Archive for the 'art' Category

27
Jan
11

Preparing for the Climate Bomb

Suzanne Huskey's hedgehog sleeper cell

One of Suzanne Huskey’s “sleeper cells” looks like a petrified hedgehog on runners, but in fact it is a refuge for the environmental apocalypse or perhaps a dream house for the back-to-nature set. It has a door and two windows, and it proclaims a moderate right to privacy by means of those woody spines.

The other one has a loftier mien, looking like the bastard child of the Apollo 14 space capsule and a Jetson’s spaceship. Though it has a general air of waiting to lift off, the capsule has only got a few undersize casters by way of a power train.

And her Apollo Jetson capsule

Though they allude to the dreary cold war bomb shelters of an earlier age, the sleeper cells really are the funny, sunny alter egos to those earlier monuments to a crazed humanity. Every bit of these two shelters was salvaged from the discards streaming into the San Francisco transfer station, housewares included, during Huskey’s stint as artist in residence. Super bona fides, and perhaps also doubly useful in an age of endless foreclosures.

More about Huskey’s architectural ventures on her own website.

28
Nov
09

Hangover Saturday

If Thanksgiving is the appointed time for rampant overeating and Black Friday our annual date with discount frenzy, then today could perhaps become enshrined as Hangover Saturday, a good time to reflect on consumption rather than engage in it.

Here a selection of Hangover Saturday thoughts gathered in the course of a restful day:

When people talk about what they are grateful for (on Thursday), they never say, “I’m grateful that I have so much stuff” or “My cup runs over because of those Manolo Blahniks I bought last spring” or “The best thing that ever happened to me is my Lamborghini.” It’s possible they’re just trying not to tip their hand, but I suspect we don’t hear those things because, actually, we all do know better.

Our current economic woes have had one advantage: to clarify the point that consumption is not a selfish indulgence but a patriotic duty, philanthropy flowing ceaselessly towards the wealthy, so that our expenditures can come back to us in the form of jobs, which may be defined as a palliative for massive debt or as a subsidy for patriotic duty, sadly insufficient.

Can't touch that 42% of greenhouse gas tied up in goods and food!

Whoever thought of the slogan “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” was not really clued in to the realities of our economic system. We do our bit to help with recycling at least in some parts of the country, but when we make an (unwilling and modest) start on the “Reduce” component, the whole country goes off the rails. That must be why the EPA report “Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices”—which is to say “How to Save the World by Tackling Consumption and its After-Effect, Garbage”—declines to estimate the impact on greenhouse gas production if we ate less and bought fewer things. Instead, it tries to figure out what difference it makes if, for example, we were to capture ALL the landfill gas that percolates up from our trash and convert it to electricity or if we recycle ALL the construction and demolition debris coughed up by the never-ending pursuit of bigger and better (as opposed to affordable) homes and gardens.

The opposite of consumption that most easily comes to mind on Hangover Saturday would be abstention. But consumption also has an opposite in creation, which is or can be blameless and much more fun than just saying no. The best place I know to get a feel for the truth of that proposition is S.C.R.A.P. (www.scrap-sf.org), an inspired program in San Francisco that diverts virgin merchandise from the landfill, makes it available for dirt cheap to all those with an urge to create rather than consume, and provides a bunch of jobs into the bargain.

What one might do with scrap

The San Francisco warehouse (on Newcomb between Toland and Selby) is huddled rather inauspiciously under Highway 280, but step inside and be greeted by a carnival of color and texture—papers, fabrics, buttons, doodads, figures, threads and yarn, birds, notions, glass, wood, boxes and containers, table legs and carpet squares,  stickers, ribbons, cards, and vinyl discs. On and on. Not everything leapt out at me as obvious fodder for art, including the industrial-sized potato mashers. For many things, it is immediately obvious why they are not in a store somewhere. In their original identity, the scraps that S.C.R.A.P. offers are not saleable, but as art materials they’re irresistible, guiltless, and very inexpensive.

