Luke Robert Mason: You’re lis­ten­ing to the Futures Podcast with me, Luke Robert Mason.

On this episode, I speak to per­for­mance artist Dani Ploeger.

I asked this body piercer to take part of that cop­per wire and to con­struct a coil on my abdomen. And then for the dura­tion of this exhi­bi­tion, every three sec­onds for one sec­ond, an elec­tric cur­rent would run through this coil on my abdomen and thus cre­ate a very faint mag­net­ic field.
Dani Ploeger, excerpt from interview

Danny shared his insights on elec­tron­ic waste, planned obso­les­cence in dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy, and the posthu­man in per­for­mance. This episode was record­ed on loca­tion at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, England, where Dani is a research fellow.

Luke Robert Mason: So I first came in con­tact with you Dani when you were orga­niz­ing this event called (re)performing the posthu­man. I mean, were did the inter­est in this sub­ject, the posthu­man, come from?

Dani Ploeger: It came from my own art prac­tice. I’d been mak­ing work for a while then where every­day elec­tron­ics, con­sumer elec­tron­ics, also some sim­ple med­ical devices, are con­nect­ed to the body, and I was mak­ing work with that. And what this con­fer­ence, the idea for this event, where that came from was I think a lit­tle bit of a con­cern or an annoy­ment I had with a lot of the writ­ing and talk­ing around bod­ies extend­ed with tech­nolo­gies that went in the direc­tion of what I would call clas­sic tran­shu­man­ism, the idea of enhanc­ing the body with the lat­est new tech­no­log­i­cal devices so it becomes more durable, can do incred­i­ble things. But all a bit in the realm of of sci-fi fan­ta­sy. And what I was inter­est­ed in by attach­ing these every­day tech­nolo­gies to the body was maybe a much more mun­dane idea of the body com­ing togeth­er with the tech­nol­o­gy, and idea of the cyborg that is not RoboCop but that’s just the per­son with a pace­mak­er, that sort of thing. 

So this idea of (re)performing the posthu­man was pret­ty much based on a desire to talk about the cyborg ten years after, or fif­teen years, twen­ty years after the Cyborg Manifesto and Katherine Hayles’ book became famous. And to really—yeah, to talk about maybe the nor­mal cyborg, the nor­mal tech­nol­o­gized body. You know, tech­nol­o­gy in the every­day and its impli­ca­tions for the way we per­ceive and expe­ri­ence our bodies.

Mason: So how did the inter­est in the cyborg first come about? I mean, all of your work has dealt in some way with the col­li­sion of the body and technology.

Ploeger: I think it’s not in the first instance an inter­est in the cyborg. It’s more an inter­est in the way people—I, you—live in the every­day, and the extent to which tech­no­log­i­cal devices play a very big role in this. Both in terms of that we use them and they’re just there, but par­tic­u­lar­ly also in the way we imag­ine our bod­ies, we imag­ine the future, we have all sorts of ideas about the world that are shaped by the promis­es of tech­nol­o­gy. So it comes from that, from— When I look at my every­day, what I do, what the kind of key devices are there, par­tic­u­lar­ly in terms of dreams of progress, the future, con­nec­tiv­i­ty, I would say a lot of these elec­tron­ic devices—consumer technologies—are cen­tral there.

Also, you know, grow­ing up through the 80s and the 90s this was—like, par­tic­u­lar­ly the 80s right? That’s this time where the dig­i­tal” is real­ly fea­tured as oh my God, this is the new thing, every­thing’s going to be dig­i­tal, it’s going to be great. So it comes from that. And so then doing work around the body and these tech­no­log­i­cal devices, when you start think­ing about that you real­ly quick­ly go to peo­ple who think and write about the cyborg or the tech­nol­o­gized body.

Mason: So you said that your work specif­i­cal­ly sub­verts spec­ta­cles of sex, vio­lence, and waste in a tech­no­con­sumer cul­ture. Could you just explain what you mean by that?

Ploeger: Well, I think yes I could explain that. First like, tech­no­con­sumer cul­ture. What I mean by that is con­sumer cul­ture. So a cul­ture that very much evolves around the obtain­ing of com­modi­ties to build, shape, iden­ti­ty. So that’s con­sumer soci­ety for me or con­sumerism. Technoconsumerism is a sub­set of that, or maybe a stage in that view of soci­ety, that very much revolves around tech­no­log­i­cal com­modi­ties tak­ing a pri­ma­ry role in that. So that’s that part.

So most of my work then, yeah, there is a sense of, for me, play­ing with the spec­ta­cle, with the extreme, right. I made a piece where I’m con­trol­ling sound and image with my sphinc­ter mus­cle. And I did a work where I fired an AK-47 at an iPad. I made a smart­phone app that is porn and art at the same time.

