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Copper Geographies

Copper is a miraculous and paradoxical metal characterised by high electrical and thermal conductivity. It is an essential element for nearly every human enterprise. Hidden in plastic, behind walls, bound into cables, carried as loose change; copper is everywhere yet rarely seen. Twenty kilograms of copper are needed in the average car’s wiring, and over seventy million passenger cars are produced in a single year. Each computer uses around 680 grams of copper and more than two billion personal computers are in use throughout the world. Millions of copper tubes are used for plumbing each year. Copper is used extensively inside planes, mobile phones, air conditioners and green-energy generators. Although the metal plays a key role in worldwide information and communication technologies, very little attention has been paid to how the industry impacts on the ecologies in which it operates. (1)

Copper Geographies is Ignacio Acosta’s photographic examination of the journey of copper. It presents a series of fieldwork explorations of its mutation from raw material to stock market exchange value, smelted commodity, capital wealth and recycled material. The series discloses the uneven spatial conditions in which the material circulates by connecting the ecologies of resource exploitation in the Atacama Desert with the global centres of consumption and trade in Britain, and makes visible the return of copper, hidden in manufactured goods, to its geographical origins.

The photographic series is organised in three parts: Global Mobility of Copper, Post-Industrial Landscapes and The Contemporary Mining Industry and its Relation with London.

Global Mobility of Copper

The first strand explores the notion of mutation and transformation of hard rock mining, depicting the global flow of mined copper. It is pieced together by four visual essays.

The first series of landscapes are part of Sulphuric Acid Route (2012), in which the dense, obscure morning fog envelops the world’s largest known reserve of copper. In Metallic Threads (2010-2015), the environmental consequences of copper production are described as tonnes of waste and toxic residues that remain in the landscape. After being shipped to industrial centres and transformed into blisters, copper becomes an intangible economic transaction. The smelted blisters are used to produce cables for the energy and telecommunication industries that will finally send back manufactured goods, perpetuating a circle of mobility. In the series High-Rise (2012), the photographs taken in Iquique, in the heart of the Atacama Desert, explore the “back doors” of the new high-rise urban developments and their economic fragility. New free-trade agreements accelerate urban development with gated communities and high-rise buildings. The last chapter, Hidden Circuits (2015), explores the manufactured objects that contain copper in Liverpool’s finest painting collection. The photographic intervention focuses on the relationship between copper circuits and fragments of the collection, raising questions about the hidden dynamics between the two.

Post-Industrial Landscapes

The second strand investigates the post-industrial mining landscape and new forms of territorial occupation, and comprises two case studies: Coquimbo & Swansea (2014) and Miss Chuquicamata, the Slag (2012). These are two examples of remote geographies in Chile where industrial capitalists developed their mining businesses, leaving the landscapes heavily contaminated.

The Contemporary Mining Industry and its Relation with London

The third line of inquiry looks into the impact of contemporary large-scale mining operations, their relationship with London and the global centre for mining investment by means of a document and a series of photographs. The chapter Antofagasta Plc., Stop Abuses! (2002–2014) investigates the symbolic case of Caimanes, where millions of tonnes of toxic waste material were buried just 470 metres above the town. The artificial eucalyptus forest created by the corporation absorbed the toxic wastewater left behind by the process of transportation of copper concentrate. The last chapter, LME: an Invisible Corporate Network (2010–2015), explores a network of thirty-five companies trading on the London Metal Exchange (LME) in the City of London.

The complete series explains the layers of information beneath this process. The images make visible the political meaning of the sites and how they represent the economic mechanisms of copper transformation. “They become artefacts of cultural significance that explore, link and question relationships between history, geography, politics and representations. The photographs are not just tools but artefacts capable of knowledge production and transmission. As objects of aesthetic and cultural significance, they are sources for epistemological enquiry open to those who might consider this body of work in relation to other photographic practices dealing with the representation of landscape and territory in the future.” (2)

In this sense, the notion of critical realism is one of the most important influences in this work. This term, coined by Georg Lukács (1963) (3) and developed by Allan Sekula (1984) (4) with his exploration of the relationship between capitalism, human labour and photographic culture, can be defined as:

“A practice, a research method rather than artistic style … It is a way of seeking to understand the social reality by critically ‘making notes’ of it. The visual comments artists such as Allan Sekula communicate to their public are inscriptions and traces of the reality surrounding us, dialectically generated through the paradoxes of that reality and, as such, reflecting its contradictions.” (5)

In this framework, Copper Geographies investigates the relationship between capitalism, mining and photography. This theoretical underpinning is based on the notions of hypermobility and unequal geographical development, two important facets related to the natural resource industries that are central to an understanding of contemporary globalisation.

