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Phone Wars - © Science Museum/Tim Hawkins
Location: Telecommunications gallery, first floor (8-21 December 2008)
Phone Wars was a project by artists Harwood, Wright, Yokokoji, with students from the John Roan School, that enabled people to discuss the ‘Coltan Wars’ in the Congo by passing on messages via their mobile phones. Based on the traditional Congolese practice of 'pavement radio' - meeting on street corners to spread information due to restrictions on free speech and fears that the government monitors communications - Phone Wars was a version of this tradition that used a mobile phone network to spread messages.
The artists ran workshops with the students and members of London's Congolese community to discuss the history of telephony, particularly its more recent social, cultural and political consequences in the Congo and the connection to our mobile phones. During the workshop the students researched tantalum which, because of its density, is an essential component of mobile phones and other electronic devices. Tantalum is extracted from an ore called coltan, much of which comes from the Congo, where the metal is coveted by dozens of international mining companies and local warring militias. From their research the students wrote and recorded a series of messages to be played to subscribers to the Phone Wars network.
An exhibition of the project was presented in the Science Museum's Telecommunications gallery. Each time subscribers received a recorded message from the Phone Wars network the 300 switches of the Museum’s giant Strowger telephone exchange were triggered, linking together over a hundred years of telephone history and highlighting the consequences of globalisation, technological progress and our addiction to constant communication.
Phone Wars was part of the award-winning Tantalum Memorial project by Harwood, Wright, Yokokoji, a series of telephony-based memorials to the people who have died as a result of the Coltan Wars in the Congo, made in collaboration with the Congolese radio programme Nostalgie Ya Mboka. A previous version of the Phone Wars project called Telephone Trottoire was launched in 2006 and grew to include 2,000 Congolese subscribers.
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Artists Graham Harwood, Richard Wright and Matsuko Yokokoji work in a fusion of art, digital media and open networks, aiming to reach beyond the hierarchies of power and knowledge to involve those normally excluded from expression and collaboration.
Abdul, Aminat, Antonia, Malachi, Melissa, Penny, Sammy, Shajeda, Sylvia and Thomas, sixth-form students at John Roan School in Greenwich, London, all contributed to the project.
The Science Museum would like to thank Stream, Anaclet Koffi, Patrick Ramazani, Jean Demar, Dee Johnson and the staff of John Roan School, Telecommunication Heritage Group and John Liffen for their assistance during this project.
Tantalum and the Congo
The 'Coltan Wars' in the Congo are estimated to have contributed to 3.8 million deaths and the creation of 361,000 refugees since August 1998.
Coltan is an ore mined to obtain the metal tantalum. Because of its density, tantalum is an essential component of mobile phones and other communication devices. Much of the world’s coltan comes from the Congo, where the metal is coveted by dozens of international mining companies and local warring militias.
Many people have little understanding of the impact that mining of this precious metal has on the people of the Congo and the part we all play when we buy electronics.
Phone Wars was based on the traditional Congolese practice of 'pavement radio' - meeting on street corners to spread information due to restrictions on free speech and fears that the government monitors communications. Phone Wars was a version of this tradition that used a mobile phone network to spread messages.
The Phone Wars telephone network
For the duration of the exhibition anyone could subscribe to Phone Wars by calling the subscription phone number or visiting the project's website.
Once signed up, participants received a series of phone calls, free of charge, inviting them to listen to messages recorded by the students of John Roan School. These messages described how mobile phones are connected to the Coltan Wars and Congolese refugees in the UK. After listening, participants had an opportunity to record a comment and forward it to a friend.
Each time people received a phone call from the Phone Wars network the 300 switches of the Science Museum's giant Strowger were triggered, linking together over a hundred years of telephone history and highlighting the consequences of globalisation, technological progress and our addiction to constant communication.
Almon Brown Strowger was an undertaker by profession. He invented the world's first automatic telephone exchange after discovering he was losing clients to a competitor. The wife of Strowger’s rival was a telephone operator, and she was intercepting and redirecting the calls of everyone who tried to phone Strowger. Strowger's invention made it possible to call someone directly and gave rise to modern telephone networks. His switches were in service until the 1990s, when they were replaced by digital technologies that use tantalum.
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