Nikel Materiality is a research project commissioned by Dark Ecology and realised by Tatjana Gorbachewskaja in collaboration with Katya Larina. This aim of this online platform is to present Nikel Materiality and continue the research.

Nikel Materiality explores the industrial mining town Nikel through the lens of unique material substances, textures and artefacts that emerged during Nikel existence. Through a catalogue of artefacts we present Nikel as a ‘material system’, and as a multi­scalar expression of new materials which appeared and evolved in the town fabric.

The series of photos and maps traces how different materials emerged in Nikel. On a micro scale they show the physical properties of the material; on a macro scale they show the social­economic processes which happened in Nikel, as well as the environmental processes in the region. We are interested in the unique local assembly of interactions of matter and energies that are driven by nature, industry and social activities, cast in the form of an Anthropocene landscape.

Through the exploration of the materiality of the town – which is named after the material nickel – we reveal an emergent symbiosis of the natural environment and alien materials which were brought in through human activity.
This catalogue displays a complex loop of relationships between processes through which these new materials continuously have been forming an overall structure of the territory, and on the other hand side processes by which the territory simultaneously participated in the formation of the materials.
Nikel was built as an element of a greater infrastructure dedicated to serve the mining industry of the Soviet Union. Later this infrastructure was neglected, Nikel was left ‘on its own’ to both fight the harsh arctic climate of the Murmansk region, as well as socio­economic crisis of the Post­Soviet period. Today, Nickel is a particular case in the chain of mono­function cities of the Post­Soviet Russian industrial machine.
Nikel was built in an area of extreme living conditions. It appeared as an artificial organism covered by a top­down ‘protective dome’ of vital infrastructures. Nikel became a great example of cities which were alienated from the natural environment and climate It was a city ‘in a bubble’, protected and therefore isolated by top­down state control for many years.
Nikel is an example of a town which could be artificially and technologically reproduced anywhere, a place which denies its environment and is not related to its geological or climate context.

Due to the volatile economic and political circumstances after the collapse of the Soviet­Union, Nikel was left without the central control on which its existence depended. The artificial ecology had to adapt in order to survive. The ‘Protective dome’ was destroyed. All the elements of the local ecology of Nikel, which were hidden under a mass of industrial pollution, were forced to search for a new logic of coexistence within harsh conditions of the arctic climate and the socio­economic context of Post­Soviet Russia.
The artefacts we collected are like objects from a cabinet of curiosities. They are samples of a unique ecology which emerged under the Protective dome and which was transformed when this dome was destroyed. We classified the artefacts using organisational concepts of the ecological system proposed by John T. Lyle in his book Design for Human Ecosystems. Two of the organisational concepts of Lyle's ecological system which we used are structure and location.

We formulated four themes in which we grouped 200 artefacts and material samples we collected in Nikel. We identified a group of artefacts which represents a variety of forms of a new material that appeared under the ‘broken dome’ of Nikel – a copper­nickel dust, The Slag. Self­Organising Boundaries is a group of artefacts that illustrates the boundaries of a ‘competing patterns of existing ecosystems’ of Nikel’s ecology. The third group of artefacts are structured around the idea of the functioning of the ecosystem. Here under Energy Infrastructures we collected all the artefacts related to the life support mechanisms of Nikel. We also created a group related to the composition of the artificial ecology of Nikel. We called it Historical Clash. This group contains the artefacts related to the history of social and political rhythms which structured the physical territories of the town.

This catalogue of Nikel artefacts and maps of their location helps us to sense the design agency of the material system of Nikel, a system first alienated from the natural environment, but later embraced and completed by nature. The research represents not only the failed past of human ambition to overcome nature but also aims to discover the processes of co­design that drives both human ambitions and the forces of the natural environment which together shape the existing and future landscape of an Anthropocene of the Arctic.

Four components of analytical model

  • Historical clash
    dust / slag

    This group of artefacts is related to the composition of Nikel’s artificial ecology – its structure. Here we grouped the materials related to the history of social and political rhythms which structured the physical territories of the town.
  • Energy

    This group of artefacts is structured around the idea of the functioning of an ecosystem, and organisational concepts related to the ‘flow of energy and materials’ within the ecosystem of Nikel. Here we have collected all the artefacts related to the life support mechanisms of Nikel and the large industrial machine of resource­development by the state.
  • Self-organising

    These artefacts are grouped according to location. We called this theme self-organising boundaries and mapped the boundaries of ‘competing patterns of existing eco­systems’ of Nikel’s ecology. This group of artefacts reveals the fragmented character of the city and traces boundaries and borders which naturally evolved in the town as a response to overlays and resistance of
     different elements that structure the area.
  • Nikel-copper

    These are artefacts related to the physical and virtual representation of new materials which appeared such as copper­nickel dust, the by­product of the smelting of nickel ore. Our aim was to trace the immaterial qualities and forces that nickel and its by­products are creating within the city. Here we open up the discourse of how a material which appeared in the Anthropocene may evolve within its environment and form a post­human ecology.

Nikel - copper dust

Historical Clash
  • Finnish Era 30th-40th
  • Post WW II _50th
  • Stalin Era 50th-60th
  • Khrushev Era 60th
  • Brezhnev Era 80th
  • Post Soviet Era
Energy Infrastructure
  • Heating
  • Light
  • Regulation
Self Organising Boundaries
    • Small Cell
    • Big Cell
    • Roads
Copper-Nikel Dust/Slag
    • Fillit panels
    • Insulation and Filling material
    • Nikel Dust/Slak distribution


If you want to add more artifacts to the catalogue, please send it with a discription and location to the mail nikelmateriality[at]gmail[dot]com.

If you have any questions about Dark Ecology, please contact us through email: darkecology[at]sonicacts[dot]com.

Dark Ecology is a three-year art, research and commissioning project, initiated by the Dutch Sonic Acts and Kirkenes-based curator Hilde Methi.

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