Berlin, April 2018

Artist Dis-Placement 05: Exploring the Routes of Discarded Metal

Ben Nathan is part of the Artist Dis-Placement Project at ZK/U Berlin. At TSR, a company that recycles metal, he investigates the processing and explores the routes of this valuable resource. 

Text and drawings by Ben Nathan

 

I am always unsure why people ask me about my interest in the infrastructure of our cities. Why would I not be? Metal is very valuable. That’s why we keep it from the landfill–piles of rusted, old washing machines equal piles of money. Copper, brass and aluminium are worth a fortune. Maybe this would have been a better profession for me. 

A lot of noise from the crushing machine and heavy goods vehicles beckoned me to the TSR metal scrap yard in Westhafen, Berlin in 2017. 

We wandered around the site. No fences or barriers to scale, a friend and I were confronted by a site staff member who admonished us for taking photos without permission, and at the same time, shared his manager’s contact details. 

That’s how I got involved in the Artist Dis-Placement programme. 

 

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Wandering around the yard figuring out how all this metal was processed, I noticed a boat–Rita–that I had seen from time to time in the dock. Sometimes, on my way for a swim at Plötzensee, I had seen this scrap metal boat pass under Ludwig Hoffmann Brücke. 

At first, I felt quite removed from the workers at TSR, having to deal with a language barrier non-existent in the international art scene of Berlin, of which I am a part–and also a good incentive for me to at least try to speak German. 

Visiting TSR several times a week, Rita’s Captain Jan Halicki one day invited me aboard for coffee. Not long after, he and his wife asked me to join them on their much traveled route to the metal processing plant, not knowing me from Adam. 

It was then that I decided to track the scrap metal’s journey from Berlin to Brandenburg, see how it is processed and then delivered to the steel mill. 

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During the big freeze of April 2017, I spent three days on that ship, making a return 140km trip from Berlin’s Western Harbour to Brandenburg. We broke through ice on the Havel River, snow piling up inside the empty 76-metre vessel. 

Rita’s roundabout trajectory is carefully logged in the captain’s logbook. He has been a captain over 30 years, and is also a mechanic and an electrician. His wife Marzena Halicka also steers the ship. 

Sailing past Pfaueninsel and Grunewaldturm with over 500 tonnes of scrap metal in the foreground–is a surreal sight. On deck, it’s hard to describe the curious sweet chemical scent emanating from crushed cars. We take turns eating lunch. I film from the boat’s roof, people wave and gaze at its heavy weight, as Rita coming their way. 

Snacking on delicious homemade krokiety and a cup barszcz to the rhythm of Disco Polo, I go back out on deck. 

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The next morning, as the ship is unloaded, the whole thing starts to rock and Hurricane Rita had started.

At Brandenburg on the site tour I was granted access to go inside the machinery housing and film. The Eddy current conveyor belts whipped hammered chunks of metal into the air and sorted them using powerful electromagnets. In other rooms people literally grabbed valuable metal, such as copper, brass and stainless steel. Once in a while a large tube of metal made an appearance and was snapped up ad thrown down another hole before it could cause any damage. Outside, excavator cranes swung around and threw handfuls of material creating metal mountains ready for the shredding machine. The machinery and humans worked together, in came bicycles, zimmer frames, carwashes and wheel chairs and out came piles of sorted metals. Towards the end of the day I filmed the freight train to the boundary of the former GDR steel mill, this is the end of the journey. 

This is a work in progress, made possible by the generous hospitality of Captain Jan Haliki and his wife Marzena Halicka. Metal recycling scrap yard visits thanks to TSR. 

 

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