PhD Journal Introduction:
"I have forgotten my umbrella. "
It's difficult to know where to begin as I am already 8 months into a PhD that has morphed and shifted to the point that I have begun to question my original motivations and inspiration. I've been assured by friends, colleagues and mentors that this is actually quite normal for the process but there is something in my gut that is making me question whether or not what I had conceived over 5 years ago is 1) possible, 2) ethical, and 3) original.
The idea was to try to understand the problem of electronic waste recycling since, as a sound recordist, I use technology to do this: headphones, speakers, and microphones. I have had many home use electronics in this regard that eventually break down, in particular, headphones that suddenly die and just end up taking space in drawer until one day - say when you are clearing out a family home, you empty those dusky artifacts - expose them back into the light of a large trash dumpster where they are whisked away to another darkness. Of course larger appliances and things can be dropped off to facilities that "recycle" them, but as a consumer your whole mentality is to either send it back for repair (assuming you are in warranty) or just buy a new one. Its fine for cheaper things and this is how that economy functions. It's just simply easier and more cost efficient to be a good consumer and purchase the item again - or a newer more efficient model! Before I go on, its safe to say I had no idea where these things even go to get repaired or where they go when they can't. Welcome to the internet... that source of vital information that can help you sleep better at night. Rest assured, everything you touch will go to competent hands who know what to do. You certainly don't.
Skipping way ahead, eventually I discovered that a lot of consumer electronics ended up in a place in Accra, Ghana called Agbogbloshie. Here is where the ethical dilemmas abound come into play. I had very little prior knowledge of Africa. The only man from there I had ever known personally was my now Ghanaian friend, Tuom Bredu, or John as he preferred to be called in our house. John had helped me take care of my father for almost a year as a live-in nurse and I talked to him about music and cultural things, but at the time, I had no idea of this place. There is so much information about it online as it became a hotbed for researchers and government NGO's looking to sort out what the western media had labeled one of the most toxic places on earth. This is because massive shipments of e-waste would end up there to be burned to release the precious metals found in computers etc. To make an incredibly long story short, a major problem was that the western media outlets and journalists tended to take shock images and report on a place that so visually horrific and poisonous that it eventually led to the government evicting all the workers in 2021. These workers, many of them northern migrants and young destitute teens, tried to make their livelihood in this informal waste economy, up-cycling or selling what they could from components by simply burning them.
With the informal waste worker's homes razed to the ground, and all the presence and funding from NGO's to improve conditions, progress in Agbogbloshie seemed gone in an instant. Most blogs had dried up and any inquiries I made to connect were left unanswered. Immediately, I thought, as John had always invited me to come visit Ghana on his extended break, I could go investigate this place myself. I had a feeling I was most likely tied to it having thrown away electronics over a 40 year span of life and never knowing a single thing about where it goes. It seems no-one did where I lived and that this is just how most people perceived garbage: someone takes it away and after that its not visible and isn't one's responsibility.
This may have been a goal of some documentary films to expose the West to their own wasteful neglect, however as with many of these documentaries, they exist to generate eyes on them for revenue and will go at no length to stage scenes or partake in visual exploitation to garner interest. The ethical dilemma of a distanced outside approach to documenting the conditions of tragedy is nothing new. Keven Carter, a photographer who eventually killed himself after presumably grappling with misappropriated concern over exposing the west to the consequences of precolonial legacies, took a controversial photo known as the "The Struggling Girl". Its tough to mention but after the crisis of food shortages in the 80s in Africa, Kevin snapped a picture of a vulture moving in on the last stages of life of an infant. Surely it was to raise awareness, but what it did was raise the awareness of artists responsibility and ethics when representing others. Why did he not intervene?
Eventually, with these things stirring in my mind, I proposed a work of art that might document Western attitudes of waste in the wish-fulfillment stage, that early excitement of obtaining the latest gadget heralded by the flashiest new commercials. I clearly remember the advertising growing up in the era of Apple: there are so many tropes and messages in advertising but the main idea was that every person should have a personal computer. Forty years later most everyone does and its held in their hand. We have grown so large in number that the problem of disposing anything now becomes so massive that it might be categorized as a "hyperobject". Tim Morton, a professor and eco-philosophical thinker at Rice University in Texas, had coined the term to define things so expansive and beyond human understanding. This would include massive geophysical forces like climate change, biochemical forces leading to plastic contamination, and the nebulous, murky functionings of capitalism for example. Surely the mounds of electronic goods in the entirety of their cycle, from wish fulfillment to artifact, could been seen as a hyperobject.
I clearly remember going in to buy a new iPhone at the Apple Store in Smithtown, New York and it was an absolute madhouse. As a sound recordist, I took a moment to just listen to the cacophony of dozens of dialogues happening around me and it all seemed to blend into a foreign sounding din, the s's of American speech evoked an image like a writhing coil of snakes. I also imagined what this world juxtaposed with the end lifecycle of those products
in Ghana. I wanted to focus on the sound of things because the visual media was so objectifying and exploitative that it might be interesting to expose the oppositions of these two worlds without resorting to what has been called "poverty-porn". Still, as someone who is aware of the brutal history of colonialism in Africa, how could I even take recordings without eliciting the same issues of extraction that have gone on for centuries and continue to this day. Mind you, Ghana is not the only place with a concentration of global waste. China and India have their massive electronic waste dumps, but Agbogbloshie seemed to be getting the most focus. The reason for this is simply the economy and the way capitalism works. Someone makes money shipping the waste to countries that buy it out of economic necessity.
I decided to reach out to someone there who might be willing to collaborate or help facilitate a project of this nature. I had spent a lot of time thinking about the contentious ethics of an outsider coming to make a sound documentary might be a bit problematic. My idea was to work with former groups like the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform to create the means of creating soundscapes, microphones and speakers and recorders, from the scrap material at the site. I was hoping for a knowledge exchange, a way to share my understanding of sound recording as an expressive art form that deals with space, place and identity in exchange for learning how to up-cycle waste. I have not been successful in this regard so I have begun to look to the UK to begin to understand what exactly happens to the things we dispose of. I have not had much luck here either. Having met with local scrap collectors in Brighton, and having sent follow up emails has remained unanswered. It is here I will begin the journaling of the experience I have trying to gain access to and understand why and how electronic recycling has remained a dark hole. A lot of websites espouse green practices and positive climate change goals but I feel as much of an outsider trying to become informed as I do when thinking of traveling outside of my local geography.