Melkweg, or The Milky Way, is a long-term research project into milk plastics. Following a yellowed paper trail, and diving into a few of Europe's lush archives, it discovers a little known but ubiquitous story of haunted manufacturing. Milk plastics were derived from milk protein. They were a centrifugal solution to the waste-products of butter and cheese, or the best way to rescue milk before we learned to make ‘regenerated’ mozarella. Blending elements of critical business theory, material culture studies, sculptural forensics and intersectionality, Melkweg does not want to sell the angle grinder, just do away with the fossils and extractive processes that produced it. Melkweg still wants to get to the bottom of things, for instance a foamy trackside puddle. Melkweg does not want to abandon its feverish archive dwelling, but sketches a petrified map. On it, there are mostly binary traps. Can the people met along the way transform these warnings into possibilities?
During my stay in the country, I learned that Dutch business was into petrified milk as well. Even before the war, several factories acquired rights to using the Italian milk wool patent and the German milk stone patent. Despite this popularity, only one image of petrified milk exists in Dutch press from the period. Odd for such a visual material. The photo shows people working at a factory in Leiden, steeped in what loooks like model kits, made for winter help. Looking at a few online auctions, I can see these were all windmill-shaped pins, given out to people who supported the disadvantaged during winter 1940.
Soon after the occupation of the Netherlands began, all charity organisations were banned. In their stead, the NSB established the Winterhulp Nederland in 1940. Its operatives went out to collect money in the streets, and gave a plastic windmill pin to each donor. Participation in the collection drive was treated as a gesture of collaboration by most, and the phrase “Geen knoop van mijn gulp voor de Winterhulp” emerged as a popular retort (2). Resistance mostly settled for avoiding collectors on the streets, and thus people were harassed at home. Upon one such visit in her Hague home, Jacoba Maria Blom-Schuh adamantly refused to participate, and screamed against nazi leadership. She spent three months in prison for this brave act, where she still pulled off a one-woman Italian strike.
Winterhulp had another form of fundraising: a national lottery. Slips were sold in many cities, with prizes collected on a monthly basis. Someone commented: “The lotteries were popular because the gambling spirit often won out over the principles.” This lottery was winterhulp’s success. Hence, perhaps, the prevalence of accessories for games of chance throughout Galalith advertising– in Dutch, French, Italian and German.
Between the many heroes of novelty products at the time and successive ones, I think we have an idea of that that brand hero looks like. Quoting from three paths to the palm
, a de-petrifying meditation I wrote to soften the archive:
You notice that there is a hollow in the sand nearby
You cannot reach inside this hollow
Your fingers slide across its smooth surface
Moving some sand from around the hollow's outline
You see that the hollow is in the shape of a large toy, like a michelin tire man made of air
The hollow takes a yellow spork and slowly eats it
You watch how the spork spreads inside the hollow, like bubbles in a straw
The bubbles pop at the bottom
Then the hollow starts writing on the sand
And you start reading
Imagine a flashlight in the dark
You can see the world inside its bright beam, and it moves around freely
Now imagine that the dark is hard,
That it is dense with matter, scents and thoughts,
And the flashlight empties them.
As soon as the beam moves, they appear right back in place
I am this flashlight
This meditation is based on Pauline Oliveros' method of sonic meditations, which insists that imagination is more than an escape plan. In technological terms, this immaterial flashlight is a strategy of keeping on making things, maybe plastic bags or sporks thinner, lighter, less energy-reliant to produce, and keep discarding them. Modulating our resources while feeling, and making felt, more of the same. Another big strategy is dematerialisation, or keeping on re-using a single disposable bag, which you just might fall in love with. I don’t think it makes sense to get rid of plastics altogether, since they do have many advantages. I’d like to know how to avoid carrying over the same fantasies onto newer technologies. Fantasies and related certainties about the world, like infinite resources, the naturality of pyramids, what transparency looks and feels like. How does that relate to my handcraft?
Today we’re in the midst of a milk plastics revival. New companies have appeared, and instead of ornamental plastic stone, they produce edible, transparent film. On the one hand that’s an improvement – food keeps on being food, and eating that packaging could save us from living in a wasteland. Additionally, integrating a product with its packaging has an interesting formlesness, an other-less aspect that I like. If the vessel isn’t designed to be discarded, the idea of a vessel loses meaning. In a society hallucinating about crucifixion, that’s quite some fresh air. On the other hand, milk film greenwashes one of the most vicious industries, even hooks it up to a respirator. Literal fossils phased out milk stone, but the underlying brutality needs to go as well. Even if these companies manage to produce completely invisible products, milk ghosts, or milk spectres. Instead, how to set this ante-fossil of manufacturing on its last journey? Starting with what’s before me, with as little harm possible, and so: without prohibition.
