¬For our Summer Expedition 2015 we travel through the Lithium Mines of Bolivia and the Atacama Desert exploring the infrastructure behind the scenes of our electric future.

We map a landscape spectrum spanning rain soaked forests to parched flat earth as we blaze a trail from the Bolivian Amazon to the Atacama Desert. In the heart of Bolivia, we will bear witness to a site, which epitomizes a burgeoning new era of electric fuel. We chase the grey rush to Salar de Uyuni, where under ethereal inverted skies lies over half of the world’s reserves of Lithium. Buried here, beneath the mirror of the world’s largest salt flat, is a grey gold - a substance in every one of our pockets, in every gleaming device, and every electric car. Where a gear-shift in human technological development has rendered this landscape one of the most sought after on earth. This is the feeding ground of the new green energy revolution. If the future is electric then the future is here, lying in wait for the world.

Our journey takes us to celebrated landscapes like these, the future of which is dictated by worlds beyond their spectacular horizons. From the salt flats we drift through the Amazon, in search of the lost cities of the forest, and whispered tales of El Dorado, another gold rush long consumed by the trees. We climb to the top of the world, the highest city on the planet; the Bolivian capital of La Paz and we head down to the bed of a long lost sea; the Atacama Desert. If the Bolivian salt flats are mirrors to the sky above then the Atacama is a mirror reflecting its possible future, for it is a site that has witnessed by hundreds of years of copper and nitrate mining. We see this exhausted ground stripped bare and disappearing on the wind. From these dust clouds the Unknown Fields division of speculators, and prospectors imagine the many futures of Bolivia’s charged ground. A ground of possibility, and potential, on the verge of change - a proving ground in a state of becoming.

We Power our future with the Breastmilk of Volcanoes
Unknown Fields Department of Energy Mythologies_Summer 2015_Bolivia and the Atacama 20°49'38.2"S 67°16'59.5"W

Unknown Fields travel through the energy landscapes of the Bolivian Salt Lakes and the Atacama Desert to see where the city stores its electricity. Here the ground is charged with potential, for buried beneath the mirror of the world’s largest salt flat, the Salar De Uyuni, is a grey gold called lithium, the key ingredient in batteries, a substance in every one of our pockets, in every gleaming device, and every electric car. With their flock of camera drones Unknown Fields have captured the technicolor lithium mine evaporation pools as they stretch across the ancient salt flats. This grey rush territory is also a landscape of Incan mythology and sacred mountains, where a traditional indigenous narrative describes this shimmering white expanse being created from the mixing of the tears and breast milk of a weeping mother volcano who has just lost her lover.

From this landscape, Unknown Fields have crafted a new glass battery, one that harnesses this mythic love story to trickle charge our phones. While the world does its best to ignore that technology is forged from the earth, with marketing campaigns of ephemeral clouds and the relentless push for the smallest and lightest, this object embodies the story of the landscape in which it was made. A mass of alternating aluminium and graphite – anode and cathode — submerged in a lithium brine electrolyte collected from Bolivia’s electric Salar de Uyuni creates a slow reaction, the drip charge of a crying mountain. The creation myth of this landscape is told again and again as the electrons flow. We power our technologies from the tears and breastmilk of sacred volcanoes.

The Breast Milk of the Volcano by Unknown Fields. Fabricated with assistance from Eduardo Andreu Gonzalez and Aimer Ltd. Battery science consultant Donal Finegan


The volcano battery is fashioned from glass, graphite, aluminium, nickel and Lithium Brine collected from the Salar De Uyuni in Bolivia



Before Lithium Brine is added to the Battery

Lithium Evaporative pools from the air
Unknown Fields Department of Aerial Reconnaissance_Summer 2015_Bolivia and the Atacama 20°07'43.1"S 67°31'16.3"W

You cannot see it on the desperately flat horizon, or access it by any public road. Its mystery is protected by its isolation. Locals speak of the metal sea but none have seen it and they can only point in its vague direction. Bolivia is a landlocked nation but it once had a coastline before it was stolen by Chile. The country had lost its natural ocean, but now it has created another. If the landscape is the character of Salar mythology then what stories do we tell of an artificial sea. This is a creation story of technology, a new mythology for the electric age.

The only way to see it is from the air and when you escape the crackled surface and look down, what was once the crystal white expanse of the Salar de Uyuni has now been flooded with a surreal tinted sea. Since 2008, the sun has been beating down on a new liquid landscape, a territorial alchemy translating the lake pumped up from beneath the salt from azure blue to neon green, from worthless diluted brine to a concentrated pool of one of the most valuable elements on earth. There are no waves in the metal sea, no currents, just stillness. This is an ocean without life. Lithium development is not mining through extraction but through evaporation. A tessellated ocean of evaporation ponds where each shift in hue signals a rising concentration of lithium salts. The shores of the metal sea begin at Pond no. 15, 0.2% Lithium, the least concentrated, azure blue with a sodium chloride beach. Each month the ponds are drained and transferred to the next in line, and each month the colour changes and the Lithium gets richer. A group of mine workers called Rock Lickers monitor the process, reading the sea and deciding when it’s right to move on. Across 15 months the sea migrates through the holding pools of the Salar until it reaches the deep coffee waters of Pond no. 1, 6% Lithium Sulphate. Shimmering pools of azure, turquoise, cyan blues have faded to viridian and khaki greens and on to muddy yellows. This sea that has been slowly evolving across billions of years is now ready to leave the land of giants forever, sucked up by a convoy of thirsty 18 wheelers and driven to off the Salar to the Lithium Carbonate Refinery. What is left behind is massive quantities of table salt which is piled up beside the Lithium ocean and gradually a new mother mountain grows. What will we call her, this crystal volcano. A totem for a sacrificial sea, evaporating to keep the screens glowing and the wheels turning.

