Toby Smith

The Gunhilde Maersk at Sea and Port

The Unknown Fields Division is a nomadic design studio, run by Kate Davies and Liam Young, that ventures out on expeditions to the ends of the earth to explore peripheral landscapes, industrial ecologies and precarious wilderness. These distant landscapes – the iconic and the ignored, the excavated, irradiated and the pristine – are embedded in global systems that connect them in surprising and complicated ways to our everyday lives. Each year we navigate a different global supply chain and seek to map the complex and contradictory realities of the present as a site of strange and extraordinary futures. Past journeys have traversed the mines of Madagascar and the Australian outback, the faded nuclear futures of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and the black military technologies and conspiracy theorists of the Nevada desert and Burning Man Festival.

This summer we travelled East, to China and beyond, tracing the shadows of the world’s desires across China Seas along supply chains and cargo routes, to explore the dispersed choreographies and atomised geographies that global sea trade brings into being. These are the contours of our distributed city, stretched around the earth from the hole in the ground to the high street shelf.

Consignments of the precious and industrial, raw and refined, mechanical and alive, drift across infrastructural seas, suspended in maritime space on vast Panamax, Aframax and Suezmax, from cavernous factory floors via huge ports like Shanghai and Ningbo-Zhoushan, Singapore and Busan and onwards to navigate the bottleneck excavations of Panama and Suez en route to the West.

Our journey to East Asia has taken us behind the scenes of the modern world, along a cross-section of this supply chain. From source to sea, we chronicled the journey of this and that, bits and bobs and thingamajigs; via the mega ports of Shanghai and Busan our route will take in some of the biggest cargo infrastructure on earth and we rode alongside containers of stuffed toys and football scarves, remote control cars and microwaves, setting sail through the shipping lanes of the East China Sea and beyond. Then following the trail overland from the shipbuilding yards or shanghai, to wholesale markets the size of cities, endless factory floors and workers dormitories, and finally all the way back to their source, the raw material refineries and mines of inner Mongolia, the world’s largest rare earth mineral producer.

We understand who we are by the trail of objects we leave behind.  From the smallest and most inconsequential of objects to the most intricate and complex, these material things set in motion a vast, planetary scale infrastructure. Our cities cast shadows that stretch far and wide. The forthcoming design speculations developed by the studio will operate within this distibuted city, where intense pockets of activity in wildly unexpected places supply cultures far removed with the fulfilment of their every need and desire.



Signage on the edge of one of China's largest coal mines.


An impromptu structure marks the limit of a huge open cast coal mine cloe to Baotou, Inner Mongolia.


Coal trucks add to the gigantic pile of coal and spoil in one of the world's largest coal trucks.


Cross-section of coal, earth and top-soil on the edge on one of China's largest coal mines.

Joining us on our journey were a series of collaborators and specialists from the worlds of design, technology, science, art and fiction. Investigative photographer Toby Smith, author Tim Maughan, data visualizer and information architect Sha Hwang, programmer Dan Williams and many more combined to formed a travelling studio, carrying out research visits, field reportage, rolling discussions and impromptu tutorials that are being produced in a publication and film.