I think I started having feelings about trash while I was closing up the bar, scraping crusted nacho cheese out of a hot pot for the millionth time. Or maybe it was while running a show at Silent Barn, hauling giant bags of other people’s stale Tecates past people chilling and flirting and networking, on a mission to get to the dumpster before the trash juice leaked everywhere.
I lived at the Silent Barn, a community art space in Brooklyn, for two years. During that time, I somehow learned a lot about trash. At the Barn, trash was an upfront fact of life. The bigger the show, the more cans, the more bags you carry out. We slowly grew intimately familiar with trash. When to take it out, what got picked up, what was trash and what was lore. Waste management, or anything that made waste management easier, was exciting. We cheered when we got a second dumpster. We were ecstatic when we got a new toilet for the show space. We took selfies with it.
+ + +
As a lifelong New Yorker, I’ve been thinking about trash for a long time. When I got my first camera, I filled card after card with photos of trash cans, wrappers, bottles arranged artfully. In another life, I could have photographed swimming holes and light filtering artfully through the trees. Instead, I found the mountains of trash washing up on Dead Horse Beach. Maybe I wanted to see the beauty in my surroundings. Maybe I started to identify with it.
In pristine Manhattan, my Brooklyn friends and I immediately got the sense that we were misfits. We accumulated a varied coalition of freaks & geeks - socially awkward geniuses, travel punks, theater kids, kids from fucked up families, kids who grew up in project houses in parts of the city that never made it onto tourist maps of New York. There was a song by Suede that would get stuck in my head when we’d go meet up to drink forties in Tompkins Square Park or walk around Midtown after the commuters emptied out and it became a ghost town. “We’re trash you and me, we’re the litter on the street, we’re the lovers on the breeze.”
The song was, maudlin, anthemic, celebratory. It spoke triumphantly of “the tasteless bracelets and the dye in our hair,” equated “cheapness” with “sweetness,” reclaimed “our nothing places” and “our nowhere towns.” Suede frontman Brett Anderson has called it a song was about the romance of the everyday, and that’s what it felt like to me, finding freedom in “outsiderness,” embracing being trash and roaming gleefully in the post-apocalyptic dystopian trash wonderland of New York’s shadowy places.
+ + +
The realities of the materiality of trash first struck me when I took an environmental studies class in high school. I will never forget the day when our teacher spent an entire class talking about disposable diapers. Every year, he said, people throw out something like 8 billion pounds of disposable diapers. Enough to reach to the moon and back, 9 times. They take literal centuries to decompose. The image still haunts me.
I read more and more about the material reality of trash. Trash island, a garbage patch the size of Texas floating around somewhere in the Pacific. Millions of tons of e-waste dumped onto developing countries, contaminating groundwater, leaking toxic metals. Entire slums built on landfills, entire populations building cities in the trash, trash civilizations creating art out of trash, musical instruments out of trash.
The material culture of sprawling wastelands came as a stark juxtaposition to the material culture of neoliberalism. First world economies depend entirely on the fetishization of newness, cleanliness. Planned obsolescence is built into a product’s design just to keep consumers busy wanting, producing, discarding.
+ + +
When I moved to Boston for college, I discovered new trash traditions. Giant sweaters from the dollar-a-pound pile at the Garment District. Infinite cozy thrift stores. Tea out of mason jars. Picking up leftover gourmet pizza at the Upper Crust when they closed down for the night. “Allston Christmas,” or wandering around the student neighborhood on move-out day and picking up amazing treasures. There was so much to reclaim. If New York was the endless trash dystopia, Boston was a dreamy dumpster neverland.
As I became sure that buying things new was at best anxiety-inducing, at worst a little evil, I also realized that I was not the only one who felt that way. Reusing and transforming “waste” had become culturally acceptable, even cool.
I learned of entire organizations that exist to engage with trash reclamation on a professional level. In New York, places like Materials For the Arts and Build it Green exist to facilitate companies or film studios or individuals donating unwanted goods, which then get flipped to artists and nonprofits for free or cheap. Aftermath supplies, located inside the Silent Barn, exists entirely as a testament to the idea that the world will eventually provide the thing you need, if you wait long enough, if you know where to look. To drive the point home and pay it forward, they maintain a free shelf, available to all.
+ + +
For those raised to conflate newness with desirability and trash with revulsion, there is a lot of deprogramming necessary to accept that trash is not an absolute category. My mother still reacts with horror every time I tell her that I bought something at a thrift store. You can tell someone that the dinner they are gobbling up has been dumpstered and they will throw it up mid-bite.
There is an ancient primal disgust people feel when confronted by trash. It’s the same disgust we feel about corpses, excrement, even fingernail clippings. These things are abject. They are horrible not because they are fully alien but because they were once within us and are now outside of us. The abject is destabilizing. If fingernail clippings are the abject of our bodies, then the piles of trash we generate are the abject of capitalism.
Trash, abjection, disposability. These are big concepts with big implications. Societies regard entire sections of humanity as abject. Our society is repulsed by the homeless, the neuroatypical, the queer. The most threatening ‘other’ is the ‘other’ that was once our own. Here is something familiar that has gone terribly wrong, that has been rendered impure and monstrous. These categories threaten the idea of stability. People see themselves in them and they become afraid. We are taught that when something is tossed out, especially by someone else, it has crossed an impermeable border and will forever be soiled, forever somehow impure.
This obsession with purity is older than capitalism. It is fascism, colonialism, narcissism. It is the technophile’s dismissal of history, the settler’s drive to take over untouched land, the misogynist’s idealization of “virginity.”
The “out of sight out of mind” impulse to throw something out and “have someone else deal with it” is inherent in a biopolitics of disposability. As Reina Gosset said in an interview in issue 33, it is what has historically kept people of color, low-income and non-gender conforming people shut out of social services and formalized economies. It creates untouchable castes, “damaged women” stereotypes, “white trash” reality tv, ghettos denied public works, suburbanized poverty, the prison system, psychiatric institutions, Harvard kids who don’t talk to janitors.
+ + +
Anyway, Liz had the idea to do a whole issue about trash. Slowly everything came at me through a trash lens. Every conversation became a trash conversation. I went to Bushwig and Mix fest and rejoiced in queer trash, camp, John Waters movies, bearded drag queens with glitter in their chest hair. I heard a noise musician mix tacky pop songs into his set and thought about how both genres were effectively reappropriating different kinds of audio trash. A friend texted me in the middle of the night to tell me about buses powered by methane, about artist residencies at recycling plants.
Chris gchatted me, “I WANT A TRASH FOR PRESIDENT.” I texted back, “A TRASH IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT.” I kept spotting across latrinalia that read, “who will pick the trash up after the revolution?” I also started paying attention to more sinister, absolutist forms of trash reclamation. I saw a pride parade pin with a TD Bank logo on it and thought, “This isn’t right. You threw us out.” Old friends who “made it” took up the “Started from the Bottom” narrative, trying to rise above being trash by throwing out their past. None of it felt right.
Personally, I’m not trying to endorse rolling around in garbage. I really wish trash juice wasn’t a thing. I don’t waste food but I don’t really dumpster it either. I don’t really like poop jokes. But after all this, I am more sure than ever that people need to work through their cognitive dissonance and develop a more ambiguous relationship with trash, both materially and conceptually. Trash is us. We create it. We can (and should) find sustainable ways to manage it, but it will never disappear forever.
Back at Silent Barn, I think about trash mountain every time I drink a Tecate, but I still drink them every now and then. We even made a limited run of pins with the new toilet on them. I wear mine with pride.