Japan Official Participation at the 12th Asian Art Biennale Bangladesh 2006: Commisioner's Message

Commisioner's Message

Rubbish, Micro-Economies, Use and Resistance by Roger McDonald, AIT.

Transforming one material into something different is an ancient art, most clearly outlined in the processes of alchemy where ‘base metals’ were supposedly transformed into precious metals or universal elixirs. Today, in an age of over-production and surplus on a global scale, the lonely processes of alchemy have been supplanted by the all pervading possibility of mass consumption which heralds its own transformative powers. Living in big cities and buying things plugs us into what Manuel Castells has called a ‘space of flows’, globally connected networks of commerce, information and media which sustain the landscapes we move in. The things which we buy originate in systems of production, distribution, commerce and economics and change according to how the buyer uses them – in most cases, goods are used as they were intended (ate, worn etc), but they can also be altered and given new, unexpected uses or mis-uses. If things are used as they are intended, they travel through various systems which are prepared by those who control the goods (the state, companies). Thus, most food is eaten as intended, and their packaging thrown away as waste, which is collected and dumped.

Actually it is interesting to think about how the things we buy ‘journey’ through our lives: what happens to clothes which we do not wear any longer, or old televisions? In many societies, micro-economies exist which identify these ‘used’ things and re-code them into new economic arenas. In the UK there are ‘Charity Shops’ which collect old clothes and sell them cheaply with profits going to charitable causes. In Japan there are used electrical appliance merchants who drive around the city with loud-speakers asking for broken TV’s or computers. Normally one has to pay the city an extra waste charge for them to dispense with ‘over-sized’ rubbish, but the electrical appliance merchants take them away for free. These systems exist like parasites on the edges of our economies, exploiting its enormous power to produce surplus and waste.

Sometimes, individual users divert or find totally new ways for things to be used. Children are especially good at finding novel ways for using things. A chocolate packet becomes a skyscraper, a plastic bottle a radio, a cardboard box a house….when things are used in ways which were not intended for them by their makers, perhaps we can say that a micro-resistance becomes enacted. Either knowingly or not, the user creates a new set of codes and systems for the thing, setting it free from the systems which it is intended for. In fact we all create these micro-resistances in our everyday lives – cutting the tops off plastic bottles to make temporary flower vases, modifying clothes, adding personal spices to a pre-prepared meal or attaching stickers and badges to files or cars. The philosopher Michel de Certeau wrote about such small moments of everyday resistance calling this ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’. He spoke of this in terms of small tactics which we enact in our daily lives, changing the meaning and uses of things to suit our own ends and preferences.

In art history, the collage is something which shares many of the characteristics of this micro-subversion. The German artist Kurt Schwitters was an avid collector of rubbish which he used to pick up from the streets of Hanover and gather in his apartment as the vast habitable installation he called the ‘Merz’. He used to gather all kinds of things, bottle tops, paper, bins….Was Schwitters collection of rubbish fragments an attempt to reintegrate the fragments of a shattered personal life, or perhaps he was initiating a new kind of urban landscape art?

The Danish artist Asger Jorn began the ‘Modifications’ series of paintings in 1959. He bought or found old paintings in flea markets or rubbish dumps and painted over them, corrupting their surfaces and transforming them into something with a new, strange energy.

The contemporary German painter Gerhard Richter began to collect an archive of mass culture images in 1961 which he called ‘Atlas’. It is ongoing and has no particular narrative or comment. The critic Benjamin Buchloh has called it ‘anomic’, meaning that it is alienated by its repetition, indifference and near-meaningless excess.

The use and re-use of waste materials by artists is well documented and has occurred across the world. The collage, as ‘founded’ by Picasso and Braque in the first decade of the C20th, is a key moment when materials from everyday life entered the spaces of art. The tendencies towards collage, developed by the Dadaists, Russian Constructivists, Surrealists and later artists, were theorized by the French writer Baudelaire who saw the modern individual as a celebrant of the ‘ephemeral, the fugitive, and the contingent’. Today, writers such as Nicolas Bourriaud postulate a ‘post-production’ environment where artists can choose to edit or extract elements freely using various technologies, unbounded by strictures of time or space. Rather than being celebrants of the ephemeral, individuals today are perhaps the very stuff of ephemerality- malleable to the codes of marketing campaigns and almost wholly ‘networked’, integrated into global systems of finance, media and information. Perhaps this is too bleak a picture.

The Hungarian born architect and urban visionary Yona Friedman published a manifesto titled ‘Mobile Architecture’ in 1958. The mobility here referred not to that of the building but its users. This was contextualized within his idea of The Spatial City, a raised open labyrinthine urban structure with the potential for constant experimentation. Friedman laid out three codes for The Spatial City. It must:

  • ‘Touch the ground, occupying minimum surface area.
  • Be easily broken down and moved.
  • Be transformable at will by the individual inhabitant’.

Friedman’s ideas make architecture almost invisible and redundant as the user is privileged. His designs emphasise a DIY (Do It Yourself) ethic and locally available materials and building styles. I mention Friedman because his practice is one of creating micro systems which allow the user to re-interpret and re-configure the spaces around him/her. Like an ‘Open Source’ computer software, his architectural theories seem to be built on the possibility for constant challenge and change.

As consumers/users we hold the power to mis-use and divert the things which we invest in – whether this be through micro tactics in our everyday life, the play of children, collage activities or as the users of products. Recycling waste through sorting different materials has become common in many countries – in Japan this is now standard practice. Waste materials increasingly have a cost attached to them, being returned to economic systems. Indeed, waste and its flow through society represent powerful mechanisms by which certain orders and authorities are upheld – as Foucault has written about at length, the cleansing of everyday spaces and the maintenance of a sense of purity are a part of what he has called ‘biopolitics’. The history of urban spaces is also a history of decontamination and cleansing, of ridding spaces of waste. In his book, ‘The History of Shit’ Dominic Laporte tracks how European cities systematically made themselves ‘modern’ by diverting waste products into invisible channels, underground sewer networks and forbidding citizens from discarding waste in the street.

Artists and activists today who use waste materials as a means to creating different possibilities and things complicate the systems of control and ordering which define the ways we should live. By diverting materials into alternate ‘flows’ they are, in a sense, similar to alchemists. They seek to transfer the energies from certain materials into different channels, exposing a possibility for experimentation and resistance.

Manuel Castells (1999), ‘Grassrooting the Space of Flows’. Urban Geography, 20:4.
Michel de Certeau (1984), ‘The Practice of Everyday Life’, University of California Press.
Dominique Laporte (1978), ‘The History of Shit’, The MIT Press.
Nicolas Bourriaud (2003), ‘Postproduction’, Art Data.

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