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The Media Archaeologists Who Turn Defunct Tech into Art

A new exhibition makes art out of technological obsolescence.
Benjamin Gaulon, Refunct Media

What should we do with our e-waste and defunct gadgets once they're kaput? For artists and engineers at PAMAL, a media archaeology lab in Aix-en-Provence, France, this question forms the basis of a new art exhibit.

"I'll tell you a funny story," said Emmanuel Guez, the curator of the Archéologies des Medias exhibition, which opened last week. "Angelino by Albertine Meunier features a figurine in a bottle that spins each time the word "ange" [French for "angel"] crops up on Twitter," he continued. But when Twitter changed its API, the artwork stopped working.


"It was like when Toyota or Renault have to recall their cars [due to malfunctioning parts]. The artist had to take back the artwork from the collector, reprogram it again, then send it back. This throws up interesting questions on how we collect, exhibit, and preserve digital works," added Guez.

Albertine Meunier, Angelino

In Archéologies des Medias, which runs until June 28, PAMAL argues that all media artworks are born, live, and die. Through a series of exhibits that include repurposed e-waste game consoles, and videotext made by pre-web online service Minitel, the group explores the history and use of now-defunct technologies.

Planned obsolescence, whereby companies design products which stop working after a certain length of time, is a main point of focus for the group. ReFunct Media, a work by artist and founder of the Recyclism Hacklab Benjamin Gaulon, for example, features a mash-up of Gameboys, Atari consoles, and Aquarius computers that have long gone out of fashion.

"Media archaeologists are not like doctors who want to prevent death. We realise that digital artworks are finite, that they can stop working owing to a software or hardware failures," said Guez.

Media archaeology entails the documentation, conservation, and preservation of technology that is now obsolete.

This could mean taking old, defunct tech and transposing it onto a new machine. For instance, someone could take the website that World Wide Web founder Sir Tim Berners-Lee made in 1991, and display it on a MacBook Air. But Guez wants to contextualise the defunct technologies in the specific sociocultural, political, or economic contexts in which they were originally produced. "We don't do this," he stressed. "We want to explore how certain machines existed at certain times, and how there were economic and industrial strategies which programmed their obsolescence."


Eduardo Kac, Videotex Poems

Similar to regular archaeologists, who excavate human artefacts from beneath the ground, Guez explained that media archaeologists are interested in working with what's already out there. They want to cast a critical gaze on our evolving relationships with tech and e-waste. After all, e-waste is a big problem: humans produced a staggering 41.8 million tonnes of it in 2014 alone.

"We're looking at our technological artefacts from a political and ecological angle. What we're saying is that artworks [made from digital media] have a lifespan, and that when they die, we can recycle them," noted Guez.

For him, there are two trends in digital art. On one hand, artists can use different software programmes to create entertaining and visually spectacular artworks without specifically making any political commentary. The art espoused by media archaeology, however, adopts a critical and investigative stance on issues such as planned obsolescence and the exploitation of labour, which lie behind the production of these gadgets.

Artists, explained Guez, think they're acting freely when they're using things like Photoshop. But ultimately, it's a platform that's been programmed by someone else who is working under industrial and commercial constraints.

"We aren't defending an absurd consumption of machines. We're just looking critically at the economic industrial strategies that program technological obsolescence," said Guez. "When the machines stop working they're highlighting industrial and commercial strategies, and the politics of destruction."