Interdisciplinary Canadian Think Tank Turns Its Hive Mind On What We Leave Behind
Love it or hate it, trash is a testament to culture. Anthropologists, paleontologists, and archeologists scrape up feces and bones from the garbage pits of primitive people, or stoneware from an ancient society, and from the detritus they piece together the diet, culture, commerce, and possibly the eventual downfall of a people. After destroying their environment, the Anasazi starved in their final days, having turned to mice and even human flesh for sustenance. We know this from their garbage.
It's safe to say that the United States excretes more garbage, in more durable forms, than any society before it. There is a grim ring of truth to a line in a poem in Trash, a new anthology of art and essays about modern human waste: "We'll be lucky if anyone remembers us as well as the earth remembers our garbage."
In recent years, there have been histories of trash, such as Susan Strasser's Waste and Want, and journalistic accounts, such as Elizabeth Royte's Garbage Land. Trash, the 11th issue of the book-form periodical Alphabet City, looks at refuse from the artist's perspective. It is undoubtedly polemical, seeking to expose the impact and ugliness of an ignored or unseen by-product of human existence. At the same time, in features here and there, Trash contributors attempt to find the beauty in castoff items, either as testaments of the ingenuity of human life or as remnants of our once-great civilization.
Barry Allen, a philosophy professor at McMaster University, sums up the fascination with garbage in his essay on "The Ethical Artifact": "The most impressive thing about our trash is how well made it is. . . . [T]hink of a polystyrene fast-food container, used for seconds, then discarded. Imagine the astonishment of a Leonardo Da Vinci encountering such an object."
If you're one who instinctively opposes the continued trashing of our world, this occasional ambivalence about garbage--is it ugly or is it strangely beautiful and human?--can be unsettling. For example, consider "Airspace," a photo essay about the construction of a landfill by Pierre Bélanger, a Canadian landscape architect. (Most of the authors and artists in Trash are Canadian, as Alphabet City is produced in Toronto.) Bélanger's feature clearly points to the broken and bureaucratic aspects of society--namely the North American Free Trade Agreement--that allows a plot of farmland in Michigan to become, literally, a mountain of Canadian trash. At the same time, Bélanger describes the terrible beauty and complexity of a landfill operation: The specially designed trucks and other heavy equipment building the mountain use complex global-positioning equipment to build a perfect mound that maximizes vertical space and "that may, over time, prove to be one of the most ecologically sound land-use strategies in the history of the world."
Similarly, what does one make of "Plastikos," Susana Reisman's photographs of vacuum-formed plastic packaging? The items themselves have a sanitary, futuristic aesthetic, appealing in a way. And yet this is among the most prolific and permanent of our waste stream, often used to package disposable products that will soon be garbage themselves. It should be difficult for the environmentalist, or the weary and conscientious consumer, to see its beauty--and yet the bubblelike space-age packaging is clearly an exemplar of industrial design.
"Sad Chairs," a photo series by Bill Keaggy, is another piece that both tugs at the heart and stimulates the gag reflex. Sad, lonely chairs--those broken-down office seats and eviscerated recliners--can be seen in abandoned alleys in cities all over the country. Gay Hawkins, in an accompanying essay, marvels at how Keaggy's photographs of "the shit end of capitalism" can evoke "the strange experience of sympathy for rubbish." Of course, in this piece and others you get the sense that the artists and essayists are thinking a bit too much about the meaning of garbage, as when Hawkins starts getting into "the potential of trash to remind us of the liminality of useful and useless, humble object and recalcitrant thing."
Trash's definition of garbage is broad enough to include even landscapes. Nina-Marie Lister examines "junkscapes," those abandoned brownfields in every U.S. city. She lauds the remediation efforts of Peter Latz, a landscape architect, at Park Duisberg-Nord in Germany. Latz used the remnants of an industrial site--the blast furnaces, cooling tanks, and railroad tracks--to create climbing walls, scuba-diving tanks, and hiking paths, while leaving much of the rusting infrastructure in place. He relied on phytoremediation, or the use of plants that suck up toxins, to clean the site. In America, however, revitalization of junkscapes has focused on "mindless regreening," Lister says. "Perhaps, instead of applying a one-size-fits-all nature Band-Aid," she writes, "we ought to challenge, contest, and even celebrate previously wasted space."
"In/Out," another landscape piece, is a series of photos from junk-strewn post-Soviet-era Armenia, where smashed cars and random refuse lie among the weeds outside villages. (The scenes look vaguely like abandoned parts of Baltimore.) Tigran Xmalian, one of the photographers, believes that the erosion of community in Armenia leads people to trash it.
In Trash, trash is too often an object of fascination all to itself. The most powerful pieces in the book are those that connect a throwaway culture to a disregard for humanity. "The Missing Daughters of Juarez" documents the testimony of mothers of Mexican women who, upon arriving in a manufacturing town near the U.S. border, have been killed and dumped in ditches and abandoned lots like so much garbage.
Heather Rogers' essay on packaging covers the decline of deposit bottles, but it is more about how corporations manipulated the public to profit from trash. After World War II the beverage industry began to abandon refillable bottles for disposable ones, which led to a litter epidemic and a public-relations blitz from industry. The famous anti-trash commercials of the 1970s, featuring the crying Indian, were backed by corporations in an effort to put the responsibility for the litter problem squarely on the public.
Although packaging now composes almost a third of the waste stream, and although refillable bottles are popular in other countries, companies in the U.S. have blocked attempts to require refillables here. To Rogers, the dilemma around bottles is symbolic of bigger problems in society. "The shift to more trash-heavy is deeply connected to the free market economy's ongoing need to intensify and expand consumption," she writes. "Indeed, an economy that relies on constant growth requires wasting."