The Networked Condition Case Study #6 with On-Trade-Off

A Tesla car is molded in copper wire with a number plate. It sits in a dark space lit by warm light while a small piece of machinery to the side discharges a blue light
Sammy Baloji, Daddy Tshikaya, Jean Katambayi Mukendi, Marjolijn Dijkman, Charging Tesla Crash: a speculation, 2019 (photo: Uriel Orlow)
A photo of an area in Manono, D.R Congo where huge rusted hollow machine parts have trees growing out of them. It is a sunny day and washing on a line can be glimpsed in the distance
Manono D.R. Congo, 2018 (photo: On-Trade-Off (Re)source Collectif)

At the start of 2020, Fast Familiar, Abandon Normal Devices and Arts Catalyst began The Networked Condition, an ongoing collaborative research project exploring the environmental impact of digital cultural production.

The project is part of The Accelerator Programme (led by Julie’s Bicycle and Arts Council England), which supports organisations to advance sustainable practices and share insights with peers and the wider sector.

As part of The Networked Condition, we’ve been speaking to artists and researchers whose work uses and/or critically reflects on digital tools and environmental challenges, to gain insight into a range of ideas and approaches. We are publishing these case studies as we go along, with the intention that they will be a source of shared knowledge, inspiration or reflection for others too.

 
The sixth case study is with On-Trade-Off - Jean Katambayi Mukendi and Maarten Vanden Eynde who have traced the raw material lithium and its crucial role in the global transition towards a ‘green' and fossil fuel free economy.
 
Could you start by telling us a bit about your individual practices and how your collaboration through On-Trade-Off came about? 
 
Jean Katambayi Mukendi: 
It started with Atelier Picha, Centre for Art in Lubumbashi City. We are collaborating with Enough Room for Space in Brussels. But firstly, we are artists, myself and Maarten. The core topic in my practice is a kind of social algorithmic criticism. One day I met Maarten and Enough Room for Space, and found that we have very similar concerns. We make criticisms of the world, of our society in relation to energy, through algorithms and mathematical approaches. During our meeting, we decided almost immediately to collaborate and now we are making a project.  
 
We developed this concept On-Trade-Off about extractivism in Congo. Lubumbashi City especially is a place of many interests — one of materials and minerals, of extractive activities, but Congo is living in precarity as a result of this economic approach. I have to separate the responsibility from the international side, in terms of my population, my public, to establish our own responsibility about the poverty and about our situation. And this kind of separation is very deeply algorithmic. And we have to talk about that differently. One of my main research topics is electricity, because we are using electricity, data as energy, but without being able to manage it correctly. 
 
Maarten Vanden Eynde: 
Like Jean says, we were both interested in this connection between digital technologies, but also the material ingredients that make it possible. We both don't see it as something that exists individually, but something that is interconnected with the materials that make it possible. You don't have software without hardware. It's not individual entities, but they are interconnected. That's also how we got to know each other.  
 
I went for the first time to Congo in 2015 when I was doing research on the origin of raw materials that are used in technologies that represent technological inventions, and that might find a place in a future geological layer. What kind of material traces will we leave behind and also how will we read them? What are they communicating? And you have, first of all the material remnants. What could be found in this future geologic layer, but then afterwards also what they mean or what they represent, and then in order to figure that out, I started mapping these material ingredients and tracing where they come from. So I made several works with raw materials that come from an original site, either in a mine or in nature, where this raw material has been extracted. So that's how we got to know each other, and then immediately because we had similar interests and topics we worked on, we stayed in touch and worked on things together.  
 
We joined forces and started the project On-Trade-Off in the framework of the Contour Biennale in 2018. And that focuses specifically on lithium as one of the main ingredients for the “Green Revolution”. But immediately, although we focused on lithium as a starting point, and also a geographic location, in Manono, Democreatic Republic of Congo (DRC), where possibly the largest lithium reserves in the world have recently been recently found, we also expand to a broader field of rich research relating to energy in general, and electricity as Jean says, because it's all interconnected in that sense. And then also other ingredients come in because if you look at lithium as a material that is used in batteries, it's almost always in combination with cobalt, which is another kind of raw material that is very much connected to Congo. So there are other artists that are more focused on that. That's something that we've been working on since then.  
 
We’re now preparing for the first time a really large exhibition in Z33 (Belgium) that will open in March 2022, where most of the works of the participating artists will be shown together for the first time. There are 11 artists and two people, Lotte Arndt and Oulimata Gueye, who are both curators, writers and thinkers who work in the group more as an editorial board, but they are part of the collective of On-Trade-Off.  
 
So will that be the first time that all of the On-Trade-Off practitioners have been brought together to show work in an exhibition? 
 
Maarten Vanden Eynde: 
Yes, that's a bit how these projects work. They are being built up gradually, and they exist as multiple presentations, residencies, working periods, talks, and so on. So if you look on the website On-Trade-Off from Enough Room for Space you can find the past history of the last three years of all the public events we did. We did already do a few exhibitions with works that were being finished along the way, but this is the first time that most of the participants will have works, and a few will be also newly produced for the occasion of the exhibition. So a big moment for the project. 
 
