Each of these works presents art that is evolving, changing in the gallery, sometimes as a result of the viewers themselves. “The World After Us” is no different. Many of the pieces are alive, sprouting or wilting in real time. One of the artworks, “Server Farms,” features iMacs, laptops, and rotary phones gutted and repurposed as planters. Another, “The Wall After Us,” shows a jungle of wall-mounted laptops, keyboards, headphones, and circuit boards with vines growing through them.
Creating this cybernatural work led Stern to experiment with various methods of destruction to mimic the effects of geological time. One piece, the Ecokinetic Sculpture, features a pile of phones that have been melted in an air fryer. For another, he pulverized phones until they were ground to a fine powder. In one of his more demanding experiments, Stern combined forces with Johannes Lehmann, a biogeochemist at Cornell and an expert in pyrolysis—a thermochemical process in which materials are treated with high heat in the absence of oxygen. When food waste or other materials are “biocharred,” the process can sequester carbon and boost soil fertility when buried. When Lehmann and Stern replicated this process with a series of phones, it artificially aged them into fossils.
Other electronics were destroyed and then repurposed into functional objects. “We melted down those aluminum iMacs and turned them into a hammer, a wrench, and a screwdriver,” Stern says. “There’s also the circuit board cut into a hacksaw and an axe. Of course those are not usable, but it’s a hopeful rethinking.”
The project of “rethinking” may seem underwhelming (like an art novice tilting her head to consider a piece of modern art: “It really makes you think”). But in Stern’s case, this reimagining is meant to provoke political change. In a 200-page catalog that accompanies the artworks, he brings up the possibility of better regulation around manufacturing electronics; the “amount of waste produced just to make our phones and computers in the first place” is considerable, to say nothing of the waste they create when they’re no longer in use. Collectively, the artworks ask viewers to rethink materials: Could phones be compostable? Can a computer be reborn as a hammer?
Of course, Stern is not the first to call up the question of what happens to our stuff when we are gone. In the 2007 book, The World Without Us, Alan Weisman imagines Earth minus all the humans. Cities crumble, sewers clog, and new forms of fungi and flowers bloom around the plastic handles of pots and pans. A year later, the History Channel debuted the television series Life After People, a similar consideration of how the planet will evolve. The philosopher Slavoj Žižek has criticized these thought experiments for their guilelessness, calling them fantasies of “witnessing the earth itself retaining its pre-castrated state of innocence, before we humans spoiled it with our hubris.”
Stern’s version, though, seems to dodge this idealism. His artworks are neither beautiful nor grotesque, neither dire nor reassuring. They function more like science experiments. What happens when you shatter an Apple Watch, plant some moss inside, and leave it to grow under the scintillating studio lights? The Apple Watch doesn’t returneth to dust—it becomes something else entirely.