The walk began at a flagship Apple Store and proceeded through a busy stretch of big box and chain stores in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Along the way, participants were guided to actively engage in a dialogue about the human use of lithium as a source of electricity and a drug. In addition to doing research on the devices at the Apple Store, participants learned about lithiated soft drinks while drinking medicinal herbal tea, collectively performed a cut-up poetry reading, and logged their mood via text messages. For some, this text communication continued over the course of the following week. The walk concluded on the banks of the Chicago River, where participants developed cyanotype (blueprint) photographs directly in the river water.
This piece was inspired by a recent trip to Tibet. My guide book’s author claimed that most of us carry a small piece of Tibetan lithium with us in our mobile phones or other portable battery-powered devices. Though e-waste and the supply chain of natural resources have garnered increased media attention, as individuals we rarely pause to consider the materials that we carry on our persons daily. The counterfeit and bootlegged fashion appropriations of the Apple logo that I witnessed in Tibet substantiate the iconic power of the Apple brand and global reverence for Steve Jobs as a business hero.
Some scholars have argued that our social media use is preventing us from having empathetic relationships with our fellow human beings, while other studies show that technology enhances interpersonal connections. My project does not attempt to refute or deny these assertions. Rather, I am interested in hearing from people of all ages about their relationships with the battery powered devices so many of us keep on our bodies all day long, and how this might open up insights into other aspects of history, science, and spirituality.
In this project, the element lithium is a metaphor and a connective thread to weave together various issues from ecology to psychology. For example, in Tibet, Chile, and Bolivia, lithium concentrates in brines have been increasingly mined to supply global demand for electric cars and portable electronic batteries. And though the pharmaceutical industry promotes patentable psychotropic drugs, lithium has a history as one of the most stable and effective mood-stabilizing drugs to treat people with bipolar, schizophrenia, and other psychiatric disorders.
Special thanks to Meghan Moe Beitiks and Jane Jerardi who collaborated on an early iteration of this project. Photos by Ji Yang.