The ‘Introduction’ of *Waste: A Philosophy of Things* Available Here

WasteWith the official UK release of Waste: A Philosophy of Things on 22nd May 2014, Bloomsbury have supplied a preview to give you an idea of the book’s ambitions. You can read the Introduction here.


About Why are people so interested in what they and others throw away? This book shows how this interest in what we discard is far from new — it is integral to how we make, build and describe our lived environment. As this wide-ranging new study reveals, waste has been a polarizing topic for millennia and has been treated as a rich resource by artists, writers, philosophers and architects. Drawing on the works of Giorgio Agamben, T.S. Eliot, Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, James Joyce, Bruno Latour and many others, Waste: A Philosophy of Things investigates the complexities of waste in sculpture, literature and architecture. It traces a new philosophy of things from the ancient to the modern and will be of interest to those working in cultural and literary studies, archaeology, architecture and continental philosophy.


“This book will convince you that our most complex contemporary ideas about time are at work in the concept of waste. It draws its temporal concepts from many places, from art and literature, philosophy and cultural theory, narrative and the theory of narrative to think about the time of things – things we discard, things we used to use, things we collect, things that fall into ruin, and things that hold the future within them. It animates the theory of things and makes something beautiful out of waste.” –  Mark Currie, Professor of Contemporary Literature, School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London, UK

“If the primary achievement of recent civilization is to produce unprecedented heaps of garbage, what does this tell us about that civilization? In his pleasantly lucid prose style, Will Viney answers this question by providing an ontology, a sociology, and even an art criticism of waste, with special attention to the writings of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce and the visual art of Cornelia Parker and Mark Dion.” –  Graham Harman, Distinguished University Professor, American University in Cairo

– See more at:“This book will convince you that our most complex contemporary ideas about time are at work in the concept of waste. It draws its temporal concepts from many places, from art and literature, philosophy and cultural theory, narrative and the theory of narrative to think about the time of things – things we discard, things we used to use, things we collect, things that fall into ruin, and things that hold the future within them. It animates the theory of things and makes something beautiful out of waste.” –  Mark Currie, Professor of Contemporary Literature, School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London, UK

Reviews “This book will convince you that our most complex contemporary ideas about time are at work in the concept of waste. It draws its temporal concepts from many places, from art and literature, philosophy and cultural theory, narrative and the theory of narrative to think about the time of things – things we discard, things we used to use, things we collect, things that fall into ruin, and things that hold the future within them. It animates the theory of things and makes something beautiful out of waste.” –  Mark Currie, Professor of Contemporary Literature, School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London, UK

“If the primary achievement of recent civilization is to produce unprecedented heaps of garbage, what does this tell us about that civilization? In his pleasantly lucid prose style, Will Viney answers this question by providing an ontology, a sociology, and even an art criticism of waste, with special attention to the writings of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce and the visual art of Cornelia Parker and Mark Dion.” –  Graham Harman, Distinguished University Professor, American University in Cairo

Why are people so interested in what they and others throw away? This book shows how this interest in what we discard is far from new — it is integral to how we make, build and describe our lived environment. As this wide-ranging new study reveals, waste has been a polarizing topic for millennia and has been treated as a rich resource by artists, writers, philosophers and architects. Drawing on the works of Giorgio Agamben, T.S. Eliot, Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, James Joyce, Bruno Latour and many others, Waste: A Philosophy of Things investigates the complexities of waste in sculpture, literature and architecture. It traces a new philosophy of things from the ancient to the modern and will be of interest to those working in cultural and literary studies, archaeology, architecture and continental philosophy.

Table Of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. Introduction
Part I: Collecting Waste
2. Narrating the Event of Waste
3. Archaeologies of Waste
Part II: Reading Waste
4. The Poetic Economies of T. S. Eliot
5. Reading Joycean Disjecta
Part III: Building Ruins
6. Ruins Past
7. Ruins of the Future
8. Conclusion


“This book will convince you that our most complex contemporary ideas about time are at work in the concept of waste. It draws its temporal concepts from many places, from art and literature, philosophy and cultural theory, narrative and the theory of narrative to think about the time of things – things we discard, things we used to use, things we collect, things that fall into ruin, and things that hold the future within them. It animates the theory of things and makes something beautiful out of waste.” –  Mark Currie, Professor of Contemporary Literature, School of English and Drama, Queen Mary, University of London, UK“If the primary achievement of recent civilization is to produce unprecedented heaps of garbage, what does this tell us about that civilization? In his pleasantly lucid prose style, Will Viney answers this question by providing an ontology, a sociology, and even an art criticism of waste, with special attention to the writings of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce and the visual art of Cornelia Parker and Mark Dion.” –  Graham Harman, Distinguished University Professor, American University in Cairo

– See more at:

Waste: A Philosophy of Things, Now Available on Amazon

Though it won’t be available for some months – provisionally scheduled for release in May 2014 – my first book, Waste: A Philosophy of Things, is now listed on Amazon for pre-order. The book will be published by Bloomsbury Academic at a price that will put it beyond the reach of most individuals but with the Waste-A Philosophy of Thingshope that institutions may buy enough copies for a paperback edition to be financially viable. Having worked in academic publishing, helping others to get their work published, I am delighted that I’ll be putting out something of my own. And, though my attention is now directed to other projects, my work on waste is still a source of interest to me and, I hope, not yet redundant by all that has been written and published on the subject since I concluded my research.

Things are changing in publishing and, though I am interested in open culture and, to an extent, the open source publishing models pioneered online, I am still convinced that traditional, hardcopy formats (alongside digital formats), established on flexible but globally structured editorial, publicity and marketing relations, along with the modest kinds of innovation that Bloomsbury are strong on, is a better option for me, at this stage, and for this particular project. If that sounds like I have ethical issues with the academic publishing industry as a whole, well, I do, but this is a book that requires all the support of an established and well-run press of which Bloomsbury is certainly an example.

