Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Creative and Green: Art, Ecology, and Community


Chapter 1: Art in Waste Management and Recycling Education
by Sarah E. Graddy

This is part of the Toolbox for Communities

This thesis takes a takes a thorough look at several innovative projects in the United States which combine art and ecology in a community context. Creative thinkers, working with organizations or on their own, have created unique programs and artworks that show the potential art has to creatively transform problems into opportunities.

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Writing about the way the invention of the flushing toilet has transformed modern society, Madhu Suri Prakash and Hedy Richardson assert that "instead of a communal responsibility that belongs to a peoples' commons, human waste is now transformed into a state matter," outside of the realm of individual responsibility (67). Prakash and Richardson see the toilet as a metaphor for modern society in general: with one swift movement, a person's unpleasant waste is transported far away from her house and community. We deal with all of our waste this way, and our disposal practices cost a great deal of money, land, and energy, and endanger our environment. According to the website of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2001, "U.S. residents, businesses, and institutions produced more than 229 million tons of MSW [Municipal Solid Waste], which is approximately 4.4 pounds of waste per person per day, up from 2.7 pounds per person per day in 1960" (Source).

At this rate, our entire country could soon become a landfill. Companies have capitalized on Americans' increasing consumption, making products with the feature of "planned obsolescence," or a limited lifespan that encourages users to throw them away and thus purchase new products. As Charlene Cerny points out, "The net result of this capitalistic principle, widely accepted by industry and consumers alike, means that so-called durable goods, purposely designed to be cheap to buy -- but difficult or too expensive to repair once broken -- quickly wind up in the landfill, along with all the disposable packaging that leads an even shorter useful life" (37). Even worse, we have been programmed to see our world as disposable, so that even items that can be easily and cheaply repaired become a burden to own, sell, or give away. When we don't want or need things anymore, no matter how useful they are, we simply put them in our trash can or dumpster, or drop them off at the landfill.

We cannot change the way companies manufacture goods overnight, but we can alter our behavior to be more ecologically friendly, saving our resources for another day and preventing places from becoming merely hosts for our trash. Art can creatively call attention to our wasteful, harmful, and unsustainable disposal practices by bringing trash into the public's everyday life, and not allowing it simply to disappear into landfills, out of sight and consciousness. Those who see this potential for art and encourage its practice use similar tactics in different arenas to raise the public's awareness and change individuals' behavior. Reuse stores are a fairly widespread phenomenon in this country; these organizations take donations of landfill-bound leftovers from local businesses, diverting the trash to show community members how to give these items new life. One such nonprofit reuse organization is profiled here. Another solution is to involve citizens in the waste disposal practices of the cities where they live. Two such creative and pioneering efforts are profiled here: one is that of a large city that created a waste management and recycling facility encouraging public observation and participation. The other is an artist-in-residence program at a private waste management company contracted to collect and dispose of the solid waste of another large city. All of these efforts require flexibility, transparency, and the willingness to combine two things that don't immediately come to mind together: trash and art. They also all rely heavily on educating children as a long-term strategy to changing our views and practices of consumption.

SF Recycling & Disposal Artist-in-Residence Program: San Francisco, California


SF Recycling & Disposal, Inc. is a private company that has incorporated art into a pioneering waste-based program designed to raise public awareness of ecological issues. The company started its innovative artist residency program in San Francisco in 1990 after a local artist, Jo Hanson, approached the company with the idea. At the time, SF Recycling & Disposal was expanding its recycling education programs in conjunction with its new curbside recycling program, and felt an artist residency would fit in with these efforts.[2] Through the company's Artist-in-Residence Program, local artists use trash to create art. Currently (the program has changed since its inception) residencies are for a period of three months, and artists may choose to work part-time or full-time and receive a stipend based on the amount of hours they work. The company offers funding for the equivalent of one full-time artist per residency period, so two artists who want to work part-time sometimes receive residencies simultaneously. Only Bay Area artists may apply for residencies in September; the artists for the following year are then selected by an advisory panel made up of approximately ten art professionals, environmentalists, and educators.

