E-waste is both artistic material and subject matter in Julia Christensen's new work.
Late in August 2012 I met Julia Christensen at The Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. She was visiting from Oberlin College, where she is assistant professor of Integrated Media in the Department of Art and a mutual friend put us in touch. I was already familiar with Julia’s book, Big Box Reuse (MIT Press, 2008), and her interest in abandoned “supercenter” stores and the potential ways we could reuse and recycle these buildings. The Wexner was supporting her work on another set of unwanted materials—e-waste, our discarded, often perfectly operational but outmoded, electronic technologies. She was in the Wexner’s editing studio sorting through footage she had shot while tracking shipments of e-waste in India, Hong Kong, and the United States as part of a new series of works funded by Creative Capital, Project Project.
Ryland Wharton and I had recently founded a small non-profit art space, The Center for Ongoing Research & Projects (COR&P) in Columbus. Julia and I spent the afternoon talking about our mutual interest in art as research/research as art, and the possibility of showing part of Project Project at COR&P. Over the next year, Julia passed in and out of Columbus continuing to work at the Wexner on Project Project and other video works, including The Chuck Close Tapes, which exhibited earlier this month at Eyebeam in New York. Julia’s COR&P exhibition, Burnouts, opened Saturday, March 22.
Kris Paulsen The Center for Ongoing Research & Projects is a (very) small institution dedicated to showing artists’ research. For us, this can mean either artworks that come out of a research-based practice or exhibitions of the artist’s research materials and other academic ephemera. Burnouts is both the result of years of research into the culture of e-waste and an early manifestation of your new project. Can you tell me about what led you to Burnouts and where it fits into the larger scope of your project?
Julia Christensen Burnouts is one of the first pieces in a large ongoing body of work called Project Project, which examines our cultural relationship with electronic trash and looks into how we deal with e-waste at a number of scales (ranging from my hometown to global communities). A major goal of Project Project, broadly speaking, is to situate the objects, videos, and installations I am making in the center of the work and allow the research to emerge in a more unplanned way. Each of the pieces is, in some way, a reflection of a given community’s relationship with their discarded electronics and/or media. Project Project grew out of a past long-term project called Surplus Rising, in which I tracked what happened to factory machines when factories closed in the Great Lakes region. I traveled to India to find some of these machines. One thing led to another, and I visited an e-waste recycling center, thereby falling into the underbelly of the international trash trade. When I came home, I was very curious about how a community very close to me—my friends—deals with its old electronics. I sent out an email to about 200 friends with a series of questions about what technology they most often throw away, and a lot of them told me they have old iPhones in drawers and closets. Many of these people donated their discarded iPhones to me, and so the smartphone seemed like the fitting piece of technology to reuse in the context of my friend group. That is how Burnouts came into being. I’m excited about the immediacy of experience these pieces offer in the gallery space, and how the form and material raise questions about the related issues.
KP I have iPhones in drawers (let’s not even talk about iPods); old televisions, computer towers, monitors, and copy machines in my garage; jazz drives, zip drives, and floppies of all sizes in boxes. I imagine that my own behavior is representative of larger systemic trends. I hold on to all of this stuff because I think I might use it again, or because I know it has to be disposed of properly—it’s dangerous, filled with heavy metals, poisonous chemicals, and noxious gases—so I stockpile it until the burden of moving it becomes too much, and I succumb to inertia. And, of course, I am embarrassed by it. What have you learned about how we, as individuals and as a nation, handle e-waste?
