Last week I went on a nylon strap foraging expedition with artist Gaye Chan. I learned how those pesky, semi-rigid nylon strips that get thrown to the side and stepped on and tripped over, quickly accumulate into tonnes of industrial waste. In the usual course of everyday operations, after their one-time use, these durable nylon straps get thrown into the garbage or, best case scenario, get stuffed into massive white palette-sized bags and eventually get sent for recycling –somewhere into the great industrial beyond. Maki, Gaye and I spent about an hour reaching into the small collared opening of a recycling bag outside an East Vancouver organic food distributer, pulling out lengths of tangled multi-coloured strapping. Gaye taught us how to process our gleanings by cutting the straps into lengths and bundling them on-site. Extending the lesson, she suggested that we could further the low-impact recycling process by using our shower water for the washing phase. “I put the bundles into the tub and let them get rinsed while I shower. Then I hang the bundles to drip-dry from the showerhead.” Solving the problems of global waste and excessive industrialization need to be embodied and personal, is her suggestion. Producing colourful and barter-able, in other words valuable, baskets from troublesome waste, the action of weaving is confrontational in a social and personal way. So, the utilitarian basket reveals an unresolved industrial problem, and Chan is an artist who puts the know-how for a solution into the hands of others -- thus distributing the responsibility.
Her solution reminds me of the inventive ways that people with experiences of economic depression, war, or some kind of material deprivation are sometimes skilled in similar solutions. In my kitchen, I have a hotplate made from carefully folded and varnished strips of newspaper that someone bought at a fair trade craft boutique; I once had a very durable grocery bag made from flattened juice tetra packs that were sewn together in Haiti, I think –it was a fund raising item in a school drive; even steel drums (as instruments) could be put into this category. Chan’s baskets make me think of the gleaning action that has centuries of history. Agnes Varda in her movie, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, explained how foragers have through the ages been vital players in France’s food production systems. Her use of the camera echoes their inventive gleaning. She looks for value in what she sees through the lense in the same way that the people who are economically marginalized are continually evaluating the waste they encounter for possibilities: food value? re-sale value? ‘worth fixing? ‘worth transforming? She asks: image value?
I am evaluating: how much time and labour do I put into gleaning and up-cycling? When will I weave last week’s gleanings into baskets? and to whom I will gift the outcome? But the attitude of Chan’s project is more urgent and demanding than my decision of whether or not to take up a new hobby. How are we going to fix this problem of over production of packaging goods that have no value after their one-time use?
In the past week, I have encountered through the Vancouver Park Board’s Field House Residency Program not just Gaye Chan’s Basket Weaving Workshop, but also Maggie Winston’s People’s Potluck Performance Picnic (with the Something Collective at the Moberly Park Field House), Lori Weidenhammer’s Hummingbird and Herb Garden (Moberly Park), Debra Zhou’s Debraella exchange-based hair salon, Cindy Mochizuki and Janice Wu’s Bow Wow Saturday exchange-based dog portrait service, and Makiko Hara’s gardening (all at the Strathcona Field House). These highly varied participatory activities are owing in part to the Park Board’s “arts policy objective of arts in everyday life”. Thus, in everyday life of this past week, besides learning to weave industrial waste into baskets, I have spent some glorious hours in two less-celebrated neighbourhood parks; I’ve enjoyed the unpressured company of artist colleagues, friends, and neighbours –who I would not likely have met otherwise; I’ve learned more about gardening; I’ve even gleaned hair clippings for my garden compost at home.
But by positioning these communal activities as arts in everyday life shouldn’t they be considered as symbolic, representational, canaries-in-the-coal-mine, even? In choosing basket weaving, potluck performances, hummingbird habitat building, bartering of low skilled work over more intellectual and critical art making, are the artists and the park board programmers suggesting that there is an essential lack in the everyday culture of Vancouver?
Gaye Chan will be performing Sweat at Kiosk in Burnaby in July.
(This image, from Eating in Public.)