Tiny Mining: Exploring the Extreme Ecologies of the Body
Published 17 December 2020 by Rob La Frenais
Open Source Body: discover Tiny Mining, a mineral exploration co-operative and community committed to the open source exploitation of the interior of the human body for rare earth and other mineral resources.
As Covid-19 still marks the end of the year 2020, Makery explores some themes of its second Open Source Body festival originally scheduled for this December, but postponed to Spring 2021. We focus here on the Tiny Mining project and medical geology community.
With the call for a moratorium of extraction of resources from the earth by humans as part of the journey towards a zero-carbon future, it’s interesting to look at a source close to home – our own bodies. There is currently a very interesting DIY initiative being formed among a group of artists and scientists which literally uses the resources of the human body to mine for minerals and rare earth. It seems rather appropriate that we should turn to our own bodies as a resource in such a hermetic fashion, during a pandemic. I spoke to one of the instigators of the ‘Tiny Mining’ project, Martin Howse, an artist based in Berlin who describes his work as ‘micro-research’ and who is the recipient of the first Alex Adriaansens residency at V2, Lab for the Unstable Media, Rotterdam. Alex Adriaansens was the co-founder of V2 and died after a long illness in late 2018.
I asked Howse who were the ‘Tiny Miners’. “I would call Tiny Mining more of a loose-knit community of concerned parties, each with different specialisms and interests. The core community is composed of myself, Theun Karelse and Alfonso Borragan, both artists concerned with new and speculative ecologies. Alfonso has a long history of working with the collective ingestion of minerals (silver ores, meteorites, clay) and digs deep into the cultures and histories of geological ingestion. More recently we were joined by Kat Austen, an artist with a background in environmental chemistry and citizen science, Aniara Rodado (becoming plant-witch-machine), and Dennis De Bel (the human of copper). We have also received advice from medical geologist Ines Tomasek and medical anthropologist Aaron Parkhurst. In early discussions, Nik Gaffney and Maja Kuzmanovic of FoAM (a network of transdisciplinary labs at the intersection of art, science, nature and everyday life, editor’s note) were also of key importance. The community is open and can be accessed here.
Martin Howse introduces “Tiny Mining”:
I hadn’t even known there was such a thing as a ‘medical geologist’ before. What was the role of Ines Tomasek, who describes herself as a ‘medical geologist and volcanologist working on health and environmental impacts of volcanic eruptions using multidisciplinary approaches and methods across geochemistry and particle toxicology’. “Ines was involved in the first expert meeting – in a series of discussions which were very influential for the project around the idea of dose or the balance between deficiency and toxicity – that extraction would perhaps upset these balances within the body. For example, too much of one beneficial mineral can be as hazardous as the lack of that mineral. Equally, one mineral such as iron can control the uptake of other minerals such as zinc. Ines also acted as adviser in early stages of the project.”
Coincidentally, on the day I was to interview Howse from my home in South West France, all Google services including Gmail, Google Docs and Youtube crashed. What would life be like without the all-pervasive internet? I was reminded of Ted Kaczynski’s prediction in the Unabomber manifesto which was sent to the Washington Post foreshadowing the rise of the internet before his terrorist attacks on scientists, “Human freedom mostly will have vanished, because individuals and small groups will be impotent vis-a-vis large organisations armed with super-technology and an arsenal of advanced psychological and biological tools for manipulating human beings, besides instruments of surveillance and physical coercion.”
Had we become too reliant on the internet? Howse: “This was one of the ironies of our most recent remote community sweatshop. This was intended as an offline retreat but due to current restrictions we were forced to convene online. Although this was not a bad thing, and did enable exchange, I think this reinforced for everyone involved this reliance on non-local technologies which goes against the ethos of Tiny Mining. At the same time the temporary collapses and glitches of some participants’ networks and hardware underscored this ironies, somehow also pointing out the embeddedness of Tiny Mining within other infrastructures (networks, postal systems, labs, lab suppliers etc).”
Tiny miners and Fremen
Howse describe the Tiny Mining project as an almost ironic speculative fiction project and refers to an imagined Amazon-style exploitation of the human body as a resource. Was this prophetic? “There is a definite trend towards the exhaustion of terrestrial mining options and the drive to prospect and exploit underseas, other planets and asteroids. Ironically these projects might place humans within hostile environments which necessitate the exploitation of inner minerals, just to keep these in the body or cycle. This is underscored with the similarities of certain aspects of the project with the author Frank Herbert’s Dune visions. In early discussion the ‘stillsuits’ in Dune came up as a way of conserving water (and perhaps other precious metals) I guess the following quote from Dune (describing a ‘stillsuit’) inspired our concept of a ‘sweatshop’.”
