Cloud Monsters and E-Waste Dumps Illuminate the Link Between Technology and the Environment

September 2, 2015

Kevin McElvaney,  Agbogbloshie: John Mahama , 2013.

Kevin McElvaney, Agbogbloshie: John Mahama, 2013.

A mechanized octopus-like alien hangs from the ceiling at the YBCA for "Earth Machines," an exhibition that considers the ecological impact of high-tech society. The monstrous creature is a creation of artist Addie WagenknechtCloud Farming (2014), from the series "Data and Dragons," is a sculpture of custom-printed circuit boards and ethernet patch cables, with dozens of flickering green lights and cords drooping towards the ground like interconnected black tentacles. Cloud Farming captures data from nearby wifi signals and is intended to be a personification — and not a happy one — of "the cloud."

Wagenknecht's work may seem out of place in an exhibition about the environment, but through that web of cables one can see a video by Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen that creates a fuller picture. The video,From Below (2015), was shot in Iceland near a data center, one of many drawn to the subpolar nation’s cool climate, abundant renewable energy, and robust privacy laws. Being Iceland, the landscape is beautiful, violent, and full of bubbling and oozing pools of goop. It is unclear whether the video is documenting mines and industrial waste sites or just a geologically active environment. Nonetheless, the video quite literally grounds “the cloud,” reminding viewers that it relies on physical places, massive amount of energy, and raw materials.

German photojournalist Kevin McElvaney presents a series of photos from an e-waste dumpsite in Agbogbloshie, Ghana, that makes painfully clear the human impact of the digital world. McElvaney’s photos are portraits shot in front at this site where mostly young men dismantle computers, monitors, and and all kinds of wonderful gadgets, in order to mine their copper before burning the rest. In one photo, a 21-year-old named John Mahama stands on top of a computer, pulling up his too-large pants, while a smoldering pile of technological progress spews black smoke into the air. Each portrait is accompanied by text about the subject. John, it is explained, suffers from debilitating headaches, and his eyes twitch, but without the money from selling salvaged copper, he cannot afford the medicine he needs. In another photo, a 9-year-old girl stands in the charred landscape with a bucket of ice on her head. While girls don’t normally burn e-waste, they too participate in the dumpsite economy, selling ice or food to the workers.

There is almost a direct thread from Wagenknecht’s Cloud Farming through the Icelandic landscape to the decimated and toxic lagoon of Agbogbloshie. But other artists in the exhibit explore technology and the environment from various perspectives. From sound pieces to sculptures, these artists each take a unique look technology and its larger implications, often with delightful, disturbing, and unexpected results.