Archive | 2014

‘Tis the season of Waste and Want

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While spending Christmas day with loved ones, I have been reflecting on my fall semester in the Transdisciplinary Design program at Parsons. I can hardly believe how quickly it passed. The design methodologies, technical skills, and new modes of thinking I learned are clearer from the retrospective “balcony” than they were on the mid-semester “dance floor.” I want to share a project I made for my portfolio. This post has a lot of photos because I geeked about how beautiful the process is.

In one of my classes, I was given the assignment of producing a physical portfolio, business card, or brochure that reflects my professional practice. I knew that I couldn’t simply make a digitally printed book on industrial paper manufactured from wood pulp and claim it’s an object that represents my No Trash principles. So, I consulted my enormously talented friend Pam DeLuco, who I’ve written about here on this blog in the past. I told her I was thinking about making the paper by hand and she advised me on different materials that I could scavenge from the trash and natural fibers I could forage to make the pulp. She then invited me out to California to make it in her beautiful studio, Shotwell Paper Mill, the only handmade paper mill in San Francisco. Because the cost of the flight was affordable and I knew I would also get to see my sister who lives in the Bay Area (we grew up out there) I decided to make the trip. Having access to Pam’s know-how, resources, and facilities was an incredible gift. We worked for five days around the clock to create a little book (a chapbook folded from a single sheet of paper) that both describes and embodies the ideas I have been tumbling around over the course of my semester.

JuteSacks

After meeting Pam at SFO, we headed straight to an evening workshop at Dandelion Chocolate where we indulged in holiday samples and collected jute burlap cacao bean sacks. The burlap sacks are used to transport dry food goods around the world but they are only used once. Pam has been collecting these from vendors around San Francisco who would otherwise throw them away. Processed, the jute fibers make a crisp, smooth, beige paper, which I felt would meet the aesthetic and utilitarian requirements of my project. The following morning we hit up Four Barrel Coffee for a few more coffee bean sacks before heading to the Mission district studio.

cuttingJute

To start, I cut the bags into one-inch squares with a pizza cutter-style blade and scissors. By the time I was finished with this first step, my right hand was numb. Pam is 5 feet tall and not much more than 90 pounds, but she must have strong hands from this work. During this process, I created trash—a dulled pizza-cutter blade.

Cacaobeans

As I dismembered the bags, I collected stowaway cacao beans, which fueled our work over the next several days.

CookingJute

Next, we submerged the cut pieces in a 10-gallon pot of water and cooked the fibers over a propane stove for several hours, occasionally stirring them with a long stick. It was a very special brew. The smell of the fermented cacao beans clings to the jute sacks and it filled the studio as the water bubbled and boiled.

BeatingJute

Once the fibers cooked down, I rinsed them until the water ran clear. Pam’s business partner Drew Cameron taught me how to operate the Hollander Beater and we added the fibers to the trough. Drew explained that the beater does not cut the fibers but rather it compacts them, which in a sense makes the fibers “grabbier,” so that they can form the hydrogen bond necessary to make a sheet of paper.

Pulpcheck

To check the beaten pulp for inconsistencies, we drew a sample from the beater and held it up to the light. No clumps. Time to make the sheets.

SeedPaper

I decided to make seed paper. I felt that this element made the piece conceptually stronger. I wanted to create a prompt for users to lovingly move the object I produced into the “disposal” phase of its life. By making the paper plantable, I hope that those who interact with it will one day bury the jute paper in soil and in turn feel rewarded for their stewardship by the food reaped from the sown seeds. I rode Pam’s bike to the Scarlet Sage Herb Co. to pick up their very last packet of heirloom lettuce, which I chose because this seed is hard enough that it doesn’t germinate in the sheet before the paper can dry.

PullingPaper

“Pulling” the paper was one of my favorite parts of the process. We added the pulp to a bath of water, sprinkled in the seeds, and pulled a papermaking mould and deckle through the mixture. The fibers catch on the screen as the water drains through. The paper is then “couched” or pressed onto pieces of felt that are pressed between wood boards and dried.

OldNewType

While the paper was drying, I got to work setting type to letterpress print the text of my book. After making the paper by hand, it wouldn’t have seemed right to run it through a laser printer. I chose sans serif, no frills, News Gothic 12 point font. I did print a digital copy of my text onto a white sheet of paper to use as a reference while I worked. As I sat there lifting each letter out of the tray, I was struck by the strangeness of using a modern technology to assist the antiquated process.

TypeSetClose

This part took many hours. In order to justify the text on the pages of my tiny book, I was editing on the fly, searching for synonyms, unessential words, and rephrases in order to make each line fit. The letterpress printed version is essentially a translation of the Microsoft Word document I had been tweaking before arriving in SF. The contents of this book are ideas that I have been working with very closely for many months. But setting these thoughts in led type has deepened my relationship to them.

FinishedPaper

After the paper was dried and the type was set, it was time to print a test sheet.

PressSpins

So we took the press for a spin.

ProofingType

And discovered some (ironic) typos.

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Finally, we got all the kinks out and ran the edition through the press. The seeds broke the type in some places but I think it was worth it to have them in there. I can’t wait to plant one of the books. 

