Designer and artist working in particular on the issues of new exploitation – and potentially of technological detour – of electronic tools (Tech mining) and on the principles of recycling electronic waste (e-waste), Benjamin Gaulon likes to share his practice in educational and participative workshops. An approach mixing hacking and critical design verified during a productive session at iMAL in Brussels.
Originally a graphic designer (he graduated from the BTS in visual communication in Nevers, then from the Arts Décos in Strasbourg), Benjamin Gaulon quickly turned to electronic artistic practices after his master’s degree in Interactive Media (MADTech) at the Frank Mohr Institute in Groningen. In its modus operandi, it very quickly integrated a reflection based on the questions of the life cycle of technology, in the wake of hacktivist collectives (linking principles of political activism to questions of computer hacking) such as BAN (Based Action Network) in the United States, which is interested in the questions of technological waste with a very militant ecological profile. His series of works such as Retail Poisoning, aimed at perverting the principles of digital consumption by injecting tainted data or corrupted electronic material into our everyday electronic objects, introduced him to a certain conceptualization of the object, particularly cell phones (Broken Phones series), but also the minitel, whose uses he tried to rethink.
For Benjamin Gaulon, the idea of recycling is essential. It even led him to imagine a creative and disruptive approach, contained in the neologism “recyclism” (which gives its name to his website recyclism.com) and which uses the tools of Tech mining, that is to say new principles of exploitation, even detour, of electronic material hardwareThis is equivalent to the new information generated and exploited from the digital data of Data mining, and that we find in the work of other contemporary artists-researchers-hackers like Nicolas Maigret and Maria Roszkowska (Disnovation.org), Nicolas Nova, or the collective RYBN. His interest in e-waste issues, tracking ways to reuse the technological waste that surrounds us, led him to imagine a draft community of researchers, artists and designers interested in these issues, as part of the Nø-School Nevers, a kind of “camp for adults” meeting every July in a Burgundy country house, to think about open source or live coding projects, to produce artifacts and printed circuits, but especially to share practices and prototyping, especially around these issues of technological recycling.
On a more regular basis, Benjamin Gaulon organizes e-waste and Tech mining workshops to open the field of his practices to a public of curious and initiated people. At the end of January, one of these workshops was held at the iMAL in Brussels, as part of the annual program of professional meetings The Cookery (hosting round tables, conferences, workshops and performances), organized by the main center dedicated to digital arts in Belgium. During two days, the issues of reuse of used electronic devices and recycling of their components were put on the grill in a creative and playful way, which interested an audience including students in experimental publishing from the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam and a teacher in digital art from the ENSAV in La Cambre.
Two experiments were concretely put into practice during these two days. The first one is about refunct media, aiming at “refunctionalizing” obsolete or defective electronic objects. For this, each participant had brought along a variety of electronic parts, including a vintage video title box (to place text on the screen) and an army of small analog TVs and small Watchman monitors with screens. Led by Benjamin Gaulon, the small team quickly got to work soldering mini-cameras to printed circuits, then connecting them to an AV-RF converter to create, with alligator clips and RCA plugs, a whole tabletop scenography linking cameras, analog TV screens and text keyboards, in the manner of a closed CCTV surveillance camera network.
Beyond this very circuit bending staging, Benjamin Gaulon “imagines that all this can be seriously reused for something”. “A minitel, for example, can be a sought-after tool today because it consumes less energy than a computer,” he says. “This type of device is an entry point to new low-cost uses. With the increasing scarcity and price of raw materials, not to mention the crisis in electronic components, it is obvious that new circuits of use and reuse will have to be found.”
Core samples : des sculptures de datas
Among the multitude of objects brought back, a certain number are however not functionally re-usable. This is where the second part of the workshop comes in, based on a principle of recreational recreation to produce an artifact from the crushing of the hardware components themselves.
On the table, a mouse, a printer and a CD player turned out to be unusable. Benjamin Gaulon proposes to proceed to the reuse of the materials that compose them (plastic, but also printed circuits) by dismantling them, then by crushing them, and finally by recomposing them into something else. In his practice, Benjamin Gaulon creates objects shaped from this material that he has named core samples. The idea here is to conceive one of these objects that curiously refers to a kind of sculpture of data, the announced totem of the archaeologies of the future. Hammer, saw, hydraulic press, crusher, the whole arsenal of the iMAL FabLab is used to take apart these electronic objects, then transform them into residues. The material obtained at the end of this laborious process is similar to composite aggregates as can be found in the manufacture of concrete. Placed in a tank, this material is first heated with a heat gun to agglomerate it (wearing a mask to avoid toxic fumes), then placed in a mold, also recycled (a metal cylinder from a coffee can), where it is meticulously compacted to take the shape of its container. After a few minutes, the cylinder is placed in cold water, then cut to release the desired strange rounded sculpture.
Beyond the disruptive aspect of the method, and beyond putting it into perspective with the industrial recovery work currently carried out in recycling factories (although we don’t always know exactly what is recovered or not, as Benjamin Gaulon points out), a very clear evidence appears as to the new avenues of industrial design that could potentially result from such an approach to recycling. In the light of this experience, how can we not be struck by the quantity of reusable material contained in all our electronic waste stocks? And how can we not think that their recycling could indeed constitute a source of exploitable and cheap material? For Benjamin Gaulon, this question of what should be reused and what should be destroyed opens many avenues, even if he doesn’t think that destruction is necessarily the best idea in terms of design. “I think the right idea would be to design better in the first place, precisely to avoid excess material,” he concedes. “Today, even more than yesterday, the question is not only to produce better, but to produce less.”