The cover image is taken sometime in 1888, I think, during the Tower’s construction. I am particularly interested in monuments as waste or as immanent objects of waste, and the temporality of this is explored in the book’s final chapters. It is not the case that all monuments ruin in the same way nor do they always resemble ruins in their construction, but the sight and site of a building being made makes use as well as future ruin possible. It is the relationship between use and waste, use as waste, use making waste, that has captivated me and made this book project so unexpectedly relevant to my current research into the use of twins in contemporary science. More on that elsewhere, for now, I’m looking to topping off the almost-not-quite-yetness of Waste, with the index and final proofs not yet ready.

The Landfill Harmonic (2014)

Landfill Harmonic is an upcoming feature-length documentary about a remarkable orchestra from a remote village in Paraguay, where its young musicians play with instruments made from trash:

Cateura, Paraguay is a town essentially built on top of a landfill. Garbage collectors browse the trash for sellable goods, and children are often at risk of getting involved with drugs and gangs. When orchestra director Szaran and music teacher Favio set up a music program for the kids of Cateura, they soon have more students than they have instruments.

That changed when Szaran and Favio were brought something they had never seen before: a violin made out of garbage. Today, there’s an entire orchestra of assembled instruments, now called ‘The Recycled Orchestra’.

Our film shows how trash and recycled materials can be transformed into beautiful sounding musical instruments, but more importantly, it brings witness to the transformation of precious human beings.

Nore Hill Folly, West Sussex – A Note on Follies, Eyecatchers and Fabriques

On Saturday afternoon I joined some friends for a short walk about the Sussex countryside. It was a day with an extra 10 degrees on the thermometer, bright sunshine, obedient daffodils and crocuses making their salutations, and all the other rites that bring the first sight of spring.

We began in Slindon village and were soon marching across the brow of one side of a small valley and,  turning to the other side of this small dip in the land, we could see Nore Hill Folly in the near distance. To feed a little ruinlust we made our loop take in this architectural  castaway and before long we were  weaving ourselves down and along one hill and then up the other to take a closer look, passing a beagle hunt,  a phalanx of ruddy-checked riders out with their puffing ponies, the London Symphony Orchestra playing a medley of Handel, Elgar and Vaughan Williams, countless other scenes straight from the small ads of Country Life, etc.

Nore Hill Folly, near Slindon, West Sussex, UK

On closer inspection the folly is like a ruinous medieval gatehouse (of a heavy, Northern European build), with one arch intact and the other shattered. Asymmetric, it has a tower to one side and crude battlements that run horizontally from one side to the other. The odd thing about the folly is that the tower, and the arch built ‘complete’, face up the hill. This suggests that the intended way of approaching the folly is from north to south, from an elevated position above the folly itself. It is worth noting how this ‘eyecatcher’, as follies of the eighteenth-century period were sometimes known, can catch the eye both from the village to the south (as it did as we began our walk) as well as collate a view down the valley, through its decaying aperture, towards the village and the panorama beyond. But little is known about the construction, intention and history of the folly at Nore Hill. It simply remains, without every aspect of its existence reducible to deed and document. It, like many other sham ruins of its kind, produces a time of stories that makes the factual basis of this architecture of secondary importance. This is the aesthetic tradition of the folly (and I am really not satisfied with the limitations of the word ‘aesthetic’, for the reasons given below). What I’m getting at, I think, are the conditions that produce the grounds for speculation, to give a narrative architecture engineered through the distructure of a built ruin.

Nore Hill Folly, near Slindon, West Sussex, UK

Although strongly associated with the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some say that the desire to build sham ruins has a far longer history.[1] Vasari notes the interventions of Girolamo Genga, an architect of the early fifteenth century who was in the employment of the Duke of Urbino and commissioned Genga to build a palace, “a well-planned fabric, and full of apartments, colonnades, courts, loggie, fountains, and most delightful gardens, there is no Prince that passes that does not go to see it […] From the design of this same master, the Duke caused the Palace at Pesaro to be restored, and also the little park, making within it a house representing a ruin, which is a very beautiful thing to see.”[2] Genga’s building project was one that included the construction of a ruin, a visual diversion for the Duke’s visitors. It is worth noting that Genga’s ruin is approximately contemporary with Botticelli’s nativity works and this ruinous folly might be considered a secular equivalent to the temporal distinctions witnessed in those paintings. Later in the eighteenth century, spurred by Grand Tourism, the rise of the European picturesque and made manifest in both formal and irregular garden design, fabricated ruins became a common feature on the property of Europe’s fashionable elite. Writing in 1728, the writer and garden designer, Batty Langley, recommended ruins as a way to terminate avenues or vistas:

Ruins may either be painted upon Canvas, or actually built in that manner with Brick, and cover’d with Plaistering in Imitation of Stone. And since we are to build no more thereof than as much of the shell, as is next to our view, I therefore recommend their building before their painting, not only as the most durable, but least expensive (if the Painting is performed by a skilful Hand) and much more to the real Purport intended.[3]

Ruins provide a practical solution to the limitations of garden space and Langley preferred classical ruins for this role – “After the Old Roman Manner for the termination of Walks, Avenues &c.”[4] Again, the ruin is employed to resolve spatial distances with temporal distances. In the images that accompany Langley’s influential work, David Lockley’s simple etchings include mouldering structures to fill the gaps and channels created by ornate hedgerows. The effect of these ruins must have been to provide a telescopic vista, which gathers the manicured present within a theatrical past. Turned towards vantage points that would emphasise the ruin’s capacity to stand at odds with (and simultaneously within) the domestic space that surrounds it, these sham ruins serve to disclose many of the ruin’s narratological effects. The deployment of ruins in European gardens can be seen to follow the diktats of the picturesque as they were laid out by William Gilpin later in the century, “the picturesque eye is perhaps most inquisitive after the elegant relics of ancient architecture; the ruined tower, the Gothic arch, the remains of castles and abbeys. They are consecrated by time; and almost deserve the veneration we pay to the works of nature itself.”[5] Gilpin’s sense of the picturesque is deeply invested in the veneration of a past that ruins mediate. Engaging in the contrasts, transience and permanence that they suggest, ruins leave the historical to be “physically merged into the setting”, allowing ruin to become the visual index or material manifestation of time.