What I mean by the spec­ta­cles of sex, waste, and vio­lence is that I like in the work to go to these extreme posi­tions so they also to start to take a place in this field of con­sumer cul­ture, where they are per­ceived as this kind of spec­ta­cle in the Debordian sense, right, some­thing that Vice might—or well, Vice has writ­ten about. So it does that. It cre­ates this spectacle.

But then, the spec­ta­cles are always a bit sub­ver­sive. There’s some­thing that’s not quite right about them. You know, there’s a whole genre of guys, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the States, who fire weapons at con­sumer tech­nol­o­gy. That’s a com­mon thing. There’s like mil­lions of videos on YouTube. You can watch that. So I did that as well. So I’m doing the spec­ta­cle, but in a way I try to sub­vert it by now mak­ing a high­ly aes­theti­cized piece. So I fire at the iPad like all the oth­er lads, but I then do it with a high frame rate cam­era, and play the record­ing of the break­ing screen of the iPad, I shot on a work­ing iPad, etc.

Mason: Do you know why the guys in the US are doing that? Why they’re shoot­ing these pieces of con­sumer tech? Is it…comes from bore­dom a thing, or is there some­thing more inter­est­ing hap­pen­ing there?

Ploeger: I mean, I don’t know why they’re doing it. I have some ideas of why they might do it. Like one key thing for me is some­thing that relates very much to Bauman’s idea of liq­uid moder­ni­ty, right, where he talks not about moder­ni­ty and postmoder­ni­ty but about sol­id moder­ni­ty and liq­uid moder­ni­ty. Whereas in sol­id moder­ni­ty, the posi­tions and roles of peo­ple and also arti­facts in soci­ety in terms of their mean­ings and their pow­er rela­tions are clear. And in liq­uid moder­ni­ty there is a sense of flu­id­i­ty there. So that also then comes to posi­tions of pow­er in soci­ety, mas­culin­i­ty, etc.

Now, if we look at Skyfall, at the James Bond film, that’s for me kind of a key thing here. That kind of, for me, is an expla­na­tion of the issue with the shoot­ing at the iPads and all this stuff as well, right. There’s a very inter­est­ing thing about that film. If you think about the whole Bond series, James Bond is always about the same age. He’s like in his for­ties, he’s kind of [inaudi­ble], la la la.

Suddenly, in 2012 I think it came out, Skyfall, there is this prob­lem. James Bond is get­ting old, right. They’re talk­ing about oh maybe he should retire and what­ev­er. And the key issue, the indi­ca­tor of him get­ting old is that he does­n’t come to terms with these con­tem­po­rary tech­nolo­gies, right. And then you’ve got Silva, who’s both gay and a com­put­er hack­er. So it’s like two things that are kind of very awk­ward for James Bond. 

So the whole issue here is that the clas­sic mas­culin­i­ty of James Bond is chal­lenged by the fact that now war­fare and crime are done with a com­put­er; they don’t involve these guns and mus­cle pow­er and what­ev­er any­more. Now, the sat­is­fac­tion of the film’s in the end, using like machine guns and the whole old reper­toire, he then final­ly is vic­to­ri­ous over this new kind of crim­i­nal. So in the end of the film we kind of get the old mod­el of mas­cu­line armed vio­lence back. It’s victorious.

Now, if we now think about these guys who shoot all these con­sumer tech­nolo­gies, what’s in it for me is that this con­sumer tech­nol­o­gy in a way is also an object of anx­i­ety where that’s con­cerned, where­as the AK-47 or the M16 or what­ev­er gun you take is relat­ed to this clas­sic idea of vio­lent mas­culin­i­ty. So shoot­ing the iPad is— And sure­ly there’s an aspect of fun and bore­dom and God knows what. There’s great exam­ples of these des­o­late envi­ron­ments where they’re shoot­ing at a thing. But I think this oth­er issue also plays a role there. There is a prob­lem, right. There’s a prob­lem in these tech­nolo­gies in the realm of vio­lence and war­fare, which is anoth­er area of inter­est of mine now. These tech­nolo­gies and the ideas of tech­nolo­gies push­ing out the clas­sic idea of the strong sol­dier down in the field who fires guns and has a body that is supe­ri­or in terms of strength over oth­er peo­ple in society.

Mason: How did that idea come about? Was it pure­ly that Bond inter­est, or…? Because I know you went off and trained to learn how to fire an AK-47 and there was a whole process that made this piece possible.

Ploeger: No, the Bond thing is a kind of side ref­er­ence, right. I’m not a James Bond fan. I mean I just hap­pened to go to that film. Of course I’ve also seen oth­ers, as most peo­ple have who grew up in Western Europe. But no, I think this inter­est goes fur­ther back. I mean, what I did grow up with is The A‑Team, right, that sort of thing. And this American series Tour of Duty about the Vietnam War, all this stuff.

