Year: 2007

Type: art film (17-18 minutes)

Artist/filmmaker: Steve McQueen

Availability: Uneven Geographies exhibition, Nottingham Contemporary Gallery, UK, 8 May - 4 June 2010, & other venues (viewable by appointment at the Thomas Dane Gallery, London. Gallery photos & film stills here, here, here, here, here and here).

Page reference: Bollands, T., Brouard, A., Cozon, A., Hornsby, J., Park, P. & Richardson, L. (2011) Gravesend. followthethings.com (www.followthethings.com/gravesend.shtml last accessed <insert date here>)


Steve McQueen's tactile 18-minute film Gravesend, which contrasts the hard manual extraction of the mineral coltan in the Congo and its processing in Derby for use in our mobiles and laptops (Anon 2010a, p.16).

The focus of Gravesend, 2007 is coltan (columbite-tantalite), an invaluable yet little known mineral, which in the last decade has sparked a massive mining rush in Central Africa. The mineral’s chemical composition makes it an outstanding capacitor for electronic devices and it is used in almost all digital consumer goods today – from mobile phones to laptops. Its mining has come at great human and environmental cost. Miners, many of whom are children, toil long hours in conditions of great danger and hardship for a couple of dollars a day. The mining process pollutes lakes and rivers and is rapidly consuming forests, even National Parks. Part of Gravesend was filmed in mines in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, where 80% of coltan reserves lie. There, profits from coltan mining fuel ongoing civil wars – which have claimed 4 million lives in the past decade. But it is the hi-tech multinationals that profit the most (Source: Anon 2010b, p.43).

Steve McQueen’s Gravesend is a…17-minute-long semi-abstract film about savage capitalism, neo-imperialism and the ways that multinationals mine riches from war-ridden, corrupted and otherwise ravaged countries around the globe ... Set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, McQueen’s new short film shows men in deep trenches, who pick, shovel, dig and with bare hands vehemently seek out in the dirt tiny bits of a valuable raw ore — stuff that looks like chocolate chips in hardened cookie dough. During the film we also get a close-up of the edge of a blade cutting slowly through stone (the screeching sound of this operation permeates the entire film like fingernails scraping on a chalkboard), clean machines operating automatically without human aid in a high-tech lab, a vivid animation and an orange sunset over smokestacks sequenced in what could easily be an iPhoto effect (Source: Velez 2007, np link).

Without explicit commentary, the film’s fleeting portrayal of toiling bodies and meditative landscapes not only reveals the disparity between the primitive conditions of manual labour in Africa and the computerised automation of European industry; it also connects the commanding wealth of one part of the world to its dependence on the impoverished environment, mineral resources, and weak state controls in another (Source: Demos 2010, p.11).

When you walk into the gallery, it is completely dark. This is the kind of pitch black that makes you think you’re about to run into a brick wall or a monster. The sounds that come blasting across the room do nothing to center you. And what are you looking at? Where are you? The film being cast on the large screen in the gallery is “Gravesend,” but you won’t necessarily know what it is you’re seeing. … McQueen’s film opens with shots of a coltan processing plant—but unless you’re incredibly tech savvy, you won’t recognize the machinery, or any of the process. The imagery in the plant is futuristic, precise, and somewhat mysterious. Though the process is intricate, it is also alien and disjointed. After the processing shots, we are transported to the actual coltan mine, where faceless men work to chip away at a deep, growing hole in the ground. The film is broken by an extended animated shot that sees a black trickle growling with static and growing in the screen, as the camera flips and follows it upwards. Though the imagery is different, the sinister mood remains. After the black river washes out the frame, the audience is presented with an extended close-up of an actual river, full of stones. The most striking shot of the film is this prolonged stare, in which the river and the minerals that are being washed in it take on a bizarre anthropomorphic quality. It is unclear what we are seeing—a human face, buried by rocks, or just water rushing over a streambed? Though this kind of division may seem absurd, it’s the core of the film. There is something happening that is unclear and strange, but sinister, and caught up mysteriously with men and what they do. Though the film moves from machine to man, there is no question that neither can be understood. And of course, when the films fades into black and begins its loop again, there is the shock of familiarity. But by this time, your eyes have adjusted to the darkness in the gallery, and you can see your limbs and the eyes of the people who are watching as well. This kind of adjustment happens naturally in the darkness, but the film still obscures. Sometimes, you can be afraid of something without really knowing what it is (Source: Schapiro 2007, np link).

