Coal Fired Computers talk: Power, Art and Media
1 Jun 2010

Graham Harwood and Jean Demars in conversation with Matthew Fuller around the Coal Fired Computers project recently realised as part of AV Festival in Newcastle.

The Talk took place at SPACE on 01/06/2010

Whilst we took in the shape of the new government, the politics of power takes on a new meaning as Harwood, Jean Demars and Matthew Fuller discuss the Coal Fired Computer Project and the implications layered under dusty marvels of everyday bits and bytes. Global fuel reliance, the price of a computer measured against the lives of 318,000 miners with choked up lungs, stark reality with no escape unless we begin to think. Empathy leads to action.

Graham Harwood (YoHa and Mongrel) and Jean Demars talk to Matthew Fuller ( author of Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture) about the Coal Fired Computers project recently commissioned as part of AV Festival in Newcastle.

Over three days at the Discovery Museum in Newcastle, in collaboration with Jean Demars and groups of coal miner activists, Coal Fired Computers articulated relations between Power, Art and Media. The new work by leading UK media artists Harwood and Yokokoji (YoHa) responded to the displacement of coal production to distant lands like India and China after the UK miners' strike in 1984/85. Coal Fired Computers reflects on the complexities of our global fossil fuel reliance and especially on how coal transforms our health as we have transformed it. Today coal produces 42% of the world¹s electricity, and in many countries this rate is much higher (more than 70% in India and China).

It could be said that coal dust gets into everything. Sealed into the lungs of miners it forms visible blue streaks, like veins of coal. According to the World Health Organisation, 318,000 deaths occur annually from chronic bronchitis and emphysema caused by exposure to coal dust. The common perception is that wealthy countries have put this all behind them, displacing coal dust into the lungs of unrecorded, unknown miners in distant lands, however coalreturns into our lives in the form of the cheap and apparently clean goods we consume.

Coal fired energy not only powers our computers here in the UK, but is integral to the production of the 300,000,000 computers made each year. 81% of the energy used in a computer's life cycle is expended in the manufacturing process, now taking place in countries with high levels of coal consumption. The UK currently produces less that one third of the coal it uses, importing the majority of it and therefore displacing 150,000 tons of coal dust into unknown lungs.

YoHa are interntionally renowned for their media art work together, as individuals, and with media group Mongrel. They were key contributors to MediaShed in Southend. Harwood has along history of influential political media work setting up Working Press with Stefan Szczelkun, running ground breaking media training for the long term unemployed wth Artec (The London Art and Technology centre and setting up Mongrel. Harwood received the first online commission from Tate Gallery London for 'Uncomfortable Proximity' for which he won the Leonardo New Horizons Award for Innovation in New Media and remains one of the world's prominent media artists. 

Matthew Fuller is David Gee Reader in Digital Media at the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths College, University of London. He is the author of Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture (MIT Press, 2005) and Behind the Blip: Essays on the Culture of Software.

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