The Design Observer Group


Posted 04.22.10


Paho Mann & Nancy Levinson

The Art of Solid Waste




In our eco-conscious era, trash and art are intermingling in every more creative ways. Do a Google search for "trash art" and you are rewarded — bombarded — with 19,900,000 results, give or take, including a slideshow of the SMART Art Trash Into Treasure competition, a gallery of the Recology: San Francisco Artist in Residence Program and a report on Trash for Teaching, in which school kids make post-consumer art from detritus like plastic webbing, worn gaskets, discarded eyeglasses, et al. 

The Public Art Program of Phoenix, Arizona, can claim a rich history of trash-plus-art. One of its celebrated projects, back in the early '90s, was the construction of the Solid Waste Management Facility, in which mandated Percent for Art funding produced not just art after-the-fact but more boldly a right-from-the-start collaboration between the artists and the architects.

Phoenix Public Art continues to find opportunities to merge the civic infrastructure of solid waste with the imaginative work of artists. The latest case in point is a project for the North Gateway Transfer Station, a new 450-acre facility that processes 4,000 tons of solid waste every day — separating waste into materials for resale on site or for transfer to a distant landfill. In 2007 the city issued a Request for Proposals to photographic artists to "delve beneath the surface of what it means to take out the trash," focusing on the opening of the facility. "Life’s a journey for all the throwaway stuff in our lives," as the RFP put it. "Every bottle, box, container, cell phone, newspaper and battery starts in one place, for one purpose, and winds up in another. Some head to the dump, others to the recycling bin. Yet what’s that journey like? Where does it begin, meander and end?"

One of three artists awarded the commission, photographer Paho Mann dove right in, taking a comprehensive, practically encyclopedic approach. Sorting and categorizing, he took photos of almost 6,000 items of trash — trash bags, newspaper inserts, plastic toys, water bottles, etc., selected from the 100,000-plus items processed every year in Phoenix — with the aim of illuminating the nature of what we're tossing in the bin. 


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Education and outreach are the ultimate goals. Operated by the Public Works Department, the North Gateway Transfer Station is open to the public and receives about 4,500 visitors annually. Mann's photographs (along with those of artists Christopher Colville and Brian Moss) are on exhibit at North Gateway, lining a long gallery with windows that offer glimpses of the waste arriving and being sorted. 

"I selected the objects at random from the incoming recyclables," Mann writes in his artist's statement, "and photographed them isolated against a black background in an on-site lighting studio." To make further sense of the enormous volume of waste, Mann is creating a digital archive. "I entered the photographs into a database and gave them keywords from categories including material, color and use," he says. "The keywords were chosen for a various reasons: their connection to categories of recyclables (paper, plastic, cardboard); the visual qualities of the objects (red, orange, yellow); the use of the objects (water bottle, toy); and personal interactions with the objects (kids’ drawings). The database functions as an image-bank from which I create prints of selected image groups. The keywords used to generate these groups are chosen to create visual impact and highlight consumer choices."

With support from the Public Art Program, Mann is working to enhance the functionality of the database with an interactive component, which will include a public website and, at the transfer station, a touch screen to access the database. Scheduled to be in operation early in 2011, both website and screen will allow citizens to access Mann's thousands of images — and to sense the scale of the pile of stuff.

The big idea, of course, is to make us citizens aware of the very material and increasingly unmanageable consequences of what we buy and what we discard. "Paho's photographs allows visitors to identify with what can otherwise seem overwhelmingly large and abstract," says Rebecca Blume Rothman, project manager at the Public Art Program. "Until you see it, it's hard to grasp just how much waste we are making."

— Nancy Levinson