Venezuelan coder, poet and activist Yucef Merhi has been creating digital art since 1985, when he turned his ATARI 2600 into a programmable computer at the age of 8.
Now, the award-winning, 20-year veteran of the digital art space is using his work to highlight solutions to the problem of electronic waste.
E-waste and the environment
Despite our best efforts, nearly all electronic equipment ever built is still around in some form today. While some has been safely recycled or disposed of, most has not. And each year more is produced—to the tune of 20-25 million tons. All of these items constitute electronic waste, or e-waste.
In the best-case scenario, trained and protected workers recycle obsolete technology in formal recycling processes. Salvageable materials are repurposed into new products, while anything non-salvageable is safely discarded.
Far more frequently, however, e-waste undergoes informal recycling processes, in which workers without proper protection melt down electronics using flame or chemicals in an attempt to reclaim valuable materials.
These processes release the chemicals and heavy metals that make up electronics—substances like gold, lead, mercury, arsenic and other materials—into the surrounding environment to contaminate water, air and soil, affecting the entire ecosystem.
This leads to serious health consequences for workers and others living nearby and climate-impacting environmental harm. According to the United Nations, the U.S. ships an estimated 10-40% of its e-waste to developing countries.
Allowing e-waste to simply sit and molder (usually tossed into unofficial dumping grounds or open pits, or hastily buried) also has adverse environmental effects, as its toxic components can still leach into the environment.
Figuring out how to sustainably deal with e-waste—both what already exists and what will continue to be created—is crucial.
Art that brings awareness to the e-waste problem
On September 2, 2021, The Bonnier Gallery in Miami, Florida, opened Merhi’s latest show Yucef Merhi: Open. Part retrospective and part showcase of new pieces, Open features installations from five of Merhi’s bodies of work.
In curating Open, which runs through November 20, gallery owner and CEO Grant Bonnier emphasizes the show’s potential to expose people to “digital art that is of substance.”
Many of the pieces in Open incorporate new and old technology, exemplifying the concept Merhi believes can inform our approach to e-waste, which he calls “retrocycling.”
Recycling—both formal and informal—comprises harvesting materials from old electronics to create new ones. Retrocyling, on the other hand, involves devising innovative ways to keep old devices in use.
The works in Open incorporate everything from old video game consoles to vintage televisions—the show’s largest installation, “Compassion“(2020), uses five of each. The TVs, each sourced from a U.S. prison and therefore startlingly clear-cased, display the message, “Compassion is the divine compass.” In the background, Tibetan bells toll.
The piece combines a vital, current message with evocative antique objects, highlighting the timelessness of both.
Through his art, Merhi says he aims to “devise different approaches to the relationship we have with technology, in order to gain understanding of how to reposition what seems to be obsolete, and make it feel new or valuable.”
As technology continues to evolve and integrate into our culture, documenting both the good and the bad of how it has progressed and affected people will continue to be vital.
Throughout his career, Merhi’s work has not only highlighted current events but engaged with them directly. Using emails he intercepted from the servers of Hugo Chávez, the former president of Venezuela, he created a piece that simultaneously draws attention to governmental corruption and makes a practical statement about the regime’s fallibility.
In his series “Perfect Language” (2014), he examined the idea of creating a “universal language” understood by all by incorporating historic and modern language into pieces that used both low- and high-tech mediums to convey meaning.
Merhi feels that retrocycling continues his work of connecting people with technology’s role in important moments, both present and past, while also repurposing e-waste.
The goal is to introduce new ways of thinking about technology. This perspective shift can then influence the way people handle electronics once they’ve become “obsolete,” both personally and on a mass scale.
Retrocycling in context
Though retrocycling may seem abstract or unscalable, its tenets are already well-known. Merhi’s interest in applying a circular economic model to electronics is shared by the United Nations and World Economic Forum.
Additionally, he is beginning a fellowship at the MIT Open Documentary Lab, where he will produce a documentary focused on Retrocyling, in collaboration with other fellows. Through this project, he hopes to publicize the principles of retrocycling, making it more accessible.
“What are scientists asking for? [A] change of actions, of habits,” says Merhi. He points out that experts aren’t recommending people buy new versions of everything. Rather, “they’re asking for us to change the way we do everything.”
In addition to using old tech to create art and teach history, he also advocates adopting more traditional solutions, like “putting a pause on the over-producing of all these new technologies.”
He doesn’t say this lightly. As a digital artist, his practice has always been tied to technological innovation. “I’m very excited when I see something new,” he emphasizes. “But I don’t think we need to repeat the chain of possibilities that we have already explored.”
A slow and circular stream of tech
E-waste is the fastest-growing stream of domestic waste. This rapid growth is spurred by a voracious appetite for new technology, combined with a market that churns out new devices while offering few options to preserve and repair the old.
A circular model of electronics production and use, alongside ideas like retrocycling, can help slow this stream.
Safe, sustainable recycling will always be an important part of handling e-waste. Reducing new additions to the stream will allow for refinement of the formal recycling process and closer regulation of unsafe practices.
It’s impactful to know that what we are seeing relates to something that was made in the [past]. It provides not only background, but a quite holistic version of the advancements in our culture.
—Yucef Merhi, artist
According to the World Economic Forum, radically shifting our relationship to e-waste can create jobs and revenue, encourage companies to become more innovative and help stanch the flow of toxic chemicals into the environment.
In addition to these benefits, Merhi thinks it can make us more aware of our relationship to the planet. “It’s impactful to know that what we are seeing relates to something that was made in the [past]. It provides not only background, but a quite holistic version of the advancements in our culture,” he says. “And [a reminder] that our planet deserves to be respected and loved.”
To learn more about recycling unused technology, visit DellTechnologies.com/Recycle.