Veronica Sekules: The Art and Heritage of Waste

In this original essay for ClimateCultures, art curator and writer Veronica Sekules draws on work at her GroundWork Gallery to counter prevailing cultures of extractivism and look at how mobilising creativity can help us rehabilitate waste as a transformative resource in ways that could ultimately mean ‘waste’ no longer makes sense as a category at all.

Veronica is an art curator, educator and writer with a background in the environmental movement, and is Director of GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn, England, which she created in 2016 to showcase art and to campaign for the environment. GroundWork Gallery has hosted over 20 exhibitions and won several awards. Her essay on The Art and Heritage of Waste is the third in our Longer feature, where ClimateCultures members share original works, or ones that haven’t appeared online elsewhere, and which don’t fit easily into the regular blog; Longer provides space to explore in more detail creative and critical responses to our ecological and climate crisis.

You can read Veronica’s introductory post for this essay on our blog, Starting to See Waste as Art and Heritage, and her earlier post A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #6, part of our series exploring this planetary age through selected objects.

Waste as art and heritage

I am writing this article — more a series of musings — following on from an exhibition I held at GroundWork Gallery in March and July 2023 called The Art of Waste. The exhibition featured the work of eight artists, all of whom were in different ways also musing on the subject of waste, but bringing creative responses and to some extent solutions, albeit on a tiny scale, into their practice.

GroundWork Gallery is situated in King’s Lynn, 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 am discussing, 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, this article proposes that we rethink the category of waste to include formally, not just its relationship with art but with heritage, and about the potential status of waste as both. The re-categorising and the status change involved will play its part in counteracting the extractivism which has contributed so significantly to the effects of climate change.

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. Just a couple of examples outline the resources and methods the artists used.

Jeremy Butler made his bird’s eye view reliefs of landfill sites and waste skips with such a meticulous and tender attention to detail, with an edge of humour, they get us absolutely primed for rethinking their value as being beyond repositories for unpleasantly smelling trash, more as potential havens for treasure. Liz Elton’s huge billowing hangings made from draped bioplastic food packaging, dyed and painted with waste food and earth pigment, redefine what a majestic wall tapestry can be. On a much smaller scale Lizzie Kimbley, a proponent of a circular economy for her art, uses only waste thread and cloth, tiny stitches, exact measurements, to create new textiles which have absolute precision, in contrast with the expectation that waste cloth otherwise might conjure up.

The Art and Heritage of Waste: showing the ground floor back gallery during the exhibition, including Liz Elton's GroundWork 1
The Art of Waste, ground floor back gallery, including Liz Elton’s GroundWork 1 © 2023
Liz Elton – detail, GroundWork 1 © 2023

See the Appendix for further brief details about the artists in the exhibition.

Recent publications about waste have been proposing various paradigm shifts that involve a change 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.1 Some would 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, including the wider societal and economic implications of the way it is handled to critical analysis of normative values that have created and interpreted it in the first place.2 In sympathy with that interrogative framework, I would add 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 with stuck with the shifting values of random commerce or the vilification applied to detritus.

In setting the framework for further discussion, this article 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.

Heritage potential and categories of waste

There is a huge literature on the subject of discarded items and waste, and a certain amount about connections with heritage. However, there is, as ever, room for more thinking about the relationship with art — and indeed with both the art and the heritage of waste.

A fundamental precursor to this discussion needs to be a greater definition of what waste is, how it is categorised, and whether it even exists. Left to its own devices, nature does not create waste, it is a human phenomenon. Caused by what? By greed, by bad planning of resource use, through sloppy handling of materials, by speculative production of surpluses, through short-term profiteering. Too much stuff is produced and then thrown away in useless ways, either in places where it piles up causing pollution, or where it rots or exists in some form forever. These places and processes are often hidden out of sight. To think critically about these operations leads us to question the politics of waste. That is essentially what the artists were doing. But there are other critical approaches which can be brought to bear. Having recently attended a conference at the University of East Anglia about heritage and threats to it from climate change, I have begun musing about whether there might be potential for connecting the ideas further between heritage, art, climate change and waste.3 For one thing, what is the evidence for there being a heritage of waste — and if so what are the implications in terms of thinking about threats from climate change?

