Thursday, April 2, 2009

Green Friday: Artists and their Environment

Today's blog is a part of a Green Friday Synchronized blogging event. Check out the other bloggers linked at the bottom of this post who are also exploring the topic of Art and Environmental issues.
Many of you may already know I am in the middle of an 8 week bookmaking course at Penland School of Crafts in Western North Carolina. The studio coordinator for this books class, Emily Barrows, was willing to sit down with me today and tell me a bit about an art project she has been working on where she lived with all of her trash for 6 months.

Here is the interview:
Jean: So could you start off by telling me what your project is about?
Emily: It originated from my need to purchase a computer. I struggle a lot with buying and consuming things in general but for some reason things that you plug in have become even more disturbing to me. Alarm clocks, coffeemakers, anything you plug in has such a short lifespan. Computers are especially scary because they have semi-precious metals in them. The things that go into making a computer are so epic but it's this really slim laptop and looks really sleek and beautiful but the amount of chaos and disorder that arose to just give me this little pile of order is overwhelming. So I guess that almost as punishment I decided I will live with my trash for six months. Anything that I would otherwise throw away, anything that can't be composted or recycled or that I would normally flush, I had to actually keep in my bedroom with me. I decided that this would be an interesting project because I would journal about how this was affecting me and my relationship with trash. I still plan to combine this into a personal narrative and critical essays which will be bound into books made out of the trash from that time period.
Jean: What did you do with your trash?

Emily: Originally I thought, okay, I'm just going to keep my trash but then I started to compartmentalize the trash in my room . I would have takeout boxes in one pile, cellophane in another pile, and dental floss in another. The actual act of sorting was keeping it from being trash anymore. Taking what is trash and trying to project another identity on it, even simply by compartmentalizing it, keeps it from actually being trash. I was going out to a lot of junk yards at that time just to look at stuff. I lived in Atlanta at the time and there are acres and acres of junkyards like a moat around the city. It's then that I realized they do the same thing: there will be miles and miles of one kind of thing like just tires. I realized it doesn't become trash until it becomes that icky stuff that you don't want to touch and you can't distinguish one item from the next...dumpster juicy trash, that's trash.

So as I continued to compartmentalize my trash, I became really compulsive about not producing any trash because I didn't want it in the room and certain types of trash are stinky so I really tried to manage the stuff I was producing. When the 6 months was over, the stuff that I would use to bind into my book I saved and the rest of it ....I ceremoniously put into the it is gone.

Jean: Do you have any samples of that trash here with you now?
Emily: I did start to make two book covers. One book cover is made out of q-tips and dentalfloss and the other is made out of hair trimmings. I hope to literally print the narrative and critical essays directly onto the trash that I have collected and combine the trash with the paper. A lot of paper isn't recyclable.
Jean: So what have you learned so far?
Emily: It definitely has affected the way that I think and the way that I look at trash. I would go out to restaurants and would have to put the napkin and straw in my pocket. If there was a lemon wedge in my water, I'd have to take it home and compost it. If I didn't finish my meal, I'd have to take it home, which meant that I had to get a to-go box. Whenever I walked into an establishment, I had to walk out with just the product in my hand and that is so difficult, you know? I would watch the amount of trash generated by just dining out. It really made me neurotic and strange! I won't lie about it. [laughing]
Jean: Do you make different kinds of artwork now?
Emily: I do. It has profoundly impacted the way that I make art. My art has become a lot more visceral and a lot more trash-y. I like to to deal with dirty gross things now. I'm infatuated with it and I'm not ashamed of it. Not much of my art is pretty anymore. Even if it isn't a found object or doesn't incorporate found objects, it appears as though it does. I have a much more intimate relationship with things that have been handled and touched or abused or whatever. I feel like that has a lot more power as an object to me now than the clean and the smooth and "finished."
Jean: How has your view of the environment changed? Or has it changed?
Emily: I don't think it has. I think when I approached the project I was already overwhelmed by how epic the state of our consumerism is. I wasn't even approaching it from an environmental standpoint but more about my relationship to other people. That's particularly what I'm ashamed of. My little study of the amount of trash that I generated confirmed what I already suspected which is that there's a lot [of trash]. The fervor with which we produce...I mean the entire contents of a CVS store are made to be thrown away, including the store itself. It's such a large scale that I don't think my project put a kind of perspective on it because you can't. It's just too huge. It didn't change the way that I see the environment. Ultimately, it didn't even change my consuming habits. I've found since then, in the name of convenience and surviving like a normal person in our society, if I'm really hungry, I will go buy a bagel even if it means it comes in a bag. Whereas before I wouldn't have done that just out of fear of having to sleep with it that night!
Jean: So what will you be doing with this project now?
Emily: I plan to make an edition of probably only about 10 books [made out of the collected trash.]

Here are the beginning of the book covers made out of some of her saved trash.

Because one cover has hair sculpted into the shape of shrimp, you can e-mail Emily at to inquire further about her work.
Thanks for sharing, Emily!
Here are what other people are saying on Green Friday:
The Art Teacher's Guide to the Internet w/Craig Roland
Blissful Thoughts w/Chan Bliss
The Carrot Revolution w/David Gran
Learning IT w/Frank Curkovic
The Teaching Palette w/Theresa McGee + Hillary Andrlik