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The SXSW Interactive festival is in full swing as I walk through the crowded and noisy exhibition hall at the Austin Convention Center in search of George Sabra, a sculptor that employs driftwood and discarded electronic parts to comment on how technology separates us from each other and the natural world despite its potential to bring us together. I find him standing next to one of his pieces, a fusion of wood and e-waste that forms an an electronically controlled planet Earth connected to a shapeless void of wood and metal by an umbilical cord of metal tubing. I have to lean forward and strain to hear the soft-spoken artist. Everywhere flashing lights and loud bleeps, booms, bangs and clicks assault our senses. George nods towards a video game exhibit in the hall where people are swinging imaginary golf clubs at a big screen TV. “Soon they will have games with food that you must pretend to eat,” he jokes, though I must admit, the idea doesn’t seem that far fetched.
George began sculpting over 22 years ago, and his artwork ranges from the classical to the abstract. His recent work, which has been featured at the Super Bowl in Tampa, Florida and another currently on display at the Council Chambers of the City of Austin, employs found elements of the natural world with computer parts he obtains through Dell and Goodwill’s ReConnect e-waste recycling partnership. “I began this project to show how there can be balance between technology and the natural world,” George says when asked about his inspiration for this series of sculptures. At it’s worst, he explains, technology not only separates us from each other, but from that part of ourselves that is one with the natural world. I am immediately reminded of Richard Louv’s contention in Last Child in the Woods that such a disconnect between humanity and nature plays a big role in recent disturbing physical and mental health trends.
Offering examples of people and organizations that are finding a good balance between technology and the environment, George mentions Dell’s Plant a Tree for Me Program, which allows customers to offset the carbon footprint of their purchases by having a tree planted in a reforestation project. He also spoke of the many social media and environmental sites that are making networking and organizing easier for people all over the world, despite being separated by physical and political barriers.
When I asked George about what he’ll be working on next, he brought out a bunch of compact and sturdy blocks made from crushed aluminum soda cans and bottle caps. The possibilities for these blocks are tremendous. By taking trash that would otherwise probably end up in another overcrowded landfill and transforming them into raw materials that can be used for anything, George’s work is continuing to inspire thought and discussion about the limitless possibilities mankind has to recycle and improve our environmental treasures.