Artist and Parsons Paris Program Director Benjamin Gaulon (aka @recyclism) was invited to China earlier this summer to participate in Thingworld: International Triennial of New Media Art. We sat down with Benjamin to learn more about his experiences and what Parsons Paris students in his BFA in Art, Media & Technology and MFA in Design and Technology (that kicks off this fall) programs can learn from it.
What is thingWorld?
According to the Triennal of New Media Art in China:
The world is a thingWorld. For without things there would be nothing to describe, to interpret, to comment on, there would be no evocative signifiers that trigger imagination, conjure up representation, neither would there be societies nor cultures. The world is a thingWorld. In Chinese language, the word for “thing” is a compound of the characters East and West, a geographic stretch across the infinite space of two imaginary ends in the ancient mind. Thing is everything.
How did you get to be a part of it?
I was invited by the curator ZHANG Ga, who happens to be a faculty member at Parsons in New York. The work I was invited to present is a collaboration piece called ReFunct Media, which deals with e-waste, planned obsolescence, media archaeology, and is a collaboration with three Dutch artists: Karl Klomp, Gijs Gieskes and Tom Verbruggen.
This was your first trip to China. In what ways did China surprise you?
It’s hard to say what surprised me as everything was new. Obviously the language barrier didn’t make things easy, but I was lucky that a student, Su Qin, from Parsons NYC and who studied in Paris for a semester came along. It was great to have a guide / translator. We were able to find e-waste and second hand electronic markets we would have never find otherwise. I have to say, I was hoping to find more of those places, but it seems that people rather consume new electronic and don’t care that much about second hand equipment. However, I did witness interesting “recycling” practices, on the street, where someone was separating circuit boards from metal base, with a machete. I would need a longer trip to really find where we (in Europe and US) send our e-waste to be recycled.
We also found really amazing markets (for electronic makers).
You’ve shown your work around the world. How was this experience different from past shows?
A lot of this project was about how we consume and dispose of electronic devices, how those are made in Asia (with a devastating impact on the environment), and then are sent back to be recycled, impacting further the environment.
I have been running research and workshops on this topic for many years now. So for me, it made really sense to show there, especially as recycling is a topic that is very important today in China as the government is really pushing the topic. Also, shipping a crate of e-waste for a show in China was quite ironic.
How does the context of place affect your work?
Every time we show this work, we try to incorporate local e-waste. For this installation all the televisions were sourced locally. The museum was able to provide very old TVs from the 70s and 80s, which really gave a local flavor to the installation.
Finally, in the installation, we hacked a turntable, which had a tiny wireless camera rotating and filming a local souvenir – a Chinese lucky cat – and streaming its signal to several televisions in the installation. In the past we used a tiny Brandenburg Gate for the show in Berlin, a traditional figure from Latvia and a Minitel when showing the work in France at La Gaîté Lyrique.
In many ways your work is about technical difficulties, but did you encounter any particular challenges this time?
The project is an installation, but in a way, it is also a performance as we are building it on site each time. It took 5 days, 12 to 14 hours a day of hacking, repair, soldering, connecting of obsolete devices.
I think the work is also about exploring the potential of dead media (turning them in Zombie Media), but also it is liberating since those devices are junk, we can abuse, break, hack them. For the most part it was of little cost, since they were on there way to the junkyard, but we also used some top technologies that were quite expensive.
What was the process of putting your piece together? How would you describe the outcome?
“ReFunct Media” is a series of multimedia installations that (re)uses numerous “obsolete” electronic devices (digital and analogue media players and receivers). Those devices are hacked, misused and combined into a large and complex chain of elements. To use an ecological analogy they “interact” in different symbiotic relationships such as mutualism, parasitism and commensalism.
We start over each time, even if some parts are re-used, but they often break, and are recombined in new ways. We only ship the smaller devices, and the TVs and other larger devices are sourced locally and are recycled afterwards.
Working with Karl, Gijs and Tom is always a great experience, we learn from each other, and we try to have fun too. I always try to bring this level of energy to my students.
Finally, I was able to meet many great artists and extend my network. I will subsequently invite some of those artists for talks and workshops at Parsons Paris.