From matter to data

Atlas of the Liminal

18 Oct 2022 – 17 Apr 2023  Code & Algorithm. Meaning in a Calculated World,  Fundación Telefónica, Madrid
18 – 27 Nov 2022 Vienna Art Week: House of Challenging Orders

 

Atlas of The Liminal traces transitional spaces, contested places, zones of exception, territories haunted by past innovation, frontiers lacerated by conflicting visions. Generated through algorithmic processes, machinic seeing unwraps three-dimensional image data onto the plane – obtaining perspectives alien to the human eye, and integrating the dimension of time where views overlap.

This series, Atlas of the Liminal: From matter to data, charts ‘Superfund’ sites in Santa Clara County, California – former silicon wafer and chip fabrication plants, now contaminated lands where the intellectual superstructure of our supposedly dematerialised culture is designed.

A catalogue of the series From matter to data is online as pdf.

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From Matter To Data befasst sich mit den von Big-Tech Konzernen verursachten Risiken für Umwelt und Gesundheit und hinterfragt deren zentrales Produkt – algorithmisch generierte Bedingungen und Ordnungssysteme.

Die Serie entstand aus Drohnenaufnahmen schwerst kontaminierter Standorte in Silicon Valley, wo gegenwärtig der intellektuelle Überbau unserer vermeintlich entmaterialisierten Kultur entworfen wird. Unterschiedliche algorithmische Interpretationen der Bilddatensätze in Paaren: ein Atlas der Zwischenräume, Stadt aus zerbrochenem Quarz, neu arrangiert. nach Größe? Form? Motiv? – nach Maschinenlogik.

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Installation views to the right: Image captures

Raytheon/Symantec/Norton
350 Ellis Street, Mountain View, California
Pairs of glicée prints, 160cm x 160cm (2022), Edition 1 (+ 1 AP)

Raytheon, the US aerospace, electronics and defence conglomerate, operated a semiconductor manufacturing facility at 350 Ellis Street from 1961. In the late 1990s, the site passed on to a succession of data management company and cybersecurity companies. But the shift from hardware to software development did not make material concerns irrelevant. Since the 1980s, workers and the local community experienced health issues that were traced to soil and groundwater contamination by VOCs (volatile organic compounds) – primarily trichloroethylene, which is used in chip fabrication. While the semiconductor industry has moved elsewhere, the toxic legacy lingers – 350 Ellis Street is currently designated as a ’Superfund’ site and prioritised for cleanup by the Environmental Protection Agency.

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Advanced Micro Devices / Signetics–Philips Semiconductors / TRW–Northrop Grumman
Triple Site, Sunnyvale, California
Pairs of glicée prints, 160cm x 160cm (2022), Edition 1 (+ 1 AP)

What do NFC contactless payment systems, your credit rating, and the world’s most powerful supercomputer have in common? They can all be traced back to the bucolically-named city of Sunnyvale, California. Nestled in the Santa Clara valley – dubbed ‘Silicon Valley’ in the early 1971 due to the semiconductor industry boom –Sunnyvale continues to house corporations that have pervasive impact on a global scale. They have also left a lasting local legacy – the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has marked many ex-industrial locations as ‘Superfund’ sites due to significant contamination by volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The ‘Triple Site’ is one such cluster of former semiconductor factories. A plume of VOCs extends more than 1.5km from the Triple SIte, carried by groundwater under four schools and 1,200 homes. One compound of particular concern is the solvent and degreaser TCE (trichloroethene, aka ‘Tricky’), a known carcinogen and immunotoxin that also damages the kidney, liver, and nervous and reproductive systems. 

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) occupied several buildings in Sunnyvale including 901/902 Thompson Place, where it manufactured semiconductor devices between 1969 and 1992. In 2008, AMD went ‘fabless’ by spinning off its manufacturing as Global Foundries, with locations across Europe and Asia. Today, AMD processors drive everything from cars to casinos, and are found in one-third of domestic and business PCs. Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Frontier supercomputer – the first exascale computer, capable of over 1018 operations per second – is powered by nearly 50,000 AMD chips.

Signetics began manufacturing integrated circuits (ICs) at their site in the mid 1960s, and developed the 555 timer chip in 1972. Humble but ubiquitous, the 555 IC is still produced in enormous numbers, of the order of one billion annually. Philips Semiconductors acquired Signetics in 1975, only to divest the chip manufacturing business as NXP in 2006. NXP, together with Sony, invented the NFC (near-field communication) standard that enables e-Passports and contactless payments.   

Semiconductors were also manufactured at 825 Stewart Drive, which was owned by TRW Inc., a diversified corporation that guided early ICBM development, built spacecraft including Pioneer 10, and also developed big data-driven credit reporting. TRW’s Credit Data division was spun off in 1996 as Experian, and other divisions merged with aerospace and defence giant Northrop Grumman in 2002. The site has since been sold on. 

The health hazards of VOCs dumped at these sites, and of TCE in particular, were already known in the 1970s, and cleanup operations including soil excavation and groundwater extraction and treatment have been ongoing since the 1980s. In 1984, the State of California mandated AMD, Philips and TRW to jointly address the contamination.  Today the Triple Site is peppered with EPA test wells to monitor vapour intrusion. Mitigation systems have had to be installed in classrooms and homes to prevent TCE from accumulating indoors. Despite decades of efforts, utilising novel techniques such remediation by microorganisms, concentrations of TCE remain dangerously high – in places, at 4,000 times the permissible level.

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Developed during the Roberta Denning artist residency 2021 at Stanford University.
Project assistant: Miguel Novelo Cruz
Dronista: Eddie Codel
Print: Foto Leutner, Die Angewandte
This research is funded in part by Radical Matter, a research project by Die Angewandte and Royal College of Arts supported by the Wissenschaftsfond FWF / PEEK, and the Laboratory for Artificial Intelligence in Design (RP2-8) under the InnoHK Research Clusters, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government.