Over it all hangs an exhibit of unpretentious art: scrap boxes emulating the best of Joseph Cornell, mobiles, a digestive tract laid out in flopping beakers and retorts, quilts, and many other works that demonstrate the virtues and joys of clean salvage.

27
Aug
08

saucepans, bonnets, and umbrellas

In Dickens’ David Copperfield, trash is a marker of class. When David goes in search of his irrepressible old school friend Tommy Traddles, for instance, he finds a street strewn with scraps of food and broken belongings, an index of Tommy’s straightened circumstances:

I found that the street was not as desirable a one as I could have wished it to be, for the sake of Traddles. The inhabitants appeared to have a propensity to throw any little trifles they were not in want of, into the road: which not only made it rank and sloppy, but untidy too, on account of the cabbage-leaves. The refuse was not wholly vegetable either, for I myself saw a shoe, a doubled-up saucepan, a black bonnet, and an umbrella, in various stages of decomposition, as I was looking out for the number I wanted.

Dickens ascribes a certain carelessness to the inhabitants, but the real difference between this street and a more upscale one would have been a lack of servants or other resources to have the trash cleaned up and carted away.

William Rathje, who analyzed and quantified residential garbage in Tucson and elsewhere in the US, showed that, in our own time, the wealthy create more garbage than the poor. Before we can throw something out, we have to buy it, after all. And the more money we have, the more we buy, the more we throw out. The effect may be magnified by consumerism, but there’s no reason to assume the state of affairs was essentially different in Victorian England.

The association of trash and poverty is by no means unique to Dickens, although its exact inflection varies from place to place and time to time. Phrases like “trailer trash” and “a trashy neighborhood” ring just a few of the many changes on this theme.

Calcutta Apartment Building

Calcutta Apartment Building

By and large, people distance themselves from garbage if they can afford to, but they do it in different ways, developing elaborate rituals for making it invisible or, on the contrary, refusing to handle it at all. In his Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins tells the story of how, in the 1970s, there was a lot of evident garbage in Saudi Arabia, only diminished by roving goats. A local source explained that Arabs considered themselves above handling garbage, so it was just thrown out of doors. I think perhaps in India a similar way of thinking produces such large amounts of putrescibles in the streets, in conjuction with and in immediate proximity to an intense devotion to personal cleanliness. I’d venture to guess that more per capita washing goes on in India than in any other place in the world.

In many places, the poorest of the poor live on and off garbage dumps. I assembled a brief list in a post about scavenging. Scavenging is for many practitioners an economic imperative, and the activity tends to brand them, functioning as a social shorthand for marginal status. One of Andreas Gursky’s large-scale photographs shows that it is nevertheless possible to make a life on the dump in terms clearly reminiscent of prevailing norms. The photo shows an endless stretch of open dump in Mexico City with a little dark clump near the horizon, which, upon closer inspection, turns out to be a village. An arrangement of makeshift houses is made complete by a parked VW Beetle, apparently in working order.

Advertising Poster for The Gleaners and I

Agnes Varda’s gentle documentary The Gleaners and I, about scavengers in France, points to other motivations besides economic necessity. Some gleaners don’t like the general wastefulness inherent in commercial farming, by which a good part of the harvest is dumped or simply never reaped. These gleaners follow a moral impulse diametrically opposed to the dominant econonmic mores of capitalist society, but perhaps there is also a certain waywardness in their behavior. Although there’s a general preference for orchards and fields over dumpsters among Varda’s heroes, there’s a general recognition that when the harvest is truly over in the fields, there’s another treasure waiting in the trash.

Varda also finds some who are simply fascinated by garbage, including the artists who scavenge their materials and build new things out of old in a way that exploits all the meanings adhering to the new and the old identities at the same time, the pathos and the courage both at once. Varda herself is one of these, and she shows up in the movie as a subject as well as the maker. What drives Varda, specifically, is a connection between trash and the tragic irreversibility of time, the entropic imperative by which all things progress to disorder. Her hands and her hair. Her ceiling with its leak, blossoming in frightful cabbage roses. Her carefully selected heart-shaped potatoes, from the poster, which show up several months later in an extremely disordered state.

