From trash to treasure: Stanford artist transforms landfill waste into works of art

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From trash to treasure: Stanford artist transforms landfill waste into works of art

by Karli Cerankowski on Monday, September 17, 2012 - 10:01am

Most of us don't put a lot of thought into where our trash goes once it leaves the street curb. As the adage goes, once it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind. Clayman Institute faculty fellow and interdisciplinary artist Terry Berlier has recasted another old saying: For her, “one person’s trash is another’s raw material.” photo of repurposed piano keyboard

Earlier this year, during a sabbatical from her position as Assistant Professor in the Art and Art History Department at Stanford, Berlier found herself digging through other people’s castaways as an artist-in-residence at Recology. The San Francisco-based disposal service seeks to divert waste from landfills through programming, including the transformation of trash into art. Though Berlier does not always work with recycled materials, she explains, “Appropriated objects have had an ongoing presence in my work. The found object has had a long history in art and I had actually found myself moving away from it in projects prior to the Recology residency.” It was her growing concerns with environmental conditions that led her to the residency at Recology and back to working with found objects.

It’s about the weight that our consumer society has on both the individual and the weight that this is having on the environment.

Berlier spent nearly four months gathering and reworking materials from Recology’s public disposal area. She got an up-close look at the items people throw away, including pianos, old bird cages, antique telephones, shopping carts, computers, and unused wet cement. “I just learned that people throw away everything,” she says. “I know it sounds completely mundane, but completely brand new things or completely usable or Goodwill kind of materials all end up there."

When garbage is not waste

Berlier used the materials to re-build 16 pieces of art, each commenting on our relationship to trash and the environment.  Although she didn’t routinely dig through garbage heaps prior to her residency, the process of gathering materials converges with her philosophy as a conceptual artist.  She says, “I choose materials and processes based on the underlying ideas in the work. The materials and concepts are interdependent upon one another, so the result of those two things coming together is what my work is about.”

photo of shopping cart artworkThe first piece Berlier created during her residency perfectly illustrates the coming together of material and concept. The piece, entitled “Smart & Final,” is composed of two items that were abundant at the dump: shopping carts and wet cement. The shopping cart became what Berlier calls “the artist’s tool” to collect materials and move them between the disposal area and the studio. As for the cement, across the United States, construction waste can compose between 30 to 50 percent of solid landfill waste, and wet cement makes up a significant amount of that. Recology is constantly trying to repurpose vast amounts of wet cement, even repaving their lot and creating other structures to keep the cement out of the landfill. 

By using the cement in her own artistic project, Berlier was able to bond with the laborers who shovel and lay the cement in the Recology lot. Not only was their experience working with cement an asset, but also, as she puts it, she “just wanted an excuse to work with them because they’re highly skilled and hilarious.” Though she may have connected with them over humor, the final piece reflects a deeper bond over labor and the remaking of waste product into something usable. Berlier explains, the piece is “related to that process of acquiring the materials, but it is also about our consumer-based society.  It’s about the weight that our consumer society has on both the individual and the weight that this is having on the environment.”

The pieces Berlier created at Recology return us to our trash in new ways. They innovatively show us how trash can be repurposed, so that it is no longer trash at all. Her works also remind us how much we waste and the distance we create between our waste and ourselves. Because much of her work is interactive, these pieces literally require the viewer to physically engage with the trash. 

Rethinking things

In the construction of “The Beginning and the End Meet,” Berlier took apart an old piano and created a circular device from ivory keys and parts of a Mac laptop and Dell keyboard. She used the computer parts to run a computer program which lets the keys produce sound when pressed.  With the computer program, she says she “can make it sound like anything” and like all of her work this piece is very much about “rethinking things.” Not only is this piece engaging viewers with repurposed trash, but it also causes them to rethink the actual process of creating music and sound by transforming the piano into a more collaborative instrument.  Berlier explains, “The way these keys are stretched out, you have to discover new ways to play it, and it becomes a collaborative effort where multiple people are invited to play at once.”

 photo of person interacting with the artAnother piece, called “Outsited,” is a towering periscope composed of old cedar siding. Viewers look through a small drillhole at the bottom of the tower, which reflects up to a small video playing on a tiny screen at the top of the tower. The video is a recording of bulldozers at the Public Disposal and Recycling Area, moving smaller piles of trash into one large pile. The distance between the viewer and the video installation is a reminder of how disconnected we have become to our participation in the production of this large trash heap. “It’s about our relationship to our trash and the fact that we have a lot of distance to it,” Berlier explains. “I feel like I’m someone who is very environmentally conscious, but being in this residency was an eye opening experience for me to realize how much we waste as a society and my responsibility for my part within that.”

The collaborative and interactive nature of these works is germane to Berlier’s artistic purpose. She says, “I consider site and audience while producing sculptures that often incorporate sound, kinetics, installation or video.” This engagement with technology is also recurrent in Berlier’s catalogue: “My work investigates how the passage of time and construction of history mediate our understanding of ingenuity and progress. I am particularly interested in making visible technology’s vulnerabilities and illustrating how easily modern inventions can become footnotes to a bygone era.”  

Does innovation move us closer or farther?

Berlier’s work is not simply a critique of technology; rather, it is meant to highlight its fallibility and its place in the physical world.  She asks, “As innovations alter how we perceive and interact with the world, are we coming closer to or farther from understanding each other and the world around us?”  She has explored this question in past work by turning to the natural environment, including tree rings, core samples and climate change. She has also examined what she describes as “contemporary sites where the cyclical nature of energy consumption gets recorded” through the architecture of nuclear storage facilities and the material waste of the housing market boom and subsequent crash.

...being in this residency was an eye opening experience for me to realize how much we waste as a society and my responsibility for my part within that.

Through this work, she explains, “The traces and clues discovered in these investigations reveal unrelenting patterns of the past and remind us to question how we might use that evidence to ethically move forward.” 

The artwork completed at Recology explores how we might move forward from the waste we generate into an ethical future where objects and technologies may be reconstructed and repurposed.  It forces us to interact and engage with our trash in new ways. It reveals the emotional world of garbage.  We forget how attached we are to the things we possess and the things we throw away.  We are all accountable for the amount of waste we produce.  Our trash does not simply disappear. 

Terry Berlier has an upcoming showing at the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery from October 9 to November 18, 2012.


headshotTerry Berlier is an interdisciplinary artist and Assistant Professor of Art and Art History at Stanford.  Her work has been shown internationally, including a recent exhibition, Here Comes the Sun, at the Babel Showroom for Art in Norway.  She has an upcoming showing at the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery on Stanford campus from October 9 to November 18, 2012. 




 headshotKarli Cerankowski is a doctoral candidate in the Program in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University. She was a Graduate Dissertation Fellow 2011-12 at Stanford's Clayman Institute for Gender Research.