It has been linked to conflicts, genocide, and countless cases of human rights abuse. Its supply chain is notoriously opaque, and invisible to its consumers who are now numberless, since coltan is a linchpin of our technology-driven era. The tantalum that coltan contains is a key component of the capacitors found in most electronic devices, from mobile phones to computers, drones and washing machines. Intrinsically linked to our every activity, the rare ore is one of the most controversial resources of our times.
In Multiplied Coltan (2016), the series presented in Joshua Citarella's debut exhibition at Carroll / Fletcher, coltan is ubiquitous. Its image spreads out in large photographic prints; piles of ore punctuate the gallery space. While generations of photographers have undermined the conceit of photographic truth, Citarella – who trained in photography – unpicks the digital image’s component parts in an attempt to dispose of the virtual immateriality myth. There's no such thing as bundles of ethereal pixels, tameable at the click of a mouse: a flow of information comes with a flow of material. Digital images demand metals, minerals, oils; mines and wells; hard cash and hard labour. Coltan is dug out of the depths it usually occupies, and with it an unpalatable truth of the contemporary condition.
At every turn, the Multiplied Coltan series flaunts the mechanisms of its own creation. The tension between object and photographic representation is further complicated here by the fact that coltan itself has been essential to the production process, from its computer conception to its printing on machines all crammed-full with tantalum capacitors. The dynamic goes from binary to triangular: from image-object, to image-object-component.
Made of superimposed planes, each piece clearly bears a Photoshopped image, although in this instance the usual viewpoint has been reversed. Instead of suggesting an eye looking at a monitor, Citarella invites viewers to contemplate the works’ layers as if from underneath, peering out from a computer core. The gaze is forced through a grey slab of coltan before it gives way to a screen's dazzling hues. And these colours are not incidental. They reference ‘LAB color space’, a colour model subtending all others, and whose gamut far exceeds what is perceptible to the human eye. Multiplied Coltan thus encapsulates the friction between the digital palette’s endless, seductive colours and coltan’s blunt materiality and finite supply.
Citarella’s series gestures towards long-standing artistic concerns and contemporary speculative theory. Coltan runs like blood through today's overlapping layers of computation – peer-to-peer networks, cyber surveillance, the Quantified Self – which have been described by Benjamin H. Bratton as forming a megastructure: what he calls the ‘Stack’. This planetary-scale computation, Bratton argues, is in the process of fundamentally challenging all aspects of human organisation, from private interactions to border-defined geopolitics. The implications are immense, and major corporations are already at work exploring them.
With Project Natick, Microsoft is looking into the viability of subsea data centres. Potentially located in international waters, these would service some of the 50 per cent of the world’s population who live near a coast. Human needs remain at the centre of the equation, for now. As artificial intelligence and automation continue their exponential development, it’s not much of a leap to imagine a reality in which humans have been superseded, and bots generate and analyse endless streams of data stored outside all traditional jurisdiction. That is, as long as they can also continue to squeeze tantalum out of the earth, or invent a way to do without.
Citarella takes stock of these possible developments. Yet he injects into his pieces something that seems like a nugget of hope for the human race. The faint hand drawing scratched onto the surfaces in Multiplied Coltan harks back to a very primal form of creation, cave carving, to lines associated with a primordial need to leave a trace on one’s surroundings. Crucially, these marks allude to a form of expression that predates our digital reality by millennia, anchoring this body of work within a history that started with the dawn of image making. The human trace becomes a form of resistance to the algorithm.
Joshua Citarella (b. 1987, New York, USA) graduated from the School of Visual Arts, New York in 2010 and currently lives and works in New York City. He has had solo shows at Higher Pictures, New York in 2015 and 2013. Selected group exhibitions include Planes, BFI, Miami, USA; Figure 8, Clifton Benevento, New York; 8 The Esplanade, Toronto, Canada;Mediated Images, Brand New Gallery, Milan, Italy (all 2015); Under Construction: New Positions in American Photography, Fotografiemuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands and Pioneer Works, New York (2014-15); Fool Disclosure, Last Resort Gallery, Copenhagen, Denmark (2014); Hot Rare Signed, HHDM, Vienna, Austria (2013); and Photography Is, Higher Pictures, New York (2012). He was curator of Dense Mesh at Carroll / Fletcher, London in April 2016.