Drone equipment supported by DJI

In search of the Birth of Lithium in the Earliest Light of the Universe
Unknown Fields Department of Aerial Reconnaissance_Summer 2015_Bolivia and the Atacama 23°01'24.8"S 67°45'13.3"W

In the beginning, the beginning of the beginning, seconds from zero, 13.8 billion years ago, the creation story of Lithium begins. Big. Bang.

It was there, at the dawn of time, alongside helium and hydrogen, just one of only 3 elements able to claim their ultimate origin in that hot dense primordial gas. From this interstellar matter hydrogen and helium sparked the light of the first stars and as they cooled below two trillion degrees Lithium was formed. The glow of the birth of the cosmos, forged in the fallout fragments of cosmic ray collisions, has started its journey. Light is the only detectable record that is left of the big bang, it is the ghost of Lithium creation.

At five kilometers above sea level on the Chajnantor Plateau in the Chilean Atacama desert, the landscape has eyes. Sixty-six white pupils turn in unison to search the thin air of these dark skies. In the extinct indigenous language Kunza, Chajnantor translates as taking off place and here the astrophysicists at Atacama’s Large Millimeter Array observatory are focused skyward, travelling deep through the dark interstellar clouds of the coldest, oldest parts of the universe. They gaze beyond the slice of the visible spectrum visible, between far infrared and radio waves, feeding terabyte upon terabyte of information into a supercomputer with the power of 3million laptops. The array of super natural eyes drift across the volcanic crater, dragged by two 28 wheeler beasts, Otto and Lore, the observatory’s antennae transporters. Powered by 4 formula one engines and herded by Alfredo, the only person on earth qualified to drive them, they rearrange the dishes to focus their field of view, to act as a single giant lens, the largest in all of history.

Another community of nomadic shepherds, the indigenous Likanantay people used to own this land and trekked across the grounds where the antenna now stand. On the Chajnantor plateau all eyes have always been on shadows in the sky. Silhouetted against the light of the milky way the dark clouds that ALMA observe are the same shadow constellations of indigenous mythology, the animals that came to drink at that celestial river Mayu and the dark nebula of the great rift. Dancing within a swathe of the interstellar cloud that forged Lithium is Yacana the llama, her baby and her shepherd, the serpent Mach’acuay and Atoq the fox who pursues Hanp’atu the toad and Yutu-Tinamou the bird across the sky. These creatures have trampled Lithium, from the beginning of time to the crust of the earth.

Drone equipment supported by DJI

Uyuni Super Mine: History’s Largest Multinational Mine by Jon Skerrit
Unknown Fields Department of Energy Mythologies_Summer 2015_Bolivia and the Atacama 20°27'42.0"S 66°49'29.9"W

The landscape of the Bolivian Salar de Uyuni flashes by in the trailer for a Japanese racing game: a landscape commodified to fuel our electric future and reimagined with the efficiency of the world’s largest mine. Its endless fields of evaporation ponds feed minerals into the world market to be monetised in the battery production lines of China, South Korea and Japan in the push to make electric vehicles economically viable. We only see this landscape through the lens of the game. In another world we get a brief glimpse into the landscape of the other side of the screen, and of a mine that is so large that no single national entity could support it. Following the pattern of developing countries forming partnerships to extract resources and disperse them across the world, the lithium expertise that is needed for this scale of mining operation exists in Asia. Like the space industry, lithium mining in Bolivia mus¬¬¬t be operated by a particular scale of multinational corporation. In a new form of place that is caught between cultures, a race plays out in a landscape that has been forever altered in the moment of our green energy revolution.





Into The Stream by Alexey Marfin
Unknown Fields Department of Digital Imaginaries_Summer 2015_Summer 2015_Bolivia and the Atacama 22°47'05.2"S 67°54'08.0"W

Our experiences of Places and cities are riddled with the ghosts of internet memes, youtube phantoms, and daydream projections. Where we are is not important anymore as virtual landscapes flood domestic interiors and exotic worlds shimmer like mirages at the end of everyday streets. In our Department of Digital Imaginaries Alexey captures the banalities of a daily commute through a city of infinitely variable virtual fabrications. We drift through an electric reality of a million animated movies cast in place through the eyes of machine vision systems. They construct a media sea of constant extremes, fantasies and the extraordinary. Flying cat videos, tinder profiles, people being hit by lightning, televised decapitation, intimate celebrity breakdowns and the world's fastest car have all left the screen to furnish the augmented realities our daily world. The everyday has become a consumption space for the media extraordinary. Every minute a new impossible or imaginary is uploaded to the internet to become just one of hundreds of extraordinary events to be consumed that day. The extraordinary is the new normal and we swipe right, refresh, scroll down and continue on our way.