Welcome to Wasteland exhibition, catalogue essay

Notes on the idea of a wasteland.

The origin of the English word ‘waste’ derives from the Latin vastus, meaning ‘uncultivated’ or ‘unoccupied’. As in the title of this exhibition, this meaning proposes the idea of a land. In particular, a land’s potential for cultivation.

But uncultivated also means lacking in culture. I can easily say that contemporary attitudes concerning waste – the flippancy with which waste is created – are uncultured. In fact, they are barbaric.

In a sense, the term “waste culture” might be oxymoronic: civilized cultures don’t make waste, they unmake it.

Civilised unmaking waste cultures are sometimes esteemed; the Shinto practice of reusing the leftover timber from the continual rebuilding of the Ise shrine – to repair older shrines all around Japan – is a notable example.

Conversely, the civil culture of the Zabbaleen, the informal waste pickers of Cairo, suffer from a lack of esteem.

Meticulous in their systems of sorting and recycling domestic waste for family profit , the Zabbaleen are not exactly reviled, but not exactly revered either. Government-led corporate moves to take over their informal systems this decade has thrown their city into chaos. Cairo’s household waste now increasingly goes to landfill or incineration, when it isn’t just left to rot on the street.

The modern disposition to create, burn or bury then forget waste contrasts to the aspirational sense of the Latin word vastus, in which the land lacks cultivation, but possesses potential for it. The farmer should occupy, till and harvest the land.

The designers in this exhibition occupy and tend to the wasteland razed by the barbarism of others.

But who are these others?

Waste is a common problem, because it is shared by all of us, but in our current ideological climate it also proposed to have a common cause in that the masses create waste from unsustainable consumption. This is a neoliberal argument that if society doesn’t want waste, the market, representing us all, wouldn’t consume wasteful products. This argument is a ploy mitigating the responsibility of producers. The argument’s first flaw is the assumption that markets have some kind of moral intelligence. The second flaw is ignoring information asymmetry, being the difference between that which can be known by consumers and that which can be known by producers. Individually, consumers cannot possibly know all the potential harms of their consumption choices, because there are too many products that any one person consumes. There is simply too much information for any one person to know. Conversely, for manufacturers, with their human resources, motivation and management capacities, knowing everything about their products is typical business.. Designers too tend to know, want to know, and need to know every small detail about the stuff they make. Durability, obsolescence, efficiency of material, cost of energy and potential for recycling are all matters of concern.

The act of making wasteful products is negligence, a failure of designers and manufacturers to sustain their field. I propose that more ethical designers step into that field and onto that land, to cultivate and claim ownership.

This leads to another curious, technical definition of the word ‘waste’, as a term of law: the cause of action brought by the owner of a future interest in a property against the current owner of that property, to prevent the current owner from degrading that property intentionally or through neglect.

To replace the word “property” with “earth” in that definition is to see how the “owner of a future interest” could refer to emerging generations increasingly frustrated with exploitation of planetary resources by the monied and empowered.

This speaks to the inherent political and activist potential of design. Designers must break into the house, through the windows in the kitchen, to occupy and take custody of the wasteland, our earth. It shouldn’t be that designers are casually expected to transform the refuse of back to use without question. Rather, the process of working with waste hones the sensibility for materials so that designers can discern good and bad forms of waste. That is, to know the materials with good potentials for repair, reuse or recycling, and those without. With this sensibility they can turn back to industry (which is to say, turn to their fellow designers) and proclaim: this is shit waste, your product is shit. Stop, and do better.

Guy Keulemans is a designer, repair artist and researcher at the University of New South Wales.