There is a gun cul­ture in Europe. Maybe not in terms of every­body own­ing guns. Some coun­tries more than oth­ers. I grew up in the Netherlands; there’s not that sort of thing. But there is a gun cul­ture in terms that there is a real­ly strong sym­bol­ic realm of the gun. There’s a lot of imag­i­na­tion around the gun. And it’s very close­ly tied also to mas­culin­i­ty and what­ev­er, play­ing with guns. 

But what the inter­est in this came from, this jux­ta­po­si­tion of these con­sumer tech­nolo­gies and these kind of crude vio­lent weapons, that comes from some­thing that I start­ed to notice in recent years in var­i­ous places in Europe. The first trig­ger for this piece where I fired the AK-47 at the iPad was a trip that I made from Kiev on the train toward Donetsk—but the train does­n’t go to Donetsk—towards the last sta­tion before the front­line. So they’re about twen­ty kilo­me­ters away from where the rock­et’s impact from the Donetsk People’s Republic, the sep­a­ratist area—the last train stop is there now. 

So I went there because— This was in the sum­mer and I thought it would be inter­est­ing to go to the end of Europe. So I went to the end of Europe. What real­ly fas­ci­nat­ed and shocked me about that trip is that on the one hand this train was the most advanced thing I’ve seen in the Ukraine, right. It’s air con­di­tioned, there’s WiFi on board, all the way there is a flat screen TV that shows you all sorts of lit­tle TV pro­grams par­tic­u­lar­ly pro­mot­ing the Ukraine, whatever.

And then there’s all these sol­diers on the train as well. They’re play­ing on their iPads, on their phone, they’re enjoy­ing the WiFi and what­ev­er. And then you get off at this last sta­tion. Towards the end there are more and more sol­diers and few­er civil­ians because it’s also the army base there. So they all get off. You get off, sud­den­ly it’s 40 degrees, it’s dusty, it’s warm, and there are all these guys stand­ing there walk­ing around in dif­fer­ent kinds of uni­form, some of them with sneak­ers. There are civil­ian cars sprayed over in cam­ou­flage paint which are now used to fight a war with. People are car­ry­ing Soviet-era weapons around.

So in oth­er words there’s a total clash there. On the one hand we have a high-tech con­sumer cul­ture in which also these sol­diers take part. On the oth­er hand they’re fight­ing a war that uses mil­i­tary tech­nolo­gies that go back to the mid-20th cen­tu­ry. Now, I thought oh that’s…what’s going on here? This is a big ques­tion or issue which I don’t real­ly under­stand. So this idea of fir­ing the AK-47 at the iPad is a kind of col­lid­ing these two realms. 

But, then a lit­tle bit lat­er in Paris, look­ing for my free bicy­cle with this app. You know, you can get these free bicy­cles and then on the app with GPS you can see where the bikes are free so you walk there. When you’re doing that, you actu­al­ly run into sol­diers in full bat­tle dress. With hel­mets on their belts. With auto­mat­ic rifles and every­thing. So this kind of weird clash, we see it there as well. And since the 1990s, I would argue, in Western Europe this was not there, right. After the Troubles more or less end­ed, after the RAF issues in Germany stopped in the 70s, 80s.

From 1990, there was idea of war­fare, the war­fare we have now is high-tech. We’ve got these smart bombs and drones and all this kind of thing. And these ground sol­diers, they’re kind of leav­ing our imag­i­na­tion. So we’ve got this con­tin­u­um between these con­sumer tech­nolo­gies with GPS (mil­i­tary tech­nol­o­gy in it as well), and an idea of war­fare that’s high tech. 

Now, since the past like five years or so, we get this idea back of some kind of weird break. On the one hand we’ve got these tech­nolo­gies. On the oth­er hand we’ve got a kind of state of emer­gency or a kind of war­fare con­di­tion where this tech­nol­o­gized idea of liv­ing, and also of the tech­nol­o­gy as body, might seem some­where else. So that’s… I mean, this is kind of a long sto­ry. But this is real­ly the, for me, the source of inter­est to make a piece like Assault, where I fire a gun at the iPad.

Mason: How we per­ceive vio­lence today is always through these lit­tle shiny glow­ing rec­tan­gles. Everything that’s hap­pen­ing out in the world is imme­di­ate­ly received through Twitter or Facebook or social media direct­ly to this device. I mean, it does have a vio­lent effect on us. Every time I hear now the CNN or the BBC News break­ing news alert on my phone, I have this feel­ing of dread. And I just won­der… When I first saw that piece, when first saw Assault, I assumed it was some sort of vio­lent reac­tion against tech­nol­o­gy. It sounds more like it’s about reveal­ing some­thing about how tech­nol­o­gy helps us per­ceive and receive violence.

Ploeger: Yes. I mean, I think it’s not a piece against tech­nol­o­gy, right. And also I think it would not work like that. I mean okay, some­body fires an AK-47 at an iPad and then shows that as a piece against the iPad? Well it isn’t real­ly. It also glo­ri­fies the device, right?

