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An Economy of Forgetting

“What’s most nefarious about plastic… is the way it invites fantasy, the way it pretends to deny the laws of matter, as if something — anything — could be made from nothing; the way it is intended to be thrown away but chemically engineered to last. By offering the false promise of disposability, of consumption without cost, it has helped create a culture of wasteful make-believe, an economy of forgetting.”

Donovan Hohn, ‘Moby-Duck: Or, the synthetic wilderness of childhood’

The Aesthetics of Waste

Spending this past week gleaning waste has made us realise that we are a society happy to dispose of rubbish readily because we have little relationship to it. At home we don’t have a relationship with this sort of waste – we simply don’t buy these kinds of products. We grow food, compost and bulk buy as much as we can. We haven’t yet worked out how to do without plastic and other disposables altogether, but we’re working on it.

Did you know that humans are the only land mammals who defecate in their drinking water? Instead of seeing our bodily waste as compost to be used to help fertilise our food and environment, we avoid dealing with it at all costs. Surely if we have no relationship to our own waste, we will find it difficult to have a relationship to any other.

As we pick up rubbish each day, we are trying to build a relationship with it. One of the best ways we do this is through narrative: we make up stories about the situation that led to the discarding of that broken sunglasses arm, the split boogie board, the rolled up nappy, the beer bottle.

There are other ways to tell stories with waste too. The local primary school where Zeph has been in attendance for the last four days had a Marble Run competition, where students constructed courses made from waste for marbles to travel along.

Here are some of the entries:

Aren’t they great? The Marble Run is definitely one of the activities Zeph is excited to take back to his classmates at home.

Here is another example of creative recycling we have come across in Newcastle, from a shop of local designers called Make Space:

And then there are artists such as US-based David Edgar who uses recycled plastic to raise awareness about the ill health of our natural habitats.

Of course recycling our waste is better than just dumping it, but one of the potential problems of aestheticising it is glorifying its existence in the world. In the same way carbon offsetting has become just another way to justify a lack of environmental conscientiousness.

But we are guilty of that too. We flew to Newcastle because we figured the work we would do here justified our air travel. We are artists, therefore we are natural mediators. We have to remain aware of this. When we take a photo of our mounting waste at the end of each day, we are specific with our lighting and our camera angles, wanting to make the shot look as good as it can. Perhaps this is just another form of disconnection too? We are creating representations here. You can’t smell the stench that is beginning to emanate from the exercise yard, online.

How Did We Get Here?

It doesn’t look like much, just a regular pile of beach flotsam that one would ordinarily walk right past. But when you spend all day at the beach looking down at such debris, you see the small aqua square of plastic, the cigarette butt and the top of the icy-pole stick. We could have chosen a photo containing far more waste but thought we’d use this one to give you an indication of the minutiae of so many of our minutes.

Although we still picked up the larger trash items today, we mainly concentrated on the small. Slowing down and focusing gave us time to contemplate and wonder and ask, How did we get here? How did we arrive at a place in our society that nearly every broken wave upon a beach contains some fragment, however small, of oil-based waste?

These questions make us think about this book, that we adults were both read as kids. We bought it for Zeph a few days ago in an op shop, for him to find on our shelves when he becomes more curious.

The questions we asked ourselves today both started and ended with these foodstuffs, gifted to us by Gerry, the Director of the Lock-Up and the co-keeper of the soil and chickens from whence these goods did come. We are missing our garden and our hens so these gifts are much appreciated.

To help us answer the question of how our culture got so tangled up in this anthropocentric mess we looked to the walls of the Lock-Up’s exercise yard for some answers.

Each marking tells a story of circumstance and place, that is rich with history and individual misfortune, but doesn’t quite answer our question as specifically or collectively as we’d hoped.

Our search continues.

Social Warming

There’s a café just down the road from the Lock-Up that roasts its own coffee using the energy they create by burning their own waste. A fantastic idea. I wonder when such actions are going to be the norm rather than the exception.

Around the corner from that café is a laundromat we took our washing to this morning. Outside it are some planter boxes in which the owners have planted vegetables and herbs. “Why have flowers when we can grow vegetables?” They asked us. “Why don’t more people grow their own food?” We wondered back.

We found other food today. Though unfortunately not all of it was edible.

Mostly we just found rubbish. I guess because that’s what we were looking for.

