Sketching: The World After Us, speculative media sculptures

This blog post is a sketch – something I will occasionally do about my own work, or with others. It will always be a thinking-with of new materials and ideas, with this one coming out of the writing of my forthcoming second book (Ecological Aesthetics: artful tactics for humans, nature, and politics), chats with colleagues and peers and specialists, playing with media objects, proposing a fellowship (I didn’t get), and more. I welcome feedback! I imagine this particular proposal being a years- and perhaps decades-long project, with this first exhibition being produced over the next two or so years… The images are very recent experiments!


What will Digital Media do, after us?

Galaxy (yes, the phone)

The World After Us will be a new series of media sculptures that materially speculate on what our devices – phones and tablets, batteries and displays, etc – might become, over thousands or millions of years. Through research, experimentation, and craft, I will try (and likely fail) to turn phones into crude oil, coal, or other fossil fuels – and put the results on exhibit, in beakers and tubes. I will attempt to mimic geological time, as pressure and heat – through chemical interactions or specialized machinery – on laptops and tablets, then display where that potential lies, as petrified-like LCDs or mangled post-exploded batteries, on pedestals in a gallery. I hope to turn “dead media” computers into efficient planters for edible goods, food for mold, or seeds of their own growth – and show both those experiments, and their results, as videos and sculptural forms. I will also turn ground phones into usable supplies, for example ink and paper, and put them to use in these new forms. The final outcome will be an internationally exhibited body of work, and catalog. It is impossible for humans to truly fathom our planet on an Earth scale, or conversely from the perspective of bacteria. But we can feel such things, through art and storytelling – making our aesthetic encounters both conceptually and ethically vital toward new futures. At stake, whether in our everyday interactions or on a larger scale, are the (digital) relationships between humans and the natural world on the one hand, between politics and commerce on the other.

The World After Us will be a traveling exhibition and catalog, beginning in Milwaukee, and shown in several other spaces internationally. It asks:

What will digital media be and do, after us?
What will my laptop, or phone, look like in a million years?
How will our devices weather over time?
Can we artificially weather our devices, to sense and feel this?

Torch phone (yes, literally)

These are not rhetorical questions. But they are more speculative than they are able to be answered directly and correctly. And with this research project, I will speculate and experiment, wonder and wander, with our materials. I will (safely) mix phones in blenders, press laptops under steamrollers, break down tablets with borax. I will soak iPads in chlorine and sludge, cook iPhones like cakes, inject the Apple Watch with spores and mold. Torch, grind, freeze, flower. Highlight, amplify, ironize, intervene. Resiutate, speculate, wonder, and propose.

Can we use biofuel processes or hydrothermal liquefaction to turn a phone into fuel?
How might a laptop make the most efficient planter, or bed for life?
What would a tablet made of carbon, instead of plastic, be and do?
What does a joule feel like?

Geological time and Earth size, decomposition and regrowth: these are concepts we can comprehend rationally, but they are impossible to truly fathom. I propose that we can feel such things, aesthetically and thus ethically, if we substantiate future potential, artfully, in objects and installations. My experimental project will do precisely this. It will take the form of between eight and 15 objects or installations that might be: beakers of coal- or oil-like matter labelled with the device they once were (ie iPhone 7); laptops growing spores and mold, propagating life in new and different ways; participatory machines that take our energy and convert it into media; new designs for carbon-based phones, which will more easily decompose over time; prints made entirely of media devices: image, ink, paper, etc… These objects will be accompanied by the stories and experiments that produced them (text, image, video), as well as an essay which mediates the research as a whole.

Some relevant reading (not including my not-yet-released book!):