If necessity is the mother of invention, then modernity is the father of obsolescence. Humans have had plenty of experience being wasteful. History is marked by periods of greed, extravagance and injustice. However, these times were often the impulse of powerful men, whose desires could not be satisfied. In the twentieth century, modernity appeared to be the beginnings of a utopian civilization where there was opportunity for everyone to live well, through the development of science, technology, mass-production and cheap materials, like plastic. Sadly we know all too well that this didnt eventuate for everyone, and many millions around the world still live in abject poverty.
It is ironic that with all the potential of modernity, we westerners, have together, taken on the greed and injustice of so many rulers of the past, that we now consider to have been so un-civilized. The west has exploited the world through colonization, and continues this travesty to this day with corporation-owned sweat-shops and unregulated factories churning out millions of products to fill our shopping malls. Worse still, these products will quickly become obsolete, and all too soon be buried in landfill. What a desecration of valuable resources. If only we could truly be confronted with the enormity of this horror that is our own.
We sit in a period of time that has been described as the Anthropocene period, that is a ‘new human’ geological age of our own making.
First coined by Nobel Prize winning chemist Paul Crutzen in 2000, it is a way of describing the significant global impact industrialization has made on the Earth’s ecosystems. As an artist responding to the ecological, and indeed, geological impacts of consumerism, I am seeking ways to convey this effect through my art practice. For me, there is a correlation between the way we consume and the way we value materials.
There is also a relationship between the methodology of art practice and the perceived and prescribed value of art materials. Studio based art practice tends to emphasise materials that art institutions consider valuable, like oil on canvas, bronze and marble. However, new ideas are emerging. According to Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Art encompasses ‘a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context.’ He also suggests the term Altermodern, which he describes as a way ‘…to translate the cultural values of cultural groups and to connect them to the world network.’ The materials used then, can be superseded by the social outcomes of the art practice.
The process of collecting, cleaning and cutting the aluminium cans in the art room, during my residency at Bridgewater High School, became the interface for dialogue with the students. The stories that I relayed about corporations, consumerism, and environmental consequences, were, in the above sense, more important than the artworks produced. This is not to say the artwork itself has no value. The containers have been emptied of their contents and meaning, both literally and metaphorically, and the resulting homogenized appearance conveys more of the cans material origins than the syrupy contents or the campaign to sell you a brand.
The title of the work displayed, Alumination, references the illuminated manuscripts of celtic christianity, as well as the material processes involved to manufacture the cans. These cans now tell a story of the way we live and the value we give materials. What were once single use containers are now ascribed Accultural value through an art practice. That is, the resulting value is a combination of the interaction between myself, the artist, the people interacting with my art practice, the audience viewing the artwork, plus all the various prescribed and perceived values of the material, as a container, a brand, a drink, a source for recycling, or simply rubbish to be discarded. The value that is now created is new and unique in the context of time, people and place.
The Fabric of Life community art project was a part of the Kickstart Arts Happiness Project, a three year project involving artists, health and community workers and educators working in collaboration with community members to make beautiful films about what true happiness means to them. Fabric of Life is a large multi-piece fabric collage made from the discarded and donated clothing of community members throughout Tasmania. The fabric artworks contain handwritten stories and anecdotes of the individuals involved, which were digitised to create an interpretive touch screen display. Over 160 individual participants contributed to the making of Fabric of Life, ranging in age and ability from prep students to elderly nursing home residents. Each of the 35 fabric collage panels fit neatly into the triangle framework of the geodesic dome Happiness Pod, a portable solar powered cinema and workshop space designed to travel to remote, disadvantaged and isolated communities. To date the Happiness Pod and the Happiness Maintenance Crew have travelled to AgFest, Oatlands, Franklin, Glenorchy, Salamanca Lawns and Glenorchy Works Festival.
The built up environment we live in is built upon another environment from millennia past. Shells of living creatures in the surrounding waterways literally became part of the new built environment; burnt to provide lime for mortar to bind bricks into buildings. Shellfish, once a dietary staple of the original inhabitants, supplied a new industry and livelihood to the invaders. Today they continue to offer culinary pleasure for locals and visitors alike.
