Material Agency: Minerals make Timișoara
Santiago Reyes Villaveces
The notion that materials themselves may possess intentions and influences challenges the anthropocentric perspective, urging the contemplation of alternative outcomes and realities. Santiago Reyes Villaveces’s installation ‘Anonymous Materials’, a part of the Turn Signals—Design is not a Dashboard exhibition, comprises an evocative collection of objects, mineral specimens, and geological data. It encourages pondering how Timișoara’s industrial processes and everyday existence are moulded by its materials.
This project emerged from a collaboration with the Politehnica University of Timișoara, which houses a mineral collection. Specific rocks were meticulously chosen through discussions with Professor Jurca Marius, using data from the Geological Institute of Romania. During a three-week immersive artistic residency in Timișoara, Reyes Villaveces engaged in a multi-layered experience with the city, where symbolic, historical, and daily life objects informed the project. He shares his visual diary and observations, weaving a poetic narrative that traces the origins of the project.
(1) “In that Empire, the Art of Cartography reached such Perfection that the Map of a single Province occupied an entire City, and the Map of the Empire, an entire Province. With Time, these Overly Detailed Maps no longer satisfied, and the Colleges of Cartographers raised a Map of the Empire, which had the Size of the Empire and exactly coincided with it. Less Addicted to the Study of Cartography, the Following Generations understood that this extended Map was Useless, and not without Impiety, they handed it over to the Inclemencies of the Sun and Winters. In the deserts of the West, there are Ruins of the Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; there is no other relic of the Geographic Disciplines throughout the Country.”
— ‘On Exactitude in Science’ by Jorge Luis Borges (1946), Collected Fictions (1999), translated by Andrew Hurley.
(2) One thing is the map of the territory, and another is the territory. It seems evident, but it isn’t.
(3) There are many kinds of maps, and each serves a distinct purpose.
(4) I departed at 5am. I was looking at the Magdalena River from the door of my studio in Colombia.
(5) Before getting into the car, I had a last glimpse of the river. I stood next to a crying rubber tree that I had cut to extract a drop of rubber that I would carry to Timișoara.
(6) I departed from El Dorado Airport in Bogota on July 24, 2023. I had recently received a Gold credit card from the bank, and I had accepted the bank’s offer as the card allowed me to access the VIP area of the airport.
(7) The rooms of the VIP area are dedicated to pre-Columbian gold pieces as a simulacrum of the Gold Museum in Bogotá. The room is filled with replicas of the pre-Columbian pieces that were saved from the colonisers who melted the gold pieces to make coins. The pre-Columbian gold pieces were forms of storing information; thousands of years of knowledge where melted to fund the European industrial revolution and the colonial projects.
(8) I opened my laptop. The browser is populated with multiple tabs containing information on the mineral composition of the Timișoara region. I have been tracing the mineral deposits related to the supply chains of the region. In a printed copy of the ‘Economy in Timișoara: Territorial Distribution of the Economy in the Timișoara Metropolitan Area’, I have highlighted all relevant information to mineral and extractive industries.
(9) The first tab is the website of Brad Gold Museum. Two gold museums in the same place. I’m nervous. A 30-hour trip awaits. The VIP area has an open bar. I take a double whisky on the rocks.
(10) I look at the departure screen, and I still have more than 2 hours. I decide to reread Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (2008) by Reza Negarestani. I have read and reread it for the Timișoara project. I have borrowed the title for my project. The project adopts the perspective of material agency, drawing inspiration from Negarestani’s concept, which emphasises that materials possess their desires, intentions, and capacities for action. In Cyclonopedia, which examines materiality through a unique fusion of philosophy, fiction, and horror, oil is depicted as an active and sentient force with profound influences on human history, politics, and culture. This notion challenges the traditional view of materials as passive objects and encourages exploration of the complex interactions between human and non-human entities. Material agency posits that materials possess desires, intentions, and capacities for action.
(11) I began reading the first page of Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials:
Turkish Airlines Flight 002
Sunday July 24, 2005
Drank 2 glasses of Sauvignon Blanc at JFK airport bar. Took a sleeping pill on the plane. I think I took a painkiller earlier in the day and a couple of Advils. The plane was delayed on the runway. In and out of consciousness — waiting, waiting, sleeping.”
— Negarestani (2008), Cyclonopedia, page 1
(12) As I saw the date I looked back at the departure screen. It is July 24, 2023, 18 years on the exact same day I’m about to board a plane. On the table are my Gold credit card and my boarding pass from El Dorado to Timișoara, next to the replicas of pre-Columbian gold pieces.
Everything is clear.
(13) I must go to the Gold Museum in Brad.
(14) As soon as I arrived in Timisoara, I went to the Faculty of Industrial Chemistry and Environmental Engineering at the Politehnica University of Timișoara. The name of the building was written in artificial moss painted in red and green, resembling a living organism.
(15) Professor Jurca Marius, who was waiting for me, opens the door of the room. The classroom is filled with rocks on shelves and in showcases. Each rock is labelled with the name of the mineral and the site where it was extracted.
(16) The room is a map made out of rocks. But it is not the territory. However, the territory is made out of these very same rocks.
(17) My laptop is dead. The lithium of the battery has lost its property to power it. I write all the names of the places where the rocks were taken from in my notebook. I’m starting to realise that I’m forgetting how to handwrite. I can barely understand written words.
