The artists who work in literal dumps and the places that pay them to do it

Oh, they love trash! What happens when you give artists the key to the city sanitation department?

Oh, they love trash! What happens when you give artists the key to the city sanitation department?

Leanne Olson at the Edmonton Waste Management Centre. Starting in February 2018, she was their artist-in-residence for 12 months. (Courtesy of the artist)

So here's something nobody wants to imagine: What's it like to work above 9,800 tonnes of garbage? That's the amount that turns up at the Edmonton Waste Management Centre every week, a massive research and processing site that's spread over 233 hectares of land — "almost five West Edmonton Malls," to quote the hyper-local unit of measurement in their official brochure. But the place is more than a final resting place for city trash. There's a complex for sorting recyclables, "lagoons" of treated sewage, facilities for converting landfill gas into power and waste into biofuel. All that plus a whole lot of other things nobody thinks about when they're rinsing out their empties. And for 12 months, it had its own artist-in-residence, too.

That's Leanne Olson, a local artist who took up the post last February. "I've never had a space that big. I don't know if I ever will again," says Olson, laughing — and she'll probably never work in a place as noisy or gut-twistingly rancid, either. Fingers crossed.

Her office? "It was above the 'tip floor,' which is where the garbage trucks unload," she recalls. But on a lot of days (and as the AIR, she kept full-time hours) Olson and her camera were getting dirty, exploring all corners of the property.

Some artists are so desperate for space they'll work anywhere, but that's not Olson's story.

Alison Postma. "Haliburton Landfill, July 25 2019 (A Floral Arrangement and a Phone Call)." (Courtesy of the artist)

It's not Alison Postma's, either. Postma, a photo-based artist from Toronto, makes twice weekly check-ins at a landfill in Ontario's cottage country. Since July, she's been on the Reclaim Artist Residency, a program launched by the Haliburton School of Art + Design in 2015. For five months last spring, Vancouver artist Molly Marineau mined discarded "bags of bags of bags" as the first Solid Waste and Recycling artist in residence in New Westminster, B.C. And in Toronto, collaborators Sean Martindale and JP King — who first teamed with the city's solid waste management service back in 2015 for a Nuit Blanche project — are residents in another similar program, which they've been piloting for the department since last year.

All those programs are as distinct as the smell of "hot dumpster." Some include a pay-cheque, some offer accommodation, some require community outreach work like tours or lectures or open studio hours. The level of access at each waste management facility changes from place to place, too.  

And, it should be noted, not all these examples are still in operation. The program in New Westminster is currently on hold. As for Edmonton, Olson's experience was a one-off by design. (Supported by the Edmonton Arts Council, the organization places artists-in-residence in an ever-changing variety of city departments. Olson happened to apply in a waste management year. Other artists have been stationed in cemeteries, the office of the city clerk, the urban forestry department.)

But what happens when you give an artist a hard hat and steel-toed boots — and drop them at the dump? From the perspective of all of these programs' civic partners, public education is the result they're hoping for.

The goal of the residency is to bring attention to the impact of the landfill on our local community.- Sandra Dupret Haliburton School of Art + Design

Sandra Dupret is the Dean and Vice President Student Experience at the Haliburton School of Art + Design, which manages the Reclaim Artist Residence in partnership with the Municipality of Dysart et al. "The goal of the residency is to bring attention to the impact of the landfill on our local community," she says. Back when the school pitched the idea, she says the local government was keen on getting that message to the public. "I think the municipality was just trying to really press upon residents and cottagers the impact that does happen in landfill, and to be mindful of what you're discarding."

In New Westminster, the city's website lays out some similarly general objectives for their AIR program: things like "educational opportunities" and "open discussions" about waste and recycling and the environment. As for Toronto, the AIR program's connected to a strategy with a more specific goal. The city's vowed to reduce landfill waste by 70 per cent, and they've given themselves to 2026 to do it. Art is part of that master plan — a tactic for reaching folks who've been ignoring the three R's.  

That public-service vibe has some precedent. Recology, the oldest "recycling-inspired" AIR program in the States, was founded 29 years ago in San Francisco, the same year the city launched curbside recycling. Their work, and that of another organization in Philadelphia, Recycled Artist in Residency (RAIR), were major points of reference when King and Martindale brought their idea to department heads in Toronto.

JP King in action at a Toronto waste management facility. (Courtesy of the artist)

Says King: "These organizations — both independent and at a municipal level — saw the power and potential of art to share an important message." But he clarifies that these examples aren't prescriptive about what artists can and can't do once they're on board. "I think what I particularly like about something like the RAIR program is the diversity of people who are passing through, the diversity of practices."

"What would happen if a choreographer visited the waste stream or what would happen if a musical composer visited a recycling centre?"

