Mark Dion and the Arts and Archaeologies of Waste
– William Viney
[William Viney has a PhD in cultural studies and humanities from the London Consortium, University of London. An editor for Pluto Press and Pod Academy, his current research project examines the philosophical, artistic and anthropological significance of twins. http://williamviney.com]
An interesting debate has simmered in the humanities about the relative importance of ‘waste’ in our material and historical imagination. This post has the modest ambition of asking what some theorists of archaeology have said about waste things, about the time waste objects seem to articulate and about the narrative interpretations that seek to chart the comings and goings of things. Having done this short tour about some secondary texts, I want to then compare those statements to a work of installation art that deals explicitly with the archaeologies of waste. The end result, I hope, offers an opportunity to overhear the ways in which the dispersal of waste interacts with the gathering, ordering and reassembly that collecting things enact. Meanwhile, I’d like to advance a temporal reading of waste which permits me to contend that archaeologists assemble time through the collection of things.
I. Gathering Waste
To collect, to describe, to classify; these are activities that seem to complicate many of the statically terminal attributes (such as valuelessness, inertia, finitude and dissolution), with which objects of waste have been traditionally associated. And yet it is clear that we can collect waste, indeed, the collection of things called waste can play an important role in defining acts of collection as such. Waste, in this respect, shows itself to be an enigmatic presence within the historical record. One of the enchanting and enigmatic aspects of waste is this sense of availability, a temporal openness that helps, paradoxically, to structure its recovery, collection and analysis.
Christopher Tilley has written, “the primary event of archaeology is the event of excavation or writing, not the event of the past”, and yet it is a sense of what has past that structures the possibility of framing the eventual, presentation of collected things. Through its end-loaded temporality, the time associated with waste and its lingering sense of postponement makes an important contribution to the presencing of archaeological analysis, making the collection of waste both a measure of archaeological work and a category of thing ripe for describing the aims of that work. Matthew Johnson, in his introduction to archaeological theory, employs an image of waste collection to distinguish the professionalism of contemporary archaeological practice: “What makes us archaeologists as opposed to mindless collectors of old junk is the set of rules we use to translate those facts into meaningful accounts of the past”. This statement entertains some subtle oppositions. Firstly, that archaeology does not collect “junk” because it is a technical discipline able to give closure to what it collects, to make meaningful accounts of historical things. Secondly, and closely related to the first, junk is incompatible with the formation of a coherent record; junk is that stuff which is resistant to translation. Of course, Johnson uses terms like ‘rubbish’ or ‘junk’ to denote semantic incomprehensibility or valuelessness, a familiar rhetorical move that ignores the ways in which we use waste to make sense of and describe the changing value of our environment. Above all, Johnson’s conception of waste reproduces oppositions – between the dispersal and collection of knowledge, between scattered waste things and valuable and preserved artefacts – that obscure the cohering effects of waste and the gathered, recuperative acts of collection.