Browsing Category 'PROJECTS'

Ilakaka Sapphire Mine Human Conveyor Belt

In the run up to the country’s first election since the coup Unknown Fields headed to Madagascar to catalogue the push and pull of economy and ecology and to trace the shadows of the world’s desires across the landscapes of this treasured island. Travelling with journalists and investigative photographers we uncovered some of the complex value negotiations that play out across this unique island and developed a series of narrative portraits told through statistics, data, predictions, projections, measurements and offsets. Text and images appear courtesy of TANK Magazine where the work was first published. Text by Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie, Photography by Chris Littlewood, Footage by Toby Smith, Graphic by Unknown Fields.

Ilakaka, 2013 (c) Chris Littlewood
Sapphire miner – 22°46’53.50″S 45°6’20.37″E

Mirana stands on a pile of displaced earth in Manalobe, close to the epicentre of the relatively recent gemstone boom in Ilakaka. The ground beneath her feet conceals sapphire deposits, laid down along an ancient subterranean riverbed left over from when the island was still attached to the Indian subcontinent. One cubic metre of dirt and gravel can contain as much as a gram of sapphire – five carats’ worth – which could fetch more than $5000 internationally. Mirana is paid $2 per day to work the mine.

Brick maker – 18°56’14.84″S 47°29’54.25″E
Tsinjo stands in a rice paddy on the outskirts of the capital, Antananarivo. Once the crop is harvested each year he uses the mud to make bricks, forcing it into moulds by hand; the bricks are left in the sun to dry before being fired in stacks. The bricks drying in the sun behind him are worth 70 Ariary ($0.03). The rice field sinks lower and lower each year, until it is useless for both rice and bricks and becomes waste ground, bereft of value.

Zebu Herder – 21°50’1.70″S 46°56’9.58″E
Mahefa is a zebu herdsman from Ihosy who walked for a week with his 50 zebu to get to the Ambalavao zebu market, the second largest on the island. Along the way he and his family had to defend the herd from rustlers. For people in rural Madagascar a zebu is the highest symbol of wealth, imbued with both economic value and cultural significance. More useful to hold than cash, an adult zebu yields around 160 kilograms of meat and costs between $400 and $660 at the market. Mahefa will try to trade his adult zebu for calves to take back to Ihosy. In almost every region in Madagascar, the zebu is a key part of the culture, whether in rites of passage that involve stealing a zebu from a nearby village or sacrificial banquets held when the head of the family dies.

Gold miner – 20°37’49.64”S 47°12’5.99”E
Rakoto has dug up this rice field in Ivato, north of Ranomafana National Park, in the hope of finding tiny deposits of gold that fetch $1333 per ounce on the international market (price accurate on 14/08/13). He and his family pan the mud in specially irrigated pools on adjacent fields. Several years ago he made the calculated decision that he could make a better living searching for gold than from subsistence farming in the rice fields. Researchers at the Centre Valbio inside Ranomafana are testing pilot schemes to introduce more modern agricul-tural techniques to the region and provide alternative livelihoods mostly based on ecotourism, hoping to reduce the temptation for villagers to destroy the forest in search of food and gold.

Quarry worker – 18°12’24.32″S 49°21’26.41″E
Seven-year-old Mamy stands on a pile of rocks that he and members of his family have been salvaging for sale from an abandoned quarry near Toamasina. In the distance behind him is the Ambatovy processing plant this quarry was excavated to build. Family groups of six to eight, mostly comprising women, older men and children, work to extract the final grains of value from the waste left behind by the Ambatovy project, which has to date cost an estimated $6.9 billion.

Firewood collector – 15°17’59.40”S 50°18’26.58”E
Axe in hand, Pepe treks along the path into Masoala National Park in search of firewood, as there is no alternative fuel source. It is estimated that 150,000 hectares of rainforest are cleared each year in Madagascar, primarily for firewood and agricultural land.