King and Martindale, for their part, are photographers and filmmakers. "I think my work with Sean has largely been about visual documentation," he says. Last June, they brought a series of large-scale photographs to the Harbourfront Centre — the most significant project to come out of their time as AIRs, so far. Enormous pictures of trash piles, but mirrored down the middle, they're dumpster Rorschachs that are as inviting as they are revolting. A selection is currently on display at Art Cité Inc. in Windsor as part of King's related exhibition, The Department of Discard Culture. The whole AIR experience has also influenced his upcoming podcast project, Discard Culture: How Waste Shapes The World, which he's planning to launch next year.

What would happen if a choreographer visited the waste stream or what would happen if a musical composer visited a recycling centre?- JP King, artist

All that work might be in step with the city's pro-sustainability message, but it wasn't developed as a PSA. "I've had a fascination with waste my entire life. I grew up the child of two artists and we weren't particularly well off, so I learned quite early on that the waste stream was a fountain of resource," says King. "On top of that, I might just be a provocative person by nature, and the grotesqueness of waste is intriguing and visually rich and stimulating. So as a visual artist and a photographer and filmmaker I find garbage and rubbish and trash and recycling just to be like a sensuously rich terrain."

JP King and Sean Martindale. From "Our Desires Fail Us." (Courtesy of the artists)
JP King and Sean Martindale. From "Our Desires Fail Us." (Courtesy of the artists)

Postma and Marineau, however, don't keep an objective distance from the sorting piles. Both artists have a history of working with found objects. "It could be gross for sure," laughs Marineau, talking about her regular raids of the New Westminster recycling depot. "Using gloves is recommended."

While on the residency, she produced a few original works, sculptures spliced with "cut-up" poetry. Discarded plastic bags were her go-to art supplies.

Detail of Molly Marineau's "Our Roots +or- Our Plastic = Our Legacy." (Courtesy of the artist)

In Haliburton, Postma's been sourcing items from the local landfill — carting them back to her studio at the Haliburton School of Art + Design (one of the perks of the gig), and incorporating them into vibrant still lifes. It's a continuation of the work she'd already been up to back home in Toronto.

"I've found there's a lot of garbage that's quite beautiful and you don't always see it represented as a beautiful object," she says. "In any found objects that I like, and I pick to work with, I'm always looking at their colour, their texture, their form."

Olson takes a more conceptual approach. "I'm interested in massive change and decay and that's what the site is," she says. "It's just constantly changing at this expedited pace. So to be in that was to be like living inside of a photo subject."

And she's actually in the middle of preparing a new exhibition based on her time at the EWMC, "With All Things Considered." Featuring a few large-scale photos — "macro images of decaying materials on site, and also ecosystems sort of embracing materials" — as well as video and a few "rescued" sculptural elements, it'll be at the Mitchell Art Gallery Sept. 13 to Dec. 7.

Leanne Olson. Joined at the Hip, 2018. Digital photograph. (Instagram/@mitchellartgallery)

Spending weeks or months (or in King's case, years) making art at waste management centres comes with challenges. Yes, it stinks. "On a couple of occasions I thought I was going to throw up," he admits. But the bigger workplace hazard might be psychological.

"I've been focused on waste as a subject for about seven years now," says King, "and throughout that period, I have really struggled with bouts of depression. And I would say that is in part tied to these existential crises that emerge from spending month after month staring down a waste stream and contemplating our society's relationship with garbage."

[Sean Martindale and I] have really been making an effort to show what happens behind the scenes: to make the invisible visible.- JP King, artist

"Being in these facilities has made me feel and realize just how futile waste management is. It's astonishing that the majority of activity is usually to just move garbage from one side of a room to another: from the street corner to a warehouse and from a warehouse to a factory and from a factory to a field — out near London, Ontario."

Alison Postma. "Haliburton Landfill, July 26 2019 (Milk and Sugar)." (Courtesy of the artist)

Up till now, a lot of the art he's made has been a mirror to that ugly, stinking truth. "There's been some imaginative liberties taken, but for the most part, [Sean and I] have really been making an effort to show what happens behind the scenes: to make the invisible visible."

And the idea of reflecting the things that are out of sight, and out of mind — despite weighing 9,800 tonnes — has crossed the minds of all these artists.

Says Marineau: "I think we're taught not to think about it. You're supposed to throw stuff away and forget about it. But getting to be the person who's sort of interrupting that process of waste — the process of waste meaning nothing to the city, the people of the city — was really interesting."

Six months since leaving her office at the EWMC, Olson says she's still making sense of the whole experience. "It's like I'm processing it the same way the waste is being processed," she jokes. And maybe it's all too vast and unruly to be compacted into one pithy idea.

But when she describes being there, watching a deluge of trash hit the floor every day — changing colours, and volume with the seasons — the place sounds strangely beautiful. Too big, and too connected to our day-to-day lives, to ignore.

"The scene unfolds every day and it's so mesmerizing," she says. "I felt like it was a pulse of what was happening in the city."


Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.