From South Africa’s Mines to NASA’s Skylab:
Models and Concepts of Life in Extreme Environments
This methods workshop introduces questions about writing intellectual history in dialogue with film and photography. It describes how aesthetic interventions have informed critical histories of extraction since the Cold War. Further, it explores how cross-disciplinary approaches might inform new research in an era of rapid climate change and mass extinction. The workshop is structured around three films and photographic studies completed on the South African mining industry since 1977. The Union of South Africa was not the only country to discover low-grade uranium ore in the twentieth century. Nor was it the only country to build extensive scientific and industrial research centers in the aftermath of World War II. It was uniquely positioned, however, because of a geological oddity that ensured that gold and uranium could be extracted from the same mines. Since South Africa’s gold industry was already highly developed, leaders of the apartheid state and foreign governments alike speculated that they could produce highly enriched uranium quickly and at a relatively low cost. In the process, South Africa’s mining companies constructed a series of “extreme environments” that will not sustain biological processes of growth or reproduction. Drawing on scientific and industrial archives as well as films and photographic studies, I discuss how South Africa’s mining industry has shaped models and concepts of life in such extreme environments.
Short introduction to the larger project and questions & screening of McQueen’s film “Western Deep”, Discussion
Screening of Film by Jean Rouch & discussion of contested archives and questions of ethics and access
Megan Eardley is a PhD Candidate in Architectural History & Theory at Princeton University. In recent years, her work has been supported by NASA, the National Science Foundation, the History of Science Society, the Canadian Center for Architecture, as well as the Fulbright and Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship programs.
- Steve McQueen’s film “Western Deep”: https://criticalcommons.org/Members/andydancer/clips/western-deep/ (24 mins.)
- Santu Mofokeng, Taking the Battle to the Grave: South Africa’s Contested Sites (online article)
Readings & Materials
- Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 1958).
- Donald L Donham and Santu Mofokeng, Violence in a Time of Liberation: Murder and Ethnicity at a South African Gold Mine, 1994 (Duke University Press, 2011).
- Édouard Glissant and Betsy Wing, Poetics of Relation (University of Michigan Press, 1997).
- Gabrielle Hecht and Hannah Le Roux, “Bad Earth,” in e-flux architecture, August 31, 2020. https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/accumulation/345106/bad-earth/. Republished in Nick Axel, Daniel A. Barber, Nikolaus Hirsch, and Anton Vidokle, eds., Accumulation: The Art, Architecture, and Media of Climate Change (University of Minnesota Press, 2022).
- Elizabeth A Povinelli, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism (Duke University Press, 2016).
- Alla Vronskaya, Architecture of Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2022).
- Megan Eardley, “Terrestrial Not by Nature and Essence”: The Acclimatization Chamber as Surface Technology in South Africa, ca. 1958, Grey Room (2021) (84): 64–85. https://direct.mit.edu/grey/article-abstract/doi/10.1162//107048/Terrestrial-Not-by-Nature-and-Essence-The?redirectedFrom=fulltext.