Study: Burn Out

ūüĒ• Summary

Starting from the question "Where in our Berlin neighborhood can we burn a keyboard?" Burn Out Study explores the olfactory, visual, haptic, auditory, affectual effects of fire. From the campfire as a social architecture and their loss in public Western spaces, we ask about the consequences of the absence of collectively shared heat. In this photographic study on fire we burn a set of technological artefacts: keyboards, cell phones, cables. We are both investigating the material process of burning and the remaining artefacts of burned technological objects, which we conceptualize through Audre Lorde's notion of poetry as a skeleton architecture. Referencing the work of Anna Tsing we pose questions about the forms of being that emerge from ruins. How do images of burning help us imagine burning down the oppressive systems that remain stubbornly stable? What does it mean to stay with Alexis Pauline Gumb's notion of breathing fire?

ūüĒ• Visual Essay

We looked up on the internet where in our neighborhood we could burn a keyboard, and were advised on reddit to instead burn an Audi. Since we only brought a small lighter, we started walking through the streets to find a spot that wouldn't be seen by neighbors but that also wouldn't cause the risk of spreading fire. Thinking of the campfire as an architecture of social connection, we had a hard time finding a place in public to light a fire. It took us at least half an hour of walking through Berlin's summer heat to find a place next to a train station. While we didn't know if it was illegal to burn small objects outside, we had the strong feeling it would attract social policers or actual police.

Discussing abolitionism, we started burning the objects that we had carried with us for this study of burn-out: A keyboard, an old Samsung cell phone, a bunch of cables.

The keyboard at first was resistant to the flames: it took about 3 minutes for the plastic to begin to melt, but once the fire had started, it heated from one side of the board towards the other and would slowly pull the remaining keys into its flames. It looked as though the fire was eating or consuming the keys as it continued to grow. As we were discussing the current expansion of violent policing, we discovered that when the keys were burned up, a "skeleton" keyboard structure remained. In Audre Lorde's text Poetry is not a Luxury she writes "Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before." We learn from skeletons that nothing disappears, it just changes form. In The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing traces forms of life and resistance in supposedly ruined landscapes. In this spirit, we ask: How long do fires burn and what becomes possible within the skeletons that they leave behind?

Next, we burned a cell phone as a way to study the skeleton architectures of extractive technological regimes.

The plastic on the edge of the phone was incredibly resistant to burning, and when it did, it smelled really bad - way worse than the keyboard. Dark smoke emitted from the phone. The phone was so resistant to fire that we decided to put a trash takeaway cup underneath (we jokingly called this a fire carpet) to spread the flames out more evenly - but while the takeaway cup burned really well, the phone only slowly unmolded. The edge of the plastic bubbled like it was boiling on the spot, but the object itself did not catch fire. On the bottom of the phone, airbubbles popped and this created a lizard*skin*ant*traces*texture. The line that made the straight edge of the phone, burned up and became wavy, irregular, disjointed. The backside became swollen and puckered, like fingers that have been in water for too long. When touching the phone now, you can feel that parts of it have hollowed out from the inside, for example underneath the keys there must be some air still trapped. Some bits of the phone have traveled across its surface, they were apparently shattered and moved while it was hot. The screen itself stayed mostly intact but is covered with tiny shards.

On one of its screws, the cover has melted so it is half open, and when touched falls off. The metal parts inside that were golden have turned a browner color, but haven't changed much, only the sticker has shrunk. On the back, you can see light reflections, it reflects the light differently now than before.

We noticed that our initial imaginary of fire and burn out was different from what we learned by studying the olfactory, visual, haptic, auditory, affectual effects of fire. When we speak of burning a system down, how do we think of how long it will take for a flame to grow, what resistances have to be met, what skeletons remain or what it means sensorially to go through the burning? We expected our outdated technological objects to burn well, but they didn't ‚Äď which shows how material technological realities are almost impossible to get rid of.

The circumstances during Covid-19 have sparked imaginaries of social change, yet outdated oppressive, colonial and extactive systems remain so stubbornly stable, even as we study fire to learn what it might take to burn them down. With Alexis Pauline Gumbs's M Archive: After the End of the World, we are reminded that "the bigger question is, why would anyone choose to come to this planet right now. to breathe fire and walk the broken soil." and that you can't "just" get rid of junk.

The heat that caused our fires to spread also melted together some of our objects' parts. Melting connects, heat undoes seperability. Addressing melting we are studying unequal destruction through heat to understand the material processes of social and climate change. We do this to train and study for the unknown because we believe that stable classificatory systems have done more harm than in flux processes that demand otherwise collective outcomes. Rather than waiting for burn-out, we are norishing flames, slow-cooking and learning from change in our own queer*melt*time. Learning with the uncontrollable in a minature scale we are playing with fire to explore the limits of what is possible in public space, to extend the limits of imaginaries of change and to propose that skeletons carry unfinished stories that may remain unfinished: and that's a good thing.


  • Gumbs, A. (2018), M Archive: After the End of the World, Duke University Press.
  • Lorde, A. (1984), Poetry is Not a Luxury in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Crossing Press.
  • Tsing, A.L. (2015),¬†The mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins,¬†Princeton University Press.