Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Special Thanks

I'd like to thank some great folks that have made my stay in Dawson City wonderful and Abundance: The Dawson City Trash Project possible.
In no particular order, THANK YOU:

The friendly and well-dressed KIAC staff, board, and committee,
Tara, for coordinating the first few weeks,
Karen, for airport pick ups and cleaning up after the party even though she should have gone home,
David F, for much-needed social exertions and movies,
Jesse, for a huge and fabulous personality and horrible jokes,
Amy, for coordinating the art camp,
Evelyn, for general sturdiness and friendliness,
Lance, for being there, for the textual ass, and for turning on/off/on/off/on/off the camera,
Mike Y, for the year of lead-up and organization,
David C, for good conversation, boat rides and the coat when I was cold,
Clair, for librarian-help,
Joanne, for introducing me to the museum archives,
Byrun, for good food, having a drill at the post office, and over-volunteering in general,
Jacob, for fabulous trash-talk and comradeship,
Francis, for letting me loot the dump,
Norm C, for the best dump-orientation ever,
Nicole, for asking good questions and taking good art,
Veronica, for the dump runs,
Debbie, for the dump runs,
Our neighbours, for the dump runs,
Aldo, for the dump run with 11 children,
Joan, for co-residing,
the staff at the ice cream store for cheerfully providing odd ice cream requests,
all of the tea-drinkers who provided me with 363 used tea bags,
Klondike Kate's staff for contributing to those tea bags,
all my friends around the world reading this blog and cheering me on,
and to everyone who took some art with them- the piece would have flopped without you!

P.S. And to the jerk who stole my (KIAC's) bike and crashed it: no art for you.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Abundance: The Dawson City Trash Project

The opening and the artist talks last night went fabulously. This morning people have already come in "shopping" and have taken pieces with them. Write-ups about the show will be in Gallery West Magazine and Pure Canada Magazine in addition to the catalouge essay being written by John K. Grande.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Macro Worlds

Taking photographs of minatures with a macro lens is not documentation- they are entirely different pieces. Here are some macro shots of teeny tiny bits. For a sense of scale, the grains on the snowy mountain photo are salt grains, and the three white concave circles in the tundra photo are the individual bubbles in styrofoam.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


I start installing Friday, so I'm dropping off the map for a bit. two days ago I printed 336 teabags. Yesterday I finished up the 100s of wee houses, poured a lot of resin, and glued a lot of wee rocks on wee tailings. Today I have to finish a few hundred ravens, about 50 forest dioramas, the top of the dump diorama, photograph the ice pieces (and forests, dumps, and ravens...) and figure out what to do with my leftovers. This is where the schedule breaks down a bit.

The teabags look fantastic and three have already been taken. I love resin (I bought all of the resin in Dawson City. Now there is no more for me to love).

I might post before the weekend, but there more to do than time to do it in. So.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Fast Breaking News Flash

Today a spot will play on CBC Radio North about my work at the dump between 12 and 12:30 (Yukon Time, which is 3 hours behind NY).
Live stream:

One day a reporter showed up at the dump in rubber boots to interview Jacob about his trash audit and I got into the mix as the local dump historian/artist.

(as an aside, I have heard about yet ANOTHER dump used in 1966 at Jackson's tailings. If any locals have the dates and waste management M.O. for this dump, please contact me!)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Trash Logic

The main problem with making miniature dioramas of dumps using trash is to not make it look like trash. People have to WANT this stuff, to take it away for free, to choose to sacrifice that space on their already over-laden mantel for a miniature ice flow made of bottle caps. Truthfully, yesterday I made some art that looked worse than the original garbage it was made out of.

But now I have a theory: garbage and not-garbage can have the exact same materiality, but there are some culturally-determined ground rules. First, garbage is not orderly. You can have a beautifully plated fennel and goat cheese haut cuisine, but turn it upside down in the sink and it's only fit for the garberator. Secondly, the more recognizable something is, the less trashy it is. At Quigley, the white metal area, where all the fridges and water heaters go, is less trashy than the auto pile, which is less trashy than the domestic pile, though they are all equally garbage. If you leave your fridge in the white metal area, all lined up with the others, and go back in a year, not only are all the other pieces highly identifiable as fridges and stoves, you can probably also pick out your very own discarded fridge (if it hasn't been scavenged). The auto pile is a bit more mashed up and not very orderly, but you can still tell a truck from a van and you can probably pick out your old 1988 Volvo. But in the domestic pile, even though things are sort-of-kind-of intact, you probably can't pick out your old pork chop or orange rind, and the place is a sty. The domestic pile is a giant pile of not-me/ not-mine. Your personal space is defined by whatever is not in the domestic pile.

