Narrating the Event of Waste – Extract


Waste has suggested such different ideas to people – about the state of the universe, human nature, or of God – that it is impossible to detail an exhaustive list of all the things that waste has meant or is yet to mean. This chapter approaches not what waste has meant at various times to various people, but why it provokes such different interpretations in the first place. It will explore how the plurality of waste is a symptom and diagnosis of time, an object that harbours particular events and an occasion to narrate these events. This is not done to homogenise the effects waste might impose upon us, the opposite is the case; by assessing how and why waste might provoke all these different associations one can appreciate the active role these objects play in constructing these diverse meanings. Throughout the course of this chapter a prevailing issue will arise: if waste objects come to mean something different to useful objects then a complex series of temporal associations must be narrated in order to achieve this new meaning. By knowing more about how waste objects have been utilised as mediators and intermediaries of time we might be in a better position to understand how waste operates through art objects.

Waste has often been associated with change of some sort, a change through which things seem to take on different meanings, values or relations over time. This change might be understood physically, relationally or even in the vague and contingent terms of ‘value’. One important consequence of this association between waste and these various forms of change is the tendency to imagine waste as offering a special event from which to understand how objects achieve this change in meaning. In this regard, the change waste is taken to signify offers a plateau by which to assess not just the subject of waste itself but the ontological status of material things more generally. Waste becomes a bit like those tyre marks one sees on the surface of a road, they tell us of an event that has past, a residue of time. The transition between different times, between times of use and non-use, value and diminished value, functionality and non-functionality, makes waste a matter of consequence.  So, whether it is ‘commodities’, ‘things’, ‘architectures’ or ‘environments’ that are under discussion, theorists and philosophers of these entities have frequently understood the advent of waste to provide some kind of event by which to contemplate the stuff these entities are and were. The opportunity to consider what an object does (or can no longer do) and how people use it to make sense of the world, transforms waste objects into polyvalent intermediaries of all manner of ideas, beliefs, stories, and accounts. This study makes the case that all the indices of ‘change’ one might wish to deploy, as well as the narratives that attempt to describe and translate these deployments, must, at some point, be expressed in time. To be meaningful these indices must relate to, and therefore become, temporal phenomena. So, whilst architectural ruins are frequently described in aesthetic, environmental, financial, political or even molecular terms (depending on who or what is doing the describing), the importance of time in expressing these developments remains a common denominator. In order for waste to mean all the things it can mean, time needs to be produced and events need to be described.

What follows is not art historical in the traditional sense but it does relate to how art objects must always reconcile with time. My subsequent assessment of how and why there is such a strong presence of waste in contemporary sculpture and installation art is not meant to include these works under a generic or predetermined history of waste. In addition to this, it is not my aim to draw a causal relation between art works and a history of how waste is produced but, instead, to elucidate what might be at stake in designating, manipulating and interpreting art when the idea of waste is at play. These distinctions are slight but important. We should avoid placing ‘art’ or ‘waste’ into pre-existing frameworks, or making them shallow intermediaries for ‘capitalism’, ‘ethnicity’, or some other monolithic yet intractable ‘context’.  But before all the bewildering events that mark the arrival waste flood towards us at once we will have to stem their flow. We will, momentarily, set the question of art objects to one side. By doing so we clear the ground to ask how waste can be understood as a temporal phenomenon. This course will take us through a range of disciplinary approaches but, for reasons that will soon become clear, it will give rise to a much narrower range of perspectives regarding the temporality of waste objects.

An Event of Revelation

A tendency exists which situates the object of waste somewhere between two extremes: as ‘just a modest thing’ by which to measure some process or change, or more spectacularly, as a site from which to experience a full-blown revelation. The former sees waste as a mere product of time. The latter elevates waste as the necessary condition for spiritual, artistic, and political change – i.e. it helps to form and articulate time itself. Whenever we assess ideas about waste we should always try and understand how time is being represented – is it passive or active, product or producer? These positions are rarely given such clear expression since they are regularly mixed and muddled, compounding the feeling that waste objects are untimely or without a proper time of their own. Their time is run out, run down or in some way depleted – putting these things in the ground or burning them in an incinerator seems the only response to things that seem to have met their sorry end. But somewhere between the ‘wastes of time’ (time producing waste) and the ‘times of waste’ (waste producing time) lies the notion that the advent of waste is rich with revelation, allowing the everyday, the hidden or the unexpected to be suddenly unveiled.

In his introduction to ‘Thing Theory’, Bill Brown suggests how waste objects might participate in a secular revelation of everyday things. The following quotation explains how an interruption to utility might provoke a reconsideration of an object’s meaning:

We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily. The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation (Brown 2001: 4).

Although Brown does not address the condition of waste as such, he does describe how things can suddenly cease to relate to the designs of “the human subject”. In a way that correlates with a movement out of use-time and into a time that no longer concerns our projects and aspirations, Brown suggests that we come to know an object in a new way when we can no longer put it to use. When an object ceases to feel complicit in our tasks, plans, or futures, when we are shaken from one collective arrangement with that object and thrust into another, our relation with the thing moves on from mere use to confront the subject-object relation that has passed. For Brown this permits a confrontation with what he calls “the thingness” of the object, the assertion of material presence that is somehow outside our control, disclosing our compulsion to master and control things. By paying attention to Brown’s language, which is replete with ‘flows’ and ‘arrested moments’, one understands that, for him, the advent of waste provokes an odd sort of event, a hesitancy or interruption before the temporal continuum of material things. Through this interruption the agency of objects is contingently revealed; waste exposes a certain state affairs by casting that arrangement into history, into the realm of the no longer. Time, of course, is inscribed within this movement; the object marks the passing of a time that has been structured by our use of an object. It shows time to have been within the employment of a project and at the behest of material actors, actors that are no longer caught up in that particular collective arrangement. Should we respect the temporality already at work in Brown’s text we might add a slight amendment to his observation, “the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation”, noting how this subject-object relation is unknowable without such interruptions; the event of waste helps to expose our temporal relations with things.