JC That is a trend I can identify with personally and was definitely a common answer in the responses to my email. I heard a lot of “I don’t know where to go to recycle all these things” or “I don’t know which of these things are recyclable” or “I might need to use one of these things again some day,” so, “I will put it in this drawer/garage/closet for now.” Which made me realize that on a very basic level, there is not much knowledge about how to deal with electronic gadgets when we are done with them. I also think there is not a clear understanding of what happens to the material itself, even if/when we do recycle it. Which really hit home for me when I visited the e-waste recycling center in India, where this project essentially began. I was faced with about 200 tons of e-waste that had been imported in the few weeks before my visit, mostly from the United States. I was blown away by the sheer mass of it all: mountains of speakers, computers, DVD players, cell phones, laptops. Workers manually dismantle the electronics to strip them of their precious metals, which can be sold for a profit by the multinational corporation that runs the plant. The rest of the electronics are then simply categorized as trash, and treated as such. In this case, the company legally had to export the trash after the electronics had been “recycled,” and it was not clear to me where this 200-ton mass of electronics would wind up. A landfill? An ocean? China? Ghana? This experience made me realize that the term “recycling” has a multi-faceted definition, to say the least. And I realized it means different things in different communities, and in different parts of the world. This experience opened my eyes to these issues on a whole new scale, and I knew I needed to intervene and find out more. I devised a loose plan to make electronic objects out of discarded electronics and media that I scavenge in a series of communities as a way of exploring the spectrum of relationships that we have with technological trash. That is my mission, in a sense, for the next few years. I’m interested in allowing the stories, metaphors, and sometimes the data itself drive these projects. I am thinking that a book will grow out of this, but for now, as I said earlier, I am focusing on the objects and video pieces.
KP This reminds me of a series of articles I’ve read about abandoned warehouses of “recycled” e-waste dotted around the US. Companies were paid by state governments and other corporations to recycle e-waste, but they, too, just ended up stockpiling it. These discoveries are like some physical, environmental return of the repressed—we believe that it has all been processed and moved safely into the past, and it is just right there, hiding out in plain sight.
JC Right. There are a lot of misconceptions about what happens in a recycling center. Partly because recycling electronics is much more complicated than recycling something like an aluminum can, and also, e-waste recycling centers function in many different ways. There are the multi-national companies looking to strip out precious metals, like the one I visited in India. But there are also local companies that are able to safely re-sell plastics, ship off reusable parts, and dispose of waste. I’ve even been to small companies that dissemble electronics and teach people how to rebuild the parts for their own use. So we are talking about a spectrum of definitions and experiences with recycling.
KP I want to get to the Burnouts show at COR&P and the objects and images on display. The iPhones your friends have “recycled” through you have taken on a new life, but there is still this very ghostly reference to death or, at least, obsolescence. The old phones are housed inside slick, rapid prototyped armatures that reference the whole range of Apple products. They are smooth and white with rounded corners. They solicit touch. They are clean, modern, and futuristic. But at the same time, they are also like coffins or, maybe, hibernation pods, like the ones in 2001: A Space Odyssey. You can’t see the iPhones, but they glow and pulse inside the boxes. There’s an eerie resonance with the images projected from the pods, too—they beam video animations of the night sky onto the ceiling. Each of the five projectors shows an image of a constellation that has been decommissioned, or “retired.” As you’ve explained it to me in the past, when astronomers determine that certain groupings of stars are no longer useful, the constellations are “retired,” and the links we’ve imagined between the stars dissolve. Five of the dozens of former constellation have technological origins. They trace out the shapes of formerly useful but now outmoded technologies.
JC Yeah, when I learned about the retired constellations last year, I was totally intrigued, and I worked with the staff at our little planetarium at Oberlin to identify where these constellations were in the night sky. These stars are not even on star maps anymore, so we had to dig through books of ancient star mythologies and maps for hints and clues to track them down. I learned that constellations are actually vast star groups, almost like zip codes in the night sky, determined to help astronomers and stargazers understand various relationships between celestial bodies. The images that we recall when we think of constellations are significant stars within these regions–perhaps the brightest stars, recognizable landmarks in these swaths of the night sky. I learned that the main reason constellations are retired is because they can no longer be viewed from our planet, due to the increase in light on Earth. There are constellations that could have easily been seen, for example, in the year 1600 in northern Europe, but those very stars can no longer be seen from our earthly viewpoint in the buzzing, lit-up twenty-first century. They are all still there, hanging out up there in the sky, but they are no longer relevant to humans on Earth. Thus, the constellations are retired. I was struck by the poetic metaphor between these constellations and all the obsolete technology collecting in my studio. To build the projector mechanism, I used a series of lenses and mirrors to direct the light from the iPhone on to the wall, or in this case, the ceiling. Oberlin is decommissioning overhead projectors left and right, as classrooms get wired with digital projectors. I picked up several of them from the biology department, took them apart, and the lenses work beautifully in my setup. So the projector mechanism is built entirely out of retired iPhones and parts from decommissioned overhead projectors. To build the boxes that house the projector mechanisms, I worked with rapid prototype technology at an industrial 3D print fabrication plant in Cleveland. I could have chosen to build the boxes out of old electronics, metal cases from trashed technology or something, but I felt that designing a sleek, shiny, high-tech container to house the discarded iPhones added another important layer, illuminating the absurdity of this cycle of obsolescence. It will not be long before this high-tech 3D printing technology is outdated too, obsolete, retired, or at least no big deal. So in a way, between the former constellations, the old iPhones, the stripped overhead projectors, and the futuristic 3D print technology used to build the cases, time and obsolescence collapse.