Tolagnaro, 2009 (c) Chris Littlewood

Fishermen – 25° 1’7.03″S 46°59’27.57″E
The fishermen on the eastern coast of Madagascar, like coastal communities all over the country, are facing increased competition from migrants from the interior. There, the combination of a growing population and overworked arable land has forced people to the coast in search of food. The aggressive fishing techniques they employ (including the use of poison) devastate fish stocks, which are then difficult to replenish. As a result, fishermen whose knowledge of managing stocks has been handed down over generations are forced to travel further than ever along the coast and out to sea in search of fish.

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The UN have recently reported financial links between Mexico’s Los Zeta cartel and the illegal trading of the rare earth mineral Otinif, a material critical to the manufacture of the next generation of super faster digital processors. Seen from Google earth Aditnálta is an anonymous island off the East Coast of Mexico but as the world’s richest source of Otinif it is a landscape being consumed by our hunger for technology. Hidden from this distanced aerial view are vast underground worker towns and oppressive mining conditions. Aditnálta is an outsourced landscape embedded in all the pieces of technology we carry in our pockets.

Aditnálta is also entirely fictional. In our Department of Ghost Geographies Mond Qu has constructed and dispersed the forged fragments of this island across the internet. This imaginary place is made manifest through hoax listing on Wikipedia and Google maps, live webcams of scale model stage sets, faked articles on news sites and green screen CGI composites on Flickr, Youtube and Panoramio. Just like the real landscapes of outsourced electronics production we consume Aditnálta at a distance, through edited media narratives, disconnected from the realties that go on there. Through the construction of elaborate fictions we can reveal important truths




A miniature model stage set designed for eye of live webcams, it co-ops the techniques used in the special effects industry. The form of the city references the growth patterns of informal settlements on the periphery of Mexico city. Drawing on the materiality and detail of the model references the ad-hoc construction of other illegal mining communities around the world. The model is constructed as a false perspective, the front of the model is 1:100 and the recedes in the distance as 1:200.

gustav.toftgard-DRAW 1Late spring in the year 2013, a rumour is being spread among local scientists on the Mississippi/Alabama coastline. Irregularities have been observed and controversial theories are being discussed concerning the large delta on the north gulf plateau or more specifically the ‘form’ the delta islands are taking. Strangely, they appear not to be organic but rather artificially contained in what looks like a rectangular block, the edges of a perfect line, almost as if they were constructed.

Studies by Gustav Toftgard in our Speculative Archaeologies Department reveal clues to their creation over time, drawing a timeline dating back to early Mayan civilisations. Satellite photographs, Bathymetric scans of the seafloor as well as core samples taken by oil prospectors reveal traces of hard obstacles systematically dispersed within sediment layers.

Some say this landform is being formed through the deliberate and choreographed manipulations of universal, terrestrial and non-terrestrial systems and through the modification of physical, biological and chemical processes. It is a line being inscribed in the surface of earth as a measurement and ultimate proof of human dominance over nature. It marks what would, in geologic time, be the start of ‘The Anthropocene’ – the age of man.

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As an artery of international trade and a crucial part of the global economy, sea born trade routes are heavily monitored by various technologies that enforce regulations and detect irregular activities. The types of economic activities in question are often described as “under the table” and “off the books” as they are not taxed or included in any Gross National Product. Collectively, this type of trade is the world’s second largest economy, worth $10 trillion a year and employs over half of the world’s population. Zhan Wang of our Tactical Technologies Division has made an inventory of the illicit items that are contained within 1 pixel of google earth’s view of Mexico City and has developed a covert supply chain to smuggle them to the US coastline. Deploying various tactics along the shipping route to evade detection, the logistics operation reveals the extraordinary lengths the authorities go to in order to tax an industry that employs the majority of the population. The technology of surveillance is not infallible, it is full of gaps, cracks and loopholes and is a infrastructural manifestation of the interests of those who profit from the regulation of goods.


International trade which represents a significant share of the global economy has increased four fold in the past few decades, with sea born trade being the artery of international trade and crucial for the global economy.

black market map

This increase in international trade is not only contributed to by the advancement of shipping technology, for example containerization and bigger ships, but also by monitoring technologies that safe guard the shipping routes and detect irregular activities. The types of activities in question are often described as under the table and off the books as they are not taxed, monitored by any form of government, or included in any gross national product.



