Bridget Chappell

Entry #1. 2021

25.01.2021

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“Capitalist nostalgia”


It’s two years since I was first in Bogong, when I spent my time taking field recordings of the electromagnetic (EM) activity in the area. The arcane (manmade) Kiewa Hydroelectric Power Scheme and the significant (incidental) magnetic anomaly underneath “Mount Jim” on the Bogong High Plains that throws compasses out by 20 degrees.

The EM recordings of the four power stations in the Scheme revealed a funny pattern. Rather than a consistent 50hz hum (the frequency of alternating current), when sequenced from highest to lowest in altitude, the recordings sang a small descending melody. The pitch modulated from a flat-ish A to a high-ish G in today’s western tuning. I had half baked theories to do with altitude and the doppler effect and their effect on pitch, so when B-CSC invited me to contribute a work to an upcoming exhibition, I asked if I could return to pick up where I left off in investigation.

The power scheme sits mostly in solitude in the Victorian Alps – some parts above ground, some deep below it, signalled by pieces of metal and piping that surface for air. It’s mostly unseen; I don’t know if it’s unseeing – it enjoys nice vantage points in the Kiewa Valley. The four power stations mark nodes in the chain formed by the Kiewa River, manipulated (and modulated, apparently) by dams, pipelines, and reservoirs. They can’t see one another but form a kind of Jungian collective unconscious. When I visit them, they appear like icons in a dream. 

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As Marx would have it, commodity means “the appearance of a world of things” - the market value of everything around us overshadowing its inherent value (if any). The slippery immaterialism of the lives of many, epitomized by those who worked from home and those who became an unwilling "hero" during Covid isolation, signals a movement beyond capitalism’s traditional appearance of things into the appearance of a world of information. In Capital Is Dead, Mackenzie Wark asks us to break with its endless modifiers of "capitalism"– "platform–", "disaster–", and my personal (un)favourite "late–", and to contemplate the possibility that the system is not as immortal as its critics, and champions, would have it. What we may have now is worse: Wark identifies it as a “vectoralism”, encompassing a new form of class relation borne out of the commodification of our own sociability and its attendant data extraction. As data proles - or serfs - not only do we not own the information we generate or the means to realise its value, we also make unpaid labour of our intimate lives through training AIs and algorithms that make other people very rich. The hydro scheme – unmoving, monolithic – and its symbology of an earlier era of bricks and mortar wage labour seems innocent by comparison (don't worry... I know it ain't). 

Built in the 1950s, the Kiewa Hydroelectric Power Scheme was a postcard representation of pure capitalism. It predated its better-known Snowy River sibling as Australia’s first hydro-electric power scheme, built and run by a huge force of mostly migrant labour. Now it is largely unattended. I step around, under, over, through, and in between things to visit its four pillars. This must be one of the last places of industry without a security contractor.

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The data economy is tethered to the material world through icons like the power station. For the last two years, Iceland used more grid energy mining Bitcoin than in the lives of its residents. I always resented music apps like Spotify because of how much time I was meant to spend letting the algorithm “get to know me” in order for it to make interesting listening recommendations. It’s not just that outsourcing the joy of crate digging seems strange to me. Tech companies’ data centers are responsible for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to that of the airline industry. Music streaming produces greenhouse gas in the hundreds of millions of tonnes; as a rough rule of thumb, streaming an album 27 times uses more energy than its production in physical form. Just download the music you like and listen to it that way.

I settle into my field work, re-visiting the power stations and its exclaves like extended family members, taking recordings in different weather conditions with various EM mics. Hydro power is classed as a renewable energy source but the realities of its dams and its land clearing aren’t so warm and fuzzy. The quiet company of its infrastructure is a loaded pleasure; a curious friend to greet again after two years apart. More to follow.