Mason: You men­tioned YouTube in the same as we have those YouTube chan­nels such as Will It Blend? There’s a weird fas­ci­na­tion with see­ing the destruc­tion of iPhone or very— Is it some­thing to do with the expense of these technologies?

Ploeger: I think there’s that as well. But to go back to what you men­tioned just before, that you have a kind of anx­i­ety when there’s these news alerts com­ing up. I’m not quite sure if this is about the way these events are rep­re­sent­ed, or about the imme­di­a­cy of the infor­ma­tion, right. I think for me it’s more that I’m not sure if the way vio­lence is rep­re­sent­ed through these media now makes it more grue­some than before. I would even argue if you look at some news­pa­pers in Egypt, they always have pictures—they show every­thing, right. I don’t see that stuff on my from phone generally. 

So I don’t real­ly see the issue there, but I do see…a thing… Again, I see a kind of devel­op­ment between this era that I locate from the first Gulf War, 1990/1991, until 2013 or 2014, where on the one hand 1990/1991, that was the time where the smart bomb was suddenly—well, not sud­den­ly but it was there—introduced and real­ly real­ly pro­mot­ed and pushed. I mean, that whole era we see this whole thing. And we got the stealth plane that was invis­i­ble on the radar. And we got the Patriot rock­ets, the drones, all this stuff. This has all been promoted.

Also push­ing these images of drone views from above into the media and every­thing. And while at the same time dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies became every­day devices. That’s some­thing that starts in the 90s. Before, they were there, these home com­put­ers, but that was a hob­by. That was a spe­cif­ic activ­i­ty of it. From the 1990s, we start to move towards what Mark Weiser called silent com­put­ing,” right, where every­body would have a com­put­er, where it becomes commonplace.

So that’s kind of a log­i­cal thing for me. On the one hand, these ideas of the mil­i­tary and war­fare that con­nect to these devices being every­day. But now we see in my opin­ion a slight dis­con­nect, where I use the GPS which was devel­oped in the first Gulf War to locate my bike in Paris. But I run into sol­diers who actu­al­ly don’t real­ly fit into this idea of this you know, every­thing’s now high-tech war­fare every day, you know. So that’s some­thing that’s inter­est­ing for me.

Mason: With con­sumer tech­nol­o­gy we almost for­get the con­nec­tion with mil­i­tary research or mil­i­tary kin­da hard­ware. It was fun­ny that the Xbox Kinect is the only thing that real­ly came from the War on Terror because they were doing these mas­sive LIDAR scan­nings on the tops of tanks for years and they had to find a way to minia­tur­ize it. And what we get in the back end is a very odd gam­ing device from Microsoft.

Ploeger: Yeah. And what inter­ests me there is how in sub­tle ways, then, once these tech­nolo­gies that orig­i­nal­ly come from the realm of war­fare are every­day devices, that our rela­tion­ship to these war­fare tech­nolo­gies changes as well, right. Once you have—and we already have this, right—we’ve got a drone per­spec­tive on our every­day sur­round­ings, I would say. Like, using the Google map all the time. This also changes the way we look at the idea of drone war­fare and things like that. 

And not nec­es­sar­i­ly that now sud­den­ly we’re total­ly will­ing to accept it, right. The inter­est­ing thing is that drone war­fare is total­ly now out of grace and out of fash­ion. If you look and just do a ran­dom search on YouTube, things about drones, like three quar­ters of them are videos to that try to argue how awful and not ful­fill­ing the promis­es these tech­nolo­gies are. But there is a strong rela­tion­ship in my opin­ion between all these tech­nolo­gies that come from the realm of the mil­i­tary and that now are every­day things that we don’t real­ly think about anymore.

Mason: Now, some of your more recent work is deal­ing specif­i­cal­ly with what hap­pens to these every­day things when we get rid of them. Now, your new fas­ci­na­tion, or most recent fas­ci­na­tion, has been with this thing called elec­tron­ic waste. Where did the inter­est in elec­tron­ic waste sud­den­ly appear?

Ploeger: Well I mean, none of these things appear sud­den­ly, for me at least. They’re all relat­ed, to me, right? These devices are now every­day objects for most peo­ple, and they’re large­ly tak­en for grant­ed. But they have all sorts of aspects that are out­side this kind of, I would say, stan­dard imag­i­nary of the device as some­thing that rep­re­sents future progress, some­thing that also alludes to a non-material realm of the cloud and also social net­works. They are imag­ined as being not mate­r­i­al. These things are for me all related.

