Issue 3/2021 - Digital Ecology

Wastes of Time, Wastes of Life, Wastes of Energy, Wastes of Space: On the Digital and Ecological in Some Recent Art

Matthew Fuller und Olga Goriunova

Some centuries are said to be “long,” such as the nineteenth. Others are said to be “short,” such as the twentieth. The twenty-first century seems to aim at being the shortest with the longest-lasting consequences. We are interested here in art that addresses ecological considerations in relation to waste or pollution and the overlapping conditions of time and history. These projects also unfold a politics and an aesthetics that, in different ways, rework computational media as a means of expanding capacities for understanding and remaking our ecological condition.
Necessarily, such a proposition exists in a state of paradox. Sean Cubitt’s book Finite Media.,1 for instance, shows how, in terms both of software and hardware, the present economic foundations of much digital media are reliant on the careless and polluting use of minerals and metals, along with forms of standard settings that are designed to entrench centralized ownership and homogenize cultures and perceptions.
They succeed in doing so, in the short term, to the extent that they are predicated on polluting extractions and meager abstractions. A digital aesthetics that takes its political dimension fully into account and thus engages with history—even when it is in variable supply—can, by contrast, rework its conditions to produce a political technology of thoughtful interaction and rich abstraction.

Recent debates about energy consumption, ranging from process-intensive algorithms to the practice of keeping servers “always on” in anticipation of possible surges in demand, sharpen the ambivalent nature of the energy politics of computing. Silicon Valley’s answer is to modularize the problem by aiming at fully basing its energy needs on renewable sources. This goal, however, is compromised by the vast ramping up of energy use, and by turning once relatively simple processes into more energy-intensive ones. In a recent article, Luke Munn examines energy consumption by server farms—which use 10% of global electricity—to reveal the way in which the business model they epitomize emphasizes a particular model of efficiency.2
Joanna Moll’s work exemplifies these problems based on a diagram of the inefficiencies produced by the need to support incumbent business models. In “The Hidden Life of an Amazon User” (2019), she shows how the simple purchase of a book from the would-be global monopoly entails the expenditure of 30KWH of energy due to the amount of processing generated, processing aimed at maintaining Amazon’s “obsessive customer focus” of tracking users.3
In 2016’s "DEFOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOREST", Moll compares the rate of energy use of Google to the number of trees needed to absorb the amount of CO2 generated by the global visits to every second. According to Moll, “In order to counteract the amount of CO2 emissions derived by the global visits to every second, we would need an approximate amount of twenty-three trees/second.”4
One proposition that takes the craft of programming and the daily use of computers as grounds for reworking such problems is that of Permacomputing.5 This approach, typified in a 2020 blog post by the hacker Viznut, draws on permaculture, a philosophy and set of design principles for sustainable land use, to think about reworking the means and mentality of computing. On the one hand, it emphasizes the traditional computer science skills of writing terse and powerful code in order to use resources parsimoniously, as well as the thoughtful re-use of hardware. On the other, it draws on permaculture to see computing in more ecological terms that suggest profound shifts in processes and practices.
Permacomputing, and the judicious use of old but robust technologies, provided one source of inspiration for the collective Iodine Dynamics (Arnaud Guillon, Chun Lee, Dustin Long, Aymeric Mansoux, and Marloes de Valk) in the development of What Remains (2019), an eight-bit game for the 1985 NES console. Produced as open source, the project reuses cartridges for the NES to vividly narrate environmental issues, corporate disinformation strategies, and whistle-blowing. Materially, it also re-animates what might otherwise be waste.

Alongside the question of energy and resource use, the digital and ecological are entwined in two recent projects that inquire into waste. Computational methods are used to analyze and understand the disposition of waste, or to record the way it flows into—and actually shapes—social formations. But what is waste? It is both the end of the line for a commodity or its source material and the slag or exhaust of production, something that no one wants to either own or own up to.
Waste is what is not recouped by the Western predilection for treating the old as material for nostalgic investment, the clutter of lives and societies unable to deal with the volume of stuff filling their homes, or the statues of persons who cannot quite be remembered but who did something sufficiently vicious to have their likeness cast in bronze. When such memory does occur, it flushes guilty feelings, resentment, and outrage through those who feel entitled to preserve things as they are.

