MINE, courtesy of the artist
Digging for the Unknown: An Interview with Akwasi Bediako Afrane on Mine
September 30 2022
Caves are natural spaces that are intrinsically associated with the unknown. From the rock paintings at Lascaux to Plato’s myth of the cave, they embody the human desire for knowledge. What lies in the depths of a cave? What manifests itself, as a concrete or imaginary projection, on its walls? One of the very first video-games in history was Colossal Cave Adventure, written by Will Crowther for his daughters in 1976. A cult game in the IT world, played by countless people, it is based on the findings made in Mammoth Cave (the world’s longest cave system, located in Kentucky) by his then wife, Patricia Crowther, who in addition to being a speleologist was a programmer herself. But caves are not just natural spaces: they can also be artificial ones, created by man in his agonizing search for resources. In this case they take the name of mines and, in addition to their philosophical (or even existential) meaning, they acquire an ineluctable political significance—which is often overlooked in adventure works set in such places.
As part of the second edition of the Game Collection , curated by Pietro Righi Riva, the 23rd Triennale Milano International Exhibition Unknown Unknowns. An Introduction to Mysteries features the interactive work MINE, created by designer Akwasi Bediako Afrane. MINE explores human beings’ relationship with those natural resources—minerals, metals, rare-earth elements—that make up technological devices and are extracted from the earth, a process entailing poor labour conditions and serious environmental consequences. We have talked about caves and mines with this artist and about the way in which the meaning of the unknown changes when ignoring something is a (more or less) unconscious choice.
Akwasi Bediako Afrane, the designer of MINE. Courtesy of the artist.
Hello Akwasi, thank you for joining. The theme of this edition of the Triennale Game Collection is Unknown Unknowns. What was your first thought, when you were asked to take part in the project?
I immediately started reflecting on the idea of "what we don’t know that we don’t know’" For a while—roughly a year—I had been reflecting on how and when we find ourselves ignoring something, so for MINE too I chose to focus on the more concrete aspect of unawareness, of oblivion.
This is interesting, because when you ask people the same question, most of them immediately think of something very abstract and remote—in most cases, space, the universe. But you have chosen to keep to what is tangible, to the bowels of the Earth. Where does this need spring from?
If you think about it, everything that has to do with human experience is actually rooted in the Earth. In interpreting the Game Collection’s theme, I immediately realized that I wanted to work on the concept of the mine, because as an artist I was using electronic devices to produce my works, and over time I had noticed a significant gap in people’s everyday experience between the physical aspect of technology and the virtual reality it offers. When users use online platforms to chat, as we are doing, they do not think of what makes them possible—more specifically, they do not think of the mines from which the raw materials that make up these technologies are extracted. It has been important and interesting for me to explore this idea and find a form in which to express this exploration artistically.
A preliminary version of MINE’s game world. Courtesy of the artist.
It is true that we tend to think of the Internet as something ethereal, intangible, when in fact it is made up of metalware and cables. But it is difficult to visualize this because it is concealed from sight – underground or on satellites many kilometres above the surface. So, we never think of how these things are made, and this is an important gap to fill. What has been the process of designing the game like?
Initially, I tried to find a way to allow people to immerse themselves in the exploration of mines I was carrying out intellectually, and I chose to reproduce the mechanics of many adventure video-games set in such places. What I like about these video-games is the fact that they enable you to explore the space in different directions, to discover what it contains, and to immerse yourself in a unique and personal way. Each person experiences virtual reality in a different way—it’s never the same. First of all, then, I chose some adventure game mechanics, then I reflected on what is inside a mine. In a mineral mine you will see things that look like crystals, but I also wanted the public to see something else: the components we produce through these resources. So I added some electronic elements and a scenario that opens up when the player interacts with the components and that tells the story of how these materials are processed in order to obtain what we call "the virtual".
Although this game is more evocative than didactic, the concept it aims to convey is clear. What kind of research did you carry out to acquire information on the topic?
I embarked on this project at a particular moment in my life, as I was already engaged in other projects exploring similar themes. I was working on a documentary on the life cycle of electronic devices: I met mining company representatives and spoke with people who repair devices or retrieve and resell components and materials after their disposal. The discrepancy between these processes and the people who carry them out is so entrenched that the latter are either completely unaware of or uninterested in them. For example, I met someone who deals in retrieved components and this person would say “look, this is silver, this is gold”, but not everyone has the same awareness. As far as the research part is concerned, I visited mining sites and spoke with people whose lives revolve around these electronic devices.
Detail of the electronic components featured in the game. Courtesy of the artist.
People who study these processes often say that "we are digging holes in the Earth to extract resources to built technologies that we then toss into other holes in the Earth"—landfills—within just a few years.
That is precisely the case. It is also interesting that many of these minerals and materials we extract are not harmful to the environment as long as they stay in their place, but become harmful once they are turned into products that are then abandoned in landfill—they become poisonous for the Earth.
It’s because we add the "human touch’"
[Laughing] Exactly, that’s precisely the thing.
Another aspect of MINE that I have found interesting is the fact that it ends in a blind alley, similar to the point you start from. The maze of the mine is like a mirror—there’s no way out. What is the reason for this choice?
At first I considered making the game "endless", but then I thought that everything comes to an end—including our own lives and the devices we create (a circular economy would certainly improve the situation, but not solve it completely). I also reflected on the fact that we regard and use technology as a tool to improve man. As an artist, I see devices as genuine prostheses—they are parts of us. However, we harbour the illusion of moving away from our biological nature, in such a way as to turn into a mechanical version of ourselves that might spare us from the ineluctable end that all things must meet—but, ultimately, even what is mechanical is biological, since minerals come from and return to the Earth.
Detail of some electronic components and crystals featured in the game. Courtesy of the artist.
Perhaps this is the same illusion that drives many people to dream of "escaping the Earth" by travelling into space—especially, for some reason, white men past middle age who probably won’t live long enough to take part in the first space colonization missions.
Right, and what will happen up there, I assure you, will be exactly the same as what happens here. They’ll destroy everything, as they do here.
Certainly, mining for resources will be one of the first objectives. So, ultimately, your game could also be set in space.
[Laughing] Ultimately, yes—thanks for helping me realize this.
We have spoken of the unknown and of unawareness. In your view, what is the essential difference between the two?
Something which you "don’t know that you don’t know" entails an impossibility to know—regardless of any particular external circumstances that might provide a key to knowledge. But what we choose to leave unknown, to ignore, is connected to the concept of oblivion vis-à-vis the concrete reality of the things I mentioned before. And this is fascinating, because it fits well with the kind of exploration I wish to offer people. How much do we want to known about what concerns our life? About the things we wear, for example? We might be interested in one issue—say, technology—but choose to ignore others. And, to some extent, the materials that make up our world all entail aspects that we choose to ignore.
It’s probably also a matter of privilege. Some people have the possibility to ignore these issues, while others can’t because their life revolves around the production and disposal of these materials.
Certainly. And it’s also all connected to experience. You talked about space before: I’m sure that if I ever had the chance to go to Mars, I would start asking myself new questions.
And this experience would change your perception.
That’s right, the idea of the unknown as something which "you don’t know that you don’t know" has to do with the possibility to experience something and hence to start asking yourself certain questions—wherever you may be.
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