Folly at Hagley Hall, Worcester, built by Sanderson Miller, 1749–50. A.F. Kersting, n.d.

 As the locations reserved for sham ruins expanded beyond the formal spaces of English gardens, they became deployed across the land of the wealthy. The ruin built in the grounds of Hagley Hall provides a useful example, perched upon a hill and set apart from the main house of George Lyttelton who commissioned Sanderson Miller to build the folly in the 1750s. It is interesting to note Joseph Heely’s observations surrounding the historical effects of the structure, when he described the ruin several decades later:

Upon first glimpse of this becoming object, which adds so much dignity to the scene, one cannot resist an involuntary pause — struck with its character, the mind naturally falls into reflections, while curiosity is on the wing, to be acquainted with its history; and I make no doubt that an antiquarian like my friend, would sigh to know what era it was founded, and by whom: — what sieges is had sustained; — and would lament that hostile discord, or the iron hand of all-mouldering time, should so rapaciously destroy it.[6]

Heely’s response to the folly, by way of his anonymous and antiquarian “friend”, is an involuntarily narrative one, a response sensitive to the absent time that ruins make quasi-present. The “dignity” bestowed by Miller’s folly might owe something to the contrast gained from the strict Palladian styling of Hagley Hall. As Horace Walpole wrote to Richard Bentley in 1753, the folly has “the true rust of the baron’s wars”,[7] making a clear reference to a baronial, Catholic England felt to have been superseded by the Protestant neo-Classicalism of Lyttelton and his circle.[8] There is a broader case to be made for the preference for Gothic follies vis-à-vis the Classical, as James Howley argues, “for many advocates of the classical taste, the rival Gothic style was only acceptable in a ruined and defeated state”.[9] The ruin, in this capacity, performs precisely the same function as the ruins found in fifteenth-century paintings, affecting a severance between the time of a ‘then’ and a time of a ‘now’. Although the motivating forces might differ, the role of ruin to divide time remains consistent. The benefit of comparing the use of these ruins, in both paint and in landscape design, is that we are given a clear view of how ruin facilitates the distinction of thought and belief. It not that there is something inherent in these ideas – New Testament theology and paganism, neo-Classicism and Catholic medievalism – that makes them readily associated with the ruin, but these ideas gain their narrative distinction through the structural effects of ruins and the temporal oppositions they are made to mediate.

As eyecatchers, displays of wealth, politically and architecturally-loaded statements of style, follies provide important occurrences when images of waste have profound and explicit use. Whether real or fabricated, the application of waste in the ruinous folly provides just another reason why this thesis avoids making ‘non-use’ an intrinsic capability of things, but, instead, a reversible and contingent temporal effect. In terms of Heideggerian ‘dwelling’, the folly is spared and preserved, but only in so far as it serves an ambiguous ‘goal’, insofar as it maintains the temporal complexity of waste. Whilst the folly is a maintained ruin in one sense, its teleological imperative as a ruin is to be ruinous, to be detached from the temporal nature of maintained use. The ruinous effect, its capacity for picturesque pleasure for instance, depends on not being orientated towards use. This is also true of the ubiquitous practice of preserving ruins, which are preserved only in so far as they continue being ruinous and continue to stand in temporal distinction to the architecture of use. In the next chapter we shall explore in finer detail the delicate conclusions of the ruin that is left to dissolve into indistinction. Until then, we should acknowledge that our understandings of ruin rely upon preserving certain narratalogical structures of recursivity and anticipation. Attempts to stabilise, spare and preserve ruins do not simultaneously impose the temporal enclosure, the “goal” that we associate with use. Instead, to preserve the ruin is, in part, to keep this goal at bay, to preserve and potentially intensify the mediatory, unenclosed effect of ruin.

So, whilst part of the charm of a fabricated ruin issues precisely from fabrication, from artificiality, another facet arises from their successful simulation of ruin’s effects. Andreas Huyssen has argued that we can contrast modern ruins with those of the eighteenth century according to notions of authenticity. Huyssen argues that the celebration of ruins in the eighteenth century was driven by notions of “authorship, genius, originality, selfhood, uniqueness, and subjectivity” – by ruins that “seem to guarantee origins.”[10] Huyssen claims that the appeal made to authenticity that these ruins seemed to enact are now all but eliminated in, for instance, the contemporary use of Roman ruins for opera performances or the use of medieval castles for hotel accommodation.[11] But even a superficial examination of eighteenth or nineteenth-century follies shows that trying to periodise ruins according to ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ effects will prove unproductive, particularly since follies were celebrated for their ability to fuse authentic and inauthentic effects, staging both a challenge to notions of authorship, genius and originality, and a means to maintain and uphold these terms. It is better, in my view, to stress the dynamic role that narrative plays in every experience of ruin, each encounter must accept the way in which the ruin makes exigent particular time-bound narratives. Ruinous follies do not simply ‘guarantee origins’ but are capable of fabricating a fictitious past, an inauthentic origin, a time of use that never has and never will occur. In addition to the recycled quality of Sanderson Miller’s folly at Hagley, which took windows from the ruin from nearby Halesowen Abbey[12], we might consider Jeffry Wyatt’s use of Roman ruins at Virginia Water. Wyatt reused architectural fragments shipped from Leptis Magna on the Libyan coast in 1818. Without a clear plan of the original Roman construction, and making no attempt to represent their organisation at Leptis, Wyatt refashioned these fragments into what he called the ‘Temple of Augustus’. These ruins are, in a material sense, entirely ‘genuine’, ‘ancient’ and ‘original’ but their relocation and reassembly erodes any clear distinction between the authentic and inauthentic, or indeed, between ruin and fabrique. The fabrication of the ruin reveals, in Sophie Thomas’s view, “the ruin’s necessarily constructed relationship to questions of history, and its importance in the creation of the present.”[13] This propensity to stage the past, a past that responds to the way in which the ruin is bound to diverging and deconstructed times of use and waste, shows the ruin not to guarantee an authentic origin but to provide a narrative departure for many narrative constructions.

