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Where we’re at @ Igor Metropol (EN) – Juli Laczko

Where we’re at @ Igor Metropol (EN)

Interactive installation, Igor Metropol studio residency, Budapest, December 2022 – January 2023
Open studio: 18 January

Discussion with Eszter Ágnes Szabó a propos the open studio, in Hungarian

Hungary is situated between two extremes regarding the economy of waste, where the two extremes are the practices of the Global North/West and Global South/East1. These two extremes depend on each other and are connected through waste colonialism2 and ecological racism3. The Global North invests into the sustainability of the future from the present with systematic, conscious consideration. The idea of sustainability is popular to the extent that it sells really well as an aspect of identity in the information society. The Global South, on the other hand, cannot afford to premeditate such long-term goals, but tries to solve present problems, including using available waste as material, in lack of better resources. Creative solutions concerning present problems do not articulate a consumer identity, and are rather functional and use locally available materials and knowledge, with the investment of labor and incentive. Between these extremes of strategy move source materials extracted from the latter, and waste exported back to it from the former. Both extraction and waste disposal comes with devastating ecological and societal consequences for the Global South, while the Global North profits from them. This double process of profiting avoids the acknowledgment of a full supply chain and enables the continued rhetoric of valuing sustainability from the North. The intentional blindness to the devastation is like children covering their eyes and thinking that they are not seen when they themselves are blinded.

These extremes are both in motion simultaneously within Hungary, through the culture of lomi. Lomtalanítás is not really covered by the English translation ‘house clearance’. It is rather a neighborhood junk clearance, once a year, when whole neighborhoods, hundreds of households all simultaneously, are allowed to dispose of their bulky waste on the street to be collected. Lomi is the practice of going over that waste the night before the collection and picking out useful things from the bulk, a practice widely common in all places where lomtalanítás happens.4 I will refer to the people involved in the activities of lomi as rummagers in this document, while it is important to understand that rummaging covers a wider range of activities than lomi, which is a specific set of actions within a specific context.

Traditionally, lomtalanítás serves as a (partial) livelihood for people in poverty, and in particular for Roma people in extreme poverty. They select, transport, and sell the bulky waste by category to several parties (recycler companies, village markets, etc). This pattern is somewhat similar to the process of high-GDP countries dumping their tonnes of toxic (eg. electronic) waste in low-GDP countries via gray-zone, semi-legal methods, where the poor populations of the victim countries tolerate, select, burn, and sell the waste, just like the rummagers of the lomtalanítás. Lomi happens on a much smaller scale though, and within a different, albeit similar semi-legal framework. I intend to demonstrate how the patterns of lomi are similar to the global waste supply chain, which can easily be regarded as the dark underbelly of global capitalism. I also want to show how different the two are. Not only regarding their dimensions, but also in their methods, even if the materials in motion overlap largely. Copper, aluminum, steel, lead, and precious metals extracted from printed circuit boards are the most valuable in both processes, while wood is burned for heat, and usable objects and tools can be resold or repaired for own use.

Anna Lövenhaupt-Tsing applies novel anthropological research methodology in her ‘The Mushroom at the End of the World, On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins’5. In the mesh of her case studies, she is occupied with patterns of precarious survival that characterize matsutake mushroom pickers in the forests of Oregon, Northern America. Just like matsutake pickers, the rummagers are also operating and navigating an informal economy with unwritten but nevertheless solid rules. Their labor is a process of value re-calibration or value creation outside the capitalist supply chain, that avoids the definition of labor, even if it provides their livelihood. The work and skills of rummagers, just like that of matsutake pickers, are invisible to the naked eye and are mostly not defined as labor, knowledge, or vocation. Both scavenging processes take place in public spaces and generate private income through the act of finding, selecting, transporting, and selling. In both cases, materials are collected under uncontrolled, »wild« circumstances, one in an urban, the other in a natural environment. In both cases, it is largely unpredictable how much value is created by a given amount of labor invested into the process.

Tsing observes that because of the above characteristics, matsutake picking is not easily circumscribed and fitted into known categories of analysis. It is too patchy, colorful, temporary, and unpredictable to be described by the capitalist dictionary of economics, such as rationalization and scalability. It is often experienced by participants as a quest of searching or hunting, which is something that lomi people describe as well when reflecting on their experiences. Tsing emphasizes the picker’s ability to mediate and negotiate value between actors, something she describes as translation, which also applies to the activity of lomi. In the Hungarian context, it is important to know that »lomizás« is technically illegal, and many despise and/or chase lomi people away when they already live in a society that discriminates against them in every aspect of life. In consequence, in spite of lomi being labor that requires skills and knowledge, nobody, nor its participants nor its observers acknowledges it as such.

To build the installation, I used UTOPLAST as a base, an upcycled plastic I make by fusing waste plastic bags. I designed and built interactive circuitry and audiovisual feedback into the surface of the 1*2m UTOPLAST, which thus became an interface to provide a window into the experiences of lomi people. I replicated the cable stripping practice to use copper for capacitive sensing. I used an Adafruit Flora microcontroller and a Raspberry Pi minicomputer, the production of both of which relies on conflict minerals. Except for these two elements, all other components of the installation were either recycled from discarded objects or found on-site. The installation consists of a »main« and a »side« assemblage. The main assemblage is the interactive circuit built into the material of the upcycled plastic, on which touch activates the audiovisual traces of interviews made with lomi people. The other assemblage consists of an old television and a media player, discarded cables, and of a huge monstera plant with gigantic air roots. The TV plays a mashup of reports about people surviving off scavenging at toxic waste sites in China and Africa. In my working methodology, both hacking for hedonism and hacking for survival are present, similar to how Hungary is at an intersection of different paradigms regarding attitudes and practices towards supply chains of waste. The title of the work is the translation of a line from one of the interviews.

Materials used:

– utoplast
– Adafruit Flora micro-controller
– Raspberry Pi 3 computer
– PC speakers
– AAA batteries
– cables from a Ravensburger Elektrotekniek educational kit
– embroidery thread

– scrapped cables on loan from Compose-IT Kft.
– analog television and media player, Igor Metropol
– projector, Igor Metropol
– lights, Igor Metropol
– Monstera Deliciosa, Péter Puklus

– audio- and image recordings of the lomtalanítás of December 2022 in Budapest
– Arduino IDE
– Pure Data
– Raspbian OS

Details of these documentaries and reports appear in the mashup:

Journeyman Pictures: Electronic Trash Village, 2007
Vanessa Kanbi: The Worlds Biggest E-waste Site, Agbobloshie, Ghana, 2020
ToxiCity, life at Agbobloshie, the worlds largest e-waste dump in Ghana, 2018

Special thanks:

Nóra Lukács and her family, Péter Puklus, Eszter Ágnes Szabó, Réka Harsányi.

1West and East in reference to Europe, North, and South in the global reference



4 Lom is junk or scrap, while lomtalanítás would be junk removal.