Here are my introductory comments to the 2010 documentary Waste Land, delivered yesterday at the Fleming Museum in Burlington and shown in connection with the exhibition High Trash, which runs until May 19.

Every society implicitly or explicitly acknowledges that things have an ending, and that that ending is part of a larger set of continuities. In medieval Europe, the ending was death, and the continuity was resurrection and the Life Eternal, modeled after Christ’s and made possible by Him. In Classic Mayan society, the ending and the continuity were more or less the same: they were the recirculation of blood and life-force from one body to another, with the help of the gods. Death was only transformation, and self-sacrifice was prized.

In industrial capitalism, things end up in one place: the Waste Dump.

But that end is generally unacknowledged; its acknowledgment would reveal that the system itself is a system of unsustainable excess. It is excess production that allows for capital accumulation and growth; it is excess consumption that enables that production. Unlike the Mayans, our life-force isn’t blood; it’s petroleum, gas, and coal. And running through them all, it is desire — the desire for things.

As long as those things, when they meet their natural end, are relegated to some far-off place, the fuel that runs the system keeps on pumping. Among those far-off places are the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — at least two of which float around in the middle of Pacific Ocean, consisting of some 100 million tons of plastic and other debris.

More prosaically, there are our waste dumps — which is what this film is about.

As Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart point out in their Cradle-to-Cradle model of industrial ecology, waste is food. And as Indian sages have told us for centuries, nothing ends except to recirculate in new forms. Waste Land focuses on two forms of such recirculation.

The first is waste turned into recycled material. The film is about the pickers and reclaimers of the largest waste dump in the world, Jardim Gramacho outside Rio de Janeiro.

Recycling is about the adding of value to that which has lost it – it’s a market opportunity, and in this sense the recyclers of Jardim Gramacho are on the lowest rung, but still on a rung, of the capitalist production machine. They are the bottom-feeders in the pyramid scheme of consumer capitalism.

But recycling has always had its poetry, and this film – like Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I, about wastepickers on French farms, and like the found-footage films or “recycled cinema” of Bruce Conner and others – is a celebration of that poetry. The archetype here might be Anais Nin’s ragpicker, in her short story “Ragtime” – which I’ll quote from in a moment.

The second form of recirculation is waste turned into art. Here’s where the ironies begin.

On the one hand, the art itself has a multi-levelled beauty: not only in the traditional visual sense, but in the richness of meanings Vik Muniz is playing with, the beauty of materials and of process. His art counts among the best of the high-profile socially-engaged and community-based art of recent years.

On the other hand, there’s the system of valuation that allows a few artists like Muniz to rise up above the fold – a world of art stars, mega-auctions, and the neoliberal “enterprise culture” by which nations and cities with their “creative industries” policies clamor for attention to the globetrotting moneyed class. None of this is particularly questioned by the film; director Lucy Walker allows us to come to our own judgments. But it’s pretty clear that many of Muniz’s own wastepicker-subjects see through that system, even if they get drawn into it in the end.

Insofar as the film celebrates Muniz as hero who has made it in an art world that some might think is a model of monumental excess – and now reaches out to a handful of those he left behind, the film ought to make us ask: What about all the other wastepickers and bottom-feeders, the 4000 other catadores of Jardim Gramacho, and the multi-million strong “global precariat,” who don’t have such a benevolent patron to raise them out of their precarious existence?

Philosopher Felix Guattari has argued that environmental politics must take into account three parallel but intersecting ecologies: the “environmental” ecology of material substances, the social ecology of human relations, and the mental or perceptual ecology that ties the others together in patterns of meaning, perception, sense-making, and self-making. This film addresses all three levels.

It is about the material ecology of production and consumption – the turning of objects of desire into junk, waste, smelly decaying stuff – and even if films aren’t truly haptic or olfactory, you can almost smell the stuff if you try.

And it is about those who scrape out a living at the terminal end of that production cycle, amidst the toxic debris the rest of us leave behind. In this, it is about social ecology: about class, the reclaiming of human dignity, and the possibility – but unlikelihood – of mobility in a hierarchic class system – though in this one might ask if it plays a variation on the “extreme makeover” genre of Reality TV: Who Wants to be an Art Star?

And as a film about art, and about the artistic alchemy that allows industrial refuse and those who deal with it to be transfigured into objects of beauty, it is about perceptual ecology. Any film that shows us where things end up and asks us to account for those things is inviting us to change our perception of the world around us. I invite you to do that as you watch.

[At this point I read an excerpt from Anais Nin's "Ragtime" and mentioned a few factual details about the film. The film's genre is part trash/recycling film (Gleaners and I), part art (and art-heist) film (Exit Through the Out Door, Man On Wire), part eco-doc (Manufactured Landscapes, which is really all three as well). I recommend it.]

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