For YoHa (Matsuko Yokokoji and Graham Harwood) in their ongoing project Wasted6, waste is something that exists beyond a boundary established by long-standing taboos around fecal matter and the unclean. It is handled by cleaners on zero-hours contracts and by bin-men working in the dark. Waste is excreted by cities and deposited in the margins in sewage farms and dumps, in landfill sites and into the sea. Part of this process is governed by laws and codifications, but the build-up of such landscapes is also part of a history of treating land itself as waste: unoccupied, without use, empty—analogous to the colonial doctrine of terra nullius.
The locale of Wasted is the long tidal estuary of the River Thames, a landscape thick with residues of every kind of commerce, the leavings of empire, ossuaries, archeology, and effluvia. The abandoned and active spaces of oil refineries, container ports, and naval bases layer what is often otherwise a littoral mudscape of marshes and towns. It is a space of migration, for birds and for fish, and, also for them, of desolation and despoilation through overfishing and pollution of many kinds and of multiple eras.
In a previous project, Coal-fired Computers (2010), YoHa looked at the way sources of energy such as coal often leave terminal residues in the bodies of those who mine the material. In another, Aluminium (2011), they give play to the wild dreams of technology constituting “new” materials, such as the futurist imaginary of the lightweight metal enabling faster transit and denser sensation, while in reality it has instituted new regimes of depletion and waste in colonies, demanding in turn higher concentrations of available energy for the consolidation of capital.
Wasted started this year and is planned to include several iterations. Most of these will cycle through the wastescapes of the estuary. Three key methods intersect here. One is the use of lightweight systems based on Linux and Raspberry Pi computers to maximize reusability. A second is the development of databases as a cultural form, with large datasets of footage, including interviews and video of land, dumps, and water culled from small cameras affixed to moving parts of the landscape. Portions of this footage are selected on the basis of algorithmic choice rather than drama or meaning. A third approach is akin to that of oral history: YoHa interview a series of men, now in their seventies, who worked on the tips.
One of these, an area of marshland with ground and water soaked with arsenic and other chemical residues, was once Alfred Nobel’s first dynamite factory. Now, after much remediation work, slathering landfill with soil, plants, water, and playgrounds, this place is designated the “Wat Tyler Country Park,” named after the famed leader of a medieval peasants’ revolt. A few small bodies of water lie amidst it. Fish in these waters get by, if not thrive, since they are too toxic to eat.
Wasted is assembled inside a bird blind next to one of these small lakes. Underneath the blind’s viewing slit, opening onto a line of water and reeds, three monitors present video. One track is footage from journeys taken around the island on YoHa’s sailboat, the camera yawing high above the boat. Another pans the edge of a landfill site, along tangles of seaweed, plastic rope, grass, and debris. A third follows the movements of a bulldozer crushing plastic bags full of rubbish as hundreds of gulls fly about looking for food in the resulting scraps.
Placing cheap headphones over your ears, you listen to local voices recounting stories of the change in the nature of waste. We hear of the transition from metal bins full of the ash produced by domestic coal fires, to the 1970s, when household waste consisted of black polythene sacks full of excess packaging. The speakers talk in different modes. One, named John, is a retired manager who gives an account of his career as he moved from the public sector to private companies and across different towns in the region. The nooks and crannies of that history are hinted at. There are broad accounts of the shift from public provision with reasonable working conditions and strong trade union power to the private sector run first by local companies and then by larger multinationals driven by certain kinds of efficiencies and not by others. Such changes can be read in details such as the change in weight of plastic bags provided to each household for waste, how they gradually became thinner and eventually became the responsibility of the household to provide. But they also occur at larger scales, in accounts of the increase in waste—the volume going up 16% a year throughout the 1960s due to consumerism.
Another witness, Mick, a driver of diggers and trucks, regales the listener with juicy anecdotes from the tips. Finds such as a human torso, brass bedsteads, vinyl 78rpm recordings, and gigantic hauls of copper wire as thick as an arm are listed with nuance. He muses on the layering and mixing of dumps: those from the nineteenth century being primarily composed of ash, into which, in the second half of the twentieth, trenches were dug and substances of unknown kinds were poured. Liquefying rotting offal might come in a lorry and be buried in a hurry against the stench. Workers are time and again made to handle nameless gunge that burns the throat and eyes. Many die young, often from cancers. There are vivid memories of a workmate having something caught in his eye and having it removed but the resulting metastasis spreading fatally to the rest of his face. These chemicals remain in the dumps and slowly leach out, into the ground and the river.
At other locations, household rubbish was tipped directly into the rubble constructing sea walls. The lore of the dump, too, suggests both certain freedoms in the waste—stories of mid-century Italian migrants bird-hunting with 22-caliber rifles, and illicit revels, foraging for goods—and of the uncanny movement of waste itself. In Pitsea, a dump was capped off and turned into a football pitch, but then the rubbish started to rise upwards into the goal mouth due to underground movements and flows of water. As Mick says, “Tires, if you’ve got tires, they didn’t like having them because no matter how deep you buried them after about twenty or twenty-five years, they’d always come to the surface.” Time’s tides envelop and then divulge the traces of technological progress and of what and who societies discard.

