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Artful Trash Management, RiverCubes, & Cultural Contagion

by Bob Johnson

Civilization haunts the waterways. -- Alfred North Whitehead

Civic & Community efforts to remove trash from rivers (and elsewhere) offer opportunities for reflection on our more general relations with trash. It is generally assumed that trash has its place -- and that that place is best out of sight... Artful Trash Management (ATM) affirms the reverse: that trash reflects important truths about our culture -- suggesting we become more conscious, deliberate, and refined in our relations with trash. The Tireless Project distinguishes itself from other "River Sweeps" in finding reuse for tires it collects. The question of what to do with other stuff removed from rivers remains... RiverCubes Project: Pittsburgh is a response to that question.

Bob Johnson and volunteers collecting trash along a river.
Projects begin with river site scouting. Asking local people on or near rivers: Where has junk been dumped along riverbanks? leads to conversations about water quality, solid waste management, and places and people who might want to become involved in trash collecting and RiverCube making.
There is something unsatisfactory about investing in the removal of trash -- that finds its place -- for most -- in the out of sight land fill: re-moving trash... While moving trash may be one destiny of our age, we might consider rendering our trash artfully visible where we have no viable re-use for it. We as a culture, American "culture" in particular, have been pursuing a path of production that tends to aggressively trash the earth, its creatures, and "other" cultures. American globalization, the production of products, and the promotion of certain styles of consumption, each proliferate trash in their wakes. Our symptomatic disregard of the material discards our consumer culture produces mirrors the philosophical pretension our culture clings to: that thinking is somehow independent of embodiment. Such make-believe philosophies can be transformed through the power of belief-making strategies.

The theory and practice of flesters [1] is one such strategy. Flestering embraces the "functions" of discarded things: moving beyond utilitarian meanings toward proliferative and promiscuous senses of use and meaning. Flestering offers intellectual and visceral experience of what is at stake in our perception "promoting the possibility of transformative ways of seeing being and doing" employing humor and other means of visceral engagement: fostering ecological and ethological sensibilities... This is why RiverCubes want to remain at their sites of collection in curious condensed forms.

Tunisian artist Mohsen Lihidheb and his trash museum.
Waste disposal is a gloabal issue, in Tunisia, artist Mohsen Lihidheb has collected enormous amounts of trash along the Mediterranean, creating art installations, a local trash museum as well as giving lectures on the environment, ecology, culture, ethics, recycling, etc.
To be sure there are wasteful practices, yet the notion that stuff is waste only reflects our projection of value -- or the lack thereof -- on material that requires more sensitive understanding and treatment during the harvest, production, consumption, and reclamation phases of its "life cycle". Waste is an adjective, verb -- crime against nature "it is neither noun, nor sustainable practice; waste is something we do, not something that is".

Might we render our cultural dysfunctions in whimsical ways as a means of understanding and transformation in the face of overwhelming ecological degradation? ATM is a practical strategy aimed in this direction. RiverCubes Projects are a catalyst phase of public engagement.

Bob Johnson,
Bob Johnson, "Wheel Cube", 38 tire rims collected from the Pittsburgh Pool, Tireless Project, Summer 2003. Crushed August 16th, 2003, around a cylindrical concrete core.
Baruch Spinoza & Wilhelm Reich have identified a distinguishing characteristic of humanity -- in contrast to ascriptions of rationality, language, etc. -- by asking the question: what is it that makes us desire our own repression? More than a concern with weakness of will in the face of knowing better, they ask us to concede the power of cultural contagion that degrades ourselves and deforms the earth. And to understand and transform ourselves. Can we render our cultural dysfunctions in whimsical ways as a means of understanding and transformation in the face of overwhelming ecological degradation?? Artful Trash Management & RiverCubes Projects believe cathartic cultural contagion can ameliorate the human impacts already set in motion...


[1] Flesters: "A word derived from the memory of a cartoon, flesters are discarded things, "found objects," any "thing" at all that we presume to be in some way isolated from its context... Fragments of formerly functional contrivances, flesters are touted as universally useful objects. By making manifest symbolic, intellectual, and social dimensions of discarded things, flestering encourages promiscuous and proliferative notions of function & utility. The theory of flesters affirms flestering as a practice closely related to bricolage…

Artist Bob Johnson is the Founder of Artful Trash Management & Rivercubes Projects.

© 2010