Firstly, the art of waste and the heritage of waste have immediately quite different connotations. ‘The art of’ implies creative input, or at least, creative imagining. Art equates with skill and, as such, the art of waste can exist as a category with potential, capable of manipulation or reconfiguring. It is an agent ready to be transformed. ‘The heritage of’ waste implies a static legacy, an entity to be dealt with. Heritage, as Lowenthal described it more than 30 years ago, can also be creatively invented and fictionalised, but even as such it relies on being dependable, a creator of legacy.4

The term ‘heritage’ literally means ‘an inheritance’ and can be broadly defined as traditions, practices, buildings and sites which have come down to us from the past. Whether tangible or intangible, it has come to be associated, stereotypically, with national interests and responsibilities for historic legacies. The concept of ‘heritage’ can still carry an air of worthiness and tradition. Whereas the art world (especially at the ‘blue-chip’ end) is tainted with accusations of commercialisation and elitism, heritage carries other legacies, more to do with class distinctions and privilege applying to the heritage of great estates, and top-down decisions about value and categorisation within a history of colonialism and empire.

Different traditions of heritage and options for ways of organising heritage now, were considered at the UEA conference, heritage being a large and flexible category: potentially everything that is left to us. And, as Lowenthal contends again, heritage needs constantly to acquire new relevance and to be re-animated to remain relevant for each age.5 This has been a major thrust of Holtdorf and Hogberg’s recent edited collection Cultural Heritage and the Future, where a number of studies argue the case for continuing reappraisal of heritage in order to maintain its alignment with changing environmental conditions and cultural contexts, among many other factors.6 The same applies to waste. It needs constant reappraisal. Fundamental to any thinking in this area has to be Michael Thompson’s concept of Rubbish Theory, according to which categories of things and their values are not fixed but fluid. So today’s treasure can become tomorrow’s waste, only to be eventually retrieved once again as something of value.7 At the other end of this spectrum is the increasingly efficient use of resources so that waste no longer exists. Rowland Keable, who runs earth-building organisation Ebukigram, maintains that there is no such thing as waste, as every resource can be reusable.8 This is a story told through this article, and in a way repeatedly through the stories of both art and heritage, and one to which I shall return at the end.

Waste dumps

Waste has its own problems with categorising and stereotyping, let alone bad practice. At one level, waste could be considered broadly, like heritage, as something left behind, but the big difference is that it is not considered desirable, and can, as in the case of chemically hazardous wastes, leave a legacy of positive danger. One of the leading authorities on the heritage of waste, Marcus Buser, said in an interview in 2014: “I am convinced that all waste, as an anthropogenic product, should also be regarded as a form of cultural heritage. Toxic waste is special insofar as it primarily carries negative traits and in fact, represents a burdensome heritage. This is an onerous legacy of the industrial age, which is clearly in contrast to the great cultural achievements of humankind we are proud to extol, yet like any other heritage, it reflects human behaviour and cultural activities.”9

Waste, as effluent for example, as human waste, as sewage, is commonly reviled and despised. It is also most commonly mistreated and dangerous. Following the Art of Waste exhibition, we have had an artist in residency programme based at GroundWork, on the subject of The Ground Beneath Our Feet. One of the artists, Kelly Hill, has been exploring the terrain from King’s Lynn to West Lynn, along the Peter Scott Heritage Walk. Near the town, but far enough along to be well into the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, she noticed a dreadful smell. It turns out that it emanated from a ‘water treatment’ plant managed by Anglian Water, the smell being caused by bad processing practice for waste water sent to the plant from local dwellings. This polluting water flow has been repeatedly reported to the Environment Agency, who are, as most people seem to agree, so overwhelmed and understaffed they become powerless. Consequently we have a blatant example of heritage polluted by waste. As Kelly pointed out, “It is ironic that the Peter Scott Walk — dedicated to this ornithologist and conservationist for his contribution to saving some of the world’s rarest birds from extinction — should be tainted in this way.”

