Trash: Rethink and Reclaim

Created Fall 2020

Class: Curating Fashion Exhibitions

We live in an age where everything gets thrown away. From disposable fashion to disposable bags, nothing is made to last in a modern age. But what are the real costs of a disposable lifestyle when our throw-away world is a product of manufactured design? The creation of products that aren’t meant to last or that aren’t durable, is an intentional design of our modern manufactured culture. Consider the straight razor that your grandfather used that could be sharpened and used again and again for years to come. Compare this to the disposable, throw-away razors of today that are designed to last for no longer than a month. Products that endure time and use are not good for manufacturers that want to sell a high volume of products.

So… what’s the story with trash? Culturally, we most often think of trash as the familiar objects that we deal with every day that are dirty, unusable, broken-- that we can toss out of our lives in an attempt to clean up. Yet, if we take a closer, critical look at the framework, discourse, and language of “trash” it’s apparent that most aspects of trash are completely obscured from our conceptual understanding of the economic, social, cultural, political, and the material systems. Rather than merely thinking about trash as the objects of study, what if we rethink and reclaim this term to analyze the wider role of society and culture, including social norms, economic systems, forms of labor, ideology, infrastructure, and power in definitions of attitudes toward behaviors around and materialities of waste, broadly defined.

What are the things, who are the people that are degraded and regarded as the cultural and material detritus of society? The narrative of trash adapts to changing economic, social and political conditions, in a constant state of flux. Not all trash exists within the same institutional matrix.

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This exhibition will use trash as a lens to rethink the social constructions of waste, marginalization, and consumption and how we might reclaim these stories through repair, preservation, and re-narrativization. Trash is not just objects produced by individuals that is automatically gross, offensive, disgusting or harmful. It’s all part of a wider sociocultural, political, ecological, and economic system. Our exhibition “Trash: Rethink and Reclaim” creates a space to interrogate a cultural system of trash and its normative notions. As such, trash is not just an ecological problem but is instead a category, judgement, economic and cultural challenge, as well as a process and mentality that both produces and struggles against power structures.

Using five archival collections at Cornell University, we created this online exhibition to explore the ways in which society can begin reimagining how we interpret trash. The collections consisted of the Cornell Fashion + Textile Collection, the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, the Cornell Collection of Blaschka Invertebrate Models, The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives, and the Cornell University PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography. This exhibition was curated as a final project for the course "Curating Fashion Exhibitions," which was taught by Dr. Denise Green as part of the Cornell University Society for Humanities Fabrication Theme for 2020-2021.

Each theme within the exhibition highlights instances where the concept of "trash" can be rethought and reclaimed. The Water - How often do we think about how our daily actions contaminate the bodies of water around us as a result of our activities? From the plastic bags that we use every day to industrial pollution from clothing factories, much of this waste ends up in our water system. The Life - How do we make meaning from the world and people around us? Who has value and who doesn’t? Drawing from Julia Kristeva’s theories of abjection, dirt is not an essential characteristic of objects or people but is produced through its ambiguity and its subsequent inability to be assimilated into existing socio-cultural categories and systems. The City - How does our environment and the space around us get constructed? The city is often considered an undesirable space where normative borders and divisions threaten to breakdown our conventional, comfortable understanding of the world. But the city can also exist as a liminal space between that which is expressible through language and that which radically resists expression.

The Object - The way waste flows is often contingent and temporal. Waste often exceeds the governed cultural and economic boundaries and can leak, ruin, seep or collapse the atmosphere around it. “Trash may dissemble the truth of its being by presenting itself as [an] immaterial, innocuous substance divorced from the relations to physicality” (Kennedy 2007, p. 162). The War - Using a Marxist lens, war creates a byproduct of human waste from a capitalist mode of production. Marx argues that capitalism and war perpetually generates human superfluity in the form of a “surplus population” of workers (1976) and, moreover, “squanders human beings, living labour,” resulting in a “waste of the workers’ life and health” (Marx, 1976, p.182).