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BROOKLYN, NEW YORK–One woman stood on tiptoes, biting through fishing line for a full minute until she ‘released’ the paper raven. Another well-dressed woman bent awkwardly over a hard-to-reach shelf, rummaged around, and then held the garbage she found up to her nose to smell it, smiling in delight. A third person spent half an hour surrounded by garbage, left, came back and pondered the garbage for another twenty minutes before selecting a small part to take home.
Each of these people participated in Abundance: The Dawson City Trash Project in late August. Abundance was a gallery installation of a miniature diorama of Dawson City, Yukon, made entirely out of Dawson City’s trash. The installation was the raw material of a performance: each of the 1,000 pieces in the exhibition was available to be taken away by gallery viewers at any time during the show.
While my project engaged in environmental activism on a material level by moving objects out of the landfill, it also set out to achieve a loftier goal: the redefinition of garbage. If trash is generally defined as unwanted, disgusting, diffuse, useless, and unowned, I aimed to make it desirable, beautiful, unique and popular. My success would be measured by the rate at which my art installation disappeared, piece by piece, when people were invited to take the ‘garbage’ home. Locals were friendly when giving me lifts to the landfill to gather the trash I needed, or when donating their used teabags (post-waste-stream teabags are in pretty rough shape and usually moldy), but I wondered: Would they want their teabags back?
The gallery was concerned that perhaps there would be no art to show after the first few days. I was nervous that the gallery would be full until the end. My dream was an empty gallery. Predictably, something in between happened. During the opening, nothing could be taken to ensure that everyone had a chance to see the installation in its entirety. The next day, the audience could literally do anything they wanted, from taking the art, to playing with it, to damaging it. And they did.
People came in little groups and took three or four items at a time. The biggest and best items went in the first week, but not on the first day. Most participants touched the art, even if they didn’t take anything, and many started conversations with other “shoppers.” People searched, played, regarded the piece like a science display with plenty of pointing and comparison, picked pieces up and carried them around before putting them back, taking them away or just moving them around. Some people made messes. Some people stepped on things. To my knowledge, no one added anything. I made a bet with several people who worked in the gallery that no one would take the little plastic Christmas tree parts remodeled as trees or the bottle caps that represented the rivers because they were not sufficiently transformed into art and still resembled their source as garbage. I lost the bet. An eight year old took some trees — and many other pieces — to remodel a diorama in his room, and a visiting artist took bottle caps to hold glue for her art camp students.
In the end, of 1,000 pieces (not including bottle caps), around 500 were taken. Considering the fact that Dawson City’s population hovers around 1,000 and that the show occurred at the end of the tourist season, I believe solid waste management should reconsider its treatment of trash, in light of the fact that trash can be useful, desirable, and aesthetic material, with the potential of creating positive social interactions. The term ubiquitously used to describe Abundance was “fun.”
There is one aspect of Dawson City that made this project possible and a potential leader in the future of solid waste. Dawson City’s dump is not heavily regulated and scavenging in its landfill is not only viable, but occurs as a matter of course. Things are very expensive in Dawson, and there are plenty of good, free materials at the dump. There is even a “free store” at the Quigley landfill, where people can leave their still-serviceable items for others to use. In every other municipal dump I have visited, even if they have a free store, the gates are closed to scavenging. Dawson City, like many other rural communities, has a culture of scavenging and reuse. In many ways, the residents of Dawson City already know that rubbish is valuable, and Abundance: The Dawson City Trash Project was merely a coordinated and playful effort to make this fact measurably visible.
Abundance: The Dawson City Trash Project was made possible by the generous support of the KIAC Artist in Residence Program, the ODD Gallery, The Canada Council for the Arts, and a New York University Dean’s Grant for Student Research. The installation-performance ran from August 14 to September 23, 2008 at the ODD Gallery in Dawson City, Yukon.
Max Liboiron is an artist and Doctoral Candidate in Visual Culture at New York University. She would like to thank the residents of Dawson City for an informative and inspiring project.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.