Another aspect of this device is its con­nec­tion with the realm of the mate­r­i­al. As I just sug­gest­ed, there is a lot of talk­ing and rep­re­sen­ta­tion around elec­tron­ic devices of the every­day that seems to push the user towards an under­stand­ing of the device as con­nect­ed to the realm of the imma­te­r­i­al. And the cloud is the best exam­ple, right. The cloud is not a cloud. The cloud is a big space full of servers that cre­ate a lot of heat and that are run­ning and that need to be replaced every two years or maybe four, if you’re lucky.

So in a nut­shell, elec­tron­ic waste, the idea was okay, I’m deal­ing with these devices and look­ing at what they mean to peo­ple and what’s below the sur­face. But actu­al­ly none of my work real­ly actu­al­ly looks at what hap­pens to these devices after, or also for that mat­ter before, they enter this Western con­sumer cul­ture. So I start­ed to basi­cal­ly fol­low the devices to those places where they go after­wards. The dumps in Nigeria, or before the dumps, new users in oth­er places.

Mason: So you’ve recent­ly been award­ed an AHRC fund to specif­i­cal­ly go and find where these tech­nolo­gies end up.

Ploeger: Yes. We did two projects. The first install­ment was a set of work­shops. We went to Nigeria, to Laos, where in the out­skirts we looked for places where elec­tron­ic waste is dis­posed of and processed. And we also went to Hong Kong, where we did the same. We went to a fac­to­ry that does recy­cling. And in the UK we went to a fac­to­ry that does recy­cling here. And this was with a group of artists, a cul­ture the­o­rist, and also sci­en­tists. But also from these dif­fer­ent coun­tries. So there were a few peo­ple from Nigeria and also a few peo­ple from Hong Kong on the team. 

That was one thing. The thing we did now recent­ly in January, moves a bit away from this but looks at the same top­ic. The idea of the pre­vi­ous thing was peo­ple in Europe and North America use com­put­ers for a while, then in many cas­es they are shipped off to Sub-Saharan Africa and also to East Asia, where they’re used again for a while and then they’re dis­posed of as waste.

Now, what I start­ed notic­ing when I was in Nigeria, one of the first trips already, that there is a lot of new elec­tron­ics com­ing in there, more and more. And the second-hand elec­tron­ics from Europe, they’re start­ing to play a small­er and small­er role. So what the new project now looks at is the pro­lif­er­a­tion since the last few years of brand new con­sumer tech­nolo­gies, but those at the very bot­tom of the mar­ket or very very cheap.

The thing that trig­gered this was I lost my phone in Nigeria, I got robbed, want­ed to buy a new one. And I want­ed just a basic Nokia phone. Went to this shop on the street cor­ner, and they had some new ones. They said, Oh yeah, they’re about five pounds,” or something—really cheap. New Nokia. And then I saw they also had an old one, like fif­teen years old. And I said, Oh yeah, but I want that one. Can I have the old one?” 

They said, Yeah yeah, but that one’s twen­ty pounds.”

And I thought well what’s this? I thought they were screw­ing me over, right. Like stu­pid tourist or what­ev­er. So I bought the cheap one and yeah, I want­ed the second-hand one but this is crazy. I’ll just buy the cheap one. 

The cheap one was so bad. I could­n’t make a sin­gle call with it because the inside was kin­da dan­gling and what­ev­er. It was a total waste. So the oth­er one was actu­al­ly worth twen­ty because that one actu­al­ly worked, and it was a phone at ten, fif­teen years ago was worth five hun­dred pounds and now was twenty. 

So then I start­ed think­ing hey, that’s inter­est­ing. There’s these new things that are real­ly low qual­i­ty, that are not worth being repaired anymore—because that’s a big thing in both Nigeria and Kenya, where the repair prac­tices are much more detailed and intense than they are in the UK. But this is now also chang­ing. Because the five pounds phone, even for repair guy in Nairobi this no longer worth it, so to say, to fix it.

So the new project now looks at this, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of these real­ly cheap devices and acces­sories that are often designed in China and that come direct­ly from China. So there, Europe and North America are cut out of this whole thing. This means that the whole dis­cus­sion around e‑waste will also have to change. Because now it’s all about, Oh, European con­sumers and pro­duc­ers should take respon­si­bil­i­ty for these old things they send to Sub-Saharan Africa and what­ev­er.” Yeah, it still hap­pens. But soon, or already, the major­i­ty of stuff comes straight from East Asia, so how are we going to talk about it then, right? 

Mason: So pre­vi­ous­ly, where all tech­nol­o­gy was fix­able, these new devices already have an obso­les­cence built into them? I know some of your work deals with that notion of planned obso­les­cence. Could you explain that term?

Ploeger: Yes. I mean, I think that there is a sense…in my per­spec­tive, a sense of planned obso­les­cence in most devices, not just the lat­est cheap— I would even say that with these real­ly cheap tech­nolo­gies there is no planned obso­les­cence. They’re just made as cheap as you can. In planned obso­les­cence there’s a sense of, Okay, I need to make it so it’s just good enough for the con­sumer to be kin­da hap­py with it. But then it breaks and they buy a new one,” right. Planned obso­les­cence means that you don’t design the device in order for it to last as long as pos­si­ble, it means that you designed it so that it is real­ly good for a while and then it breaks at some point. 

