Arts & Design

Inside Germane Barnes’ artistic vision of how recycling now can create what’s next

The award-winning architect’s pop-up exhibit shows how every individual and ink cartridge can make a difference.

By Janelle Zara — June 2, 2023

As soon as you enter HP’s one-day pop-up art exhibit at Studio 525 in New York City’s West Chelsea, all the colors of the rainbow are yours.

Visitors grab one of the spent plastic ink cartridges that fill a large red plexiglass cube and insert it into a slot in the wall. All together, the cartridges spell out  “Create What’s Next.” Here, at the beginning of the interactive art installation, they are invited to consider all the ways that “an empty cartridge is just the beginning.” 

The exhibit, open to the public June 2 until 5pm ahead of World Environment Day, was designed by the award-winning architect Germane Barnes to show off HP’s recycling process and the possibilities it creates. The exhibit aims to encourage recycling of the some 1.3 billion inkjet cartridges used around the world each year through HP Planet Partners, the company's free collection and recycling program. 

Since 1991, Planet Partners has ensured that more than one billion used cartridges went into the creation of new products, rather than ending up as waste. In that same spirit, the materials used in the exhibit itself will be either repurposed, reused, or recycled into new ink cartridges, Hamilton Perkins designer travel bags, and more.


GET STARTED: See how easy it is to send back your empty cartridges with HP Planet Partners. 


Each stop in the immersive experience takes the shape of large cylinders, or pods, corresponding to the ink colors found in a printer cartridge — yellow, cyan, and magenta — and represents each phase of the cartridge recycling process. The yellow pod features a light sculpture made of bits of plastic and metal, depicting the first step of dismantling the ink cartridge. Visitors then move on to cyan, where shredded plastics from HP ink cartridges have been reassembled into a faux terrazzo bench, illustrating the potential for used materials to be turned into something new. In the magenta pod, visitors find a playful arrangement of hula hoops made of recycled plastics, bringing the process full circle.  

WATCH NOW: Behind the scenes with Germane Barnes at "Create What's Next"

As an extension of the event, HP collaborated with MIT Solv[ED] on its second Youth Innovation Challenge for the HP Create What’s Next Prize, which provides up to $100,000 to three young innovators creating sustainability-based solutions. The first-place winner and recipient of $70,000 was Green Venture Tanzania, which “transforms trash into treasure” with an innovative process that recycles plastics into sustainable furniture and building materials as a substitute for virgin timber.  

The Garage spoke with Florida-based Barnes to learn about his partnership with HP and what he hopes the exhibit will achieve.

What drew you to this project?

My practice is based in Miami, Florida, a place that’s vulnerable to water and where we have to think about the environment on a regular basis. My work focuses on the needs of diverse communities through the construction of playgrounds, dynamic installations, and urban revitalization projects. We try to use sustainable materials that then can have a second and third and even fourth life if possible. When HP first approached me, they explained their entire recycling ethos and then all the different reused components that they use in the creation of the cartridges. When you’re living in a place that always has to reconcile materials, sustainability, and recycling, it’s great to partner with a brand that also puts the same ideas at the forefront.

“We want to pull back the curtain so you can see how ink cartridge components are being recycled and reused and inspire people to recycle in their own daily lives.”

— Germane Barnes, principal architect, Studio Barnes

What was your initial vision for the installation?

HP sent sample materials like shredded plastics and broken-down containers, which is where I began to create my proposal: essentially a series of very large cartridges that the visitor could actually inhabit. The pieces showed me how thorough HP is about the actual recycling process. Every single piece of the cartridge gets recycled and reused, except for the physical ink. I asked myself how we could reference each of these materials in an interesting way. In one of the pods, there are hula hoops made out of the pellets that come from plastic inside the cartridge, and they’re held in a container made of the same recycled plastic bottles that HP uses in production. The idea became how to make fun, interactive elements out of the actual materials.  

Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for HP Inc.

In the yellow pod, attendees engage with Barnes' first interactive sculpture, symbolizing the dismantling of an ink cartridge.

What role does color play?

My ultimate goal was to make an abstract version of ink cartridges in the colors of printer ink — cyan, magenta, and yellow. We all know those colors from loading cartridges into our printers, right? We use them, we print with them, and once they’re done, they can be used to make something else. And so the idea is when we make these massive pods that are brightly colored, they’re easily recognized as ink cartridges, and we provide a vibrant, spectacular way for people to engage with color on an enormous scale. Within each pod they’ll learn about the various steps and materials in HP’s recycling process and, I hope they’ll begin to understand how they can be part of the journey.

Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for HP Inc.

Participants use HP products to draw and print original designs for a colorful display at Barnes' exhibit.

All of these interactive and immersive components — is that a reflection of your approach?

Absolutely. The biggest draw for me was that HP was okay with visitors engaging physically with the components, because a lot of times, projects are surrounded by ropes and guards and signs that say Do Not Touch. But when I pitched my idea, HP was thrilled. They said they wanted people to understand what these materials are, and they can’t do that just by staring. In a lot of the work that I do, you can sit in it, you can stand on it, you can play on it, you can swing on it. To me that’s way more interesting and memorable. I feel that if you don’t have these components, you only speak to a certain type of individual, and I prefer to do work that speaks to everybody.  

What do you want the experience to feel like for visitors? What do you want them to take away from it?

There’s an old adage that you never want to see how the sausage is made, but this experience is the opposite. Too often, companies talk about recycling without actually showing you what they’re doing. We want to pull back the curtain so you can really see how ink cartridge components are being recycled and reused and inspire people to recycle in their own daily lives.


How to recycle almost any household electronic device.