Monday, June 8, 2009



The title of this symposium is “Craft Plus” exploring the making of craft in this the 21st Century.I have chosen to address this theme by discussing the craft of making recycled art from materials from the global scrapheap, & how this practice may enable us to find redemption from our sinfully wasteful habits as consumers, & perhaps enable us to reclaim a Paradise Lost.
Our subject matter this afternoon is junk, trash, refuse, litter, it what you will - ladies & gentlemen we are talking rubbish here.

So, for the next few minutes we will look at junk art, trash art, recycling, upcycling, trashion, bricolage, & assemblage..while bearing in mind aspects of collage, montage, & frottage - all of these amount to the same thing - the making of functional objects & artworks from rubbish - that same rubbish which only yesterday was satisfying our needs & perhaps even satiating our desires.

Today in the West, we live in an culture where social standing & personal status are defined not only by our purchasing power & brand choices [Think - Coke or Pepsi? Microsoft or Apple?], but by what we think we can afford to throw away. Our identity can largely be defined by what we toss into the garbage can.
Conspicuous consumption has led to what I term “conspicuous regurgitation” - & indeed much of our physical & cultural landscape resembles a gigantic vomitorium.
In the book “To Have or to Be” Erich Fromm talks of consumerism being possession: “I am what I have & what I consume” or “my property constitutes my identity”. He says that if having is the basis of my identity because “I am what I have”, the wish to have must therefore lead to the desire to have much, to have more, to have most (we’re talking greed here) - & by extension: to waste much, to waste more, & worst of all, to waste most.
I am here reminded of a bumper sticker I saw in the good old US of A - “Whoever has the most toys when they die - wins!”.

The phenomenal productive capacity of hundreds of thousands of factories around the world is matched, perhaps even surpassed, by our driving desire to consume. to purchase.. possess, use, display...and, all too soon, to discard...& then once again purchase the latest something - iPod, 3G phone, or whatever.
In this process of production, consumption, & disposal, the raw materials of our world are wrenched from the earth, below plumes of diesel & carbon monoxide; & amidst rivers of mercury & cyanide: it can be seen that our mountains of trash represent the systematic robbery & waste of our earth’s resources.
Consider, for example, the mobile phone - 250 of these suckers are traded in, or otherwise disposed of, every hour in New Zealand alone...that’s a stack 7 metres high.
These small, increasingly indispensable, & sadly, disposable, items contain rare metals which are the seeds of wars in Africa, & the mining process is contributing as we speak to severe environmental degradation, & the extinction of species.
Briefly, another sad statistic, which I read in a Time magazine, is that 500 million computers will become obsolete & mainly end up in landfill - by the year 2007.
Considering this, it may truly be said that trash is the tragic face of consumerism.
To paraphrase John Woolman, the Quaker who spoke out against war in the late 19thCentury:
“We who are against waste - may we look upon our treasures & the furniture of our houses, & the garments in which we array ourselves, & try whether the seed of waste have any nourishment in these, our possessions.”
I will not horrify or bore you with further statistics & figures: “the math of trash”, as I term it, because it is all too familiar to us - graphic images of the number of olympic swimming pools filling with disposable nappies every second have become part of our everyday life.

So, it is clear that we are all part of this wasteful process. Each of us needs to accept personal responsibility for all this consumption & all this trash.
It is our problem, & I would suggest that much of the problem stems from the fact that we cannot differentiate very well between our needs & our wants.

Suffice it to say, what is needed is a paradigm shift in our thinking towards consumerism, waste, & trash - we need [as they say] to boldly go where none have gone before, as we do not have the option of being beamed up & out of this whole mess.
Staying briefly with the space theme, if we look at a much broader picture - no matter how technology-based our lives become, we still live in the natural world - a world in which ultimately there is no waste: where everything is created, exists for a time, & eventually reduces back to its components of minerals & atoms.
In fact, on one level, the entire universe can be regarded as one vast cosmic recycling system, & the astronomer’s much vaunted “big bang” being nought but the beginning of another cycle.
Several of the major world religions speak of continual cycles of creation, existence, & destruction of the entire cosmos. In the Hindu canon particularly are some wonderful stories of this process, & the cosmic dramas enacted & re-enacted for eternity by the Hindu trinity & Ultimate godhead.

Now, back to the microcosm of everyday reality; & as we look around us, we can plainly see that we exist, not in harmony with Nature’s cycles, in Eden or Paradise, but rather in the rubble & devastation of our own progress. We are part of a culture where old-fashioned values such as honesty, respect, & care for the natural world have given way to a new ethic of excess & material gratification.
Indeed, it may be argued that we have been seduced by the products of proliferating technology & dazzled by the empty promises of an endlessly consumable world.
Here we can imagine Chicken Licken: & shriek “Doom is upon us!! - the sky’s falling!!!!”