“It’s basically a micro-sandwich — a high-efficiency filter and heat-exchange system. The skin-contact layer’s porous. Perspiration passes through it, having cooled the body… near-normal evaporation process. The next two layers (…) include heat exchange filaments and salt precipitators. Salt’s reclaimed. Motions of the body, especially breathing and some osmotic action provide the pumping force. Reclaimed water circulates to catchpockets from which you draw it through this tube in the clip at your neck… Urine and feces are processed in the thigh pads. In the open desert, you wear this filter across your face, this tube in the nostrils with these plugs to ensure a tight fit. Breathe in through the mouth filter, out through the nose tube. With a Fremen suit in good working order, you won’t lose more than a thimbleful of moisture a day…”
This is not the first incursion in to unusual technological visions by Howse. He was also involved in the ’Crystal World’ project presented in CTM 12 in Berlin. Howse: “The Crystal world was a collaborative project initiated by Jonathan Kemp and Ryan Jordan which aimed to de-crystallise and subsequently reform or reboot contemporary technologies of computation, control and communication through literally breaking down and re-working their material substrata. We held various workshops which would reproduce extractive strategies targeted at e-waste and ‘detourne’ these towards new imaginations. So a kind of very literal undoing of the crystal bonds of technology. There was also a distinct bodily aspect, working with strong chemistry and rough and ready processes. I remember waking up after one workshop unable to swallow, soreness in the throat from accidental inhalation of certain byproducts of this deconstruction.”
Howse was involved early media activist scene in London in the 90s when Mute Magazine was at its most active and in 1998 founded the ap project which promised to “implement a truly artistic operating system (OS) in its most expanded sense”. How did that that influence his work now? “I was more at the margins of the early media art scene, working with quite practical salvaging of computers from the streets, so involved with some small community initiatives and early networks in East London and Brixton. This evolved into performances using re-worked obsolete technology in the early late 90s and through a residency at V2 meeting with Shu Lea Cheang and the late Alexei Blinov.
Of course Tiny Mining is reminiscent of the classic 60’s science fiction movie ‘Fantastic Voyage in which tiny ‘astronauts’ enter the arteries of a human body in a tiny submarine. Was that an influence? “For me, it’s more a distant childhood memory but the workings of the nano-chelation agent Argotine (a potential treatment for Alzheimers disease currently in community development) are definitely influenced by an inner voyage into veins and networks.”
The Fantastic Voyage, Richard Fleischer, 1966:
What about the pandemic?
I asked him what happens in a Tiny Mining sweatshop? How can you do one in a pandemic? “It’s not easy as we lose the collective attachment to a very specific environment and diet. In this case, remotely, I prepared and sent mining kits to the community participants – these included materials to complete various experiments (looking at the body as a bio-indicator), as well as dietary supplements and drugs to facilitate chelation (the freeing up of metals and minerals from human tissue) and final extraction. A set of protocols for each day of the week’s retreat or session was included (these can be found online) and the kit was supplemented by a specific diet following the course of the week. A metal or mineral was assigned to each participant to explore, meditate with and finally attempt to test for and extract. We met online and shared and documented tests, experiments, experiences and dreams. The process was very exhausting, with the extension of something quite intimate and involving bodily emissions (sweat, exhaled breath, urine) into the networked world, but rewarding. I would be happier perhaps with real world retreats and these are planned for very specific geologic locations, such as the Jachymov, a town in Czech Republic famous for its radon rich spa waters.”
The artist Margherita Pevere, previously interviewed in Makery in “Leaky Bodies…”, also uses secretions from her own body in her work and investigates the way in which hormones integrate into the natural environment. She was an influence on ‘Tiny Mining’, along with Cecilia Jonsson and has expressed an interest in participating in future sweatshops where possible. I asked Howse if the tiny mining project was limited to living human bodies. Was there an ethical reason? “I don’t think it’s an ethical issue . We are concerned with living experience and the entry of the human body into geological cycles; that we do not simply become anthropogenic or anthropocenic markers. At the same time, a strong influence on Tiny Mining comes from traditions of Chinese Alchemy – particularly around the ingestion of deadly minerals such as realgar (mercury ore) and arsenic, which were intended to promote immortality through the stopping of bodily life and subsequent decay.”
Howse also refers the term ‘extreme ecology’ and expands on this: “We believe that the earth should remain as pristine and untouched nature. We have no desire to carry on extracting resources from an ever depleted world. If we are prepared to use technologies which are extractive, then we must be prepared to submit ourselves to this extraction. I think it’s also very much about the knowledge which entering into these earth cycles gives us!”
More on Tiny Mining.
Tiny Mining was made possible by V2_ and supported by the Alex Adriaansens Residency (DAAR), which was made possible thanks to the financial support of Gemeente Rotterdam. The next residency can be applied for here.