If this kind of waste is treated at least as making a contribution to cultural heritage, perhaps there would be a more powerful consortium of interests ready to control it properly. Recategorising the context for such kinds of waste disposal as being part of a river ecology would also perversely contribute to undermining the prevailing power structures, in line with Max Liboiron’s theory that waste is not matter out of place. By continuing to regard such waste as an alien substance, we are accepting the power relations we are aiming to argue against.10

Waste is defined culturally. It means something different to the rich and the poor, and in different subject areas and materials. The way waste is defined can govern attitudes to whether or not it is taken seriously as a resource. The idea of ‘food waste’, for example, is more dismissive and negative than ‘surplus’, or ‘left-overs’, and glosses over the fact that it is often the overproduction which is the most wasteful aspect. People as individuals, or within certain communities, might be readily aware of the need to avoid waste, to dispose of little and to recycle carefully, but it is nevertheless a subject which is culturally significant, culturally specific, and thus fraught with problems. For some time now, Western countries have exported waste for processing elsewhere, further East, or in the Global South. According to World Bank statistics, 2 billion tons of municipal solid waste are collected globally, and at the present rate, likely to be rising to 3.4 billion tons by 2050. Overall, approximately a third of this waste is not managed in an environmentally safe manner and 5% of carbon emissions globally are derived from solid waste treatment and disposal. However, the generation of waste is not equal throughout the world, being almost double the rate per capita in poor income countries than in wealthier ones. Poor countries are much more likely to dispose of waste in open, unprotected sites: about 31% overall is openly dumped, 37% in landfill. Richer countries, depending on their local economy, dump less than 2% openly and consign just over a third to half their waste in landfill, for which there can be approximately 8% landfill gas collection.11

So what accounts for the differences in practice between richer and poorer countries, for it is surely counter-intuitive to learn that countries with scarcer resources are more wasteful? Reasons might be complex and varied. Possibly over-supply of stuff, or of the wrong kind of stuff might be involved; it could be lack of suitable storage or means of preservation, or inadequate training or knowledge, but the most widely quoted reason is that it is largely due to lack of infrastructure for collecting it. Poor countries collect only half their waste in cities and only a quarter in rural areas. However, we do also know that while richer countries are wasting less per capita, some of the statistics are hiding the fact that their waste is exported to poorer countries. The UK exports around 60% of its plastic waste, the bulk of which goes to Turkey, where it gets incinerated, causing considerable pollution.12 A lot of waste from the rich world of the West is exported under official government contracts, but there is also a lucrative criminal trade; waste exported illegally by criminal gangs to Asia, Eastern Europe or West Africa where legislation about hazardous content is less strict. This is worth some $12 billion (US) a year and is largely driven via companies who want to avoid the costs involved in complying with environmental regulations, or investing in legitimate waste treatment and technology.

This is a brief summary of an enormously complex problem, the scale of which, looking at these figures and seeing pictures of vast accumulated waste dumps, seems overwhelming. But as with all seemingly intractable issues, picking it apart bit by bit and analysing each aspect is what is likely to lead to eventual solutions. The World Bank itself concluded that the costs of proper and safe management of waste are going to be much lower than those arising currently from health and environment problems caused by dumping and incinerating. Their overall message is that we need all levels of society to act now to reduce waste and manage it properly. That means individuals, communities, villages, towns, cities, governments and corporations, local, regional, national and international. They are playing a part in funding management operations and training schemes in developing countries. The Basel Institute on Governance, investigating waste crime, reckons that tracking the money involved in that relatively poorly monitored practice will eventually reveal the culprits, and ultimately eradicate it.13

Category shifts and heritage transformation

Artists can and do play a significant role in helping us to change attitudes and the works I shall mention from now on are all signalling the changes in the understanding of waste and the practices of waste management we need to make in wider society. Modern landfill, in the UK at any rate, is a carefully managed system now, ideally, with waste sorted into lined cells and finally capped off and planted up with trees. Henry/Bragg’s film The Surrey Hills, shown at GroundWork in 2018 refers to a landfill site being covered over by man and machine. It is an ironic tribute to the creation of a countryside landscape by Nigel in his digger, with him commenting on the pride he takes in his work of its reshaping.14 That project in its way began to consider some of the heritage implications, even though in doing so, the land had to be returned to an acceptable aesthetic, hiding the evidence of the waste that had created it.

