Materializing the Archive
For the MEMORIAL MATTER project, I am working with Laura Fong Prosper and collaborators with a 16mm film archive from the Cold War era and the notion of progress through industrialization, mining, and automation through machines that emerge from the moving images. The footage is from the Eastern Bloc and reflects big parts of my childhood imprint and visual memory. Much of the imagery feels familiar to me, even though I never visited most of the places myself.
For the realization of the project, I moved to the E-Werk Luckenwalde for a two-month residency. Located 50 km south of Berlin in Brandenburg, this place with its abandoned buildings and faded facades is also strangely familiar to me. I feel nostalgically at home in these places. The E-Werk looks just like the factories and plants from the film archive we work with. It feels like I’m living inside the archive itself.
My work in these two months also seems to arise directly from the archive. The images of factories and mines materialize again in post-industrial Luckenwalde, a former industrial site of the GDR. I trained a StyleGAN neural network with stills of the film archive. After a few weeks of training, the artificial intelligence generated new images through a statistical process based on matching similarities between images. I interpret these artificial creations as the poetic condensate of our collective memory within the (post)Industrial age.
From these images I make voluminous models which I then 3D print into sculptures out of ash, a waste product of the energy production of the E-Werk, but also in a metaphorical sense the waste product of the society I was born into. Every day after sifting and mixing the ash, I look in the mirror and see the soot-smeared coal miner from the film archive; for a short time I put myself in his skin.
In the Gewerbehof in the center of Luckenwalde (a branch of the FH Potsdam and the TH Wildau), I work daily in the Makerspace with a 3D printer that is actually designed for clay. In its 5-liter tank, I fill a specially created recipe of xanthan gum and ash from the power plant, which I call ashthan. The former coal-fired power plant was converted to pyrolysis by Pablo Wendel and many helpers. Through the processing and combustion of the wood, two different types of ash are created, one is grayish and the other is jet black glitter.
First, I have to sift the ash at least twice so that the nozzle of the printer doesn’t get clogged by too large particles. The jet-black charcoal ash is so fine that it has hardly any weight and evaporates immediately. It stains everything in its path and passes through the smallest gaps in masks and clothing. Filtering and mixing the mixture is the hardest part of my job. I’ve been given a special room in the Makerspace for this, because otherwise I would pollute everything with ash dust. In between, I built a sluice made of cardboard boxes where I change my shoes. Every evening I scrub my skin with soap to get the traces off my skin and scrape jet-black boogers out of my nose. My hands are sore from long kneading and constant contact with the highly alkaline mixture (although I usually wear gloves). The blender I bought for this broke after a day from the slush.
Afterwards I fill the tank, press the lid in by using my entire body weight, and hang the whole thing on the printer. As soon as I put pressure on it, I have to monitor it constantly and readjust the pressure and flow.
When kneaded well, the ashtan (ash + xanthan) – a recipe that we elaborated together with collegue and teacher Angel Salazar as well as with collaborator Lucía Tieff – is fluffy, but hardens relatively quickly. The pressure shouldn´t be set as high as with clay, because otherwise the mass hardens to a kind of car tire. On the other hand it needs enough pressure to extrude. I have had to throw away several full tankfuls because I set the pressure too high.
The residency at E-Werk motivated me to solve as many production steps as possible on site. I wanted to buy as little new as possible, recycle and reuse everything I could. I had great support from the E-Werk team in this and was actually able to produce a lot in a cheap and sustainable way. In other places, I unnecessarily complicated processes and perhaps even produced more waste that way.
For example, to make bioplastics, you need conventional plastic. By the time I finally found the right substrate to cast them on, I had already wasted quite a few resources. Their production is very complex and depends on many factors, such as climate and substrate materials. Together with Lucía Tieff, developed the recipe, which is based on potato starch and vinegar, and adapted it for the large format. We had to throw away the first casting we did, because it rained for days and mold settled on the potato starch mixture.
Packing, but especially transport, are also difficult issues. I had to borrow a car, first because the regional train to Luckenwalde was not running, then because of the transport of the fragile sculptures from the Makerspace to the E-Werk. Unfortunately, the German railroad is too unreliable. In the end, I had to take the car to Berlin more often than I would have liked, even though I only wanted to use it for transport within Luckenwalde.
Fellowers duo Tin Wilke and Laura Fong Prosper’s current artistic work combines analog 16-millimeter film footage from the Cold War era, neural networks, recycled textiles and bio-plastics.