Landfill: Part 1December 1, 2010
Landfill is a project I am developing with Ted Purves; it archives, studies, and utilizes the material byproducts of dematerialized artworks to generate a history of socially engaged art practice. These byproducts, which range from promotional materials to elements integral to the realization of a project, last longer than the artworks they support. Landfill seeks to propagate a separate life for these pieces of ephemera, which function not only as documents, but also as conduits for ideas that continue to circulate. Through their redistribution and re-contextualization, once-supplemental materials become active agents.
Landfill invests the materials with new value by rereading the objects, which exist in different states of use and intelligibility. It aims to understand the ways these things have been altered by context while on the shelf, and to think through their current potential not only as documents, but also as an active set of proposals. Parameters for analysis include how the object was used (how it served the purposes of the project at the time it was produced) and how (or whether) it reads now.
This column in Art Practical will be a critical platform and experimental testing ground for Landfill: a place to open a dialogue about the materials themselves and our strategies for investigating them. The history will manifest through an online archive, a subscription service, and a written journal. The archive will include scanned images of materials along with short descriptions of the artworks for which they were produced. Four times a year, subscribers will receive by mail a selection of the archived ephemera. A printed journal distributed with the objects reflects upon them by building a narrative around them.
This article is “Issue Zero,” an analysis of four unsolicited objects collected over the past ten years. They were selected because they operate in different ways from one another, revealing a range of strategies for utilizing material in the production of dematerialized work. They show the varied relationships between artwork and object in situations when the object is de-emphasized but still necessary to solicit involvement; make a project visible; frame the parameters for participation; or make engagement possible.
Issue Zero: What We Have On Hand
Santiago Sierra. The Displacement of a Cacerolada (2002)
Buenos Aires, London, Geneva, Vienna, Frankfurt, New York, and Madrid.
The audio track for Displacement of a Cacerolada (2002) is a cacophony of screaming whistles, clanging pans, blowing horns, cheering, chanting, clapping, and singing. It records people in Buenos Aires protesting against a government freeze on their bank accounts, which was meant to rein in Argentina’s impending economic crisis at the outset of this decade. The already well-known artist Santiago Sierra recorded the noise and burned the track onto CDs that were distributed at galleries in London, Geneva, Vienna, Frankfurt, New York, and Madrid.
Instructions on the CD sleeves appear in English and Spanish:
To participate in the project, put your speakers in your window, turn your stereo up to full blast, and play the whole CD on Saturday 7 September  at the following local times:
Frankfurt, Geneva & Vienna: 5pm
New York: 11am1
A cacerolada is a demonstration in which people beat empty pots and pans, both indoors and in the streets. Because people can take part from home, participation levels are often high, producing an enormous cumulative effect. Sierra’s project displaces and translates the form in three ways. First, the recording is an after-effect: the documentation of a protest. To replay it redirects the energy of that noise away from a demand for action and toward a new aesthetic event. Second, the noise was replayed in six cities, but not in Buenos Aires. It no longer addresses a single government, rather, it is directed towards other people in other streets in other countries. Finally, Sierra’s project took place six months after the economic freeze, when the protest sounds were no longer pragmatic, even if the issues beneath them were still potent and spreading.
The project turns documentation into an entry point for aesthetic consideration. The schism between the purpose of the noise and its dislocated purposelessness, or new use, becomes an opportunity to reconsider protest as an abstracted form. Separate from its original context and intent, the experience of protest reads as sublime—a simultaneous sense of one’s insignificance and agency.
Distanced from the immediate fear and anger over the government-imposed bank freezes, its re-enactment is a romantic gesture akin to Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.” The sounds take on new resonance under a different set of conditions: the replay took place at a time when the downturn was soon to be felt internationally, and the project points a finger away from Buenos Aires toward global capitalism. To reroute the demonstration away from its intended immediate effect, pointing it obliquely outward, is an action that can be likened to Situationist détournement: redirection away from purpose, but not away from politics. By removing the protest from questions of its efficacy, Displacement of a Cacerolada changes the determinant conditions of protest as a medium. Now, the CD can be played in private, further displacing the intentions of the protesters and of the artist.
