31.05.2010 | Sustainable Arts

The Slow Art Collective TS2 exhibition

The TS2 (Transfer Station 2) is a collaborative art installation project focused on creating a model of community-industry cooperation for environmental sustainability. The Slow Art Collective, initiators of the project, exhibited the work at the Incinerator Arts Complex in Melbourne in August-September 2009. Review by Adam Broinowski, Melbourne (AUS).

Electronic Waste (© Andrew Noble, 2009)I was wondering what to do with my broken mobile phone. It seemed such a waste to just throw away this highly valued precision device so synonymous to our age. It was indeed synchronous then that The Slow Art Collective (SAC – Tony Adams, Chaco Kato, Ash Keating, Dylan Martorell) invited me to write a piece on the TS2 (Transfer Station 2): a collaborative installation project focused on creating a model of community-industry cooperation for environmental sustainability. The Slow Art Collective worked in partnership with Moonee Valley City Council Waste Transfer Station and the adjacent Incinerator Arts Complex, Melbourne, Australia.

I find the artists and their many community volunteers sifting through huge vats containing various objects now rendered obsolete to briefly return them to a status of value before they are incinerated once more. Rather than showing a room of individual works in isolation, the artists are making one combined work in the same space. Premised on the substitution of the organic plant with the inorganic ‘plant’, TS2 lays out an industrial garden, an ironic double as a tranquil rock pool and waterfall, with its parts made from the organs of industry recovered from the scrap heap. For the entrepreneurial flaneur this might be the next stop for landscape design on a large scale. I can hear the rhetoric already: ‘sick of the eye-sore of decay? Low-maintenance and durable, ‘ever-greens’ to beautify your future highways, tunnels, skyscrapers and megaplex carparks!’ But the premise and the promise of the work in collaboration with the recycling industry is to intercept materials from the incinerator to which they will be returned.

Wires and tubes cascade down the rock face while speaker cones bloom and spiky plastic fern trees sprout from a river-bed of squashy plastic pebbles. At its base, plastic palettes support the bulk of this vast mountain of waste, a huge yet coiffured sweeper-core drills from its flank, computer keyboards dress its sides, and glass gravel and green motherboards lace its edges.

Washed up on the shores of this island idyll is a body of ‘software, hardware and wetware’ reminiscent of Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo films, which has been designed to be touched and climbed over as well as viewed and thought about. It comprises 15 tons of toxicological ‘e-waste’ – quotidian tools which have captivated and tamed the modern human to a relatively new solitude. Following the logic of the furnace next door to the gallery of the Incinerator Arts Complex, the inclination of the artists has been to meld these rejected materials into a beautifully finessed, greater blob, the results of which are already part of the display.

Rare delicacies recovered from the giant furnace (more specifically, several around Melbourne) have been made up and mounted like totems ‘on the beach’ of the mound. A strange garden of freakish delights; hairy and clumpish, intricate slag-gems of redistributed by-product seem to have been arrested in a gorgon-hardened intestinal mixture. The unitary droppings are curios which, having set in their liquid form on a flat surface, are ‘perfect to hang on a wall’ Ash Keating quips.

Nevertheless, facing a regimentality of over-regulation, the artists have had to negotiate a blizzard of complaints regarding the weight of the mountain and the tagging of all items. This seems oddly appropriate given the taxonomic regime which informs this display cabinet of semi-digested rubbish rivaling that of any bone collector.
© Andrew Noble, 2009While having weathered the predictable questions; ‘where are your drawings?’, ‘but is it art?’, in engaging with the broader community (in this case, the recycling industry), Chaco Kato states that this exhibition is not to make beauty out of waste matter. Taking inspiration from Beuys’ concept of ‘social sculpture’, she contends that everyone can come to think like an artist when involved in this sort of opportunity for making beyond the studio. The inseparability of art and life, adds dimension to the narrow vertical economy. Seeking ‘a new discipline … which encompasses all others … the placenta of the living being of the social organism … that goes beyond the modern age…’, the Slow Art Collective seem to propose a bartering of resources within a recycling stream of sustainability.[1]

