In September 2014 Robyn Woolston exhibited her photography in São Paulo, Brazil, while contributing as a panel member to the International Solid Waste World Congress.
Robyn is an artist and filmmaker who describes herself as “working at the intersection of creativity and ecology,” playing with the “products that a culture uses to create its meanings” and, as importantly, with the disconnection between commercialised, systemic production and the large-scale waste that results from it.
The International Solid Waste Association’s declared mission is “to promote and develop sustainable and professional waste management worldwide”, and it has a vision of “an Earth where no waste exists.” Its 2014 congress was held from 8th–11th September in São Paulo, the seventh most populous metropolis in the world, its population of over 21,000,000 people presenting enormous challenges for waste management.
Robyn has produced a series of responses to her residency, including this Q&A overview and a series of blog posts, linked below:
Q: Why Brazil?
The International Solid Waste Association invited me to exhibit and speak at their annual conference in São Paulo, Brazil, during September 2014. As an organisation they are committed to protecting human health and the environment as well as ensuring sustainable resource management. As an artist the invitation provided a rich opportunity to meet with professionals from within the industry whilst also contributing to a panel discussion titled: Paradigm Shift: Changing Lifestyles, Re-defining the Responsibilities of Stakeholders and Communication Strategies.
Q: What has ‘solid waste’ got to do with art?
I work at the intersection between Art and Ecology, at times working with large scale waste from manufacturing processes. Sometimes this has meant my materials are as diverse as 7500 ice-cream containers or 45 decommissioned musical instruments. I’m continuing in the tradition of a rich vein of arts practice related to ‘Found Objects’ as well as Eco Art.
Essentially the work questions the value we place upon rejected matter or materials. For me waste products provide a valuable resource that tells me something about the way in which we live, work and relate to the planet that supports us.
Q: What was the most challenging part of the residency?
Visiting a landfill that accepts 600 lorries of waste a day, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. When you stop to consider that waste creation is something that is happening continually then our relationship with the planet is constantly challenging its capacity to cope. I witnessed a fraction of an urban areas ‘discharge’ and it made me realise the equally catastrophic or potentially beneficial effects of our actions can have.
Q: What will you take away from the experience?
I have been able to experience a densely layered set of realities. From a corporate conference with over 1000 delegates, originating from 68 countries; to a waste pickers co- operative that supports 30 families.
For all the differentiation across social or monetary boundaries the potential impact of each and every one of these people is connected, as are you and I, via a supply chain that’s operating 365 days of the year. From consumer behaviour to political affiliation, purchasing power to personal choice, we are implicated in a global market in terms of resource extraction, depletion and potential re-invigoration.
Ultimately, what’s vital in terms of the way in which this story plays out is whether or not we are as beholden to profit as were are to the planet. As the Vice-Mayor for Culture and Tourism, Antwerp, Belgium put it:
“Waste doesn’t come from itself. It is the mirror of our society…it is the mirror of who we are.”
During and immediately following the residency Robyn wrote a series of five blog posts about the experience:
Blog Post 1: Research Objectives / Reason for Travel; outlining the aims of the residency, including contributing to a panel at the congress, deepening understanding of industrial recycling processes and brokering relationships that could further practice;
Blog Post 2: Inter silo / intra-silo; in which the experiences of the “Uber Uber Corporate Conference” underlines Robyn’s belief that her conversations around her practice exist where art and ecology, and the environment and our impact on it, meet;
Blog Post 3: Transitioning; the daunting task of reviewing the official conference, with reflections, facts and figures;
Blog Post 4: Economies of Scale; trips to “two environments married to the same material yet radically different in scale”: a cooperative of thirty waste-pickers, 90% of them women, who support their families by collecting and selling recyclables; and the largest waste treatment and recovery plant in Latin America, covering an area of 3.5million square metres with a total capacity when filled of 80 million tons. Our presence in these divergent scales of waste can be seen in the Royal Mail postbag found at the waste cooperative.
Blog Post 5: Research Objectives, Reflections & Returning; a review of the residency, from the funding challenges - and scepticism - that had to be overcome to get to São Paulo, to an assessment of its outcomes against the initial objectives.