15th October 2010, update: Mark Dion has done a brilliant lecture at CCA that you can see below. Dion starts to speak about Tate Thames Dig 33minutes into this video recording:
In one respect there is nothing especially odd, unique, or revolutionary about Mark Dion’s collections, they owe much to the long tradition of using ‘found’ objects in works of sculpture, the incidental, often inexpensive materials drawn together for public display. Dion frequently adopts pseudo-archaeological methods to make his sculptures; works such as Flotsam and Jetsam (The End of the Game) (1994), History Trash Dig (1995), History Trash Scan (1996) and Raiding Neptune’s Vault (1997) show Dion drawing upon different and diverse archaeological methods, collections and collectors to organise his work. Tate Thames Dig (1999) has a lot in common with these works: it is a piece that collects, sorts and displays objects to enact both the history of museums and to criticise how this history has taken shape. The archaeological methods that Dion adopts to assemble this work are distinctive. The artist spent two weeks with a team of invited archaeological experts and volunteers beachcombing on two sites on either bank of the river Thames. These sites, both of them close to London’s city centre, were chosen in order to gather any material that tide or wind might make available. The results are remarkable for their variety: bottles, shards of glass, plastic and iron, buttons, teeth, bones, identification and credit cards, clay pipes, toys and pottery. Tate’s internal reports, circulated prior to the formal acquisition of the piece, stress the work’s strong connection to human activity, “The two sites yielded a wide variety of artefacts and remnants, tokens of life as it has frequented Millbank and Southwark.” (Williams, 1999: 79) Objects were cleaned, catalogued and ordered according to type, weight and colour, and arranged within a large, doubled-sided cabinet of curiosities – a container with strong allusions to Renaissance and Victorian traditions of excavation, collection and display. Below is the work in situ, on the third floor of the Tate Modern where it stood from April 2003 to October 2005.
Much of what Shanks et al (2004) claim for archaeology depends upon a particular relay between use and waste, deposition and recovery, on an object being used and deposited by one person and that same object being collected at a later date by an archaeologist. For Shanks et al the biography ascribed to things is a relatively simple and inevitable one. Objects are used and then used no longer; they become waste and are then available for archaeological assessment. Although the utility of a thing can be various, the trajectory towards a condition of waste is common to all. This universal, unilinear narrative stabilises objects and gives a measure to the time distributed to them. This coordinating function of waste, which gathers diverse yet distinct things towards a common end, is most clearly seen when the authors discuss the spatial and temporal effects of junkyards, these “compress space and time into a single point— artifacts from different times and places are brought into one location, to be (re)discovered” (2004: 79–79). Such is the organisational potential of the junkyard that, despite gathering objects that are associated to various times and places, the common condition of waste compresses these differences within a “single point”. Implicit in this account of waste and archaeology is the sense of narrative compression already at work. For Shanks et al, waste seems reducible to these sites of spatial and temporal termini. The biography of things mimics a common structure, with a beginning (manufacture), middle (use) and end (waste). The causes, the durations and the methods of narration might remain variable but waste is the familiar fate of all things.
Dion’s work militates against a simple correspondence between spatial and temporal sites, turning loose the narrative sureties that might give absolute coherence to collected objects. As Milne, Bates and Webber describe (1997), river sites, especially those on tidal rivers, provide a changeable and unpredictable relationship between various sites, those that discard and those that collect: “a river system and its associated settlement structure is part of a dynamic equation, with no constants.” (1997: 131) Corroborating this dynamicism, Robert Williams argues that Dion’s tidal beaches “confounds and challenges archaeological method, in that it is impossible to recognise a true stratigraphy. Even if the foreshore is considered to be an horizon, this co-existence of objects defies easy categorisation.” (1999: 75). Whilst Shanks et al’s theory of waste might seem appropriate when applied to the excavation of an ideal, stable and long-established site of deposition – such as those studied by the Garbage Project – their claim that, “99 percent or more of what most archaeologists dig up, record, and analyze in obsessive detail is what past peoples threw away as worthless” (2004: 65), appears inappropriate when applied to the heterogeneous assembly of organic and inorganic matter found in Dion’s collection. To draw an example from the Tate Thames Dig to illustrate this point, the ‘message in a bottle’, found in the upper left-hand drawer of the Bank Side (Site II), is certainly an object that has been cast aside. But a part of its worth issues from the fact that it has been thrown into the river. The message in a bottle’s communicative function is achieved through its recovery rather than in spite of it. The places and times that it associates do not cohere to particular point, whether construed as the site of excavation or the cabinet itself, instead, the bottle’s movement through space and time provides a continuity of meaning.