SF Recycling & Disposal provides its artists-in-residence with a 1,200-square-foot studio (available 24 hours a day) and access to the materials in its dump. The studio is located at the company's transfer station, which also includes "several recycling facilities and the Public Disposal Area (also known as 'the dump')"
(http://www.sunsetscavenger.com/artist_in_residence.htm).[3] At the end of an artist's residency, SF Recycling & Disposal hosts a public reception to exhibit the artist's work.[4] The company also provides "miscellaneous supplies and equipment," including welding and woodworking tools and a glass kiln. In return, artists-in-residence are expected to work in the studio 40 hours per week (for a full-time residency) or 20 hours per week (for a half-time residency); greet and talk to tour groups during weekday mornings and one Saturday per month; make a few pieces of art for the company's permanent art collection; use materials found in the city's waste stream; talk to the media; and leave all art created during the residency with SF Recycling & Disposal for one year after the end of the residency (website).

The goal of this innovative program is "to use art to inspire people to recycle more and conserve natural resources" (website). The artist-in-residence's role in the company is to raise awareness about what happens to the things San Francisco residents discard. When student and adult groups tour the transfer station, the artist-in-residence speaks to them about "the experience of turning trash into treasures" (website). Art from the program is exhibited in office building entryways and public spaces in San Francisco, and in the sculpture garden next to the transfer station.

According to the Artist-in-Residence Program's director, Paul Fresina, the program is unique to San Francisco (interview).[5] He says he has been contacted by other companies and cities interested in starting similar programs, but has never heard of any actually getting off the ground. Fresina points out that the program was created before the company had a risk manager, and that if it were suggested today, the program would probably not pass muster with the risk manager and the company's lawyers. An artist roaming around a dump on his or her own does seem a steep obstacle to overcome; Fresina says artists-in-residence sign a waiver, but adds that if anything were to happen to an artist, the program would likely be immediately shut down. So while the Artist-in-ResidenceProgram has gotten national press, it isn't likely to inspire others like it.

If a company or city were to start a program emulating that of SF Recycling & Disposal, Fresina cautions against attempting to duplicate it exactly. "San Francisco is so far ahead in terms of . . . environmental consciousness," he points out.

We are way ahead of the rest of the country in terms of recycling percentages. For years, before everyone even started having curbside recycling programs, San Francisco had a 25 percent recycling rate . . . people just took their bottles and cans to the recycling center.
He also points to the local tradition of "dumpster diving," or rescuing useful items from the trash, as symbolic of the cultural sensibility that makes residents more open to the program. "So many unique things converged to start our program," Fresina states. "With a private company, you're more flexible to do innovative things." In addition, San Francisco has an active and diverse arts community. So when people call him to ask about starting programs like his company's, Fresina advises them to start small -- he says it isn't the quality of the studio or even the stipend that draws interested artists; it's the right to scavenge that people are most excited about. For nine months (three residency periods) last year the company withdrew funding for the Artist-in-Residence Program during layoffs, but Fresina says that the program still received 40 applications from interested artists willing to work for free. (The largest number of applications the program has received at one time was 75 in 2002.) This level of interest, he suggests, indicates that people are open to looking at trash as a resource.

Indeed, the reason why art can be so important as a component of environmental education, Fresina avers, is that it is so visual -- it automatically attracts attention, and can thereby reach many people. "The trick is to make people look at the garbage," Fresina says; he sees the art made by artists-in-residence as a way to lure the public into becoming more thoughtful about waste. The artist-in-residence studio used to be located right next to a landfill, but the company recently built a new studio on the other side of its 44-acre property. The end-of-the-residency exhibitions are held in the studio, so some of the impact of the program may have been lost with the studio's move, Fresina acknowledges. Visitors to the exhibitions no longer have to walk past a huge mound of stinky garbage to get to the exhibits; the art has been removed from the context that made it meaningful.