Mason: So like a light bulb, essentially.

Ploeger: Yeah, the light bulb is real­ly the best exam­ple, right. The Phoebus car­tel in the 1920s, 30s was an agree­ment between light bulb man­u­fac­tures where they agreed a light bulb should not last for more than 1,000 hours. This was in the inter­est of all of them, because if they would last for for 10,000 hours nobody would buy light bulbs any­more. So the idea of planned obso­les­cence is you design some­thing to break after a cer­tain amount of time in order to make sure that the con­sumer keeps buy­ing new items. So this is also done with elec­tron­ics, right. 

Mason: Every time we have an oper­at­ing sys­tem upgrade it feels like the phone’s broken.

Ploeger: There’s one thing, which is the clas­sic, this print­er thing where there is actu­al­ly a chip inside of most inkjet print­ers that counts the num­ber of pages. When it has expired it says that the print­er is bro­ken. I know this always sounds like oh, this con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry but real­ly this is very well-documented and you can even find things on the Web that point out which chip it is, and if you sol­der it out and put a new one in it works. You can also just wipe the chip’s software. 

That’s one thing. Which makes sense, right? You’ve got an engi­neer, he’s like oh you should design it so the plas­tic starts to break after like exact­ly one year. Why not we just put a chip inside, it’s much eas­i­er, right? The oth­er thing is indeed what you say, it’s a kind of soft­ware obso­les­cence, where you’re forced to upgrade the open­ing sys­tem of your phone, and then at some point it becomes too slow and you get a new one or you can’t even upgrade anymore.

So there are these two things. For me this is some­thing I’ve been inter­est­ed in rela­tion to the US project very much, this idea of what I call dig­i­tized planned obso­les­cence, where­as planned obso­les­cence of the ana­log era is about the mate­r­i­al decay. So if you look at nylon stock­ings and oth­er items of planned obso­les­cence, right, you make them so that after not too long holes start to come into the nylon stock­ing and you throw it away. Now, for the con­sumer this is clear, Now I need a new one.” But what’s key to this is that there is a mate­r­i­al expe­ri­ence of the stuff, of these stock­ings, of these nylons breaking.

Now, with the print­er this is very dif­fer­ent. The print­er is bro­ken. It says error” on the screen, it’s bro­ken. But in terms of your phys­i­cal expe­ri­ence of the mate­r­i­al, it’s still a brand new thing, right. The print­er is still real­ly in great con­di­tion. So what we get there then essen­tial­ly is, if we think about the anthro­pol­o­gist Mary Douglas and her writ­ing about waste, is that in this process that she describes we’ve got the usable, func­tion­ing object that oper­ates, then we’ve got the bro­ken object. That’s kind of a lim­i­nal thing, right. It’s a prob­lem because it’s still the thing that we know but it does­n’t func­tion any­more. So it kin­da hangs in between.

And then, in the last stage she says it goes to the heaps of com­mon rub­bish. That’s on the dump. There it’s all mixed and mud­dled up—it’s no longer a prob­lem. It’s just stuff that we some­how have to deal with. But there’s some­thing quite key about this in-between stage, right? Because that’s where we have to come to terms with what it means that the stuff we live with degrades and becomes some­thing else.

Now, with the print­er, this stage is cut out. This also then results in many peo­ple hoard­ing these print­ers at home. Because the print­er in a way is still real­ly new, but it does­n’t work, so you know… So it’s just kin­da there new, and at some point it’s gone. There’s nev­er been this mate­r­i­al sense of the thing breaking.

So for me that is con­sis­tent also with the ide­ol­o­gy of the cloud. I see a kind web around con­sumer tech­nolo­gies that pro­motes the idea that they are imma­te­r­i­al and they are con­nect­ed to a kind of pol­ished world. It’s a bit like maybe they’re the stuff of Sim City, if you like.

Mason: What you’re see­ing when you go out to parts of Africa is very much not a pol­ished world. I mean, there’s envi­ron­men­tal effects of these sorts of tech­nolo­gies being shipped off to invis­i­ble parts of the world, and we real­ly don’t see what hap­pens to these devices after­wards. And how is your work in some way try­ing to reveal again what hap­pens to these devices? I know you’ve packed the… I can’t remem­ber the name of it, but it’s almost like when they crush these devices down it becomes a…

Ploeger: Oh, that’s a residue from an elec­tron­ic waste recy­cling fac­to­ry here in the UK. That’s one of the places we vis­it­ed as part of the project. What I did there is that from this fac­to­ry, I took the stuff that remains after they have run through the devices, after they’ve run them through the whole process of extract­ing valu­able and recy­clable materials. 