Death and the end of time are foretold in garbage, and some prefer to make war on it, not by denial, but by careful inspection and, wherever possible, delight.

15
Aug
08

Rolling Hills

Byxbee Park, on the bay shore in Palo Alto, is both perfectly obvious and perfectly bizarre. Obvious, because it’s in the middle of the Baylands and offers spectacular views of the bay in all directions. Perfectly bizarre, because it is full of machinery and mysterious artifacts that have an allure similar to Stonehenge. Clearly these things were built by humans, and at some effort, but to what earthly purpose?

Pole Field at Byxbee Park, Palo Alto
Pole Field at Byxbee Park, Palo Alto

The artifacts include a carefully planted forest of wooden poles, as well as a piece of equipment that looks like a cross between a rugby goal and wind chimes. K-rail is laid out in chevrons on one hillside. In a dip on the other side, stands a chugging, churning device that looks to have sagged out of plumb a generation ago. A trail of shimmery heat waves comes out the top.

Most startlingly, the place breathes, though not always in the same rhythm. A few years ago, you had to listen carefully for the long-drawn-out, despondent sigh it cast upon the air every two minutes or so. When I visited more recently, the park breathed almost in synch with myself, a little stertorously perhaps, as if suffering from some minor pulmonary obstruction.

There’s a simple explanation for the mystery: Byxbee Park is repurposed landfill, a small section of the Palo Alto city dump that was decommissioned some time in the 1980s. Its artificial hills are studded with pipes and pumps for the capture of leachate and methane. The leachate goes to the purification plant down the road, while the methane is burned off by a flare, that rusty device described above. Construction rubble peeks out of the grassy knolls behind the “habitat reconstruction” signs. The pole forest is in fact “land art,” and so are the K-rail and the rugby chimes.

If you don’t already know, then it’s not so easy to find out what Byxbee Park is. A plaque near the entrance to the park says: “The design of Byxbee Park is the result of a collaboration between the City of Palo Alto, landscape architects Hargreaves Associates, and artists Michael Oppenheimer and Peter Richards. The project was funded in part by the City of Palo Alto refuse collection fees and the Public Art Commission’s Art in Public Places program.” A map identifies the installations by name but declines all effort at explanation. And not a word about garbage apart from those collection fees.

Byxbee’s tight-lipped stance, the likely legacy of the 20th-century’s long romance with “sanitation,” is perhaps understandable. Sanitation was about garbage removal as a public health measure, about whisking garbage away from the curb and making it disappear, as quickly and efficiently as possible. It was about burying garbage where nobody had to worry about it except the sanitation department. It was about creating a world where you could pretend that garbage didn’t really amount to any of your business. That time has passed.

Michael Oppenheimer's Wind Wave installation

Wind Wave installation

The sanitation romance is fading and reality asserts itself. What may once have counted as innocence now only looks like wanton blindness. Most of us are uncomfortably aware of the fact that natural resources are finite and landfill space harder and harder to come by. Sanitary engineering has given way to environmental engineering, and ordinary people are handling (and worrying about) their trash, at least a little. When we drag our garbage cans to the curb and the lid won’t quite go down, we probably don’t feel too good about it.

All the same, it’s still awkward to talk about garbage publicly. The instinct still is to pull away from the subject as if it were sex and we Victorians. Garbage isn’t quite taboo, but it isn’t approved cocktail party conversation either—or something easily owned up to in park signage. It’s not just Byxbee Park where the “habitat restoration” signs don’t specify what type of habitat it is exactly that’s being restored. Bayfront Park, in Menlo Park, doesn’t have a single sign telling you it’s the old town dump. The Sunnyvale dump has signs all over it that say “Sensitive Wildlife Area.” Indeed.

Garbage dumps are just more comfortable telling you how to comport yourself than pointing out what it is you’ve already accomplished.

