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All Up In My Grill

Credit: Toby Smith

Unknown Fields (UK/AU)

As the beat drops and the stage lights strobe, pop stars dripping with bling flash their jeweled gold teeth for the camera in a flurry of choreographed dance moves. A world away, in a hole in the ground in the wild-west mining town of Ilakaka, Madagascar, another ensemble of bodies move in rhythm, to dig dirt by hand out of the bottom of a precious gem mine.

Here it is cheaper to pay workers in rice than it is to buy and maintain mechanical mining equipment. The human conveyor belts of Ilakaka shovel dirt in perfect synchronization, each man paid with 50 g of rice, their bodies repurposed as digging machines.

Unknown Fields have used the amount of rice the human conveyor belt consumes in a day to manufacture a precious stone that embodies the systems through which these worlds are intimately and profoundly connected. The red Madagascan rice endemic to this treasure island is a staple food of the miners and has been collected locally and shipped to gem specialists for carbon analysis. By subjecting the rice to extreme heat and pressure in the laboratory, Unknown Fields have formed a synthetic stone encoded with the sum of the human conveyor belt’s labor. After manufacture, the gemstone has been set into a gold tooth, ready for that million-dollar smile and the outrageous lyric. From kilojoules, to carats. In the glare of this cheeky gold grin we see the cost of luxury, of beauty, of a daily allowance of rice, of twenty men shoveling at the bottom of a hole.


Commissioned by the Architectural Association and Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

Film and photography in collaboration with Toby Smith.