‘Salt of the World’
The various projects of the London-based Franco-German trio Troika – formed in 2003 by Eva Rucki, Conny Freyer and Sebastien Noel – often focus on how the ‘real’ is giving way to the ‘digital’, and the consequences. Recently, though, they have set new work into a wider, additional, narrative that forms part of their ongoing project ‘Untertage’ – meaning ‘below the earth’, or literally, ‘under the day’. That mixes the metaphorical and the literal in an original way, telling the past and future of the world as a story of salt. ‘What if you started thinking of Salt in terms of its own entity’, they ask, ‘gradually using humans to raise it out of earth, take shape, then acquire consciousness to finally come to dominate the planet and populate it with its own kind?’
First off, this sounds implausible. Yet, as Troika explain, the first tool – flint – is a silicate, which is within a broad definition of salt. The first mines came from digging down to find better flint, so humanity’s initial major excavation of the earth was for salt. Moreover, they point out, all metals are stages of salt. The first cities, the first fertilisation of the land, the payment of salaries in early capitalism – all salt. The cubes that form naturally in many crystals can be read as the start of geometry, rational thinking, order, orientation, progress … And more recently, photography as well as transistors and computing are salt-based. ‘Could we retell the story of mankind from the perspective of a mineral?’ Troika asked themselves. ‘Initially it sounds very arbitrary, but as we researched we found more and more things that fitted, understanding salt as an underground mineral with alchemical essence …’
That doesn’t amount to a scientific proof, but it is enough to arrive at many fascinating stories of how a non-anthropocentric and non-organic material might yet be conscious and central not just to the past, but to a possible future in which the human, animal and vegetable may have had their time. That way of looking at things counters the anthropocentric belief that Man is different from all other organisms, alone possesses intrinsic value, and is under the ‘illusion’ that humans hold unlimited power over the social and natural order of things. Choosing an inorganic substance as the central protagonist of the story is a particularly radical way to change that conventional order, and generate an alternative reading of our past, present and future. In Troika’s words: ‘Salt becomes an element of human and natural extinction while also being responsible for creating an era based on non-organic intelligence and synthetic biology.’ So it is that 3.5 million years of technological development are condensed in the sculpture Evolutionary Composite, which places flint biface, knapped by experimental archaeologist Dr James Dilley, on a silicon wafer.
Troika first focused on salt several years ago, when thinking about the possibility of making a salt waterfall. ‘The earliest photograph known of a waterfall from 1870’s was our starting point’, they explain, ‘from when it first became possible to transport the huge cameras of the time into nature. The blurriness in that image is caused by the necessity for a long exposure. But if you type ‘waterfall’ into Google, you’ll find the majority of images are still blurry – even though long exposure is no longer required – because that has become the idealised vision of the waterfall.’ Indeed, you can readily find photography tips along the lines that ‘a fast shutter speed, such as 1/320 second, freezes water’s motion, often giving an unnatural look’. Yet, say Troika, ‘when you’re actually there, waterfalls are more about seeing the mass and hearing the noise – they are so loud and mighty.’ They hit upon salt as the means to create something fluid that can look like that idealised image of water in a way that water, paradoxically, would not.
As installed in Troika’s show ‘No Sound of Water’ at Arte Arbierto in Mexico City, the visual spectacle is enhanced by an effect they had not anticipated: how salt reflects the changing colours in the film component of the exhibition. Those reflected colours are from Terminal Beach, a four-minute loop of a weirdly furry robot chopping down the last tree in the world. It’s a computer animation made by motion capture using an axe equipped with sensors, but convincing enough that several people have asked Troika where it was recorded. The film starts with a cinematic tracking shot, then switches to a drone view circling above, on to the robot’s view and finally the perspective of the tree, nicely encapsulating the range of subjectivities available and questioning which one might be ‘correct’.
The message seems straightforward: the long march of technology is destroying the world that it controls, taking us to a future in which conscious carbon-based beings have had their time and the machines have taken over even the quality of being cuddly. Yet matters are not so simple: the robot doesn’t actually make any progress in felling the tree – we seem to see just the initial stroke of the axe on repeat. So perhaps there is still time for matters to turn out differently. As Troika say: ‘It never gets anywhere – which is important so there is no conclusion.’ Nor is what you hear quite what you might think: the soundtrack suggests a jungle, but is actually a collage of space weather – lightning strikes, solar winds, and geomagnetic storms – as recorded by the British Antarctic Survey at its Halley Research Station on the Brunt Ice Shelf. Are we listening to matters of reassuring permanence or to the earth reasserting its primordial primacy?
‘Untertage’ also includes a series of works titled Irma Watched Over by Machines. They are paintings of palm trees thrashing around in hurricanes. The title conjoins Hurricane Irma, a lethal presence in the Caribbean in 2017, and a 1967 poem by Richard Brautigan. The poem, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, takes a utopian view of the technological future: ‘I like to think (and / the sooner the better!) / of a cybernetic meadow / where mammals and computers / live together in mutually / programming harmony …’ Evidently Troika’s paintings suggest a different outcome, and they do so with a pixelated effect that’s rather oddly coloured. Why so? They explain that they have developed a colour scale that aims to represent how a machine would see, which means translating red, green and blue light into colour pigments.