On the other hand, the program has an evolving tradition where at his/her show, each artist creates a give-away pile of trash he/she saved during his/her residency but didn't use, and members of the public who attend the exhibitions are encouraged to take these items home. Fresina admits that the give-away pile probably diverts more waste from the landfill than the artists' works do, but isn't bothered by this phenomenon. Ultimately, the Artist-in-Residence Program is meant to raise awareness about trash, and to encourage a sense in the public of "ownership" of its waste. Clearly, the program is reaching many residents: About 2,000 people (approximately three-quarters of whom were schoolchildren on field trips) took tours of the company's facilities, including the art studio in 2004, according to Fresina. And a two-day exhibition in January 2005 attracted about 850 people, up from 50-75 in 2000. Furthermore, more artists apply for residencies every year (except 2004). The significance of the program is not quantifiable, Fresina says. "We are raising awareness of the preciousness of resources and the need to conserve them." Although it might not be possible to clone this program, its example can provide inspiration for those determined to do something similar in their own communities. Other communities can take note of and imitate the way this Artist-in-Residence Program evolved organically out of its own community, drawing on a local sensibility to spread ecological awareness.

Twenty-Seventh Avenue Solid Waste Management Facility and Recycling Center: Phoenix, Arizona

The first large American city government to incorporate both major artist and public involvement in its waste management practices is that of Phoenix, Arizona.[6] In the early 1990s, the design for the city's new Twenty-Seventh Avenue Solid Waste Management Facility and Recycling Center (hereafter referred to as the 27 th Avenue Center) was created in large part by two artists, Michael Singer and Linnea Glatt. The artists were selected through Phoenix's Percent for Art Program to contribute art to the $18-million-dollar facility. They also submitted ideas for altering the engineers' scheme that the city's administration liked and decided to use; the artists and the engineers collaborated on the resulting building, which was completed in late 1993.

The facility was built not only using green techniques and materials, but also with the public very much in mind: Finkelpearl writes that the artists intended to "bring the visitor into direct contact with the recycling operation, hoping to transform the public's attitudes toward waste and waste management" (197). The artists treated the building as a work of art in itself, not simply a functional transfer station; the engineers who created the original facility design did not think it needed to be beautiful or engaging as architecture (198). Singer and Glatt's design incorporates huge central trusses that rise up out of the building, making it visible for miles. Large windows showcase beautiful vistas, and skylights and translucent panels add even more light. By opening up the space, and making it inviting and easy to use for both the city's Sanitation Department and the general public, Singer and Glatt encouraged public involvement in the waste management process. About 5,000 children on school field trips tour the facility every year, and approximately 1,500 citizens drop off waste there every weekend (Leonard, interview). In addition, the city has made the facility, and art made from items found in the waste stream, a stop on its annual art tour.

This visibility within the community is what the artists wanted; Glatt told Tom Finkelpearl in an interview that "the first thing that we wanted to change in the site plan was the 'out of sight, out of mind' attitude that says you do not put garbage in the view of the visitor" (201). This way the facility becomes an integral part of the community's life and encourages the public to deal with the implications of its waste. The artists' perspective was important to the design of the building because they looked at the specific site and considered how it would actually be used, rather than following the prevailing practices of the industry. Singer relates his and Glatt's approach to Finkelpearl:

Every element of our design contributes to the idea of transformation, reclamation, educating the public towards issues of waste, the need to recycle, the relationship of the building to the landscape around it . . . [I]t was a great opportunity to provide vistas so people could see the city (where the garbage comes from) and its effect, if it is not recycled, on the natural environment, which is also in clear view. (204)
Because of Singer and Glatt's creative and innovative approach to integrating many different components -- community, functionality, environmentally friendly practices, education -- the 27th Avenue Center represents the future of municipal waste management. This project shows the benefits of using an artistic approach to something that ostensibly has little or nothing to do with art. City of Phoenix Public Works Director Mark Leonard feels that including artists on design teams is imperative for waste management projects:

A lot of us in the industry look at things in a certain way . . . [but] artists come in, and they look at it differently. They look at ways that you can design a facility differently, or accomplish environmental or ecological education from a point of view that is broader and has many more components to it than, in my oopinion, any of us professionals would ever achieve. They look at a way that it could be done that could attract [the public] more, be of more interest to people, that will be . . . more beneficial to the operation, and we're living proof of that. (interview)

Art is a way for Phoenix to engage the public in the facility directly. The appearance of the facility (addressing some of the concerns of neighborhood residents), its design (more user-friendly), and public involvement in events there (the art tour, student group tours) all make the 27th Avenue Center a meaningful part of the public realm. The City of Phoenix took a huge risk when it allowed the artists input in the actual plans for the facility. Rather than relegating their role to that traditionally allotted to public artists -- that of decorating a site without affecting its functionality and use -- the city administration looked at their ideas as equally legitimate, useful, and powerful as those of the engineering firm originally hired to design the facility.