And what does that have to do with art? Am I going to put people's names on pieces like those cheap key chains or mugs in drug stores?

There are two tactics I'm using in making art-into-trash. Firstly, I make things recognizable as something else, and secondly, I make them orderly in a certain way.

Recognizability: I make ice flows out of housing installation styrofoam so that they do not resemble styrofoam, though that is the "authentic Dawson City Raw Material" their little hand-stamped tags lay claim to. (Some of the little landscapes have rock slides in them, since the landscape icon of Dawson City is the landslide on the north edge of town. I add gravel to the slides, but for one little landscape, I left a gapping zesty blue styrofoam slide amongst an otherwise realistic miniature forest. I thought it was terrific. I want to see if anyone takes it. It is the only landscape that lets its materiality pop through. It is my favorite).

Order: The type of ordering I am going for articulated itself to me through my mode of production. My least favorite but most neccessary part of making a giant installation of miniatures is the one-person assembly line. I cut 50 little pieces; I paint those 50 little pieces; I add sparkles [or salt, the poor man's sparkle] to 50 little pieces; I box and store the 50 little pieces until installation time. And those 50 little pieces do not look like garbage no matter how ugly they are because they are units.

Image:Snowy units of styrofoam trash drying and waiting their turn for the next phase of production.

A junk store looks like a junk store because none of its pieces are matched. A supermarket looks clean and un-junky because it has 49 other Ritz cracker containers beside and behind the one you just took off the shelf, and there are 49 other types of similar crackers in the section. Have you ever been to Meat Farms Supermarket in Setauket, Long Island? Besides the unfortunate name, they tend not to have the staff to straighten the shelves, and the place looks trashy. The crackers are mixed in with the juice boxes, and even though those crackers are just as clean and edible as the ones in Stop-And-Shop, Stop-And-Shop's just seem more sterile, maybe even crunchier, and certainly less grungy.

So assembly-line aesthetics, thanks to Henry Ford, are important to our sense of order and garbage. Garbage would be a radically different animal if it weren't for capitalism. There'd be less of it, period, but I think there would also be less of it as an identifiable category. There would be less that could be recognized/unrecognized as garbage if it weren't for the "unit."

Image: Trashy tea bags turned raw art material

Lastly, and also relating to order and recognition, the easiest way to turn trash into something desirable is to line up a whole lot of similar pieces and call it archeology. Mark Dion is the master of this.

This is the technique I will use for the representation of garbage in the north dump, where one archaeologist came and dug up 5,000 tin cans for his dissertation on transience.

The People in/at the Dump


Yesterday I found one of my best friends in the dump. I was going through the free store and I came across a copy of 7 Mondays, a surprising find in and of itself since 7 Mondays is/was the literary 'zine from my undergraduate days in Sackville, New Brunswick years ago. I flipped it open and there, on the front cover, was a list of the editors, including Jane Henderson, one of my favorite people in the world (the list also included her roommate, Emily, whose hand-me-down shirt I still have). What a small world! It just goes to show that people will pop up and give you some virtual lovin' whenever you are in need, even if it's at the Arctic Circle at the dump.

Our neighbours and David's boss:

To get to the dump yesterday, we hitch hiked. I don't love hitchhiking, and some American paranoia has been transplanted in me in the last few years. I went with David (KIAC administrative assistant with yellow/red/green hair and a flair for women's clothing) and Joan (other artist-in-residence). We weren't even on the main road yet when Joan stuck out her thumb and our cardboard "dump" sign when a car pulled over. It was a man looking for his dog. Joan did it again for the next truck, and lo and behold, our neighbours were in it and let Joan ride up front while David and I took the back. I'm not sure, but I think they gave Joan a tour of the Callison gravel piles. We couldn't hear a thing in the back, but we stopped for long intervals in front of gravel.

Leaving the dump, I stuck out my thumb and the first truck pulled over. It was David's boss from the casino. We got a ride all the way to Princess Street.


There are three workers and one and a half administrators at the recycling center here in town. At the dump, there's Francis. He does all the sorting that the recycling center does, plus RUNS out of the sorting shed whenever a truck pulls in to dump something (every minute or so), plus keeps the piles clean, plus looks after capping, bears, and other dump-related activities. He says his main job is to be a diplomat, since three years ago before Francis got there, people dumped more or less where they wanted and many are rather attached to that idea.

The thing about Francis is that he is very proud of the work he does, and he does it all with an excellent attitude, underfunded, without help, and with one arm.

