Rob Chavasse | Richard Cook | Nathalie De Briey | Edinburgh Psycho-Geography Association | Vicky Falconer | Stephen Forge | Alex Gross | Kevin Hunt | Shona Macnaughton | Frances Stacey
27 June—11 July 2010
An offsite project as part of the Annuale Festival
Failing to find a grand site of excess in Zone 2 London A response to ‘Built Overnight’
A text by Miranda Iossifidis
I wanted to locate the accumulated detritus of the city; the underbelly, locus of the ‘uncanny,’ the latent memory of garbage within our sanitised lives, relayed to the unconscious presence of a dark underworld.1 So I went to Lewisham’s municipal garbage dump.
Actually I’d been meaning to for a long time, as I pass it every day – a sprawling site that interweaves with railway arches – it is possible to fleetingly examine the colourful piles and adjacent incinerator from the train window. It was the sunniest day of the year, and I could follow the trail of England flag-waving trucks passing by full of crap and returning empty, like finding the way to the beach. The smell didn’t encroach upon my senses like mountains of noxious rotting vegetation, as expected. Nor was my entrance to necessitate some curiously illicit encounter.
I was greeted by miniature Lewisham council signposts, recounting mundane recycling factoids, and a man thrusting a factsheet into my hands, as if I’d stumbled across a recreated Tudor village. ‘This is the recycling section. The rubbish rubbish is over there.’ Turns out the site is shared between various commercial enterprises, private and public. I thought I was going to visit a heterotopia of shit, but it was more theme park over here, business park over there. I went over there, and hung around for a while staring at the continuous succession of trucks dumping rubbish into a warehouse, giant pincers re-arranging the undulating heaps, but not getting close enough to really understand the scale of stuff.
This wasn’t a sublime experience, more a disconnection to the disconnected. This is the funeral pyre of everyday detritus anticipating transformation, awaiting new meaning to be bestowed upon it. But nothing here is wasted, nothing here is wasteful. This isn’t an industrially-produced topography of invisibilised garbage, an artificial, metaphorical landscape for urban excess. This is 75% cardboard, paper, wood, metal, greenwaste etc, 25% alternative fossil fuel, and lots of money. Looking for material excess I’d found commodified garbage; this wasn’t the value I was hoping to ascribe to the unwanted. This is environmental conservatism crossed with public-private partnerships, yet another big sprawling non- place, indistinguishable in this sense from bland mixed-use projects that have sprung up further down the rail track. Surely this is just another mutation of Mary Douglas’ ordered disorder, re-making our environment to conform to what our ideas of what this city is really about; an attempt to squeeze pennies out of oozing garbage juice.
Looking for some idealised notion of refuse as symbolic outburst of the city’s excess, I’d evidently come to the wrong place, as there is no place for formlessness or ambivalence here. Immateriality becomes productive materiality once more, the potentiality of the discarded crudely refashioned; positivity is redeemed by the rational forces of the ‘bacteriological city.’ There is no romantic figure here either, no Julio Cou Cámara, sewage diver of Mexico City, who daily swims blindly amongst shit, weird rubbish and having to decipher among animal and human bodies in order to stop the streets flooding.
Lewisham’s infrastructure of waste disposal, their ‘corollary of consumption’ has as its spokesperson a balding man in an office I could barely breathe in, the air thick with pungent flowery perfume, ‘its very sweetness redolent of intoxication and vice.’ Despite being so close to the dump it was almost in it, none of the office windows directly faced it. ‘We’ve been here 25 years, before the rest of them! You’ll always find dumps next to each other, people don’t want us to be next to their homes. We smell too bad.’ Replacing the smell and ignoring their locale, what you can see from the third floor windows is a solitary bland protruding incinerator lamentably unworthy of Becker documentation and, tellingly, Millwall football club. Somehow the timely placement of the dumps next to the Den makes easy sense; infamous for riots and home to a crowd that proudly proclaims, ‘no one likes us (we don’t care);’ they are football scum.
Yet this link is all too easy, and leads me to another easy connection: this was the physical site from which Slavoj Zizek recently argued for an aesthetic dimension in trash itself, in a recent popular-philosophy-and-everyday-life film.6 Getting up close and dirty to the trash – unlike my hesitant hovering from afar – he passionately waves his arms about in fury, that we must learn to love such imperfection as lovers do in each other, and this is how we should learn to love the world, as opposed to some sort of ‘return to nature.’ However ironic his riposte in a commercialised unwasteful waste dump, his notion of the ‘difficulty of finding poetry’ in this dimension has been taken up by many – this is an old story – and as my zone 2 quest hints, the garbage pile has an alternative genealogy as an ‘archaeological treasure trove precisely because of its concentrated, synecdechocic, compressed character. As congealed history, garbage reveals a checkered past. As time materialised in space, it is coagulated sociality, a gooey distillation of society’s contradictions.’
But if the mound itself is a ‘radically de-centred text,’ then what of the distinctly un-monumental miniature wastegrounds littered across the city? The everyday crevices of dirt, the seemingly unanimously-hated local sport of fly-tipping, façades of disrepair and pregnant pauses of development construction? Do these form a concrete poetry of garbage? And what if we turn inwards, to private spaces, full of crap themselves? ‘Imagine a man so proud, built a monument to himself: a mountain of garbage, in his house.’ In these spaces, ambivalence returns; the potentiality of finding Georges Bataille’s hetereogeneity, returns. To find aesthetic value in these microcosmic, isolated, disconnected spaces of excess and excrement is for these in-between spaces to become somehow enunciated. These ‘traces of material disorder become symbolic of garbage because of their formlessness,’ and are the ‘dissipative, antiproductive ‘other’ element in the heart of production.’ Both constitutive and representing radical negativity at the same time, these heterogeneous spaces are those that escape, that flow in and through the homogenous landscape, are heterogeneous structurally in their temporary character, but even more so in their continuous transformations.
If waste is a necessary condition, and is latterly an ‘ideal metaphor for the postmodern condition’ of the social production of an inherently material economy of values, then is returning to these disregarded sites of the city, not for re- valuation or beautification, but for a form of celebration and reconsideration of aesthetic value, to redress the shadowy history of Western culture as a history of disposal? These superfluous sites are endowed with the possibility of the seemingly banal being transformed into material expressions of metaphysical curiosity and exposing the leakages of London’s pursuit of cleanliness or – in its new guise – environmentally friendliness, intertwined with the excessive abundance of non-distinct, empty private public spaces. What is the ability of these moments of disorder to cause ruptures or reframe the signifiers within which the built environment is referred to?
These sites of ‘meaningless’ detritus, scattered across London – incrementally accumulative – proffer an alternative, unknowable consciousness of the city through unsourced remainders, traces of garbage as traces of knowledge, a decomposed history, glimpses of stories that cling to space but are constantly reshuffled, eventually removed and transformed for a profit.