We are all part of storied supply-chains, and larger ecosystems.
The below featured works help us to see where things come from – how fabrics, minerals, or mushrooms move around the globe – and why circular production matters.
Julia Watson, Lo-TEK – Design by Radical Indigenism
Lo-TEK is a design movement which builds on traditional ecological knowledge from across the planet. Julia Watson’s illustrated volume takes in indigenous practice and wisdom from eighteen countries, to gather resilient, nature-based technology, architecture, and materials for the future.
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World
Tsing tells the global stories of the gourmet matsutake mushroom, from the USA’s Pacific Northwest forests, where transient communities of migrants and war veterans work the harvest, to Tokyo’s high- end restaurants, where international elites pay hundreds of dollars to eat it. Matsutake often grow in disturbed landscapes: Tsing sees it as an example of how to thrive amid the ruins of a damaged planet.
Joseph Conrad, Nostromo
Nostromo, an adventure novel set in and around South American silver mines at the end of the nineteenth century, is often called a Modernist masterpiece. It’s a strange book – it’s fast-paced and hazily beautiful; it’s blinkered by the prejudices of its time (it was published in 1904), but also visionary in the way its plot concentrates the romance and the violence that comes with globalized trade in the earth’s raw materials.
Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, Trapped in the Dream of the Other
Most of the fireworks you’ve ever seen will have been made in Hunan Province in the People’s Republic of China. Artist duo Cohen and Van Balen commissioned bespoke explosives from Hunan, and then they exported them to an open-air mine near Numbi, in the Eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. If you’re reading this on a smartphone or laptop, your device is probably powered with a battery that contains rare earth minerals from a mine near here. The mines near Numbi are effectively closed to foreign visitors, and the artists’ fireworks had to undergo a long, costly, and sometimes dangerous odyssey to get there. When they finally got them there, they exploded them. The resulting video work, in which Chinese fireworks smoke and spark in the Congolese mine, is psychedelic.
Kit Fan, ‘A Chair from Buddha Mountain’
A poem told from the perspective of a mass-produced plastic chair which the author sat on outside a branch of Café Rouge in central London. Against my expectations, the chair’s monologue is dignified: it thinks about the history of elegant minimalism, and also the bruised hands of the women who made it. It shouldn’t be as affecting, or as strangely funny, as it is.
Rubber tree plant
You see potted rubber plants everywhere – in office vestibules, in school classrooms and on every windowsill...you can buy one in IKEA. If you care for yours well enough, you might one day be able to tap it for liquid rubber. But the history of the rubber plant is also a history of exploitation, colonialism, and forced labour. The rubber plant’s stories show us why we need to think differently about growing, consuming, and making.
Woman Reading a Letter’, Johannes Vermeer
Vermeer’s paintings are often domestic: they show just one small corner of the artist’s modest studio in his home in Delft, Holland, in the seventeenth century. But objects and details in the paintings tell stories about the whole world. Holland, at the time, was a centre of global networks of commerce and trade. Chinese porcelain, Canadian fur, Peruvian silver, world maps, herring boats and slave ships... they all show up in the clear light of Vermeer’s studio, tracing pathways across the planet.
Daisy Hildyard is an author based in the north of England. Her first novel Hunters in the Snow (2014) won a Somerset Maugham Award at the Society of Authors (UK), and a ‘5 Under 35’ honorarium at the National Book Awards (USA). The Second Body (2017) is an essay on how the porous boundaries of the Anthropocene are shaping human experiences. A new novel, Emergency (2022), tells stories of the global connections, and the human-nonhuman relationships, within a small rural area.