When I was asked at 16 what I imagined myself to be doing in ten years, I didn't imagine my future reality would consist of "drowning" in trash...
...To be clear, I didn’t want to trap myself in a window for 5 hours on a busy street in San Francisco, slowly becoming consumed by other people’s garbage. I didn’t want to spend a month of my life obsessively collecting garbage from businesses, trash cans, or people’s hands. Nor did I want to spend hours researching, observing, and discussing our culture’s obsession consuming disposable products.
But it felt like my responsibility as a friend of the earth.
Modern culture has become entrenched with the convenience of disposable products. Almost everything we buy comes with or is wrapped in some type of plastic, paper, or mixed synthetic material. We have developed habits to save time and efforts by taking shortcuts to satisfy our human comfort and have compromised the health and longevity of life on Earth by doing so.
Polluted waterways and oceans, harm to marine life, soil degradation, and contributing greenhouse gases are only some of the effects of our convenience culture. Many of us do not think about these effects of our actions when we stop by a cafe to get coffee in a single-use cup. Or when we purchase a bundle of bananas that come wrapped in a plastic bag. The inorganic matter of what held our consumptive substance has to go somewhere. But where?
Our waste is picked up by someone off our curb and goes to a facility for other people to deal with by a company we pay to remove it. This modern act has resulted in a disconnection from handling our waste which makes it easier not to feel responsible for where it ends up. Much of this waste gets incinerated, goes to a landfill, or makes it’s way to the ocean.
Not only have we created a culture of immediacy and impermanence, we often do not consider the amount of precious resources and energy going into the process of making disposable items. The duration of use these items have are only minutes, but can take many years to break down. This leaves me with so many questions about real "sustainable" solutions and how to ethically produce products on a large scale. But also, how do we collectively shift away from the personal convenience mentality and move toward thoughtful care about our planetary resources and how we use them?
This year, I’ve been inspired by performance and art as activism for social change. I’ve witnessed quite a few impactful performances and art projects that gave voice to the areas of modern culture in need of major improvements. These experiences left me with perspective, awareness, and inspiration for action.
The art performance project I was starting to dream up would need another person to participate. I knew immediately who I wanted to join me in this piece, Kat Culture - my friend and consistent source of inspiration. Luckily, she was stoked and joyfully agreed when I asked her to collaborate with me!
Slowly (and with very organized GoogleDocs) Our Sophisticated Denial performance was born. This work would be a visual commentary on our cultural obsession with disposable products and excessive waste of resources. The idea was to enclose ourselves inside a public window with trash slowly filling up the space until we became engulfed by the excessive waste materials. It was important for us to perform this piece on Black Friday, the day where people intentionally go out to consume in large quantities.
For a month, Kat and I spent our free time saving and cleaning our trash yields. Each day became a game of “how much trash can I collect today?” I acquired trash from my 24 person household, friends, family, and from coffee shops around my neighborhood that allowed me to dig through their trash for used cups. Kat found a boba tea place near her home that was willing to let her come in multiple times a day to collect their used plastic cups and straws. She became recognized as “the trash lady” amongst the employees.
Quickly, I noticed that collecting trash was becoming an obsession and I couldn’t stop myself from asking people for their empty chip bag as soon as they finished with it. My mind couldn’t help but become hyper aware of all the trash on the streets or the amount of plastic in the grocery store or how frequently people throw discarded items in the wrong waste bin.
Most of the trash collected was food packaging, junk mail, online shipping boxes + packaging, and plastic bags. Some interesting items I found in the trash was a brand new and unopened shirt (which I saved and gifted to a friend), a perfectly good and unopened chocolate bar, a bunch of nice looking stickers, unfinished zines, and phone books (who still gets a phone book?).
Finally, the performance day arrived and I woke up feeling very excited to spend my day getting trash dumped on me. We began the 5 hour immersion at noon with a brief interview for the local KPXI news station just before entering the window at Artists Television Access in San Francisco.