However, & here we get to actual point of this talk - I suggest that there may be another way to view this situation.. We can observe in our own lives that often it takes a crisis to precipitate change. Revolutions occur when oppressive regimes continue too long, or go too far.
So here & now, with the crisis of climate change upon us, & surrounded by the rubble & devastation of our much-vaunted “progress”, we may actually be looking Change, & therefore Opportunity, right in the face.
Interestingly enough, the Chinese words for “chaos” & “opportunity” are exactly the same; & study of the I Ching teaches us that our actions is far more likely to succeed when the situation we face is changing & therefore flexible.
Here in the early 21st Century we live on the very cusp of change - Modernity which served the 20th Century so badly is dead: its false promises of technology & that lots of “stuff” would make us happy, never materialized, & unfortunately the lies & wars in support of these promises continue to haunt us.
What is termed “postmodernism” has now been with us for several decades. However, although the failings & deceptions of Modernism have repeatedly been exposed by Post Modern Theory [or aptly PMT for short], no real answers or alternatives have been put forward by all the King’s men ie: the armies of economists, social workers, politicians, planners & those highly-paid consultants who seem to feature at every turn.
In spite of these failings, however, certain people, [read artists], among us HAVE been suggesting original answers for some time to the endemic planetary problems of excessive consumerism & waste.
Through their work these pioneers have seized seized the opportunity I mentioned, to demonstrate that the value & meaning of things can be rearranged to reveal solutions in the way of new possibilities, new objects, new configurations, & new realities.
I am speaking here of the recycled artist - the bricoleur -
in whose hands the process of salvaging & reworking the fragmented & dislocated remnants of industry & technology becomes a metaphor for the renewal of society & global culture. In the process of seeing what others have missed & by using the detritus, discards, & leavings of society as raw materials, the identity & intended purpose of these same materials are reconceived & transformed into new realities, demonstrating that it is possible to not only salvage & recycle trash into functional or art objects, but that we all may similarly fashion new visions of our world from its leavings, & in the process transform not only objects, but meanings, & indeed create entirely new paradigms.
By decontextualizing & recontextualizing meanings & associations, cultural values & acceptances, the very substance, perception, or notion, of trash itself can be altered to challenge & disrupt the agreed-upon premises of the everyday world - ie “big is good” “more is better”.

The workshop of the recycled artist is a chaos of remnants. By the art of craft these remnants are reconfigured, reconnected, reassembled, refashioned, reorganised, & eventually re-presented in new orders, new relationships, & as new viewpoints, & new ways of being in the world.
The artworks produced in this manner are examples of seeing & utilizing what others have missed, & seizing the opportunity for change, & suggesting new possibilities.
By taking the lead suggested by recycled artists, we ourselves can adopt a different viewpoint to consumerism, & thereby gain the opportunity to develop creative strategies in our own approaches to the culture of consumption & waste.
So, instead of feeling guilt for our hitherto wasteful practices, (& accusing contemporary culture of social & moral decline); we may instead, be able to see our present obsessions with consumption as part of a wider evolving cultural process. A process which involves an exquisite tension - because this evolution not only poses new problems & dilemmas, but also within itself contains seeds of change, for by introducing new ways of experiencing & imagining our world & ourselves - solutions can be found amongst the problems.

So at this particular point in time in human history, although the whole environmental dilemma may seem overwhelming; we in fact have tremendous possibilities before us, if we will take the opportunity to see things in a positive light.
On one hand whilst we are being forced, by ecological necessity, to reconsider not only the way we use & value things, but the way in which we view ourselves & each other as well, we are also being given the chance to renegotiate our material, social, & conceptual worlds.
So that we have the chance to pause, & to ask:
“Where is it that we are going with all this, & what is it that can we become?”
And in answer to these, THE questions of the 21st Century,
recycled art presents new visions of what our world may indeed become.
As the practice & craft of recycling become both social responsibilities & ways of being in the world, we can begin to understand the seemingly disconnected fragments of our experience, & then begin to renegotiate our way back to some form of harmony with the natural world - perhaps even becoming co-creators of new Edens.

And so, finally: if even Barbie, that archetypal consumer & airhead, can find the Buddha within herself - then I would suggest that there is indeed hope for us all: for, surely, we can find creative solutions within OUR selves & our communities to our dilemmas.
So that, if we change our ways sufficiently, our children will not live in virtual worlds, but in a veritable Paradise.
A Paradise indeed regained .

Martin Adlington
Prof. Garbology
Browns Bay