Art and Heritage of Waste: showing a Still from the Henry/Bragg film, The Surrey Hills: a film about a landfill site incongruously situated in the Surrey Hills
Still from Henry/Bragg film, The Surrey Hills: a film about a landfill site incongruously situated in the Surrey Hills. © 2012

Taking a long view of waste and looking at its deeper past, the germ of the idea that waste is a collection of positive resources has always been with us. Hoards or dumps of trash, or middens, have been treasure troves for archaeologists for as long as there has been a practice of digging up the past. They carry much information, telling us about diet: what people ate and didn’t eat, what they threw away, of course, and what they valued. From the Mesolithic era on the west coast of Scotland, the positions of middens carry almost the only information we have about how and where people migrated and what was the scale of human settlements. The sizes of various fish bones and shells tell not only about diet but the seasons at which the fish were consumed. From a different era, a midden found in Stirling in 2009 revealed a lot about its medieval history, trade and industry from finds as diverse as animal bones, leather, wood and industrial waste.15 Some of the most interesting studies are from North America, where middens can tell quite a rich story about prehistoric cultures and behaviours from pottery, pans, tools, bones and fuels like charcoal. These reveal information not only about diet, but social ranking, ritual, societal organisation and environment, varying depending on whether they relate to an individual household, a neighbourhood, or a specific event like a feast. Ethno-archaeologist Ian McNiven found that Torres Islanders in the Pacific kept separate midden areas during feast times, to use as reference points for telling stories about previous occasions.16 This is a clear example of heritage-transformation — a dump from the past becoming a means for a culture to re-imagine its past, to become part of its interpretation of the present and future.

Current landfill sites can also be described as modern middens, where scavengers go to dig around for recyclable goods. In the more affluent West, especially, the older sites are increasingly attracting metal detectorists and other foragers. YouTube abounds in films by bloggers recording their ‘cool finds’ from landfill. Keele University joined the search, recently conducting research at a capped-off 1980s municipal site in the Midlands. Specifically, they were looking for e-waste and the potential for its mineral content to be reused in the growing alternative technology industries.17 While they found some recyclable metals and glass, they suggested that more modern landfills, full of mobile phones and computers, might be more fruitful sources for retrieving precious metals. Waste-dump mining for this purpose is already happening in Belgium and perhaps this signals the growing realisation that e-waste especially has an increasing value. Currently, vast amounts are exported and, as investigative journalist Oliver Franklin Wallis has been discovering, are not dumped but sold on, either to vast recycling factories in the US or to much less well regulated, not to say hazardous, repair and restoration enterprises, such as those run by small companies and individual entrepreneurs in Accra in Ghana. Here, albeit in a terrible, unsafe, polluted environment we have a glimmer of a circular economy, some of the value of waste being realised in order to provide a meagre living. Proving Michael Thompson’s Rubbish Theory precept of the en-valuing of former trash, these enterprises demonstrate the kind of resourcefulness and resilience we need to repurpose waste materials and technologies. Nevertheless they are vulnerable to being shut down, not only because of Government regulation, as Franklin-Wallis found had happened in Agbobbloshie, Ghana in 2021, but from globally powerful companies in whose interests it is to keep the value of their goods high and to keep customers buying new stuff rather than repairing the old.18