“Environmental Racism in Death Alley, Louisiana” is a project by the investigative agency Forensic Architecture that is currently on show as part of the exhibition “Cloud Studies” at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester, and can be viewed in video form online.7 The project maps the historical patterns of land ownership and use of a long stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, an area known locally as “Cancer Alley” or “Death Alley” due to the high incidence of cancer caused by polluting industries, including the production of oil, solvents, and plastics.
The project, initiated by researcher Imani Jacqueline Brown, who grew up nearby, shows how the cadastral plots established by slavery-based sugar cane plantations have been transferred to the numerous chemical plants that now flank the river. The rich alluvial soil provided nutrients sufficient to grow tropical sugar cane in sub-tropical conditions. Subsequently, primary production of raw material moved to the secondary area of processing, which no longer depends on the capacities of the ground, causing the forms of ownership and racial and class politics to shift but persist. Here, “plantation logics are inscribed into the surface of the earth.”
Like Ghassan Hage’s book Is Racism an Environmental Threat?”,8 the project shows the way in which racism is confluent with the power dynamics at play in pollution. Those humans who are subject to the most direct pollution are often the most marginalized. Along the Mississippi, the same plots of land carry one structure of racism over into another, from the very visible form of slavery to the seemingly less visible forms of seeping carcinogenic gases. After manumission, ex-slaves established small “free towns” in the region, often along the margins of property lines of the plantations where they continued to work as employees. Many of their descendants now live in these same “fence-line” settlements along the edges of old plantations, now converted into chemical plants run by large multinational companies. In The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. du Bois used Frederick Douglass’s term “color line” to describe the way in which racial segregation persisted after slavery.9 These lines are those of property, of class, of racial ordering, and of power. Such lines may be sinuous, taking gaseous form, as well as being marked by straight boundaries. They are sensed and incorporated, as one local witness puts it, by “decades of acrid smells and burning eyes.”
For Rise St. James, a community activist group based in the primarily Black political district of St. James, the inhabitants’ exposure to carcinogens such as ethylene oxide is part of a longer sequence of events. Not only are they being killed by the chemicals released by manufacturing plants; the historical traces of their communities are being erased in order to build them. There were once over 500 sugar cane plantations across Death Alley. Many already have industrial plants located on them, and more than 200 are on the market for industrial development. Each plantation would have a cemetery for deceased slaves. Small parcels of land with the least agricultural yield were usually given over for this purpose. As Katherine McKittrick writes in Demonic Grounds, “Concealment, marginalization, boundaries are important social processes.”10 These cemeteries are first marginalized, then rendered non-identifiable, and finally desecrated to install chemical facilities that, in turn, destroy the descendants of those buried there. The first African slaves were brought to the English tobacco-growing colony of Virginia in 1619. The French colony of Louisiana introduced slavery in 1706, when Native Americans were massacred and survivors were captured. The first African slaves were brought to the area four years later. Living with the consequences of these actions, we are still in the thick of the long seventeenth century.
Rise St. James collaborates with the non-profit legal and educational organization Center for Constitutional Rights to contest this condition, and Forensic Architecture’s work is part of a mesh of projects using various forums to investigate, to explain, and to drive change. The agency brings spatial, chemical, and computational analysis into the wider formation. The project focuses on the means for making this situation visible and hence more readily tractable, and it is here that computational media become a crucial condition of such inquiry. A number of stages and techniques are applied for handling and comparing data. First, there is the impetus of the campaign, the aim being to witness those affected by and acting against the erasure of graves and the imposition of pollution. Their demands and testimony drive the project. Empirical work is carried out on the ground as public records of what is contained and produced by each chemical plant are compared with the codes assigned to each storage tank and production facility. Sensor work is commissioned to detect the presence of chemicals in the air to show the extent of leakages. Accurate three-dimensional models of the area are built and combined with meteorological records to create calculations of the movement of toxic gases released from the different plants. These meteorological models are developed—in collaboration with mechanical engineers from Imperial College, London—to ensure accuracy and to generate evidence able to demand legal traction. This aspect of the work shows the horrific extent of the carcinogenic pollution freely brought into the world by these companies.
The second aspect of the work is to show the historical continuities between present-day pollution and historical racism and the erasure of communities and grave sites. Linking these two, the computer acts as a machine for comparison, overlapping map and property surveys from different eras with models, historical photographs, written records, satellite imagery, and many other sources of geographic and historical data. Composite “operational models,” when developed with great accuracy, are thus able to test data and to focus attention on telling details, while simultaneously making large-scale surveys of the region possible.11 By using a technique called cartographic regression, in which the features given in maps of different kinds and of different provenance are layered, one can see the way in which maps both include and erase memory. These sacred sites are sometimes marked on contemporary maps, but their locations are also suggested in other maps by the presence of clumps of trees, since these, rather than unaffordable headstones, were often used to mark graves. Other anomalies in the landscape provide further clues. This layering of different kinds of evidence enables campaigners to propose the probability, given cartographic, vegetative, and other traces, that a place is a grave site. The use and meaning of that site can therefore be contested.