That didn’t turn out to be easy, as ‘with light, if you vary the intensity, you have a different colour, but with a physical pigment it is harder, for example most greens tend naturally towards the red of the blue – pure computer green is hard to replicate. There is no readily available colour chart to translate digital to pigment colours’. The conservation of paintings turned out to be the discipline that had looked at this. Such conservation is increasingly digitised, relying for speed and reduced cost on RGB sensors rather than a skilled human eye, making it one of the many areas in which the digital has invaded and deskilled the physical. Conservators need the full circle – they have a patch of paint to restore, they will scan to find the colour, analyse that to assess the mix, then use those measurements to locate what they need. The computers use 256 shades each of red, green and blue. Many of those 768 shades aren’t easily distinguished from each other by the human eye, but Troika downsized it to 16 reds, 16 greens and 16 blues. That leads to a repetitive-come-meditative process: ‘we have our recipes and numbers and a microscale to measure the pigments, then the application with syringes.’
As for the subject, ‘considering the disastrous path humanity has chosen to follow over the last hundreds of years, we could well imagine that the birth of a fully conscious AI being will be marked by images of vast destruction, hurricanes, floods, and other environmental catastrophes’. In view of that, Troika take relevant raw footage from surveillance cameras via online portals. As they explain, ‘those images are coded in red, blue and green with a Bayer filter. It’s often stored in the raw format – that data from which the colours are calculated. We’re imagining that the catastrophe we’re seeing in a piecemeal way is seen by 250 million eyes – that’s how many cameras are on 24/7 in the world – that can bring all the evidence together.’
What’s nice though, say Troika, ‘is how you slow down the time of the computer, and once you step back from the closeness of the making process, those combinations then create an array of different colours. For example in our paintings of fires resulting from a hurricane, the orange tones come out. You start to understand how new colours will emerge.’ That has parallels with those photo-realists who gridded the image to be reproduced, and the colour discoveries echo how pointillism or divisionism operate, so there is a nod to art history here. The actual effect varies with the lighting: full frontal illumination leads them to look like a computer screen, whereas lighting from above accentuates the texture of the paintings. Either way, they accrue an allure which belies the idea that they show how the accumulation of so many cameras could one day show the end of the world – or might, indeed, predict it now from the humanly incomprehensible volume of data available to them.
As that indicates, the role of salt is not benign. To quote Eva Wilson in the text for Troika’s show in Mexico: ‘Steeped in dysphoric anxiety about a not-too-distant future in which our planet has become unliveable, this paranoid alternate reading casts its protagonist into the role of a genocidal and ecocidal mastermind, the creator of a new geological epoch of anorganic intelligence and synthetic biology once all organic life has ceased to exist. After having coerced humanity into mining and refining it, developing flint into arrows and quartz into microprocessors, salt brings about a new age of silicate-based ‘life’.’
Troika’s series, Solid State Fiction, derives from chemical gardens. Troika like to quote a 17th century scientist: ‘Dissolve some iron or copper in spirit of salt or oyl of vitriol, draw off the flegm, in which distillation none of the acid spirit will come over’, and these salt trees, chemical shrubs, and crystalline mushrooms will ‘shoot up and grow swiftly, so as the eye might perceive it grow’ (Johann Rudolph Glauber, Furni Novi Philosophici, 1646). They are interested in how these chemical gardens – another salt, of course – ‘hark back to alchemy’ and how ‘even though they are dead (or were never alive) they show patterns of life.’ It may even be that the origins of life lie in such reactions: they mention that biochemists in Cambridge have studied chemical gardens to understand morphogenesis – how we take our form as living beings.
Solid State Fiction is presented as photographs of tanks in Troika’s East London studio, made as they learned how to grow things, compose with the chemicals, and use fluids of different densities. Like the waterfall, the project has had a genesis of some years: ‘To start with they looked like photos of underwater gardens, but we wanted to be able to find a different, landscape-aesthetic, with an impression of depth, and to lose the sense of scale.’ The eventual results epitomise the way photographic images are influenced by the means used to produce them. That’s similar to how modern phone cameras have algorithms enabling them to take lots of images at different depths, recomposing the final image to combine and choose the best, and can operate similarly with respect to lighting, reducing contrasts by combining different exposures for different parts of the picture. Just so, they merged photographs to achieve ‘a depth of field which loses the original sense of scale’ – the crystal growths are very small – and allows them to be printed convincingly at three metres wide.
Whether or not salt – in the form of machines or otherwise – takes over our world, Troika have given us an imaginative and compelling set of stories through which to ponder our interface between the ‘digital’ and the ‘real’ in the context of our past and our possible futures.
Paul Carey-Kent, ‘Salt of the World’, Seisma Magazine, 8 April 2022
‘No Sound of Water’, Arte Abierto, Mexico City, 12 November, 2021 – 15 May, 2022