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Do All Flip Phones Go To Heaven? "Small Data" Explores The Afterlife Of Dead Tech

We talked with artist Daniel Canogar about his new solo exhibition and the junkyard dives that inspired it.

Sherlock Holmes could probably paint a very accurate picture of me just by looking at my smartphone. He wouldn't even need to unlock my password and reveal the icons on my home screen; the slight side dents, lack of screen damage, and worn out auxiliary input would reveal that I'm clumsy but not careless, compulsive in my cleaning habits, and an active (maybe obsessive) music listener. In other words, our technological devices reveal a lot about us as people. Multimedia artist, Daniel Canogar, zones in on this idea with his solo exhibition, Small Data, currently open at bitforms gallery until April 26th.

"I think of Small Data as a psychic portrait of our complicated and sometimes contradictory relationship with consumer electronics," Canogar told me over email. "The work is really more about us than about the technology." 

The exhibition includes nine installations comprised of outmoded tech pieces—flip phones, TV remotes, calculators—that get hit with overhead projections, giving the antiquated devices a heavenly or even ghastly aura. The artist gathered these objects by digging through junkyards, inspired to dumpster dive after a chance visit to one junkyard where he discovered a discarded child's doll in good condition. Canogar wondered why it had been thrown out—Did the child grow up? Did a better toy come out?—and it made him think about the object's past life when actively used and loved. He then transferred that thinking on to tech parts and machines.

Small Data sparks thoughts about what happens to old tech after it becomes irrelevant, or replaced by something new: What were the "lives" of these now-antiquated objects like when regularly used? What were the owners' lives like? Does the personal history embedded in the devices die when they get tossed?

Canogar's work meditates on the idea of humanity lodged into objects, especially the culture that's fixed into technology (in this case, the focus is more on the medium, not the message). "We are defined by what we throw away," he notes wisely. Canogar spoke with The Creators Project about technology's balance between being inanimate and animate, and why junkyards can tell us more about human culture than any other place in a city. I was left wondering what happened to my first iPod, and if it still has that sole identifying crack in the top corner, or if it's a completely shattered mess.

The Creators Project: Small Data made me think of both The Poltergeist and about technologies as if they were animated creatures—what happens to an obsolete device after it dies, and is there such a thing as a technological afterlife? So to start things off: Can we "kill" technology, either literally or abstractly? Your work seems to hint at a technological afterlife. 

I don’t feel I own the final interpretations of my artwork, but I can certainly understand why one would think of the “technological afterlife” when looking at the Small Data series. I personally was thinking a lot more of the implicit memory these objects stored within, recollecting a time when they were fully functioning mechanisms that served us well.

We have such an intimate relationship with our technologies, onto which we project so many of our ideas, dreams and thoughts. And they often behave in a way that seems so alive. I am interested in exploring the emotional attachment we develop with our devices, and how boundaries between animate and inanimate break down.

When the devices in your installation get hit with the projector, they have an almost heavenly aura to them? Did you intentionally desire to give the artwork a celestial or heavenly vibe?

I believe that the objects we carry close to us accumulate a lot of our energy. We literally leave our markings on these devices: finger prints, scratches on the screen, stickers or other identifying labels. We use them to send text messages to our loved ones, store photos of our last family vacation, or post significant events of our lives. They become receptacles of our memories and inner life.

So I do believe in a technological animism that is somewhat suggestive of an aura. But instead of celestial interpretations, I prefer to connect projections as phenomena deeply connected to our internal psychic life. I think of Small Data as a psychic portrait of our complicated and sometimes contradictory relationship with consumer electronics. The work is really more about us than about the technology.

What in specific inspired this project? Was there any personal moment you had with technology that sparked the ideas for Small Data?

Some years ago I was hanging out in junk yards, trying to figure out why I was so attracted to these places. I climbed inside a dumpster full of plastic waste, and noticed a lot of the discarded objects were children’s toys. I wondered why these toys, many of them in seemingly good conditions, had been thrown away: did the children grow up? Did they have too many toys?

Inadvertently, with my weight, I triggered a singing doll buried under my feet. Coming up from the pile of junk I heard a lullaby, and I immediately thought of my own childhood, gone forever. This doll seemed to be pleading to be saved. I burrowed down deep, found it, and took it to the studio.

The next day I came back with a van and filled it with discarded toys, materials that eventually became my first artwork using discarded junk. And that event pretty much marked the beginning of my ongoing relationship with technological waste. I identify with it, and I want to save it.

Which junkyards had the best finds? Did you discover any other weird stuff in your digging?

Visiting junkyards is a very educational experience. Schools should organize trips to these places; they really shift the way you think about cities, which I now can’t help but see as massive monsters that produce unimaginable amounts of waste. If you really want to know your city, visit your local junkyard. We are defined by what we throw away.

On a recent visit I found a globe, the kind used in classrooms representing Earth, surrounded by a mountain of garbage. It was such a perfect visual metaphor of how we are getting buried by junk. I always discover amazing things when I go to these sites.

Are you familiar with the Czech artist Krištof Kintera? He once made appliances and devices that look like something sleek that Cuisinart would design, but they had no function. He even placed these functionless objects in stores without telling anyone. 

I’m not familiar with this artist, but the work sounds amazing. Kintera’s functionless gadgets seem to capture how we desire to purchase new devices, not only for their specific use, but because they make us feel shiny and new. This of course has a passing effect, as the devices eventually break down and become old. It is then that we want to throw them out and replace them with new ones. I believe technology holds a strong grip on us because it gives us a sense of immortality. It’s a doomed plan of coarse, and their lies the irony – and the tragedy - of this whole economical system of calculated obsolescence we have created.

If an alien visited Earth and saw all the discarded tech you picked for your exhibition, how do you imagine they would interpret it?

I think they would interpret the work as remnants of a lost civilization. I like this idea of an alien visitor, as it’s an interesting distancing device that allows to see these discarded technologies in a new way. When preparing the exhibition, I also felt like an archeologist, sifting through mountains of waste to find the clues of a bygone era.

Are any technological devices or media immortal? Can any devices actually be timeless?

None so far have been immortal, which is what makes them so human. The fact that technologies have an expiration date, as we do, is what makes them so human. And this is why I identify so much with abandoned electronic devices. I feel they need to be saved and remembered, before they get buried under more layers of dead technology.

Small Data is open until April 26th at bitforms gallery in New York! Go check it out.

For more on Daniel Canogar's artwork, see our past coverage on the amazing artist:

Old Movies Are Projected Onto Hundreds Of DVDs To Create Beautiful Audio-Visual Mosaic

From Celluloid To DVD: The Film Trilogy Reanimates The Relics Of Film

And see bitform's video documentation of the exhibition: 

"Small Data" by Daniel Canogar at bitforms gallery (2014) from bitforms gallery on Vimeo.

@zachsokol