The composition of the work represents the interdependency of humans and nature. The geometric steel structures refer to the human-made and the shells represent nature. The mesh holds the shells in place efficiently, much like in farming, but also creating an all too familiar geometric aesthetic. The blocks are arranged to capture a sense of play; an unexpected chance encounter between human and nature.
Equivalent is made up of 168 paper bricks made with a 'Kambrook Combusta Brick Maker', a one-time novelty item of the 1980s. The shredded newspaper is soaked in water and pressed together in the brick maker, and then, once dried out, can be used to burn in a fire. This work references Carl Andre's minimalist work of the 1960-70s comprising fire bricks configured in different ways but always with the equivalent number, and therefore mass, of bricks.
Robert Hughes, in his seminal work, 'The Shock of the New' (page 393), had this to say of the work: "The essential difference between a sculpture like Andre's Equivalent VIII, 1978, and any that had existed before in the past is that Andre's array of bricks depends not just partly, but entirely, on the museum for its context. A Rodin in a parking lot is still a misplaced Rodin; Andre's bricks in the same place can only be a pile of bricks".
This work also utilises the mundane, the daily newspaper, and, in its 24x7 configuration, references the 24/7 news media that is slowly eroding the relevance of the printed press, and moving it towards obsolesence, much like the Kambrook Combusta Brick Maker. The context of the gallery is even more important, for if this work were left in a parking lot, it would quickly deteriorate. Although made from such ephemeral material, it shares the property of many 'readymade' minimalist artworks, in that the original purpose of the bricks can still be utilised. Like Andre's work it is indeed made up of 'fire' bricks.
the physical impossibility of choice in the mind of the consumer
A performance based installation exploring the notion of choice in the age of excess.
The three thousand videos present in the installation compile around ten thousand hours of viewing time. Watching just over two and a half hours of videos a day it would take ten years to view them all. Spending eight hours a day, Monday to Friday for a month, will only account for about two percent of the available viewing.
Yet this whole collection could be digitalized and stored on a multi-terabyte hard drive no bigger than just one of these videos. The fact that we can store so much information now on drives, devices and now in the ‘cloud’ means the physical presence of our choices has altered.
Many people are now downloading more music and video each day than they actually view. Sure these files are easy to access, and portable, but we still only have so many hours in the day to watch or listen to them. Does having so much choice actually enhance our lives, or are we creating stress and anxiety for ourselves?
This installation investigates these issues by exploiting the medium of videocassette tapes. They are a format that most people alive today can relate to and understand. You only have to pick one up to know if it is a short, medium or long length of tape, which we know equates to several minutes up to several hours of viewing.
To accentuate the dilemma of choice the videos have all been labeled the same. The viewer can watch whatever they like, though won’t really know what, until the video is played. There is also no remote control, compelling the viewer to make the extra effort, enabling the choice to seem more existent. Perhaps the greater the effort, and the less choice we have, the more we will appreciate what we have.
Bloom is made from over 12,000 plastic lids zip-tied together to form over sixty organic shapes. The pieces were floated together on the Derwent River at the Glenorchy Arts and Sculpture Park (GASP) for the Flotilla project as part of the biennial Glenorchy Works Festival in 2012.
The plastic tops used are typically discarded without a thought, end up in landfill, and are rarely recycled. But because they float they also have a great chance of circulating in waterways if discarded inappropriately. Placing these plastic tops in a seemingly precarious position in the natural environment created an uneasy tension provoking conversation and interest about how the way we live and consume impacts on the local environment. Working with the inherent shape and colours of the plastic tops created a bloom effect mimicking the natural environment in which it was placed.
The new GASP boardwalk is situated on the Derwent River, and has given many people a new perspective on the river environment, allowing them to consider what it is that is coming into the river from our built environment. However, the foreshore is not a natural state as such, with much of the original shoreline being reclaimed, and the boardwalk dissecting water and land. So while the plastic tops seem out of place in 'nature', they create a playful interruption between the natural and built environments.
There is a great amount of interest in plastic pollution and particularly the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. However, we can easily overlook that much of the plastic that ends up in the ocean started out in a waterway after being discarded inappropriately within the built environment. Plastic is now a much-maligned material accumulating around us, and although it originates from petro-chemicals derived from oiled formed from living matter buried millions of years ago, it does not break down into the environment like scientists once believed it would.