Defining precisely what has and has not been deposited can be a complicated and uncertain process, since deposition can be practised for an enormous range of different and combined reasons. The sheer range of reasons that an object becomes available for collection allows John Chapman to label the equivalence that is commonly made between waste and archaeology, “one of the key foundation-myths of archaeology” (2000: 349). Chapman takes against the idea that archaeology is a formalised collection of waste for the simple reason that people, past and present, do not discard every object that makes up their lived environment. Dion’s cabinet attests to this variation, even those things that seem most likely to have been discarded items – such as fragments of pottery, plastics, glass or animal bone – were not necessarily deliberately thrown away as worthless. These fragments speak of the medial events and processes that affect the condition of objects and their elliptical ability to communicate those medial occurrences. Erosion by salt water, abrasion against other objects or rust by oxidation, all suggest the non-human actions that affect how an object appears. This should not detract from the basis by which all these interpretative judgements are made; objects are dominated by and made intelligible through a series of retrogressive narratives that aim to attach times of use and times of non-use. Shanks and his co-authors make all of these narratives follow a familiar and orderly pattern, a unilinear movement from use to waste. They therefore overlook how times of use and non-use combine to make both meaningful. Dion’s work demonstrates that the narrative permutations that objects undergo are far more complex. There is no simple correspondence between the status of what is collected and the category of waste but, rather painstaking and conditional acts of narration. The difference, then, so keenly felt with a work like Tate Thames Dig, is a sense of narrative risk, of provisional tales told by things that are open to assessment from a variety of perspectives. Shanks et al, through their unidirectional understanding of how useful objects become waste objects overlook how things take meaning by oscillating between times of use and waste or, in a sense closer to Dion’s work, by making risky the narratives told by things and thus confusing the distinction between use and waste.
Oddly enough, even though Shanks et al state that “99 percent” of archaeological practice represents the collection of “society’s material dregs”, they also concede that not all the things that archaeologists collect are things that have been systematically or accidentally discarded: “the pits that litter Iron Age sites in the United Kingdom and seem to contain garbage are far from what they seem—[these sites] are carefully organized depositions rather than random accumulations of family garbage. Here, of course, we need to recognize that concepts of waste are culturally specific, as are notions of purity and dirt” (2004: 66, italics mine). Acknowledging their indebtedness to the traditions of behavioural anthropology, Shanks et al understand waste to be something that is culturally specific to certain times, places and peoples. The authors temper their more general claims with an idea of waste where acts of disposal rely upon how these waste objects are “culturally” perceived. For them, the archaeological site is “a record of behavioral patterns, structured activities to be revealed through close analysis of contextual associations in the material remains” (2004: 68). By collecting objects, particularly objects of waste, they hope to be able to collect the “behaviour” and “structured activities” revealed by scrutinising things. Objects stand as intermediaries for human behaviour, as portals into the past. As William Rathje has written elsewhere, “what people have owned¬—and thrown away—can speak more eloquently, informatively, and truthfully about the lives they lead than they themselves ever may” (1992: 54). The information that objects might communicate is assumed to be a more authentic and reliable than verbal or written accounts. Crucially, the focus remains anthropocentric, interaction between objects and humans are instrumentalised to illuminate the lives of humans. What underlies and reinforces this anthropological conception of objects are the “changing notions of the artifact in relation to the human groups or cultures that produce it, the temporality of culture change/process, and the loci of both” (2004: 68). In the later parts of this chapter we will consider how and why it is that “notions of the artifact” might change through time. For now, it is important to explore how and why Shanks et al mix their cultural relativism with their more polemical claims towards the centrality of waste in archaeological practice.
