SOTSEF 2020: artist Susannah Pal reflects on her exhibition, ‘Stopping the E Waste Tsunami’

Susannah Pal

Between 8 and 15 March, for Southampton Science and Engineering Festival (SOTSEF) 2020, artist Susannah Pal took up residence and exhibited a range of oil paintings and ink collages in the foyer of University of Southampton’s Hartley Library.

Susannah’s exhibition focused on the problems of eWaste, the fastest growing waste stream in the world, and was the result of a collaboration with Professor Ian Williams of the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Science. 

Back in March, much of the original SOTSEF 2020 festival – including the annual Southampton Science and Engineering Day – had to be suddenly postponed due to the then increasing threat posed by COVID-19. Susannah’s exhibition was able to go ahead, however.

Now, the resourceful SOTSEF team at University of Southampton’s Public Engagement with Research Unit have brought the festival back in digital form, with activity taking place between May 22 and July 25 of this year.

To coincide with the digital rebirth of SOTSEF, we are publishing a blog post by Susannah Pal in which she reflects on her exhibition and the experiences she had during the original SOTSEF week.

Stopping the E Waste Tsunami – Transitioning to a Circular Economy

Susannah Pal and her artwork in the Hartley Library at University of Southampton
Susannah Pal with her exhibition in the Hartley Library, University of Southampton

by Susannah Pal

Does this electrical cable monster look familiar to you? Where do you hide your secret collection? In a drawer in the garage? In a box under your bed? Perhaps in a corner of your loft? Buying the latest gadget and hoarding your obsolete devices away in a dark corner is not as harmless as one might assume.

The aim of my exhibition was to creatively communicate the problem of Electrical and Electronic Waste in order to elicit an emotional response within the viewer, inspiring positive action. Many of us have forgotten that our consumer electronics are mined using energy-intensive and often unethical processes. I use objects as the protagonists of my social commentary. If people empathise with the dead gadgets in the images then perhaps they will engage with their own ‘stuff’ differently. It’s important that we emotionally engage with this so that what we do at the end of a product’s life isn’t a mindless activity. 

The Hartley Library Foyer has been the ideal place for students and staff across all academic departments to engage with the work. The majority of people confess to having a box or drawer at home crammed with obsolete devices and cables. Many of these tell me in a guilty hushed tone as if they are confessing to a dark secret.

I liked that viewers brought their own interpretations but, as a whole, all recognised the sinister quality of my work. One film student saw Azathoth – a symbol of primordial chaos from H. P. Lovecraft’s books – in my artwork. A history lecturer said the work reminded him of 1930s German art and made particular reference to George Grosz. One psychology student said: ‘I feel like I am someone in one of the warm houses in the background ignoring what is going on in the outside world, I’ve ignored the abandoned e-waste on the street. I’ll definitely never look at old gadgets in the same way again’.

Like the problem, the solutions aren’t simple, and we can’t just lay them at the consumer’s door. We need to demand that manufacturers design more durable and repairable devices so that they last a long time. Secondly, councils need to provide better recycling facilities for when our gadgets go defunct. But even with more resilient phones and fool proof recycling systems, without public awareness the Circular Economy is missing a vital cog.

What I find attractive about the Circular Economy is that products are designed with their end of life in mind and how the resources will then be reused, essentially using the natural ecological cycle as inspiration. The longer we hoard our obsolete gadgets and prevent them being recycled, the more we have to mine for precious metals and elements to make the next batch of fancy new devices. This mining is often unethical and demands carbon energy intensive processes. 

The most important aspect of the exhibition is impact. At a time when so much of the horror in the world feels as if it is spiraling out of our control, this is something we can control and, as individuals, can impact positively. I’m delighted that, because of the exhibition, people have been asking me directly or via Instagram how they can stop contributing to the growing E-Waste problem – my suggestions can be found on my blog.

It’s been wonderful to work with Professor Ian Williams at University of Southampton because I’ve been able to gain an insight into the complexity of the problems of E-Waste. He has been a researcher in Waste Management for 30 years and has watched the problem grow. It’s important for various disciplines to work together on such problems as not everyone reads articles and academic papers, but it’s a subject that affects us all. People like myself look to the arts to stimulate our emotions.

On Saturday 7 March I watched the performance of 85 school children who had responded to the problem of E-Waste. SÓN Orchestra headed by Robin Browning and Anca Campaigne coached them to creatively respond to the problem. As an adult it was very moving to watch, but I reckon this is an experience these children will remember for the rest of their lives. I clearly remember making ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ posters and being taught about paper recycling – the experience stayed with me and may have been the seed for my own interest in waste.

Over the last couple of years, the problem of plastic pollution has been raised in the public consciousness; now I believe it’s time for the light to be shone on E-Waste. As members of the public, we all have a vital responsibility in the Circular Economy.

You can find out more about E-Waste and see more of Susannah’s artwork via her website and Instagram:


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