This project is part of the Geomediations Collective initiative. In each of the seven found footage films in this series of Metallurgy, Media, Minds I follow one of the seven ancient metals that were known of an d used in alchemy. This project departed from the idea put forward by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus that “everything matter consists of metal” or, metal is in everything. In a new materialist perspective, the materiality of matte also implies its metaphoric and immaterial properties, which directly relate back to alchemy. I became interested in the idea of filmmakers as metallurgists that shape, bend, weld and transform our historical and collective consciousness. As an experiment I started out by looking at gold in both its material properties and its significance in human history. The first film in this series (when I was honing my editing skills, as I still am), was Following the Gold. Obviously many more metals could be followed, especially in the context of our modern media world where every machine, every screen, every gadget is full of (rare) earth metals. But the idea of returning to the old alchemical planets gave the project a clear scope.
Mercury is heavy, dark and full of secrets, hiding many faces. Where tin is a very friendly and light metal, that seems to sympathize with humanity, absorbing its sorrows and pains, wanting to become human from the outside, mercury’s spirit penetrates more deeply into the body and soul of everything it touches, operating as the great transformer. It is for this reason that mercury plays such an important role in alchemy, a dimension that I have tried to honor in this compilation. Mercury can designate (Egyptian) Toth, (Greek) Hermes or (Roman) Mercury, the messenger of the ancient mythological Gods; it is also the name of the planet closest to the sun (and hence considered as messenger of the sun); and it is the name of the silvery liquid metal mercury (Hg), also known as quicksilver. Mercury is obtained from an orange rock cinnabar, which turns into an orange-red powder when grounded and which releases liquid mercury when heated. What is very special is that when mercury is synthesized again with sulpher, an artificial red powder, called vermillion, re-appears. Natural cinnabar and artificial vermillion have been known since ancient times for their use as pigment, mercury has been and still is used as a “magnet for gold” in gold mining. However, mercury is very poisonous; it attacks the nervous system (and many other bodily functions) directly, and makes you go insane.
Lead is a heavy but pliable metal with the symbol Pb (from the Latin ‘plumbum’ of ‘plomb’ in French). It is easily extracted from its ore, abundantly present in the Solar System and on earth it is found mainly combined with the mineral galena (Pbs), with zinc ores. The largest lead deposits are located in Australia, China, Ireland, Mexico, Peru, Portugal, Russia and the United States. In the US the Missouri lead belt is most significant, and I start this compilation with some historic footage of this mining that for many years has been providing lead for among others acid-lead batteries in our cars, which is still a significant use of lead. Since the 1920s lead was also added to petrol to make the engine of our cars run better, but since the 1970s this is largely contested and abandoned because of the lead pollution this caused in the air. But the use of lead is known since 6.000 BC. The Egyptians used it for facial make-up, in ancient China lead coins and pennies were used as currency, but most well-known for their use of lead were the Romans who used it massively for the piping of their water systems and used it to sweeten their wine. Some even argue that the downfall of the Roman Empire has partly been due to lead poisoning which deranged the Romans, who did not yet know of the poisonous qualities of lead. On the other hand, lead is known for its protection against radiation, even in heavily contaminated areas such as Chernobyl.
Tin is a friend, says Primo Levi in his Periodical Table. Because it melts at low temperature, almost like organic materials, that is ‘almost like us’. Moreover tin can scream (the weeping or crying of tin) and it can succumb to ‘tin pest’ (when it transforms into brittle grey matter). Perhaps it is also because of this ‘closeness to us’ that we find tin in Hans Christian Andersons “The Brave Tin Soldier” and in Frank Baums “tin man” in The Wizard of Oz; the tin soldier is hopelessly in love with a paper ballerina, and the tin man longs for a heart, so that he can really be human. In this compilation I follow tin, starting with its cry and transformation into grey tin, and also the tin soldiers, toys and robots play an important role. Tin is often found in alloys, with copper to form bronze, or pewter. Or with lead, in soldering, which is a main application of tin.
I never expected iron to be such a moving metal. Primo Levi’s “iron” story in his beautiful book The Periodic Table (first published in 1975 and in 2016 transformed into a gripping radio play by BBC radio 4) first made me reconsider iron. Therefore I start Follow the Iron with a homage to Levi who recalls his how his fellow chemistry student and friend Sandro who discovers “iron” as one of the substances of a powder they have been given to analyze: Habemus ferrum. (A later image from a chemistry lab in a documentary on British Steel works also is meant to evokes Levi at work as a chemist). Sandro speaks with a Piedmontese accent, is generous, brave and seems to be made of iron. He took Primo Levi into the mountains, leading him consciously into challenging encounters with the four elements. Levi is certain it helped him later on to survive under the bitter circumstances in the camps. It didn’t help Sandro: Sandro Delmastro, was killed fighting in the resistance in 1944. Levi’s iron memory is devastating.
Contrary to gold, copper is not a metal with fetishistic surplus value. It was much harder to find any fiction films that centered around copper. Copper does not seem to drive us as crazy as gold, nor as cool and futuristic as silver. One of the rare feature films with an important role for copper is Clio Barnard's remarkable drama The Selfish Giant (2013), about a young working class boy in Bradford, England, getting involved in copper theft. And yet copper is a metal that is actually extremely important for us in our daily life. Therefore most of the clips in this compilation are from non-fiction sources. In the western world each person on average is connected to 175 kilogram of copper (in terms of wires, cables, plumbing pipes and electronic devices). We need copper to get fresh tap water, to receive electricity, to communicate across the oceans, to travel by boat, by train and increasingly also by plane (in alloys with aluminum). We need copper to use our cell phones and computers. In fact we need copper to live, our bodies contain copper (female bodies having on average more copper than male bodies, whose bodies contain on average more iron). Also green plants, certain nuts and fruits and sea creatures contain copper. So copper is everywhere.