ingot project documenta 14 (background)

In a world of elaborate material trajectories, producing an ingot of recycled metal marks a complex transformation. In the seconds it takes for molten copper or iron to solidify in an ingot mold, diverse histories of material origin, valuation, production, obsolescence,  labor, and scavenging converge and commingle.

Ingot production, based on matter extracted from the entanglements of the waste stream, is one of a broad range of interim steps related to material reuse. Closing the loop, in the parlance of recycling, involves sequences of accumulation, cleaning, reshaping, etc., that allow each reconditioned material to fit neatly back into economic networks, manufacturing processes, and contemporary material flows. 

The compact form and modular efficiencies of an ingot align with the those of the crate, pallet, truck, railroad car, and ultimately with the efficiencies of mega ships that push enormous volumes of containerized cargo around the world. Ingots produced today are analogous to bronze-age copper ingots shipped around the Mediterranean in the 12 century (BCE) but are additionally energized by vast economies of scale, instantaneous pricing reports, and globally interlinked commodity exchanges.

copper ox-hide ingot 12th century BCE 
Athens Archeo. Museum

Beached ships in Bangladesh are mined for steel, iron, and bronze; abandoned houses in Chicago and Athens are scoured for copper pipe and wire. Every factory, recycling yard, landfill, neighborhood alleyway, submarine, automobile, computer, cell phone and bullet casing–virtually everything at every point in our spectacular processes of production and consumption–is increasingly scrutinized for available matter that can be shunted into recycling networks.

Clothing bales Kassel, German
Sorted, compressed, shredded, reshaped, and recast materials work their way up the scale of waste-to-resource. Each material stream has its own ideal form for transit, storage, handling, and access to next-stage processing. Cardboard and clothing is compressed into dense bales; sheet metal is shredded or pressed into blocks; glass is crushed; plastic is granulated. The efficiencies derived from these steps (themselves a form of “ingotting”) ensure access to higher markets. 

Athens compactor from dp on Vimeo.

This upward commodity mobility interconnects diverse economic networks. Local recyclers, and other material collection enterprises, bridge informal and regulated economies. It is not difficult, for example, to find simple compacting machines that function with material from a cash-only informal economy going in one side, and the same material–metamorphosed into modular units of trade at home in the global economy–coming out the other. Cast metal ingots, similarly, embody this kind of radical economic transformation. A snarl of old wire becomes a sought after commodity in the time it takes to pour a glass of water.

Athens landfill–end of day from dp on Vimeo.

Social and labor histories are deeply entangled in these machinations of the scavenging and recycling industry. The efficiencies of global shipping, while energizing an international flow of goods and resources, simultaneously lure flows of waste materials. Side-streams of problematic or hazardous materials, are easily “containerized” and dispatched to less regulated destinations in the world. There are human consequences at every step. Each material stream is attended to by its labor force, sometimes fairly compensated and well-managed, but frequently poorly compensated, with work occurring in improvised, unstable, and sometimes overtly unsafe conditions. Unregistered workers occupy the fringes of the scavenging industry in virtually all urban zones and make-shift communities are tethered to landfills and dumpsites worldwide. In more extreme conditions of upheaval–when disaster strikes or the rule of law breaks down–scavenging becomes the dominant economy: take what you can as you leave; scour the abandoned territory for whatever was left behind by others; and seek, in your condition of homelessness, anything of value.

Market value of metal ingots is based on continually adjusted “spot” prices–the price at which an asset is bought or sold for immediate payment or delivery–but the concept of value has other dimensions. Ingots are signifiers of value. A small accumulation of ingots, regardless of metal type or spot price, signifies wealth. Holding a copper ingot or even an iron one–both metals classified as non-precious–easily evokes the thought of gold or treasure. Gold and silver ingots fulfill dual roles as metal reserves and forms of currency. They are primary hedges against economic calamity; the world’s default currency in times of extreme crisis. The US Gold Standard backed dollars fully with gold ingot reserves until 1933 and the US treasury still guards its gold today.

Ingots carry meaning in other ways as well, that are linked to an intuitive sense of what metals are and how our tools of perception receive them. Few material objects resonate in the hand like an ingot of metal (if it is small enough to hold). The weight of an ingot, is mysteriously convincing of inherent qualities within; the epitome of density. Feeling something in the hand to be heavier than expected is quietly impressive. And few objects activate–with such fundamental clarity–a questioning of:  where did this come from?  what can be made from it?  and what is it worth?

Iron ingots, Duisberg Germany
The simple modular design of an ingot can be either crude or highly engineered, but it exists in a world seemingly beyond design question. It is an exclusive integration of the efficiencies of its own making and the pragmatic requirements of its primary assigned task, namely: awaiting further processing. In this odd manner of being, an ingot is not quite a thing itself; it slips into a slightly more fundamental category of objectness.  A category of in-between things; in-between things that were, and things that will be. This is how the copper ingot in the National Archeological Museum of Athens appears amidst the Bronze-age things that surround it. And this is how an iron ingot tumbling off the conveyor line in a contemporary German factory appears in the world of super-abundant things that surround it.  An enigmatic object of transformation, carrying both past and future.

Lastly, no matter how a single ingot feels or looks; no matter its specific weight, composition, or value, no matter whether it is stockpiled like money in the bank, or en route to further processing, an ingot doesn’t exist as a singular object. It is part of a continuum–a fluid totality–with loosely defined margins. The ingot is shaped not so much by the specific mold that metal flowed into, as by the diverse life cycle of the material itself, its economic drift, and the spiraling, interconnected networks of production, use, and scavenging that propel it.

dp 2017 

German steel compactor from dp on Vimeo.

iron ingot casting/conveyor, Duisberg, Germany