One day early in my career as a scavenger at Quigley, Jacob had taken me in the truck to show me something. Suddenly, Francis came running out of nowhere, jumped in the truck, gunned its engine, and began pursuing a rouge dumper who wanted to dump her brush right into the burn pit. Dump chase scenes are exciting, but they are more exciting when the chaser has to bend over to start the engine and shift with his left hand, meaning that for moments at a time, he ducks over and it looks like no one is in the truck. Like there's a phantom dump-truck chasing errant dumpers for their sins.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Studio Progress

Here's an example of the diagram/landscape layering idea. I am in the middle of making sure I have enough landscape to cover the diagrams (answer: no).

In the second image, the edge of Styrofoam Dawson City, based on the most popular tourist map, is in the corner. Its dirt roads are made from real dirt roads (i.e. Princess street). It is made of four pieces of scavenged styrofoam and I am quite proud of how seamlessly(ish) they fit together. In the background of the photo are my permafrost pieces, also made from styrofoam (from the old dock- see pictures from "July 12: Dump Runs and a Master Plan" for the 'before' picture).

So things are trucking along. I still need another 500 clear bottle caps and another 100 used tea bags, but most raw materials seem to be in abundance. Now its all labour (which means its time for me to stop writing and start gluing).

Kids in Trash

Yesterday (July 23), the KIAC Kids Art Camp headed out to the dump to collect items for their summer parade float. I don't think that dump has seen such a loud and wiggling group of scavengers before. Their task was to make the alphabet out of dump-stuff. The kids were surprisingly willing to touch "gross stuff" and one boy even volunteered to stand on the top of the domestic pile and/or brave the bio waste. We decided that either option was probably not a good idea due to trash avalanches and the historical dangers of poo-water (in 1903 a group of Dawsonites dumped their refuse at the bottom of 8th street and got typhoid fever after the spring ice break-up). The free store with all its toys (and all-important rubber boots!) was the biggest hit. One of the chaperones/art camp leaders, Morgan, found a golden eagle feather and had to fight the kids for it. A special thanks to Amy Ball, the Art Camp leader, for organizing the bus and snacks and bringing the group out there.

Privacy swapped for Performance

Every morning at 9AM-ish a Holland America Tours bus stops outside my studio window to give newly arriving tourists a peak of the historical McCalley House. The only problem is that I am usually right in front of that window at 9AM-ish. So two days ago I grabbed my camera and did my best impression of a tourist taking pictures of the tourists taking pictures of me.

Yesterday I wore a sheet and bobbed around my studio in what I hoped was a ghostly and historical manner (and stepped on a piece of art).

Today I happened to be skyping a friend who took the liberty of flashing the bus virtually from New York. Lucky bastards.

Tomorrow... who knows? But a daily 9AM-ish performance seems like more fun than marching down to Holland America Tours and demanding my privacy back.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Scroll Saw Scraps and Diagrams

Another little section of the installation is done!

These pieces are made from scroll saw scraps from the Quigley Landfill. The scroll saw pieces will probably be put where the Yukon and Klondike rivers converge south of town (in the diorama). That area is full of little water roundabouts, ponds, and rapids. I wasn't planning on making anything for that area, but the materials suggested that landscape, and the materials are the boss.

The installation is starting to take the shape of a giant, 3D diagram of Dawson City's 4 (1/2?) historical dumps. Each dump will have a schematic diagram over which the miniature diorama is laid so that when the pieces are taken away there will be something left behind.

Different reports and surveys have different types of diagrams. The Quigley diorama will be based on a cross-section of the earth, since they are concerned with leeching and with soil components. The Callison will be an areal diagram, since the only diagrams available are for locating the piezs (wells dug specially to test water). The Dome road landfill is still undecided. And since the docks at the north dump and the slough are based on oral descriptions, they will probably just have their names inscribed underneath them.

Old Timey Trash

I've been searching the city records, then the museum records, to find any information about the North dump. There's nothing. The city only keeps records starting in 1985, and the north dump was used before 1980. The museum has information on almost every character of note to pass through Dawson City, information on the archaeological value of tin cans found on the "north slope" (the slope above the north dump), but true to the philosophical status of trash, the museum doesn't care about the "elsewhere" of solid waste. Dawson City supported more than 3,000 transient gold diggers a year around the turn of the century. The north dump is almost impossible to detect because its along the shore and the shore is dropping into the river. So where did these thousands of people put their trash?

