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The Stuff Show


I work on an experimental film series called The Magic Lantern Cinema. Last week we put on a show that I curated–largely inspired by the No Trash Project. In an attempt to streamline the waste reduction effort, I’ve been working to dramatically reduce my possessions to what I consider essentials–according to functional, sentimental, and even aesthetic value. This process has prompted me to reevaluate my own wants and needs for STUFF.  I’ve noticed my own tastes evolving as my lifestyle changes, and as I work through a careful consideration of my belongings, I’m struck by this newfound or heightened stewardship, and love of the things I deem worthy of keeping–like my trusty all-purpose wooden spatula, for instance. And my hand-me-down kitchen table that I recently noticed has beautifully joined legs, even if they’re a bit scarred at the ends where a teething puppy chewed them nearly eighteen years ago. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about stuff and I tried to put together a program that deals with some of these ideas. Below are the write-up and films synopses. A few of the titles can be screened online or rented/borrowed on DVD.

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Whether by design, circumstance, or accident, stuff sticks to us. In form and function, our belongings are descriptors in our personal narratives. What rules do we use to curate the objects we keep? Do our possessions–and the systems of organization we use to govern their arrangement–reveal more about us than our most intimate conversations? Magic Lantern Cinema’s “The Stuff Show” is a collection of short films about gleaning, coveting, producing, and purging. Stuff by its many names–essentials, art, waste–is scattered throughout scenes of a manufacturing company warehouse, a Pop artist’s sculpture studio, and a Japanese beachside dump. Commonplace objects stray from their everyday roles to haunt, fornicate, and dance across the screen. Here is a program to prompt a reconsideration, reassemblage, or repurposing of our stuff–much of which will long outlive us.

FEATURING: G.W. “Billy” Bitzer, “Westinghouse Work: Panorama view aisle B” (1904); Hans Richter, “Ghosts Before Breakfast” (1928); Michael Snow, “A to Z” (1956); Willard Maas, “The Mechanics of Love” (1955); Takahiko Iimura, “Kuzu (Junk)” (1962); Ed Emshwiller, “George Dumpson’s Place” (1965); Charles and Ray Eames, “Goods” (1982) and “Tops” (1969); Mallory Slate, “Claes Oldenburg” (1966)

 

“Westinghouse Works: Panorama view aisle B,” G.W. “Billy” Bitzer, 1904, 16mm on video, b&w, silent, 2 min.

In April and May of 1904, The American Mutoscope Biograph Company made 29 films at the Westinghouse Electric Company production facilities. Billy Bitzer–who would later become the cinematographer for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation–was hired to shoot the films. In Panorama view aisle B, a crane-mounted camera tracks high above the factory floor. Piles of metal forms lie below amid the commotion of workers cutting, welding, assembling, polishing and painting machine parts. 


“Ghosts Before Breakfast,” Hans Richter, 1928, 16mm, b&w, silent, 9 min.

“Objects are also people and [they] follow their own laws”-“the rhythm of the clock.” (H.R.). According to the clock in Ghosts Before Breakfast is 11:55 am. Only five minutes remain for bowler’s hats, teacups, a fire hose, revolvers, and a bow tie to run amuck in the world. At the stroke of noon they obediently return to a functional state. A title card at the start of the film reads: “The Nazis destroyed the sound version of this film as ‘degenerate art’. It shows that even objects revolt against regimentation.”


“A to Z,” Michael Snow, 1956, 16mm, b&w, silent, 7 min. 

Michael Snow’s first film (his only animation) illustrates the nighttime activities of dinning furniture. A vase, bowl, teacup and saucer dance merrily around a table. A chair stands still to the side. The teacup leads the chair to meet a friend–another chair. After a very brief romance, the two chairs consummate their love.

 

“The Mechanics of Love,” Willard Maas, 1955, 16mm, b&w, sound, 7 min. 

A couple’s act of lovemaking is described in still life images of suggestive household items and through the motion of ordinary tasks. “Daring and ingenious … daring because of its ‘forbidden’ subject matter; ingenious because commonplace objects are uncommonly related to build an action without actors, the effect of which is vivid, witty and downright bold.” – Lewis Jacobs 

 

“Claes Oldenburg,” Mallory Slate, 1966, 16mm, b&w, sound, 30 min. 

In a 1966 visit to his massive Lower East Side live/work loft, Claes Oldenburg takes us through the process of creating his mammoth, grotesque soft sculptures of everyday objects. He describes his pieces as idealized, magnified representations of the ‘sculptures of the home.’ Claes and his wife Pat develop patterns, prototypes, and finished works for various exhibitions. Slouching toilets and droopy electric mixers draw scores of art lovers into New York galleries.

 

“Tops,” Charles and Ray Eames, 1969, color, 35mm on video, sound, 8 min. 