The window began empty with Kat and I sitting inside telling each other our birth stories, watching the passersby, drinking lattes... just like regular people do. Many people walked by the 7 foot window without even realizing there was movement inside. As trash started to trickle down upon us and accumulate, people began to take notice. It was fascinating to watch spectators put the pieces together of what we were doing. Many children stopped to ponder our spectacle while their parents often tried to keep walking.
A housemate of mine came to the performance and wrote down a few things she heard from people walking by...
“Should I break the window and save them?”
“We need to stop buying trash! People don't even know that they're buying trash!” ...while holding a single use coffee cup.
“How are they getting out?” - a little kid
The window between us and the audience was so thick that we couldn’t hear what was being said on the other side, nor could the audience hear us. It left a space of inquiry on both sides of the window. Some people walked up to the window to engage with us, or share a written note, or to ensure that we were real people. Many others diverted their eyes, walked more quickly, or gave very confused looks as they passed by. There were moments where I noticed visible discomfort from strangers walking by with their disposable cups or shopping bags.
In this project, we were not trying to shame anyone. Both Kat and I are guilty of consuming and creating trash because it is so engrained into modern culture and business practices. It is much easier to make trash than to not make trash. We simply wanted to call attention to the excessive material waste we create on a daily basis and inspire others to consider how their personal habits are contributing to this global issue.
There are endless articles you can find online that display the devastating effects of waste culture and how they are showing up in many places of the world (see Great Pacific Garbage Patch and Drowning in Garbage). If we turn a blind eye to these effects and continue the same habits that continuously prove to be harmful, we will leave behind a planet of foreign waste that future generations will have to inhabit.
My relationship with waste has become something I am much more aware of. I never realized how much trash I created until I began to save it and found out that I, too, have much work to do to change my own behaviors. Since the conception of this project, I try my hardest to avoid packaged products and single use items as best as I can. Reusable bags, refillable beverage containers, cloth napkins, and thoughtful grocery purchases have become developed lifestyle habits, along with correctly discarding items, saving things that can be reused or made into art, and generally consuming less. Our Sophisticated Denial opened my eyes and mind to inherited behaviors that no longer serve me or this planet.
I learned that there are many creative ways to reuse typical household items and ideas for reducing waste on a small scale at home, work, or in school. Cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, and New York City, have created initiatives to become zero waste by a specific year. There are extensive social media accounts, blogs, and books dedicated to a zero waste lifestyle. Kat and I created a website with resources and simple steps people can take to reduce their waste! The information and education is available, the next step is inspiring others to take action in their personal lives and pressuring companies to make their business practices/products fully sustainable.
Some questions for us all to ponder...
Does humanity have the capacity to change inherited cultural norms that do not play into capitalistic gain or resource depletion?
How can we shift our personal convenience mentality and habits to attitudes that address our collective impacts on the planet?
How do we encourage each other to care enough about our impacts that we take small (or large) steps to change our actions?
What is your personal relationship with waste?
What actions do you take (or not take) to reduce your footprint on the planet?
Big thanks to Artists Television Access for letting us be a part of Almost Public/Semi-Exposed 4. I've had a crush on this space since I moved to SF and it was truly a dream come true to share this work in the window.
Special thanks to all those who came out to the performance and helped to make this project possible in the ways of letting me non-judgmentally rummage through your trash, saving your trash for me, allowing me to pick your brain about personal waste habits, engaging in thoughtful dialogue about solutions for the future, sending me interesting articles, and so on.
Extra special thanks to my lovely housemates at the Convent Arts Collective for letting me store my trash in the basement, supporting me in separating regular trash from "art trash", and for the mental/physical space that allowed this project to come to fruition in it's entirety.
Extra extra special thanks to the Performance Squad: Kat Culture, Jacob Rafati, and Daniel Miramontes. I'm grateful for that night of "experimental art" to have connected us for a future of continued performance.