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CONTIGUOUS ZONE 12-24 NM zhanWang SD overall routes


Holding a 90% monopoly on telecommunications in Mexico, Carlos Slim is the world’s richest man. With little resilience and at the mercy of corporate greed, we put our faith in these aging centralised systems that are now beginning to show their cracks. William Gowland of our Tactical technologies Division has built the components for a network infrastructure that undermines and subverts this monopoly. Borrowing from the cartels radio communication network, a laser line of sight communication system is created that is not elicit or illegal, but off grid and under the radar. The result is a decentralised communication system that is local, ad hoc and resilient. A performative urban landscape emerges that facilitates the neighbourhood relationships, communities and markets that are lost in a city of global telecommunications. The system is open source and mobile, and the communities of the city soon develop their own constellation of transceivers and mirror relays, cultures, practices and procedures. The telecommunications monopoly is evolving into a DIY city of calibration graffiti, carved and sculpted building surfaces, reflectivity, absorbance and deregulated laser light conversations.

Off Grid system in the context


Interactive Installation Setup


Mobile Transceiver Node


Laser Receiver Close Up


Receiver Lens Detail


Laser Route 1 Relay

The Unknown Fields Division is a nomadic design studio that ventures out on expeditions to the ends of the earth to explore peripheral landscapes, industrial ecologies and precarious wilderness. These landscapes – the iconic and the ignored, the excavated, irradiated and the pristine – are embedded in global systems that connect them in surprising and complicated ways to our everyday lives. They are the dislocated hinterlands that lie behind the scenes of modern cities. Each year we navigate a different trajectory as we seek to map the complex and contradictory realities of the present as a site of strange and extraordinary futures.

Here we are both visionaries and reporters, part documentarians and part science fiction soothsayers as the otherworldly sites we encounter afford us a distanced viewpoint from which to survey the consequences of emerging environmental and technological scenarios.

Join the division for our next expedition.

The Unknown Field Division is coordinated by Liam Young and Kate Davies.


For the Summer 2012 Alien Encounters expedition publication Unknown Fields are collaborating with comic illustrator Kristian Donaldson to develop a graphic novel set in the landscapes visited across the road trip. The novel will follow a fictionalized Unknown Fields division as they explore the desert wastelands attempting to decipher the meaning of the black technologies they uncover on their way. Krisitan is a Texas based illustrator. His previous works include Brain Woods’ ‘The Massive‘ and ‘Supermarket’ .

The remote territories of the Australian Never Never are anything but empty. The history of these landscapes is one of nuclear testing, rocket launches and black military technologies. The skies over this red earth are scarred with the contrails of experimental weapons flights and charged with the militarised electromagnetic waves that reach out to US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Forgotten,  somewhere in this landscape, is an abandoned missile tracking station. From here Oliviu, in our Experimental Flight Lab, is launching a choreographed  flock of autonomous gliders, to drift through the air in silent protest.  Floating on engineered thermal currents their wingspan antennas broadcast white noise through the electromagnetic landscapes over Australia’s Pine Gap military base, momentarily jamming their telecommunications signals.



THERMAL GENERATORS- A prosthetic implant in to the cliff, a technological augmentation, a point where the entire light weight architectural system prop on the ground through the use of an air column.









Aboriginal dreamtime narratives speak of a time when the ground was soft and creation beings shaped mountains and rivers. Now the financial narratives of gold prices reshape the earth through massive excavations and technological incisions. The Atlas of Gold Fictions catalogues the strange infrastructures of the gold economy, from its source in the mines of Australia to the web of precious artefacts scattered across the globe. Aram, of our Future Archaeologies Department, has reimagined the infrastructure of gold’s solely virtual value through the speculative artefacts of a new network of gold objects inscribed with the oral histories of the land from which it came. A suicide note is inscribed on a single gold bullet, the sound of a grandmother’s laughter is encoded into an heirloom necklace and the dying languages of Australia’s indigenous culture are recorded onto the gold bars dug out of the very ground of their homeland. Our relationship to our finite resources is re-examined with this new dispersed geology of artefacts encoded with the cultural rather than economic values of the contemporary world.