The ruin then, and its manifestation in the folly in particular, discloses one of the principal effects of waste; it suggests a disunity of time and a temporal counterpoint to those objects that surround it. William Ockenden, writing when the popularity of follies was nearing its height, chooses to stress the contemplative attraction of ruins:

 All remains excite an enquiry into the former state of the edifice, and fix the mind in a contemplation on the use it was applied to; besides the characters expressed by their style and position, they suggest ideas which would not arise from the buildings, if entire. The purposes of many have ceased; an abbey, or a castle, if complete, can no more than a dwelling; the memory of the times, and of the manners, to which they were adapted, is preserved only in history, and in ruins […]. [14]

This contemplative potential is, for the large part, a potential born from the comparative and narratological impulse that drives our experience of ruins. “Whatever building we see in decay,” continues Ockenden, “we naturally contrast its present to its former state, and delight to ruminate on the comparison.”[15] In eighteenth-century garden design, as it was on the Grand Tour, the lure of the ruin owes something to the temporal problems it posed. Ockenden does, however, concede a difference between ‘genuine’ and fictitious ruins, “It is true that such effects properly belong to real ruins; but they are produced in a certain degree by those which are fictitious; the impressions are not so strong, but they are exactly similar; and the representation, though it does not present facts to the memory, yet suggests subjects to the imagination.”[16] Those responsible for authoring and experiencing some of the best-known examples of ruin building certainly seem to accept a continuity of effect between ruins and their fabricated counterparts, what remains consistent is the narrative quality common to both.

[1] See Rose Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins, 16.

[2] Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptures and Architects, trans. Gaston du C. de Vere , 4 vols. (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1996), 2:384–385.

[3] Batty Langley, New Principles of Gardening: Or, The Laying and Planting Paterres, Groves, Wildernesses, Labyrinths, Avenues, Parks &c. (London: Bettesworth, Batlry, Pemberton, Bowles, Clarke and Bowles, 1728), xi. Italics in original.

[4] Batty Langley, New Principles of Gardening, 196.

[5] William Gilpin, Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty; on Picturesque Travel; and on Sketching Landscape, &c. (1794; London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1808), 46. My italics.

[6] Joseph Heely, Letters on the Beauties of Hagley, Envil and the Leasowes. With Critical Remarks and Observations on the Modern Taste in Gardening, 2 vols. (London: R. Baldwin, 1777), 1:172–173.

[7] Horace Walpole, “From a Letter to Richard Bentley (September, 1753),” in The Genius of the Place: The English Landscape Garden, 1620-1820, ed. John Dixon Hunt and Peter Willis (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1988), 313.

[8] See David Stewart, “Political Ruins: Gothic Sham Ruins and the ‘45,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 55 no. 4 (1996): 400–411.

[9] James Howley, The Follies and Garden Buildings of Ireland (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1993), 109.

[10] Andreas Huyssen, “Authentic Ruins: Products of Modernity,” in Ruins of Modernity, ed. Julia Hell and Andreas Schönle, 18, 20.

[11] Huyssen also suggests that the renovation of disused industrial ruins, such as the transformation of Bankside Power Station into the Tate Modern in London, also exemplifies the ‘inauthentic’ era of the ruin. Here, it seems, it is not ideas of authenticity or inauthenticity that are at stake but whether ‘ruins’ are allowed to exist ‘free’ of human interference. In any case, the renovation or preservation of ruins is certainly not a modern phenomenon, as Huyssen seems to suggest.

[12] See E. W. Hawkes, “Sanderson Miller of Radway, 1716–1780: Architect,” (PhD diss., University of Cambridge, 1964), 45

[13] Sophie Thomas, “Assembling History: Fragments and Ruins,” European Romantic Review 14 (2003): 181.

[14] William Ockenden, Observations on Modern Gardening, Illustrated by Descriptions (Dublin: John Exchaw, 1770), 138.

[15] William Ockenden, Observations on Modern Gardening, 138

[16] Ibid, 138–139.

Waste Effects – Table of Contents

As a quick way of navigating this site I thought it might be helpful to upload my table contents and provide links. These are not verbatim extracts but versions or papers that have a close correspondence to the final text. And there are lots of other incidental posts on this site, which closely relate to the subject of waste, that have not made it into the final draft. Now that this project is almost complete, the work in progress found here will be left up as a record of the various iterations it went through before being handed in, together, as my PhD thesis.