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I hand illustrated and signed each edition copy, because I’m particularly interested in the tension between the preciousness of the object and its true disposability. When I posted an image of the finished piece on instagram, a friend commented, “But why would you want to plant such a beautiful little book?!” My answer is: Because it can be as beautiful in its death as it is in its life. I’m pleased with the end result and so grateful to Pam and Drew for their guidance and unfettered support throughout the project. It’s a glimpse at what I’ve been up to and what I’ve been thinking about.

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In time lapsed

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When I was a freshman at Rhode Island School of Design, I took a foundations 3 dimensional design course with a teacher named Ken Horii. I often recall a lecture he gave during which he projected slides from his trip to the Kailasanatha rock-cut temple at Ellora in India. The temple was carved into the wall of a basalt cliff and took an estimated 40 years to complete. One of the slides showed a section of a painted ceiling. Ken explained that the fine lines in the image were applied with a single hair. I remember that when he returned from the trip he was unable to make art for more than a year. I recently emailed Ken to ask him to refresh my memory on some of the details of his experience. In his reply he explained that he was hoping to impart to his students the importance of finding necessity in our own production. The work of those who carved each stone and painted each line was in service to something greater than themselves. He wrote that what gave him pause in his work was, “the need to seek and find that necessity for myself—a deeper and undeniable way forward.”

I think of Ken’s lecture whenever I am faced with something overwhelming that forces me to question my practices and requires me to take pause in my own life. This last semester of graduate school at Parsons was an instance of this. I was able to design my curriculum around the subject of waste and I discovered very quickly that I didn’t know how much I didn’t know. I took a class about e-waste that examined the manufacturing, usage, and disposal of electronics, specifically through the lens of the smartphone. We made a digital and physical project called TECHTRASH that aimed to demystify some of the consequences of device use. In an anthropology course I took at NYU called Garbage in Gotham, I learned about the history of waste management in NYC. I worked on a composting project and campaign at an urban farm in Brooklyn with Project Eats and Hello Compost. In a more experimental project, I co-designed an exhibit called Landfull for a speculative design class. This kind of discourse is exactly what I was searching for once I had settled into a No Trash Project routine in Providence and I looked around wondering if it was possible for me to effect change beyond my own personal consumption and discard habits. I had started to become aware of the limitations of focusing solely on problem solving municipal waste and was eager to have conversations about systems upstream of consumption. The question, “Why do we focus so much money, so many resources and campaigning on municipal waste management and individual responsibility, when household trash only makes up for 3% of the nations total waste output?” rang in my ears. I felt the need to reconsider whether or not I wanted to continue to generate what I feared may ultimately be a misdirected energy. I wondered if I had been naïve to promote my No Trash Project through the blog when folks in the field of Discard Studies seem to have much bigger fish to fry.

techtrash

sign

landfull

After many months, some wonderful experiences, and a lot of reflection, I’ve come to some conclusions that I feel the need to share. First, and perhaps most importantly in the context of everything I’ve written on this platform to date, while the planet won’t notice whether or not I make trash or if I leave the lights on when I leave a room, I remain committed to the effort to circumvent garbage and packaging in my consumption of goods. I continue to take care in my decisions (based in considerations of source, material, manufacturing, energy, quality and durability) about the things I acquire and the things I choose to purge.  I will continue to work to limit my energy and resource-consumption. Though I’ve tried to express this in previous posts, I can say more distinctly now that these decisions are not based in some delusion that I alone can slow the melting ice, but rather in something more personal and intuitive. It’s in the feeling that I have when I lift an item towards a trashcan about the strangeness of its grave beyond the receptacle and the rituals we’ve constructed to deliver it there.  Any acknowledgement of the resources and labor required to produce that item, and of the fuel required to move the materials around is obliterated in that gesture. The objection to it stirs in my chest and in my stomach. If I had to assign one word to the feeling it would be, “Nope.” It’s important to note is that while that 3% statistic is something I grapple with in terms of trying to decide where to focus my attention, having stood in the open face of Rhode Island’s central landfill taking in the volume of a single day’s worth of garbage in the smallest state in the country, there is no part of me that imagines that 3% to be too insignificant for concern.

Additionally, the upward trend in my quality of life since starting this project obliges me to continue forward with it and to sustain my effort to become more organized in my housekeeping, work, school, and personal care routines. In doing so I might free up more time to cultivate relationships and get after more adventures. I’ve mentioned before that I’m not an organized thinker by nature, so I have to work hard to maintain order and efficiency. I’ve come to rely on the No Trash systems I’ve installed to reduce chaos and clutter. So in short, as far as my personal dedication to this project goes, there’s still no end in sight.

Another important conclusion I’ve reached is that while my private individual actions may not lead to anything outside of personal satisfaction, sharing my thoughts, works, and practices on this blog may generate meanings greater than my own struggles and successes. I’ve just returned home to New York City from a trip abroad. I was awarded the opportunity to attend a design workshop in Venice called Recycling City 3. Once the workshop ended I traveled around to meet some friends I had made through dialogues sparked over my project. I am so grateful to have had the chance to spend time with such amazing thinkers and doers. Letters from old professors, conversations with my brilliant classmates, and shining new friends have inspired me to keep posting. The tone of future posts will likely range from theoretical to practical, and continue to include musings around micro and macro issues in waste.

More soon,

Colleen

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