Project type: Multimedia research project (including exhibition, online archive, audio-walk, upcoming symposium [june 2021] etc.)
Credits: Flavia Caviezel (visual anthropologist and lecturer in The Critical Media Lab and the Institute of Experimental Design and Media Cultures (IXDM) at the FHNW Academy of Art and Design in Basel). Interview by Lara Chapman.

The interdisciplinary research team for the Times of Waste project: IXDM’s senior researcher and lecturer Flavia Caviezel (visual anthropology); Mirjam Bürgin (scenography/education); Anselm Caminada (music, sound design); Adrian Demleitner (programming, tech supervision); Marion Mertens (environmental studies); Yvonne Volkart (art theory/lecturer at HGK); Sonia Malpeso (graphic design); Andreas Simon (supervision, audio walk).

Years: 2015-2018

'Through the project, we want to make waste visible and audible so that people can approach the materiality of waste through different senses and not only cognitively.'
Flavia Caviezel

Introduction:
For more than three years, the Times of Waste research team explored the materiality and movement of smartphones, building a comprehensive object biography. In particular, they focused on a smartphone’s waste streams at every stage of its life from production, through use, to disposal. By tracking the paths and transport routes of waste materials, the project highlights how a regular everyday device leaves many types of waste. The outcomes of this intensive study are numerous and diverse including an online archive called Smartphone Object Biography, audio walking tours and exhibitions. The multiple outcomes reflect the complexity of the topic as well as the curiosity of the team to discover how to effectively communicate around waste and change how the public perceives it. Flavia Caviezel led this ambitious project and talks in the interview below about the aesthetics of waste, methods of research, the logistics of a transnational project and the strategic use of media.

Video essay on different fieldwork sites visited by the research team, exhibition Times of Waste – The Leftover at Museum der Kulturen Basel 2017.
Video essay on different fieldwork sites visited by the research team, exhibition Times of Waste – The Leftover at Museum der Kulturen Basel 2017. © Omar Lemke


Lara Chapman: How did Times of Waste begin?

Flavia Caviezel: Most of our team was already working together on a project called RhyCycling. Esthetics of Sustainability in the Basel Border Area. We undertook this project from 2010 to 2013 and it also dealt with topics of ecology and the network of human/non-human relationships and the aesthetics of waste, so that was the starting point. From there, we developed a proposal for Times of Waste which focused in on the idea of following waste material. The original idea was the have three case studies through three object biographies. However, once we realised the complexity and the nuances of the smartphone and its waste, we expanded the scope of that single biography and focused the research specifically on smartphones and the domain of e-waste.

LC: The term ‘aesthetics of waste’ that you mention is intriguing, what do you mean by this?

FC: It’s a few different things. On the one hand, we were interested in how to approach the physical materiality and aesthetics of waste in our landscape. The question of how to do this was a bit of a challenge but we believed being close to waste and the people involved in different work around waste was really important. This is why we conducted audio-visual and textual research.

On the other hand, the ‘aesthetics of waste’ also deals with how you present the research about waste. Once we had our content we needed to figure out the post-production and presentation of the material. We were confronted with the questions of what kind of aesthetic, representation and media strategies we wanted to use. We reflected that transmedia strategies might work well with the content we had.

Screenshot from the Smartphone Object Biography online archive, Times of Waste.


We were working on the waste context at a transnational level and therefore, were following lots of routes at a global scale. The nature of this kind of transnational research means that we always encountered gaps which appeared throughout the research because we were stuck somewhere or we couldn’t get access to something for some reason or another. We had to consider how we could represent this kind of fragmented content and the gaps. Out of this, we developed the strategy of the Smartphone Object Biography which is an online tool where we tried to combine all the visual, textural and audio material. Some parts are more like a documentary and more description-based and then there are more essayistic things, like the Neodymium essay which focuses on a rare earth element. In sum, it is a kind of online archive that represents the transnational research within a multi-local setting.

LC: I think the website is really fascinating because often when you see exhibitions or projects that deal with waste and ecology, there is a tendency for designers to make things look very beautiful and for things to operate very smoothly, which to me, conflicts with the content. The Smartphone Object Biography is quite fragmented and unexpectedly chops between one media and another and is kind of difficult to navigate. It doesn’t feel as if it is trying to aestheticise something quite unappealing…

FC: Yes, I think the interface represents the situation of our research during the three-and-a- bit years that we were working on the project. Another thing we thought about was that it would be interesting to have an interface in which you could see the names of all the different places we researched. They range from very well-known countries to tiny places which no one knows except us because we went there. We believe that this gives an idea of how entangled the topic of smartphone waste is and how we have to work in micro contexts as well as macro ones.

Screenshot from the Smartphone Object Biography online archive, Times of Waste.


LC: In addition to the website as an outcome, you mentioned transmedia strategies, and the project has manifested in many forms such as an audio-walk, panel discussions, and essays . How have you found that audiences engage with these different types of media?

FC: We felt it was important to have different situations where we could get into contact with the public. These different formats make many forms of reception possible.

These different formats make many forms of reception possible

The different media outcomes developed in steps. The first step was the audio-walk which was strongly influenced by a predecessor project in a border area of Basel; then out of the experiences with the audio-walk and also the talks we had after the walks with people who participated in them, we developed elements for the exhibition and hosted that. The exhibition was an assemblage of different parts of the project — one person said it was like a website in a physical space which I thought was quite a good description. Out of the exhibition, we then developed the Smartphone Object Biography as an online archive.

We also developed methods as we went along. One of these methods we call ‘object-centred-perspective’. It is a method in which we embody the object and create a first-person voice for it in an effort to centre a non-anthropocentric perspective.

