Posted on 2018-06-22.

Liturgy for Electronic Waste

Jun 22, 2018


I’d like to confess - Would you like to be my witness?

Adressed at the public, waiting for a moment

my sin was wastefulness. wasteful of my own being and of that which co-constitutes me. from my late teenage years on i spent money i didn’t have and i didn’t do work i had to do. i was carefree and wasteful

one thing let to another and soon enough, the money i owed to its rightful owners and the pile of work undone became a burden. but i didn’t care. what is money and work anyway? I didn’t want to be defined by these! I’m free.

but in fact i was not free. We’re never just free. We’re all just a small piece in the preparation for what is coming, embeded and interdependent on a larger than us. In this context, work must be seen as the purpose of life, it must be done as well as possible, and work must be considered a duty to be done because it has to be done

Gluttony, sloth, substance abuse, wastefulness.

In the middle of 2010 I wasn’t able to bear the weight of my burdens anymore and I collapsed. I had to give in and confront my sins and it was made clear that I’m not a productive member of the society. My punishment came in the form of severe depression, nervous breakdowns, panic attacks.

Emptied of resources and purpose my last resort was the state. What zen is to buddhism, switzerland is to protestantism. Stripped of its magic, what’s left is methodology and the method here is work. The state always has work for you - you’re just not getting paid on your own terms.

By the mercy of the post-protestant state i was put into a program for the abled bodies but disturbed minds and my task was to recycle electronic waste. It was my chance to redeem myself. The process of manual recycling of electronic waste is beautiful. You don’t need to think, you just need two working hands. One hand holds the object the other hand works the axe.

Recycling a laptop with an axe

The material is placed on ground to display The following part is pre-recorded and play while I arrange the material

Your browser does not support the audio element.

The materiality of smartphones is no easy thing. All of our history has led to the complexity of this devices. In the creation of electronics we’re deeply interdependent, for example on physical processes for chip manufacturing or deep time processes to produce rare earth materia.

A smartphone and other electronic devices can contain around 50 different chemical elements, amongst which are some rare and hard to mine metals. Many of these elements are common in our environments, like oxygen, carbon or silicon. Additionally, there are some elements, which we already are able to recycle quite well, for example silver. The recycling of iron is done since thousands of years - in each new piece of iron today are a few iron-atoms which are in circulation since the ice ages. This is one of the axioms in the extraction, use and deposit of metal: Metals never die. A metal can not be destroyed or disposed of. But it can be mixed up so much with other material or elements, that a recycling isn’t technically possible or simply uneconomical.

Waste is mixed material in the wrong place.

And it’s all mixed up from the beginning already. Raw material is mined in Australia or in the Bayan Obo mine in Mongolia. They are searcht to extract neodymium, a metal, to create strong magnets to be used in small speakers or microphones. The element neodymium always coexists with the elements thorium and uranium in the wild. That means, mining neodymium also results in radioactive material. The laws in place in Australia make it hard to refine the raw radioactive material right away, so they ship it to Malaysia, where it’s easier to create radioactive deposits.

On satellite photos from the Bayan Obo mine you can see gigantic tailings. These are mine dumps, created by washing the raw material and leaving the sludge flowing away. The materials left over after the process of separating the valuable part from the uneconomic part, floating away into radioactive wastescapes.

What kind of apocalypses are created here, already at the start of the life of an electronic device?

I take over again

How can we be in good faith with electronic waste?

It’s undeniable, that in those month in the summer of 2010, electronic waste was part of my salvation. At a point in life, where I didn’t see any meaning it gave me purpose.

Only later, when I regained an interest in the world, did I developed a language to understand the kind of agency it has. It was fitting that on of the first works i encountered was Jane Benetts Vibrant Matter, which starts of with Debris. I quote:

“stuff exhibited its thing-power: it issued a call, even if I did not quite understand what it was saying.”

The electronic waste was also issuing a call, although I don’t think i heard it very loud at that time. But it was a call that i could answer through my own materiality.

