Get SF Weekly Newsletters

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

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

Posted By on Wed, Sep 2, 2015 at 11:00 AM

click to enlarge 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 Wagenknecht. Cloud 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."

click to enlarge Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, From Below, 2015.
  • Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, From Below, 2015.

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.

Earth Machines, through Dec. 6, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission, 415-978-2700.

  • Pin It

Tags: , , , , , , ,

About The Author

Matthew Harrison Tedford


Comments are closed.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed

Like us on Facebook


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"