Smartphone Object Biography — Times of Waste research project

Waste is material that is perceived differently depending on the context. Whether it is a promising resource or the unavoidable leftover: what becomes waste cannot be disposed of without trace.

The research project Times of Waste is about movement. The interdisciplinary team tracks paths and transport routes of (waste) materials and objects. For electronic waste, the transformation processes and revaluations of a smartphone and its components are examined as examples. It is a regular everyday device that leaves many types of waste. The greatest amount of waste, however, is produced long before it is used for the first time. Especially in the "extraction" of raw materials such as neodymium, which is mined under precarious ecological, socio-economic and health conditions, huge amounts of waste are produced.

The project includes various forms of collaboration, both in the interdisciplinary team, as well as with the project partners and protagonists on site. Our interest is in the modes and possibilities of collaboration between science and the arts, qualitative methods and transmedia techniques.

Using artistic-scientific research practices and various media, the team investigates waste materials and the fields of human work. These range from local landfills, repair shops or research laboratories, to global contexts. In transnational research, fractures and fragmentations are characteristic.1 The "concatenation" of the various media fragments makes it possible to place the routes and transformation processes of the objects and materials in an overall context.2 The present smartphone object biography now maps these often intricate routes and recycling movements.3 It makes it possible to choose individual paths through the materials available online, and thus to create a unique joined-up story. This is a response to the problem that the object biography can only be told in multiple variations.4

The fact that people not only remove the earth's crust in their search for raw materials, but also rebuild it with new residual material is evidenced by the geological and material afterlife from the field research into various granules, slags or metals. Which leads to the question: where do the remains go? And what options are there to do something about it?

With presentation formats such as exhibitions, audio walks, project workshops or panel discussions – and now also with the smartphone object biography – Times of Waste initiates a public discussion and debate on these questions. The goal is to break the cultural connotations of waste and to encourage the sustainable use of raw materials.

Research team Times of Waste

The interdisciplinary research team consists of seven people ranging from visual anthropology, art theory & practices, sound design to environmental studies, programming, interface & graphic design: Flavia Caviezel (lead), Mirjam Bürgin, Anselm Caminada, Adrian Demleitner, Marion Mertens, Yvonne Volkart and Sonia Malpeso. Most of the team members have been collaborating since RhyCycling. Aesthetics of Sustainability in the Basel Border Area (2010-2013); Times of Waste has run from January 2015 to March 2018. Both projects are financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation and situated at the Institute of Experimental Design and Media Cultures/Critical Media Lab at the Academy of Art and Design of the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland.

Details about the research team, activities and outcomes are accessible on www.times-of-waste.ch.

1 On the one hand, disruptions arise from new conditions and local and transnational contexts, on the other hand from areas that are inaccessible to research.
2 See Arjun Appadurai (Ed.). The Social Life of Things. Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge 1986; or Bernd-Stefan Grewe. Raum und Macht – Eine Stoffgeschichte des Goldes im frühen 20. Jahrhundert. In: Jahrbuch für Wirtschaftsgeschichte / Economic History Yearbook, Walter de Gruyter 2016, 57/1:59–90.
3 Flavia Caviezel. RhyCycling – Fluid Borderland. Processes of Knowledge Creation. Conference Paper. In: ISEA2014 Dubai. Location. Proceedings of the 20th International Symposium on Electronic Art, 2015: 76-82.
4 See the audio essay Object Biography Smartphone/Neodymium.