Chapter 1. Introduction
– Use-time and the End of Ends
– Waste-time and the End of the End
– Epic Wastes: “Nothing will come of nothing”
Sovereign Wastes: Unproductive and Uninhabited
– For a Temporal Poetics of Waste
– The Beginning of the End


Chapter 2. Narrating the Event of Waste
Interrupting Waste
Continuities of Waste
Narrating The Event of Waste in the Work of Cornelia Parker

Chapter 3. Archaeologies of Waste
Gathering Waste
– The Contingencies of Narrating Waste
– Anthropologies of Waste: Collecting Culture, Collecting Time
– Archives and the Afterlife of Collections
– Waste Remains, Dust Dissolves


Chapter 4. The Poetic Economies of T. S. Eliot
Make it Waste
– Bringing the Waste Land to Order
– Allusion, Intertexuality and Manuscript Drafts

Chapter 5. Reading Joycean Disjecta
Waste Words and Throwaways
– A Language of Flotsam and Jetsam
– Narrating the Place of Textual Waste
– Waste in Progress
– Eliot and Joyce: Writing into Disappearance


Chapter 6. Ruins Past
– The Temporality of Use
The Temporality of Ruins
– Ruins and the Past

Chapter 7. Ruins of the Future
Apocalypse, Then
– The Ozymandias Complex
– Encountering Last Things
– Concluding with Ruins

Artists Announce They’ve Found All The Beauty They Can In Urban Decay

Phew, The Onion have put me out of my misery:

DETROIT—After spending more than a century exploiting urban decay to create deeply moving, socially conscious works of art, the art world announced Tuesday that it had captured all the beauty it was going to find in rusted-out cars, abandoned houses, and condemned industrial sites. “These modern ruins speak to the very heart of the human condition, but at this point every last inch of Detroit and Oakland has been documented in photographs, on film, or as part of a multimedia installation,” said artist Devon Gerhart, who told reporters that devoting so much time to contemplating the wounded grandeur of blighted cityscapes had led him to the point where he just wanted to see the places cleaned up. “I made my career portraying the plight of the homeless, but now I’m starting to wonder whether they’d prefer it if someone just helped them find a place to live.” The world’s artists later confirmed plans to spend at least another 50 years churning out heavy-handed depictions of the inherent soullessness of suburban sprawl


Becoming a little obsessed with the phenomena of waste in contemporary art has left me vulnerable to discovering just how many other people share something of this obsession.  This realisation doesn’t help me write or plan my thesis one bit and I’ve had to make the uncomfortable decision not to try and give an exhaustive account of all the different ways that objects of waste have been used in sculpture. (Lea Vergine’s When Trash Becomes Art attempts this, giving particular emphasis to European and North American artists of the twentieth century.)  I hope my analysis of Cornelia Parker and Mark Dion does enough for me to pass my viva but these close readings offer little comfort when I think of all the fascinating and diverse work being done now. So, I hope to update what follows on a regular basis; whenever I come across a contemporary artist using waste in a striking or unusual way:

Lara Almarcegui

Lara Almarcegui was born in Zaragoza, Spain, in 1972 and now lives in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Building archives of the transient, Almarcegui collects historical, geographic, ecological, and sociological data about vacant areas in the urban spaces. She says about her work, “one wasteland has very different characteristics from the next. I try to present each site in as much detail as I can, zoom in a lot, try to present the uniqueness of each site.”

Lara Almarcegui, Guide to Ruined Buildings in The Netherlands XIX-XXI Century (2008)

Cutting across her Guides to European and North American wastelands, Almarcegui also looks to the materials of construction and destruction, to the substance of rubble. In her current solo show at Secession, Austria, she has piled the necessary quantities of concrete, wood, terrazzo, brick, mortar, glass, plaster, polystyrene, and steel that were needed for the construction of the Secession exhibition space.


Lara Almarcegui, installation view: Construction Rubble of Secession’s Main Hall (2010). Photo: Wolfgang Thaler

These construction materials are heaped together like spices at a market and all are products of recycling processes. They come to evoke both the future and past uses of these objects as well as the future and past uses of the exhibition space. And operating and anticipating a continuum between making and discarding, it seems to me that Almarcegui’s work unearths the etymological root of the work ‘material’, from the Latin materia: “timber roughly squared off for future construction” (see Michel Serres, Rome p. 43). That is to say, her material feels to have a for-ness even when it is ruinous. This point might lead us on to a little quixotic quotation from Jacques Derrida, who observed that “At the origin comes ruin; ruin comes to the origin, it is what first comes and happens to the origin, in the beginning” (Memoirs of the Blind, 65). I like how Almarcegui’s Guides and installations are works that end with beginnings and discover the beginning in the end. Whether or not this is the substance of ‘deconstruction’ is, perhaps, a different matter.

Kathy Taylor

Closer to home. I first discovered Kathy Taylor’s work at the artist’s studios in Wandsworth, London. Having seen a friend on the upper floor of Collective Studios we were greeted by this at the door; snapped with the camera on my mobile telephone:

Kathy Taylor, Quench (2010)

The low quality of my photography actually exaggerates an effect that I think Taylor wants to put to work – that it isn’t immediately obvious that the work is constructed from thousands of used teabags. Falling from a vent, this vine-like construction presents a constellation of national self-description, international finance, caffeinated ritual, European trade and expansionism. It also smells of tea. The work first appeared earlier this year in a collaborative exhibition with Margret Duston.

Kathy Taylor and Margret Duston, Quench (2010). Used teabags, cotton & wire framework (10,000 plus used teabags were donated by local residents).

See Kathy Taylor’s website for more details.


Peter Buggenhout

Born 1963 in Dendermonde, Belgium, Peter Buggenhout’s assemblages are really quite odd. This strangeness is largely born out of the waste, household dust, animal hair, blood and intestines that are his source materials. Intricate yet monolithic, his sculptures are both abject and calmly composed; oscillating between the catastrophic remainders of bizarre or subterranean crimes, and a solemn and delicate orderliness.

