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Recycling e-waste into modern art

A pair of artists dig deep in a San Francisco-area dump to come up with new looks for cast-off consumer electronics. Photos: From e-waste to art

BRISBANE, Calif.--It's said that one man's trash is another's treasure. Never was that more true than Saturday at the SF Recycling & Disposal Artist in Residence Program show here.

I can't say I ever imagined myself venturing to the dump and recycling plant just south of San Francisco--or any waste disposal site, really--to take in a little post-post-modern inspiration. But that's where I was this weekend, heading down an uneven road pockmarked with potholes still filled with last night's rain, past rows of battered white garbage trucks parked behind chain link fences topped with barbed wire.

There, in a nondescript metal shed, two artists' interpretation of electronics and consumerism was a fabulously charming surprise.

With tinny beats pulsating in the background, artists and art fans mingled among the exhibits while a handful of children delved into interactive ones like "Exploratorio Harmony." That display consisted of two sound oscillators with an amplifier and a joystick hooked up to a TV like the one my grandmother kept in her guest bedroom for decades.

"Exploratorio" is one of Sudhu Tewari's many creations cobbled together from unwanted tech. It's also part of his exhibit called "AUX: Tune for Minimum Smoke."

The Artist in Residence program here selects two artists at a time, in this case Tewari and Nome Edonna, and gives them permission to dig through Bay Area residents' trash to find beauty and create art. Although the program is in its 17th year, this is the first time artists were chosen based on their interest in working with cast-off consumer electronics.

The program is designed to encourage the arts and bring attention to the immense amount of electronic waste the United States produces. The number is a little large to fully comprehend, but here it is: 3 million tons of electronics are thrown out annually (PDF) in the United States alone, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"We want to highlight (e-waste) as a new waste stream," Paul Fresina, director of the SF Recycling & Disposal Program, told me. The consumer electronics consumption machine encourages the general public to throw out the barely used and slightly aged stuff for newer and slightly better, he said.

For four months, Edonna and Tewari spent 20 to 40 hours a week at the city dump, wading through discarded motherboards, electric toasters, ancient CRT (cathode ray tube) monitors and other gadgets galore, looking for materials for their projects.

The process of inspiration can be "serendipitous" or more random, said Tewari, who's also a musician, an educational-toy maker and a former computer programmer.

"There's so much stuff here," he said, that he easily lost himself for hours at a time, hopping from one mound of cast-offs to the next, pulling out eye-catching treasures. Sometimes that meant dodging forklifts and bulldozers to claim the gems that got his creative juices flowing.

"If you've got a pile you're really into, (the forklift drivers) will give you a break," Tewari joked.

Apparently, our culture's bigger-better-newer obsession translates into a whole lot of trash, a trend by which Edonna said he's "disgusted."

"These huge companies make all this stuff so it only has to last a year or two" until consumers are ready to purchase the next hot gadget or computer, Edonna said. What drives him crazy, he said, is that those companies reap the profits without taking responsibility for the leftover electronics that become waste. Edonna's commentary on our mass consumerism is plain in his evocative "iShop" painting, a riff on the iconic Apple iPod silhouette dancers.

His other art was similarly focused. Though I'm not a parent, Edonna's "Great American Babysitter," a pyramid of televisions fronted by three headless, child-size mannequins, made palpable to me the guilt of every parent in the room who ever taught her kid how to operate the TiVo.

The hunting-and-gathering process for their treasure is slow and dirty, the artists told me. Tewari described suiting up in boots, gloves, glasses, a hat and a face mask before combing through the junk piles. But once properly clothed, they find some fantastic stuff.

In foraging for the pieces to include in his "System Overload" exhibit, Edonna said about 70 percent of the TVs he's found have had a few years on them but are fully operational. Plus, he added, "I found three perfectly good iMacs. People throw them out because they're not quite as fast as the newer ones on the market."

Hitting a lighter note was the aptly titled "Mobile," Edonna's humorous take on our need to constantly replenish our cell phones. The floor-to-ceiling mobile consisted of almost 60 handsets culled from the recycling center: none appeared more than five years old, and most were in sparkling condition.

The center's long-term goal is to inspire major producers of electronics to use recyclable packaging and to design reusable, longer-lasting products. Fresina noted that longer-lasting electronics are important for consumers because "recycling is not free."