Lithium Lake and Island of Polyphony

Liu Chuang

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Uncomputables: #1 Lithium Lake and Island of Polyphony
Liu Chuang

54 Minutes
Courtesy of the artist and Antenna Space

Artist Cinemas

Repeat: February 26-27, 2024

In this work, the artist borrows the figure of Sophon from Liu Cixin’s sci-fi trilogy The Three-Body Problem to envision an alien anthropologist’s journey to Earth. “The world’s largest lithium lake—Uyuni Salt Flat—is less than fifty kilometers from the Potosí silver mines. In planetary history there have been two major intercontinental transfers of a single metal, of which the first was silver, the second, lithium. They shared the same route: from the Atacama Desert in the Andes of South America, across the Pacific Ocean, to the East of Asia. This journey lasted five hundred years.”—From the film’s voiceover

The above cited histories of mining and metallurgy, crucial links in the chain of globalization, speak to the planetary scale of human intervention into the processes of geological evolution. With this in mind, the artist conducted atmospheric research based on found archives and images, then analyzed the sonic topography of the routes, informing his speculative account of the relationship between song and the origins of technology.

In the script, largely inspired by musical anthropologist Joseph Jordania’s Why Do People Sing? (2011) and Alain Corban’s A History of Silence, the artist weaves together a fascinating “anti-origin story” of the entangled trajectories of human and non-human evolution, all the while embedding his perspectives in the context of East Asian histories, cultures, and religions, and emphasizing the permeability and porosity of that region’s culture.

Sophon’s journey to Earth is not unlike the dream of Nanke. It is composed of dialogues and experimental combinations of matters and events of different scales, and lends emotional depth to the sensory worlds centered around the various species within the script.

It is also worth mentioning that topographical research into East Asian traditional polyphonic music has led the artist to question land-based spatial politics (the dark forest hypothesis). Since modern times, such land-bound thinking has invaded—and continues to invade—oceans and outer spaces of various dimensions, rendering multi-species intelligence within these spaces ever more vulnerable. The artist considers the ancient wisdom of polyphonic singing to be of great significance to current technological lock-ins, from carbon to lithium.

Lithium Lake and Island of Polyphony is the first installment of Uncomputables: On Cybernetics and Alien Intelligences, an online program of films and accompanying texts convened by Agnieszka Kurant as the thirteenth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Film.

The film is presented alongside a text response by Stefanie Hessler.

Uncomputables: On Cybernetics and Alien Intelligences runs in six episodes released every Monday from January 15 through February 26, 2024, streaming a new film each week accompanied by a commissioned interview or response published in text form.

On Liu Chuang’s Lithium Lake and Island of Polyphony
By Stefanie Hessler

Feminist and decolonial scholars and activists have challenged the emphasis of traditional evolutionary theories on competition over limited resources—the environment, food, shelter, mates, or knowledge—as the primary driving force for change. Biologist Lynn Margulis shows the central role of symbiosis both on a cellular level as well as in holobiont communities of organisms who mutually benefit one another, and Standing Rock Sioux activist and historian Vine Deloria Jr. highlights Indigenous concepts of interconnectedness against a background of Eurocentrism that devalues such knowledge systems, to name a few. Today’s competition for resources, including for minerals used in green technologies on this heating planet and perhaps soon also others, relies on evolutionary narratives steeped in hegemony and opposition; but for now this planet is all we have, and evolution is, indeed, antiteleological.

Weaving a complex web of references via sound, science fiction, and speculative research, Liu Chuang’s video Lithium Lake and Island of Polyphony (2023) proposes alternative views of our human and nonhuman pasts to imagine futures based in mutualism and cooperation, guided by diverse, co-existing epistemologies. Just under one-hour in length, Liu’s moving-image tale begins with a bone floating in space, referencing the famous “Dawn of Man” opening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In this classic scene, a primitive tool-turned-weapon helps early hominids to a technological leap and evolutionary advantage perpetuated by violence in the traditional Darwinian sense. (To be sure, new readings of Darwin, for instance by feminist theorist Elizabeth Grosz, suggest that competition has been lopsidedly overemphasized to the detriment of his views on process, fluidity, and mutualism). On second view, what appears to be a bone in Liu’s video turns out to be a flute. Anything, Liu seems to suggest, holds the potential to be used as a weapon or a musical instrument.

We are currently in the midst of a second space race, with renewed interest in lunar and Mars exploration, space tourism, and a scramble for resources and human settlements propelled by the industrialized Global North, who is simultaneously driving life on Earth towards extinction. If holders of a Eurocentrist evolutionary view consider violence the presumed modus operandi for survival on this planet, it is likely that their current extraterrestrial ambitions will perpetuate this stance on and towards other planets as well. As with anything we build, it will contain the same prejudices of the builder. But perhaps it can also become Liu’s metaphorical flute.