KP Here you bring up another kind of e-waste—or e-pollution, I guess—light pollution. Since the dawn of the electric age we have been isolating ourselves from (or blinding ourselves to) the rest of the cosmos. It is really fascinating, as are the “dark parks” that are emerging in response. We can no longer see the stars in the night sky, because we are becoming more and more visible to them by producing so much light of our own. There’s a loss of history here as well: not only have we lost these constellations by occluding our view of their constituent nodes, but we lose that feeling of deep time that stars help us conceptualize—their light has been traveling through time as well as space, moving toward us for thousands of years, and we are no longer able to receive these messages from the past. This is doubled in the erasure of the constellations that mark part of our own technological history. They’ve become anachronistic in every way. All of the devices you are recycling in Project Project are light producing, and thus they, too, are part of the problem. And now, those same devices are reforming them, bringing them back into light. What are the constellations and technologies that your repurposed phones are bringing back to light?
JC The five obsolete constellations that are projected by these decommissioned iPhones are named after tools and technological inventions—The Electric Generator, The Hot Air Balloon, The Sundial, Herschel’s Telescope, and The Print Shop. When the International Association of Astronomy standardized 88 constellations for their star map in 1922, these were five of the 43 that were left behind. Some of these omissions were because of our civilization’s ambient light, as mentioned before. Other constellations were left off maps because of the process by which they had been named, which included scientists dedicating “discovered” star groups to donors, or for political reasons. All of which illustrates how our process of mapping the sky throughout history mirrors how we map the Earth—as politics, technology, and exploration shift, so do our maps.
KP I’m interested in how you describe Project Project as a “mission” and your invocation of politics and exploration just a moment ago. Do you see Project Project as a political mission, an exploratory one, or a mission of conversion, in the ideological sense? I know this is an early stage in the process, but can you share a bit about how you imagine this project growing as it moves to a regional, national, and global scale?
JC The way I used the term above was in the context of a personal mission. My mission, in this project at least, is to gain a better understanding of our cultural relationship with, and the industries around, trashed consumer electronics and media. Learning about these systems and relationships is a way for me to think critically about my own relationship with the technology that I throw away–which leads me to think critically about the technology that I use, how it was designed, and how it was made. As the project shifts to other scales or communities, my mission is to uncover how people manifest these relationships in different contexts. Those narratives will help me gain a broader understanding of how geography, economics, and politics all inform the production, use, and disposal of technology around the world.
Burnouts is on view at The Center for Ongoing Research and Projects, Columbus, OH through April 17, 2014. www.the-corp.org.
Kris Paulsen is Assistant Professor in the Department of History of Art and Program in Film Studies at The Ohio State University. She and Ryland Wharton co-direct The Center for Ongoing Research and Projects (www.the-corp.org). Her writing on video and new media art has appeared in Representations, Leonardo Electronic Almanac, X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly, Mousse, Design and Culture, Amodern, and Artforum.com. She is currently finishing a manuscript on telepresence and touch in contemporary art, and editing a special issue of Media-N on hardware and infrastructure in networked art.