Although plastic lids are recyclable, they rarely are, and apart from slipping into waterways, most end up buried in landfill. Yet a tonne of plastic is a tonne of plastic. Collected and recycled they can still contribute to reducing the amount of plastic needing to be derived from petrochemicals. Industrialized societies continue to create more and more elusive categories for marketing 'new' products each year, only matched it seems by the ever increasing categories of 'rubbish'. Rubbish is as rubbish does. Its everywhere.
The artwork is fundamentally a re-presentation of post-consumer materials, but it is certainly created with intention and attention to an art-form; it isn’t simply a pile of rubbish tipped into the river. Although the latter could create intense reactions and conversations about consumerism and the environment, it could also be divisive and inaccessible. Creating an aesthetically pleasing and playful artwork, however, can be interesting and accessible, allowing an opportunity to contemplate issues that are in fact deadly serious.
dematerialization /de-muh-teer-ree-uhl-ize-shuhn/ n. 1. materials that mysteriously appear in shops, are used briefly, then seemingly disappear without a trace. 2. materials that do not matter [Latin: related to: de DOES NOT, materia MATTER]
The idea behind this installation was to juxtapose materials we value, with materials we give little value to. It is simply a travesty the amount of clothing that goes to landfill each week even in a small city, like Hobart. The ONO Project, curated by Kate Kelly and Pip Stafford, held at the derelict baths building on the corner of Collins and Molle Streets, Hobart, offered a tremendous opportunity to create an installation that would highlight the disparity in the way materials are valued in contemporary society.
Clothing is something that many people buy on a whim, and don’t give a second thought to throw away, even if never worn. Charity donation bins are overflowing with unwanted clothing, most of which are perfectly wearable. So much so that charitable organizations regularly dump clothing in landfills, some of which is unopened, unsorted bags of donations. The simple fact is, there is way more clothing being discarded than there are people buying it. Even if it was all given away, there would still be a glut. The new market simply outweighs the second-hand market.
A considerable amount of clothing now is made from cotton, which uses an incredible amount of water to produce. An average T-shirt uses up about 4000 litres of water! Yet many of us wouldn’t think twice about throwing away a T-shirt. Not only is it a waste of resources, cotton buried in landfill will emit methane, the worst of all the green house gases, while it decomposes. Same goes for leather, linen, denim, hemp, or any other material used to make clothing that is derived from a living plant or animal.
The bricks, timber, glass and tile, that makes up a building is far more likely to be reused after a building is demolished; though an incredible amount still goes to landfill. Building materials are perceived to be more valuable than clothing, though this may not actually be the case. It is more a matter of what we assign value to. Ironically, the same protestors who may well chain themselves to demolition machinery to prevent a building being toppled, may over their lifetimes throw away tonnes of usable clothing.
We can assign a certain preciousness to materials, that is not always rational. Newspaper, as a paper material, is of relatively poor quality, but the words they contain are often of significant interest, especially the headlines. The often clichéd words and sensationalist images can fill us with all manner of emotions, from disdain, to outrage, to sadness, to laughter. The bundles of newspapers are made up of folded cover pages containing the headlines that capture our attention every day of the year.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then modernity is the father of obsolescence.
In the 1970s the average ten-speed bicycle cost around $195. At the time they were considered the ultimate in recreational cycling, light years ahead of the single speed ‘clunkers’ that had hardly changed since the ‘safety bicycle’ of the 1880s. Although once considered so highly, they became a product of programmed obsolescence, and are now discarded without a thought. Once kept safely in the garage, or even the house, cleaned and oiled regularly, they now sadly collect cobwebs, or slowly rust away left out in the weather. Worse still, many are now buried under tonnes of other materials in landfills all around the world.
What are these bicycles worth?
To a teenager in the 1970s: freedom and independence.
In scrap metal today, about $1.
You can have everything you ever wanted, and so can everybody else. But there’s a catch. It requires a paradigm shift. We can no longer consider our planet’s resources as endless, but limited and needing to be shared. It doesn’t mean you have no possessions at all. But it does mean that you do consider the other six billion people you share the planet with. If everyone on the planet did get everything they ever wanted, we would have disappeared from existence a long time ago.
This is the paradox. It requires love.
