To: The New Inquiry
From: C. Greig Crysler and Shiloh Krupar, co-curators
Date: April 6, 2015
Subject: Feasibility analysis: Museum of Waste (MoW)
The Museum is a work-in-progress. This version of the MoW responds to a new inquiry: the editors and readers of the New Inquiry. Past iterations have been presented to other noteworthy institutions, including The Society of the Anthropocene (2013), an intellectual sub-Congress of the Association of American Geographers; a Festschrift for an eminent global thinker (2013); and Princeton University (2015). A foundation plan for the Museum was first revealed in a largely vacant Las Vegas Convention Center in the wake of the 2008 credit crisis.
The MoW is not a Museum for Waste; the proposed Museum disavows the idea of the museum as a neutral container, and instead presents a critical architecture of waste. As facility designers and curators, we reclaim the role of the museum as a civic laboratory. However, our Museum departs from the format of the traditional encyclopedic museum. The latter was based on the selective representation of the past through progressive history: an idealized version of the future brought into the present through teleology. The Museum of Waste is instead organized around the temporality of uncertainty and risk. Our subject matter is the unintended consequences of progressive history.
The dissolving of material and conceptual boundaries that characterize waste matter produces our Museum’s problem space. This curatorial concept emphasizes the porosity and indeterminacy of previously separate categories, such as the human and the natural. We insist on the situated meanings, effects, and power relations of waste: an accumulation of material conditions that our Museum collects and analyzes. As curators, we draw on the museum’s capacity for spectacle and the subject-forming properties of display and exhibition. We see the Museum as a way to experiment with the production of knowledge and its reception.
Each exhibition zone of the MoW focuses on a U.S.-based articulation of waste, signified by the curatorial triad of capital, ecology and sovereignty. This organization rethinks the history of the present through waste, shifting its meaning from displaced end product to active agent. In the first zone, on Capital, we examine the 2008 credit crisis, municipal bankruptcies, and the subsequent conversion of the ruins of speculative capital into profit and new forms governance. In the second zone, Ecology, we explore the failed attempts to sequester human life from the slow violence of ecological contamination through the production of eco-cities and their epistemological companion, the feedback loop. The third zone, on sovereignty, examines the biopolitical dimensions of citizenship under the combined conditions of fiscal austerity and ecological catastrophe through the restructuring of the public university as a site of corporate embodiment and privatized citizenship. The final Zone of Recommendations reflects on new forms of collective action and community that redefine contemporary landscapes of financial and environmental destruction.
The Inflatron produces spectacularly large, colorful bubbles, which pop according to algorithmic cycles. Its plumbing is based on the many diagrams generated in the wake of the fiscal meltdown, in an effort to explain and chart the circulation of liquid financial products such as derivatives, collateralized debt obligations, dark investment pools, and their dependent double, the Federal Asset Relief Programs. We encourage our visitors to look through the bubbles to view momentary enlargements of meltdown effects: a spatialized landscape of foreclosed futures, mapped against the expanding topos of municipal bankruptcy and deregulated cities.
Alongside the Inflatron, the Museum of Waste catalogs artifacts of austerity urbanism. The display follows the credit crisis of 2008 into the vast tracts of unoccupied housing, swaths of empty commercial real estate, high levels of debt trauma, financial failure and related political crises. The display highlights how the very waste that forecloses the future has become a site of super-profits in the present, as investors and banks vacuum up the indebted remains of cities and resell them to the “financially worthy,” or stockpile them as a hedge on future recovery. Interactive displays reveal that governing by debt redirects all energy towards a future determined by the hysteria of debt management, burying the potential for historical understanding and civic imagination under endless payment deadlines and potential interest rate hikes.
The austerity collection focuses on four cities that represent the geographical diversity of austerity and perform an aqueous logic. All four sites demonstrate liquid connections that move beyond the liquidity of the financial system, particularly mismanagement of water infrastructure and amenities. Stockton California, Jefferson County Alabama, Camden New Jersey, and San Juan Puerto Rico have all tapped into similar financial institutions in order to fund elaborate improvement schemes, each in different ways concerned with processing or consuming water and/or wastewater.
As the primary city in Jefferson County, Birmingham’s urban history offers insights into the foul flows of money, corruption, and failed governance that connect all four cases together. Following an EPA decision sparked by local environmental justice advocates, Birmingham was required to upgrade its sewer system, which until that point had discharged a mixture of storm water and sewage into the local river during periods of heavy rainfall. A poisonous combination of corruption and incompetence inflated the cost of the project to the point where the debt could only be managed with the municipal equivalent of an Adjustable Rate Mortgage.
The city’s poorest residents now endure the brutal downloading of debt obligations for the speculative financing of a county-level sewer system. Birmingham’s subprime mortgage crisis re-activates entrenched segregation through sewer debt financing and corruption. Former industrial mini-cities within Birmingham serve as toxic debt containment zones defined by the abandonment of poor and largely African American urban populations. Some have resorted to DIY septic tanks and rented port-a-potties. Even as the city and adjacent counties slide further into poverty, Birmingham and other cities in Alabama have embarked on ambitious plans to promote their civil rights heritage. These practices generate new ruins of post-racial mythology and economic development.