There is an obvious tension between Shanks et al’s “culturally specific” notion of waste and their more encompassing view that “99 percent or more of what most archaeologists dig up, record, and analyze in obsessive detail is what past peoples threw away as worthless”. One might assume that the crucial part of this statement is what might constitute ‘worthlessness’ but the authors leave this issue unresolved – “our predecessors simply dropped items on the ground when they became unwanted” (2004: 65). The cultural specificity of waste comes to the fore. Worth or value relates and depends upon an idea of the ‘cultural’ and this conception of culture changes according to time and place; conceptions of waste, therefore, depend upon and are subservient to these cultural changes. The authors themselves have complicated their first statement (“99 per cent”, etc.) by suggesting various acts that prevent deposition being simply equated with a valueless discard (votive deposits, burial hoards and so on).
Dion’s Tate Thames Dig exemplifies the problematic provenance of found objects as well as the doubt cast upon their future; indeed, as I will argue later in this chapter, the indeterminacy of an object’s origin helps to explain the narrative potential of Dion’s collection. For now, it is time to turn our attention to Shanks et al’s second claim, that “concepts of waste are culturally specific”. However conflicted the positions expressed in “The Perfume of Garbage” may seem, it is important to acknowledge the privilege this article gives to ‘culture’ or ‘society’ as the temporal unit by which waste is understood. By doing so Shanks et al return us to the themes of the previous chapter. There we saw how objects both give and receive time according to the use to which they have been put. The event of waste distributes use-time to an object or collection of objects. Dion’s work provides an interesting parallel to their theoretical reflections because it lays bare how, without specific objects relating to specific times and places, notions of the cultural dismiss the way materials, uses, and geography can determine how objects are collected.
By arguing that ‘culture’ somehow provides a conduit for our comprehension of waste things, the authors of “The Perfume of Garbage” entertain a cultural relativism that obscures the fractious narratives that describe what objects were and are and are yet to become. For them, the objects that archaeologists collect represent the collision of two temporally distinct zones, a collision that takes place between those who deposit and those who collect: the waste-maker of the past and the waste-collectors of the present. Shanks et al qualify their more inflated claims about waste with a “culturally specific” notion of value that separates the ‘then’ of deposition from the ‘now’ of archaeological enquiry. Objects of waste, by issuing through events in ‘the past’ become immediately historical, quintessential to the manufacturing a now: “every single day a new batch of materials methodically emerges from the black hole of modern times into the light of archaeological research” (2004: 66). Each culture is differentiated through its relationship to the object under scrutiny; this is a crude division that separates the culture that deposits from the culture that collects. The importance and convenience of waste thus becomes clear. Waste objects (which seem to carry a tardy, used up, or ‘past it’ atmosphere) serve to reinforce a temporal difference that some archaeologists can rally round. Objects appear structured by time, marking the beginning of a narrative and the conclusion to that narrative. For Shanks et al waste objects provide a bridge between two cultures, divided by time and action. The bifurcation of time that waste seems to affect, severing the time of ‘then’ from the time of the ‘now’, has powerful repercussions for those who claim to collect, analyse and describe the past through these things. The present becomes distinguished by objects that appear intrinsically non-present, showing how archaeology takes a position relative to that which it collects. We begin to see how a description of archaeology that takes waste into account must also account for the time that gives archaeology an analytical grounding. Clearly, the conception of archaeology that Shanks et al articulate depends upon a rather specific view of temporal succession, one that supports the analytical position of archaeologists more generally. For them, the objects that archaeologists collect can only be understood in the temporal present, since objects can only come to mean something by being from the ‘non-present’. The time of archaeological analysis is thus formulated by the kind of object that it approaches, indeed, the work of analysis demands that an object be made temporally distinct. Shanks and his co-authors express something of this, stating that contemporary ‘culture’ apportions time through the practice of collecting, analysing and reflecting upon the objects that come to enter “the black hole of modern times”. The temporality of waste becomes intimately connected to the time of its collection and analysis, making “the black hole of modern times” knowable through the action of archaeology upon things. Yet, if ‘culture’ is given the responsibility of designating the time of objects, determining whether they are useful or non-useful, the comprehension of waste becomes the privileged and solipsistic exercise of contemporary collectors and by others that stand in present times. But as I tried to show in the previous chapter, waste is neither our hostage nor do we fall entirely under its spell – the projective time of use can cease in a variety of ways, few objects fall under our unequivocal control.