Peter Buggenhout, TBL, TBL (The Blind Leading The Blind) #2, (2004). Mixed media, stof (h) 95 x (w) 64 x (d) 99 cm

In his series The Blind Leading the Blind, Buggenhout assembles pieces of waste and covers them with thick layers of household dust. Another series of wall-based sculptures entitled Gorgo is made of waste textiles, horse hair and black animal blood. A third series, Mount Ventoux, is formed out of bleached animal intestines stretched over polymorphous shapes of polyurethane foam.

Peter Buggenhout, Gorgo #4 (2005). Blood, pigment, iron, wood, paper, glass. 83 x 148 x 92 cm

Anselm Kiefer

Kiefer was born in Donaueschingen, Germany in 1945. He now lives and works in Provence, France. Once a student of Joseph Beuys, Kiefer shares Beuys’ interest in mixing, combining and confusing unusual objects with great texture and visual complexity. His huge variety of materials – oil paint, dirt, lead, models, photographs, woodcuts, sand, straw – are made to occupy a compelling third space between painting and sculpture. He once said, “All that artists do is to reorganise remnants.” And, in the second part of this BBC ‘Arena’ documentary, Kiefer compares the position of the artist to that of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Angel of History’; standing before a chaotic and ever growing heap of ruin.

More to follow…

Cornelia Parker and the Untimeliness of Waste

A version of this text was presented at “L’art Intempestif/Untimely Art”, held at the Institut du monde anglophone, Université de Paris III-Sorbonne Nouvelle, 9–10 September 2010.

It has become, in recent years, quite common to equate concepts of waste with ideas of dirt, disgust or contagion. Following the work of Mary Douglas (1966), studies across the humanities and social sciences have taken for granted that ‘filth’ and ‘abjection’ provide a necessary condition for waste. Objects of waste, then, stand in opposition to all that is clean, hygienic or orderly. Of course, it is quite easy to think of situations in which we discard something without disgust or recourse to notions of dirt and abjection; objects that are considered technologically, architecturally or informationally obsolete, for instance, are frequently discarded without reference to the idea of dirt, disgust or repulsion. In what follows, I propose, instead, quite a different approach to the subject of waste that stresses the temporal problems that things of waste present. We contrast times of waste with the way in which use brings things into a contemporary and complicit time, made timely by our projects, our plans and our activities. Use makes objects projective in this way, throwing things towards a functioning future. Waste, on the other hand, describes objects that are no longer commensurable with our action. Objects of waste are therefore things that are no longer felt to be our temporal co-dependents. Cut adrift from the teleology of use, the time of waste is untimely, marked by a sense of temporal dislocation.

There are a number of reasons why I have chosen the work of the British artist Cornelia Parker to discuss the relationship between art, waste and temporality. The first reason is a matter of convenience – her work is full of waste things, stuff that has been discarded or is undergoing a process of disposal. The second reason is more specific to Parker’s method of interrogating things and the meanings that pre-exist her interaction with them. Her work demonstrates how these meanings can undergo change, transformation and translation. Her best known works, Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988–89), Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991), Mass: Colder Darker Matter (1997), Avoided Object (1995), and The Negative of Words (1996), operate in a diffuse chorus to reassess how meaning becomes attached to and validated by material; explicating how these attachments can become located, detached and reconfigured. Parker does not so much create as recreate things, taking what pre-exists and manipulating this condition of pre-existence in order to query the time we distribute to things.

One of the temporal effects most commonly associated with Parker’s work is the relationship between object and action. This temporal effect is particularly evident in works where Parker includes, manufactures or engages with objects of waste, with things in which the problematic distinctions between use and non-use, the active and the dormant, the telling and the unintelligible motivate our critical engagement.

Cornelia Parker, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991)

We begin with an explosion; a common garden shed exploded into hundreds of shards, fragments, particles. And, after this explosion, there follows a careful process of arrangement where each fragment is attached to wire and suspended within a gallery space. The shards are gathered around a single light bulb that has been found intact among the debris that the explosion has left in its wake. The creation of Parker’s Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View is a choreographic, almost photographic act, an assisted readymade that speaks of an event by which waste has been created – a waste, a remnant, a remainder of action caught in an unreal time that is neither fabricated nor factual, present nor absent. These objects have been retained and displayed to unfold this weird and wired tableau that, despite its apparent inertia, demands that we follow the course of things through a process of creative destruction. On the gallery wall a small piece of text tells us that Parker had taken a garden shed to the British army and, with the help of some explosives, dispensed with this rather diminutive yet functional piece of garden architecture.  The work’s subtitle, ‘An Exploded View’, helps us to trace the relationship between the artwork that is suspended before us and the creative work of destruction that the art required.  It is a work that seems to make exigent certain conceptual and temporal problems, particularly about the condition of ‘found’ materials and the temporal baggage they might carry. We are asked to juxtapose the rich artifice of Parker’s ‘exploded view’ with the explosion that has been instrumental in its making; each ‘explosion’ needs the other to be known, and yet we come to know both through these lowly and disreputable objects, through objects that come to be by having been.  In rendering the garden shed a porous yet tantalisingly opaque spectacle, our ‘view’ of the shed (both visually and conceptually) is exploded. Parker brings an assembly of objects and suspends them as if they were in flight, as if have they have been and are on their way to a temporal and spatial ‘elsewhere’. Throughout the course of this paper I’d like to argue that it is, in part, a particular quality of waste that gives this elsewhere an ambivalent presence. As objects that signal absent times, we identify things of waste precisely because they no longer do what they once did. I argue that Parker puts this quality of waste to work, showing that waste is not just ‘matter out of place’ (c.f. Mary Douglas) but matter that originates from a multitude of times and places. It is this sense of dispersal that Parker utilises, petrifies and makes mobile.