We can’t really have everything we ever wanted if we are greedy and selfish. But if we are thoughtful, patient and understanding, perhaps we can. How long will it take before we affluent westerners realize that we cannot sustain our current consumption of limited resources? A bicycle, and the materials that formed it, were once considered highly valuable. They were handed down from older sibling to younger sibling, from parent to child and grandparent to grandchild. In many parts of the world they still are.
Scrap steel is only worth 7 cents a kilogram. Maybe it should be worth more.
Perhaps it isn’t about money at all. Maybe we should use something until it cannot be used anymore, before we even consider replacing it. Maybe we should design things that are long lasting and not subject to the latest fad or fetish. Maybe we shouldn’t believe that new is always best. We should consider that only fifty years ago we had the ingenuity and creativity to manage to live with only a fraction of the resources we have today. Most people around the world still do.
We westerners still have much to rethink.
Imagine the millions of people that travel the world each year, attending conferences, living out of suitcases, staying in hotels where daily needs, like shampoo & conditioner, are provided in small, single-use containers. Imagine if all these shampoo & conditioner bottles could be recycled to create something beneficial, like casings for laptop computers for needy children. I need your help to collect as many bottles as possible, to demonstrate what one single conference can generate in just one week. Support the Frank Zappa Project today: Drop off your hotel, motel & travel shampoo & conditioner bottles in the collection bin next to the registration desk for the linux.conf.au 2009.
Why the “Frank Zappa” Project?
When collecting all manner of post-consumer materials, I sometimes look around my studio and will see a pile or box of materials that will trigger a thought, or remind me of something I have seen or done before. I started to collect small plastic containers about eight years ago, and so there are always some about somewhere in my home or studio. The hotel shampoo & conditioner bottles somehow made me think of the classic 1970s road movie, 200 Motels, starring and featuring the music of Frank Zappa. That was about three years ago and it has stuck in my head ever since.
When I was invited to be a part Batteries Not Included for the linux.conf.au 2009, I thought this would be a great opportunity to collect a large number of these bottles, by inviting the conference delegates to collaborate with me on the project. As I thought about the whole idea more, I realized there was actually a connection between the life of a rock’n’roll star and a conference delegate. Living out of a suitcase, staying in a hotel room, is both an isolating and comforting experience. On the one hand you are away from your family & friends and your usual lifestyle, surrounded by strangers and sometimes unfamiliar lifestyles. Yet on the other hand you have all your basic needs met, food, shelter, entertainment, and are essentially quite comfortable.
Background to the Frank Zappa Project
Have you ever heard that if you collect the aluminium ring pulls from a drink can, that they can be used to provide artificial limbs for land mine victims in Africa? There have been a number of hoaxes in recent decades involving large amounts of usually small, seemingly worthless items being collected to aid some unfortunate person, usually with some type of medical assistance. They are certainly not new, having circulated since the 1950s and seem to have mostly begun by word of mouth. If you want to know more about these hoaxes go to this website.
Although they do not involve money directly, they have inconvenienced and disappointed many people. There have been the occasional cases where some companies have honoured the scams, no doubt for a bit of good will publicity. It is most interesting because people are quick to take up these ideas as they appear an easier and quicker way to raise money. I guess you could say they are a well intentioned get-rich-quick-scheme.
The real irony is that, if instead of collecting the ring pulls, you collected the whole can, you could actually raise a considerable amount of money, though you would still have to collect a lot of cans. The other irony is that many of these small items, like bottle tops and ring-pulls are considered worthless and are thrown away, instead of being recycled. Modern recycling plants can handle all sorts of materials, and a tonne of aluminium ring-pulls is worth as much as a tonne of aluminium cans. In Australia scrap aluminium is worth about AU$1500/tonne.
Items like small shampoo & conditioner bottles from hotels and motels are still most likely to be thrown away rather than recycled, although they certainly are recyclable. It is a question of their perceived value. People perceive two and three litre plastic bottles as more valuable because they are bigger. But like aluminium, a tonne of plastic is a tonne of plastic. In Australia recyclable plastic is worth about AU$300/tonne.
This plastic like all plastic has the potential to make other plastic items, eg. laptop computer shells. Laptop computers are something we value, but we would throw away a tiny shampoo bottle without a thought. But if we knew that the plastic from that shampoo bottle was not only going to help provide a case for a new laptop computer, but one for a poor child in an impoverished society, then we would give that bottle great value!
