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Turning Scavenged Waste Into Multimedia Art

Recycling company Recology gives three artists a chance to build big with San Francisco’s trash.

A San Francisco Wunderkammer

For the last 25 years, the San Francisco-based recycling and composting company Recology has offered artists the opportunity to use the garbage at its facilities to create works of art.

The Recology San Francisco Artist in Residence Program has worked with 120 Bay Area artists and 30 college students (who can earn credit). They spend four months at Recology, scavenging for materials in the Public Disposal Area, a drop-off point for residents and businesses. In addition to the free materials, artists are paid a stipend and provided access to a 2,000-square-foot studio space in which to create their work. When the four months are up, Recology holds an exhibition, where the artists talk about the work and their experiences.

The Recology facility

Recology’s latest art exhibition, which was on display this past Friday and Saturday, features artists Jeremiah Barber, Robb Godshaw, and Alison Pebworth. The works cover a diverse set of media, ranging from video art to performance. Deborah Munk, manager of Recology’s Artist in Residence program, tells GOOD that one of the most exciting aspects of working with artists at Recology is “watching them respond so differently to basically the same pile of materials.”

“I believe all of the artists who are in residence not only deepen their practice, they also develop a more profound understanding of the importance of conserving resources,” Munk says. “Jeremiah, Alison, and Robb work in different mediums and have responded to the site and the flow of materials from varying perspectives. Their work is thought provoking and exceptional, and has an overarching environmental message: shop responsibly, use what you have, don’t waste, and recycle whenever possible.”

Munk notes that “the centerpiece of Jeremiah’s work is video, but he is also using lenses and optical devices to play with reflection and light.” Describing the other artists’ work, she says, “Robb chose to focus on e-waste, which is a huge environmental problem, [taking] apart TVs and turning them into projection devices, while Alison created a large-scale Wonder Cabinet painted entirely black with doors that open to magical mini environments.”

Jeremiah Barber

Having “scavenger tendencies” since he was a kid, Jeremiah Barber used to build mazes and remote-control car chariots for his hamster out of cardboard and trash. Later, while living in Chicago, he built bikes from parts found in alleys. One of these bikes was an 8-foot-long bamboo bike trailer made from trash, which he would ride down the “giant grid of Chicago alleyways,” picking up materials for artworks.

Barber first visited Recology back in 2009, when he was a teaching assistant for a sustainable materials class taught by Terry Berlier at Stanford University. In 2012, Berlier became a resident artist at Recology, and Barber had a chance to see and appreciate the process up close. For his own residency’s work, Make Me Change Me, Barber spent most of his time on a series of videos in which performers read found texts in “fantastical environments.”

“All is from the trash: the scripts, the costumes, sets and props, even the camera dollies and tripods are modified or constructed found object works,” Barber tells GOOD. He found piles of various materials: mirrors from projection TVs, film editing stations, and cosmetics; wheels and gears from skateboards, hospital equipment and wheelchairs; lamps, lights, and bulbs of all types. Barber also scavenged a truckload of soybean shells dyed bright red like confetti, and a display case for crystalware with a piece of curved, tempered glass in the front.

“I was [also] struck early on by the way in which occasionally, when hunting for materials, I would be confronted by a single scrap of handwriting on a page,” Barber says. “I started collecting them too and eventually came to a process of using them as scripts for videos in which a performer delivers the lines as though they were trying to remember something.”

Barber’s first series of videos feature performers in these fantastical environments delivering lines from the discarded scraps. One of these included sentences from part of an English lesson. For the second series, Barber turns the viewer into the performer with a system of mirrors, lenses, and a live video feed, aiming to, as he says, “playfully deconstruct self-reflection.” Standing in front of the work, viewers see themselves reflected in 128 lenses and on a giant, ’80s-style projection of their face behind this array.

Robb Godshaw

During a four-hour layover at San Francisco International Airport, multimedia artist Robb Godshaw saw that Recology had an Artist in Residence exhibit in the United Airlines terminal. He spent two full hours at the show, which he found incredible, particularly artist Andrew Junge’s Styrofoam Hummer H1 (low mileage, always garaged). Godshaw wasn’t yet an artist at the time, but the Recology show helped push him in that direction. When Godshaw applied for the program, he had a project in mind.

“When I toured the facility, I immediately noticed a large collection of old big-screen TVs,” Godshaw tells GOOD. “The seasoned dumpster diver in me knew these were e-waste gold. The lenses, mirrors, and films inside can be reconfigured in numerous ways for various effects. I had taken similar screens apart before for other optical projects, and knew how they worked.”

Godshaw wanted to convert the TV sets into enormous microscopes for what would become the artwork Big-Screen Debris. He arrived at this idea because older rear-projection TV sets have tiny televisions inside them—a passive set of lenses, mirrors, and films are used to magnify the tiny image onto the big screen. He took out all of the electronics but left the optics in place.

“At that point, it is a matter of lighting and specimen placement,” Godshaw explains. “The lighting has to be super bright in order for a clear image to form. I’m using mostly discarded LEDs for the lights and bicycle derailleurs for the focusing mechanism. All of the ray tubes and circuit boards from the TVs go back into the e-waste stream to be dismantled.”

Alison Pebworth

A San Francisco-based painter who has exhibited widely since the late ’90s, Alison Pebworth knew of Recology’s Artist in Residence program through word of mouth. She tells GOOD that Recology’s large studio space with a full shop of tools is a rare commodity in an expensive city. Even more important, she was attracted by an unlimited supply of materials to play with, and the “anthropological adventure” of scavenging the dump.

Initially, Pebworth wanted to plumb the “habits, desires, and cultural makeup” of people to create archeological displays of our waste in the form of wonder cabinets, presenting them collectively as an anthropological museum. But the act of scavenging ultimately altered the concept behind Pebworth’s work, resulting in A San Francisco Wunderkammer.

“The first two months is about just collecting materials, and to work with and respond to what you find,” Pebworth says. “Preconceived ideas go out the window and you have to just start making without trying to force an idea—step back and take an anthropological approach as an observer. I kept the idea of trying to build the wonder cabinets but what I came up with was completely different than what I first envisioned.”

“I became overwhelmed by the wasteful consumption and the overwhelming clutter of stuff I was collecting,” she adds. “I eventually arrived at building a 22-feet-by-12-feet wall cabinet installation made up of all wood architectural parts, new and old furniture pieces, cabinetry, decorative detailing, and parts from all eras of history over the past 150 years, and painted completely black for visual relief from all the clutter.”

Pebworth’s installation contains more than 30 doors that can be opened to reveal collections of personal and cultural ephemera of San Francisco. At the exhibition opening, it will be a performative piece with several people taking turns as Pebworth’s “Vannas” (after Wheel of Fortune’s Vanna White). They will walk across the structure, opening no more than three cabinet doors at a time for viewers to peer in and examine, while still maintaining the overall monochromatic look of the wall sculpture.

“The dump is the digestive track of this upwardly mobile city,” Pebworth explains. “The Wunderkammer provides jewel-like sneak peeks into our cultural consumption, meant to provoke wonder and curiosity about who we are.”

The Recology San Francisco Artist in Residence Exhibitions were held Friday, January 22, 2016 and Saturday, January 23, 2016. Additional viewing hours are scheduled for Tuesday, January 26, 5-7 p.m., with a gallery walk-through with artists at 6 p.m., at 401 Tunnel Avenue.

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