A deafening soundtrack composed of the ambient noise of workers hacking away at rocks to extract the mineral accompanies close-up footage of taut, sweaty bodies, swollen hands, and the deep red, glistening earth. The camera’s zoom captures the intensity of the process while denying us the pan out that would identify any of the workers. This intense manual labour is crosscut with footage from the high-tech, mechanised process where the coltan is refined. An animation suddenly interrupts the documentary style of the film, and a thin black line meanders across the screen, which corresponds to the River Congo. (Source: O’Donnell 2009, np link).

Instead of depicting the country’s violence directly, Gravesend alludes to it metaphorically, and thus tentatively, as in its recurring shots of a vice’s steel blade slowly cutting through a large hunk of rock with cringing aural effect, which translates the pressure of the Congo’s socio-political situation into visceral distress … Even while the film traces commercial technology back to its roots in current-day primitive accumulation, which appears to be reengaged today by the forces of global capital, no explanatory comment or contextual information supplements McQueen’s images. The film’s allusions thus remain ever precarious, its conclusions always uncertain (Source: Demos 2009, p.9 link).

[At Nottingham Contemporary] Gravesend is shown in combination with Unexploded (Handheld), 2007, a film of less than one minute of an unexploded bomb dropped on a building in Basra. McQueen made it in 2003, while working in Iraq as the UK’s official war artist. The combination underscores the relationship between war and business interests – a connection Naomi Klein explores in depth in her recent book The Shock Doctrine, 2007 (Source: Anon 2010b, p.43).

The mining of natural resources in brutal conditions by people earning little more than a dollar a day (seen in Steve McQueen’s Gravesend) is as much a symptom of the globalised economy as the virtual worlds of financial speculation and off-shore tax havens that Goldin+Senneby subversively enact in Headless; indeed they are interlinked through networks of suppliers and financiers so elaborate and clandestine that they frustrate comprehension (Source: Farquharson 2010, p.3)

Gravesend takes its name from a town in Kent, England. Located on the south bank of the Thames, it was from Gravesend that Marlow, the protagonist of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, set sail for the Congo (Source: Walker 2007, np link).

McQueen inserts an image of the port city Gravesend at sunset, and the wall label informs us that this industrial landscape, on the banks of the Thames, was the place written about by Joseph Conrad in the opening lines of Heart of Darkness, who saw the great river as a “mighty waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth” (“uttermost” from whose perspective, one wonders?) (Source: Milroy 2007, np link).

By referring to and including images of the south eastern English industrial port of Gravesend, the film traces the lopsided relations between current-day Europe and Africa back to nineteenth-century colonialism, specifically via its representation in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: Conrad’s protagonist Marlow sits in a sailboat on the Thames estuary in Gravesend while he tells his notorious tale of journeying up the Congo River.  McQueen’s film commemorates that literary moment through an extended passage of sun setting over the port’s factories and smoke stacks (mirroring the crepuscular time of Marlow’s narration), a sequence that ever so slowly dissolves and gives way to images of Congolese laborers. The resulting palimpsest of geographies joins the normally separated regions, a segregation that otherwise conveniently dissociates advanced technological procedures from the faraway exploitation of natural resources amid conditions of brutal lawlessness. Meditative and melancholy, the sunset’s elegiac tones suggest not only the twilight of both industrialisation and Britain’s imperial reign but also a funereal resignation in the face of the continuation of their deathly effects under a different name (Source: Demos 2009, p.9 link).

