Below is a brief ~10 minute talk that I presented at RCADE 2019 at Rutgers-Camden in Camden, NJ as part of a panel called “Infrastructures and Rituals of Trash.” I presented alongside Lai-Tze Fan, Meg Honsberger, and Jason Lajoie. The talk reflected on the Critical Media Lab’s Digital Rituals exhibit that was featured at CAFKA 2018. I blogged about here. And you can read more about it over here and view the computer-generated obits here.
As part of the 2018 CAFKA arts festival in June, the Critical Media Lab ran an interactive exhibit called Digital Rituals. If Lai-Tze’s E-Waste Peep Showfocuses on what happens to e-waste after it has been traded in, Digital Ritualsfocuses on the trade-in and re-contextualizes that process as a ritual. Exchanging a phone is certainly a practice, a routinized activity encouraged and proliferated by planned obsolescence; but it’s a practice that shies away from being ritualized: it’s a practice that hides itself. Among the criteria of rituals outlined by Ronald Grimes in The Craft of Ritual Studies,Digital Ritualsfocused on ritualizing the trade-in through a series of reflective, celebrative, and stylized actions performed by ourselves and by the participants. Organized by Marcel O’Gorman, Meg Honsberger, Jason Lajoie, Julie Funk, Andy Myles, Matt Frazer, and myself, Digital Rituals was a funeral home and service for dead cell phones. We asked participants to bring in a dead cell phone that had not been traded in. During the in-take, we welcomed participants, offered them our condolences, and then took them through the necessary steps of the funeral process: we took the name of the phone, took a picture of the phone in a 3D-printed coffin, created a computer-generated obituary from information about the phone, created a 3D-printed memorialization model, and then said a few words at a garden grave site outside with the 3D models glued to a marble slab. We had promised that we would send the phones to an e-waste disposal, but, curiously, we all kept them for some later unknown project.
Digital Rituals wasn’t as successful as we hoped. We only had a few participants attend, and even fewer were willing to give up an older phone of theirs. Yet, the few interactions I did have while running the exhibit made me interested in the autobiographical narratives from participants that emerged throughout the funeral home in-take, whether it be from those who gave up their phones or from those who refused to give their phones to us. I became particularly interested in the unexplained reasoning of keeping a phone whose data can no longer can be accessed: Why do some of us keep the phones we keep? What purpose do they serve, especially after the fact that certain materials can no longer power the phones or the data from those phones are uploaded to a computer or transferred to the next phone? Referring to museums that collect and show old technology, Jennifer Gabrys argues that “Electronic memories…give rise to specific modes of electronic waste” (Gabrys 105). But I am thinking of the new modes of electronic “waste” within the home, how they act as a kind of archive or materials waiting to be archived. To flip Gabrys’s quote around, I found Digital Ritualsto be focused on the specific forms of electronic waste that give rise to specific modes of memory and autobiographical telling.
The autobiographical narratives and disclosures that emerged in Digital Ritualsreflected on their usage of the phone, how they carried it, specific memories and individuals associated with the phone, and how they modded it, if the type of phone afforded this. These narratives reminded me of Anna Poletti’s concept of the “archive of play,” a concept that I keep on returning to for autobiographical narratives or disclosures around media and media consumption practices. I want to quote Poletti at length because there is nuance to the quote worth quoting in full. Poletti writes,
“In referring to “the archive of play,” I here describe the materials produced and left behind by the activity of playing…[which result in] a rich resource for self-representation and life narrative…The materials, and the archive itself, may or may not be cherished by the autobiographer. The archive of play may not be valued or recognized as an archive. Many, one suspects, are thrown away during spring cleaning or the purges of objects that regularly occur in societies with high levels of consumption. Where such archives do persist, they may constitute the flotsam of a previous life that is stored in out of the way places and rarely accessed, or stored by members of one’s family or childhood friends. The value of the archive of play becomes apparent once an autobiographical project is initiated.” (Poletti 113-14)
The “archive of play” opens up auto/biographical material to trash, clutter, digital clutter, and e-waste stored in boxes, material that is never intentionally to be autobiographical but simply generated from play or general use. Everyday uses of phones produce material traces, and the phone itself is a material trace of a specific moment in an individual’s life. Significantly, the material generated from play and use are not always recognized as autobiographical and may never be cherished by the individual, but rather left undisturbed, hidden away in some box in some cupboard, or traded in and forgotten. But that archive of material becomes of value “once an autobiographical project is initiated” by the individual or by others.
For those few participants in Digital Rituals, the process of picking out a phone to hand over to us initiated an autobiographical project, even if the individual ended up keeping the phone. Digital Rituals itself was not an autobiographical project, at least not intentionally so. But I am intrigued by how it was unintentionally an autobiographical project, and how the project resonates with certain ways in thinking about our relation to e-waste and the personal relationship we have with our phones. One participant shared a disclosure about their customized blue casing of their Blackberry curve: she remembers ordering the part, and how it reminded her of a friendship they had during high school and the early beginning of a new relationship. Another participant shared at great length their experience with their first phone: how novel it was to always carry a phone around with you, but that they wore their phone around their neck because it was too bulky to fit in their pocket. Others could tell you exactly where each scratch came from or how their phone shattered, eulogizing the last moments that they had with their phone. These few narratives highlight a specific trend: the autobiographical material that was recalled did not refer to the data and content on the phone; instead, they mention the material components, peripherals, or markings that signal a specific life narrative or disclosure. Some even referred to the functionality of the phone: a collective reflection on the purported newness of a specific phone, such as the Sidekick, or how certain users would develop strategies to get around a broken button or trackball. These disclosures and narratives drew attention to why some people, including myself, kept a phone when the data could be transferred to another. It wasn’t really the data on these phones that coaxed life narratives but rather the material components, peripherals, and functionality that coaxed these narratives, especially as participants tossed and turned the phones in their hands during the in-take.
To wrap things up and pass it over to Meg, I’d just like to conclude with the observation that the autobiographical disclosures and narratives of Digital Rituals that emerged reminded me, and some of us at the Critical Media Lab, of Marie Kondo’s Netflix series, Tidying Up. While different ritualized actions, both Digital Rituals and Tidying Up ask individuals to reflect on their phone and/objects through a series of reflective actions. There is also, as Kylie Cardell argues, an autobiographical aspect to Kondo’s concept of sparking joy. Cardell writes that sparking joy “provides an opportunity for self-conscious as well as discursive constructions of the self as part of a process of editing and crafting a deliberate, intentional representation” (Cardell 500). Whether participants said goodbye to their phones or kept them, Digital Rituals made participants reflect on and conscious of the autobiographical value of their domestic e-waste sites. The personal collections of dead cell phones are an archive that is, to borrow a phrase from Gabrys, “more akin to a disorderly waste site” (Gabrys 119). Yet,these saved electronics stored in boxes have autobiographical potential, and the act of saving these cell phones are an autobiographical act. In the disorderly waste site of my domestic collection of phones, hidden from sight, tucked away in drawers and boxes stuffed in closets, are traces of my life; that collection is is an articulation of my personality, memories of the past, and records of “new media.” While Digital Rituals stumbled into having participants interpret and narrate the autobiographical material surrounding their dead phones, the installation drew attention to the disorderly waste site of dead cell phones within the home that serve as literal artifacts that tell a life trace.