This article was written on 04 Jun 2015, and is filled under New Ecologies, Performance.

Ecologies of Waste

Perhaps the only thing more surprising than the existence of an artist in residence program at the San Francisco dump is the fact that this program has existed for decades and will celebrate the work of over 150 artists in its 25th anniversary this month.

Last week the three artists’ four-month residencies drew to a close and a gallery walk through was offered. I decided to take a trip by bike, and my route took me on an impromptu tour of the refuse of the city, from the waste treatment station to a partially demolished Candlestick Park and finally to the dump and what may be the most novel artist residence in the country, conceived and initiated in 1990 by the the legendary environmental artist Jo Hanson.


Salvaging the ‘Stick. Accidentally filtered while operating bike.

Along the way I thought about some of the paradoxes of waste, about how the demolition crews at Candlestick were using drinkable Hetch Hetchy water for dust mitigation, about how nearby San Bruno mountain remains undeveloped partially because of the proximity of polluting industries that made the mountain undesirable (the industries are largely gone, but environmental protections sprung up in their place). I thought about how resource recovery, to put it euphemistically, runs in my blood. (Our family genealogist observes that several relatives were noted for their trash-picking skills, which may partially explain both my enthusiasm for Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I and the allure of landfill art.) I thought about how this enthusiasm has become somewhat muted by an awareness of how easily the celebration of gleaning can flip into a kind of trashsploitation, how the on-screen solidarities forged by artists such as Varda or Vic Muniz are typically too transient to upset the inequalities that stratify societies into those who produce trash and those who pick trash (on this see Jorge Furtando’s short film Ilha das Flores).

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Even if San Francisco’s Recology succeeds in diverting 100% of waste from landfills by 2020, the allure and repulsion of landfills will remain. Slavoj Žižek’s startlingly cogent cameo at a rubbish tip in Astra Taylor’s Examined Life shows that trash incites more than just moralizing in the 21st century: it can also incite critical thought and critical revaluations of ecology and ecological art.  Think of Robert Sullivan’s Thoreauesque celebration of New Jersey’s toxic Meadowlands, (“The garbage hills are alive…”) or Dana Phillip’s “excremental ecocriticism,” or Jane Bennet’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, which is initiated by the sight of an assemblage of debris–consisting of “one large men’s plastic black work glove, one dense mat of oak pollen, one unblemished dead rat, one white plastic bottle cap, one smooth stick of wood–in a Baltimore gutter.

The gallery walk through at the SF dump was very well attended, and with good reason. These artists are present-day alchemists. In each of the three remarkably diverse installations the vitality of matter was unconcealed. Each installation seemed to grow out of an engagement with one set of materials: plastic, lumber, or textiles. And although the residency lasts only four months, each installation has grown out of, or into, a larger project: Ma Li’s living sculpture Meet You at the Bird Bridge in the Milky Way will migrate to the Asian Art Museum, Michael Arcega’s Recologica: A Nacireman Excavation is a but one iteration of an ongoing speculative anthropology of the Nacirema people, and Eden V. EvansMomento opened up a conversation on, and proposed an amazing solution to, the current inability to divert textiles from waste streams. Even the residence program itself is expanding to a number of other cities on the West Coast.

Ma Li, "Meet You at the Bird Bridge in the Milky Way"

Ma Li, “Meet You at the Bird Bridge in the Milky Way”

Michael Acerga, from "Recologica: A Nacireman Excavation"

Michael Arcega, from “Recologica: A Nacireman Excavation”

Eden V. Evans, from "Momento"

Eden V. Evans, from “Momento”

In each of the installations trash functions, among other things, as an archive: one of incarceration, trauma, or the privatization of natural resources. The ruse of a speculative archaeology, in Michael Arcega’s work in particular, also facilitated a degree of social criticism that partially legitimated the tongue-in-cheek designation of the works as “findings” in a “natural history museum,” as though a future paleontologist were reconstructing the life scenes of a late-Anthropocene society.

As was the case for the leachate seep of “pure pollution” that serves as Robert Sullivan’s muse, as was the case for the heart-shaped potato that Agnes Varda stumbles across on an abandoned field, each of the artists also uncovered what Jane Bennet calls the “thing-power” of trash: “the curious power of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle.” In this way, the exhibitions made me recall the toxic legacies of careless waste management in the past and the proximity of “poison” and “palate” in the Bay Area. I’m looking forward to being moved by the next show.

"Poison / Palate" from Rebecca Solnit's "Infinite City"

“Poison / Palate” from Rebecca Solnit’s “Infinite City”

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