unknown fields division

Liam Young, 29 04 15

Tomorrows Thoughts Today’s Liam Young and long time collaborator Kate Davies run the Unknown Fields Division. Unknown Fields have launched a new project called Rare Earthenware, developed for the ‘What is Luxury’exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

While journeys to extraordinary places are the cornerstone of luxury travel, this project follows more well-concealed journeys taking place across global supply chains. It retraces rare earth elements, which are widely used in high-end electronics and green technologies, to their origins. A film of the project, developed in collaboration with photographer Toby Smith is composed as a single panning shot along a planetary scaled conveyor belt, documents their voyage in reverse from container ships and ports, wholesalers and factories, back to the banks of a barely-liquid radioactive lake in Inner Mongolia, pumped with tailings from the refining process. To accompany the film, Unknown Fields Division have used mud from this lake to craft a set of three ceramic vessels. Each is proportioned as a traditional Ming vase and is made from the amount of toxic waste created in the production of three items of technology – a smartphone, a featherweight laptop and the cell of a smart car battery.

You can watch the full ‘Rare Earthenware’ film exclusively on our project page at the Guardian

The finished vases are made from the exact amount of toxic waste produced in the manufacture of 3 objects of technology- the smartphone, the laptop and the electric car battery cell. Film Still © Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

Unknown Fields collecting radioactive tailings material from besides the worlds Largest Rare Earth minerals refinery in Inner Mongolia. Film Still © Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

Radiation scientists test the toxic clay collected from the tailings lake and find it to be 3 times background radiation. Film Still © Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

The amount of toxic clay produced in the manufacture of a single smart phone is moulded into a traditional Ming vase form. Film Still © Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

A Chinese factory worker assembles the components of our tech gadgets along a conveyor belt that stretches from Inner Mongolia to a London retail store. Film Still © Toby Smith/Unknown Fields

Rare Earthenware by Unknown Fields. Film and Photography in collaboration with Toby Smith, Ceramics assistance from Kevin Kevin Callaghan, Animation assistance from Christina Varvia

unknown fields division

Liam Young, 04 04 13

From the Unknown Fields Division 11/12 Far North Alaska Studio run by TTT’s Liam Young and Kate Davies comes a new project by Will Gowland. The world is now concealed and manipulated in ways that make answering the question of where am I an impossibility. Glitches in the big and fragile infrastructures of Global Positioning systems mean we are sometimes both here and there, as a pulsing blue dot locates us to within 500metres. What are the implications of a navigational system based solely on the virtual? Will Gowland, in our Department of Landscape Glitches has jammed the GPS networks and revealed an alternative virtual topography, a territorial architecture of spoofed cartography. It is an emerging landscape that operates and exits in two parallel worlds, the physical and the virtual. Imaginary protest icebergs drift through the autonomously navigated oil shipping lanes. We get lost in a wilderness of illegal signal jamming formations and we glimpse the faint flicker of covert militarised GPS territories, super stable under a secret sky of black satellites. Some are landscapes of misdirection, others are navigational markers guiding one safely through unstable terrain. We now put our faith in a digital territory that is just as unknown and fallible as the physical.


Imaginary gps ghost protest icebergs drift through the autonomously navigated oil shipping lanes.


Oil reserves are hidden below digital GPS mountains


An illegal oil field is hidden in a GPS spoof, a digital landscapes of misdirection.

unknown fields division

Liam Young, 09 05 11

From the Data Archaeology Lab in the Architectural Association’s Unknown Fields Division 09/10 Arctic Circle studio run by TTT’s Liam Young and Kate Davies comes Data Fossils by Tobias Jewson. Tobias has evolved his data fossils experiments from the intimate and personal attachments that calcify on our own bones into a vast digital geology of an internet archive cast into layers of volcanic glass across Iceland’s deserts. In the digital era our information no longer takes the form of the physical, but that of a electronic file stored in ‘the cloud’. Our collective history is quickly effaced from this fragile and ephemeral domain, a computer crashes, formats are quickly obsolete, a hard drive is lost and all is gone. With our attachment to physical objects and mementos becoming increasingly superseded by our relationship to information, what will we leave for future generations?