The transfer station and recycling center serves as an example for other communities throughout the U.S. and even abroad. According to Singer and Glatt, the city has received so many calls from other cities interested in creating similar facilities that is has set up a consulting service (216). Leonard says the city gives several tours a month to waste management professionals, elected officials, and tourists interested in finding out how they can instigate similar projects in their communities, and that he is "confident that we have had an impact on the design" of other cities' waste management and recycling facilities. Phoenix is also using its own facility as a model: the city is now building a new recycling center and transfer station north of the city based on many of the ideas first put into practice on 27th Avenue. An artist is part of the design team for the new facility, and once again educational programming will be an integral part of the design. Leonard says that the new facility will feature an elevated walkway with windows on either side. Tour groups will be able to walk through the building and see the dual functions taking place: recycling processing on one side, and solid waste processing on the other. The city plans to continue pursuing the mix of public education, art, and function in all of its waste management practices.

The 27th Avenue Center should serve as a model not only for other waste management and recycling centers, but also for what a community can be. As Glatt told Finkelpearl:
The most obvious [difference between our design and the engineers' design] is that it just turns around the whole notion of what these places have always been in a community...the only way that you are going to turn things around [is] to be aware of the abuses and try to point the way in a new and responsible direction. (206)

A creative approach enabled the 27th Avenue Center to help change the way Phoenix residents think about waste and its disposal. Clearly the center has created a new standard for what is possible in the process of serving both a community and the environment on which it sustains itself.

Art From Scrap: Santa Barbara, California

Like the artist-in-residence program in San Francisco, Art From Scrap (AFS) is a program that utilizes trash to make art. AFS, however, was begun in 1990 by Santa Barbara parents who wanted to help find materials for local teachers to use in their classes. The concept behind AFS, as its website proclaims, "is incredibly simple and yet surprisingly unique: take materials that would normally be thrown away, and provide them as art supplies to school children and the public" to encourage recycling and waste reduction (http://www.%20communityenvironmentalcouncil.org/artfromscrap/[7]

Like SF Recycling and Disposal's Artist-in-Residence Program, the founding of AFS coincided with the passing of AB 939, so the parents (all volunteers) were able to approach local businesses for donated materials with a pitch for helping to reduce waste going to landfills, as well as helping schools and "getting the thought of reuse into people's minds," says Cay Sanchez, Program Director (interview). After a few years, the founders formed a nonprofit, and within about two years, a local nonprofit organization, the Community Environmental Council, absorbed AFS into its programming.

AFS encompasses a materials reuse store, environmental education, and an arts program, which together reach 20,000 people annually, about half of whom are students. The store accepts donations from local businesses and individuals of items as diverse as eyeglass lenses and frames, ceramic tiles, circuit boards, fabric, and envelopes. Members of the public can buy these materials, saved from entering the landfill, cheaply in bulk or individually. The store also offers teachers discounts on materials (those in the bulk section are free) when their schools join the AFS School Materials Program (cost is $1 per student).


When school groups come to AFS, they receive a 75-minute lecture, during which "environmental educators talk about Santa Barbara's landfill, where trash goes, and how to create less trash through reducing, reusing, recycling and composting;" specifically, "students learn to identify recyclable materials, observe red worms transforming food scraps to a rich soil, discuss shopping choices that conserve resources, learn about renewable and non-renewable natural resources, and explore how their individual actions can help the environment" (website). After the lecture, students participate in a workshop where they create artwork from the materials reuse store.

