Rationale and research context

The United Kingdom is one of Europe’s main producers of electronic waste (e-waste)[1]. Despite strict EU regulations and control programmes[2], a substantial part of British e-waste is exported to developing countries, where it is often recycled through environmentally harmful methods or dumped in unprotected areas, causing severe environmental damage accompanied by a range of socio-cultural problems[3]. Foregrounding theproblematics around e-waste through cultural practices and in academic discourse is a matter of urgency at the present moment. In addition to the adverse impact of e-waste outside Europe, it has in recent years become clear that European countries will now also increasingly need to engage with this problem on their own territory; developing countries are gradually introducing restrictions on imports of used electronics, whilst the persistence of the manufacturing logic of planned obsolescence causes the stream of waste to
increase steadily at a yearly rate of 5-10%[4].
Despite this, public debate on digital technologies in Britain and other post-industrial countries has been primarily focused on the economic and social benefits of technological innovation. Digital performance arts[5] practices have largely been complicit in this narrative: On the one hand, their primary interest has been in the exploration and showcasing of state of the art innovations[6]; on the other, critical practices in the field have been restricted to the politics of a western, post-industrial cultural framework[7]. Digital performance arts practitioners have rarely engaged with the material and socio-economic aspects of technology in terms of their production, and their ‘afterlife’ as electronic waste[8].
Furthermore, the initial explorations in this field have not been informed by a rigorous exchange with scientists and other academic specialists in the field. As a result, this work’s engagement with the complexities of the social and ecological aspects of e-waste has remained rather rudimental.
Critical practices in digital performance arts are a potential way to thematize the politics of e-waste that reaches beyond the ‘art world’. Building on ethnographer Norman Denzin’s theory that contemporary western society is a ‘performance-based, dramaturgical culture’ where the ‘dividing line between performer and audience blurs’[9], Bodies of Planned Obsolescence is driven by the notion that critical practices in digital performance arts can constitute an intervention in broader cultural performative practices around understandings of – and engagement with – technology.
An innovative aspect of Bodies of Planned Obsolescence is its methodological approach to practice-based research, which builds on anthropologist Tim Ingold’s recent writing. Ingold suggests that not only art, but also anthropology, archaeology, and architecture should be practiced as ‘thinking through making’[10], instead of focus on theorizing an externalized world. Through a shared use of practice-based modes of inquiry with artefacts and processes, a platform for ‘anti-disciplinary’[11] research may be established where the boundaries between (practice-based) artistic research and more traditional (theory-based) fields of academic research are collapsed and new forms of collaborative practice may emerge.
Bodies of Planned Obsolescence seeks to extend Ingold’s approach into collaborative work in the field of science and arts. In addition to papers and artwork demonstrations, the workshops in Nigeria and China will involve collaborative practice-based explorations around the material aspects of e-waste. The core participants will spend several days working at improvised and industrial e-waste recycling facilities in Lagos and Hong Kong, guided by local professionals. These shared experiences will form the basis for exchange between participants from different disciplines, which may in turn input into new work in their respective fields of research.
In this context, practice-based research in digital performance arts is not only conceived as building on – and responding to – academic and scientific theory, as is often the case in science-arts collaborations[12], but also constitutes a process of ‘blue-sky’ experimentation, which may play an initiating role in discourse and research in other disciplines, as well as establish alternate modes of dissemination of scientific and humanities research on e-waste outside academia.
The network’s inclusion of participants from the UK, China and Nigeria is motivated by a desire to develop a multi-faceted perspective that moves beyond a Euro-centric approach. The network’s focus on Nigeria, in addition to China, is essential to facilitate an adequately broad perspective on the global diversity in engagements with e-waste: Whereas e-waste recycling in Nigeria is still dominated by informal and improvised techniques, large scale industrialized methods are currently emerging in China.

[1] ‘Electronic waste’ or ‘e-waste’ is a generic term for electric and electronic equipment that have ceased to be of value to their owners. (Widmer, R., et al., 2005. Global perspectives on e-waste. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 25 (5), pp. 436-458.)

[2] Widmer, R., et al., 2005. Global perspectives on e-waste. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 25 (5), pp. 436-458.

[3] Chan, J.K.Y., Wong, M.H., 2013. A review of environmental fate, body burdens, and human health risk assessment of PCDD/Fs at two typical electronic waste recycling sites in China. Science of The Total Environment, 463–464, pp. 1111–1123; Secretariat of the Basel Convention, 2012. e-Waste Country Assessment Nigeria. Châtelaine: Secretariat of the Basel Convention; Zhang, L., 2009. From Guiyu to a nationwide policy: e-waste management in China. Environmental Politics, 18(6), pp. 981-987.

[4] Sthiannopkao, S., Wong, M.H., 2013. Handling e-waste in developed and developing countries: Initiatives, practices, and consequences. Science of The Total Environment, 463–464, pp 1147-1153.

[5] The term digital performance designates performance work ‘where computer technologies play a key role, rather than a subsidiary one in content, techniques, aesthetics, or delivery forms’ (Dixon 2007: 3; original emphasis).

[6] See for example the work of Stelarc, and Kevin Warwick.

[7] Work that may be read in this context includes: Tomie Hahn and Curtis Bahn’s PikaPika (2001) which plays with conspicuous gender stereotypes in technology-design; Guillermo Gómez Peña’s El Mexterminator (2000) which incorporates plastic, pseudo-technological body parts to engage with the place of the immigrant body in North-American hi-tech society; and the PI’s ELECTRODE (2011) which features a medical device for the treatment of faecal incontinence, which is used to generate electronic sound material in order to make conspicuous the device’s cultural role as a taboo-technology. 

[8] Among the rare early explorations in this field are the work of Jonathan Kemp and ShuLea Cheang, both of whom will be contributing to the network.

[9] Denzin, Norman, 2003. Performance Ethnography: Critical Pedagogy and the Politics of Culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, p. x.

[10] Ingold, T., 2013. Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture, London: Routledge, p. xi.

[11] ibid., p. 12.

[12] See for example Dowell, E. and Weitkamp, E., 2011. ‘An Exploration of the Collaborative Processes of Making Theatre
Inspired by Science’. Public Understanding of Science, XX(X), pp. 1-11; Shepherd-Barr, K., 2006. Science on Stage: From Doctor Faustus to
Copenhagen. Princeton UP.