After that’s done, there’s this kind of gray residue that remains, which is tox­ic, that does­n’t con­tain any­thing that you can extract. So it is worth­less, and it’s tox­ic. I took that and I put that into blis­ter packs for brand new iPad acces­sories. And these were then exhib­it­ed and for sale. That’s the only piece I have for which it was cru­cial that some­body would buy it. Luckily they were all sold in the end, because the idea of course was to present this worth­less residue of the elec­tron­ic device as some­thing that now gains val­ue in this art con­text. So basi­cal­ly you get this gray blis­ter packs on the wall that had the shape of an iPad mini, which are then for sale.

Mason: With regards to the envi­ron­men­tal effects of this e‑waste, I mean it’s being sent to parts of the world. We in the West don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly see what hap­pens to the device after we ship it off to have it recy­cled or dis­posed of, or we throw in land­fill and it ends up in these parts of the world and does cause some envi­ron­men­tal issues.

Ploeger: Yes it does. But I think it’s impor­tant to nuance this stan­dard sto­ry a lit­tle bit of, okay we’re throw­ing our com­put­er away and then it goes to a dump in say, Lagos. That’s not exact­ly what hap­pens. As you’ve prob­a­bly expe­ri­enced your­self, when you throw a com­put­er away it usu­al­ly still works. So what actu­al­ly hap­pens to the vast major­i­ty of the devices now that we so to say throw away and that go to Sub-Saharan Africa— And actu­al­ly to be clear that’s most­ly cor­po­rate com­put­ers because the com­put­ers we throw away, usu­al­ly they’re still in our homes, right. Once we start dying in fifty, six­ty, sev­en­ty years, then we get those.

But these com­put­ers that go down there, peo­ple want them down there because they’re using them. In schools, in com­pa­nies and what­ev­er. So if you go to the second-hand com­put­er mar­ket in Lagos, you find the com­put­ers from Moody’s invest­ment ser­vices, for exam­ple. I found them there. And you can buy them. People buy them because they’re good machines, you can work with them. 

So that’s what hap­pens first. But then, once they real­ly break, of course they don’t go back to Europe. So then they end on the dump there. And yes, this is a vile prac­tice, right. They end up on a dump, and there they are recy­cled through infor­mal meth­ods, which means that you only take out the stuff that you can mon­e­tize and that there are no envi­ron­men­tal concerns—or hard­ly any, in most cas­es. So in terms of cables that means you want the cop­per. The rest is with­out any val­ue so you just poke a fire, you throw the cables in, burn the plas­tic, and now you’ve got your cop­per, right? to just name one thing that you do. If you want the sol­der, you just heat up a met­al plate over a fire, you put the cir­cuit board on it, the sol­der melts, and then you just kin­da col­lect it. That’s it.

Mason: Now, you said some on this stuff does­n’t come back to the West, but your work specif­i­cal­ly has brought some of these obso­lete devices back to Europe.

Ploeger: Yes. Yes. I mean, the inter­est for me in this project is not so much like the good work that a lot of NGOs are doing. Let’s go there and see how we can improve the way this stuff is recy­cled. The idea for me is much more to what I would call rema­te­ri­al­ized the expe­ri­ence or the per­spec­tive on every­day con­sumer devices here where we’re liv­ing in Europe. So what I’ve done indeed is take some of the elec­tron­ic waste back and put it in the forefront. 

One exam­ple is my work Recycled Coil where I took deflec­tion coils from old tele­vi­sions that came orig­i­nal­ly from Europe. I took those from Lagos, from var­i­ous places. I brought those back. And I asked a body piercer to take part of this cop­per wire from this coil. So this is an elec­tro­mag­net, right, in the back of the TV that guides the elec­trons. I asked this body piercer to take part of that cop­per wire and to con­struct a coil on my abdomen. And then for the dura­tion of this exhibition—this was at Transmediale in 2014—every three sec­onds for one sec­ond, an elec­tric cur­rent would run through this coil on my abdomen and thus cre­ate a very faint mag­net­ic field. And then for a few hours a day I would stand next to this mag­ne­tome­ter in the exhi­bi­tion and you could see my mag­net­ic field switch on and off.

So what I tried to do here then, is to, fol­low­ing the kind of clas­sic def­i­n­i­tion, make myself into a cyborg, but then (to go back to the begin­ning of the con­ver­sa­tion) to sub­vert this spec­tac­u­lar idea of this cyborg by name­ly A, instead of implant­i­ng the lat­est new tech­no­log­i­cal part or gad­get into my body, and then B, do some­thing spectacular—become invin­ci­ble, live for­ev­er, what­ev­er. I actu­al­ly implant­ed elec­tron­ic waste into my body to make an elec­tric or elec­tron­ic cir­cuit that’s arguably the most basic there is, right? A coil to make a mag­net­ic field. And then B, to do some­thing that is absolute­ly use­less in the kind of clas­sic sense of this util­i­tar­i­an cyborg like oh, I’m going to live for­ev­er, I’m going to be strong—no, it just a made a mag­net­ic field that was so faint you could­n’t do any­thing with it.