These education programs are funded in part by Santa Barbara County (besides mandating waste reduction, AB 939 also required cities and counties to provide education about "reduce, reuse, and recycle," the mantra of the solid waste industry). Every summer AFS holds an exhibition and auction. "About fifty local artists, both professional and non-professional participate" each year, Sanchez says. Artists donate their work to a silent auction; money raised goes to AFS's programs.

AFS creates a powerful nexus in its community: local businesses donate materials (reducing what they send to landfills and their expenses, allowing for tax deductions, and providing a sense of satisfaction that they are contributing to a good cause); artists, parents, teachers, kids, and other members of the public go to the store; school and summer camp groups participate in the educational workshops; and volunteers donate labor (usually students fulfilling community service requirements for high school or a Teen Court program, but also sometimes developmentally disabled adults). Adults are increasingly participating in Saturday workshops that are funded by the local arts commission and led by local artists. AFS has also cultivated many partnerships within the city: Contemporary Arts Forum, a local nonprofit art gallery, sometimes sponsors artists to give workshops at AFS. AFS donates gift baskets and workshop coupons to school fundraisers every year, Sanchez says, and according to the AFS website, the organization also donates materials to groups that work with at-risk youth.

AFS continues to grow organically around its mission: it has recently built a gallery space and plans to hold six shows featuring local artists in 2005. "We just, over the years, keep adding components that make sense," Sanchez declares. She notes that when the program started, it would have been impossible to do many of the things AFS does now. Because there is a solid foundation in terms of partners, audience, and programming, it is possible -- even easy -- to continue to expand around its original mission.

Sanchez says that she gets many calls from people who want to start their own art-centric materials reuse stores, but never learns if they actually do. She directs those making inquiries to a booklet put out by the Local Government Commission in Sacramento in 1996 called California's Material Exchange Facilities, which explains what these organizations are, and "how to get started, how to get materials, how to store stuff, how to exchange stuff, personnel, marketing, all kinds of things" (interview). Sanchez says she warns these callers not to assume that an organization like AFS can survive on revenues from the store alone; AFS earns only about one-quarter or one-fifth of its total budget from store sales. (The organization earns revenue from grants, free events that it is paid to appear at, contracts with the city and county, schools that pay for teachers' access to materials, and program fees for hosting birthday parties and art workshops, in addition to store sales.) AFS thus serves as an attainable model, spreading organizational knowledge and experience, and making it easier for people in other communities to begin similar efforts. Tourists often visit AFS, and Sanchez hopes that they also take what they learn back to their communities with them. She sometimes gets calls from people and businesses in other cities that want to donate materials to AFS, but says she wants other communities to deal with their own waste instead of sending it away.

When asked about the effects that AFS has on individuals once they leave the organization's facilities, Sanchez answers that she thinks that AFS influences members of the public to pursue more sustainable practices. "I also think that people who have a natural tendency that way are re-inspired or re-supported or feel like they have a place to practice what they feel like they should be practicing," she adds. In addition, Sanchez feels strongly that AFS changes behavior through the children it reaches -- these children not only gain environmental awareness at a young age, but also influence their parents to alter their consumption and waste practices. "We're definitely getting people to look at what they're doing," she avers. This includes not only changing the public's perception of what is useful and what is waste, but also affecting how people shop, what resources they use, what they recycle, and what happens to it next, Sanchez says. Besides the long-term results of educating members of the public about waste practices, Sanchez says the organization reduces waste. She points out that even if all of the art made at AFS ends up being thrown away, if the organization didn't exist, children would make art using store-bought materials, adding more bulk to landfills. AFS estimates that it diverts 30,000 pounds of trash from the waste stream every year (website).

