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Art and science, ancient and modern meet in Katie's solution for e-waste

A creative solution to the global problem of electronic waste could begin at home, in that special drawer where yards of mystery cables and chargers, antiquated phones and broken electrical items go to die, says sculptor and winner of the DARE Art Prize 2022-23 Katie Surridge.

For her year-long DARE commission, Katie is working with scientists at the University of Leeds on ways to give new life to the valuable elements – including gold, silver, copper, platinum, aluminium and cobalt – that are trapped in discarded electronic devices.

From today, her e-waste amnesty boxes in locations across West Yorkshire and London are open for donations of disused electrical items, in particular any containing copper wire, along with the stories behind them. She plans to break down the objects and, through a biological process using microbes, extract a metal-rich liquid which will be used in the production of new sculptures.

Katie Surridge's E-Waste Amnesty donation boxes

Part of the pioneering DARE partnership between the University of Leeds and Opera North, and in association with the National Science and Media Museum and The Tetley, Leeds, the £15,000 DARE Art Prize challenges artists and scientists to collaborate on new approaches to the creative process. Katie’s commission addresses the mounting problem of e-waste, which grew to 57.4 million metric tonnes in 2021, with annual wastage growing by an average of two mt per year.

Katie’s practice combines her metalworking skills – acquired over three years at the National School of Blacksmithing, studies with masters of the art in Japan, and archaeologists and metallurgists in Ireland – with public engagement.

“Bioleaching, or biomining, is a process that uses microorganisms such as bacteria to extract valuable metals”, explains Katie. “I plan to learn more about this method to ‘mine’ metals from the devices that are submitted by the public. A metal-rich solution is produced as a result of the bacteria’s actions, and I hope to be able to transfer these metals to my artwork through electroplating.

“I have an aversion to modern technology and my work is often inspired by folklore, stories and skills from the past. My last major body of work involved making my own iron from ore, but my DARE project has transported me from the Iron Age back to the present, and the problems faced by society today.

“The distant past is always a big influence on me, though, and one of the sculptures that I’m planning to make with the recovered metal is inspired by a 1200 BC ‘oxhide’ copper ingot that I discovered in the British Museum. I was drawn to the combination of beauty and utility in its form, which resembles an ox’s skin stretched out to dry, and which also made it easy to carry by hand, to load onto pack animals or to stack in a ship’s hold in the Bronze Age Mediterranean”.

Copper ingot in the shape of an oxhide © The Trustees of the British Museum

There will be further opportunities for the public to get involved during Katie’s residency at The Tetley, Leeds, between Friday 2 and Friday 16 December 2022.  The gallery will host dismantling workshops, where visitors will be able to break up their own items at sculptural workstations that Katie has designed and fabricated: “I’m interested in community action, and people coming together to learn new skills”, she says.

Katie is also collaborating with Dr Girish Kale in the University of Leeds’ School of Chemical and Process Engineering, on producing home electroplating kits for gallery visitors to take away with them. Each set will feature a miniature oxhide ingot hand-cast by Katie from e-waste, and instructions on how to make an electrolyte ‘bath’ from vinegar and salt.

Oxhide ingots cast from reclaimed copper Ⓒ Katie Surridge

Katie’s brightly-decorated e-waste amnesty boxes are open for donations at Opera North’s central Leeds headquarters, at the University of Leeds, at The Tetley, Leeds, and at Goldsmiths College, University of London, where Katie teaches. Donors are asked to drop in their items – cables, chargers, wires, leads, other small appliances like phones, digital cameras, or anything with a motor or a circuit board, and fill out the ‘visitor’s book’ with the stories behind them, how they were used or why they were discarded.

Having been selected as one of this year’s Bloomberg New Contemporaries, Katie is also showing work at the prestigious annual exhibition, which recently opened at Ferens Art Gallery and Humber Street Gallery, Hull, and tours to South London Gallery in December.

You can follow Katie’s progress via her blog, and drop in on her residency at The Tetley, Leeds from Friday 2 – Friday 16 December 2022. She’ll be based in the Artists’ Studio on the Gallery floor, and using Space3 for dismantling sessions and electroplating workshops.


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