Presumed violence is indeed one of the explanations for the Fermi paradox, which asks: If the likelihood for life in the vastness of the universe should be high, why have we not found any signs of life beyond Earth? One possible answer suggests that we stay quiet, silently sneaking around on our planet so as to not be discovered by who we project will unquestionably be adversaries. But many signals have left Earth, both radio transmissions and the Golden Record phonographs, which were sent to space with NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 missions in 1977. Containing a selection of music and sounds from here, including greetings in 55 languages, the latter are audible against the opening scene in Liu’s video.

Inspired by novelist Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (2008–2010), which is about to become a Netflix series under the first book’s title, 3 Body Problem, Liu Chuang explores the Fermi paradox, or what the books call “dark forest theory.” The premise of the novel is a pre-emptive strike against Earth by the alien civilization Trisolaris once it detects our signals, in the form of a proton-sized super computer called Sophon who is able to slow down our technological development. In doing so, the Trisolarans hope to weaken humanity’s defenses for when they arrive on Earth to colonize it and escape their own planet, which is so arid it requires people to self-dehydrate to save scarce resources of water. As with all of Liu Chuang’s citations, the symbolism is intentional. In the video, Sophon is reimagined as an alien anthropologist come to Earth to observe and marvel at this moment of late capitalism, in which we destroy its abundant habitats as we look to settle on other planets. Liu draws connections to the 1500s, when Spain’s extraction of silver from the Potosí mines in present-day Bolivia funded its empire, and circles back to today, when the same region uses huge amounts of water to extract lithium, now journeying across the Pacific largely for battery production.

Path dependence is what economist Brian Arthur calls the lock-in that makes it harder to choose a different course once one has invested significantly in an economic system or a technology, even though it would be advantageous to do so. And yet, while we seem locked into our carbon dependency, Liu’s flute suggests that we may still veer from this path. Through the metaphor of polyphonic music, he weaves together these numerous strands while looking towards plural possible futures. Among his references is evolutionary musicologist Joseph Jordania, who suggests that music did not evolve from monophony to more complex compositions, a prime example for which in Western music are Bach’s fugues. Conversely, Jordania speculates that singing started when humans lived in trees, and that sound was abundant before we descended to the ground and began to hide in literal and metaphorical dark forests.

Liu layers footage of bats, moths, and other animals who use their sonic sense to navigate the world and pairs it with the history of the detection of whale songs through US Navy underwater listening devices during the arms race of the Cold War. While the paranoid surveillance of that era is a potent metaphor for the dark forest theory as it has played out on Earth time and again, Liu also suggests that if we listen carefully, beauty persists—for now. Cetaceans and their songs do not know of geopolitical borders and the extension of land-based territorial conflicts in the oceans’ fluidity, or in space. But if we know of the importance of collaboration and symbiosis today, on a cellular level as well as through deep evolutionary time, we need to be careful not to miss the effects of ongoing asymmetries on Earth, or exclusively rely on biological explanations and metaphors. Liu offers the Buddhist teaching of Siddhartha Gautama who, upon encountering a starving tiger and her cubs, gave his own body as food in an act of altruism and compassion. The path of selflessness may be one of numerous courses emerging from Liu’s multilayered composition. To overcome technological path dependency and other deadlocks, or societal monoliths (forgive the Odyssey pun), Liu’s polyphonic song is a catchy tune for mutualism over competition, and symbiosis over violence, for collective survival on this and possibly other planets.

Stefanie Hessler is a curator, writer, editor, and institutional leader. Her work focuses on ecologies and technology from intersectional feminist and queer perspectives. Recent curatorial projects include Unweaving the Binary Code, Kunsthall Trondheim (2022); Sensing Nature, the 17th Momenta Biennale, Montreal (2021); and Joan Jonas: Moving Off the Land II, Ocean Space, Venice (2019). Her book Prospecting Ocean was published by MIT Press and TBA21–Academy in 2019, and she has edited over a dozen volumes including Sex Ecologies (2021) and Tidalectics: Imagining an Oceanic Worldview through Art and Science (2018). She is the director of Swiss Institute New York.

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com

Music, Film, Anthropology & Ethnography
Extractivism, Video Art, East Asia, China, Human - Nonhuman Relations
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Liu Chuang works primarily with film, sculpture, readymade, and installation. His works often integrate long-term history and an ecological imaginative arc in order to trace the social, cultural, and economic transformations of contemporary China. Weaving narratives that connect the micro and macro, past and present, fiction and reality, Liu Chuang explores how vast and complex changes in nature, tradition, demographics, cutting-edge technology, and socio-economic systems affect individuals and their engagements with the world. His recent biennials and triennials include: 2nd Thailand Biennial: Butterflies Frolicking on the Mud (2021); 11th Seoul Mediacity Biennale: One Escape At A Time (2021); 13th Shanghai Biennale: Bodies of Water (2021); 3rd Guangzhou Image Triennale 2021: Intermingling Flux (2021); Kathmandu Triennale 2077: Garden of Six Seasons (2021); 12th Taipei Biennial 2020: You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet (2020); 5th Dhaka Art Summit: Seismic Movements (2020); 5th Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art: Immortality (2019).


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