According to a 2013 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we live in an age of waste in which our growth-centered industriousness is inexorably disposing of the world and us with it.1 As we ravage the environment, we are also creating 1.2 kg of “post-consumer waste” per person a day, or 1.3 billion tons of garbage every year—a doubling over ten years and now five percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.2
Consumers might be unthinking participants in this throwaway culture, but the biggest polluters are still the huge petro-chemical-electrical industries who routinely rank highly in the Political Economy Research Institute’s 2013 Misfortune 100: Top Corporate Air Polluters in the United States.3
Media companies are lightweights by comparison—that is, until you take into account two important, and largely overlooked, characteristics of the media system. The first is electricity consumption and attendant carbon emissions that accompany the manufacture, distribution, use and disposal of the media technologies.4 The second is the role of mass media in spreading the illusion that the first characteristic is non-existent.
The predominant media narrative is that our high-tech lifestyle has nothing to do with climate change or waste, but everything to do with our own narcissistic importance. After all, Time magazine picked “You” as its 2006 “Person of the Year,” because “You control the Information Age. Welcome to your world,” while the Guardian newspaper announced that “You” topped its 2013 list of the hundred most important folks in the media, ahead of media mogul, Rupert Murdoch. Seriously, Guardian?5
We’ve heard this nonsense before: readers become writers, listeners transform into speakers, viewers are stars, fans are academics, cultural-studies students are designers, zinewriters are screenwriters, bloggers are copywriters, bus riders are journalists, and vice versa. Relatively cheap digital technologies supposedly allow us all to mutate into prosumers (producer-consumers) without the say-so of media gatekeepers. In this make-believe world, we are our own media bosses.
In reality, corporate media continue to rule content distribution. And this, in turn, makes the high-tech prosumer an easily exploited agent. It’s a model of exploitation with a venerable history—like artists who suffer financially for their art, prosumers provide cheap labor in exchange for their cultural commitments.
Coca-Cola hires streetwise African Americans to cruise the inner city playing hip-hop to sell soda. San Francisco buskers are paid to sing the wonders of AT&T. Urban poets rhapsodize about Nissans. Commercials marketed as “made by teenagers” hawk Subway sandwiches. And so on.
Another group of precariously employed part-timers work to spy upon themselves: graduate students in New York and Los Angeles read scripts to see if they tap into the interests of people like them; fellow-filmgoers watch you to record how you react to coming attractions; voters for Eurovision Song Contest or reality programs disclose profiles and practices; and on-line gamers turn over details of their cultural moves and perspectives to gaming companies they’ve paid in order to play as per the end-user agreement no one reads.
The flipside of this waste of art and cultural exploitation is an emerging art of waste created by folks alert to ecological practices within the wider world of cybertarianism. They have devised innovative ways to represent the problem of electronic waste using mixed-media methods and new technologies for “making ‘yesterday’s latest technology’ into beautiful pieces of art [as] a nice way to avoid sending the stuff off to fester in a developing country.”6
These artists are reinterpreting the 3-Rs—reduce, reuse, and recycle—with thought-provoking, whimsical, and even utilitarian creations. Yona Friedman focuses on re-use rather than originality, while Julie Bargmann and Stacy Levy start with a creative clean-up rather than concluding with a painstaking one. Yuri Suzuki uses e-waste to materialize anew the map of the London Underground. Peter McFarlane uses discarded circuit boards to simulate fossil life, an ironic comment on the path to self-destruction with which we began. Rodrigo Alonso takes electronic trash and turns it into designer furniture. Mairo Cacedo Langer reboots former robots as Robo Planters, wacky potholders with personality. ReFunct Media #5 reimagines the process of creating e-waste. Dani Ploeger explores e-waste and feminism. Natalie Jeremijenko’s project, “Feral Robotic Dogs,” gives victims of environmental racism toy dogs that are adapted to sniff out industrial toxins.7
Such art of waste asks “You” to rethink your love affair with the exploitative and toxic tools of prosumerism, but in the end the real miscreants are the high-tech titans of the corporate media world.
1. http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/#.UkXnuGSG3UM; http://www.greenpeace.org/india/Global/india/report/2013/IPCC-briefing.pdf.
7. http://www.yonafriedman.nl/; http://www.dirtstudio.com/; http://www.stacylevy.com/; http://yurisuzuki.com/works/tube-map-radio/; http://petermcfarlane.com/Peter%20Macfarlane%20web%20site/03circuit_board.php; http://ralonso.com/?portfolio=new-2&lang=en. http://www.instructables.com/id/New-Robo-planters/; http://www.ewasteworkshop.com/category/art/; http://www.daniploeger.org/#!wastecircuits/cvq4; http://www.daniploeger.org/#!electrode/c3kk; http://vimeo.com/10075678. See also works by these artists: http://www.jessicamillman.net/1/post/2010/10/e-waste-crisis.html; http://www.sudhutewari.com/DumpArt/ST_DumpArt.html; Nome Edonna http://nomeedonna.deviantart.com/; Chris Jordan http://www.chrisjordan.com/gallery/rtn/#unsinkable; Erik Otto http://www.erikotto.com/exhibitions_03.htmand; and Jane Kim http://ink-dwell.com/.