Culture  The art of waste

San Francisco residency program brings artists to the dump

When I think of a dump, the last thing that comes to mind is art. The Artist in Residence (AIR) program at the San Francisco dump, however, has changed how I associate these words.

Located in San Francisco, AIR supplies local artists with equipment, a studio, a monthly stipend, and 24-hour access to the materials in the dump. Founded in 1990 by artist Jo Hanson, AIR enables art to be created from people’s trash, which would otherwise be sent to landfills or recycling plants. The program’s objective is to use art to encourage people to recycle more and to preserve the world’s dwindling environmental resources. It gives new life to an old saying: one person’s trash truly is another person’s treasure.

The art and sculptures made by the 75-plus artists that have been involved in the program are composed of everything and anything: bicycles, telephones, game pieces, hair curlers, fans, metal scraps, etc. Artist David King completed his four-month residency at the dump at the end of January, during which he sifted through heaps of refuse for 20 hours a week. When asked if he had ever made sculptures out of recycled materials before, King replies, “Never. My previous work was always two-dimensional collage. When I got to the dump, I thought I would continue that, but a lot of books don’t come through the waste stream. I had to respond to the waste stream as it came in and let the creative process lead me.” Just as King was able to mould his artistic process by reacting to emerging changes, society can and must find new ways to respond to the current environmental crisis and ensure sustainability.

Despite near-ubiquitous recycling facilities in most Canadian urban hubs, waste awareness should be further stressed, especially at a young age. One requirement of the AIR Program is teaching students, usually between the third and sixth grades, about waste. King emphasizes the importance of this: “Kids would be excited and have ideas of their own. Most of them were being exposed to [the idea of] reuse for the first time.”

“I could see their brains working, thinking of what they could do with their own trash,” he explains.

Every single San Franciscan public school student comes to the dump as part of the curriculum – the city’s culture is distinctly conscious of the environment. King delves deeper into this mentality: “San Franciscans are aware of their waste stream, and good about recycling. San Francisco diverts 70 per cent of their waste stream, which is a huge amount. The state of California is very liberal and not afraid of new things. San Francisco is that times ten.”

When asked about what a program like AIR can do for social change, artist Christine Lee, who also completed her residency at the end of January, says AIR makes positive steps both by using environmentally-friendly practices and by encouraging the reuse of materials in its art projects.

The appeal for artists to work with reused materials extends beyond a desire to be environmentally friendly. It can be a challenge working in such a medium, but as Lee explains, “there is an inherent beauty to recycled material that hasn’t been presented yet.”