Set deep in the south of San Francisco, past the empty landscapes of Candlestick Park and beside the rolling tracks of the Caltrain railways, is the San Francisco Dump. Its large warehouses contain mountains of waste, over 400 employees, and some of the City’s most innovative art.
This art (which includes sculpture, video, photography, painting and more) is constructed with materials found at the dump’s Recology Solid Waste Transfer and Recycling Site, and is made possible through the Artist In Residency Program put together by Recology San Francisco. The program, which has been around since 1990 and has supported over 100 professional artists and 20 student artists, is still in full swing. During their residencies, artists have scavenging privileges (access to discarded materials in the trash transfer station), a stipend, a large studio space, and 24-hour access to the company’s well-equipped tool shed. At the end of their four-month residency, each artist has a two-day public exhibition and a reception featuring the artwork made during the residency. Each artist also contributes artwork to the program’s permanent collection, which has exhibited in galleries all over the country.
As described on the Recology website, “The Artist in Residence Program at Recology San Francisco is a unique art and education program… By supporting artists who work with recycled materials, Recology hopes to encourage people to conserve natural resources and promote new ways of thinking about art and the environment.”
Currently, two professional artists (Jeremiah Barber, Alison Pebworth) and one student artist (Robb Godshaw) have made their studios at the dump, and have committed to spending at least 20 hours a week scavenging through the recycling and waste site – which is affectionately referred to as “the pile”. Though they all have access to the same heaps of refuse, the work that they have each been doing is excitingly different.
I caught up with each of the three artists currently in residence and talked with them about their experiences encountering the treasures in other people’s trash.
The public showing of the artist’s work will be January 22 and 23 at Recology San Francisco, which is located at 400 Tunnel Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94134.
Old televisions line the walls of the shipping container that Robb Godshaw calls his studio. And soon, a diploma will as well.
The college credit that Godshaw is currently accumulating through his Student Residency at Recology is just what he needs to finally be able to complete his undergraduate Fine Arts degree.“When this residency ends in January, I’ll have a BFA in Fine Art from the SF Dump,” Godshaw joked. “I’ll just bring my diploma here and take a picture of it in the garbage pile.”
Interested in “the strange way that humans interact with technological simulations of natural things,” Godshaw is building a series of televisual sculptures that aim to transport viewers through the “language of experience and the sublime.” Over the past two months, Godshaw has been collecting old televisions, slow motors, and an array of fluorescent light fixtures, in order to transform old televisions into large microscopes.
His ideas for his project came while he toured the facility during his application process.
“I saw the pile of thirty analogue televisions sitting out, separated from everything else, because they’re too big to fit in the e-waste boxes,” he said, “and I got to thinking. After a while I got an intuition that this process could work: that the only difference between a microscope and a television is that a television has more parts.”
He has spent his residency creating large-scale optics from the internal lenses of these discarded televisions. He utilizes the configuration of lenses, mirrors and diffusion panels within the bodies of the salvaged televisions to construct the optics necessary for the microscopic magnification to occur. He scavenges in the dump for light fixtures and small motors, in order to create the lighting and movement that will provide each magnified object with his desired cinematic effect. The objects will also be sourced from the dump — though he has not yet decided which kinds of pieces he wants to include.
“I’ve been holding off on selecting content to go in the microscopes, because it’s the most important decision I have to make. I figure once I have four or five televisions running, I can stop looking for electronic parts and start looking for the emotional ones,” said Godshaw, on his process for selecting the objects that will be magnified during the final show.
While I toured his studio, he lowered the lights and spun a small gold military pin, scavenged from the pile, underneath the television’s lens. I watched as the once-blank screen glowed with hazy shades of gold, red, and blue — the hues bleeding into each other as he turned the pin slowly with his fingers. The shimmering colors were at once beautiful, and tragic.
“I’m interested in making tiny forgotten things enormous: to try to un-erase the little ephemera of that which is discarded. The television is a good mechanism for making tiny things huge. It has its language rooted in the spectacle, in that it is obsessively watched and people who are on television are important,” said Godshaw. “So any trash that gets on television is probably pretty stoked.”
Though it is located at a dump, Jeremiah Barber’s studio is meticulous. Intricate lighting and video equipment, which he has handmade from discarded materials found in the pile, are organized in strategic positions throughout the white-walled room. A large black display case stands in the center: a recently salvaged prop that will be the star of his next short film.
This film will be one of the many that Barber has made during his Recology residency. The films, which vary in length, feature actors relating, somewhat ominously, to a variety of materials and texts that Barber has found while scavenging in the pile. In one video, a man’s head sticks out of a pile of rope while he recites school lessons. In another, a severe woman chants her sermon notes while deep red soybean shells fall from the sky. Within these non-narrative short films, Barber is playing with different relationships of transformation and memory.
