over the social, cultural, economic and political 
conditions that formed it.

In my own work I exploit this by creating assemblages of code, hardware, 
histories, people and materials. Particular datasets have particular 
resonance in certain geographical, social and political situations. In CFC 
we used a UK database of over 164,000 records containing the details of 
coal mining accidents and deaths in the UK from 1600 to the present day. 
This was created and/or paid for by Raleys Solicitors - specialists in 
workplace accident and disease compensation - a way of accruing knowledge. 
During 2003 and 2005 when the scheme was at its peak, Raleysâ annual 
profit rose from Â2.5 million to Â15.7million. During this period two 
Raleys partners, Ian Firth and David Barber, made personal profits of Â9.9 
million and Â7.2 million respectively. To reuse this dataset in other ways 
allowed us to play with Raleys as part of our contraption.

With the Lungs project in ZKM, the original dataset of records of slave 
workers was conceived within a Hollerith/IBM paradigm of punch cards, a 
mechanism of census taking that unfolded into racial hygiene. To take a 
Nazi dataset of the number of slaves used in the armaments factory in the 
building that now houses ZKM, to calculate the air that was in each set of 
lungs at the point of death, and re-breathe it into that factory was a way 
of unleashing new knowledge from fascist systems.

MF: One of the underlying arguments I think in CFC, but also in Lungs: 
Slave Labour is about the power that vast accruals of data can have. 
Databases are no longer called Data Banks, but there is something about the 
agglomeration of large amounts of data that gives it an affinity, if not 
quite to capital, to something common in a power of amassment to create 
distortions of power and understanding around it. In which ways might we 
need to reshape our understandings of data?

GH: Yes, I have never quite got to the bottom of the name change from data 
banks to databases â Codd who produced the first relational database 
still refers to data-banks in the late 1960âs. I suppose itâs something 
like there was no separation between the data and the code that produced it 
in the data-bank, leading to a repository of information and the methods of 
accessing that data. After Coddâs idea of relational database management 
systems, data sets and the code that process them are separate. So, the 
DBMS becomes an engine for the production of knowledge and power, changing 
conduct from processing the sets of information.

Iâm working on health records at the moment in Liverpool and trying to 
think about the aggregation of 60,000,000 health records in the UKâ 
forget about the privacy issues for a moment.
The aggregation and structure of this information will produce new 
knowledge with a measurable power to change conduct as I described earlier. 
This will disrupt older forms of health authority like the British Medical 
Association, based upon professional knowledge, with a new kind of power 
formed from a software-mediated return of the masses in the form of health 
records. This is where the leaks get interesting, potentially on the road 
to new tyrannies.

An example from Liverpool, is the âJoint Strategic Needs Assessmentâ 
document developed by the Liverpool NHS Primary Care Trust (PCT) dated 
2008. The PCT had found that it had a strong indication that 10,000 people 
were out there somewhere with Hypertension. They had no direct knowledge of 
this, but it was indicated by comparing their records with other records 
around the country. If those people could be found, then morbidity rates 
throughout the city could be reduced. The argument for this interpretation 
was created by comparative analyses involving many datasets. These datasets 
coalesced as new forms of authority that in turn could direct PCT 
priorities. A further convolution in the reading of the data was that 
Public Health advisors also thought that if you put the same money as it 
would cost to take the measures against hypertension into promoting the 
health of 16-25 year olds, this would have greater long term benefits â 
unfortunately however the evidence for this would take longer to gather 
then the lifetime of a parliament and so had to be discounted.

MF: This sounds like a story with many possible turning points in it, many 
moments when decisions were made, resources were joined, work was done, in 
one way or another. What kinds of connection and combination can you 
imagine for such datasets to yield new figures of truth and potentially a 
new politics of this new kind of mass?

GH: I remain hopeful that vast datasets will ooze new forms of power from 
the aggregation of mass records which have the potential to dislodge 
established forms of professional knowledge before they unfold into new 
modes of tyranny further down the road. The problem with this optimistic 
model of transformation is that it depends on datasets being 
ârationallyâ built by people who understand the flows of information.

Recently when I was working with a Health Trust I noticed that the fields 
within the five competing datasets were politicly driven and the system was 
undesigned to protect the competing political/financial interests of the 
Hospitals, Health Trusts, Government and General Practitioners. The system 
was not live in that records were at least two months old, had to be 
requested over night and arrived in a flat file with one table of more then 
a 1000 fields in a table. This would be shocking to any elementary computer 
science undergraduate.

I find myself becoming a data puritan, well designed, ruthless information, 
using open systems will allow for much better regulation of data privacy 
then any sloppy, propriety and politically determined system.

MF: I like this term âcontraptionâ that you have started using 
recently. It seems to couple a kind of intentionality with a bit of the 
looseness required to keep things going. What is a contraption?

GH: In French, Jean says, contraption is pronounced âMachin, truc, 
biduleâ: something that one cannot or refuses to name. Its quality as 
âpasse-partoutâ (passe-partout is a device that opens all doors) is to 
be unqualified, thus connecting elements and revealing sets of relations 
that are not evident or sometimes hidden. Its in-between states allows for 
a practical exploration and/or understanding of power and media ecologies 
that surround it.

A contraption in English is were the domain of the technical overlaps the 
imaginary, an experiment with nothing to prove. Usually strange, 
unnecessarily intricate, unfinished, inherently unstable, improvised 

âStrangenessâ enables it to become a place of experimentation and fun. 
âInherently unstableâ refuses easy utility, normalisation and emphasis 
the forces at play in the machine that break it. âUnfinishedâ is about 
provoking thought, emotion rather than wanting to show it how it is/should 
be. âImprovised machineâ implies a playful assemblage of pre-exiting 
parts. âUnnecessarily intricateâ allows for a geeky self-expression or 
the elegance, aesthetics we find in complex code.

I suppose what Iâm hinting at is the unstable state of invention before 
the âmachinâ becomes normalised.

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