By ‘reading’ these objects, that connect two sides of a familiar story, archaeologists that focus on objects of waste hope to give a sense of closure and resolution to an object, thereby underwriting and stablising both its provenance and narrative coordinates, thus giving safe passage between states of use, waste and artefact. To summarise some of the arguments put forward here, we might say that the category of waste, as it is instrumentalised by some theorists of archaeology, compartmentalises those that use and those that collect the passing of that use. However, objects said to be waste might be made to give order and control between differing cultures; indeed, they seem to mark a cultural and temporal difference that help to make secure the simple transition between the past that stands on one side of an object and the waste that designates its present. This conception of waste only serves to extend the rather general narrative properties with which these objects are being endowed.
Obscured (if not entirely ignored) in the ‘cultural’ conception of waste – that attempts to reduce a thing to the “past behavior” that an object approximates – is the ongoing and continuous status of the object itself. Dion’s cabinet, by refusing to be readily cohered within one or a number of periods, raises the additional question surrounding the changing status of waste within an art object. In this respect, and in a way that seems to provide an important counterargument to “The Perfume of Garbage”, Dion’s work seems to turn loose the narrative anchors that Shanks et al impose upon objects of waste. The cabinet seems less interested in displaying narrative conclusions than suggesting that the idea of narrating things radically depends upon the way objects are being conceived and the kind of objects being analysed.
Dion’s collection dramatises the disjuncture between the appearance of an object and the time inscribed within it. The cabinet, with its drawers, doors and glass, helps make strange the quotidian things that Dion has assembled. Objects that were once active participants in a wide range of activities are now made to form a tableau that is animated by the carefully staged techniques of display. With the minimum amount of textual guidance the gallery visitor is asked to judge, identify and make associations between each object. But this mixture of things, and the inevitable difficultly in making sense every object in the cabinet, means that opportunities open for individual conjecture, speculation and indifference. Viewers cannot hope to identify every object, nor can they be expected to attach the same level of significance to each thing. The salient impression made by the work is one of mixture – assembled of objects both recognizable and obscure, complete and in fragments. Presented together, there can be no surety about where the “black hole of modern times” begins or ends, nor can there be any certainty about what “the light of archaeological research” might take as its starting point. This is partly due to how Dion’s cabinet contains within it objects that many gallery visitors might carry with them (e.g. cards, pens, keys and cosmetics) and, whilst some have deteriorated beyond use, many others seem free of signs of wear. The difference between those that discard, collect and observe is made indiscernible – these things by no means make clear temporal distinctions between ‘cultures’ and seem to willfully confuse the boundaries that Shanks and his co-authors propose. In a previous post, Heidegger’s hammer gave us occasion to assess how matter, time, and narrative, as well as a notion of ‘events of waste’, cannot be made reducible to the idea of ‘culture’ or ‘society’ but relate to the specific combination of use and material that an object has or might be put to. Moreover, notions of ‘culture’ or ‘society’ expressed in “The Perfume of Garbage” devolve the identity of things upon the consensus of a group. Lost in this is how the time of an object, particularly things of waste, might make exigent particular narratives of use and inertia.
Rarely does every member of a ‘culture’ waste or narrate waste together – a point particularly relevant to the hushed, gallery-based encounter that Dion gives us. Objects become the site of competing and mutually exclusive narrative acts that attest to the variety of times to which an object can bear witness. Objects share common properties, uses, and temporalities that can just as easily transgress group consensus as articulate common interest. Important here is the question of how and why these narratives are being expressed and not to assume that waste objects are recognisable to everyone that comes into contact with them.
Until now, our working hypothesis has been governed by the observation that for objects to be recognised as waste they require a narrative of use, a description of time that is no longer felt to be evident. Waste puts the use of things in temporal suspension or parenthesis. We make waste by removing a thing from use or removing use from a thing but in both cases the time of that object becomes divided into time of use and a time of waste. Whilst it might be true that different objects are used in different ways and at different times, the act of narrating these things according to periods of use and waste lends consistency to this narrative practice that cannot be made reducible to any agreed cultural/social division between peoples. This capacity to make sense of things by narrating the non-coincidence between conditions of use and waste might not simply happen nor does it necessarily occur communally, but for waste to occur, a narrative that legislates between the two times must also be in action. The difficulties that we might encounter in this emphasis upon the narrative effects of waste were precisely those Shanks et al express. In making the transition from use to waste an inevitable and, by extension, irreversible development, we might fail to acknowledge an object’s propensity to change, develop and reverse this movement. This renders the position of those that narrate the end of things far less permanent or secure, and might return a measure of agency to the object or thing being described. More important is the way that the contingencies of things – the contingent relationship to both use and waste – means that instrumentalising objects of waste to define a notion of the contemporary becomes a rather problematic project. In their view, archaeologists contribute to the construction of a present by shining torches of analysis upon past things as they enter the contemporary. Objects of the past are made meaningful through their apprehension in this present, the meaning of waste is a meaning apprehended in a ‘now’ that was, somehow, being defined in distinction to the ‘pastness’ (of ‘culture’, ‘society’ or ‘behaviour’) that to which waste was being attributed. The concluding section of this chapter will attempt to suggest the continuities and permutations in narrative encountered in Dion’s work. Doing so will force us to consider not just the ongoing status of Dion’s collection but its necessary changes, replacements and states of redundancy.
