Utter Rubbish: Conversations about litter and waste is an exhibition by Sheffield Hallam University’s Frazer Hudson, Joanne Lee and Joanna Rucklidge and a project about their complex relationship to discarded materials. It attends to the everyday instances of littering and fly-tipping that blight the city of Sheffield, as elsewhere, and considers the resources wasted through the rubbish our society readily generates. Rather than reaching for judgement and easy solutions, the project tries to linger with stuff that is devalued to rethink the responses to that which is thrown away.
Walking the city, they have gathered objects, images and films, to develop a series of poetic, playful and critical works that seek to deepen and complicate our connections with that which we try to get rid. Art schools have long been a place for valuing things differently, for scavenging and re-purposing, and for developing alternative narratives about what is possible. Through using rubbish both as material and metaphor, as lecturers and researchers at Sheffield Institute of Arts, the artists want to communicate the complexity of waste and generate conversations about its potential.
Corridor8: Utter Rubbish reveals your concurrent interests in rubbish. How did you begin the initial conversations about rubbish and come about the idea to work together on an exhibition?
Joanne Lee, Joanna Rucklidge, Frazer Hudson: We have regular work in progress sessions where colleagues in Visual Communication share our practice and research with one another. It was here that we first recognised the three of us had a common interest in working with rubbish, and decided that we wanted to explore it more deeply together. A call for exhibition proposals from the Sheffield Institute of Arts Gallery provided the catalyst for us to do so. Working towards the show was an opportunity to pursue the conversation in a more deliberate way, through a practice of walking and talking, to develop new work from these encounters. We see the current output as the opening of an ongoing project rather than an end in itself. Having a show in the institution where we all teach also meant we had educational objectives in our minds. We wanted to test what our interrogation of this particular subject might bring to the discipline of visual communication and we saw it as a provocation for the students with whom we work, since we are modelling the kinds of attention to the world we expect from them.
C8: How we define rubbish is of particular interest to me. Do you think there are distinctions between rubbish, waste, litter and discarded materials and do you find you have a preferred term when discussing the objects and materials that feature in your work?
JL, JR, FH: We probably have our own slightly different and nuanced interpretations, but yes, we do make distinctions. Waste is a sort of surplus: it is about not seeing the resource value in what we get rid of. Litter is the stuff on streets and pavements, in parks and hedgerows, that might have been deliberately thrown down, but could also simply have been lost, or have blown away during bin collections. It seems to us that only a proportion of what ends up as litter was deliberately dropped. Discarding things purposefully, meanwhile, is complicated by the ways we go about it and what happens as a result. For example, householders hire skips or rubbish removers in good faith but certain operators may then fly-tip rather than dealing with the items legally. The same material might thus occupy various categories at different stages. Even our title, the play on words Utter Rubbish, was intended to turn about the dismissive phrase, and suggest that we wanted to have a conversation about what these materials are and how they might be defined.
C8: The notion of the everyday is really strong throughout the show in the rubbish, walking and also the conversational practices. How did you find the subsequent translation into a gallery environment of these everyday practices and did this context present any challenges?
JL, JR, FH: Since we all work at Sheffield Institute of Arts, the gallery is actually part of our everyday experience. It is also quite an informal environment, since it includes a café where the University populace and general public visit, so perhaps the translation was not as difficult as it might have been elsewhere. We’ve used the gallery as an opportunity to bring our disparate threads together, so we could enact the conversations we had had whilst walking, and reveal something of the processes through which we had been working. While the display cases seem a formal device, what gets shown there is playful and ultimately suggestive of the activities in which visitors have been invited to participate. We hope this has something of a pedagogic effect in terms of the ways people might use these methods to explore the world beyond the gallery.
C8: Many of your individual approaches to working with rubbish involve photography or printing with them, which I think to some degree sanitises the waste, removing a layer of proximity to it presenting it as image. Other pieces in the show are working directly with these waste materials – physically sanitised. Do you consider this a critical difference and what are your thoughts on your chosen methods in relation to this notion of sanitisation?
