Guest post by ANIRBAN GUPTA NIGAM
In 1992, Prijedor – a mine in a place called Omarska in Bosnia – was transformed into a concentration camp by Bosnian Serb forces. The number of Bosnian and Croat people held in the camp varies between at least 3,334 and 5000-7000. Many of them – around 700-800 by some accounts, many thousands by others – were murdered.
A little over a decade later, in 2004, the world’s largest steel producing company, ArcelorMittal took control of 51% of the Ljubija mining complex, of which the mine of Omarska is a part. In the former concentration camp where thousands had been detained and many brutally killed, mining activity has now resumed. A year later – 2005 – ArcelorMittal promised it would financially back and oversee the construction of a memorial for the victims at Omarska. They never did. Not only that, according to some reports ArcelorMittal recently enclosed the space around the mine, denying people entrance and effectively privatising a place of great trauma and violence for exclusive reasons of commerce.
Meanwhile the company, through the artistic prowess of Anish Kapoor, spearheaded the construction of a massive public art monument meant to become one of the symbols of the forthcoming London Olympics. The Olympic Tower – also known as the ArcelorMittal Orbit – has, from its very beginning, been subject to both massive criticism and support. The back and forth over its status as genuinely “great art” or “fascistic gigantism” and a “waste of public money,” has centred on how people respond to the physical structure, as well as on the merits and demerits of having a large corporate house direct a public art initiative of this kind. On the 14th of April this year, Mladen Jelača, Director of ArcelorMittal in Prijedor, verified to Milica Tomic (from the Monument Group in Belgrade) and Eyal Weizman (professor in Goldsmiths, University of London) that iron from the same ore that was mined in Omarska had indeed been used in the construction of the ArcelorMittal Orbit.
Doubtless, one of the reasons the story catches our eye is the central role played by ArcelorMittal – an “Indian” company – and Anish Kapoor – an artist we claim as our own quite frequently. The company’s arrogant actions might just mark the first significant act of corporate delinquency committed by – let’s say – “postcolonial capital,” one that signals a larger shift in global structures of power. Indian capitalists have arrived: they will violate ethics and principles as much as anyone else, across the world from now on. There has, by now, been quite a lot of extremely competent and informative writing on the controversy itself, writing which has pointed to the manner in which, effectively, ArcelorMittal is covering up war crimes. Commentators have rightly pointed out that the company’s plea that it is simply a neutral actor on the scene is untenable; and that it has, quite openly, sided with revisionist and reactionary political positions in contemporary Bosnia that rubbish claims of a concentration camp having ever existed in Omarska.
ArcelorMittal’s ruthless expansionist dreams are well known. A simple search reveals ample instances of Lakshmi Mittal bemoaning the slowness of India’s democratic structure, the endless negotiations and meetings. His son, in an interview a few years ago, expressed clearly his – and presumably his father’s – love for the non-democratic quick-fix model. Reading the following observation the younger Mittal made on China we can quite easily imagine why the concentration camp at Omarska wasn’t ever anything but a mine for the Mittals:
But I remember going to China. I flew into the airport, and there was literally red-carpet treatment. Then I’m in a car on a highway, and there is no one else on the road. So I ask, ‘What’s going on here?’ And they say, ‘The party secretary wanted to give you a nice welcome. This highway isn’t actually open yet.’ Then I get to the plant site, but I don’t see any land. I see houses, lots of houses – a village. And I say, ‘Where’s the land?’ And the party secretary says, ‘Right here. In 90 days, everyone will be gone.’
Caught up in this bitter political battle is the status of Anish Kapoor’s structure as a public art monument that is now to become the site for the expression of opposition against ArcelorMittal. According to a Facebook page that has recently been set up, a press conference is planned for July 2, where survivors of the atrocities and activists will claim Kapoor’s artwork as a “memorial in exile” that ArcelorMittal promised but never delivered.
To understand this second level to the whole controversy we have to move beyond the mere condemnation of ArcelorMittal’s corporate practices and try to understand – quite literally – the thing at hand. Susan Schuppli has asked, in an incisive piece on the issue, whether in this case metal becomes a material witness to war crime.
This line of thinking is also central to Eyal Weizman’s work on the centrality of nonhuman actors in international law through complex developments in the fields of forensics. The story of the Omarska camp is not, therefore, simply one of corporate greed. There is possibly a larger lesson here about the manner in which politics and matter are becoming further and further intertwined – or at least about our becoming more and more aware of this entwinement. This coming-together of human actors (an artist and a capitalist in this case) and nonhuman elements (iron and steel) reveals much more than can be encapsulated by a basic critique of capitalism or corporate profiteering.
These events point us to a logic of material that goes beyond apparent physical properties like strength, malleability, ductility etc. Metals, contrary to commonsensical presuppositions, are not going anywhere; they are as much the engines of our digital present as they were of previous ages. When a controversy like this explodes, we realise that the heroic narrative of steel proffered by ArcelorMittal is deeply flawed. No material is ever “new”; its pasts always remain even as it is reshaped and remade for different purposes. The material witness continues to witness.
These are the absent-present traces that then allow politics to emerge – a confession that material from Omarska went into the fabrication of the Orbit suddenly reveals the hollowness of the rhetoric of internationalism built into ArcelorMittal’s publicity on the ideology of the Orbit. The traces also allow appropriation. Rather than condemn Anish Kapoor for doing business with ArcelorMittal, it might be more productive to see attempts to mark the Orbit as a memorial as a radicalisation of Kapoor and Mittal’s vision: what they promised only in rhetoric is now being done in practice. The questions raised about the public use of public art of this kind can be turned on their head when a community stakes claim to this structure. These claims are made possible because of the material power of steel to forge a connection between two disparate localities, events and times. Given ArcelorMittal’s harsh clampdown on visitors in Omarska, there is reason to believe that the Indian-in-London will react strongly to any attempts at making the Orbit. However, it is precisely in this contestation over marking and re-marking that other, more significant connections might open up: between Omarska, London and Jharkhand, for example.
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Anirban Gupta Nigam is a research scholar at JNU