High-tech gadgets such as PDAs, wireless headsets and HD TVs make us more efficient and link us to information and entertainment. By design, the latest and greatest electronics give us direct access to work, play and each other. As the high-tech industry puts the finishing touches on another product-launch January, two artists in San Francisco are highlighting the less glamorous side of our modern obsession with digital devices: electronic waste. The schizophrenic nature of technology inspired their recent art opening at a San Francisco landfill.
Sudhu Tewari and Nome Edonna knew they would see a lot of garbage during their residencies at the city landfill, but both were stunned by the daily tidal wave of e-waste. The artists created sculptures, installations and paintings with materials they scavenged from the waste stream and exhibited their finished pieces from January 26-27, at SF Recycling & Disposal.
More than three million tons of electronic waste end up in U.S. landfills annually. That “e-chievement” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, includes 130 million cell phones and 50 million computers. Now consider that the average computer monitor contains four pounds of lead and other toxic metals; that’s a lot of toxic waste.
“It’s sad that people are so quick to throw things out just because a new thing comes along,” said Tewari, a Berkeley musician and artist who creates interactive installations from discarded electronics and other items.
Tewari has built more than 100 musical instruments in his career, always starting with salvaged materials. His show is called “AUX: Tune for Minimum Smoke.” He picked up the phrase from an electronics teacher; it means it is important to design the piece so it won’t overload, burnout or explode.
Edonna believes our ravenous appetite for electronics and always having the newest gadget threatens our future. He titled his exhibit “System Overload.”
“No one knows what all this garbage is going to do to the earth in 20, 30 years,” he said.
Thousands of TV and computer monitors and associated electronic equipment came into the San Francisco Transfer Station and Recycling Facility (also known as the city dump) in recent weeks as holiday and year-end shoppers bought flat-screens and upgraded computer systems.
Recycling workers at the San Francisco dump sort e-waste by type and ship separated materials to facilities that specialize in recycling specific types of electronics. But many cities around the world do not recycle electronics.
Edonna, using recycled paint found at the dump, produced small paintings on objects he found in the heaps of trash. The fact that much of the e-waste arrives in good working condition also astonished the artist.
“I tend to alternate between up-front, in-your-face social/political statements and more obscure interpretations of our present condition, which leave the viewer in charge of connecting the dots,” Edonna said.
Ultimately, said both artists, they want people to enjoy their art, but to come away from the exhibit more aware of the relationship between our trash and our environment and think about what we buy and use. That’s just what San Francisco waste haulers had in mind when they began the Artist In Residence program in 1990. Since then, more than 60 artists have completed residencies.
Artists living in the Bay Area apply to the unique program; those offered residencies are given 24-hour access to a large studio at the dump, tools and equipment, and permission to scavenge through 80 tons of material a day.
Tewari took apart dozens of electronic devices. “It is surprising to me to see how many similarities there are from product to product, but they are manufactured in such a way that if one thing goes wrong it’s cheaper to replace than repair.”
Tewari, unlike many artists, wants people to touch his finished pieces and really get a sense of them. One electronic sculpture invites individuals to don headphones, operate a joystick, and then hear and see how sound can translate to lines and shapes on an old TV.
One of Edonna’s paintings shows a horse on the ground with an industrial landscape on its back — nature as a victim to unrestrained development, waste and planned obsolescence.
“We need to think about what we’re saying is garbage and be more willing to recycle and reuse what we have,” he said.
Michael Dell, founder of Dell Computer, recognized the dichotomy in the lifecycle of technology in an opinion piece published in the San Francisco Chronicle in January. He called on the computer industry to help manage the impact electronics has on the environment.
“The days when businesses could send a product into the marketplace without first considering how it might impact the environment are over. … Our success will be driven by our ability to empower customers to join us in making a difference,” Dell stated.