Jeremy Deller. Speak to the Earth and it will tell you (2007-2017)
Skulptur Projekte Münster.
At Skulptur Projekte Münster in 2007, Jeremy Deller invited members of Münster’s fifty-five Garden Associations to keep diaries until the next Skulptur Projekte occurs in 2017. Deller gave each of the garden associations leather-bound journals organized by month, to fill with “social, environmental, and biological information...anything that happens in the garden, whether human or natural life” for the next ten years.2 When interviewed at Skulptur Projekte, Deller said, Speak to the Earth “doesn’t really exist at the moment–well, nothing’s visible, as such.”3 His project exists as potential narrative: as a proposed set of stories and records about the garden plots, which are meticulously cared for and strictly regulated.
The promotional materials for the collaboration also proposed meticulous care, despite being a peripheral part of the project. Deller packaged seeds of a Dove tree in tiny recyclable plastic bags. A Dove tree seed resembles a walnut, and the resulting tree flowers once every ten years. Just behind the plastic-bagged seed is an image of its flower. On the back are precise instructions on how to grow it for the desired results, and a lyrical description of the tree: “its flowers flutter in the wind like white doves... Plant biologists have described its flowers as resembling large butterflies hovering amongst the tree’s branches.” People attending Skulptur Projekte could purchase Dove tree seeds, plant them, and after ten years of careful gardening, be reminded of the upcoming 2017 event when the trees bloom.
Both aspects of the project—the journals and the seeds—require an almost absurd level of commitment and continued care on the part of participants. It’s unknown whether very many of the Garden Association members will keep detailed journals for the full ten years, and the fate of the Dove tree seeds is equally unresolved. (Landfill’s packet is still in its plastic bag).
Deller has acknowledged the possibility that not many participants will keep up the substantial effort that would produce something for him to show. It may be just as important to take note of a public’s decision to decline engagement as it is for Deller to solicit it. A public’s inability or unwillingness to participate at the level required by the artwork is a potential hazard that, over ten years, could develop into a plotline about the other things that were given attention in its place. The condition of the books, seeds, and allotments will be just as interesting if more journals are only partially filled in than if there were a full library of experiences to peruse in 2017, or if there are more seeds packaged in plastic than there are blooming “pocket handkerchief” trees in Münster.
The project is less about actual levels of participation than it is about the space for fiction, narrative, and factual record to collide. It’s about all the contingencies that can prevent an intended effect, but produce something else undetermined.
Wapke Feenstra. Former Farmland (2008)
Water Park at EXPO 08; Sagarossa, Spain.4
Wapke Feenstra’s Former Farmland also focuses on the narrative potential of cultivated land. While Deller’s project creates a framework in which future narratives might develop, Feenstra’s focuses on telling the stories already embedded in land that has undergone drastic change. At a water park in Sagarossa, Spain, eight “landmarks” chosen by retired farmers served as reminders of the land’s previous purpose. In order to take part in the self-guided tour, participants had to be physically present at the site, give cues to their positions on the provided map, and receive information about what happened there before the farm became a park.5
The poster provides drawings—an element necessary to participate—and instructions:
Take a photo of the drawing of the landmark. Send this photo as an MMS to 4242. You will receive an SMS with a web-link. If you follow that link on the mobile you will get information about the ground around that landmark.6
The poster’s primary purpose was not documentation or promotion. Rather, it was an integral part of the experience of the piece, the middle step in the process of transmitting information. Using their phones, participants took pictures of the drawings of trees on the posters, rather than the trees themselves. Feenstra’s choices to make the drawings stand in for the actual trees and to make text-messaging part of the process created a simulacrum, removing the participants from the site even as they stood there.
Former Farmland comments on economies of information. According to the poster, the kind of knowledge the farmers digitally provided their participants “has no value anymore.”7 But Feenstra proposes that there is purpose in distributing useless information. Former Farmland uses the oldest methods of marking out relative space and communicating routes, and reintroduces them as valid ways of receiving information about past times. The employed system of navigation teeters between the ancient and the contemporary. Though oral anecdotes are the oldest means of building histories, the project also relies on wireless Internet and camera phones to create a sort of rudimentary GPS. This positioning system redirects attention through—and away from—a medium that increasingly demands more from its users.