Jean Katambayi Mukendi: 
I remember the LUNÄ Talk at Contour Biennale, and before that the Lubumbashi City Biennale.   
 
Maarten Vanden Eynde: 
Yeah, there was an exhibition in Amsterdam, and one in Paris. And then there have been multiple residences, both here in Belgium, and then quite a lot of artists have been also to Manono where this lithium mine has been found. First me and Jean Katambayi and Gulda El Magambo, and then Alexis Destoop and then Georges Senga and then Pamela Tulizo, so quite a lot of artists have been there because it's a particular context and because you're part of a history that is unfolding. It's not a functional mine yet. There is no lithium coming from Congo yet. It is still part of speculation in a material sense.
 
Most of the time if you visit a mine, it is already functioning, but in Manono it is still a site of speculation. And there's also Femke Herregraven who works with financial speculation and digital twin mines, and this is very much connected. First you need to know how much material is there, how much it’s worth, who will put money in it and it's all speculation before they actually start the work on the ground. 
 
Jean Katambayi Mukendi: 
It would be strange for us to speak about Manono and lithium without directly connecting with the locality, and that’s why even on our website, we try to translate what we can in the local language from Manono to try to make more connections with the area.
 
Thinking about the contexts in which On-Trade-Off’s work and research has been presented — for example gallery exhibitions and biennales — could you talk more about the relationship between your projects and the people who are directly affected by these questions that you're looking into and by the activities that are happening in those areas? What is the relationship like between yourselves and the communities living in and around the area of the mine? Is there an ongoing dialogue happening? 
 
Jean Katambayi Mukendi: 
One of our main goals is to establish a public dialogue between our project in Manono and Lubumbashi, because Lubumbashi City is where cultural activities and academic research is happening, whilst Manono is the centre of material extraction and mining, situated almost 600 kilometers from Lubumbashi. So our aim was to build an infrastructure for a relationship between Lubumbashi and Manono through the website, with the intention that we can then create more connections through artworks, culture and education.  
 
Maarten Vanden Eynde: 
The recurrence or the revisiting is something which is really important, and that's why there have been four trips to Manono by different members of the team of On-Trade-Off. We connect with the same people that are locally there on the ground. When we were there, we had a lot of ambitions about opening an art centre and having an open-air museum and so on, but of course, the local complexities do not always allow for such a fast change. But there is a continuous contact, like there are two people that I'm in near monthly conversation with.
 
It's small things but sometimes for people, it makes a whole difference. There was a young guy who was helping with audio recording when we were doing interviews, and then he went from Manono to Lubumbashi to get his driver's license for a truck to drive materials around. I helped him to finance his driver's license, and its small things, but it is also a way to keep in touch. When we go back, there is a possibility to work with him, not just as a help for interviews, but that he would be a driver to go somewhere. 
 
It's also a slow, gradual building up of local relationships that enforce the project, but it is difficult to continue doing that in practice in real life because of the distance, even from Lubumbashi, it's really far away, so it is not that you can visit each other easily and work together. If you take the road to get to Manono in the rainy season you might not arrive, or it might take so long that when you arrive you need to turn back already. So there's a lot of other practical things that make it difficult, but it is something that we keep working on.  
 
There is now a new project that we're working on which is in the proposal phase. I don't know yet how we need to realise it, whether it includes a direct connection with Manono or if, for instance, we are working on the website or publication in the future, but we will also include the translation in the local language when it arrives there, so that it's also accessible. And that would be something we give out when somebody else is going to Manono, so that we bring specific things for certain people that we met before. That way there is a longer continuous relationship and exchange that is being established. 
 
Jean Katambayi Mukendi: 
When we thought about making a big outside museum in Manono, we were thinking about the challenges of trying to develop something in a place that has been so exploited and how it could provide an alternative local economy in Manono. It’s something we have been dreaming about, so maybe one day.  
 
Maarten Vanden Eynde: 
It’s also an old dream, it seems. Yesterday I went to the archive of the Africa Museum in Tervuren, and I found a thesis of a history student at the University of Lubumbashi, which is there in the archives, and it's written in the 90s, about Manono. And he was saying exactly what we said, but he was saying it as a kind of proof of what it was turning into. He said, “This place is slowly turning into an open-air museum, with all the objects, all the remnants that are there, and it can actually generate tourism in the future. People will come and look at these archaeological remnants of the industrial site of Manono.”  
 
With Manono being a site of speculation, how do you think your work in that area might change once it becomes an operational mining site? 
 
Maarten Vanden Eynde: 
I'm not sure. One of the things that needs to happen first is going back there. For me, that’s always very important to be there myself and to work with actual materials from there and to meet people, to see the situation myself. That's why I still have this continuous contact with people there, to know what is going on and how the situation is evolving. Because the situation changes and because more information becomes available, this longevity is really important.  
 
