Imagine competing for scavenging rights to other people’s garbage. Every summer that’s what hundreds of Bay Area artists do. Recology’s artist-in-residence program draws hundreds of applicants each year, each hoping to earn one of 4-8 residencies offered for the year.
Recology is an employee owned company that provides garbage collection, compost, recycling, and disposal services to all residents and some businesses in San Francisco. We first heard about Recology in Seattle, from Cedar Grove, as Recology manages one of the largest citywide compost programs in the States. In 2012 the city announced that it has reached an 80% landfill diversion rate, and achieved the highest recycling and composting rates in the country. A major part of Recology’s philosophy centers on ‘resource recovery,‘ which it defines as “reclaiming ‘garbage’ materials for new use.” Their artist in residence program is one part of this recovery paradigm.
We went to the closing showcase to check out what the spring term artists had come up with during their residencies. Benjamin Cowden and Ian Treasure are both kinetic artists, meaning that each of their pieces moved in some way. Ben’s work invited ‘viewer participation’ which Phil was very enthusiastic about.
Ian’s pieces invited us into new created spaces. One included a telescope, reminiscent of Galileo, aimed at a tiny, tiny version of the Oxford English Dictionary. If you looked closely you could read the definition of… well, I am not sure what word it was pointed at. Kids kept jumping in front of the telescope so I got some very good views of their t-shirt fibers!
Entering another dimly lit room I was immediately struck by periodic whapping sounds. As my eyes adjusted I saw 12 old schoolhouse style wooden desks. Each desk has a motor attached to the bottom of it, with a ruler fastened on the top of the desk. The motor gradually pulled the ruler down, until it could go no further, and snapped back up. It felt like the desks were occupied by rowdy school boy ghosts, or naughty ghosts getting their knuckles wrapped!
Outside were tables of excellent finds from the public drop-off area, free for the taking. In the background a live band, The Insufferables, blared their tunes about the good life. On tables scattered around the exhibit were rounds of brie cheese and crackers… not the sort of spread you’d expect to find at a transfer station!
We also got to meet the student artist, Hannah Quinn. She told us she’d come into the residency interested in stools. This sounded odd to us, but she explained that she found stools to be very intimate, and that nearly all furniture designers create a stool at some point. She had sculpted a set of 50 stools, imitating one piecemeal stool she’d found in the drop-off area of Recology’s transfer station. By the time we visited her, near the end of the 3 hour exhibition, she told us she’d sold nearly half of the set.
It is interesting to think of ‘garbage art’ as a form of resource recovery. I think often I understand environmental art as a form of education – a means of showing in surprising, and even shocking ways, the extent of our consumption. Art made out of all the ordinary things we throw away, like Ruby Reusable’s plastic bottle caps, or Bryant Holsenbeck’s broken record blackbirds, is a way of saying that there really is no away. Thinking of ‘garbage art’ as a form of resource recovery adds a new meaning for me, suggesting that art is not an ‘extra’ part of our lives, but an essential one.