Ignacio Acosta begins his thesis by pointing out the impossibility of curbing the brutal effects of corporate power by means of an activist-motivated photographic approach, but this project engages the viewer with the political, environmental and social dynamics produced by the impact of capitalist economy. The photographs do not expose the contamination of the Chilean territory; they function as a mechanism to encourage viewers to think about the hidden processes of globalisation and their consequences.


Excerpt from the recent publication by Ignacio Acosta: Copper Geographies, Editorial RM (2018). The photobook presents documentary research in the form of maps, photographs and texts, and offers a critical spatial imaginary for re-thinking the geographies of copper. It includes six written contributons by curators, historians and poets; Andrés Anwandter, Marta Dahó, Tehmina Goskar, Tony Lopex, Louise Purbrick and Frank Vicencio López.


Excerpt from the chapter “Conclusions” in Ignacio Acosta’s The Copper Geographies of Chile and Britain: A Photographic Study of Mining (December 2006), a thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the University of Brighton for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.


György Lukács (1885–1971) was a Hungarian Marxist philosopher, aesthetician, literary historian and critic who influenced the mainstream of European Communism in the first half of the twentieth century. His major contributions include the formulation of a Marxistsystem of aesthetics that opposed political control of artists and an elaboration of the theory of alienation within industrial society originally developed by Karl Marx (1818–83).


Allan Sekula (1951–2013) was an American photographer, writer, filmmaker, theorist and critic. From 1985 until his death in 2013, he taught at the California Institute of the Arts. His work frequently focused on large economic systems and practised what he called critical realism, informed by Marxist thought, documentary photography and conceptual art.


Baetens, J. and Gelder, H.V. (2006a): Critical Realism in Contemporary Art around Allan Sekula’s Photography, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 9.


Image credits. All rights reserved © Ignacio Acosta

Native copper displayed as museological specimen. From ‘Metallic Threads’. Mine ParisTech. 2014
‘Sculphuric Acid Route’. Atacama Desert, Chile. 2012
Hoarding for global material goods for the mining industry. From ‘Antofagasta Plc., Stop Abuses!’. Calama, Province of Antofagasta, Chile. 2012
El Teniente, underground copper mine. From ‘Antofagasta Plc., Stop Abuses!’. Libertador General Bernardo O’Higgins Region, Chile. 2014
Slag-heap of Chuquicamata open-pit copper mine covering the former worker’s settlement. From ‘Miss Chuquicamata, The Slag’. Province of Antofagasta, Chile. 2012
‘High Rise’, Iquiquie, Chile. 2012
Forest contaminated with hazardous liquids residues from a copper mine. From ‘Antofagasta Plc., Stop Abuses!’. Los Villos, Coquimbo, Chile. 2010
River Tawe estuary. From ‘Coquimbo & Swansea’. Lower Swansea Valley, Wales, England. 2012
‘Give us this day our daily bread’. From ‘Hidden Circuits’. Sudley House, Liverpool, England, 2015
‘Waterfall beneath a high bridge’. From ‘Hidden Circuits’. Sudley House, Liverpool, England, 2015
Copper warehouse and storage facility. From ‘Metallic Threads’. South Docs, Liverpool, England. 2014
Copper telecommunications cables manufacturing. From ‘Metallic Threads’. South Wales, England. 2015
Copper camouflage. From ‘Metallic Threads’. London, England. 2015
Refurbished computers and laptops awaiting dispatch. From ‘Metallic Threads’. Computer Aid International, London, England. 2015
Telescope’s electrical system. From ‘Metallic Threads’. Very Large Telescope, Paranal, Atacama, Chile, 2010
Discharged copper wires. From ‘Metallic Threads’. Leading cable manufacturer, Aberdare, South Wales, England. 2015

13.Mar.2019 3103 views
Ignacio Acosta Ignacio Acosta

Ignacio Acosta (Chile, 1976) is an artist and researcher (PhD) based in London. He explores and reflects on the geopolitical power dynamics in minerals, geographies and historical narratives. His book Copper Geographies stems from a practice-based PhD titled The Copper Geographies of Chile and Britain: A Photographic Study of Mining, developed as part of Traces of Nitrate, a research project developed in collaboration with Art and Design historian Louise Purbrick and photographer Xavier Ribas, based at the University of Brighton and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). He received Research and Development Award from the Hasselblad Foundation / Valand Academy, Sweden, as part of the Drone Vision project led by Sarah Tuck.

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