You have different conversations, and that sparks a new idea, a new concept, and in that sense it is continuous. And also, for Z33, we're still not nearing the end of the project, because Z33 is the first major exhibition within that research project. But then afterwards, there’s Lubumbashi biennale in 2022, and then a big exhibition with a lot of other discursive elements in Framer Framed in Amsterdam in 2023. So we're talking about at least another two to three years that we will be within that project and other things that might emerge, Also new works are being made hopefully within that timeframe. There will also be a lot of progress in Manono itself and that we can incorporate or relate with and work with. 
 
Jean Katambayi Mukendi: 
I will just put on the table my preoccupation — how can a city [Manono] which provides minerals for infrastructure and electricity, exist without electricity and education itself? We are sharing the research on the website, but people in Manono and some people in Lubumbashi are not able to browse or search the website because of the lack of infrastructure. Because of this, we have thought about making a physical book so that we can reach more people.  
 
Maarten Vanden Eynde: 
That is something that again, we share, as other people in the group [On-Trade-Off] are much more in favour of making a website whereas me and Jean are more interested in hardware, more fond of a book or something that you can hold in your hand and take with you, and that you can access also without the presence of electricity, because it's such a different medium and something that I guess speaks more to us. So I'm also very much in favour of that. But it depends on the possibilities we will have in the coming years if we can realise that.  
 
Could you talk a bit more about your methods or research process? 
 
Maarten Vanden Eynde: 
The research periods and residencies are part of working as an artist. Making work and showing that work, and together with other works, whether it's in an exhibition or an artist talk, it's all part of the communicative aspect of art making, which is part of the research as well. So, it's a kind of a continuous loop that feeds in one episode after the other. So that's why within On-Trade-Off, and I would say within our individual practices as well, it is something that is interconnected that one thing follows the next. It is not so clearly divided between a research stage, a production stage and then a presentation stage. They all somehow merge into each other and feed into a kind of a thought process that continues. 
 
Jean Katambayi Mukendi: 
The meeting point of all our practices [within On-Trade-Off] is artistic research into the societal implications of extraction of raw materials. We bring different methods and approaches that build a body of work and can reach people in different ways.  
 
What do you feel are the key questions driving the research of On-Trade-Off?  
 
Maarten Vanden Eynde: 
One of the difficulties that we encountered, and it's a bit of a catch 22, is that we use a lot of digital technologies to talk about problems relating to digital technologies. We were working on a proposal for the Belgian pavilion in Venice in 2020, and the only way to work on it together, because there's also a participant in Australia, was to use these digital technologies and zooming and emailing and whatnot, to work together to talk about the issue. On the one hand, it's a little bit perverse, but on the other hand, it's also not necessarily something you need to throw out. It's not the technology in itself, that is bad. It's the way that it is being used or built or how it is made possible in an unequal and socially unjust way. And it's the same with a lot of technologies or materials in that way. It's not per se the technology or the material that is bad, but it's the way it is being implemented and distributed and so on.  
 
That's one of the key issues, but another one that Jean already mentioned briefly is also this absurd outcome in the DRC of having an abundance of raw materials that are necessary to make this technology but on the other hand, the realities of extremely limited presence or infrastructure that they enable elsewhere — not only of the internet, but even electricity. It's one of the most bizarrely expensive things. A copper wire extension cable in Congo costs easily four times as much as what we're used to in Europe, but the copper is coming from the DRC. So how is that possible? These are all touching upon big geopolitical issues that we won't be able to solve but that we definitely have to deal with within our project. 
 
Jean Katambayi Mukendi: 
This is the dichotomy. We are ourselves in some kind of trap to try to resolve something, but we have to draw attention to these issues. Our goal is to make issues visible and communicate them through our work. As artists we have a responsibility to do the research and draw attention to the problems.  
 
Maarten Vanden Eynde: 
We're not politicians, and we're not necessarily activists either. Although sometimes we are. 
 
Jean Katambayi Mukendi: 
Sometimes it is necessary for us. In our own process, we are invested in showing the problems to society so that policymakers could solve them.  
 
The question of how do you not trap yourself with the tools that you have to hand is a key one for cultural organisations and artists. This is also a complexity presented by funding opportunities which often ask; what can an artwork or a project can do? What can it solve or what intervention can it make?  
 
But as you’ve both alluded to, the ultimate long-term intention of artistic research that responds to urgent issues is its ability to grow wider critical awareness through working consistently with a research question or an issue and growing a community of co-thinkers in this. It shares a methodology with activism and movement-building, with the intention that growing critical consciousness might mobilise a wider cultural shift that policymakers and people who are able to make systemic and structural changes can't ignore.  
 
Maarten Vanden Eynde: 
In that sense, a very critical and pertinent question can be the best answer to give. And it's something that this freedom you have as an artist, rather than as a policymaker, or businessman, or an an inventor, where it's very much answer-oriented, solution-oriented. But sometimes the question is the best answer, if it's a good critical and mind-opening one.