South African artist Mpumelelo Buthelezi, who applied to the GroundWork artist in residence programme in 2023, has made a photo-documentation study of waste-pickers in South African cities, especially in the Dryhook area near Devland in Soweto. He quotes a figure of 85,000 people in total who are making a living sorting materials from waste dumps and thus doing an important job of urban recycling. Having met and talked to one or two he became driven to record their way of life. As he says: “I had a duty, then, to document the waste pickers’ daily journey and communicate their stories about how they make a living through this work that is more important than it looks. Waste pickers collect recyclable material around the city – scrap metal, plastic bottles, paper, cardboard… They sort and organise the collected material and resell what they have collected to recycling companies. Typically, they receive R3.20 for each kilogram of plastic and R2 per kilogram of cardboard, making somewhere between R40 and R60 a day. Through their recycling methods these individuals are earning a living while also contributing towards environmental sustainability.” In documenting the practice with his remarkable photographs, Buthelezi is contributing to the en-valuing of the whole waste life-cycle, highlighting how it operates economically at a number of levels.

Like the mudlarks who comb the banks of the Thames and other big rivers for fragments and shards of historic artefacts, there is not only potential value there but a clear movement towards such areas being classed as heritage. Experienced mudlark, Lara Maiklem has taken it upon herself to advise others, especially newcomers, about best practice in order to “protect our valuable heritage”. Mudlarks along the Thames foreshores have to obtain permits from the Port of London Authority. They can take and keep items they find, but must not dig at all unless they have a specialist permit, which are increasingly hard to get as more and more people are attracted to combing the shores for interesting finds. Lara urges people to turn in anything important to the museum and advises against trading in history. However, an alternative strategy taken by some artists is to turn the finds to creative purpose, giving them a further layer of heritage kudos. Long-term mudlark and GroundWork Galley exhibitor, Robert Cooper has made a creative career for over 30 years by assembling broken fragments of found pottery from the Thames foreshore into quirky and original reliefs and candlesticks, with considerable cachet in the contemporary art world, both in the UK and in Japan.

A paradigm shift for plastic

Even in a relatively utopian state of improved management and gradual waste reduction, we are nevertheless at the moment facing a future with the volumes of waste increasing by 69% in 30 years. That is one of the things that has led geologists to define our age as the Anthropocene, the age during which we are laying down a geological layer comprised primarily of waste generated by humans. Waste consisting of plastics, metals and, as Professor Colin Waters of the British Geological Survey and one of the originating team for the concept, pointed out in 2018 during a lecture for GroundWork Gallery, vast volumes of enlarged chicken bones. Indeed, according to research at the University of Alberta, chickens now are four times the size they were in the 1950s.19 And on average 70 billion chickens are eaten globally each year. Colin also mentioned in passing that the Anthropocene layer, apart from obvious enormous volumes of metals from cars and household appliances, also will include significant deposits of tungsten carbide, a rare mineral exclusively used in the tips of ballpoint pens. Maybe its use was once thought to be innovative and appropriate, but in the more recent realisations of scarcity of resources, it just seems, well, wasteful. But by far the largest Anthropocene component will be plastics, even if all the good government intentions for control and reduction are fulfilled. All of these are indications not just of the scale of waste disposal, but of human overconsumption, and exploitative extraction.

While the concept of the Anthropocene has taken hold extremely widely among scientists and artists, and many have wholeheartedly assumed it is the paramount discourse for summing up our age, it has not been universally met with agreement. Notably, Donna Haraway in one chapter of her acclaimed book Staying with the Trouble questions it on the grounds of it being a negative and technocratic reading of our age and one which neglects to take account of the role of nature.20 Haraway maintains that the Anthropocene and its close cousin, the Capitolocene, focuses on human-induced greed-fuelled causes of the troubles — acidification, over-heating, pollution, extraction — rather than acknowledging the deep growth and interspecies collaboration represented by the interactions of biological forces in earth and water. Drawing from such sources as biological knowledge, classical mythology, indigenous cultures and environmentalism, Haraway maintains that human futures can draw from a deeper past than the pile-up of mechanistic waste we have created, and one which has understood, created whole cultures around, and depended on a multi-species interaction in symbiosis. Her conclusion recommends what amounts to a paradigm shift in the way we categorise and therefore interpret the current state and future fate of our earth. The Anthropocene implies a negative conclusion, ’game-over’ for a world in crisis, whereas her more holistic reading of nature and geology in harmony gives more hope of a potential for rebalancing and adaptation.