With a slightly different emphasis on the idea of the commodity, Julian Stallabrass’s discussion of trash leads us into similar territory. Having highlighted how, by manipulating desire, the commodity fetish motivates and intensifies our production of waste. Stallabrass describes how the obsolescence of the commodity endows waste with a peculiar power to ‘tell it how it is’:

In becoming rubbish the object, stripped of this mystification, gains a doleful truthfulness, as though confessing: it becomes a reminder that commodities, despite all their tricks, are just stuff; little combinations of plastics or metal or paper […] We see them[, the objects,] for the first time with clarity, which it the same as that clearsighted ridicule with which we greet old adverts and the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of design in old commodities: their arbitrariness and alien nature are suddenly revealed (Stallabrass 2009: 416).

Although Brown and Stallabrass argue different points within different critical traditions, they provide the opposing sides of a common coin. For Brown, the snapping tool snaps us out of our phenomenological inattention, where the use of an object blinds us to how things ‘really are/were’. We are rocked out of our habitual relations with objects at the moment when they appear able to impose themselves as independent entities, when they no longer function according to our designs or expectations. For Stallabrass, on the other hand, when objects cease to function they shed their hideous, pantomime dress as commodities. By becoming waste these objects are released from the straitjacket of the commodity fetish, driven by the predominance of exchange-value, in order to reveal how things ‘really are/were’. In both instances, waste is said to put an end to a time that is ordered by use and replaces it with a convolved, communicative inertia; objects no longer seem to do what they did and yet enjoy an increased propensity to convey this inactivity. By becoming inactive waste seems to animate time, giving it a material, thingly shape. Yet, by doing so, the event of waste seems to reveal how time is made of the things that we use and how this time becomes a thing too, put into the service of our projects, plans and ambitions. Brown and Stallabrass show that when objects become waste they seem to act in peculiar ways. However, the meaning of things is not achieved within a temporal vacuum: if the event of waste reveals the peculiarity of objects, then time might be made peculiar too.

Although John Scanlan’s On Garbage provides a somewhat different perspective, it ultimately rehearses the conclusions that were drawn by Brown and Stallabrass. Scanlan argues that when something is considered waste it loses all value, it even loses the power to signify: “stripping it of any descriptive characteristics that allows us to individuate it” (2005: 43).  For Scanlan, “objects of refuse ha[ve] no meaning apart from the negative undifferentiated one that declare[s] their lack of worth ¬– the total absence of distinction in the damaged or soiled object” (2005: 107).  It is Scanlan’s emphatic belief that, in becoming a thing of waste, an object loses all distinction other than the distinction that makes it a waste object. The waste category behaves as if it were a monolithic eraser of signification or articulation. A paradoxical category, Scanlan’s notion of waste makes it at once absolutely undifferentiated and yet profoundly different to everything found extrinsic to it. Regardless of whether we believe that such a notion is even possible, Scanlan’s emphasis on the process of becoming waste is as pronounced as it was in Brown and Stallabrass. Again, much of this is born out of how waste is considered a product of time. “Time”, writes Scanlan, “fundamentally conditions the creation of garbage in that it provides the framework within which things become corruptible and useless” (2005: 37)  Time, that great provider of ‘frameworks’ secures distinction for indistinct objects. Sadly, Scanlan does not supply more in terms what this temporal framework might look like, how well it is constructed or how it might correspond to the objects he describes. Suffice to say, time offers Scanlan some kind of static and unchanging backdrop by which things become articulate.

Whilst waste can be taken to mark a change played out on a temporal stage, it cannot do so passively or without affecting the way this stage is experienced and reproduced. Although time creates waste by tracing and articulating a change in things, should we not ask how waste informs what is meant by time? Since the advent of waste occurs in and through time, it provides us with an event that marks, measures and transforms duration. So, just as it is hard to imagine the decline of Communism without the destruction of the Berlin Wall, or the fall of the Roman Empire without the sack of Rome, or even the atrocities of 9/11 without the collapse of the World Trade Centre, so it is hard to imagine how time itself went unchanged by these events. Whilst catastrophe and triumph frequently carry a waste content, it would be wrong to think that the catastrophe begins with an ‘idea’ of an event as an abstract presence. Instead, the catastrophe begins and is maintained by the motion of material things through time. If we could simply anesthetise an object in order to study the time it is said to inhabit (or vice versa) it would certainly help us come up with a general theory of waste objects. But to do so would reinforce a crippling Cartesianism that neglects how the creation of waste does not merely happen in time but is time’s co-creative element.  It is clear at this stage that the relay between an object, its status as waste, and the event it is said to represent produces a complex web associations. In this respect, each actor (object, event, time) should not be made to be a passive intermediary or homogenous substitute for another; each associates and transforms the other. Waste, among other things, transforms time to make the event knowable, scripted, narrated.


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