Ultimately, Sanchez summarizes the significance of AFS as a program that encourages long-term changes in the ways in which participants think: "For me it's more about creativity, what [participants] are doing. They're not necessarily here to create a product" or become great artists. She sees the fact that AFS cultivates and encourages creativity as important not only for art-making, but also problem-solving. Individuals who are naturally inclined or trained to think creatively tend to be more flexible, open-minded, and able to see more sides of an issue, Sanchez says, and these are valuable qualities for solving environmental (and other) problems. Art should be part of every aspect of our lives, Sanchez says. In this way, AFS is helping to show the public that trash can be art -- but it also shows those who utilize the organization that other problems can also be solved in creative and progressive ways. It is a fairly simple idea, but a powerful and effective one. Hopefully materials reuse stores will continue to spread throughout the U.S., and as these organizations gain more visibility and participants, the collective consumption and waste practices of Americans will begin to stem the tide of still-useful objects that go to landfills, and will create a new generation of conscious, creative, and environmentally proactive citizens.

Footnotes

1 A common association of ecology and art is what is commonly called land art, earthworks, or environmental art. This work, created mostly in the 1960s and '70s by such artists as Robert Morris and Robert Smithson, tends to be large-scale, static sculpture; artists such as Christo and Andy Goldsworthy also make what is sometimes termed environmental art. Readers might note that other artists, such as Helen and Newton Harrison, Krzyzstof Wodiczko, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Buster Simpson, Stephen Sonfist, Jo Hanson, and Dominique Mazeaud, make or have made works that touch upon many of the same themes that I explore in my thesis. This thesis does not include these works for one or more of the following reasons: they tend not to engage with the ecology (the trophic, or solar energy-based life cycles) of a place but instead typically highlight some aspect of the environment, usually largely aesthetic; are traditionally completely dependent on one person's particular vision; do not, in general, encourage or inspire wide-spread ecological awareness and activism; and are often temporary, or exist only hypothetically. Although several artists are included in this document, their work is examined for its larger social and ecological implications, not for its aesthetic qualities. This document does not look at art as a product to be evaluated, but instead as a process intrinsic to the human perspective, and ultimately one that belongs in all aspects of our lives. Some readers might take issue with what I have chosen to include and exclude; here I would like to point out that I offer this document not as a complete survey, but instead a preliminary exploration of what is possible in ecology and community when art is involved, and what we can hope for -- and work toward -- in the future.

2 SF Recycling & Disposal's strong push toward recycling was likely due in large part to the passing of AB 939, also known as The California Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989, which mandated that cities and counties convert at least 50% of their waste stream from landfills to recycling efforts by the year 2000.

3 Websites will initially be referenced in full; thereafter, they will be referenced only as "website" unless it is unclear which website I mean.

4 The work of artists-in-residence varies widely -- as can be expected because of their differing interests and artistic practices -- but can include items like furniture, clothing, flags, vessels, cardboard, games, books, trophies, kitchenware, household appliances, and toys. I have not included any photos of specific artists' work precisely because it is all so different; the Artist-in-Residence website has photos of all of participating artists' work.

5 Throughout this document, when I write "according to so-and-so" or "so-and-so says," I will reference the interview conducted the first time I mention that person. Thereafter, the reference should be clearly inferred from the context; this will avoid repetitive, distracting parenthetical references. When it isn't clear from the context that I am quoting the interview, I have added a reference.

6 A successful recycling educational facility outside the U.S. is The Center for Creative Recycling (Il Centro di Riciclaggio Creativo), known as REMIDA, in Reggio Emilia, Italy. REMIDA
, which has extensive public programming, combines many of the components of the Phoenix 27 th Avenue Center with those of both the SF Recycling & Disposal Artist-in- Residence Program and Art in Scrap (and other materials reuse facilities), discussed later in this thesis.

7 Material reuse centers focusing on the arts exist in many cities, especially on the West Coast: MECCA (Materials Exchange Center for Community Arts) in Eugene, Oregon, East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse in Berkeley, California, SCRAP (Scroungers Center for Reusable Art Parts) in San Francisco, California, and SCRAP (School and Community Reuse Action Project) in Portland, Oregon, et al. MECCA's website (
http://www.materials-exchange.org/) features links to these and others.

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Creative and Green: Art, Ecology, and Community:

YOU ARE HERE:Chapter 1: Art in Waste Management and Recycling Education
AFTER THAT: Chapter 2: Art in Land and Water Remediation

Copied from: http://greenmuseum.org/generic_content.php?ct_id=238 © 2007 greenmuseum.org

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