Gravesend above all else is a poem, and an epic one at that. Strikingly beautiful, and supremely ambitious, it is a highly formal meditation that speaks by looking. Paired with [his] Unexploded [film], whose footage of damage wrought by an unexploded bomb was taken by the artist in Basra, Iraq, it becomes clear that McQueen is composing with elements from the here and now. Decisively unsentimental in their depiction of contemporary life, these works make all the clearer that as the ring tone tolls for one, it tolls for all (Source: Walker 2007, np link).

Inspiration / Process / Technique / Methodology

McQueen’s avoidance of the art-world hustle has left him relatively immune to the vicissitudes of the marketplace: His work, owned almost exclusively by museums and dedicated collectors, never turns up at auction. Asked about the shaky state of today’s art market, McQueen says coolly, “I don’t give a s—. I don’t care. If I was thinking about money when I was making something, I possibly wouldn’t make it (Source: Bagley 2009, p.244).

David Coggins: A critic wrote that the film Gravesend  - which includes extraordinary footage of miners deep underground [in the Congo], sometimes in complete silence - is “first and foremost about looking.” Do you think that’s true about your work in general? You use such powerful images—do you consider yourself a formal artist? Steve McQueen: I don’t think so, no. Formal? No, it’s not an exercise. This particular work has more formal aspects than others… It depends on the context and content of the piece. As far as Gravesend, it’s about a mineral called coltan. Coltan is virtually everywhere, in every cell phone, every digital electronic device. It’s a conductor, this miracle mineral that doesn’t overheat. And the fact that the majority of it comes from this place in the Congo—this whole idea of going back to the source fascinated me. Going there was completely different from what I expected. DC: Do you think your work gives a voice to people who aren’t in a powerful position? SM: Not at all. I may bring attention to them, but really these are situations that I find interesting. These people can speak for themselves—there are documentaries, books written about the subjects. It’s not about me giving them a voice; it’s about me looking at their situations in a way that’s different from how other people look at them. DC: Are your influences cinematic, or do they come from the art world? SM: My influences come from real life. I’m not interested in cinema for cinema’s sake. I’m interested in life—what one does and how one interacts (Source: Coggins 2008, np link).

Gravesend’s filmic construction blurs the referential and the allegorical, the documentary and the fictional, in order to convey savagery through phenomenological estrangement (Source: Demos 2009 p.10 link).

Decidedly non-narrative, Gravesend is structured around a series of radical leaps in location, modes of thought, and mood. Like a musical composition, it consists of movements varying in tempo. The mainstays of its footage are bouts of realism alternately broken by a fast-paced, but lyrical, abstract animation aerially tracking the Congo River, and a slow time-lapsed dissolve that is a somber reflection on empire. Gravesend makes its most radical leap in the opening sequences, boldly juxtaposing images of coltan’s other worldly refinement with its all too earthly origins. These states of matter are worlds apart, and save for that which is strictly visual, Gravesend is resolutely purged of information illustrating any causal economic links in between. From a high-tech refinery more believable as something from a James Bond film, to a wild and fecund jungle interior, it is not only a question of where these scenes are occurring, but when. Between polar extremes, the net effect is a present moment understood as thoroughly heterogeneous, an uneven mixture of a pre-modern past of pick-axe and shovels, and a future ideal in which imperial power has effervesced into the “invisible hand” of supply and demand (Source: Walker 2007, np link).

By depicting labouring bodies in the Congo, Gravesend mounts a political contestation by rendering visible those typically excluded from globalization’s imaginary. But the film’s “documentation” is far from traditional; rather, McQueen’s figures are unidentified, mere shadows and fragmented shapes, which dismantles the epistemological presumptions of traditional documentary modes of exposure and journalistic reportage, just as the artist’s preference for a black box installation further distinguishes Gravesend’s phenomenological sensitivity and its open-planned, embodied space of reception from the conditions of the theatre environment. As if depicting weightless beings made of shadows and movement, Gravesend portrays its miners as the ghostly absences of light, as voids in the visual field… McQueen…deploys darkness strategically to define a field of possibility resistant to the very forms of representation that would keep those figures in their traditional place of oppression (Source: Demos 2009, p.9-11 link).