Waste might be said to pertain to a kind of untimeliness, a convolved temporality that seems to invite narrative engagement. The invitation to narrate objects according to actions they no longer perform is not easily met, not least because the category of waste is a provisional category, a category of transition; waste is matter that comes and goes. As a poor advocate or analogue for any neat division between pasts, presents, or futures, waste can be understood as the figuration of an incomplete and a reversible end. As an ‘already-and-not-yet’, a residue, a remainder, waste is without a dominant tense because it suggests a redundant present; it conjures a time that remains, as retrospectively obsolete as it is proleptically abundant. Objects, as we have noted in earlier chapters, can fall in and out of use and might do so over and over again. Waste does not spell death for an object but announces the potential for variable afterlives it might enter into.
The objects that Mark Dion collected on the banks of the Thames have now been in Tate Collections for more than ten years. The transformation that the cabinet and its contents have undergone since their initial display at Tate Gallery’s Art Now exhibition, between 25th November 1999 and 27th January 2000, testifies to the work’s discontinuous relationship between display, narrative, use and waste. Commissioned by Tate and acquired soon after its first public viewing at Tate Gallery, it takes on an important role in Tate’s collections:
The content and conception of Tate Thames Dig 1999 are very much specific to the Tate. It was conceived as a Tate Modern project and was displayed as part of the Art Now programme at Millbank. It has been offered to the Tate at a reduced price that takes account of the considerable Tate contribution to the fabrication costs of the work. A number of pressing reasons would make this a tremendously significant acquisition. It records the relaunch of the Tate in London as two sites while emphasising its nature as a single entity in one cabinet. It highlights their shared characteristic of a river frontage ant [sic] the fact that this important artery is a fundamental link between them. Secondly, it links each institution to its local community and to the history of its environment. In combining art, science, history, in an interpenetrating way it questions the very presentation of history and the Tate’s part in that presentation. It is a self-conscious piece which reflects the processes of categorisation and modes of display that the Tate itself employs. (Tate Archive).
Tate’s rationale for collecting the work relies upon the stability of the object, reflected in a language of ‘recording’, ‘linking’ and ‘combining’ that somehow aims to coalesce the various self-reflexive tasks that Tate sets for itself. But as an assemblage of things, that requires a complex process of assembly and disassembly for each public viewing, Tate Thames Dig shows itself to be a rather unstable entity. The extensive conservation notes held in the Tate Archives relate the problems that the conservation department have encountered with this work, demonstrating the expenditure required to safeguard the stability of the work: “[Tate Thames Dig] Contains materials (plastic finds, pickled specimens) which are liable to degrade. Most of the finds were cleaned as part of the dig process and will be stable. Corroded iron is main exception, will require special storage (less than 18% RH) and checking as a vulnerable item.” (Tate Archive). The cabinet, far from instituting a solid, permanent or reliable enclosure, is a temporary unit that contains objects that change in form and function. Not only must Tate decide when and how to assemble the work but it must, to a certain extent, decide what to assemble. Take, for instance, the iron objects displayed in drawer G on the Millbank side of the cabinet. As Tate employee, Sasa Kosinova, reports, “Overall condition of the iron artefacts is very poor; all the pieces are heavily corroded, crumbly and/or disintegrated. A thorough treatment is required. As an emergency treatment 5 loose and broken pieces were re-adhered. This draw was not vacuumed. Damaged sliders” (Tate Archive).. Albeit seen through the microcosm of a particular part of the collection, questions surround these objects and an ongoing negotiation of materials, efficacy and performance demand reconciliation. These iron objects have not simply passed into a state of waste that remains finite or conclusive but, through processes of disintegration, their potential to move into and out of use and waste is made exigent. Moreover, they show the multiple occasions that an object can be discarded; the movement between use and waste is neither complete nor unidirectional. So, after more than two years on the third floor of the Tate Modern (April 2003 – October 2005), the cabinet begins to exhibit both a collection of things and the marks of this exhibition:
The drawers had been handled by the public for the duration of three years [sic]. Various types of damage had resulted: pieces have detached and dislodged within the drawers; corrosion of iron artefacts had carried on, sometimes to the point of disintegration; larger artefacts are jamming the glass scratching it on the side [sic]; handles have become loose; the inside of the drawers got rusty and the covering glass dirty. (Tate Archive).
