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.
Here's a link to the panel on Compulsive Patterns during the Worlding the Brain conference. The panel consisted of contributions by Damiaan Denys, Patricia Pisters, Max van der Linden and Andrew Gaedtke. The first two presentations have been recorded. See also the other recorded panels and for more information the Worlding the Brain 2016 website.
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. Silver is imporant in solar panels and nanotechnology, which I have not yet included in this compilation. 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.