Gravesend builds on what has become a significant convergence in the art of the moving image over the last decade, one that is remarkable for advancing political investment by means of subtle aesthetic construction, doing so by joining documentary and fictional modes into uncertain relationship  (Source: Demos 2009, p.10 link).

McQueen’s poetic use of filmic ambiguity and metaphor, allusion and opacity, rescues figures in the Congo from their consignment to what anthropologist James Ferguson calls Africa’s “old colonial role as provider of raw materials (especially mineral wealth),” the current situation of which McQueen also makes reference (Source: Demos 2010, p.11).

Gravesend ... exhibits the kind of ontological inconsistency that Rancière considers a hallmark of artistic modernity, since it weaves together diverse artistic techniques, documentary procedures, metaphorical forms and social “facts” (Source: Ross 2011, np link).

Discussion / Responses

[McQueen] has gone to great trouble to make a work about a deeply troubling subject, a world inextricably shadowing our daily life (Source: Publicamateur 2008, np link).

McQueen’s manipulation of images appears to have an intellectual purpose that appeals on a level different from feeling, as well as to how most cutting-edge contemporary art hints at but fails to embody the ideas it is supposed to be about. The mineral being mined cannot be discerned from visual evidence. Text from the Renaissance Society [exhibition] tells us it is coltan, an increasingly valuable substance most of which comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Were we not told this, the film would be impenetrable (Source: Artner 2007, np link).

I appreciate an artistic practice that declines the duty of informing. After all, information is everywhere and the urgent need seems to be how to get it to matter to people. If the information is there already, why should an artist spoil his art with it? Better to make something that motivates people to find out more, absorb such knowledge, come to their own conclusions regarding what to do about it (Source: Publicamateur 2008, np link).

Capitalist economies may have moved into an “information age,” but this… film proves that their machinations still make demands on the earth and on the laborers who work it. Gravesend lyrically (if abstractly) shows that, whereas nineteenth-century colonial powers sought diamonds and other traditional resources, our current appetite is for coltan, a dull black mineral used in capacitors, which are vital components in mobile phones, laptops, and other electronics. What is to be inferred from the gorgeously composed, monumentally scaled high-definition projection is that greed for this material has contributed to the political instability and the military occupation of the Congo, an area that has seen uninterrupted conflict since well before its 1960 liberation from Belgian rule (Source: Sholis 2007, np link).

Art critic T.J. Demos has allied McQueen’s video work of recent years with many contemporary art practices that mobilise documentary forms to focus on “zones of economic and political inequality that are normally and tragically unrepresented within the dominant mainstream and western media” (Demos 62-63). Demos has produced some very astute interpretations of McQueen’s art, however, I want to suggest that Gravesend may not be principally concerned with opening the western media’s eyes to current events in Eastern Congo. McQueen’s film might be better viewed as a rejoinder to how economic inequalities and political conflict in the region have been represented on our television screens in recent times. As Paul Nash has observed, a significant number of documentary films and television programs of the last decade have explained to western audiences that engagement in illegal mining by militias from Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda has resulted in civil conflict and innumerable deaths in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Nash 123). Many of these documentary investigations also mention the Congo’s version of the “blood diamond,” a black metallic ore named coltan or columbite-tantalite. An extract from coltan called tantalum is used in the manufacture of consumer electronics goods such as cell phones, computers, and video game systems... [B]oth western mining companies and militias from neighbouring African countries seek to exploit the Congo’s resources, including the local labour (Source: Ross 2011, np link).

Gravesend maintains a tension between art actively engaging with current social “realities,” and of differentiating aesthetic experience from normal media representations of neo-colonial exploitation and injustice. In this respect, McQueen’s layering of heterogeneous representational forms and resources does not amount to a postmodern negation of aesthetic autonomy, but rather brilliantly negotiates and prolongs the double politics of modern aesthetics (Source: Ross 2011, np link).

