An e-waste dump in India. Image via
How many old flip phones, broken laptops, archaic TVs, and other obsolete pieces of technology do you have kicking around your home, tucked into drawers, stuck in the closet, or collecting dust on shelves? Odds are you have more than a few. In 2012 alone, the United States generated over 3.4 million tons of electronic waste, a figure that stands to grow, driven by our cultural obsession with tech upgrades and of-the-moment gadgets (today's Apple announcement is likely not to help).
So, where do our electronic relics end up once we finally decide it’s time to recycle them? And what does our relationship with these outdated technologies say about us as a culture? Julia Christensen, a multidisciplinary artist focused on systems of technology and consumerism, is creatively exploring the issue of electronic trash with a series of research-heavy investigations called Project Project (first ‘project’ reads like the noun, second ‘project’ reads like the verb that describes what a projector does). In Burnouts, the most recent part of Project Project, the artist uses outdated iPhones and other trashed tech to create functional projectors through which she beams animations of obsolete constellations— celestial configurations that have been retired from star maps, often because light pollution has made them too difficult to see from Earth.
As digital technologies continue to saturate our world, the questions that Julia’s work brings up are more important now than ever before. The Creators Project spoke with Julia to learn more about her work and her thoughts on the cultural shifts needed to alleviate the problems associated with e-waste:
The Creators Project: When and why did you decide you wanted to make art out of e-waste?
Julia Christensen: I visited an e-waste recycling center in southern India in 2012, and I was completely floored by what I saw––200 tons of e-waste that had all been imported in the two weeks before my arrival, almost all of it from the United States. I sensed such a gap between the mountain of global e-waste that I witnessed there and the smaller, personal narratives of how people deal with the electronic devices that they use and then throw away. How does one person’s iPhone become a pile of a million discarded iPhones? How does a box of VHS tapes become a mountain of trashed magnetic tape? I began making art pieces inspired by the personal stories of people and their electronic trash, while using their e-waste as material.
After your experience in India, how did Project Project take shape? What’s it all about?
I am questioning how these e-waste narratives vary in different communities around the world, from here in Oberlin, OH—where I live—to India, where the project essentially began. From the beginning, I knew that I wanted to intervene in the flow of e-waste and learn how people around the world deal with electronic trash. To do this, I decided to collect discarded electronics from various communities and actually build functioning devices out of what I found. I am focusing on building video projectors, giving me a chance to push video projection as an art form and figure out more about how projection works. The videos I make for my projectors reflect the DIY machine’s material in some way. As I explore each community, I talk to people, and usually have crazy conversations about the junk that they hoard, collect, throw away, upgrade, buy, and sell.
Julia Christensen, e-waste collected for Project Project (2013–2014). Image courtesy of the artist.
Can you tell us a little bit about how these varying communities have shaped the artwork you’re making for Project Project?
The first community I looked into was my own friend group. I sent out about 200 emails asking questions about their e-waste habits––how many computers have they owned, how many cell phones, etc. I found that, among other things, a lot of them had old iPhones lying around in drawers and closets. I asked them if they would donate them to me, and the Burnouts series of video projectors made from old iPhones was born.
I’m currently working on a project inspired by the group closest to me geographically––my neighbors. This project is called Hard Copy, and includes photographs of recordable media collections—old VHS tapes, zip disks, etc.—that are stored in my neighbors’ attics and basements. I’m looking into why we are compelled to save such collections, despite the fact that the technologies’ obsolescence means that we may never be able to access those recordings again. I’m also building a video projector installation for this piece using discarded slide projectors.
I will head to Europe and India in 2015 to continue my research abroad, and each of those explorations will produce pieces that will premiere over the next couple of years.
Interior shot of a Burnouts projector, made on an industrial 3D printer using ABS plastic. The lenses for this projector were stripped from discarded overhead projectors. Image courtesy of the artist.
It’s interesting that you’re using discarded technology to create technology. Can you give us some details about some of the projectors you’re creating, such as how you conceived of them and how they’re built?
Burnouts consists of five video projectors that are powered by the discarded iPhones I gathered from my friends. To build the projection mechanisms, I stripped the lenses and mirrors from old overhead projectors. To build the projectors’ cases, I used rapid prototyping technology and built them with large 3D printers – a current high-tech material. I wanted to illustrate how quickly the new becomes the old in the context of technology, so there are three eras of technology represented in the Burnouts objects: the overhead projector lenses (which are clearly from the earliest era); the newer (and yet still obsolete) iPhone 4’s that power the projectors, and the shiny new 3D-printed cases. This juxtaposition illustrates the shortening cycles of obsolescence, and poses the question, how long until the high-tech, cutting-edge 3D printed boxes are relics too?