The museum directed me to "the town historian," a 94-year old man named Mr. Gould (for real), who has lived here his whole life. If the museum has a question, they call up Mr. Gould. Turns out he's my neighbour. He told me that the north dump wasn't really the dump proper, just some leftovers from when they had a dock that went into the water. They would burn the garbage on the shore and then push the remains onto the dock and dump it in the water. This was from 1902 or 1903 until 1980. Before that, they just dumped things into the river any old place, but the downstream folks complained (the north shore had -and still has- the poorest people and squatters, and then further north downstream there's the Tr'ondek Hwech'in nation. In the winter they would just leave it all on the ice, and apparently it still smelled even when frozen in 75 below weather. Before THAT, in 1898-99, there was a "slough" down by church street on the south end of town where people would dump their garbage and there were ditches from the houses for dumping water (no indoor plumbing). In high water, the Klondike river would come through the slough and whisk the trash away. Eventually they had to divert part of the river to clean it out. There is a report from 1975 for community development that mentions how badly the "slough" smells and how clogged up with garbage it is. So apparently it was a lingering practice.

The "slough" is where the Dawson City Music Festival is this weekend. No sign of trash, but it's been raining for three days and the place is flooded. I will keep my eye on the ground for anything interesting to turn up in the mud.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sorting for Pleasure

Today I volunteered to help Jacob, the summer student/researcher at the dump, sort garbage. There has never really been a trash audit of the dump, so part of Jacob's job is to determine what actually gets into the dump, and maybe figure out where it comes from. For the construction and auto piles, that's not too hard; you can just ask people at the gate and go look at the pile. But for the domestic pile, it's nasty. It involves opening up a random pile of bags and sorting the trash into several categories (clean paper, soiled paper, compost, hard plastic, film plastic, hazardous waste, metal, refundable recyclables, etc). And those bags bake in the 24 hour sun.

Jacob, being the gentleman he is, took any bags that I retched over. A hot-moldy yogurt took me by surprise when I cracked open what I was hoping was an office bag of paper trash and I nearly tossed my cookies. Everything went pretty smoothly after that.

We ended up with about 30% film plastic, by far the greatest category. Clean paper came in second. Right now its not recycled here, just burned, but it is technically a money-making recyclable. And New J Jersey apparently has a new technology that's like mascara for paper - it lengthens the paper fibers which otherwise break down into smaller bits with each recycle, meaning that right now paper is only recycled once, maybe twice, before it hits the landfill (down-cycling). There was also a significant amount of refundable recyclables, which the program here desperately needs to keep running. And one bag (22 liters) of hazardous waste. We had three bags of compost, which comes in at around 15%. In New York, compost is around 30-45%. Its much higher in the summer (up to 65%) when grass-cutting season is in (even though I don't know a single person with a lawn in New York).

I got a few tea bags and some hair out of the domestic sort, but I realized early on that any paper or other domestic trash I want I will have to get before it hits the dump stream. So the gallery asked some of the local restaurants if they'd save their tea bags and thin cardboard for me.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

All kinds of houses

This morning I photographed the first little bits I've made as a promo image for the gallery:

The houses are made from old tourist brochures with the doll house punch-outs someone so thoughtfully left for me in a plastic bag at the dump. The garbage cans are the shaft of raven feathers cut in sections and painted black (the hollow shaft of a raven's feather is white even though the barbs are black). The RV sign is from a tourist brochure. Its on a stick of what might have been incense. I found it on the floor outside my studio.

I *might* make 800 of them. That's about how many houses there are in the Dawson City area. Or I might just make however many I make before the opening.

Tomorrow I'm going to try my hand at felting raven feathers, wool, laundry lint, and dog hair. I want to make hundreds of miniature ravens to fill my miniature dump.


People are also asking my about MY house. The Residency uses a historical house called McCauley, named after the first mayor of Dawson City. This was his house. It's a lot larger than I thought it would be. Two bedrooms and one smaller studio are upstairs, and my larger studio (complete with sun room), the living room, and the kitchen are downstairs.

The other part of the studio is taken up by a few artificial Christmas trees from the dump and other instant-diorama material. The sun room is ridiculously hot in 23 hours of sunlight every day, so I've turned it into my drying room. The window ledge has a bunch of lichen on it, and the table has some trash-plaster leftovers from the construction pile drying.

We also have a work shed and a storage shed. Joan has taken over the work shed, though I might sneak in there for a little chop sawing one day.

