The Question


Architectures of Extraction and Landscapes of Resistance.

Research Proposal by Matthew Ashton

“Amid the wilderness stood an engineer – not an old man, but grey from the calculation of nature. He pictured the whole world as a dead body, judging it from those parts he had already converted into structures”

Andrey Platonov, The Foundation Pit The slow creep of geologic time is suddenly upon us, revealing an alternative history of human endeavours compressed in the striated layers of the earth. The return of history does not resemble the heroic excavations of the past; of buried civilisations and prehistoric beasts, but instead announces itself in the mundane fossilised elements of the present.  Concrete, plastic, steel and aluminium. The pulverised remains of our consumerist suburban lifestyles now marking a distinctive band in the earths geology. A thin yet all pervasive layer of debris signalling that we have well and truly departed from the holocene and entered a new geological epoch popularly known as the anthropocene, where human activity is now the decisive force shaping our earth and its global ecological systems. While the realisation of our substantial collective impact on the earth is terrifying, it also offers an opportunity to see our environment from a new vantage point, and compel us to weave new human relationships into geologic histories. The anthropocence is not simply a neutral layer of sedimentation laid down eons ago, but an active field in a constant state of flux and transition, open to mutations, corruptions and manipulations. It is a contested site of power – a political geology. If architecture can be understood as the embodiment of power structures and the reification of decision making processes, then the anthropocence could also be viewed as ideology frozen in geology. The potential for an architectural interest in the anthropocene is that it may lead the profession away from the grip of the ‘god trick’ – what Donna Haraway describes as the “conquering gaze from nowhere” personified in the figure of the architect as the creative genius producing buildings, neighbourhoods, entire cities even, from the all seeing vantage point of their drawing board or computer screen. The exhausted spaces of material production and extraction are also landscapes of intent with their own specific design logic, influenced by a myriad of complex factors, but they have a form which is fluid and evolving, challenging the fixed nature of architecture. An engagement with the territories of exploitation which are essential for our current standard of urban living (sites which could also be called sacrifice zones) could allow us to critically interrogate current notions of sustainability, with its fixation on growth, urban development and smart technology, and open up a dialogue with the earths ecological processes which point to a different path towards avoiding ecological catastrophe. A path which could once again embrace the emancipatory power of an unmade future and allow us to imagine the possibility of another world. The research project aims to ask these primary questions;

How can a critical and artistic engagement with sites of material production and resource extraction provide new perspectives from which we can view and approach the unfolding ecological crisis, beyond the current rhetorics of “sustainable growth” and its inherent adherence to the status quo?

What forms and modes of resistance, be they artistic, political, ecological, economic or social, are already active, or latent, in these landscapes of extraction, and how can spatial practice be employed as a method of understanding, documenting and re-imagining the territories of the anthropocene? 

A Spatial Archive of Political Geologies in Scandinavia and the Baltic Region.      

The geologic turn in art, architecture and philosophy has significantly disrupted our understanding of what nature actually is, and opened up for multiple interpretations of what it is to be human, re-evaluating our relationships to our environment and the systems and objects which constitute it. Hans Hollien’s polemical 1968 statement “Everything is Architecture” now rings truer than ever, as increasingly more aspects of our environment can be considered as ‘objects of design’, from intricate networks of infrastructure and communications which cross the globe, financial products and systems which dictate flows of capital and forms of urban development, planetary scale computational platforms unbound by national borders, and the management, control and exploitation of our collective resources, from fisheries to forestry, agriculture and mineral extraction. In the age of the anthropocene the earth’s surface has become a recording device, inscribing our collective consumption patterns into layers of rock, soil and vegetation. Ever since James Watt invented the steam engine in 1781 our appetite for coal has seen us re-engineer the landscape on a global scale, and subsequent material and technological developments have only increased our dependance on earth altering activities, as we dig ever deeper after the rare earth minerals we require for our smart phones, electric cars and the solar panels for our sustainable homes. The ambition of this artistic research project is to compile a spatial archive – an atlas of political geographies – revealing and untangling the multitude of human initiated territorial alterations to the landscapes of Scandinavia, including the Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) as well the north western regions of Russia (Murmansk Oblast and Karelian Republic). The investigations will have an exploratory and experimental nature, mixing historical readings with cartographic techniques and artistic interventions – an open and undetermined form that mixes architectural, scientific and artistic methods to explore, record and represent the territories. The aim of the project is not to produce the most detailed and objective survey of resource extraction in northern Europe. Such a Borgesian 1:1 map would be tedious, time consuming and probably useless. Rather, the project will be subjective and fragmented, attempting to see things from as many different angles as possible, which will inevitably lead to more focus and consideration being paid to certain sites while other sites which hold equal interest and importance are only brushed upon. The project’s scope of study will be limited to the northern regions of Europe – an area framed more or less by the Baltic Sea, the Norwegian Sea, The Barents Sea and the White Sea. The North is a region with a rich mineral, cultural and political diversity within a relatively small area, and the sites of interest are located within an accessible distance from Stockholm and other major Nordic cities. By situating my explorations in a specific and defined region, and digging deep into local contexts and particularities its hoped that the project can go much further than simply a comparative study of sites of extraction, and can initiate a meaningful and productive collaboration with local communities and engage them in collective artistic interventions and explorations. As Donna Haraway states, “The only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere in particular” – A situated study of resource extraction in Northern Europe is a way of weaving larger connections and global struggles into particular local contexts. Issues such as decolonialism and indigenous land rights, climate change, vegetation change and the consequences of an ice free arctic, workers rights and labour struggles, urban development and population decline, soviet histories and post soviet realities. The North is also a region I know well, and a place I already have an established artistic network, having completed my M.F.A (Architecture) at Umeå University in 2012 and participating in an art residency at Mustarinda in northern Finland in 2016.