Another person this research led me to meet in the Netherlands was Gita van der Berg. I contacted her after finding out there’s a milk wool sweater on display at the Leeuwarden Museum. The sweater was her donation, a childhood gift from her father. During the war, he worked at a milk plastics factory in Leeuwarden. Gita is captivated by this material. Not so much the possibility of transforming milk proteins into clothing, but using milk powder to paint her own art, and exploring the possibilities of this technology at the Museum's events. She also said her research helps her maintain a link with her father, who recently passed away. Does it matter that her sweater is the result of work for the occupying army, part of the nazi viscose cartel? I see less value in keeping this archival map as a topography of hatred. Not to say that there’s no justice to be had with it– just that there are more outcomes.
Modern plastics were invented at a time when to be plastic was defined in popular dictionaries as being malleable and pliable, and the same was attributed to milkiness. I think that today’s edible milk film is the same regressive mode of production. Besides the straight up cruelty, our inhuman treatment of animals at industrial dairies is a measure of speciesism, the privileging human rationality not because of what it is, but because other species do not have it. Do they deserve to be reduced to bio-cogs in our machines?
This is one of the ways in which the technology we aim at life outside the city gates coalesces with what goes on inside. pattrice jones, a writer, activist, and intersectional feminist, writes that “the most catastrophic problems facing our planet, as well as the most oppressive processes among people, are all related in some way to the denial of human animality.” Philosophies or religious faiths urge us to view our bodies and our selves as profane objects to be transcended. Such disconnections "allow us to do terrible things to the earth, other animals, each other, and ourselves. Doing those terrible things increases the estrangement. And the cycle of violation and separation continues." This splitting of mind and body, mind class and body class, turns an otherwise helpful emotional survival tool into a rocket. To counteract this process, jones had established VINE, a farm where survivors or escapees of the dairy industry rest, and a melting pot for animal liberationists with queer feminists. Hers are conventionally taken as contentious statements, but the comfortable concentration camp is still a privilege.
For the above reasons, I’d like to forget the very idea of milk plastics, but there’s a significant exception: anyone who wants to make it in their home, with their own or donated milk, as many do. Experimenting with fluids is your best friend.
At her studio, Aude told me about her hypno-practice in detail. Her work is a careful kind of alphabet pasta. First, she interviews the person to find out about their aims, and then she finds out the stoppages. These would be themes, words, meanings, feelings that seem like the only possible ones. There’s usually less than ten. Then, she adds more, so that her subject becomes distracted from their usual state, and the stoppages dislocate from their position, become useless.
Aude also talks emphatically about the voice in her hypno-practice, saying that the voice is the source of everything. The objects she uses, which include galalith tokens, are only distractions, meant to wear out her patients' attention, wear them out through multiples, instead of abandonment. A change in imagination is in order, as well as a change of voice.
Since this is just a piece of zombie milk, it has no intention, but unlike fixed ideas, this zombie was imagined by an especially dry imagination, by a lens waging war on fluids. As with many techno-remedies, it’s become a bomb, an environmental projection. Plastics promise materials with no past, but arrive full of manufactured fossils. They project a delusional past into the future - a past committed to controlling humidity so much that it reifies this idea into something that spills all over, into micro-particles of mini-fascism, and pollutes the environment, generating a future in which we’ll love our AC more than our kin. This future, quite un-delusional, has been called the Steambath Earth. Similarly to the triassic period, pockets of extreme heat and humidity will float around the globe.
The dry imagination dreams of isolation, of impermeability, but can’t help it – thorough dogmatic servitude to its paradigm problem, it solidifies its presence in the future. Back around the time of milk plastics’ invention, social resistance to technology was fierce, mostly because of worker safety and confusion. The promise, then, was that science would release us from repetitive work, resistive materials, and the limitations of our bodies. Today, in terms of white algorithms or free speech fundamentalism, we see that technology has simply gotten better at modulating past petrifications, and that the robot liberator was only summoned to set the pace.
Looking at the enthusiasm that authoritarian countries had for petrified milks, I think that fascism is Vestism, after a Roman goddess whose rites were closely related to milk, and whose status in the state machine cemented the idea that women have no voice under Roman law. Still, technology should be judged by its outcome, and not its origin. To change this outcome, whose voice is missing?
A xenofeminist voice would say, get rid of old ideas around what’s Natural. Everything is natural. That's less about chance, because it means we get to make our own choice. In the context of the Melkweg archive, and its Vestal paradigm that turned all technological potentials into purity-fundamentalist, gendered flexi-cuffs, I'd like to hear more about the urgency of developing an artificial womb: full gender equality wins the house. Given the regressive international's paranoia around abortion politics, bioethical questions are a waste of courtesy.