Our collective history can be deposited in columns and strata of earth – where once archivists trawled the library stacks, data geologists now roam the Icelandic landscape. Like climate records trapped in ice cores data archiving can also become a geological process. In southern Iceland the division found a ravaged landscape of eroding lava deserts- a desolate crust hiding beneath it extraordinary geothermal resources that now support huge investments in an emerging national industry of data storage and server farms. Data Geologies rehabilitate this damaged landscape by co opting these investments in technology and reimaging the Icelandic typology of data archives.

A suite of new software applications that subvert existing digital prototyping machines to encode the ephemera of the digital world into ever evolving architectural landscapes. Hoards of machines traverse the lava deserts, scraping loose sand from the surface, and under immense heat transforming it into elaborate glass like geometries, within which our recent internet activities are encased. Programs are developed to encode data inputs into structural building elements.

Simulation software is developed for the realtime growth of data geology from live twitter streams.

Informational topographies grow based and cluster on keyword inputs. The drugs keyword feed is especially active from late evening to early morning.

Topsoil blown by the harsh arctic winds soon gathers in the lee side of these immense structures, the grounded geological layer sprouting grass and moss. Over time, habitats will grow in the glimmering hollows as fields of data slowly reverse Icelandic soil erosion. Local Islanders read the growth of this landscape from afar, whilst archaeologists look close ,using advanced MRI scanners, searching for insights into our past. Information enthusiasts scan google earth sattelite images, deciphering geographies of data from across the globe.

People pilgrimage to this area known to hold the last data relating to flurry of internet activity from the day Michael Jackson died. It becomes an informational cathedral, a spatial obituary grown from a real time data feed.

And while tourists might flock to see history in the making archaeologists will read the dull fragments of frozen silica as records of our digital pasts.

unknown fields division

Liam Young, 24 11 10

From the department of intangible technologies in the Architectural Association’s Unknown Fields Division 09/10 studio run by Liam Young and Kate Davies comes Scatterbrain Iceland by Jack Self. This is the first in a series of posts documenting the ongoing work of the division.

Scatterbrain Iceland is an architectural novella that proposes, through a narrative format, the construction of the Internet as an artefact, as a supercomputer server-farm. This is an excerpt:

“A crest of purple reflection wavered along the length of Songling’s bodysuit as her arm described the perfect parabola required to deliver the grenade to its target. As her hand attained the apogee of its circuit her front foot sunk into the spongy bundles of fibre-optics, which splayed under her shifting weight. Beneath her boots the crystal canopy quivered and flexed, and beneath that the halos of solid-state drives chimed like miniature bells in an informatic cathedral. The grenade now twisted along its arc, moving silently through the hibernal gloom across the fantastic billow of blue and red LEDs, across the floating sea of rhythmically pulsing information.

Fifty yards away the ventilation shutters of a server tower chattered and clicked, broadcasting thermal semaphore to electric storm clouds. A square hole in the curving basalt façade marked the liminal space leading to an open service hatch. As the grenade cleared the threshold of this short tunnel two yellow-suited figures appeared, Guardians of the Cloud. They each held a cordless neon tube powered by the immense electromagnetic field of the thousands of servers that filled the tower. The Guardian closest to the doorway also held a weapon, the barrel of which was already rising as he came into view. The vectors of these bodies – the grenade and the Guardian – shared an interstice both in time and space. Bouncing off the Guardian’s shoulder, the grenade would continue a new trajectory past the lift head, down the central column of the tower. It would pass eighty storeys of concentric server cores and detonate – immediately the ventilation shutters would snap closed, disrupting the chimney-effect that regulated the Web’s temperature. The immense heat generated by the computers would build up under the stack. Very soon the whole tower would combust, quickly setting fire to its neighbours.

But Songling would not live to see this. The fulcrum of the two bodies was precisely the same moment that the Guardian’s trigger-finger achieved critical pressure. The force of the bullet striking Songling’s shoulder caused her to turn as she fell, revealing a spinning panorama of towers, a landscape of computational infrastructure that extended out beyond the geothermal reactors to the limits of the valley. This was the New Internet, a machine that did much more than simply recollect the virtual lives of humanity. It inter-compared, analysed, synthesised, and generated abstractions. It constructed elaborate logical underpinnings and formulated its own languages to test the structure and consistency of our world. It had become an organism.

It produced idiosyncratically inconsistent and unpredictable opinions, like its creators. But what only Songling seemed to comprehend was that the Internet would not accept this grossly parasitic relationship with its parents for much longer.

For obvious reasons, the Web could not be allowed to survive.”