The animated projections you beam through your Burnouts projectors feature “retired constellations.” Why did you choose this as your subject matter?
During my research into our discarded electronics, I fell into a line of research about another artifact of our electrified world: light pollution. I learned that artificial light has increased on our planet to the extent that there are certain stars that we can no longer see in the night sky. I looked into this further, and learned that when astronomers update star maps, they sometimes deem certain constellations irrelevant to the study of the night sky, and remove them from the maps. This is usually because the stars can no longer be viewed from earth due to light pollution. I thought it would be a fitting and poetic homage to have these retired constellations projected by some of the very electronic devices that contributed to their obsolescence.
To do this, I worked with staff at a planetarium to dig through old star maps to find where these old constellations would have once been viewed. The obsolete constellations I chose for my animations are all named after technological innovations from the past: Hot Air Balloon, Herschel’s Telescope, Sundial, Electric Generator, and Print Office.
You mentioned that most of the waste there was coming from the United States. In your travels and research, have you learned anything about how this is being dealt with? Do you see this changing for the better or worse in the future?
When I sent out the email to 200 friends to ask about their technology habits, an interesting trend I found was that the older respondents had upgraded their phones and computers fewer total times in their life than the younger people who responded – despite the fact that they’d been using and consuming digital technologies for a longer period of time. The people who were 24 or 25 would say, “I’m on my 11th phone, I get a new one every year,” or something similar, while the older respondents had often only had two or three cell phones in their lives. Clearly, the youth market is being targeted in a really effective way regarding constant upgrades. In terms of the future, that is definitely a demographic that will determine a large part of what is to come.
Yikes, that’s a little scary. I wonder if there’s hope for better e-waste recycling systems in the near future. How has this project changed your notion of what it means to "recycle" e-waste?
This project has made me realize how broad the word “recycling” is, especially in the context of technology. Usually when we recycle our computers or cell phones, we are not entirely sure what ends up happening to them. When I visited the e-waste recycling center in India, and saw two weeks worth of waste that had been imported from the US, I felt like the good people who optimistically went to recycle their computers in California or New York did not expect them to wind up in a heap on the other side of the world, being mined for precious metals by people wearing no protection. This project has definitely made me question what recycling even means in this context, and I find myself encouraging others to ask those questions too.
Based on your experiences, what would you tell people to do with their old computers, phones, printers, TVs, etc? Should they recycle them? Make their own art? Drop them off at Salvation Army? Smash them á la Office Space? Something else?
The good news is that there are recycling centers that directly repurpose technology right on site, and even teach people how to repurpose the old devices themselves. Considering that “recycling” can mean so many things, my answer is to ask more questions. When you take your products to be recycled, ask how they do it. Ask what happens on site, what components are shipped out, and where they are shipped. Ask, will these products be processed in the United States? Or are they shipped to India, Ghana, or China? If they’re bein shipped abroad, what happens when the e-waste gets there? How much of the product is actually recycled, and how much of it is trashed once the precious components are mined? We need to be thinking critically about these processes, as questions like these can lead us to the critical mass of awareness that is needed to make real change.
Real change sounds great, but as a culture, this endless cycle of "out with the old, in with the new" has become the norm for technology consumption. What can people or companies do to start changing this process?
Over and over again, this project makes clear to me that we need to be shifting the questions we’re asking about e-waste. The question should not be, “What’s the best way for me to throw away my phone/computer?” It should be, “How can we design a phone/computer that we don’t have to throw away?” Sustainability begins with design, so it’s time for designers to take the lead on this. How can we design sustainable devices? How can we strategize for future repurposing when we first build the devices, or create secondary markets that can transform our obsolete technologies into something with a new purpose once the first use is finished? Why not build a phone that turns into a water filter or a solar panel when it’s no longer useful as a phone? We need to think creatively. The Earth is a finite resource, and we can’t throw this stuff away forever. So for my next upgrade, I want a phone I can eat when I’m done with it.
To learn more about Julia Christensen’s work and find out where you can see it displayed, visit the artist’s website.