It is the particularly kinetic form of display that Dion’s cabinet performs which provides the work’s propensity not just to present waste but to generate it. This is an artwork that is partly composed of objects that have been discarded and whose display carries with it externalities, influencing the nature and composition of the collection. The cabinet evolves continuously, an evolution to which it frames and gives measure. For its most recent exhibition six new drawer runners were required, whilst some drawers needed new fabrics to compensate for the damage done to them by eroding objects. Oddly enough, although the old runners were discarded the old fabric has been kept in the Tate Archives, a curious souvenir of a conservation process that must continually chose what to keep, preserve or discard. When displayed at Tate Britain in July 2009 drawer G had been cleaned, the fragments removed and the more depleted yet salvageable items treated for further decay. The cabinet and the collection it stores is an entity caught in slow mutation, refusing to represent the conclusion of a particular narrative trajectory. A small polythene bag remains in the Conservation File, “SAMPLE LOOSE FRAGS / FROM CONSERVED DRAWER 6/2009” (Tate Archive), a representative sample of what was removed from the drawer can be found inside – small pieces of rusted iron, anonymously jumbled together. These are residues from a larger collection of residua; they suggest the silting process of stuff that comes under the influence of a ‘correct’ or ‘orderly’ performance. In these iron fragments we have a rather complicated example of when waste fails to perform an ideal role set for it. Although Tate Thames Dig provides an interesting example of waste being put to work, for it to do so it must provide the conditions for waste to fail and become discarded once more.
Although waste might be seen to mark the end of an object – we frequently speak of things as having come the end of their ‘useful life’ – Dion’s work is one that harnesses and confounds this sense of ending, not just by being an object within a larger collection but through the nature of the objects it gathers. If Shanks and his co-authors suppose that an object must ‘die’ in order to enter the archaeological record, Dion displays the countless and mutating afterlives in which things might participate. Tate Thames Dig is a work not of recycling as such, since recycling suggests the capacity for a thing to decycle, to lose relation to functionality altogether. Instead, the objects in the cabinet are carried by a more complex, continuous and fluid process of cycling in and out of the times of use and waste, attended by and expressed through assembly and disassembly, preservation and disposal. Although Alex Coles has argued, employing the language of Brechtian theatre, that the cabinet represents the “final act” of Dion’s show, (1999: 30) we cannot say that the curtain has gone down. The cabinet serves as a reservoir that stores objects, both to slow them down and to resist the dissolution of matter. It does this with only partial success, unable to remove these things from the processes of decay and decomposition. Nor, indeed, is the cabinet itself immune from these processes, as its glass, wood and metal components become eroded by the curiosity of gallery visitors. There exists a continuity of correspondences between the status of the things collected and the effects of their presentation. The cabinet serves to both frame the collection and actively influence the changing condition of this assemblage; the collection does not go unaffected by the performance that the cabinet distributes, objects remain relative to the means of their display. This twofold function of the cabinet, ordering and reordering the objects contained within it, serves to both heighten the narrative exigency of the work and render problematic the material basis by which these narratives are achieved. A central paradox of Tate Thames Dig, then, lies in how untimely objects seem to point to a redundant time of use – an identifiable incision in their past – whilst simultaneously refusing the finality of this redundancy. Waste shows itself to be a false end, a ruse that masks the continuity of things, their development and decay.
Full references on request – willviney[at]hotmail.com