“These texts (bits of random sentences, thrown away lists) that I’m finding are things that people want to forget, which is why they put them in the trash,” Barber explains. “I’m interested in these kinds of memories, and using the materials I find to create situations where the performers are impeded from sharing their memories, where they physically can’t get their thoughts out.”
Barber has been collaborating with his partner Ingrid Rojaz Contrerars, a writer, on the structural relationships between the anonymous texts and his imagistic dreamscapes. The two have worked together for over ten years, on a variety of performances that work to queer memory, relationships, and self through elemental disruptions.
Barber has had a lot of success in finding the odds and ends needed to build all the video equipment for his project. His camera dolly runs on sixteen skateboard wheels, his steady cam device is a piece of plywood affixed to a heavy iron curtain rod.
There is also a large sculptural component to his work. He is in the midst of creating a variety of light boxes that viewers can step into, in order to experience their own forms of transformation and distortion. Within these black boxes, lenses are glued to larger lenses and speakers bounce off mirrors submerged in water. Sound, sight, and touch are each individually affected by these nuanced warpings.
“All my work deals with transformations of many kinds, and most of my past performances involve attempts to transform myself somehow, usually using fire or water,” Barber said. “The last couple years, I’ve been trying to expand my process so that other people can have those experiences, instead of watching me do it.”
Given that the San Francisco dump is the epicenter of transformation for all the material discard of the City, these conceptual conversations around distortion, memory, and loss feel particularly apt for the space he is working in. The waste of a city is its best-kept secret, and the daily sorting and operations at the dump is no exception. The oft-invisible emotional processes that Barber’s installations work through — those of forgetting and remembering, transformation and loss— echo with relevance, and feel doubly relevant.
Alison Pebworth has been painting for fifteen years, but after the first two months of her Recology residency, she has yet to pick up a paintbrush.
“All I’ve ever wanted was to have a roadside attraction, where I could make my own environment and build anything I want. So I’m trying to get my hand in building — in finding things, and putting them together,” Pebworth said, of her decision to focus on sculpture and collage during her four months at the dump.
Back in San Francisco after the completion of her Beautiful Possibility tour, a traveling artistic exhibition and research project, Pebworth is focusing on how to further combine her love of art with her passion for cultural storytelling. Pebworth is particularly interested in the storytelling potential of historical images, particularly the ones that are dismissed as irrelevant or inexpensive.
“Not the popular histories, but the lost histories — that’s what I’m interested in. Because they are just as important in shaping who we are as the bigger events in history are. And that’s what you see in the dump — all these layers of histories,” she said.
During her Recology residency, Pebworth has been focusing her attention on the art of collection and consumption, and their relationships with the visual histories that surround us.
And so she has modeled her studio on the early European museums, the so-called wonder cabinets, which were full of oddities that people collected from around the world. She likens those early attempts to categorize and make sense of the influx of visual materials to her daily experience while sorting through the dump’s vast heaps of trash.
“There’s so much information that it gets overwhelming, and it just compounds the clutter in my brain. How do we deal with it? I want to build these cabinets that can disguise it, but can also reveal it.”
On every surface, shelf, and floor available, neatly arranged piles and piles of things are scattered punctiliously: pine cones lined up by size, neatly pressed pieces of paper, pools of carpet, coloring books, and vintage ornaments. Everything is grouped together by a logical undercurrent that is just out grasp, but seems wholly reasonable. It is a chaos of immense aesthetic pleasure.
It is with these collected objects that she plans to create the large ornamental sculptures and archived displays for her January show. Some of them follow very strict rules: A bookshelf that contains one published book for every year that she has been alive. A tapestry of T-shirts archived by day and by fabric. The rest are organized more loosely: An ode to the feminine sits as a statue in a box, decorated with fancy laces and furs. Next to it sits a similar shrine, but this one is balanced with steel, wire, hair — all the materials she claims to detest. On the wall, high above all, is an illegibly collaged quote from a poem that she loves, which she says guides her during her practice. The lettering is bright and campy — the perfect accompaniment to the room of oddities that she is creating.
The room rings with a vibrancy that feels distinct — a sensibility of layerings and tatterings and heres and theres. A time capsule, with no specified time, that holds within it the very essence (primarily displayed through colors, through papers, through long-extinct lettering) of the past century. Amidst the trimmings and the fading and the garish 1950’s smiles, a true sense of artifice arises. And within her museum, Pebworth has taken that artifice head on, in order to show all of the beautiful and creepy things that we can make from it.