Reviving Waste

Electronic waste (e-waste) refers to devices with batteries or plugs that are discarded because they are no longer “wanted”, “functional” or have become “obsolete.” According to Statista, over 50 million metric tons is generated around the world. It’s a staggering statistic that is only on track to escalate, with numbers projected to reach 75 million in 6 years’ time. It’s due to today’s rapid technological advancement and consumerism, where we are constantly striving for better and newer gadgets. The effects on people and the planet are devastating. The World Health Organisation lists a number of unsound e-waste use and disposal methods – from ‘open burning’ to ‘manual disassembly’ – that can release toxic pollutants that cause long-term damage to local communities and the environment. Attuned to these pressing issues, contemporary artists – from Refik Anadol to Richard Grayson – are exploring the intersections between technology and the environment to invite us to consider how today’s choices will affect the future.

Canadian artist Sabrina Ratté (b. 1982) investigates these enormous concerns in her latest exhibition at Fotografiska Shanghai, which is titled Inflorescences. The digital image-maker expertly uses an array of tools – from analog video synthesizers to 3D animation software – to create interactive installations, video works, digital prints, sculptures and VR experiences. In this show, Ratté portrays worlds devoid of humans. Without our intervention, this is a place where forgotten remnants continue to evolve and forge new relationships with the ecosystem. On display are four videos that are positioned alongside the same number of sculptures. These transport viewers to a hypothetical future where plants and mushrooms coexist with and unknown creatures, composed of the objects we have created and chosen to leave behind.

Ratté’s project began with the 50 million tones of e-waste discarded annually. What if this matter gained sentience? Inflorescences I show shifting shapes oozing out of an abandoned device. Its shiny surface reflects the broken motherboard and other bits of metal in the background. At the start of the video, the moving globules seep out of the inert metal. The structure is like a strange mollusk a hard, static exteriors and soft, moving interior peeking out. These mesmerising sights are not only mirrored on the floor but replicated in Ratté’s sculptures, which are positioned in front of the screens. Similar to the time-based work, she also made these using electronic waste. The artist gathered these from different locations and then fused them together, resulting in something formed from familiar materials yet completely new.

The creative crafts a world humanity has long left behind. Without anyone there to label these remains as “useless,” (OED) would these still be considered waste? The scene brings to mind another definition of the word: “uninhabited (or sparsely inhabited) or uncultivated country.” Examples include desolate regions of the world, from deserts to wilderness – vast expanses that don’t serve an immediate use for humans. Ratte shows us wastes of this kind, inhabited by electronic debris that have gained a new life. These “creatures” move, mutate and evolve organically like flowers or fungi. Digital tools enable her to create versions of real-life refuse that have a newfound vitality – one that is untethered to human needs and desires.

“All of the nature around us has been completely altered by humans. Ultimately, we are nature ourselves, we are part of it, so technology is also part of nature. For me, these two things are not necessarily extremes” the artist states in an interview with Matthieu Carlier from PHI Centre’s Antenna. Ratté’s work certainly shows us this in full effect. Inflorescences blurs the perceived boundaries between organic living creatures and inert material we throw away. This is symbiosis in action, a testament to the view that nature and technology are not as disconnected as we think. It’s also call to shape the future we want to see.

Fotografiska Shanghai, Sabrina Ratté: Inflorescences | Until 23 June

Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh

Image Credits:

  1. Inflorescences IV_04, 2023 © Sabrina Ratté Canada.
  2. Inflorescences III_03, 2023 © Sabrina Ratté Canada.
  3. Inflorescences II_02, 2023 © Sabrina Ratté Canada.
  4. Inflorescences IV_04, 2023 © Sabrina Ratté Canada.
  5. Inflorescences II_02, 2023 © Sabrina Ratté Canada.
  6. Inflorescences I_02, 2023 © Sabrina Ratté Canada.