At one point in the afternoon we found some trash that was a little out of our reach.

So we had to ask some of our feathered friends to help us.

Normally nimble Zephyr would have climbed that fence in one swift swoop and retrieved the rubbish from atop. But today Zephyr spent the day at the local primary school where he joined a class of other grade ones. School holidays have already begun in Victoria, but being the sociable kid that he is, Zephyr jumped at the chance to hang out with some peers and talk about his experience as one third of the Artist as Family. Here is some of the work he did today:

Although we’re meeting lots of people, kids have an innate knack of social warming wherever they may be. And Zephs’ brand new school was no exception. When we went to pick him up at the end of the day, we were invited over for a play at Perry’s house, one of the kids from his class.

We ate delicious cake and drank tea (Meg’s first good cuppa since we arrived)

and helped out with another art project: making Xmas tree decorations to be sold at Perry’s school’s upcoming school fair.

But not everything is always fair. Zeph declared it was most unfair that we couldn’t move to Newcastle so he could play with Perry and his other new friends every day.

Meanwhile, our own project continues to grow.

A Wealth of Waste

It was a beautiful day here in Newcastle, despite the gale force winds. After breakfast we headed to the beach where the lifeguards were doing their exercises.

As we bobbed up and down on the sand filling our bags with plastic, we joked that those lifesavers were for the humans and we were for the ocean; for the birds, the fish, the seaweed.

We spent the majority of the day picking up junk, singing, laughing, having competitions to see who could pick up the most lollipop sticks in the shortest amount of time (five in a single minute).

We looked high.

We looked low.

We looked like happy holidaymakers when we took this photo of ourselves.

Then we took the day’s wealth of waste back to the exercise yard at the Lock-Up. Underneath our collection are two holes in the concrete, where two tall poles once stood. Legend has it that the dangerous prisoners were tethered on a short chain to one, and the slightly less so on a slightly longer chain, to the other. Society used to dump their social waste here, so it’s a fitting site for our project’s exhibition.

After we dumped our waste, some visitors came in to see what we’d been doing. One of them said that it looked like someone was camping there. Patrick made up this sign to leave nearby in case anybody tried to remove our goods, as the cleaners did at this little show a while ago.

About Time

Having our residency in an old jail really pronounces our ideas about time and how we choose to spend it. One of the important aspects of our project is time decompression. This morning we woke to blustery dustery gales outside, which would have made it difficult to ride our bikes anywhere. Although we were free to leave the building, we still felt like prisoners of sorts.

The This is Not Art festival starts this coming Thursday, so we are pressed for time to get some kind of exhibition of our work ready. Having a looming booming deadline is a great motivator, but it’s also a great tool for compressing time. Today we tried to strike the balance of working towards something and drifting at the pace of our own clocks.

After the wind quietened down, we biked here and there, picking up rubbish as we went, ending up like storm-water inevitably does, at the beach.

Our goal was to pick up as much plastic as we could to add to what we have collected up until now:

The beaches here are so beautiful, one of the reasons we thought Newcastle the ideal place for an Artist as Family adventure. While the littlest artist busied himself with paying homage to the land art movement of the 60s,

we two older ones combed the beach for waste, looking much like our chickens at home do as they forage in the soil for grubs.

Here’s a pic of what we found today, soaking in the sink when we got home.

Open Cycle Ecology

After our first night, we woke early, left the Lock-Up and headed out into the morning’s sun.

Before we left Victoria we had a stamp made up to help us publicise our project. This morning we found some old boxes which we set about cutting into small squares. One of us cut, one stamped and one affixed some double-sided tape to the back.

Another thing we did before we left home was to contact Dan the Bike Man from the Newcastle Bike Ecology Centre to organise three bikes for us to use while we are here. So with our advertising propaganda ready we headed off to Dan’s house, the helmets that we brought with us from home, tied to our belts and banging against our legs while we adventured.

We walked and we walked. We filled our backpacks with as much plastic waste as we could carry, and we took turns putting our cards in all the many pockets of this city.

We walked and we walked (it was further than we thought). We sang and we sweated and we practiced social warming with all the locals that we met, some of whom outstretched their arms to embrace us when we told them about our project.

Dan the Bike Man established the bike library three years ago. It is made up of recycled and reclaimed bikes, collected and donated by volunteers and community people. A bike library! Isn’t that just the coolest?!

