Trashing the city

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On 14 december, 2009, on Stout Street, between Lambton Quay and Ballance Street, in the center of Wellington, New Zealand, there was a pile of rubbish blockading the entire road and making the street impassable for cars, pedestrians and cyclists. This impromptu blockade was a “One Day Sculpture” called Journee des Barricades by British artists, Heather and Ivan Morison. According to the artists’ statement:

Car wrecks, discarded furniture and other urban detritus barricaded a central city street in Wellington, New Zealand on Sunday 14th December 2008.
The temporary public artwork entitled Journée des barricades acts as a rupture in the everyday comings and goings of the city. In its barricade form, the sculpture might suggest associations with the history of political actions and social unrest, but as a collection of discarded consumer products it may also bring to mind questions about our environmental and economic future.

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This street art in Wellington looks eerily like the streets of Naples looked last year (though probably not as smelly, and certainly not for the sake of art).

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This artists’ collection of urban detritus also reminds me of the work of Walter Benjamin, especially the Arcades Project.

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Benjamin’s project involved collecting things, books, pamphlets, scraps and quote related to the bourgeois transformation of Paris during the Second Empire (mid-late 1800s). One of his goals was:

To educate the image-making medium within us, raising it to a stereoscopic and dimensional seeing into the depths of historical shadows.

I think this means that he wanted “us” to become sensitive to the affective images of our everyday lives, to open ourselves to another kind of “seeing”–a seeing that would engage us deeply in our time, our space through intense connection with the “past.” A way of seeing that what we think is “gone” is always with us, in the shadows.

Benjamin had an interesting method for this daunting project. The name he gave this method was “literary montage.”

I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse–these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.

Making something with refuse, detritus, trash, rubbish, was Benjamin’s way to help us see better. This was his archival practice, his archive of the city.

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Slavoj Zizek, in the film Examined Life (2008), takes us one step further, asking us to actually love our trash:

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