And then on top of that the oth­er idea was then instead of attach­ing the stuff to the extrem­i­ties like RoboCop has, right, of the guns that come out and all that, with me it’s in the cen­ter of the body, in a place of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, the abdomen. Some peo­ple said, Oh, it looks like you had a Cesarean.” So in var­i­ous ways, I then took this elec­tron­ic waste and cre­at­ed this dream image of the tech­nol­o­gized body, but in a way that engages with the fact that yeah, there is also the after­life of stuff which is not in the realm of the glo­ri­ous spec­ta­cle of progress and eter­nal life.

Mason: And anoth­er exam­ple of that I think was the piece Returned to Sender. Is that right? 

Ploeger: Back to Sender.

Mason: Back to Sender.

Ploeger: Yeah. I want­ed to call it Return to Sender” but then Jelili Atiku, the artist with whom I made it, an artist from Laos, he said, No no, let’s call it Back to Sender,’ ” because back to sender is a juju. It’s a mag­ic rit­u­al that peo­ple in Yorubaland know and some prac­tice to send the evil that some­body has sent to you, to send it back to them. 

And now, back to sender has caused some con­tro­ver­sy in Christian com­mu­ni­ties, where peo­ple start­ed mak­ing back to sender prayers. And the dis­cus­sion was then, Wait, but that’s not real­ly a Christian thing, right? You should turn the oth­er cheek. You should­n’t do back to sender.” So for us, the title Back to Sender” real­ly fit. Because what we’re doing with this piece is a pile of elec­tron­ic devices and parts—waste—originating from Europe, which we found in Lagos. We put them in a big case and we sent that back to Europe and exhib­it­ed it there. 

And we par­tic­u­lar­ly looked for parts in which you could still see that they come from Europe. And one exam­ple is a mon­i­tor from Moody’s Investment Limited here in London. We got a Swisscom tele­phone. Part of a com­put­er that has a stick­er from the National Health Service on it, that sort of thing. So yeah, that piece was that, just send­ing this stuff back. It’s kind of a basic idea, and from that I actu­al­ly then took this coil which I used to make the Recycled Coil work on my body.

Mason: And how are you find­ing audi­ences receive this sort of work? I mean, what is the final hope for this sort of project? What do you want to make audi­ences feel?

Ploeger: Well, I think what hap­pened with Recycled Coil is one of the things that I want to achieve with this piece, and this was the ques­tion, Yeah, but what’s the point? What can it do? What can it do now? What can you do with it? How do you feel?” Well, noth­ing, right. And that then is a trig­ger for this thing, Hey, oh but that’s… Oh, ah.” So this does­n’t fit with­in the idea of these devices bring­ing some incred­i­ble ben­e­fits and at the same time being kind of dis­con­nect­ed from the mate­r­i­al world, from the world in oth­er words of resource and labor, right. It’s a clas­sic form of com­mod­i­ty fetishism in the Marxist sense. These devices, through this focus on the imma­te­r­i­al and the cloud and all that, they become total­ly dis­con­nect­ed from the social realm of labor, as Marx might put it. We dis­con­nect it from the fact that there’s peo­ple deal­ing with the waste, mak­ing it, dig­ging out the resources, and all this stuff.

So what I hope from this work is that it forms a set of maybe stim­uli or small provo­ca­tions to think about these devices in a way that tech­nol­o­gy is that there is some­thing out­side your app. There is a realm before and after. And ulti­mate­ly, then, I hope that this sort of work fits with­in a larg­er sub­cul­ture of peo­ple and ideas that want to go beyond a sim­plis­tic idea of eter­nal growth as the solu­tion for every­thing. Because this is in the end what is. 

And I don’t have any illu­sions that now peo­ple would come up to my work and say, Oh, no no. Looking at it like this, I’m not going to get a new phone any­more.” I more see it as this kind of art prac­tice, and maybe also a lot of work in acad­e­mia, I more see it as an activ­i­ty to build a com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple who are hope­ful­ly start­ing to look at the world in a dif­fer­ent way. That com­mu­ni­ty, that might make, or it can make, I believe, a dif­fer­ence in broad­er soci­ety. It’s not just my work, right. This goes to Rancière; the polit­i­cal rel­e­vance of a work of art is not the work in itself, it’s the way that this work might con­tribute to form­ing a com­mu­ni­ty or a net­work of peo­ple, who through this are empow­ered as a fac­tion with­in society.

Mason: Thank you to Dani for shar­ing how his work reveals the socio­cul­tur­al prob­lems asso­ci­at­ed with e‑waste.

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