THE PHOSPHATE STANDARD
Studio NAND


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Naurutica. Mythemes.

White light, aww
white light it lighten up my eyes
White light, don’t you know it fills me up with surprise
White light, aww white heat tickle me down to my toes
White light, aww
white light I tell you now goodness knows, now work it
White Light / White Heat, Velvet Underground

Empires are built on washy ground. The heart of darkness is to be reached on waterways, over oceans, into rivers, a hut every 150 kms on the riverbanks. See the man in a white suit and hat drawing numbers into lists and books, connecting goods and people with signs on papers, installing traffic and communication over an unsure, watery scape. Some territories consist of more water than land, strewn rocks in rippled seas, singular like solid waves. In 1899 it takes 60 days to cross German-New-Guinea, even on a Phosphor-Helium screw steamer like the Reich’s new pride, The Samoa, from the Salomon Islands via the Bismarck Archipelago and the Karolinen Islands all the way up to the Mariannen. To reach Nauru from Hamburg, it takes 6 weeks — 35 days less, if you take the Transsib and conditions are good. The Jaluit Society runs all ships and holds all rights on pearling and, of course, on the Phosphorus Mirabilis, the starry-eyed, bird shit, wind and water salted philosopher’s stone gleaming on Nauru’s black coastal rock strewn like an exploded lighthouse. Contesting with heavenly constellations for the fate of all those chemical generations and modernities to come and go, here, I sit. The hunks and chunks of the El Iksir, with many names, dip my face in white light so artificial no one would believe its natural grounds. Scintillating Azoth of all prima materia, of immortality and unfathomable wealth — this is phosphor. The heart of darkness gleams in the dark.

Have you ever had a closer look at the flags of the colonies of the German Reich? Well, if you have, you would have seen the Prussian eagle, proud and violent Aar of ancient Germanic lore turning into the paradise bird of international capitalism, inelegantly mimicking the most vast British dreams of market, sea and power. Head down, no claws, wings bent to embrace the soft and warm-feathered southern side of the globe like Queen Vic’s girdle, voluptuously mirroring its black and red sharp-taloned Northern original. A German knight invented the globe. Martin Behaim’s dream of the world becoming a ball is bird’s territory these days. Any dream is bird’s territory these days. Above the 2 birds on our flag is a crown with miraculously gleaming stones, forming yet more birds, shitting out a luminous cross. The German farmer died the very day he hit the sea. I am the harvester and I shall tell you about the chemistry of the world: birds — follow the birds. I will follow the birds — from Greece to Nauru, from the Argonauts to the unworldly mines of international capitalism. A myth can only be told in the language of a myth. Like song and melody, mythologies conserve what is 40 and preserve what has not yet come. I shall tell you of a continuity beyond the binaries of past and future. Like Cantor, the mathematician of phosphor, or Leibniz, its poet, or Hennig Brand, whose body brought it to shining light, solution is a chemical term.

On March 16th 1656, my great-great grandfather’s great-great-grandfather pissed on a piece of cloth. Again and again distilling the more yellow fluid until it glowed white. Phosphorus Mirabilis, the gleaming miracle, dissolves all differences of culture and nature, inside and outside, money and body, life and things. Hennig Brand does not know he has distilled our chemical future past. He stands in a very brown room — deep brown like the still-life of Robert Boyle’s dim laboratory at the rear wall of Brand’s laboratory, portraying the ethereal mystery of a vacuum pump against the hardened, vapor and color-soaked wood of a candle-lit room. Behind Boyle’s back, a painting shows another dim lab, portraying some other scientific revelation, multiplying the situation like the 2 open doors of one of Brandt’s lover’s mirror cabinets, inscribing the repetitive, simulational logic of modern experimentation with thick chemical oils on canvas. The researcher and the table in the image face the observer full frontal, exhibiting the nihilo ex creatio in the slender form of a dead, white pigeon dropping its suffocated head down the tube as one of its feathers would fall if dropped in airless space. This is building nothing out of something. You may never see a door or a window in laboratory portraits. Experiments install their own rigid time and space, like grandparents’ living-rooms (without the ticking clock – and no ancient gallery, but just as brown). The cloth in front of my ancestor is slightly stained from failed experiments. He wiggles his butt, both fists behind his pelvis, pushing it forward, one foot rubs a little closer to the table than the other. He unzips. His shirt sticking out of his fly like a little flag, he concaves his back and presses hard on his glans, holding his fleshy bit between thumb and index finger. He drips. His left foot is bent outwards, pointing at the heavy back left leg of the sturdy brown wooden table the cloth is pinned to. His right foot crooked inward so far that the lines of his toes, if followed, would meet only a couple of centimeters further, to mingle under the table like forbidden romance or straying cats. He is drunk (alcohol in his urine helps the process). He wobbles and aims. Drips again. He laughs. He can’t reach the cylinders and glass tubes Robert Boyle is using in the painting on the wall behind him. He breaks the illusion of a consequent experimental time-space in a predisposed setting and puts his bets on chance. He thinks of himself as an alchemist. From my ancestor’s lab to the advent of late-modern synthetic biology, the promise of phosphor has always been two-fold: eternal life and infinite wealth — the philosopher’s stone, curing any disease, giving life and turning material into gold. Synchronizing the innermost circulation with the outmost circulation, I often wonder, whether the notion of circulation was taken from the body and brought into the world, or whether it was taken from the outside world of finance and goods in the rise of colonialism and extended into 41 the body. Both concepts were born in my ancestor’s life time. Given the fact that an organism is (according to 17th century medical standards) either alive and circulating or dead and cut-open, it seems more likely that knowledge of the human body as a closed circuit of fluids mimicked the flows of words, coins, people and things — and not the other way round. Either way, the discovery of phosphor is unthinkable without the circulation of life and money, back then and now: life and money; inside and out; bodies and things; nature and culture. There is no difference — like the islands which the birds shit on these days, or the people that carry the phosphor currency standard in the fleshy pockets of their DNA. The next day, Leibniz came to our house to write a poem on my family’s piss.

Text: Marian Kaiser

Phosphorus Mirabilis
(G.F.W Leibniz 1678 – a rough translation)

The fiery gown that is Medea’s gift,
Hindered more simply from burning it is,
Lying calmly hiding its force,
one hardly feels the warmth at its source.
Its life is shown in its gleaming alone,
An emblem for the happiness of soul.

Phosphate is one of the key elements in biological life. It is required for a wide range of different functions, such as the construction of DNA and RNA molecules and the activation of the cell’s energy cycle. The introduction of synthetic biology on a large scale will require huge amounts of this inorganic chemical. Its highest quality is derived from Guano, the poo of specific sea birds.

The Phosphate Standard is a speculation at the intersection of economics and synthetic biology and a re-enactment of the history of the world’s smallest republic, the republic of Nauru. Located in Micronesia in the South Pacific, the story of the island could have been an entirely fictitious myth of technological progress and capitalism: the phosphate rock island boasted the highest per-capita income enjoyed by any sovereign state in the world during the late 1960s until the phosphate reserves were exhausted and it became a so-called rogue state, being discussed as a site for nuclear waste dump.

The Phosphate Standard imagines a new world around an economic shift towards phosphate, extrapolating from current mechanisms of globalization and economics.