A huge production, the film backfires conceptually and sadly makes oppression seem fashionably exotic. McQueen does manage to create a moment of impact. Sandwiched between the miners and the high-tech machinery is an animation in black and white of what seems like a birds-eye view of an expanding crack, river or topographical map. This section is the most lyrical because it flows with ease and speed, and for a moment we forget the shaky camerawork, weak editing and the feeling we are watching a PBS documentary with faulty audio. McQueen has a poet’s sensibility, as well as an implicit trust in the power of images and sounds… McQueen’s film achieves the rare feat of being truly political without being didactic. Gravesend is one of the most haunting works at [the] Venice [Biennale] (Source: Murphy 2007, np link).

Impacts / Outcomes

The work forces us to consider whether things have really changed with the official end to colonization (Source: Robinson 2008, np link).

There are many good reasons to eschew the haggard forms recognized as photographic “documentary.” Especially when we meet these images in the field of consumption instead of in the context of specific cases made by human rights organizations to stimulate action. That is a world in which visible evidence still can put people on the spot, and in many cases is required in the long slog for influence. But beyond the specialized propaganda wars of NGOs, corporations and governments, conventional documentary makes many of us feel powerless: either guilty and hopeless, or, if we are equipped with a sophisticated critique of the form, effectively off the hook (Source: Publicamateur 2008, np link).

At the same time, the “withholding aesthetic” that Mark Nash has criticised in McQueen’s perverse manipulation of documentary footage in Gravesend leaves more open space for the viewer to make the necessary connections, or conduct further research to extract a legible political meaning from the film (Nash 124). In other words, McQueen resists treating spectators as subjects to be instructed in their views and judgments by the artist... The film’s combination of fictional and documentary forms stays with us in different ways to projects that deliver factual information about economic and social inequalities in Eastern Congo (Source: Ross 2011, np link).

Although art may not possess the visibility or capacities of governmental politics, in the face of the perceived failure of such politics people not surprisingly will turn to other forums for alternatives, to imagine new ways to reinvent the world. (Source: Demos 2009 p.25 link).

Certainly, much of this overambitious event [the Uneven Geographies exhibition of which Gravesend was part] feels like a visit to a university geography department open day, its sense of right-on moral worthiness abetted by the use of dense textual panels that tell you, rather than suggest, how to interpret the films, photographs and installations. So the exhibition is a kind of call-to-arms against global wrongdoing? But if not urging us to take to the streets, then what is the exhibition actually for? If the answer is “I’m not sure”, join the queue and at least take home the knowledge that the world is a thoroughly unfair place. Just in case you didn’t know that already (Source: Anon 2010a, p.16).

Sources / further readings

Anon (2010a) Art: Uneven Geographies, Nottingham Contemporary. Nottingham Evening Post, 14 May, p.16

Anon (2010b) Steve McQueen. in Demos, T.J. & Farquharson, A. (eds) Uneven geographies (exhibition catalogue). Nottingham: Nottingham Contemporary, p.43 (www.nottinghamcontemporary.org/sites/default/files/UG_cat_highres.pdf last accessed 23 June 2011)

Anon (2010c) Uneven Geographies exhibition, Nottingham Contemporary. bbc.co.uk 13 May, (http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/nottingham/hi/people_and_places/arts_and_culture/newsid_8665000/8665682.stm last accessed 22 June 2011)

Anon (2011) Coltan: What you should know. congoweek.org, (http://www.congoweek.org/coltan-facts.html last accessed 23 June 2011)

Artner, A. G. (2007) Gravesend fails to stand on its own. Tribune art critic 27 September  (http://chicago.metromix.com/home/review/gravesend-fails-to-stand/210456/content last accessed 22nd June)

Bagley, C. (2009) Hail to McQueen, WMagazine 38(3) p.244

Coggins, D., (2008) Steve McQueen (Interview). interviewmagazine.com (http://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/steve-mcqueen/ accessed 21 June 2011)

Demos, T. J., (2009) Moving images of globalization, Grey room 37 p.6-29 (http://www.scribd.com/doc/46584911/Demos-Moving-Images-of-Globalization accessed 23 June 2011)

Demos, T.J. (2010) Another world, and another… notes on Uneven Geographies. in Demos, T.J. & Farquharson, A. (eds.) Uneven geographies (exhibition catalogue). Nottingham: Nottingham Contemporary, p.11-19 (www.nottinghamcontemporary.org/sites/default/files/UG_cat_highres.pdf last accessed 23 June 2011)

