Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Science

February 13, 2012

Turning Trash into Art

Max Liboiron finds beauty in Garbage, even while trying to minimize its impact.

Vincent Valk

Max Liboiron, plastic pollution activist and trash artist, tries to find beauty in garbage even as she advocates against the systems that create it. Liboiron, a PhD candidate at NYU, is writing a dissertation on the unique nature of plastic pollution—which, she notes, outnumbers plankton six to one in the Pacific Ocean. At the same time, she uses what could become pollution to create dioramas and interactive art.

Max Liboiron working on <i>Material Afterlife: Circulation</i>.
"if you can harness trash so it becomes a tool for thought, beauty, emotion, or reflection, then it becomes art."

Max Liboiron working on Material Afterlife: Circulation.

Her dioramas include a three-dimensional "trash map" of East Williamsburg, Brooklyn (pictured above), and interactive works in which visitors can take any item so long as they leave one behind. In the following interview, conducted via email and edited for length and clarity, Liboiron expands on the fine line between trash and art, and the surprising things she learned about how people can value trash.

Gelf Magazine: You describe yourself as a "trash artist." What do you mean by that?

Max Liboiron: "Trash artist" generally refers to any artist whose medium is trash. In my case, trash is not only my physical medium, but also the content of my work.

Gelf Magazine: How did you arrive at the idea of making trash into art?

Max Liboiron: Like many artists, I had pulled interesting looking tid bits from dumpsters throughout my career, especially as an art student, but I didn't become a full fledged trash artist until I did a residency and exhibition in Dawson City in the Yukon. I couldn't afford to ship supplies up there. I'm originally from rural northern Canada, and I know that rural dumps are full of riches and that an equal amount of "dropping and shopping" occurs in them.

So I made a proposal for a show called The Dawson City Trash Project, where I built a miniature model of Dawson City, Canada using its own trash, and people could come and take away the art at any time. The project eroded the waste out of landfills and back into public and domestic spaces. I thought that if people desired the art, wanted it, and took it home, it would "prove" that trash was interesting and valuable. This way I also didn't have to pay for shipping things back to New York City. The show went so well that it became the model for my art practice as a whole.

Gelf Magazine: What separates trash from art? Is all trash art? What, in your estimation, must be done to make trash into art?

Max Liboiron: I think what separates trash from art is the artist, broadly defined. If you see something on the curb, in the trash bag or molding in the crisper and it strikes you as beautiful and you pull it out and give it space to be looked at and contemplated, it's well on its way to becoming art. So all trash is potentially art. Art is really just an interface for contemplation. So if you can harness trash so it becomes a tool for thought, beauty, emotion, or reflection, then it becomes art.
Trash has a lot of potential to be art because it can sneak up on you and do unexpected things. Like the moldy leftovers in the crisper—if you sit down and really look at that mold, it can look like the softest, most celestial painting you've ever seen. It can make you feel barfy, and invite you to reflect on the nature of disgust, or the tension between disgust and beauty.

Gelf Magazine: Much of your work is participatory, and seems to revolve around the idea of participants taking something and either leaving something else, building something with it, or both. What attracts you to this idea? Is it meant to get people to think about their role in waste-creating systems?

Max Liboiron: Initially, I wanted people to take away the trash-art because it would indicate that the trash had value, and I was interested in making a comment about the trash itself. But it turns out people are far more interesting than I anticipated; during the Dawson City Trash Project, people started making their own rules in addition to the guideline that they could take anything at any time. Some of them would only take something if they gave it to someone else as a gift. Some people decided they could only take one thing, and told other people they could only take one thing. Some people took the least interesting and least valuable pieces—like unadorned bottled caps—so that they wouldn't adversely impact the show for future visitors. The best pieces did not get taken first. One guy came from the convenience store next door and starting giving free tours of the piece on his lunch break. He left some of the more aesthetic debris of his lunch in the installation. At the end of the show, twenty people showed up to take objects they had wanted earlier, but didn't want to deprive other people of seeing. In short, I thought people either wouldn't take pieces because they were trash, or they would run the pieces over like it was a sale at Macy's, but instead people were generous, creative and thoughtful. Their participation proved not only that trash could become valuable, but became evidence for an argument against a capitalist human nature based on self-interest.

Gelf Magazine: I see your point, but, just to play devil's advocate here, how exactly does this disprove theories of economic self-interest? Couldn't this be a matter of responses to a particular set of incentives? Perhaps more to the point, how does the behavior of a small group apply to the behavior of masses of people in national economies? I'm not sure it's an apples-to-apples comparison.

Max Liboiron: It's an inductive reasoning argument (ie, you can't say all swans are white the second you see one black swan). I'm not showing that human nature is not sometimes self-maximizing, I am saying that there are concrete instances when this is not the case, and so you cannot say that all human nature is self-maximizing. I'm bringing out the black swan. It doesn't matter whether it is contextual or not; it makes the case for a different tune, and that is the conversation I want to open up. It doesn't have to scale. It just has to make room for a different conversation. Art doesn't do the job of social science, it's about a politics of possibility.

Gelf Magazine: The "about" page on your Discard Studies blog says this: "Attitudes about discards as things and discarding as a practice are informed by deeply held and sometimes contradictory notions of value, worthlessness, disgust, and the boundaries of the self." How are our attitudes towards garbage impacted by these notions? What can we do to change them, and why should we?

Max Liboiron: I would say that our notions of trash impact our waste management system, and our waste management system impacts our notions of trash. So interrupting one on a large scale can interrupt the other. What we know now is that our current, dominant modes of waste management, including planned obsolescence and the export of toxins, industrial recycling programs that create pollution and waste and are sponsored by the beverage and plastics industry so they can continue to externalize the waste management of their disposables, and the permanent nature of plastic discards, just isn't sustainable in terms of environmental, economic, and social justice. Our waste management system, particularly how our waste seems to magically go "away" and how the vast majority of the waste stream isn't visible to us, allows certain attitudes about the separation of self and waste, and the legitimization of a throw away society. A change in some of our cultural beliefs about trash would change waste management, and a radical change in waste management would impact our cultural beliefs about waste. Imagining these changes is the point of trash art.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think it would take for such a change to come about?

Max Liboiron: These changes have happened in the past; the invention of the germ theory changed cultures towards trash and ushered in many disposables, the new cultural belief in government responsibility for the welfare of its citizens brought about the modern sanitation system in the late 19th century. If people had to suddenly be responsible for all their own trash, if trash did not or could not go "away," there would be a sea change both in how we related to waste and how waste management happened. That change might come through legislation, or through crisis.

Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.







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Article by Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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