But perhaps it’s time to learn to think about garbage and to discuss it, not just in the “trashies” subculture but in polite society—if only because we actually feel a little guilty about the amounts of trash we get rid of every week. Or perhaps because we suspect that, whatever happens to it precisely, it’s not a pretty story. Perhaps because looking at our garbage makes it possible to decide whether we want to continue to make more fake hills and fill up more canyons with dangerous stuff that needs to be tended and monitored for decades or longer. If we dig our garbage back up out of the twilit reaches of a guilty conscience, then perhaps the signage at our landfills can be a little more straightforward too?

Totting up donations on the Palo Alto dump

Totting up donations on the Palo Alto dump

At Byxbee right now, the best hint of what’s underfoot is the active fill next door. Its mounds rise at a startling rate, even though only a portion of Palo Alto’s garbage ends up here now. Every time I visit Byxbee, the new dump is a little more present. One day, a new hill rises in the back. Another time, fill activity is going on in front, where there used to be a miscellany of trucks, rubble, equipment, and temporary storage. A third time, a little setup of pumps and other machinery has been moved out of the hollow in which it sat, and the hollow itself is now a big hill. It’s all carefully shaped to a grading plan that is meant to make the garbage look like the Coyote Hills across the bay–a natural feature of the environment.

With only a few years of space left in it, the active dump is expected to reach capacity in 2010, and the entire area will become parkland. As garbage hills go, Byxbee won’t be very large. Nevertheless, if it’s your garbage in there, how is it not special?

Even when you know what it is made of, Byxbee is quite lovely. Or maybe it is actually more lovely. In summer, when the grass is a bright strawberry blond and the sky intensely blue, the garbage is more a distant memory than a looming presence. Christmastime is different. The park has a leaden quality, even on the brighter days. The dull green of the grass and the relatively low light lend the hills an ominous air far more suggestive of the putrid mess underfoot.

In winter, the geese come through on their way south. Large groups, sometimes hundreds of them, camp out for a day or so to rest. The younger members of the flock occupy their time with incessant honking, squawking, and squabbling to rearrange the social order, while the more sedate and peaceable members of the congregation contentedly snack on the new grass.

The pelicans like to doze near Adobe Creek, neatly folded into small, blazing white packages from which occasionally a gawky long neck and beak protrudes. They could be a demonstration of the amazing ingenuity of a high-tech camping gadget. An occasional loner on the wing, flying low over the water, demonstrates the size and power of the animal when fully folded out.

At sunrise the wading birds and other water fowl are out at first light, always already there by the time I arrive. Most of the smaller ones I don’t recognize, although I am familiar with the names: terns, grebes, willets, western sandpipers, curlews, greater and lesser yellowlegs. They roll on the tongue like burbling water, out of time and history, comforting like the birds themselves.

They offer us a little hope: no matter how artificial the environment, no matter how degraded, life goes on. For now at least.

29
Jun
08

Rock on Garbage

Bayfront Park, at Marsh Road in Menlo Park, is a high and unusually shaped set of hills, overgrown clay mounds that look like they have been moulded by the dirt roads laid out in graceful curves from the narrow entrance to the highest promontory overlooking San Francisco Bay. There is no overt sign that gives the game away, but the shape is unmistakable to the practiced eye: this is primitive garbage dump morphology, predating the wisdom of modern sanitary engineering. Only landfill has this much machinery. Only landfill sticks this far out into the bay.

Stone Poetry, Bayfront Park, Menlo ParkClosed some time in the 1980s, the mounds reach up to 200 vertical feet of garbage at the highest elevations, much of it in a liquid state because the dump is improperly sealed. Leachate runoff into the bay must be frightful.

The park is overgrown with grass and weeds, a few stunted palms, modest groves of fir and live oak, and strewn with boulders that seems strangely out of place. A helpful leaflet explains the mystery: the boulders are not really boulders but stone poetry, American Indian pictographs that aren’t American Indian, just as the park isn’t really a park. One of my professors in grad school liked to say that language is nothing but “a lie superimposed upon an error,” and it seems the stone poetry in Bayfront Park offers a perfect illustration.