Farquharson, A. (2010) Foreword. in Demos, T.J. & Farquharson, A. (eds) Uneven geographies (exhibition catalogue). Nottingham: Nottingham Contemporary, p.3-4 (www.nottinghamcontemporary.org/sites/default/files/UG_cat_highres.pdf last accessed 23 June 2011)

Jackson, S. (2002) Making a killing: criminality and coping in the Kivu War economy. Review of African Political economy 29(93/94) p.517-536

Mantz, J. (2008) Improvisational economies: Coltan production in the eastern Congo. Social Anthropology 16(1) p.34-50 (http://mason.gmu.edu/~jmantz/Improvisational%20Economies.pdf last accessed 23 June 2011)

Milroy, S. (2007) The Venice Biennale; How art can be the counterpoint to a superficial CNN world. Breaking News from globeandmail.com, 16th June 2007 (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/the-venice-biennale/article794160/page2/ accessed 22nd June 2011)

Murphy, J.J. (2007) Film and video at the 52nd Venice Biennale. jjmurphyfilm.com 12 July (http://www.jjmurphyfilm.com/blog/?p=49 accessed 22 June 2011)

O’Donnell, N.H. (2009) Postcard from Norway - hypocrisy: the site specificity of morality. artvehicle.com (http://www.artvehicle.com/postcard/32 last accessed 21 June 2011)

Publicamateur (2008) No regret to not inform. publicamateur.wordpress.com (http://publicamateur.wordpress.com/2008/03/17/no-regret-to-not-inform/#more-5 last accessed 22 June 2011)

Robinson, R. (2008) The Beekeepers. Masters of Fine Arts Thesis, School of the Arts, Virginia Commonwealth University (http://digarchive.library.vcu.edu/bitstream/10156/2332/1/Final%20thesis%2012.pdf last accessed 22 July 2011)

Ross, T. (2011) Departures from postmodern doctrine in Jacques Rancière’s account of the politics of artistic modernity. Rancière: Politics, Art & Sense 19 (http://www.transformationsjournal.org/journal/issue_19/article_06.shtml last accessed 23 June 2011)

Schapiro, R. (2007) The new blood diamond: Turner prize-winner Steve McQueen’s new film shows at the Renaissance Society. chicagoweekly.net 27 September (http://chicagoweekly.net/2007/09/27/the-new-blood-diamonds-turner-prize-winner-steve-mcqueens-new-film-shows-at-the-renaissance-society/ last accessed 21 June 2011)

Sholis, B. (2007) Steve McQueen. Artforum.com, Exhibition Reiew 22 October, (http://www.briansholis.com/exhibition-review-steve-mcqueen/ last accessed 22 June 2011)

Smith, J. & Mantz, J. (2006) Do cellular phones dream of civil war?: the mystification of production and the consequences of technology fetishism in the Eastern Congo. in Kirsch, M. (ed) Inclusion and exclusion in the global arena. New York: Routledge. (http://mason.gmu.edu/%7Ejmantz/Coltan.pdf last accessed 23 June 2011)

Velez, P. (2007) Hearts of Darkness. artnet.com 14 December (http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/reviews/velez/velez12-14-07.asp last accessed 21 June 2011)

Walker, H. (2007) The grand scheme of things. renaissancesociety.org (http://www.renaissancesociety.org/site/Exhibitions/Essay.Steve-McQueen-Gravesend.591.html last accessed 21 June 2011)

Photo credit

medbuoy (2011) Dell Inspiron 17R 1599MRB 17.3-Inch Laptop (Mars Black). Flick Creative Commons 10 May (http://www.flickr.com/photos/medbuoy/5706148041/ last accessed 22 June 2011)

Compiled by Tom Bollands, Alistair Brouard, Amelia Cozon, James Hornsby, Phoebe Park, and Louise Richardson, edited by Jack Parkin (last updated June 2011) Page created for followthethings.com as part of the 'Geographies of material culture' module, Exeter University.