The wastage of plastic is a tricky and controversial subject, especially following it being given such enhanced publicity in 2001 in Sir David Attenborough’s commentary for BBC’s The Blue Planet series of films.21 While the sea has been revealed as bearing the brunt of the problem, plastic washed up on the seashore has provided a rich field for artistic practice linked to environmental activism. It has also provided a challenge for invention. There are now several examples of plastic bottle islands, where inventors have made viable homes built on floating rafts containing thousands of plastic bottles.22 Artistic practice has aimed not only at raising awareness of the problems of plastic disposal, but at rehabilitating the value of plastic as a precious material worthy of greater respect. Suffolk-based artist Fran Crowe was probably among the first artists systematically to collect bits of plastic from the beaches around Southwold and Aldeburgh, which she began in 2007. More than just bits, she aimed to assemble a collection that represented the vast 40,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile of ocean. She did this long before Blue Planet alerted the wider world to the plastic problem we face globally. Over a series of exhibitions and activism she turned her collection into heritage, not only with exhibitions and quasi-museum projects, but by offering beautiful little packaged plastics as beach souvenirs for sale, by sorting the plastics into shapes and colours to make stunning installations in heritage venues.23

A number of people have gone further in rethinking the place of plastic, and indeed the need to embrace it differently in our lives. Lisa Doeland describes it as a kind of monster we have created and the danger lies not in our monstrous entanglement with it, but in our denial of it. Lack of care is the problem. She asks if, bearing in mind the implications for the literal and philosophical contamination of our world, we can cohabit with waste, embracing it as part of our entire habitat.24 Maori artist George Nuku takes a similar line to this, stating that our engtanglement with plastic is inevitable and unavoidable and our problems have stemmed from lack of proper care. He has been taking the theme of plastics to an extreme level. Since 2015, when he made his first Bottled Ocean for COP21 in Paris, followed by many other installations around the world, he has advocated for plastic to be taken seriously as a precious resource, not as throwaway trash.25 He has always used plexiglass and polystyrene as modelling and building materials for his contemporary installations in museums of Maori ceremonial meeting houses: Marae and canoes and other ritual artefacts reimagined. In 2022 he made the grandest and largest ever personal Maori heritage installation in 12 rooms at the Weltmuseum in Vienna, for part of it using thousands of plastic bottles to create translucent, shining visions of underwater life.26 Large communities help him to make these works, but also he aims to transform attitudes, saying not only that plastic is precious but that we ought to regard it as a sacred material. Ultimately it comes from the earth and now it is everywhere and in us too, we need to revere rather than revile it. Speaking in relation to his latest Bottled Ocean at the National Museum, Edinburgh, 2023, he says:

“But, in fact, when you think about how it is made, from material created during the Earth’s ancient processes, that simple plastic bottle is in a way one of the oldest things around. And if you think about it that way, like an ancestor, then maybe you can start to think about treating it with respect instead of throwing it in the ocean. With the help of hundreds of local people, we’ve taken a pile of trash and made something beautiful.”27

Nuku says that environmentalists have shouted at him about his love for plastic in our current era, which increasingly argues for banning plastics altogether. But actually, he is making a contribution to a shift in attitudes to help us to see beauty in what we have regarded as expendable and cheap.

Art and Heritage of Waste: showing Jeremy Butler's Landskip 1 at GroundWork Gallery in 2023
Jeremy Butler’s Landskip 1 at GroundWork Gallery © 2023

In relation to mass accumulations of waste, artists are recording and presenting a number of options for interpretation, ranging from Nigel’s re-landscaping and returning to nature, as seen in the work of Henry/Bragg, to Buthelezi’s waste-picking from open sites. It is not a huge leap between middens, landfill sites and plastic oceans to re-consider waste, collected, identified and interpreted, potentially as heritage. Jeremy Butler’s little sculpture of a waste skip surmounted by a rainbow and surveillance cameras, Landskip, Garden of Eden, shown in The Art of Waste, ironically sums up the dual positive-negative connotations: It is a little joke, yet, presents an almost perfect vision of a waste collection elevated as heritage. Few people would disagree about middens, they are safely historic, and any pollution they might once have emitted has long gone and in some instances, such as 3000-year-old shell deposits in Chesapeake Bay, have actually turned into soil improvement agents.28