Engaging a diverse array of communities in an immersive experience, the artists provided a catalyst and a model for people from different areas – children, volunteers, students, amateurs, professionals – to assist in, talk about and contribute to a mutually beneficial project. People working directly in the e-recycling stream and waste management, from local government (Councils, waste management bodies and local arts administrative institutions to forklift drivers, engineers and safety officers) as well as from the artistic and academic communities – artists, writers, photographers, video-makers, volunteers, a scientist – cooperated in the management of the effluence from our lifestyles. Perhaps an anomalous glitch in the system, perhaps another beginning to a serious engagement in reforming our bloated machine, this work is pregnant with a venerable history of ephemerality and recycling.
Artists eke ‘beauty’ from little. As ‘river-dwellers’ they can be found scavenging at the frayed ends of the habitus socius. Just shy of the skin wherein the decision between usefulness and refuse takes place, they are witnesses at its checkpoint of inclusion and exclusion. They seek to recover pre-loved existences: scrap, refuse, junk, dirt, the used, the spent. While zeitgeist hunters are forever never far, reappropriating the images for their client’s products, as the artists sift through the ooze of re-composited energy, TS2 becomes a monolith which seems to question, in its diminutive way, the sheer scale of waste being produced in real world scale, while following a cosmogony of recycling: creation, decay, disintegration, ?.

Upon re-visiting, I note how TS2 festers during the artist’s occupation with participants’ contributions: an Olympian’s platform built of wire-sprouting computer fans occupies the corner, the speaker cones now hold real plants and soil, a didactic blackboard associating the elemental parts with geographical locations. Perhaps we need to re-boot our materialist view with a new ethics of evaluation to include everything, even the toxic, as value.

In fact, TS2 casts a wry look at the misappropriation of Darwin’s notion of natural selection in On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, by those with designs less than innocent: Herbert Spencer’s notion of survival of the fittest and Ernst Haeckel’s Hobbesian version of ‘ecology’ on the one hand, and a French mechanistic materialism and its techno-poetics on the other. What we saw in TS2 are our discarded organs, the phantom limbs of the inorganic ‘human body’, otherwise defined as a ‘tool-making animal’. The danger is that we perceive ‘the world’ as something to be perfected to the neglect our responsibilities to it. In the prevailing conception, Darwinian concepts of change and chance, as not necessarily determined by the teleological instrument, have somehow been replaced with a separation and stratification of mind and body, of human and nature.

Lived in the now, or near future, ‘advanced’ economic lifestyles seem to be excessively indifferent to responsibilities owed to both past and future. Despite the recent focus on ‘the body’ at the theoretical and popular levels, our environmental design still resembles the imaginations of our brilliant machines. Reinforcing our supposedly unlimited capacity for anthropocentrism and its concomitant evolutionary racisms, ‘we’ still consider our lives to be as free as the Internet seems boundless. In fact, our technologies seem to deepen an entrenched conflict between the physical limits of our animal nature and the over-extension of our minds. Indeed in the wireless distractions of a paralysed virtual anomie, the distance from our own bodies and its sensitive relations has intensified, to the detriment of our (un)commons. As the inheritors of a Victorian era mentality of endlessly ascension and brutal exclusion, any amelioration is regarded as bad for business. Sharing resources and limiting self-interest are inefficient or too complex, and are marginalized. However, as the adjective in the Slow Art Collective indicates, serious decisions with a longer reach require precious time for careful, textural understandings across complex divides.

© Andrew Noble, 2009The sophisticated art of living sustainably is antithetical to the view in the semi-present of our near-future coma. A stranger to this life could be excused for believing that only cancer and the thirst for resources of select populations’ are eternal. For the participation required to make our governments and corporations accountable, and the changes required to make real progress, we must think far beyond immediate gain. But it must happen now. TS2 is a prototypical example of this sort of cooperative responsibility necessary at a much larger scale.
Returned to the Transfer Station furnace, the art along with my old mobile phone, will be re-composed into a porous amalgam substitute for wood in the making of garden posts for a plastic future. The recorded image remains as evidence, material for re-imagining. For that we need to slow down, and confront our fear of falling behind.

© A previous version of this article was published in Art Monthly Australia, March 2010.

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About the author

Adam Broinowski is writer, director and performer. He is a PhD-Candidate of the University of Melbourne (Centre For Ideas/School of Historical Studies).

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[1] Beuys, J., Harlan V., (2004) ‘What is art: conversation with Joseph Bueys’, London: Clairview Books, p.75

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