Participants of the audio walk wastescapes on the Dreiländer bridge connecting France with Germany, trinational border area of Basel 2017.
Participants of the audio walk Wastescapes on the Dreiländer bridge connecting France with Germany, tri-national border area of Basel 2017. © Samuel Hanselmann


LC: Could you talk about how you used this ‘object-centred-perspective’?

FC: In the audio-walk, the tour is narrated or guided by the smartphone which guides you through the harbour/border area. The smartphone is played by a woman actor and she talks from its perspective. Then there are two other protagonists who are in conversation with the smartphone and this is what you hear when you walk.

Working with the ‘object-centred-perspective’ also came with the challenge and risk of trying something new. It felt like we were working on the edge/border of failure in using a format that was quite experimental and had the potential to fail.

Smartphones as topic and carrier medium of the audio walk wastescapes, trinational border area of Basel 2017. © Research Team Times of Waste

We chose walking because we were interested in communicating about a very specific area of the city


LC: Why did you choose walking as a method for communicating your research about waste?

FC: I think we chose walking because we were interested in communicating about a very specific area of the city and we wanted to highlight places that the public, even locals, don’t know about. We wanted to lead people to these places. That was the basic idea. The tour was very connected to the local context and it dealt with the things you encountered on the walk. When you crossed the bridge that borders France and Germany it talked about border issues; when you walked to the shopping mall, it discussed the repairing of smartphones and their waste; when you were by the harbour it delved into the microorganisms that migrate via the ships transporting smartphones and goods. We tried to focus on these micro views but also give a sense of the bigger picture which was about our entanglement with waste.

We programmed GPS signals into the audio-walk for the tour to run based on your geographic location. This was not an easy task but, in the end (after a lot of trials), it worked quite well.

Walking is interesting because the audience moves and, to some extent, has to follow the directions of the narrator but they can also control how quickly or slowly they move. For most of the walk, the walkers could move at their own pace and, if they wanted to could stay and look around areas they were interested in a little longer.

Participant of the audio walk Wastescapes on the Dreiländer bridge connecting France with Germany, tri-national border area of Basel 2017. © Research Team Times of Waste


LC: It feels as if the act of walking, combined with the way the tour was programmed, gave the audience quite a bit of agency, in a way that I imagine other media like a screen couldn’t…

FC: Yes, and it was also really interesting because people ended up exchanging ideas and having conversations at the end of the walk. We observed that people saw slightly different things on their walk because the area is quite huge and everyone concentrates on different small things. The smartphone guided their perception to some extent but it was also possible for people to look at other things which were separate to what the smartphone voice is telling them.

Regarding agency, perhaps it's also interesting to discuss the online tool of the Smartphone Object Biography. The object biography maps the often intricate routes that the waste materials take. Its design makes it possible for users to choose individual paths through the materials available.

Some people might appreciate the freedom to move around and discover the content on their own without a fixed-narration through the biography


LC: Yes, it gives the impression that e-waste is much more complex than is often portrayed by the mainstream media. On the website, I felt I was maybe missing things through the way I was navigating...

FC: Some people might appreciate the freedom to move around and discover the content on their own without a fixed-narration through the biography but others might not like this, it depends on the user/visitor.

I presented the platform to people with ethnographic or visual anthropology backgrounds at a film festival and they mentioned that they really liked the multi-locality of the site because this is always an important aspect in ethnographic research.

Exhibition view of the assemblage of Times of Waste – The Leftover at Museum der Kulturen Basel 2017.
Exhibition view of the assemblage of Times of Waste – The Leftover at Museum der Kulturen Basel 2017. © Omar Lemke


LC: What were the logistics of such a long-term, transnational and multidisciplinary project?

FC: Whenever possible we would travel together, as a team to each research site. The fact we were all there was the reason we were able to collect photographs, video and audio. Sometimes we also took our environmental scientist with us. She doesn’t work with visual material but she gave us a different focus and perspective on the situations.

We also had two special collaborations with people who were not in the team but who were also working with similar topics and in places we couldn’t go to in the scope of our project.

One was the German filmmaker Daniel Kötter. In the context of the project Chinafrika.under construction he realised the four-part documentary Chinafrika.mobile. We met when he visited our exhibition in Basel. During his preparations for the smartphone project we briefed him with our questions of interest regarding mining, repair and reuse. So, we could use his footage for the smartphone object biography which was created in collaboration with local protagonists in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Nigeria and in the Guangdong Province of China.

Screenshot from the Smartphone Object Biography online archive, Times of Waste.


The other collaboration was with the author and literary scholar Mohomodou Houssouba from Mali who lives in Basel. His research work in West Africa deals with mobile phone applications for the Malian language Songhay. He investigated for us the secondhand market in Mali’s cities Bamako and Gao as well as in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou and wrote three essays for the object biography.

LC: On the Times of Waste website, it says: ‘The aim of the project is to break-up cultural connotations of waste’. Could talk about what you feel are the cultural connotations of waste, and e-waste specifically, and what you hoped to change about them through the project?

FC: Generally, waste is something which is out of sight, out of mind. The deposits of waste in our societies are at the periphery. Garbage is not only what has always fallen away. It is also that which no longer disappears and cannot be ‘disposed of’ without a trace. Something always remains.

The deposits of waste in our societies are at the periphery


We also had the idea that we are entangled with this materiality of waste. We can’t get rid of it. Through the project, we want to make waste visible and audible so that people can approach the materiality of waste through different senses and not only cognitively. For example in the audio-walk, there are different aspects of waste appearing, not only e-waste but also contaminated soils and material from the deconstruction of old oil tanks. Waste lives in the different layers below us. Even if it is under the earth, sitting at different metric distances from the surface, the knowledge that you are entangled with this materiality and it sticks to, and on, you is important.