Waste as both art and heritage

The question is, to what extent does waste have to be a positive asset to be truly recognised as heritage? Does a contemporary landfill site still emitting gas and leachate qualify? A related point was made by Holtdorf and Hoegburg, crucially in the case of dangerous heritages like nuclear waste. It is, whether we like it or not, an inheritance of value and one which needs continued care, for it leaves an interminable legacy. Aiming at some kind of paradigm shift is what we need in regard to waste, in order to turn it from a negative to a positive asset. To reiterate “Waste is not matter out of place”.29 However, is waste a dying thing which we bury, or a living resource, capable of regeneration? Either way, as South African artist and poet Kai Lossgott has said in his masterful little book, Aftermath, it cannot just disappear.30

Art and Heritage of Waste: the cover of Kai Lossgott's book, Aftermath, part of the GroundWork Gallery exhibition in 2023

Is there a deep regenerative desire among humans that applies to material culture — things must survive? In discussing the cultural significance of disintegration, geographer Caitlin DeSilvey found the concept of entropy a useful one — a state of gradual decline and random disorder – which she applied in her book Curated Decay to perceptions of the heritage of former industrial sites.31 With great subtlety, she describes many instances of the ways in which nature colonises and transforms former industrial sites and imbues them with a new poignance and power as they become something else transformed for a new purpose, which is often as yet undefined, or full of potential. Often, as the title of her book implies, DeSilvey’s subjects exist as fragmented monuments to a past era of greater industrial grandeur and utility. Their purpose as heritage varies and sits somewhere between nostalgia and museum, as passive recipients of homage and occasional sites for creative activity. While waste does not specifically enter into this discussion, residue does, and the whole question of perceptions of decay is crucial, as is the whole balance between human-made detritus and reclamation by nature and how that sits as heritage. ‘Heritage beyond saving’ is her subtitle — we cannot allow this to apply to waste. Looking in detail as she does, in a way nature itself, with its colonising and transformative power, is showing us one of the approaches we need to adopt in order to value waste as part of heritage. There is no waste in nature.

Colonising by nature, albeit a practice commonly applied to defunct landfill sites, is not, however, where I propose we rest with the art and heritage of waste. Instead we need a more radical category shift, which gives access to a realisation of new resource value and which ultimately means waste no longer makes sense as a category at all. As Dutch artist Jan Eric Visser, who makes sculptures entirely from his household inorganic waste, says: “Waste is the new gold”.32 He looks forward to a time when all material values and properties are maximised to the extent that waste no longer exists. Each category of material would thus need an assigned value and be used to the maximum, creating no surplus. Perhaps the world is some way off this state of being, but there is another way. Waste needs to be rehabilitated as a transformative resource, not stuck with the shifting values of random commerce or the vilification applied to detritus, but with the potential for longevity and status change as art and heritage. Categories matter. Such a shift in attitudes potentially turns what is currently a burden into an asset. That is the way waste can end. It is only then that it will play its part as a positive resource in counteracting the extractivism which has contributed so significantly to the effects of climate change.

Appendix – Brief details about the artists in GroundWork Gallery’s Art of Waste exhibition, 2023.

Jeremy Butler makes minutely detailed relief-assemblages within which are concentrated a mass of saved tiny trash. Hovering somewhere between order and disorder, at face value they are collections of all kinds of grid-like, jagged, irregular shaped items that the artist has carefully crammed together, to make complex formal architectures.

Liz Elton makes large-scale draped fabric-like installations using compostable cornstarch as a ground. This is a material in every-day use for food waste recycling bags. She colours it with vegetable dyes which she makes from her own kitchen waste, intercepted on its way to compost.

