Rare Earthenware

Unknown Fields Division

Liam Young and Kate Davies


Cover Photo: Still from Unknown Fields Division´s film Rare Earthenware. The still shows Liam Young, from Unknown Fields, collecting radioactive mud from the tailings lake at the outflow of Baogang Iron and Steel Corporation.Photo: Toby Smith

The nomadic design studio Unknown Fields Division analyses, traces and reveals problems and malpractice in the production of consumer goods. Design studio’s projects take their audience on expeditions to remote places where, for example, raw materials are produced and excavated for the needs of the electronic industry. The group has previously researched the Texaco company’s oil fields on the Ecuadorian Amazon, sapphire production in Madagascar, and gold mining in West Australia. The Soil Matters exhibition will feature a film from the Rare Earthenware project, in which the group trace the origins of the rare metals used in technology products such as smart devices and laptops. The expedition took the designers to a lake of radioactive sludge in Mongolia. The lake is badly polluted because the Bayan Obo rare earth mine —the world’s largest resource for mining the rare earth elements used in smart devices—empties its waste water into it. 

Unknown Fields Division is a nomadic design studio based at the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA) in London.

Three ceramic vessels by ceramic artist Kevin Callaghan. Made of mud from a radioactive tailings lake in Mongolia. Each vessel 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 (380g of toxic waste), a featherweight laptop (1,22kg of toxic waste) and the smart car battery (2,66kg of toxic waste).Photo: Toby Smith