The milk plastics that are still around, the ones that Aude stocks, were made using formaldehyde, and so they are literally toxic, unlike milk film. Not very toxic, but definitely so. Today, making a pacifier out of them would fortunately be criminal, but only in the fortress without walls. Still, they have many other qualities. Except the beautiful, hand-made holographic depths under their veneer, they are a testament of some misguided care. They're also a useful intersection of many things we might want to disentangle and return to the stream.
There are moths, beetles, and bacteria that can dissolve it, and there are chemicals that should turn petrified milk into jelly. Still, maybe that's too much abandonment, since ceding these plates to species who will most likely survive any environmental bad turn isn't really making kin. Melkweg is interested in dislocating manual labour, to keep it from drawing the shortest straw. As a sculptor, how do I go from straightening, cutting, and glueing, toward a practice that’s still about something resourceable, something not overwhelmed by impurity? Still carrying rigid, useless items around, treating them, experimenting with them, making use of our own curiosity, maybe autonomising their slow crawl? Looking at what's already here: if milk stone is so warpy, I'd like to see it flex, to work those warps, to steam and soak them like you haven't dreamed of. I’d like to know if they warp in circles, or keep shifting, and how fast? How to make sure they don't break, to keep the plates from splintering, and spilling all over?
Petrified milk can be seen as a calling card for political regression, for upsurges of a delusional past. As Ingo Niermann and others write in Solution 295–304. Mare Amoris
, “the weaker nations get, the more they stir nationalism, populism, and xenophobia. Since nations don’t seem to have a future, they invoke a delusional past.” And milk plastics seem to signal these stirs quite effectively. Still, delusions are at work in our future as well: composed of all the scientific-fictional dystopias, which occupy most of my generation’s ideas about what’s to come. Although tempting, a bad surprise is still a surprise. Niermann’s argument is that our culture is suffering under a delusional purity of nature’s wonders, ones that are almost completely gone because of the pollution from watching them online, gone because we travel to the last remaining places that aren’t yet wasted. He calls for us to the actual now. To get in that semi-ereased landscape, that anthropocenic muck. Standing in unidentified brine, holding some slightly toxic items, could help us think about a future that's neither pristine nor damned.
Petrified milk opens such an impure ecology, a special opportunity to finally have a reason to get into 90% of water around us. Water that’s neither deadly, nor aquatic, in the slightest. It’s just foaming, briny, stinks a little, has debris in it, or a menacing duck blocking the way.
Milk plastics' morbid archive is also quite air-tight in terms of allowing alternatives. The only mention of successful opposition during the war years I found in the archives were labour strikes, Blom-Schuh's courage, and an instance in which women workers laughed soldiers off the grounds of a milk plastics factory. The documents led me from a computer screen to meeting Aude and Gita, as well as scholars like Karen Pinkus, Alice Sotgia, Bruna Bianchi, Jeanne Loarine Schroeder, the Laboria Cuboniks group, Maia Boswell-Penc, or Meredith Martin, whom I've met through their writings. They leave me with several diagnoses that are useful in explaining why milk plastics were a culturally unavoidable curse, and how that relates to recent goings-on in Poland, Hungary, the US, and others.
One person was missed by all these sources, and her story offers not only an example, but also closure through a non-human alliance. Maria Baccante was a worker at one of the last milk plastic factories that remained after the war. Before this, Baccante was a partisan, hiding out of sight and under a false identity, organizing sabotage and armed resistance until the war ended. She then joined the factory's workforce, and soon led a famous strike on premises.
In later years, that factory building became the backdrop for this archive's closure. Lorenza Zambon, an activist who's been associated with the area for decades, tells the story of how during the 1990s, work began to turn the now defunct factory into a shopping mall. These plans were upended once digging for an underground parking lot began. Water burst out from beneath, and completely overflowed the site. The surrounding area, instead of offering another round of milk silk stores, has become an informal public park. Today, it hosts the only natural lake in Rome: The Sparkling Lake, named after its unusually bubbly waters.
In this way, Melkweg's petrified map becomes a trail of places in need of soaking. Each factory on this map needed a water reservoir, both to extract from, and pollute. Today, these reservoirs are neither toxic, nor inviting. They're just one more abandoned detail. I hope that one day, the Transnational Sculpture Symposium in Steaming and Soaking can get to the bottom of these unremarkable waters, soak some petrified milk plates there, and once we learn more about their crawl, arrange a crawling marathon, talking about xenofeminist technology– one that reflects where you want to go, and not where you'd rather never set foot again.