From the simplest wooden dreidel to the hypnotizing Tedco toy gyroscope, tops of all shapes, colors, and sizes spin to the music of Elmer Bernstein. Operators across cultures and generations wind, crank, zip, twirl, and toss this classic toy in delightfully dizzying close-up compositions.

 

“Goods,” Charles & Ray Eames, 1982, slides on video, color, sound, 6.25 min. 

An excerpt from a lecture on poetry (given at Harvard in 1970-71) is paired with a three-screen slide show. A story about the break-in of his wife Ray’s car, and the items which the burglar chose to leave behind, leads into a discussion of what Charles Eames calls the ‘new covetables.’ 

 

“George Dumpson’s Place,” Ed Emshwiller, 1965, 16mm, color, sound, 8 min. 

A camera leads us over a stream and trough the woods to a dilapidated, overstuffed cabin. Its contents spill out amongst the surrounding flora. As we scan the piles of scavenged objects, careful arrangements begin to stand out. Broken action figures crouch between piles of stones. A tiny ceramic bust stands watch atop the end of a broomstick. In regard to his desire to make this film, Ed Emshwiller explained that George Dumpson “epitomized the soul of the artist.” 

 

“Kuzu (Junk),” Takahiko Iimura, 1962, 16mm, b&w, sound, 10 min. 

 “The beach of Tokyo Bay was a dumpsite for all the city’s human, animal and industrial wastes when I shot “Junk” there in the early 60s – today this is no longer the case. I was interested in the way my commitment could revive the junk and dead animals. At times the objects are animated, which could be seen as surreal, yet they are real at the same time. The concept coincides with the Neo-Dada in art, in which junk is assembled and incorporated into artwork. Yet today’s point of view, the film certainly shows concern with the ecology and may be regarded as an early attempt to deal with the destruction of our environment.” – T.I.

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Introduction

For the past six months I’ve been focused on an undertaking that I’ve been calling the No Trash Project. The goal: avoid purchasing anything in packaging and eliminate personal trash production. As this is my first blog entry, I’d like to explain the inspirations for this endeavor. When I think back, I can pinpoint a few key discoveries that led me to the big ‘all or nothing’ push.

First, many years ago I came to the realization that Rhode Island only recycles numbers 1 and 2 plastics and that all the other numbers I had been putting in my recycling bin had ended up in a landfill. I began to notice how many different kinds of plastics are used to package goods and was amazed by the volume of my routinely purchased products that were packaged with numbers 3 through 7 plastics. For the first time I really took notice of how many plastic components surrounding and encasing the goods that I purchased, that were not meant to be recycled at all. I was making far more trash than what I was carrying out in a trash bag every week.

Then came the all-important discovery of bulk grocery shopping. For years I had passed by the bulk sections in my local markets to shop the middle aisles, buying my cereal, grains, nuts, beans, flour, sugar, etc… in plastic bags and cardboard boxes. Once in a while I turned to bulk to get a particular dried fruit that wasn’t on the shelf, or some trail mix that looked appetizing. I’d fill up the available plastic bags or the number 5 containers provided by the bins. Because of the guilt I felt over tossing out the containers, I began washing them at home and bringing them back to the store to refill. This was a real aha moment. Much like my reusable bag, here was a system that (if I remembered to bring my containers to the store) cut out a piece of trash. Soon I began to view the bulk section as a more prominent source for my dry grocery needs. Somewhat surprisingly, I discovered that bulk shopping even had an aesthetic appeal. With my food stored in clear containers on the countertop, rather than behind labels and packaging–tucked away in cabinets, ingredients looked more appetizing and inspired more cooking. Eventually I found myself wishing that more goods–even beyond the kitchen, were available to me in bulk.

A year ago, I attended an Action Speaks radio conference at AS220 about the 1987 roaming Mobro Garbage Barge. Three panelists spoke about the problem of where to put all the garbage we make, and whether or not recycling as we know it today, can even begin to curb the crisis. I remember being particularly struck by the comments of a young woman from the audience who had emigrated from Eastern Europe. She described growing up in a post-communist economy where out of necessity, everyone was “obsessed with recycling”. Glass milk, beer, and juice bottles were returned to the store to be used again. The conference prompted me to think a lot about the monetary cost of convenience.

Finally, in April I saw a news video online about a family of four (plus one dog) from Northern California, who after six months had just a handful of garbage to show for the waste in produced in their home. I was floored when I saw this story. The Johnsons have developed systems by which they consume food, hygiene, clothing, and other goods without carrying home the by-products that become garbage. After a glimpse of the Johnsons’ success, decided that I needed to go further.

Since April, I have been overhauling my lifestyle, implementing new shopping, cooking, and cleaning systems to produce as little trash as possible. Today, I can’t imagine ever turning back.

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