When local folks find out Joan and I are the new artists in residence, they either discreetly ask how we like the house, or they bluntly ask how we like the ghost. Apparently the house is haunted, though I haven't met it yet. Joan thinks she has. The house is very creaky, but I don't think the creaks have consolidated into a ghost for me. Plus, depending on what you count as haunted, most of the houses in this town are probably haunted. A lot of people have died here, especially young folks. Thousands of people came up to dig gold and make their fortune and they died of cold, cholera, starvation, disease, or, occasionally, murder. Ghosts aside, I think the real mystery of this house is how we've managed to go through five rolls of toilet paper in a week.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Dump Runs and A Master Plan

So I think that the diorama will be based on the geology/geography of the dump. The old dump has no permafrost under it because it was cleared. Instead, there's a deep bowl full of ground water (post-melt permafrost). Under that there's bedrock. There may or may not be gold under the trash, but its unlikely because that area was dredged in the 20's. (Though there is better equipment now and people occasionally find gold in the old dredge tailings [aka dredge machine poop]). On either side of the dump there's permafrost where there is still brush. Expanding the dump will melt more permafrost and cause more water. Some of the trash groundwater occasionally spills into the permafrost, though no ones what happens when it does. Dirty ice cubes?

So the top layer of the diorama there will be trees and ravens and ravens and garbage and ravens. The second layer will have the bowl of groundwater, surrounded by permafrost. Then a layer of maybe-gold under all of that.

I collected some Styrofoam from the old dock to make diorama-permafrost with, and found that it was already sculpted for me:

The second marvelous dump find was from someone making a doll house. They left all of their scroll saw work and punched-out basa wood in a neat little baggie for me. They must have taken their doll house creation pretty seriously, since they left the trash in the construction area of the dump.

I like this dump.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

In Dawson

I've been in Dawson for two days now. Dirt roads, stray dogs, 15 degree weather and 22 hour sunlight. So almost like home.

The place I'm staying in with my co-resident, Joan, is a historical site and is owned by Parks Canada. My studio is roomy and has a sun deck (!). She's going to be using materials from the dump as well, so we went around to the CKA (Conservation Klondike Association), which runs the recycling in town and some of the day-to-day operations at the dump. Not only had my previous contact there quit (and not told me), but this is what we saw:

"No Funds to Operate"

I had a tour of the dumps - both the one in operation now and older ones (they used to dump trash on the ice in the winter and the old horse shoes and broken bottles are all along the shore north of town), and lack of funds is the name of the game. Dawson City is not a sustainable settlement. They will never make more money than they need to run. This is also true of the dump. Even with a recycling program, they've never broken even. They have almost no heavy equipment. The only electricity is a photo-voltaic that runs an electric fence that annoys bears as they break in. There are no lights for the one attendant, Francis, who works there, and in the winter there's 24 hour darkness during winter solstice. There was a heavy rain before I came and the hazardous waste area was flooded. And spilled. Luckily, its the only area at the dump with a liner.

They can't afford to cap the domestic waste (the smelly, mixed garbage) very often, so there's food for wildlife - huuuuge ravens, even for ravens, and a family of eagles. And the bears. Luckily, I'm the least interesting thing at the dump for them.

Tomorrow I'm going back to record the ravens on borrowed sound equipment and shift through the domestic waste with the summer student there to tally up what ends up in the domestic waste pile. Apparently only 25% of what gets tossed out is non-recoverable (non-recycable, un-burnable, un-reusable). But almost 100% nasty.

I have less idea of what my installation will look like than before I left. But I intend to make a sound tour of the dump and take tourists on tours while I'm here (pending vehicles). I also have a youth group to go out there with in two weeks. I'd better figure out what I'm doing before then!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Step One: Mock-ups in New York

Before I am confronted with a landfill full of materials for art in Dawson City, I practiced with some New York City trash. This piece is made with discarded wallpaper.


This blog is to document the process of the a currently untitled eco-art-research experimental design project in Dawson City in the Yukon Territory, Canada. This experimental investigation considers the design, aesthetics and contextual elements that influence the value of trash and behaviors towards trash in Dawson City.

The focus of the project is to build an artistic walk-in, interactive, sculptural diorama mimicking the local landscape whose raw materials consist entirely of garbage from Dawson City's landfill. The diorama will be modular and will be available to gallery visitors take away for free. Both local residents and tourists will be encouraged to take parts of the installation home with them, enacting a landfill that slowly erodes into people's personal spaces as opposed to the usual circulation of garbage away from people and into landfills. The context of the gallery and the aesthetics or utility of the transformed garage will work to create value in discarded materials.

This project has a number of goals. Many current environmental debates focus on how to best promote environmental change- one possibility is to use technology, design, and science to change the material aspects of environmental problems, while a second popular argument focuses on changing personal and institutional behaviors towards the material environment. By creating a case study where an aesthetic, material "fix" (via the transformation of garbage) is based on behaviors of consumers towards pre- and post- transformation trash engages both the role of voluntary participation and the role of technology and material goods in ecological stewardship.