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Heaven Is a Waste Place Research Summary and Reflection

“In the end everything’s garbage” - Nick DiMola (one of my experts)

“Trash carries dystopia within” - Maite Zubiaurre

Heaven Is A Waste Place is a simulated corporation, The Ongoing Now Corporation, and the space in which it is simulated. It is part office role play and part doomsday cult. The goal of TONCO and its employees is to find new uses for waste after the apocalypse, and maybe a new, more holy way of life.

In trying to step back and synthesize my research I had to step one layer farther and re-ask myself: what have my research questions been and how have I made the connections that I’ve made?

Research questions as they have arisen (selected list)

  • What is the history of the disposable object?

  • How does the disposable object disappear from the point of view of the discarder and what is its end of life cycle?

  • How are these systems of throwing out integrated with other areas of modern life?

  • What’s the garbage supply chain and how is it different from the product supply chain?

  • What is the role of discard within production supply chains (what does waste look like in production)?

  • How does trash travel?

  • What is the connection between throwing out and spiritual cleanliness/holiness (is throwing away a modern holy act)?

  • What is the affective experience of the discarder?

  • What are the affordances and formal elements of the garbage medium?

  • What is the role of the corporation as sellers of abstraction (garbage removal as service)?

  • Who are the communities most engaged with garbage and the discard of others?

  • What is a Xenofeminist approach to garbage? (if XF is a politics of alienation then must it be an identification with garbage, i.e. the alienated object)

  • Is garbage definable as the alienated object?

  • What is an Accelerationist approach to garbage?

  • Why is it that e-waste, a type of object not fitting into the past removal strategy paradigm, still forced into the same channels? (i.e. why is there not a new innovative strategy much in the way that recycling was an innovation for an increase in plastics)

  • What are the affordances of the e-waste medium?

  • What is apocalyptic about garbage, i.e. is the future of garbage necessarily ecological disaster?

  • How can we create utopia within the ongoing now given the sloughing off of mountains of trash that every action seems to create?

  • How are Seasteaders free to imagine and create their odious utopia when the rest of us have to muck about with the real?

Frequently these questions arose in the process of investigation for other questions, though I did not well document the question-arising-process, though I attempted to recreate the temporal flow of my notebooks here.

Research conclusions

In the process of attempting answers to these questions I reached the following conclusions and strategies.

  • E-waste, while itself is a wicked problem, is an area of low-hanging-fruit. Most people are not aware of the problems of e-waste and its disposal, and thus creating a way to educate people in this area is a good lever into helping them into a wider understanding of our garbage culture.

  • Garbage as a medium can be hugely good fun. Recontextualizing your own trash as a playful object feels joyful and freeing, and this defamiliarization of the garbage object opens up a space for intervention.

  • The the global garbage system itself is overwhelmingly complex. It makes me sick and depressed. I start crying when I think about the number of shipping containers full of waste plastics over the ocean at any time.

  • The layers of abstraction and complexities of the global systems in garbage make a systemic subversive intervention difficult. I believe that exaggeration of the features of the system might be a possible lever, and overidentification with the corporations moving in the garbage space seemed like an in to that exaggeration. An overidentified corporation is a cult.

Research process

My process in this project had two main elements: reading and playing with garbage. “Playing” is such an offhand word. Exploring? What is it that we do here, ideate the affordances of the material? Something about the uncomfortableness of the term playing led me into the direction I went - with play-working, an awkward fiction. I filled bowls with packing peanuts, walked around labeling stuff - light poles, pcomp projects, laptops, sidewalks - as trash with sticky notes, creating more trash in my wake like the stink spirit in Spirited Away. As for the reading I found research books written in a pop science style to be the most helpful, as they were quick to absorb but still heavy with real content.

Research Sources

Text Sources:

  • A Philosophy of Dirt - Olli Lagerspetz
  • An Ontology of Trash: The Disposable and its Problematic Nature - Greg Kennedy
  • Cradle to Cradle - Michael Braungart and William McDonough
  • Dark Ecology - Timothy Morton
  • Extrapolation Factory Operator’s Manual - Chris Woebken and Elliott P. Montgomery
  • Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash - Edward Humes
  • Global Garbage: Urban Imaginaries of Waste, Excess, and Abandonment - Christoph Lindner and Miriam Meissner
  • High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health - Elizabeth Grossman
  • Hoarders, Doomsday Preppers, and the Culture of Apocalypse - Gwendolyn Audrey Foster
  • Junkspace - Rem Koolhaas
  • Made To Break - Giles Slade
  • On Garbage - John Scanlan
  • Picking Up - Robin Nagle
  • Waste of a Nation: Garbage and Growth in India - Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey
  • Waste World - Rob Hengeveld
  • Hauler Magazine
  • Waste Advantage
  • Waste Business Journal
  • Waste Mag
  • Waste Today

Link to the same bibliography with some links.

Spoken with experts: Robin Nagle, Nick DiMola, Tom Igoe, Dianne Anderson, Jasmine, Jeffrey Parker (my undergrad advisor who did some research in waste economics). Also spoken with friends, strangers at parties, etc. about their feelings when throwing something out. I tried asking someone who threw away a bottle on the street but he ignored me.

Reflection

I struggle in this work with my deeply sincere motivations and my use of cynical or ironic positioning and techniques. My goals, to momentarily interrupt the human-garbage relationship and to imagine with a group utopia even in climate disaster, are genuine, but does that come through? Does it need to?

What I will take most from this class is the process model, which I think I already had my finger on but not my whole hand. Combining domain-learning with ideation and studio time not in a haphazard way but in a considered and thoughtful way. I can tell it’s going to have a big impact on my practice and on my work. The feedback I got the most consistently was to move outside of what’s comfortable. It’s hard! I’ve realized I’m basically scared all the time. What would I do differently? Be less scared. Do more in person and less over email. Take more pictures with a real camera and not on my phone.

I’ve had multiple people say that I should make it a regular event at ITP, that they wanted to keep playing these characters and to develop long story arcs, so I’ll keep doing it in that context but I want to take it outside. Add polish, make a website, maybe a newsletter. Pitch decks. It’s weird to me that it’s as fun as a role playing game as it seems to be, I mostly just encouraged bad behavior and being an asshole, maybe that’s what they’ve all been wanting all along, an excuse to be a jerk. Somewhere in this project I was inspired by a Facebook group I saw maybe 5 years ago called Generic Office Roleplay, where 10000+ strangers from around the world all sent each other fake memos about using comic sans or about losing their stapler or getting their lunch stolen out of the office fridge. I haven’t had the mental space to work on this part of the project per se, so I just have questions, why is this behavior interesting? Utopia of Rules something something Neoliberalist alienated affect of labor something something Dilbert something something Hito Steyerl and clipart fantasyscapes.