Curator and writer Veronica Sekules introduces her special essay for our Longer feature, using GroundWork Gallery’s recent exhibition to explore artists’ roles in helping change how we value what we discard, viewing our waste as art and heritage.
1,570 words: estimate reading time = 6 minutes
Longer is the place for works that don’t fit within the normal ‘short reads’ format of our blog. Longer is for essays, fiction or other forms that haven’t appeared online elsewhere and explore in more detail the creative responses to our ecological and climate crisis. With each new Longer piece, the author introduces it here with an original post, where they can reflect on the motivation or inspiration behind the work or the process of creating it.
In my essay, The Art and Heritage of Waste, I hope to counter the prevailing culture of extractivism by looking at how mobilising the creativity of artists can help us to rehabilitate waste as a transformative resource.
From March to July 2023, GroundWork Gallery’s exhibition The Art of Waste] featured the work of eight artists, all of whom were in different ways [bringing creative responses to waste that point to solutions, albeit on a tiny scale.
GroundWork Gallery — which I opened in 2016 — is situated in King’s Lynn, in Norfolk, UK, on the confluence of the River Purfleet with the Great Ouse. It lives in a converted little 1930s warehouse, a building we saved from waste, as the planners and heritage officials at first wanted it demolished “for something more suitable”. The gallery is dedicated to the environment and to the role of art and artists in helping us to rethink aspects of it, and to understand and treat it better, vitally urgent now in our times of crisis. I believe art can carry a powerful message or ‘voice’ to a much wider world than the narrow confines of the conventional art world, if only its audiences respond actively to it and communicate its innovative messages to wider publics, other disciplines and contingent professions. That is how we begin to achieve change — through bursts of inspiration, sudden insights, and above all through widening influence.
Environmentalists hate waste. This is the starting point for all the work I discuss in the essay, as artists hate waste too, and many of them are trying to find creative solutions to the way we think about it and literally view it. However, I’m proposing that we rethink the category of waste to include formally its relationship with art and with heritage, and think about the potential status of waste as both. The re-categorising and the status change involved will play a part in counteracting the extractivism which has contributed so significantly to the effects of climate change.
Artists working with waste for positive impact
Each of the artists in The Art of Waste used waste materials as creative resources, making use of surplus materials, implementing circular economies, being very economical in leaving nothing behind. As well as inventive practical strategies, the artists excelled in changing the status of waste, from that of detritus and ephemera, to be something precious and valued.
Jeremy Butler creates minutely detailed relief-assemblages which involve items that the artist has carefully crammed together to make complex formal architectures that hover somewhere between order and disorder.
Liz Elton makes large-scale draped fabric-like installations using compostable cornstarch, a material used in food waste recycling bags, which she colours with vegetable dyes made from her own kitchen waste, intercepted on its way to compost.
Caroline Hyde Brown makes work mainly in textile and paper, and is part of a bio-based collaborative group who are recreating textiles from Neolithic legumes, such as grass pea and more recently green manure crops such as Buckwheat and lentils.
Lizzie Kimbley works with woven textiles, natural dyes and basketry techniques, using principles of circular design to consider material sustainably in regard to its whole life cycle.
Kai Lossgott is a writer, filmmaker, visual and performance artist, and waste in his work has its own agency and is as much a metaphor as a physical phenomenon.
Eugene Macki is a sculptor whose work makes resourceful use of waste materials, often including food, and can be playful in making the most of the multiple meanings that result.
Jan Eric Visser creates sculptures from his inorganic household garbage, experimenting with new forms new materials, consistent with his own saying: ‘Form Follows Garbage’.
Rain Wu, whose conceptually driven work materialises in different forms and scales, works with waste and perishable materials to instigate discussions around our manifold relationships with nature.
The immediate impact of The Art of Waste was measurable to a degree from the visitor book comments. Responding to the exhibition, many visitors remarked that it was “inspiring, relevant and thought-provoking”. However, it was also “unsettling”, “bringing new perspectives on waste”. Some were moved to more action: “Interesting ideas, we need to reach out to everyone”, “WE NEED TO DO MORE”, “much needed”, “love being eco”, “we waste so much”, “educational and makes us aware of our industry and pollution”, “who knew waste could be so useful – makes you think”, “feels very dystopian”, “compulsory viewing for all politicians and their influencers”. One of the youngest visitors wrote: “Makes you think about waste. Awe inspiring”.
This positive impact was gratifying but just a beginning. It showed to an extent the desire of people to be receptive to new creative ideas and how these can stimulate our societal needs to change. However, beyond the specificity of the timescale and place of the exhibition, there needs to be a whole lot more thinking about how we can mobilise the creativity of artists and these kinds of responses to it. Where does it get us and where can it lead? What does that kind of power enable and what and whom can it both connect with and lead to?
Revaluing waste as heritage
As I explore in the essay, recent thought on waste has proposed various paradigm shifts that involve changes in consumer habits, moving away from a throw-away economy of short-term use and of things ‘becoming useless’, to one of waste as asset creation. Some argue that waste as an entity ought to be entirely avoidable, or even non-existent, providing that materials, foods and resources are used by people with greater economy and efficiency. Within the framework of Discard Studies, the entire concept of waste is open to interrogation from all points of view. In sympathy with that interrogative framework, I suggest that a paradigm shift in the way waste is categorised will help us all to prioritise what and how and why we save the stuff of the earth. Increasingly, students of waste, entrepreneurs repurposing it and artists creating with it are recognising that waste needs to be rehabilitated as a transformative resource, not stuck with the shifting values of random commerce or the vilification applied to detritus.
In setting the framework for further discussion, I hope my essay raises in outline some of the issues in the definition of heritage and of the potential for waste as heritage. It touches on some of the enormous complexities of the subject of waste, such as how and where is waste accumulated and what are the problems of distribution. I touch on the subject of who the various categories of ‘we’ are who are creating the problems. Then, taking a lead from a series of artists’ projects, I take a look at two specific contentious waste subjects in more detail: landfill sites and plastics, and how they might be faced afresh. The ways these subjects have been tackled by artists, writers and archaeologists hold the key to the category shifts we need, from dumps and surpluses to treasure, from waste and trash to art and heritage.
The innovative ways in which artists are using waste materials can lead the way to a shift in values, potentially turning what is currently a burden into a heritage asset. Categories of definition matter and both art and heritage are relevant. Waste’s role as heritage, specifically, needs to be brought into focus more, in order that we give greater value and the right kind of longevity to all the earth’s material and how we are using it. Shifting values affect attitudes. Applied at scale, that is one way the idea of waste as bulk mess and detritus can end. Instead, if surpluses, leftovers and spent materials are sorted not only by reuse potential, but as categories of art and heritage, this re-categorising can turn a negative into a positive asset and environmental benefits and economic consequences can follow.
Find out more
Veronica’s full essay, The Art and Heritage of Waste, is the third piece in our Longer feature, where members share original works, or ones that haven’t appeared online elsewhere, and which don’t fit easily into the regular ClimateCultures blog; Longer provides space to explore in more detail creative and critical responses to our ecological and climate crisis.
GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, UK, is dedicated to art and environment. It shows the work of contemporary artists who care about how we see the world. Exhibitions and creative programmes explore how art can enable us to respond to the changing environment and imagine how we can shape its future. The Art of Waste ran from 18th March to 15th July 2023.