Undoubtedly, the effort is well meant, even if it has the ring of refrigerator poetry, constrained by the availability of a limited vocabulary:

Evening pool

weather clear with stars

I walk with the wind behind me

inspired, with a glad heart

Come,

discover many animals,

grass, sun, canyons, and earth.

No hunger, war, no fear,

making peace and strong brothers.

The bit about canyons is an overstatement, by the way, but there is a decommissioned sewage treatment plant and a methane recovery facility way in the back, surrounded by some jewel-toned ponds of sludge, each set in a bezel of brightly glinting scum.

Bayfront Park, Menlo ParkFor all the degradation, Bayfront Park is a lovely place, especially at sunrise. Even at the softest footfall, the jackrabbits run for cover, legs too long and ears too tall. Shorebirds shriek into the softly-breathing stillness. The salt ponds gleam an improbable white, making a canvas for the runnels and phantom creeks drawing abstract figures through the crystal fields. If you’re lucky, day breaks with a radiance multiplied by the waters of the bay, a reminder and a promise

27
Mar
08

Museum of Buyer’s Remorse

Some time ago, I took a tour at the transfer station where San Francisco’s garbage is disgorged from regular garbage trucks into a giant pit and then stuffed into huge trailers that take it all to Livermore. The pit is a thing to behold, nauseating and overpowering. It’s pretty full, said our guide, despite the fact that it’s a Saturday. It’s dark inside, even infernal. Trucks come and go, spewing out trash. More garbage pours out of a chute in a corner. Gulls are quietly biding their time until appetite strikes again.

Inside the dark pit

But the transfer station also offers a much more cheerful perspective on our stuff, a more whimsical and touching commentary on the multfarious burdens of wealth and consumerism. The sculpture garden, paradoxically peaceful and verdant, holds a compelling collection of art patched together out of materials snatched from the abyss by resident artists.

Garbage Art

Even better is art hill, the higgledy-piggledy collection of junk that workers have rescued from perdition. There’s a traffic jam of Tonka trucks, whose vaunted indestructibility sooner or later stops counting as an advantage. There’s a sky-blue David, not quite two feet high, but every bit as languidly elegant as the original incarnation. There’s an outsize tiger, an unraveling bolt of unidentifiable beast, a dragon with a weirdly articulated tail, a menagerie of birds and saints and garden gnomes, arranged around and half-hid between a luxuriant patch of dog-eared cacti.

This gallery of the unwanted is stocked from the shed where private individuals do away with supernumerary household goods from attics and basements, where home remodelers unburden themselves of the debris inevitably attendant upon their projects. When I visited on an earlier occasion,hat he lacked in legs was amply made up for in the pinup behind him, of two young women displaying more leg than a normal human being would know what to do with.

A modern-day Venus de Milo

Other items on art hill come from the little outside area where the city brings trash that has been found abandoned in the street. It’s easy to get censorious and start thinking about the antisocial element that just saddle us, more conscientious citizens, with their messes. But some of these things—desks, strollers, file cabinets, TV stands—could be part of our informal freecycle efforts. We’ve all seen how it works. Somebody puts some poor old thing by the curb with a little sign on it inviting passersby to take mercy. Of course the city may get to the foundling possession and cart it off before a good Samaritan has had a chance to clasp it to his breast.All of this tells an inarticulate story about the embarrassment of riches, the quiet dilemmas involving our stuff, especially the in-between things that have lost their new-bought sheen but aren’t yet garbage. If it’s not utterly hopeless, irreparably broken, contaminated, or otherwise just plain used up, if it’s not recyclable or compostible, then what to do? For most of us, it doesn’t just slide down the slope towards garbage oblivion without internal debate or pang of conscience, especially if it’s a little large for the garbage can.

Even if they are not adopted as a new owner’s prized possession, it’s something of a consolation that some of these things don’t get buried at Altamont but end up in this museum of buyer’s remorse, with blue David and the toucan. All the same, perhaps it’s time to remember caveat emptor.




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