People standing, myself kneeling on the ground, hands on the knees, praying

You who art in earth, Hallowed be thy name. Thy world come. Thy will be done Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For thine is this world, and the next, and the next for ever and ever

A presentation with the images from the project is beamed onto me/through me

For the last two years I worked as junior researcher in a project on electronic waste. The artistic research project is called Times of Waste, located at the Institute for experimental design and media cultures in Basel, Switzerland. In Times of Waste transformation processes and its stages are of interest. The research project looks at the purification, treatment and reuse respectively disposal of objects and materials as well as involved actants and fields of activity. On the transport and recycling routes extending from Basel’s local context into global connections, objects are not only undergoing material transformation, but also economic, social, aesthetic or rhetorical reassessments. It is a matter of perspective what is considered when or at which stage of materiality as waste respectively as a ‚new’ resource.

It is in this context that I found artistic practice as a way of creating relationality beyond what can be worded out and make entanglement accessible/experienceable. Our research found its way into exhibitions, soundscapes, short films and of course a lot of text. In the following I’d love to focus on the audiowalk, which impressed and influenced me very much.

One of our outputs of the research project was an audiowalk, that was located in the tri-national area in Basel, Switzerland. There is a large industrial area which is bordered by France and Germany and contains the only port of Switzerland which is connected to the sea through the river Rhein.

The port area is a place of transaction, exchange, passage and transformation. It’s a fitting location for our audiowalk in which we tried to knot together various loose strands: the Port area itself and its recycling services, import/export and global transport routes, BASF lindane cleansing, mobile repair shops, invasive animals and plants or a temporary use area after deconstruction of oil tanks.

After processing all our material we had to create a narrative and a narrator. We opted for a simple voice, from the perspective of the smartphone on which the audiowalk was playing. It might seem old fashioned or childish but it helped us tremendously in tying it all up into something relatable. The audiowalk is location based, which means that certain pieces of audio play when you reach a point or walk past some invisible barrier.

All the subjects that got tackled, the voice of the smartphone and the entanglement with unknown location created quite a complex audiowalk. Those participants who could let loose and trust the audio-only instructions of where to walk reported of a much nicer experience then those who tried to follow the audio walk like a museum guide.

Rather by accident we were able to put our participants into a dissociative state and create an emotional experience for them.

I did the walk myself 43 times by now. I was responsible for the development of the application that run the audiowalk and was also part of the team for the “logistic”, that is to say, how to get people from A to B just by audio-instructions in a complicated unknown terrain. In the course of the one and a half years of development I encountered the location in a multitude of states. By sheer brute force, I got entangled into the port area and I started to develop feelings for it. There is a difference, if you use a place to get to another place or if you have to cooperate with a place and pay attention to it.

There where two invisible actants at play here. After a few times I knew the audiomaterial by heart and knew what should come where and when. The second acant was the gps signal, which was quite hard to work with in this area with alleys and tall flat surfaces. I ended up working very closely with two immaterial forces, though both bound to place. And somehow all of it got entangled, the location, the immaterial forces and me. Through my action, the place got changed and it changed me.

In our research work we tried tried to create an object biography. A biography is the detailed description of somebody’s life and there is a certain kind of intuition of what an object is. Through the object biography we thus wanted to acknowledge that an object has a life or is a living thing, with a history and a complex set of relation that co-create it.

An object biography is a holistic approach to research. One does not necessarily develop deep insights, but it’s an approach that needs interdisciplinarity. We worked together with a wide scope of specialists from electronic secondhand dealers, to physicists and local politicians to artists working with e-waste and in recycling. An object biography paints a different picture of something. It is research and thinking done in networks. There is relationality and entanglement going on and we the researchers are included. One could say, that an object biography is relational epistemology, a term that i encountered in a paper by Nurit Bird-David: “Animism” Revisited Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology.

“If the object of modernist epistemology is a totalizing scheme of separated essences, approached ideally from a separated viewpoint, the object of this animistic knowledge is understanding relatedness from a related point of view within the shifting horizons of the related viewer.”

Collecting the pieces in a bowl, readying them to hand them out

Maintaining in servitude is the basis of all that is. All that is, is only because it’s taken care of.

We’re all just infrastructure in the becoming. We’re just one more step in a succession of things to come.

As below, so in us. We have always already been waste.

Please come forward and relate

Handing out the electronic elements to the participants

This is our body