After we selected our bikes, we were handed spanners and instructions so we could modify them to our individual heights.

That’s James, one of the many generous volunteers on the left, and Dan on the right. (When Dan signs off his emails, he writes, Bike hugs, Dan.)

When you open up the newspaper to see it filled with ads for expensive watches and cars and flat screen TVs, it can make you wonder what on Earth we human beings are saying to convince ourselves that business is OK to carry on as usual.

When you visit a place like the bike library and meet some of the people whose energy goes in to its survival, you really come to understand the full capacity of social warming.

Day One

Greetings from the Artist as Family!

After a tour of our accommodation and the Lock-Up Cultural Centre we took to the streets. And after coming across this street-side line-up of herbs we were feeling very positive about our adoptive city.

All morning, Zeph kept asking, ‘When are we going to the beach?’ So. Our first stop: the beach. He hadn’t even been on the sand five minutes and he had collected this handful of discarded plastic. If you were to look out across the beach, you would think it was pretty clean, but take a closer look and you might find this amount in any two metre radius.

Waste proliferates along every coastline the world over. But it’s obvious not everybody is happy about this.

Our Proposal (excerpted)

The whole idea of detention in a closed space as a form of human punitive corrective action seems to have come in very much in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries – at the time perspective and pictorial space was developing in our Western world. Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage, 1967

Waste and Time – an Artist-as-Family adventure
Newcastle Lock-up Artist-in-Residence Sept-Oct 2009.

The Artist-as-family includes Meg Ulman, Patrick Jones and Zephyr Ogden Jones. We propose a multi-tiered residency that includes gleaned waste collection, filmmaking, blogging and an exhibition about what we find while in Newcastle.

Things that may help you understand our working holiday.

3 types of waste.

1. Compostable waste – is not really waste at all as it is returned to the earth to feed new life as part of a closed-cycle system.

2. Non-compostable waste – is material that breaks down slowly, does not feed the natural world, and harms the environment as part of a broken-cycle system – aggregate-growth capitalism.

3. Social waste – wage slavery, anti-ecological schooling, punitive punishment.
3 types of time.
1. Cyclical and airy time – traditional cultures are very good at this type of time. Time decompression, as contiguous with biomimicry and permacultural practices, will be a main focus of our residency.
2. Linear time – birth, school, work, death as specific to industrialised culture. Time compression enabling wage-slavery and other forms of social bondage. Linear time is anti-ecological, it helps create a disposable and wasteful society.
3. Doing time – serving a prison sentence and being trapped in the cycle of offending. Much has been written over time of the interrelationship between privatising things and prisons. Prisons, it could be said, are a middle-class phenomenon, and part-and-parcel of class war.
The exhibition.

Patrick will build an installation with the waste that the AaF find in the streets. The exhibition’s theme will be based upon these lines: a reliance upon the importation of resources is our society’s zeitgeist. A centre large enough to rely upon importing resources will never be sustainable. Therefore the food has to be walking distance, and composting is the key to this future society.

Social warming.
Meg will build an offline-online community around the residency based upon chance encounters and by strengthening relationships already formed. She will keep this blog updated to record the AaF’s encounters as we glean materials and meet people in Newcastle. These entries will be based on chance encounters and shared stories. Through this social warming aspect of the work we hope to meet people who will offer their time here and there to collect materials with us, expanding the shared labour of this AaF activity.


As seven year-old Zephyr’s attention will come in and out of focus and be mainly concerned with play opportunities. While in Newcastle, we aim to structure the day with a good balance of work and play. We three will start the day with a two-hour drift, scouring for material, talking to people, exercising and generally being a part of the social space of the city. Then the rest of the day will be broken up with one parent concentrating on the requirements of the residency, while one parent concentrating on the requirements of Zephyr.

Zephyr is an outgoing child. He may like to speak to primary school kids who come to the Lock-Up about his experiences. Meg and Patrick will also speak to visitors to The Lock-Up, TINA festival goers and other interested parties about the work we are doing as a family in Newcastle.

The Lock-Up.

Interrelations with Lock-Up staff will be essential for the success of the residency. Whereas we will aim to carry out the majority of the work to ensure a successful residency and exhibition, we will need assistance and local knowledge to make sure the wider community access and enjoy the work and skills we bring to Newcastle. And while in Newcastle ensuring we also glean skills, ideas and social warming from staff and fellow Novocastrians.