JL, JR, FH: We were acutely aware that we sanitised often filthy materials; we all had stories of people scrutinising us as we picked up or photographed rather unpleasant things! In the UK, litter is always around us and so people put up a barrier to it, learning how to ignore the stuff in the gutter. By cleaning it – through washing, through producing an impression rather than displaying the thing itself, or through the framing or retitling of images – we make it something less familiar, less immediately disgusting and thus available for fresh engagement or more sustained attention. Different strategies allow alternative readings. So, when the creative ‘cleansing’ process removes the brand and associated language, we can consider the actual material from which they are made. The prints made by inking crushed drinks cans draw the material out of the waste stream for a while. Though it can subsequently be recycled, the prints act as a sort of memorial to their use, honouring these everyday items. In some of the photographs the waste is abstracted through colour and form, which opens up a space of contemplation; in other images the captions direct a humorous or poignant response. The process of sanitising creates a range of opportunities for engagement. In all of these cases, though, there is something of a Zen Buddhist approach that not being wasteful is more than avoiding making waste, but about taking the time to look at objects for what they are, for the effort that made them and how they have served us – even the most unprepossessing. Maybe the cleansing is a kind of gratitude and appreciation?
C8: You invited others artists to contribute to Utter Rubbish with items of rubbish. Did artists present existing or new work made specifically for the exhibition?
JL, JR, FH: Some responded by collecting specifically for us and sending us only what they found once asked them to contribute. A few actually made new works from or based on the materials they found. One contributor, writing about the terrible wasted landscape from which come many of the materials that make up our mobile devices, would have liked to have presented a gif playing on a tablet or phone had he been able. Our literal request for rubbish had not really anticipated this conceptual, critical response, but the attention to such a global issue was timely. Many others sent existing finds – some are inveterate collectors and the artefacts that might seem mere junk to gallery visitors were clearly very precious to them, such that they included instructions to take good care of what had been sent, and enough postage to make sure material was safely returned!
C8: Artists have been working with rubbish as material for many decades but recently mainstream awareness about the environmental impact of our waste, and artists working with waste materials as a response to these issues, seems to be on the rise. Why do you think so many artists are attracted to working with waste materials?
JL, JR, FH: Of course, at one level it is simply about using what is to hand, and since many artists are financially constrained they must act thriftily and recall the way they scavenged as students, but it’s not just about cost, art education also teaches people to reflect critically on materials, their value and usage. As well as the ecological debate, figured in mainstream culture through programmes like Blue Planet, to which artists naturally want to contribute, it also speaks to issues of class and economy, about who gets access to what resources and who must make do. The use of ‘poor’ materials in recent art practice also reconnects to histories of arte povera, and a desire to circumvent commercial practices and develop different economic models. In our own project, we talked a lot about the identity and status of rubbish collectors in our culture and those elsewhere; we discussed the infrastructures that routinely clear waste in Western society and were very aware of the privilege by which we could pick and choose what to engage with, while others had little choice, needing to do this to simply get by.
C8: Your rubbish book collection featured in the exhibition is almost identical to mine. Are there any future publications on rubbish in the pipeline from any of you?
JL, JR, FH: We have already begun a visual dialogue through the exchange of sketchbooks and see this as a way of continuing the conversation beyond the current exhibition. We are planning to develop this project in further exhibitions, which will certainly include a publication. Joanne has also been working on the subject of plastic bags for Witches’ Knickers, an upcoming edition of her independent serial publication the Pam Flett Press. Aspects of this work will appear in ‘Witches Knickers and Carrier Bag Theories’, a chapter for Provocative Plastics, a book from the Museum of Design in Plastic at the Arts University Bournemouth.
Utter Rubbish: Conversations about litter and waste, Sheffield Institute of Arts, Sheffield, 21 April – 19 May 2018.
Alice Bradshaw is an artist, curator, researcher and writer based in Halifax, West Yorkshire. She is also obsessed with rubbish, founding the Museum of Contemporary Rubbish in 2010 and completing her Masters by Research into the relationship between value and the use of rubbish in art practice in 2015.