Material World

“You know that we are living in a material world”
Madonna, “Material Girl,” 1984, Peter Brown / Robert Rans, © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC,

Instructions by Charlotte Malterre-Barthes (Assistant Professor of Urban Design, Harvard GSD)

This task is two folds: 1) First, we aim at identifying the exploitative and exhausting practices of
extraction that allows for our material everyday to function. How can we visualize the presence
of contemporary forms of resource extraction and appropriation—in particular mineral wealth,
and their physical effects on territories, in our lives? The underlying goal here is to uncover the
direct yet invisible relationship between extraction capitalism and our immediate surroundings,
from objects to environment. Your very own situation provides a salient entry-point, as a spacemaking
process that requires in its materialization numerous mineral resources acquired via
extraction and the reallocation/relocation of the Earth’s resources such as limestone, clays, sand,
gravel, iron ore, aluminum diatomite, kaolin, bentonite, silica, barite, gypsum, potash, pumice,
and talc; as well as processed minerals in the form of aggregates (ie. crushed stone, sand, gravel,
cement), and other organic matter (i.e. cotton, wood). We will skip food for this exercise.
Secondary facilitations technologies allowing for life to function through connected objects (ie.
computers, phones, data centers, information networks) and the common minerals they require
for production such as barium, chromite, coltan, copper, dolomite, feldspar, gallium, germanium,
gold, halite, indium, lead, lithium, manganese, mercury, mica, nickel, quartz, silicon, silver, sulfite,
tantalum, tin, tungsten, uranium, and zinc shall also be investigated.
In short, the task is to identify and catalogue the materiality of our everyday in order to
construct a critique of the contemporary forms of resource extraction and of the enabling
predatory economics that allow for the production of the built environment, our infrastructure,
our cities, our homes, our lives.

This is where 2) the second aspect of the work emerges. As per Donna Haraway: “ Social
constructionists make clear that official ideologies about objectivity and scientific method are
particularly bad guides to how scientific knowledge is actually made. Just as for the rest of us,
what scientists believe or say they do and what they really do have a very loose fit.”* Haraway is
critical of so-called ‘carthesian’ thinking, arguing it has been designed to reinforce power
structures and insists on the validity of experience-grounded research work. We interpret this as
a sort of carte blanche to conduct this domestic investigation. Your own view, your situation, your
body, your sensorial perceptions, your vision, but also your physical condition, your home, your
neighborhood are perfectly valid sources and methods.

Here is how we could conduct a situated investigation of our material world:

Situated Instructions:
Material required: your favorite drawing pencil (if you don’t have one, a classic HB carbon pencil
or Fineliner), a piece of paper (A4, A3, A2, A1, whatever you want to start with), if you are more
comfortable to draw on a graphic tablet, that’s also fine. You can also work out of photographs
that you can redraw either graphically or with transparent paper and annotate.You may also
choose to draw the objects/elements separately in a note book (as one per sheet) and compile
the work at the end in a ‘leaflet.’ You should have at the least 10/15 objects. No object is too

1) Situate yourself: at a table, in bed, on a sofa- it shall be a domestic interior as much as

2) Identify the objects that you are in physical contact with: the table, the chair, the
computer, draw them as precisely as possible. Try to be exhaustive and don’t neglect any.

3) Identify the materiality of each of these objects (google it!): For instance my Mac
computer is made of arium, chromite, coltan, copper, dolomite, feldspar, gallium,
germanium, gold, halite, indium, lead, lithium, manganese, mercury, mica, nickel, quartz,
silicon, silver, sulfite, tantalum, tin, tungsten, uranium, and zinc. It’s been produced in
2019, assembled in China. (Just as a note, remain critical to official ‘social responsibility’
propaganda. Despite Apple’s plea to reach Zero Waste production, the materials used in
these machines make this factually impossible. For instance, bauxite, the raw material
that is used for aluminum, requires scrap mining that obliterates the first soil layer, and
its processing generates red mud, a highly toxic residue. Mining remediations are
considered to be only partially successful. There goes ‘sustainable production.’
4) Annotate all the information next to the drawing of the object (material, date, etc).

5) Go on and map out all objects in your immediate surrounding and draw them: what’s on
that table, and what is the materiality of each of these objects? You can go further: Are
these objects connected to a socket? What is the materiality of the power in this socket?
Write all of the information on your sheet.

6) Expand till you reach a wall (an actual wall), draw the wall, and identify its materiality.
Look out the window, draw the window, and identify its materiality. Write its
composition next to it.

7) Think “Power of 10:” What is outside your window? Map out the
street/surrounding/outside? What is the materiality of your street? Can you draw its

8) You can stop wherever/whenever you want. Maybe you are already overwhelmed or
bored by listing this inventory of materials. You should have quite a list of materials now.
Some of them repeat, reoccur, oil is possible very often re-appearing.

9) Now look at your list, and investigate how these materials are extracted/produced (from
the mine to your home, for instance). If possible, list back on your material a possible
geographical origin and also one of several production/extraction agents (companies).
Think about who are the ones (creatures, population, water bodies) affected by these
extractions. List them. To go back to aluminum objects for instance (a soda can), it is
made out of bauxite most likely manufactured by ALCAO, one of the largest aluminum
companies, and the bauxite will be mined from Australia, or Guinea.

10) Optional: Take a world map and start locating where the materials in your
home/surrounding are extracted from. This might mean you will settle for where the
most of one material is produced/extracted rather than an actual location.

Most of our objects/surroundings are silent, they don’t disclose the extraction processes
that made them and the destruction, injustice, and suffering they are based upon. David
Harvey says nothing else in Between Space and Time: Reflections on the Geographical Imagination
when he argues that “the grapes that sit upon the supermarket shelves are mute; we
cannot see the fingerprints of exploitation upon them or tell immediately what part of
the world they are from.” ** This ignorance is what your work should reveal and combat.

* Donna Haraway, "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial
Perspective," Feminist studies 14, no. 3 (1988).

** David Harvey, "Between Space and Time: Reflections on the Geographical Imagination," Annals of the Association of
American Geographers 80, no. 3 (1990): 422.