Although Cornelia Parker assembles her extinct shed into something that looks nothing like a healthy shed full of tools and old bits of rope, Cold Dark Matter is, nonetheless, an enclosure made of tools and old bits of rope. What kind of relationship has been established between shed and ex-shed? Jonathan Watkins has argued that, “by blowing up the shed Parker is taking away such a place, throwing doubt on all that it represents. Its contents are revealed, damaged in the process and yet somehow more eloquent” (Watkins, 1996: 30). For Watkins, the shed’s destruction performs a kind of exorcism, removing both the location of the shed’s meaning and its referential stability.  By erasing the shed’s reclusive, secluded and domestic qualities its conceptual fidelity comes under scrutiny. Parker has said that her work aims to take the clichéd beliefs that objects transport and, by unmaking and refashioning these objects, tries to reconfigure the ideas that are associated with them:

“I like the idea of the material already being loaded, or clichéd. By trying to unpick or dismantle something and remake it, somehow the perimeters get changed. What I’m trying to do is to take very clichéd monumental things, things that everybody knows what they are (or think you know what they are) and then trying to find a flip side to it or the unconscious of it” (Parker, 2000: 24).

Here we might recognise the ecstatic echoes of Heidegger’s notion of the broken tool: the failure of equipment produces a before and an after, a moment that brings to light all that was secret and hidden (1962: 98). But this shed has not failed in the Heideggerian sense; it was knowingly destroyed. Neither are the fragments of the shed taken up for repair or merely discarded as useless. Parker has taken the clichéd time of the shed – as a store of things, a retreat, a place of quiet seclusion – and, through the mediating function of its remains, strung this time up for examination. In what sense has the shed or its contents been removed? Clearly, the remains succeed in making the shed or the trace of the shed visible, but visible in a way that is felt to be somewhat divorced from the time of its ‘materiality’, to a time when it was for something. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the shed and the times and places it evokes have not vanished, but have become visible in a new way: suspended, caught in time.

If “the piece evolves out of the ambiguity of the material” (2000: 24), as Parker once observed, then from this evolutionary process we might narrate the effects of this ambiguity. In presenting these ambiguous and suspended things, Parker affects a lithe and fragile collage of associations between different events, times and places. Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View mediates these events, times and places, issuing us a challenge to reconcile its temporal and spatial locations. Intensifying this challenge is what I term the ‘exigency of waste’, Cold Dark Matter behaves like a red rag to our reconstructive compulsions which have us reconstitute, explain and relocate what a particular waste object is, or was or yet might be.  The narrative exigency of Parker’s work is therefore an effect of the temporal problems we encounter with the material she employs. This emphasis on narrative responses shouldn’t give cause for critical abandon or blind, ‘anything goes’ subjectivism; quite the opposite is the case. Parker’s deliberate gesture of making, unmaking and remaking anew, precludes any sense of absolute plurality. Waste itself establishes estranged relationships within an object, a temporal break between an object’s use and non-use. This process of estrangement neither erases an object’s meaning nor does it make it more meaningful; it simply makes the task of narrating the biography those things a much more risky and compelling task.

Cornelia Parker, Mass (Colder Darker Matter) (1997)

In 1997 Parker was working as artist in residence at ArtPace, San Antonio, Texas. She heard that a small church had been struck by lightning and had burnt to the ground. Having gained permission to collect the charred remains, she arranged and displayed the fragments on wire, densely grouped towards the centre and more sparsely distributed towards its periphery. The results had so much in common with her earlier work that she saw fit to make the connection linguistically explicit, naming it Mass (Colder Darker Matter). The difference between this and her earlier work is that the objects that Parker has collected, suspended and displayed to an audience, create a kind of narrative ellipsis or aporia. Whereas in Cold Dark Matter many of the shed’s fragments were recognisable things from a shed, making immediate our narrative transition between shed and ex-shed, time of use and time of waste, the charred remains of the Texan church are less readily apprehended. This obscurity arises, among other things, through the difficulty of locating an event from which the work arose, a reliable narrative source.

“You can’t really tell it’s a church unless you read the label”, Parker observes, “I was reconstituting it. It’s now abstract” (2000: 58). The work is certainly more ‘abstract’ in the sense that our flights of interpretation seem to depend less on familiar ‘useful’ forms as they did in Cold Dark Matter, but, again, Parker is careful to provide a description that locates her source material. The label reads: “Mass (Colder Darker Matter), 1997 / Charcoal retrieved from a church struck by lightening / With thanks to the Baptist Church of Lytle, Texas”. Parker has deliberately assuaged the bafflement of her audience and directed us towards the disjuncture felt between the time of use and the time of waste. Her gratitude to the “Baptist Church of Lytle, Texas” simply underpins the dispersed geography of the work, as well as highlighting the humorous and ambivalent role that the church has played in the work’s composition. With the agency and identity of church and ex-church held in a rich state of temporal suspension, as it was with the shed of Cold Dark Matter, we begin to see how divergent times and places might hang together.

I’d like to suggest that one of the elements that prevents Parker’s work from becoming a pure abstraction, from falling beyond the reach of any sensible or determinate assessment, is the temporal structure drawn between the event that has destroyed the church and the presentation of its charred fragments. The pre-existing meanings of things and the events in which these objects participate provide Parker’s work its narrative energy: “The work really makes itself; you are just rearranging the materials” (ibid). Although it might be tempting to dismiss this comment as false modesty, we should take seriously the claim that her manipulation of waste renders her work in some way autopoietic, generating work that “makes itself”. The invocation of an event of waste, the moment where use has ceased and waste has come into being, can be seen as one way to think through this issue of autopoiesis and the self-generating and autonomous actualisation of an artwork. Mass makes itself because it takes the way in which time is organised around the use and non-use of things as an arbitrary point of narrative departure, it takes the relation between ‘church’ and ‘charcoal’ as a temporal arrangement ready for rearranging.

