MoW Memorandum

To: The New Inquiry

From: C. Greig Crysler and Shiloh Krupar, co-curators

Date: April 6, 2015

Subject: Feasibility analysis: Museum of Waste (MoW)


This report discusses the feasibility of the Museum of Waste (MoW), a virtual museum that explores the residues, excesses, failures, and escalated emergencies of contemporary capitalism through case studies located within the US, but shaped by inextricably global processes. The Museum offers a way to understand the inescapability and non-exteriority of waste: a new horizon of toxic experience that conjoins the human and the non-human, nature and culture. Exhibitions in the MoW are organized around three major themes that rethink the present through waste processes: capital, ecology, and sovereignty. A concluding Zone of Recommendations provides an opportunity to reflect on the knowledge gained from the immersive experience of waste analytics.

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.



There are three major acquisition areas in the museum. Each has an allegorical centerpiece and curation strategy that summarize empirical conditions through a user-friendly combination of metaphor and humor.


2.1 Display of Capital
The first collection area features the Inflatron, a machinic figure of pipes, valves and fluid recovery pools that epitomize the workings of the bubular world financial system. Building on the financial service industry’s own highly metaphoric language of flows, stoppages, asset pools, liquid assets, relief valves and drains, the Inflatron offers an allegory of unregulated capitalism and the political-economic conditions that led to the foreclosure mess, as manifested in investment bubbles and the “plumbing” that makes them possible.

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.

1. We made the curatorial decision to focus on lesser-known and more geographically dispersed municipal bankruptcy cases than that of Detroit. Detroit has become the dominant fieldsite of bankruptcy research and, in some popular accounts, a spectacular source of “ruin porn.”
1 They also show different waste management strategies and changing relationships to debt; bankruptcy and austerity do not lead to a uniform “space.” These four cases exhibit diverse models of conversion—of governance, regulation, capital, the built environment, and citizenship. The specificity of this knowledge is necessary to challenge bankrupt ideologies.

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.

2. An adjustable rate mortgage (ARM), also known as a variable-rate mortgage, is a mortgage loan with an interest rate that is periodically adjusted based on an index that reflects the cost to the lender of borrowing on the credit markets. ARMs generally permit borrowers to lower their initial payments if they are willing to assume the risk of interest rate changes. The borrower benefits if the interest rate falls but loses if the interest rate increases. As evidenced by the 2008 mortgage crisis, adjustable rate mortgages are sometimes sold to consumers who are unlikely to repay the loan should interest rates rise; in these cases ARMs are referred to as predatory loans.
The compounded failure to repay domestic housing loans led to a dramatic increase in interest rates across all borrowing sectors, and ultimately, to the largest U.S. municipal bankruptcy case until Detroit.

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.


2.2 Display of Ecology
The Museum of Waste’s second curatorial zone uses the figure of the feedback loop as a pervasive model of problem solving that cuts across all of the contexts and conditions in the Museum. Feedback loops are master signifiers for efficiency and an endorsement of the techno-utopian ideal of the self-adjusting organism. They provide technical fixes to complex environmental problems. In response to the feedback loop, we further develop a special curatorial technique: EcoDigestion. The ecological “black boxing” of disaster by feedback loops seeks to eliminate the mounting waste and debris of free-market capitalism through eco-efficiency and techno-fixes, such as cap-and-trade rationalities or environmental performance indexes. Yet the feedback loop’s cybernetic model of efficiency is based on excluding what it cannot resolve or recognize.
3. Norbert Wiener is considered to be the originator of cybernetics; see his seminal text Cybernetics or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Cambridge, The MIT Press, 1965 [1948]). In the post-WWII period, Wiener grew increasingly concerned about the mounting military models of cybernetics, overemphasis on technical efficiency, and overly mechanical understandings of organisms. For an overview of the impact of cybernetics on politics, power, and ecological thinking, see Adam Curtis’s documentary film “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” (2011), specifically part 2 “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts.” Also refer to: Evelyn Fox Keller, “Ecosystems, Organisms, and Machines” BioScience 55, no. 12 (2005): 1069-74; Evelyn Fox Keller, “Organisms, Machines, and Thunderstorms: A History of Self-Organization, Part One” Historical Studies 38, no. 1 (2008): 45-75; Peter Galison, “The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision,” Critical Inquiry 21, no. 1 (1994): 228-66.
The result is a monumental pile of failed solutions, ranging from 110-story LEED-certified skyscrapers, biomimetic facades, and blow-out preventers, to the everyday outpouring of green machines, such as solar panels, rechargeable automobiles, or the cost-management devices of inhumane prison conditions. The MoW notes that the biosphere itself has recently been redefined as an all-encompassing planetary feedback loop.
4. A government-sponsored panel of the National Academy of Sciences released a report in early 2015 calling for more research on bioengineering, which advocates technological fixes to solve climate change. Two types of technical intervention were recommended for further research: techniques to capture and store carbon dioxide that has already been emitted, and fixes concerned with spraying chemicals into the stratosphere on a regular basis to reflect the sun’s rays and allow the planet to cool. See: Henry Fountain, “Panel Urges Research on Geoengineering as a Tool Against Climate Change,” New York Times (February 10, 2015).
Our displays track the transcendental ascent of technical rationality though recent geo-engineering proposals that require regular spraying of the stratosphere with sulfuric acid, to adjust planetary thermal comfort.

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.

5. There are now eighteen projects included under the Climate Positive Development Program (the partnership between the Clinton Climate Initiative and U.S. Green Building Council); the defunct Destiny, Florida project is no longer listed as a contributing eco-city. Refer to the C40 Climate Positive Development Program website.
The development of these two projects reveals a digestive process in which green development is financed by profits from the foreclosure crisis.

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.