The electronically guided tour assumes some identity between image and thing, between cause and effect, between the history of a space and its current resonance. It relies on the transmission of information that is then subject to interpretation. At the same time, it disrupts the easy amnesia brought on by perpetual new development—in construction and technology alike—by drawing attention to the way hours, like land, have been allotted and put to use. The project asks participants to text, while considering what advances in electronic communication have made obsolete.
Meanwhile, it assumes that participants will have cell phones with cameras and Internet access on hand. I’ve witnessed friends (who use brick-like phones that can double as mallets and bottle openers) eschew the purchase of new technology as an active form of resistance. They would have a different experience of Former Farmland than the one intended, a scavenger hunt for the landmarks filled in only by their own imagined narratives. Likewise, using the poster off-site removes the hyperlinked information from physical space, dislocating it like any other ungrounded image.
Jeannene Przyblyski and Mitche Manitou for the The San Francisco Bureau of Urban Secrets. The Deeply Subjective Survey of Urban Goodness (2004-present)
San Francisco, California.
The Deeply Subjective Survey of Urban Goodness (2004-present), a project by The San Francisco Bureau of Urban Secrets, has nothing concrete to transmit. The project’s strategy is to pool resources, usurping the language of Sci-Fi bureaucracy and the protocol of a census to gather and present collectively-produced information about the city.
Survey postcards, a limited edition artist’s book, and collectible “mobile positioning” T-shirts are the only documents of the project that exist outside of exhibitions, which took place at art galleries and government buildings between 2004-2006.8 One of the six direct-response postcards reads:
"A good city answers to many needs. Where in the City can you find More Than One Useful Thing?” Though participation is voluntary, the survey asks for every participant to respond, applying pressure as if there were a civic duty to mail in an answer: "REMEMBER: THE SURVEY IS NOT COMPLETE WITHOUT YOU!"9
The project will continue until every resident of San Francisco answers the inquiry, parodying the City Planning Department’s endless search for a representative sample. So far, about five hundred people have responded. The Bureau shares its slogan, In Omnia Paratus (Prepared for All Things) with the United States Army’s 18th Infantry Regiment. Jeannene Przyblyski, its executive director, is no stranger to bureaucratic order: she is also the vice president and dean of Academic Affairs and chair of the History and Theory of Contemporary Art program in the School for Interdisciplinary Studies at SFAI.
The Deeply Subjective Survey playfully undermines its own emphasis on use; it requests that responses be both subjective and precise. It usurps a system generally intended to produce measurable results and justify legislation, and directs it back toward the city’s residents without determining how it should be applied.
Przyblyski aligns the Bureau with the Situationist International and the compilation of Situationist writings collected and translated by Ken Knabb, who named his publishing branch the Bureau of Public Secrets.10 The Deeply Subjective Survey also takes root in conceptual instruction-based work, which relies on participants to both activate and validate an idea, simultaneously proving their agency and their dependence on instruction in the process. It makes use of a standard form to search for, exchange, and organize information, while critiquing the absurdity of such standardization. Mail Art is another of the project’s reference points, though in this case all mail is directed toward a central destination, where it is sifted and re-presented to an anonymous public.
Though the survey continues, it hasn’t been exhibited in the past four years, and the Bureau has moved on to other projects. The results from the census are not available online: a search turns up some other current information on the Bureau, tips on visiting Alcatraz, “Stuff White People Like,” and a “goal setting community” called “43 Things."11 The Deeply Subjective Survey is a search that leads outward, or nowhere—an open-ended hunt.
The project raises questions about its own lifespan and the shelf life of other projects that leave material traces: What happens to the information they generate when the conditions surrounding these remainders change? Is there a need for preservation, or is it a vital part of the work for it to pass into illegibility?
Issue One: What You Have On Hand
For more information about sending material ephemera from your projects to be archived, written about, and redistributed, visit www.thelandfill.org.