and is currently at the 21_21 Design Sight Gallery in Tokyo (until June 2010).
After some research I have determined that I will need the following materials to make a toaster. Copper, to make the pins of the electric plug, the cord, and internal wires. Iron to make the steel grilling apparatus, and the spring to pop up the toast. Nickel to make the heating element. Mica (a mineral a bit like slate) around which the heating element is wound, and of course plastic for the plug and cord insulation, and for the all important sleek looking casing. The first four of these materials are dug out of the ground, and plastic is derived from oil, which is generally sucked up through a hole.
Part of the project consists of finding the places where it's possible to dig up these raw materials. Mining no longer happens in the UK, but the country is dotted with abandoned mines, some having been worked since before the 'UK' existed, but all currently uneconomical.
Finding ways to process the raw materials on a domestic scale is also an issue. For example, my first attempt to extract metal involved a chimney pot, some hair-dryers, a leaf blower, and a methodology from the 15th century – this is about the level of technology we can manage when we're acting alone. I failed to get pure enough iron in this way, though if I'd tried a few more times and refined my technique and knowledge of the process I probably would've managed in the end. Instead I found a 2001 patent about industrial smelting of Iron ores using microwave energy.
Microwaves, as we all know, are just so much more convenient - and so I tried to replicate the industrial process outlined in the patent using a domestic microwave. After some not-so-careful experimentation which necessitated another microwave, followed by some careful experimentation, I got the timing and ingredients right and made a blob of iron about as big as a 10p coin.
The practical aspects of the project are rather a lot of fun. They also serve as a vehicle through which theoretical issues can be raised and investigated. Commercial extraction and processing of the necessary materials happens on a scale that is difficult to resolve into the domestic toaster.
The contrast in scale between between consumer products we use in the home and the industry that produces them is I think absurd – massive industrial activity devoted to making objects which enable us, the consumer, to toast bread more efficiently. These items betray no trace of their provenance.
So are toasters ridiculous? It depends on the scale at which you look. Looking close up, a desire (for toast) and the fulfilment of that desire is totally reasonable. Perhaps the majority of human activity can be reduced to a desire to make life more comfortable for ourselves, and has thus far led to being able to buy a toaster for £3.99 [among other achievements]. But looking at toasters in relation to global industry, at a moment in time when the effects of our industry are no longer trivial compared to the insignificant when our, they seem unreasonable. I think our position is ambiguous - the scale of industry involved in making a toaster [etc.] is ridiculous but at the same time the chain of discoveries and small technological developments that occurred along the way make it entirely reasonable.
The outcome of the project will be a toaster that will bear a very imperfect likeness to the ones that we buy - a kind of half-baked, hand made pastiche of a consumer appliance. The process of its creation will be documented through video and through a book (...Which has now been published!).