So, although there is no direct link between aluminium ring-pulls and artificial limbs it is a feasible link, as aluminium is recovered after use and pooled back into the production cycle. Plastic, too, is collected in all manner of shapes and sizes, then pooled back into production in all manner of ways. So, there may not be any direct link between hotel shampoo and conditioner bottles and lap top computers for children in impoverished countries, but the link, however tenuous, is still feasible.
You could also look at it like this: an OLPC laptop computer costs about US$100. A tonne of plastic collected in Australia would buy about two of these laptops, and a tonne of aluminium about seven. You would also be saving valuable resources and energy by recycling rather than producing more new material. This is especially true of materials that would otherwise go to landfill, like hotel shampoo & conditioner bottles.
Rethinking the Way We Consume
We are all consumers in some manner or form; we all have basic needs, as well as wants and desires. What varies enormously around the world is the way we use valuable resources. Western society consumes most of the world’s resources and at an alarming rate. But even this would not be so bad if we were consuming wisely. But we don’t; we consume wastefully. Oil will run out soon enough, having an enormous impact on the world economy. But we have no one but ourselves to blame. We could have meted out this precious resource for centuries to come, but instead we have gobbled it up needlessly and heedlessly.
Wars have been fought over oil, and war consumes vast quantities of oil. We still produce ridiculous sized engines for motor vehicles to move our ever more obese bodies about. We throw away plastic though it were indispensable, as though it magically appears from no where for nothing. Most worrying of all we have an entire agricultural system where the fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, machinery fuel and transportation are all derived from oil. Yet we still boast that we can produce more food per hectare than ever before! Sure, for now, but what happens when the oil runs out. Bio-fuels? Solar power? Wind Power? Unfortunately there is nothing yet discovered or invented that can replace oil for power, efficiency, and (initial) cost. We have had something precious but not realized, and the price will be payed by future generations.
Hope for the Future
However, I see no value in being a pessimist. Too much of the green movement is effected by doom and gloom, and same goes for the conservative end of politics. Its all you read in the papers, economic down turns, another species threatened, job losses, more rainforest demolished etc. Its not a matter of denying current threats to the economy or environment, it’s a matter of focusing on solutions. To get to the solutions we need to be more aware of what’s happening and what is possible. You can be a realist and an optimist.
In some small way this is what I choose to do as an artist. I am all for art for art’s sake, and I admire art and artists that do nothing but produce amazing art. It is simply not what I choose to do. Whatever opportunity I have to present art to the public, I am deliberate in intent and outcome. I deliberately choose to highlight obscure and often overlooked aspects of consumerism and capitalism, and hope that I have helped someone somewhere along their journey to a more sustainable way of living.
Small plastic containers like hotel, motel & travel shampoo & conditioner bottles are most likely thrown in the rubbish, then buried in landfill. This needn’t be. They are recyclable, and recycling facilities could easily be fitted in hotel bathrooms. We also probably don’t need them in the first place. Hotels & motels could fit large capacity dispenser bottles in their bathrooms instead. We throw out an incredible amount of plastic containers of all shapes and sizes. Yet this is becoming an increasingly valuable resource. In Australia recyclable plastic is worth about AU$300/tonne.
The OLPC project is a great concept and a positive way of increasing knowledge and understanding around the world. I can’t help thinking if only we recycled all the plastic in Australia, how much more could be given to projects like this one. The plastic itself could be used to make the laptop casings. The Prosthesis Foundation already uses recycled plastic to produce artificial limbs for needy children in Thailand. Australians only recycle about 40% of materials that are recyclable. What a travesty that we are burying tonnes of plastic in landfill that could be used to assist such worthy causes.
Its up to you and me to make a difference. Make the effort to recycle everything you can from your own use, then your household, then your workplace, then maybe even think what your community or social group can do together. It does all make a difference, and each time someone else sees you doing something, they may think that’s something they can do as well. Part of my job as Education Officer for Resource Work Cooperative is going to schools. I am privileged to see the many projects that schools have initiated, and children enthusiastically participating, from worm farms to recycle bins, from art from trash to songs about the environment.
There is hope for the future.