The wealthier and more powerful have often separated themselves from waste and from the poor. This has in many cases been accomplished through spatial differentiation, as work analyzing the growth patterns of cities shows.12 It has also been effected through sensory and olfactory separation, as argued in Alain Corbin’s book The Foul and the Fragrant.13 Computing has historically been a space dominated by images of cleanliness, of machines needing to be protected from those fabricating or using them, and as a means of producing decisive “pristine” knowledge in spreadsheets, artificial intelligence, and intuitive design. In the guise of the latter, the computer is a technology of abstraction, built itself out of multiple “abstraction layers” which it then extends into the world. The projects above work not by merging these things but rather by establishing grounds for movements between experience and reflection, memory and analysis, computation and sludge, the alluvial and the gaseous, between experience and abstraction that otherwise might be stuck or repressed. Combining political ecologies of material interaction and technologies of rich abstraction, the long wastes of history can be tentatively navigated.

With thanks to all the artists and researchers mentioned and to Robert Sakrowski of Panke Gallery, Berlin.



[1] Sean Cubitt, Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies. Durham 2017.
[2] Luke Munn, Imperfect Orchestration: Inside the Data Center’s Struggle for Efficiency, in: Computational Culture 8, Juli 2021;
[8] Ghassan Hage, Is Racism an Environmental Threat? Cambridge 2017.
[9] W. E. B du Bois, Die Seelen der Schwarzen. Freiburg 2003.
[10] Vgl. Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds, Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. Minneapolis 2006, S. xi.
[11] Vgl. Matthew Fuller/Eyal Weizman, Investigative Aesthetics: Conflicts and Commons in the Politics of Truth. London 2021.
[12] Vgl. Stephan Heblich/Alex Trew/Yanos Zylberberg, East Side Story: Historical Pollution and Persistent Neighborhood Sorting, SERC-Diskussionspapier 206, 2016.
[13] Alain Corbin, Pesthauch und Blütenduft. Eine Geschichte des Geruchs. Berlin 2005.