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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