The last work we’ll consider, Heart of Darkness (2004), is more recent. But, by playing out the powerful marriage between objects, time, and narrative that we have pursued so far, this work reveals itself to be no more or less contemporary than Parker’s other works. It provides a useful conclusion to this paper because it emphasises an aspect of waste that has so far been obscured: repetition. Parker’s repeated use of waste objects in her sculpture insists that waste (and our responses to it) is not rare. Whilst waste always occurs within singular circumstances, the temporal inscription that seems to characterise a thing of waste, the divorce between its working ‘life’ and its ‘living death’, makes the labour of narrating waste much more common than it might at first appear. When we speak of waste we must automatically become time-travelling elegists that navigate the past in order to make sense of the now. Indeed, old shoes in the street or an abandoned ruin mean little without this ability to respond to a time that is both present and absent, cindered and supplemented. In Heart of Darkness, Parker employs a formula that should now be familiar to us, stringing up objects that have spent their existence in one time and yet seem capable of making a noisy demonstration of their non-use, re-use and reassembly.

Cornelia Parker, Heart of Darkness (2004)

The gallery description of this work, along with the title’s invocation of Conrad’s novel, sets our attention upon a particular tack. We are told that the Florida Forestry Division was ‘managing’ a woodland area by burning back what was adjudged overgrown, but the fire got out of control and quickly spread, burning large areas of woodland. As in Mass, Parker collects the remains of this event and arranges them in a cube, suspending the fragments on wire. Again, the human and the non-human are tragically interconnected; any attempt to apportion blame, to designate whose ‘heart’ has been darkened or where this heart is said to reside is rendered problematic by a work composed of a multitude of actors, times and places, all of which, through charred remains, are related to one another in subtly different ways. What does become clear is that the gesture of taking these remnants, and stringing them up in order to make those objects speak in new and peculiar ways, must traverse and enact the problem of their manufacture. To interpret Parker’s work is to already engage with how objects carry, mould and are given time through the cessation of their use and functionality. One must, then, respond to the contingent and incomplete termination that waste objects can suggest; these are things neither dead nor alive but perpetuating a spectral and untimely afterlife. Their employment within sculpture is necessarily the result of their redundancy elsewhere, in a time and place that is also felt to be actively redundant. These things neither become useless, nor do they take back the use they once enjoyed, they remain uncanny remnants.

Through the work of Cornelia Parker, I hope I’ve been able to propose a new vocabulary for speaking about artworks that include, manufacture or engage with objects of waste, as relevant to the work of Cornelia Parker as it might be to Duchamp, Tinguely, Schwitters, Beuys, and so on. We should question how a work of art can be made timely or, indeed, untimely by using stuff that has been exhausted, discontinued and cast aside. I think we could generalise here and call objects of waste, and the sculptural works that employs this material, ‘multitemporal things’: stuff that does not seem to belong to any particular time but is the sum of many different and diverging periods. These are not objects with a clear or uniform tense; they are, instead, those things that feel as if past, present and future have tumbled together. It is through this temporal conflict between passing and persisting, transience and endurance, cessation and survival that makes the relationship between art and waste one that is so rich with generative potential. This is untimely art but not through any intrinsic, counter-temporal or atemporal quality of art itself, but an untimeliness that originates out of the type of matter that Parker has puts to work.

Works Cited.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo. 1966; London: Routledge, 2002.

Heidegger, Martin. Being in Time. Trans John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell, 1962.

Morgan, Jessica. ‘Matter and What it Means’ in Cornelia Parker: Second Edition. Ed. The Institute of Contemporary Art Boston. Boston: Art Data, 2000. 11–44.

Parker, Cornelia. ‘Cornelia Parker interviewed by Bruce Ferguson’ in Cornelia Parker: Second Edition. Ed. The Institute of Contemporary Art Boston. Boston: Art Data, 2000. 45–65.

Watkins, Jonathan. ‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’ in Avoided Object. Ed. Stuart Cameron Cardiff: Chapter, 1996. 25–38.

The Heidelbergh Project

I recently stumbled across the The Heidelbergh Project, an artwork of reclamation that transforms spaces and objects of waste in a Detroit suburb. Taking four derelict houses and burying it in layers of scavenged materials—tires, hubcaps, broken toys, battered dolls, rusty signs, busted appliances, and automobile parts—all brightened with stripes, polka dots, and splashes of paint. It’s interesting to note how the people in this promotional video  speak of the ‘magic’, ‘fantasy’ and ‘incomprehensibility’ of the work. The creator of the project, Tyree Guyton, speaks of resurrecting the city.

Whilst I realise this project has much to do with the urban economics of Detroit –  and the hope that the Heidelbergh Project might reverse the city’s decline – I’m left wondering what it is about using and manipulating waste that allows this intervention to have its ‘magic’. If I was an ethnographer I’d like to survey the varying responses to The Heidelbergh Project and Nek Chand’s infamous Rock Garden. I think that a comparative study like this would reveal some interesting responses to the instrumentalisation of waste in art. I wonder if notions of transformation, transubstantiation and redemption would be common to both.

Mark Dion and ‘Tate Thames Dig’ (1999) – An Extract

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.

Mark Dion, Tate Thames Dig (1999)


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.



Mark Dion, Tate Thames Dig (1999) – Detail


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]