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.
In only 2,5 minutes I follow silver from the mines into its transformation in monetary coins. On all continents silver is an old basis for monetary value; in many languages the word silver is synonymous for money: “l’argent” in French, “plata” in Spanish, “rupee” in India. Silver was also connected to luxury objects (in spite of its reputation of being ‘the poor men’s gold’). In this video assemblage I have only included flashes of references to the luxury of silver in objects from Europe, China and India. Most silver is found in Peru and Mexico, but most consumption of silver is in India; in 2015 one third of the world consumption of silver was in India.
Silver has anti-septic and anti-bacterial qualities of silver that allows medical appropriations in for instance surgical instruments, which is alluded to by a reference to the television series The Knick where a black doctor in NYC around 1900 introduces silver in the operation room. Probably the purity of silver also explains its legendary power to kill vampires, represented here by Nosferatu. Of course silver’s reflecting qualities have been at the basis for the invention of photography and film. Even in the digital age, silver is still important, not only as conducting material in many camera’s, phones and computers. But also in digital silver printings, in digital touch screens, and in the return of the silver screen for 3D projection.
In the middle of this remix of Follow the Silver, Andy Warhol addresses silver as the metal of the past and the future. Looking back at the Hollywood stars (Katharine Hepburn as silver moth in Christopher Strong, by Dorothy Arzner in 1933!) from the midst of the Space Age, he reflects on all this shiny silver from his Silver factory. But of course silver has also been a main ingredient in making mirrors, and so silver is also connected to narcissism. Warhol’s Screen Tests have transformed in the countless 15 minutes (or seconds) of fame in our selfies culture. And in the transmutations that the fashion industry provokes as exemplified by some silver metallic references to this aspect of contemporary culture. Finally, silver is the metal of the moon, which is where both Bjork and the NASA take us to in the last seconds of this trajectory to follow silver. Silver is hard to grasp. It remains mysterious. More is hidden.
This audio-visual essay is an explorative study and is part of a research project on the idea of ‘filmmakers as metallurgists’ that bend and shape our collective consciousness by mining the archives of our audio-visual past. Filmmakers, however, are not just smiths of sorts in a metaphoric way. This compilation follows ‘a nugget of gold’ from the mine across its metallurgic transformations into objects, images and stories that have constructed (and still construct) our world. Gold can be considered an ancient and primal metal, it has an allure that speaks to deep desires in humankind, ranging from freedom to greed. Too soft and malleable for weapons, it has been used in art and jewelry since ages; it has inspired many stories of gold rushes, fights and wars; it is connected to the idea of the nation state (including Hitler’s hunt for gold in every country he invaded); it is the basis of market speculations and the suspicion of an empty ‘Fort Knox’; and it is connected to the idea of urban mining (re-transforming the gold conductors in our computers and cell phones back into gold); as such gold is also related to the first transformers of metal, the alchemists, who not only transform base metals into gold, but also and especially were looking for a pure and spiritual transformation and the eternal return of life and death. In the larger project other metals will be followed, metals that connect to different aspects of our media as metallic machines, in connection to the different stories of our collective consciousness that they inspire. The project subscribes to a material ecological approach of our digital media culture that is inspired by Felix Guattari’s ‘three ecologies’ (the environmental, the socio-political, and the mental). Here's my article on Deleuze's Metallurgic Machines for the Los Angeles Book Review. And a related article The Filmmaker as Metallurgist in Film-Philosophy.
An Indefinite Corpse Experiment in Digital Alchemy
Emerald Transmutations is an experiment in digital alchemy inspired by the surrealist parlour game Exquisite Corpse and by the Emerald Tablets, the foundational hermetic text in Western alchemy. Starting with the “prima materia” of two scenes from celluloid film history, each transmuted scene was passed along between seven “digital alchemists” who each performed a process of transmutation on the material in an attempt to turn base metal into gold and to find “the philosopher’s stone." Each participant was only given the previous stage of the transmutation, together with a description of the next stage in the alchemical process, and asked to transform (and add to) the material according to their own insights. The final video presents the transformations in the order in which they have been applied, gradually processing the outer limits of indefinite vision (and eternal revision).
I made this compilation for an evening on Helmut Newton's relation to surrealims and feminine desire organized by FOAM, photography museum Amsterdam in June 2016. The evening also included talks by Catriona McAra (writer of Sadeian Woman: Erotic Violence in Surrealist Spectacle), Marijke Peyser (guest curator Boijmans van Beuningen) and Matthias Harder (curator Helmut Newton Foundation).