GOLD BAR- Like the voyager gold record, the gold bar is redesigned as spools of lost and endangered languages from the indigenous sites where the resource is extracted.


GOLD VAULT- The gold vault becomes a new archive of cultural information and lost languages.


HEADPHONE JACK- This gold plated headphone jack has embedded within it an aboriginal songline from the place its gold was abstracted. Once the landscape is disturbed by mining machines, its songlines become dislocated from their lad, encoded into and spread by the gold. The aboriginal stories and song survive in the ore extracted. Just like the secret tracks of a beatle record, Hidden within the tunes of the latest pop song are the Endangered oral histories from the mine site.


EYELID IMPLANT- Mary Andreson works at a diner in Rhode Island. She likes to read ‘Hello’ and ‘Vogue’ as she dreams of having a better life. “If I am Beautiful” she thinks to herself, “I can get out of here”. So night by night she sweeps the floors and cleans the grime from the ovens, collecting the pennies that she is saving to make herself beautiful. As her hands become rough, she works towards implants that will remove the tired lines from her eyes; on which her ideal DNA is recorded, “When I am gone” she thinks, “they’ll read who I really am inside”.


HEIRLOOM PENDANT- Natapa lives in Bangkok with her mother. She is sixteen now and she wants to leave home but she is trapped. For months she has been seeing a boy, but she wouldn’t dare tell. Leaving is the only way to see him. Enduring their love in respective isolation, the young couple exchange pendants onto which their voices are inscribed reminded each other that it’s only a matter of time before they can be together. The sounds of their laughter and little sayings caress the grooves of the pendant.


LUMBAR IMPLANT- Tyler Mason, 24 from Ohio, came back from his first tour of duty in Iraq with shrapnel in his sides and a broken spine. The whole time I was out there he thought of Jane, whom he had left behind. He would sing the tune they first kissed to in his head as he was dragged to safety by a medic, wondering if he would ever see her again. When they fixed his back, inscribed in the contours of his implant he engraved that first song- “You and Me”. They patched him up, he kissed Jane and went on his way to Afghanistan.


GOLD BULLET- This was the suicide bullet used by Hunter S Thompson in 2005. Inscribed along its contours is a note to his wife Anita titled, ‘Football season is over’.

The vast territories of the Australian outback are highly contested landscapes. The technologies with which this ground is surveyed and recorded also become the political means through which groups claim ownership over it. In the skies above, mining survey planes track back and forth laser scanning the earth searching for the topographic anomalies that indicate pockets of undiscovered minerals and on the ground, the ochre stokes of aboriginal landscape painters map the songlines of their sacred dreamtime stories. In our Department of Intangible technologies Samantha Lee is corrupting this mining survey data by engineering a seasonal network of mysterious dreamtime anomalies. Anchored around aboriginal sacred sites these mythic objects slowly stalk the contested territory, distorting mining cartographies to generate a new form of landscape representation. This architecture of mirages exists at the threshold between the sky and the subterranean, between the physical and the virtual, to generate a ghostly constellation of sacred sites hidden within the dataset.

samantha.lee-06Ghost in the Data


GHOST IN THE DATA- By scanning, the hidden ghost of the landscape is revealed, becoming a new layer of meaning in the virtual dataset. The sacred sites are given a presence which extends into the invisible and the subterranean realm, and isn’t just reduced to a thin surface. A reality made explicit by Native Title, this severs the surface of land from the government-owned underground.

SEASONAL MAGNETIC FLUX- Orbiting around the sacred waterholes, these new inhabitants of the land form a constellation in perpetual motion. When they meet, the magnetic field between them is amplified, creating a fluctuating network within the data.
THE ILLUSION AS VISUAL ANOMALIES- As an experience of journey driving though the flat desert, they become mysterious beacons floating on the horizon, and their reflections or silhouettes become navigational references. Standing at the sacred site, they orbit your horizon line, which in plan view becomes a circle as the panoramic view is unfolded around you.