(18) I shouldn’t have accepted the Gold credit card and its high fees; instead I should have bought a new laptop, I think.
(19) Prof. Jurca explains on the blackboard the chemical composition of the gypsum mineral, fundamental for the chemical industry’s production of plasterboards.
(20) He showed me an old magazine image of the Tethys Sea that occupied this territory 50 million years ago. “These minerals are the fossils of the sea, billions of seashells compacted by time make the gypsum.”
(21) I’m fascinated by the colours of the old magazine’s map of the Tethys Sea.
(22) I’m hungry. I have jet lag, haven’t slept properly, and eating times are confusing. I go to the local market, and the colours of the vegetables and fruits make me think of the map. The green of the pickles is the product of the combination of human labour, water, sun, and surely traces of the fossilised Tethys Sea. The market is not a map of the territory, but it brings me closer to it.
(23) I take from the market wooden boxes used to transport the fruits as a reminder of that cartographic scene.
(24) As part of my research residency in Timisoara, in Google Maps I craft a map of all the mineral deposits that I had written in my notebook. I take care to correlate the precise coordinates of these deposits with the extensive cartographic database maintained by the Geological Institute of Romania. This endeavour grants me an understanding of the intricate composition of these geological samples that Prof. Jurca has shown me. The Geological Institute’s map unfolds before me, a virtual tapestry of mineral layers, effectively serving as the definitive cartographic guide to the nation’s composition. To map is to assume control.
(25) After waiting for some days in Timisoara, we received clearance to visit the main copper mine in Romania. In geological terms, the mine is located in the most complex area of the country, known as the quadrilateral of gold — a geological rarity of unique mineral deposits. It’s the same area as Brad and its museum of gold.
(26) On the way to Roșia Poieni Mine, we passed by multiple mines. We were following the same path that I had traced on Google Maps.
(27) Upon our arrival at the mine’s entrance, an evocative tableau unfolded before my eyes — a simple table adorned with an assortment of rocks selected by miners. Probably in the middle of their daily activities, the shine of the pyrite caught their attention.
(28) This unique locale of reddish rocks full of copper held an unexpected revelation.
(29) The mine manager explained that the copper concentration here hovered at a mere 0.08%. Incredibly, despite this seemingly paltry figure, the mine churned out an astonishing 4,000 tons annually. At this concentration, the remaining 99.92% of the material proved unusable.
(30) The mine, in its relentless pursuit of copper, was reshaping the very contours of its own landscape — a territory yearning for its own map.
(31) The mining processing facility, an imposing structure resembling an apocalyptic futuristic spaceship, dwarfed human scale and significance.
(33) The process of grinding and separating the copper concentrate expelled a toxic smell that stayed in my skin for days.
(34) And the grey darkness of the plant overlapped the colourful image of the geological map of the Geological Institute of Romania.
(37) As we ventured further, I was confronted by a visceral sight — a colossal pit, a vast abyss where human activity unfolded on a scale that defied comprehension. It was as though I had inadvertently entered a theatre of horrors.
(38) Trucks the size of a building moved 200 tons of rock to obtain no more than 160 kilograms of copper.
(41) After we left the mine, our journey eventually brought us to the Gold Museum Brad. Within the museum’s hallowed halls, glass showcases gleamed with an abundance of gold, each precious nugget nestled among quartz in its natural form.
(42) The shapes and patterns of these pure gold specimens invoked memories of the pre-Columbian artistry I had encountered in the VIP area of El Dorado Airport.
(43) It was intriguing to observe that gold itself appeared to possess an innate inclination, selecting its own unique forms to bask in the radiance of the world’s gaze.
(44) A nearby family, seated within the museum’s embrace, appeared delighted by the allure of gold and its intrinsic value. Their hushed conversations revolved exclusively around the wealth represented by these gleaming treasures. In their eyes, gold held a dual role, both as a symbol and the embodiment of value itself.
(45) A moment of pure excitement ensued as the youngest member of the family, an exuberant child, implored his mother’s attention, pointing animatedly at a particularly shiny rock. “Mama, look at all this gold! Let’s take it,” he exclaimed in sheer delight. The father, captivated by the fervour of his eight-year-old son, eagerly joined in, their shared enthusiasm infectious. Yet, the mother, ever cautious, swiftly turned her attention to a nearby label that revealed the truth: “Pyrite, also known as fool’s gold.” The same that was on the table at the entrance of Roisa Poeini mine, is full of copper.
(46) Returning to the hotel, my pockets weighed heavily with collected rocks, tangible souvenirs affirming my presence in this fascinating landscape, serving as the building blocks for my personal cartographic endeavours.
(47) In my final week of exploration, I embarked on a visit to the Village Museum in Timișoara.
(48) This remarkable place unfolded as a vivid simulacrum of Romanian territory, a mesmerising tapestry of times and architectures. Yet, within this meticulously recreated landscape, I couldn’t help but ponder the absence of a Soviet-era apartment or a villa representing the Roma community.
(49) The Village Museum, while meticulously capturing the essence of houses, revealed a poignant truth — that a house, in its purest form, necessitates occupation. Without the heartbeat of life coursing through its walls, it remains a mere fiction, akin to the maps that seek to define the sprawling territories beyond.