Caroline Hyde Brown makes work mainly in textile and paper. She is part of a bio-based collaborative group working at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, Cambridge, and John Innes Research Centre, Norwich. They 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. Conscious of the volume of waste sent to landfill in our linear, ‘take-make-waste’, system she employs the principles of circular design, considering material sustainably in regard to its whole life cycle.

Kai Lossgott is a writer, film-maker, visual and performance artist, investigating deep questions of personal and environmental health, expressing human agency within the socio-ecological crisis. Waste in Kai Lossgott’s work has its own agency and is as much a metaphor as a physical phenomenon.

Eugene Macki is a sculptor who creates immersive experiences which fuse content and form. Transforming environments, he makes resourceful use of waste materials, often including food, and can be playful in making the most of the multiple meanings which result.

Dutch artist Jan Eric Visser is a pioneer in creating sculptures from his inorganic household garbage, always making sole use of the inherent properties of the waste materials. He constantly experiments with new forms and new materials, consistent with his own saying: ‘Form Follows Garbage’. Recent sculptures he made from waste agricultural sileage bale plastics, and also he has collaborated with a company in the Netherlands which recycles plastics to make street furniture.

Rain Wu is a Taiwanese artist and architect based in London. Her work is conceptually driven and materialises in different forms and scales from drawing, sculpture, food performance to architectural installation. She works with waste and perishable materials to instigate discussions around our manifold relationships with nature.

Notes and bibliography

  1. Nicky Gregson, The Waste of the World; Consumption, Economies and the Making of the Global Waste Problem, Bristol University Press, 2023
  2. “As its starting point, discard studies holds that waste is not produced by individuals and is not automatically disgusting, harmful, or morally offensive, but that both the materials of discards and their meanings are part of wider sociocultural-economic systems. Our task is to interrogate these systems for how waste comes to be, and our work is often to offer critical alternatives to popular and normative notions of waste.” Accessed September 2023
  3. British Academy funded conference ‘Measuring the immeasurable: human cost of heritage Loss and Damage from climate change for effective policy reporting’, March 2023. Organised by Professors Joanne Clarke and Anne Haour. Our main subjects addressed issues around coastal communities under threat, especially considering effects on the natural and built environments and livelihoods.
  4. David Lowenthal, ‘Fabricating Heritage’, History and Memory, Vol 10, No 1, Spring 1998, 1-21
  5. Lowenthal, Op Cit, 1998, p. 16
  6. Cornelius Holtdorf, Anders Hogberg (eds) Cultural Heritage and the Future, London, Routledge, 2020
  7. Michael Thompson, Rubbish Theory, The Creation and Destruction of Value, London, Pluto Press, 2017
  8. Personal communication, 24.08.23.
  9. Accessed August 2023
  10. Accessed September 2023
  11. Accessed July 2023
  12. Accessed July 2023
  13. Accessed July 2023
  14. Henry/Bragg, 
  16. July 2023
  17. Accessed July 2023
  18. From an extract published in The Guardian, 03.06.23 from Oliver Franklin-Wallis, Wasteland: The Dirty Truth About What we Throw Away, Where it Goes and Why it Matters, Simon and Schuster, 2023
  20. Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene,  Chapter 2 ‘Tentacular Thinking, Anthropocene, Capitolocene, Chthulucene’ Duke University Press, 2016
  22. Island in Abidjan lagoon:; Richart Sowa’s Island: Accessed August 2023
  23. Fran Crowe: Accessed August 2023
  24. Lisa Doeland, (2019) At Home in an Unhomely World: On Living with Waste, Detritus Vol. 6, 4-10
  25. Karen Jacobs (2022): BottledOcean 2120: George Nuku, the Ocean, plastic and the role of artists in discussing climate change, World Art, DOI: 10.1080/21500894.2022.2070659 Accessed August 2023
  26. Accessed August 2023
  27. Accessed August 2023
  31. Caitlin DeSilvey, Curated Decay, Heritage Beyond Saving, University of Minnesota, 2017
  32. Jan Eric Visser, Veritas, Form Follows Garbage, Verbeke Foundation, 2017

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