We delve into this pile and extract examples for display that operate at either end of the spectrum of EcoDigestion: the green prison and the eco-city. Following the green initiatives of the California Department of Corrections, as well as that of other states (Ohio, Illinois, Washington, etc.), the prison as eco-city magnifies the carceral implications of cybernetic thinking and eco-efficiency. Discussion of sustainable jails has become widespread in the Corrections industry. We present a sequence of displays showcasing appliances that reconstruct the prison as a metabolic loop of consumption and excretion. In each case, “outputs” are reprocessed into other productive formats. These include: compost, acid-based security sprays, experiments in low-flow faucets and green toilets, rainwater collecting, wind- and solar-powered energy production, and grey water recycling.
We contrast the green prison with the museum’s menagerie of eco-city projects. These speculative gated communities serve as survival camps and inhabitable, self-sustaining technological feedback loops for the well-to-do, who can isolate themselves in a privileged state of exception from deteriorating ecological and social conditions. The Museum currently features two projects that have been included amongst the sixteen eco-cities promoted under the Clinton Climate Initiative and U.S. Green Building Council: San Francisco’s Treasure Island and Destiny, Florida.
In the case of Treasure Island, a former international exhibition site and highly contaminated naval base has been approved to be a model eco-city. The redevelopment plans orchestrate processes of symbolic re-purification of the site’s grounds and remediation of toxic assets as the basis for future financial returns.
In stark opposition to the growing waste heap of Treasure Island’s promotional materials, little remains of Destiny Florida — “America’s first eco-sustainable city.”
The focus of this section of the museum is our Chamber of the Satellites, where we catalog global building campaigns that synthesize the waste practices we have already outlined in relation to Capital and Ecology. These campaigns merge free-market processes with design that rethinks the campus as an eco-city. Their goal is to reposition the university as a processor for transnational investment flows and a training ground for entrepreneurial global citizens.
The Chamber of Satellites showcases the efforts of U.S.-based universities to enact a strategic wasting of prior curricular and administrative models by implementing revenue-spinning hubs of global, performance-based knowledge. The most famous of these, the NYU campus in Abu Dhabi, consists of a premium enclave of perimeter buildings built under brutal labor conditions. The climatically hot locations of the satellites have transformed them into convenient prototypes for energy efficiency, waste elimination, and post-oil resilience.
Another option, for cash-strapped campuses unable to finance elaborate foreign building programs, is now being pioneered by the University of California at Berkeley, which proposes to build a global satellite on vacant land it owns in the nearby city of Richmond, California. Berkeley administrators hope to advance plans for a global campus that will rival those of the private sector. In this case, universities from other countries will be encouraged to congregate at the Richmond site, in an effort to create “a new form of international hub where an exclusive group of some of the world’s leading universities and high-tech companies will work side-by-side . . . in a campus setting.”
Such arrangements made at the nexus of waste and efficiency form an important sub-archive in the MoW’s sovereignty collection. Waste politics now shape the spaces of public education at campuses that have been severely affected by state-level austerity and federal budget sequestration. Our collection includes the “performance improvement model” developed by Bain and Co., founded by Mitt Romney. Various universities have hired Bain and Co. to undertake efficiency reviews. The entire effort is framed as a zero-waste campaign that targets staff inefficiency and calls for micro-initiatives in decentralized self-management. Such programs assert the market as the governing logic of the university, recalibrating education according to principles of fiscal performance.
Gathering together a collection of budgetary downloading mechanisms, the MoW’s sovereignty display explores how the same practices of austerity operating in urban contexts across the U.S. are now being translated into the principles of higher education. For example, cross-sector collaborations in public universities have led to everything from recycling campaigns, bike sharing programs and solar decathlons to joint maintenance programs, wherein compost bins are designed and installed by students in increasingly underserviced bathrooms. In the process, ecological stewardship is transformed into a cooperative, “grassroots” pedagogical enterprise that is shared between janitors, administrative staff, faculty and students, with green efficiency as the indirect profits shared by the academic community. Here waste management regimes operate within the ruins of the national university to create the grounds for new forms of self-reliant citizenship.
The three reprocessing areas of the Museum encourage visitors to reflect on the major themes of the Museum. In the reprocessing of capital, we foreground tactics developed to resist austerity and enable collective re-occupation of bankrupt or fiscally endangered cities. Instead of a meta-critique of capitalism that merely adds to the waste heap of radical standpoints and manifestos, we collect examples, such as Detroit’s Heidelberg Project, that reclaim the waste of successive downturns as material for new possibilities.
In the ecology preparations area, we revisit the ruinous pile of eco-urban projects to identify catalysts of subversive forms of ecological citizenship that operate below and beyond the limits of the nation-state. We look for creative political solidarities that have formed around the seepage of waste into everyday life, from superstorm-disaster cities such as New Orleans and Lower Manhattan, to historical sites of military and nuclear contamination.
The Museum’s final reflection area devoted to sovereignty revises the celebratory rhetoric surrounding waste management regimes and resilient citizenship that operate within the ruins of the national university. We examine the demographic wasting of an entire generation through new forms of indebtedness and precarious underemployment alongside the necropolitical machinery of incarceration and dispossession that is the subject of the current Black Lives Matter movement. Our speculative display follows efforts to reclaim educational space in the public university. We are especially interested in the emergence of academic undercommons: a network of subversive practices that challenge the corporatization of learning by reconnecting education to radical movements that exceed the space of campus life.
C. Greig Crysler 5/1/15
Shiloh R. Krupar 5/1/15