Wiena Lin’s E-Waste Wonderland

The man next to me lets out a roar as he rips apart an ancient Toshiba laptop. He pulls out the elastic rubber cushion hidden beneath the keyboard, and tests its springiness, stretching it overhead. I, meanwhile, am preoccupied with loosening tiny screws from the back of a different laptop besides him. I give up, and turn to freeing keys from a discarded keyboard, sorting the lettered tiles into a bin marked “plastics. I find myself soothed by the meditative quality of this repetitive and methodical task.

We are participating in artist Wiena Lin’s recent installation, Disassembly, an interactive piece in the A/D/O Brooklyn atrium that confronts participants with the globalization of electronic waste. Visitors crowd around a circular structure where people are invited to take apart discarded computers at work tables. The structure itself is intentionally evocative of a Foxconn electronics factory, air pressure guns on yellow plastic spirals hang from a metal frame around a slowly revolving circular conveyor belt. In the center, piled recycled televisions and monitors display images by photographer Kai Löffelbein of global e-waste villages, capturing the dusty reality where much of the world’s used electronics are eventually disassembled.

Even as the structure brings to mind factories and landfills across the globe, the monochrome materials and clean lines allow it to seamlessly meld into the sleek aesthetic of A/D/O. Built in collaboration with Yvette King and her company, Triumph and Disaster, and producer Michelle Yun, it was constructed with local fabricators from local materials. All the electronics come from 4th Bin and Liquid Technology, both e-steward e-waste recyclers. Wiena describes how the concept of a circular conveyor belt tells the story of perpetual cycles and circular economies, a message that feels resonant in a borough  where systems that narrow energetic and material waste are “not only cool, but cooler than the other things.”

Wiena grew up by the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia in a coal mining town. She recounts how miners would come to her father’s medical practice with their faces covered in black grit and only the circles around their eyes clear of coal dust. Talking about her childhood home, she describes how people are “dependent on this one particular mine or this one particular natural resource. Then when coal isn't there anymore, it really affects them socially and obviously socioeconomically.”

The inspiration for Disassembly came one day while she was taking apart discarded electronics to build a series of sculptures. “It's a really arduous boring task so I would do it while watching movies and one day, I stumbled upon this documentary about e-waste. And so I was disassembling this computer while watching this and I realized that I'm actually doing the exact same task as the person on the screen is, except I'm using a soldering iron and I'm in a nice studio and I've got gloves, and this person is literally an orphan and they're burning that e-waste in a pile, and [...]they are desperate to get their next meal.”

Interacting with her installation is a replication of this experience. Within the polished gallery walls, visitors echo the actions of someone in an e-waste village pulling apart a circuit board, and are faced with the juxtaposition of circumstances. Wiena discusses how she hopes people will not only connect with e-waste laborers, but with others experiencing the exhibit. She sets no time limits and gives minimal instruction, so people are free to explore and process different facets without direction or oversight. “I think that breeds intimacy because then, even if you're with somebody you don't know, if you're both experiencing a sense of wonder at the same time, somebody might point something out to you, and then suddenly you're having a very intimate conversation with a stranger.”

In Wiena’s work, the concept is the art, and the execution becomes a collaboration between local fabricators, and visitors. The experience and the insights are thus emergent and multiple, as varied as the people who participate. “Part of the experience is just to wander in, the same way that you wander into a forest and you might pay attention to the trees, where someone else might pay attention to tiny mushrooms on the ground, and point these things out to one another.” Discovering the exhibit creates a sense of ownership- “it makes it feel like your own personal wonderland.” a wonderland of discarded electronic waste.  

Text by Allegra Chen-Carell.
Photos by Kai Löffelbein and Justin Ryan Kim.

Wiena Lin is an A/D/O workspace member currently exhibiting Disassembly in the A/D/O atrium.