Methods, Procedures and the Production of Artistic Knowledge

“Thinking politics through architecture helps us enter the problem from another direction” (Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal, Eyal Weizman – Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency)  The aim of this research project is not to reinvent, or develop new methods of artistic and architectural research, but rather to experiment with a wide variety of existing methodologies and practices, and to implement them in innovative new ways and unexpected contexts. It is hoped that the combination and juxtaposition of different and sometimes conflicting approaches can produce new forms of knowledge and ways of seeing. How can GIS mapping techniques combine with Sápmi mythologies and historic migratory routes to produce counter maps which challenge colonial cartographies? How do shifts on the stock markets and commodity exchanges in Stockholm, London and New York have territorial consequences in Finnmark? What is the relationship between real estate and resources as a city is ‘decommissioned’ to make way for mining expansion in Kiruna? How complicit are Finnish pensioners in the environmental disaster that occurred at the publicly owned Talvivaara mine in Eastern Finland in 2012? The artistic research project will be structured around three distinct processes. 1. Research 2. Interventions 3. Publication 1. Research Research will involve the process of gathering information, documentation, surveying sites and territories, sorting through archival material, conversations and interviews with local actors and organisations, photography, sketching, establishing collaborations with organisations, reading relevant literature, etc. Research will be undertaken continuously throughout the five year period, but will be more intensive in the first few years as the project develops and begins to take shape. 2. Interventions An important element of the project is the development and implementation of artistic interventions in the sites of study, to put gathered research into action and test thoughts and ideas through collective experience and experimentation. These interventions could take many forms, including workshops, mappings, models, walks, public actions and events, performances, artistic and architectural works. 3. Publication The final form the artistic research project will take will eventually be a published book, documenting and presenting the territories explored and researched, and the artistic and architectural interventions developed. The publication will also include a longer text, or series of essays which explore and reflect upon the sites and themes studied during the project. A website will also be developed early in the project to document and record research, and create an archive which can continuously be expanded and added to as the project progresses. Several existing and historical architectural and artistic practices will act as an inspiration and a guide as to how best undertake a research project of this nature.

Decolonising Architecture Art Residency (DAAR) established by Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal and Eyal Weizman in Beit Sahour, Palestine in 2007 is an important precedent exploring how architects and artists can work with a transformative political agenda in a complicated and contested space, utilising a variety of techniques and methods and a combination of theory and practice. 

Forensic Architecture is a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London founded by Eyal Wiezman, which is interested in the production and presentation of ‘architectural evidence’ – buildings and built environments which bear witness to events and acts of violence. The research agency is interested in exploring the potential of using architecture, and spatial methods as a tool of proving accountability and claiming justice, and has worked on behalf of international prosecutors, human rights organisations and environmental justice groups.

Territorial Agency, founded by John Palmesino and Ann-Sofi Rönnskog are an independent organisation that combines architecture, analysis, advocacy. Their work focuses on the transformations in relation to politics and space

Global Tools was a multidisciplinary experimental design school founded in Italy in 1973 by members of several ‘Radical Architecture’ groups, including Ettore Sottsass Jr, Archizoom, Superstudio, 9999 and more. The school (or non-school as they called themselves) was established in opposition to what its members saw as conservative architectural education and aimed to rediscover a direct relationship between art and life, technology, communication and the environment.