6. The Treasure Island Community Development LLC (a joint venture involving Lennar Corporation) hosts a website with information and news about the Treasure Island development.
 Two conversion ecologies are at work: first, a financial conversion, in which profits from the re-sale of foreclosed properties are invested in an eco-city. Second, symbolic purification displaces the island’s toxic past through the drama of an elaborate technological fix: in short, an eco-city built on toxic waste.

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.”

7. Refer to the Pugliese Company’s residual website on the Destiny, Florida project.
Surpassing the size and vision of Disney World, Destiny was to be a 41,000-acre eco-community in Osceola County, Florida, entirely supported through sustainable energy, wellness education, and anti-aging initiatives. Destiny hit a dead end in 2009 when state agencies opposed the county-level rural mega-project, citing inefficient land-use patterns. The closed feedback loop turns out to produce sprawl in the name of carbon-neutral growth.


2.3 Display of Sovereignty
The MoW’s third exhibition area tracks the transformation of the rights and protections accorded to individual and collective agents under neoliberalism.
8.  We define neoliberalism per the insights of Wendy Brown, as interviewed by Timothy Shenk, “Booked #3: What Exactly is Neoliberalism?” (April 2, 2015). According to Brown, neoliberalism is “a governing rationality through which everything is ‘economized’ and in a very specific way: human beings become market actors and nothing but, every field of activity is seen as a market, and every entity (whether public or private, whether person, business, or state) is governed as a firm. Importantly, this is not simply a matter of extending commodification and monetization everywhere . . . Neoliberalism construes even non-wealth generating spheres—such as learning, dating, or exercising—in market terms, submits them to market metrics, and governs them with market techniques and practices. Above all, it casts people as human capital who must constantly tend to their own present and future value.” Neoliberalism is not merely “capitalism on steroids” that releases capital from regulatory and national constraints, defanging labor and other popular solidarities. Rather, neoliberalism involves the “fundamental transformation of social, cultural, and individual life brought about by neoliberal reason. . . . public institutions and services have not merely been outsourced but thoroughly recast as private goods for individual investment or consumption.”
 As the guarantees and protections afforded the collective national body have gradually diminished, a parallel private body enriched with the rights accorded to U.S. citizens has taken shape. Its emergence, empowered through the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court “Citizens United” decision, is one of the turning points in what we regard as the disaster of sovereignty. We employ the curatorial concept of Corporate Embodiment to describe the emergence of new models of citizenship organized around the values of the free market and entrepreneurial acumen. We ground our discussion of global sovereignty issues in the privatization of public universities and U.S. public education.

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.”

9. UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, quoted in Public Affairs, “Berkeley Global Campus: A New, Bolder Vision for Richmond Bay,” UC Berkeley News Service (October 30, 2014).

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.


2.4. Zone of Recommendations
The final display zone of the Museum refers back to the preceding analyses, and forward to practical utopias. The Museum allows visitors behind-the-scenes to an unloading dock and three preparation areas, where we reprocess waste events for the Museum. This backstage exhibition area features a reclamation device known as the Vintage Paradigm Bin. This pedagogical contraption gathers and displays cognitive castoffs, failed models of resistance, and examples of collective agency that are now dormant. The Bin provides resources to move between futurity and feasibility; we hope to draw out and extrapolate new forms of practice and activism, as yet to be fully articulated or understood. The Bin is currently processing a recent deposit resulting from the declaration of Chapter 7 Bankruptcy by the non-profit architectural firm, Architecture for Humanity.
10.  The non-profit organization Architecture For Humanity (AFH) was founded in 1999 to raise money for architectural solutions to humanitarian crises around the world. In January 2015, AFH directors announced they would file for bankruptcy, but that 57 international chapters pledged to continue working under a new umbrella network. Refer to: “Architecture for Humanity Board to File for Bankruptcy,” Dezeen Magazine (January 23, 2015). Also see the Statement from the AFH Board of Directors (January 22, 2015).

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.

11.  The Heidelberg Project is an open-air art environment in the heart of an urban community on Detroit’s East Side
 Other cases, such as Project Row Houses in Houston, provide a starting point to reexamine how shared models of production developed over long periods of time can encourage critical agency in the face of encroaching urban redevelopment.
12. Project Row Houses is a community-based arts and culture non-profit organization in Houston’s northern Third Ward, one of the city’s oldest African American neighborhoods.
 We are also interested in the network of participatory budget experiments and clandestine operations below state power, including alternative economies and contingency work (such as temporary occupation and squatting).
13. See, for example, the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP), which lists a number of participatory budgeting projects in the U.S. and globally.

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.

14. Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, NY, for instance, hosts ongoing protests over the collusions between Superfund environmental cleanup and gentrification packaged in support for the arts; see: Noah Hurowitz, “Bohemian Face-off as Activists Crash Gowanus Art Party,” The Brooklyn Paper (August 29, 2014). One example of an arts-based “atomic commons” is the National Toxic Land/labor Conservation Service.
The Museum also spotlights the growing influence of philanthro-capitalism, which creates profit by perpetuating the slow violence of disasters.
15. Philanthro-capitalism came into vogue as a way to describe the need for philanthropy to become more like for-profit markets, with “investors” and “social returns.” See Stanford Social Innovation Review, (December 15, 2011).
Our concern is with the “math of the after”: how community-driven remediation efforts might provide more transparency and reclaim waste as the commons, transforming ownership structures, public participation, and risk management into a relational understanding of humans and ecology.

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.

16.Refer to Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (NY: Minor Compositions, 2013).



As co-curators, we appreciate the opportunity to test and display the Museum of Waste in this public forum. We hereby certify the Museum as feasible.



C. Greig Crysler 5/1/15 



Shiloh R. Krupar 5/1/15