Meth Labs

A Taxonomy of Meth Laboratories

Alex Hubbard comes from Newport, Oregon, which perhaps explains his fascination with crystal meth. His "native homeland is filled with citizens" partying on, working on, recovering from, and making methamphetamines. The following thoughts were born of images culled from the Internet over the last six years, and have been adapted from a lecture delivered at the Whitney Altria in March of 2006.

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There are two camps or schools tackling government pressure aimed at the production of crystal methamphetamine. Meth producers are facing increased monitoring and the resulting police raids of warehouses, farms, cars, houses, and hotel rooms used to make meth. This pressure has amplified the differences between Mexican drug "cartels producing large quantities of meth and local manufacturers producing for personal use. (1)

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The first group to look at is Super Lab designers. Super Lab designers are the traditionalists, designing their labs along conventional notions of laboratory-based production and scientific practice. These labs have a sterile look defined by repeated glass, metal, and plastic forms. Despite the tarps and dirt flooring, this laboratory could be manufacturing Advil just as easily as high quality crystal meth. (2)

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In this Super Lab, the opposition between leisure time and productive time has been reduced to the point of a dance club/meth lab. These designers have done away with formal definitions of how their time is spent. Time becomes a state of perpetual work and play. Work becomes dancing in the dark doing drugs, while play becomes opening blister packs of pseudoephedrine tablet s while mixing, heating, and separating chemicals and chemical compounds. (3)

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The metal containers on the workbench above are called 22's. (4) In Meth production, 22's are the sure sign of a Super Lab. One cooking cycle can produce up to 12 pounds of meth per 22. The 22 is a glass container nested in an aluminum heating unit. Even though this designer has adopted the strong and rigid minimalist forms and techniques of traditional laboratories, she has still opened her design up to new possibilities by adding a strong fantasy element, those pictures of women on top of vintage cars. In doing so she has closed the opposition between the formal laboratory and the commodity of pleasure that it creates.

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This lab is somewhere on the continuum as we shift from Super Labs to more home-based laboratories. (5) In this lab we see a raw arrangement of equipment that highlights the decisions that these designers are making. They have taken the Modernist approach to their process and to science. In this approach the tools and the associated actions become as important as the scientific yield. Their actions become an attack upon the body: scratching one's face, picking at sores and imaginary creatures on the body with quick, unpredictable hand and body movements.

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This lab (6) can be decoded through a close reading of that back wall. The spray-painted lines and shapes mix with fragmented and stylized words. The disjunctive mix of graffiti and line drawing create new meanings and new forms. In a similar vein, the scientists" in this laboratory have fractured the scientific method and standard laboratory protocols to create their own meth recipe. Their recipe is one that evolves as the old becomes outdated or as familiar chemicals become regulated or banned.

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Transitioning from Super Labs to home-based laboratories, rigid lab structures begin to break apart. This fracturing is coupled with increased experimentation and expanded definitions of scientific method and formula. (7) What is also important about this lab is the photo of the lake above the worktable. It recalls long sleepless nights, stressful mornings of cooking meth, listening closely for the sound of brakes, or the police, or perhaps a disgruntled partner to break down the door and shoot the manufacturer or burn them with chemicals. In spite of all that, this photo can serve as a sanctuary, a place to imagine as one waits for the binders in your pseudoephedrine to break down.

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Above is a close-up of a 22 like we saw earlier. (8) In this case, there is a tension between the manufactured form of the 22 and the organic chemical process that coats the interior of the form. That same tension exists between the recipes for making meth (such as the Nazi Method or the Red Phosphorus method) and the small-batch meth cooks trying to follow those recipes with limited means and/or a limited understanding of science.

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This suitcase lab (9) is the first example of what is called a "home lab,"Âť although this lab is in a suitcase and not a house. These lab engineers are interested in more radical design. They utilize covert tactics, disguise, and flexible laboratory planning to avoid government repression. Here are two linked sailing sport bottles. (10) Certainly this is a nod to Jasper Johns and his Ballantine beer bottles. However, rather than a comment or critique of gestural painting, these bottles are set up as a simple ethanol distillery.

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This is a kitchen in a classic home lab, (11) or mom and pop lab as they are known. Laboratories of this scale manufacture crank for personal use, and possibly to sell a little to friends. In this case it's also clear that these people have done away with domestic spatial definitions such as kitchen and bedroom. It follows that their approach to science and their conceptions of pharmacology are equally challenging.

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As labs become more portable, (12) ideas of location are becoming looser. Designations such as lab, home, car, kitchen, and house become crossed. At the same time temporal definitions such as work, leisure, and sleep come into play. In the past, commodities became associated with their place of production and/or consumption: Boston Baked Beans, Philly Cheese-Steak, Maui Waui, and the Frisco Speedball. As production becomes mobile, names and their relationship to place will evolve. Names will now be determined by production that involves the short-term occupation of different spaces (motel rooms, parking lots, trailers) with supplies coming from drugstores and hardware stores throughout the country via the Internet: the 405-Fizz Wizz, Barbur Blvd. Biznack, and Browser Tweek.

In this lab the designers have reactivated this shower/bathtub. (13) In a stroke of genius, the bathtub could still be used for bathing. On the worktable above the tub there is a bottle of lye, which is often used to neutralize acids. We also see a rather simple but efficient system of wire and tubing which moves gases as well as supplying the burner with electricity.

Here is a home entertainment lab. (14) The supplies and equipment mingle with the microwave, which has been spray-painted blue. A small TV keeps this producer occupied, and various chemicals are on the shelves, ready to go. This lab designer no longer has to decide between leisure time and productive time.

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This is an example of the most mobile type of laboratory, the car and truck labs. (15) These are time-based laboratories, moving through space, evolving as the truck goes to different destinations–picking up what supplies are needed, perhaps picking up friends along the way, possibly avoiding people. These spaces become a mix of tailgate partying and pharmaceutical production that foreground an evolving, flexible process. A system or practice that is able to expand and contract is far more sophisticated than a conventionally fixed one such as the Super Labs. This one can also be taken out on the road. Here is a partially buried laboratory. (16) This designer has utilized simple elements from the surrounding terrain to cover the top of his structure. He has also spray-painted the door and some of the items inside. Stealth labs, such as this, combine existing conditions and geographies with portable structures in order to almost disappear into the landscape.

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This stick laboratory (17) has been almost entirely built from the surrounding environment, besides the tarp roof. Going beyond simply mirroring the forest or hiding itself as the buried labs do, this lab becomes a part of the forest. I imagine that these lab designers were just as resourceful and cunning when cooking their methamphetamines. The commodity they have produced has become equally native in rural communities and bloodstreams. Here is a more playful version of a forest or tree laboratory. (18) These cooks have integrated the tree branches into their lab for holding supplies and equipment such as gloves, buckets, and bottles.

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In this last image, the technicians have positioned themselves as far as possible from the sterile environment and rigid thinking of the Super Labs. These designers have pushed their process to the point of total collapse. (19) By the same token, they have opened their procedure to unlimited possibilities for innovation.

About This Story


  • Author: Alex Hubbard
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012
  • Print Publication Date: Jul 2008