Currently reading: Turn your trash into . . . Rubbish, art and politics. Richard Wentworth’s geographical imagination by Harriet Hawkins (University of Exeter), Social & Cultural Geography, Vol. 11, No. 8, December 2010


Hawkins introduces Wentworth’s practice focussing in on the photographs he takes of the second hand shops and discarded items on his day-to-day routes around Caledonian Road, North London, which the artist describes as a “portrait of place”. Hawkins’ analysis aims to focus on the poetics and politics of rubbish; “materials and practices [as] an exploration of the political potential and critical potency of object ‘re-use’.”

“What emerges is a ‘rubbish’ aesthetics that privileges material fluidity and circulation over fixity,” she writes.

Hawkins examines the crossover of geography with art history, theory and practice, in terms of the cultural turn and spatial turn. She notes Situationist International (1947–1972) and the emergence of psyhogeography “amongst other strategies, as a mode through which to critique the homogenizing relations of capitalism.”

The notion of everyday practices [de Certeau] plus Foucaldian power/knowledge theory underpins Hawkins’ analysis: “Wentworth forges his critical spatialities through an examination of other peoples’ [everyday] practices. He records object combinations he happens across on his daily walks, picturing these ‘ready-made’ entanglements of humans and non-humans in single photographs or in sets. […] Wentworth’s art of the everyday, […] stresses ‘everyday life’ as a space for the exercise and maintenance of social power and as a site of potential resistance to normative networks of power/knowledge (see, for example, Barnett 1998; Latham 2003).”

Hawkins examines the power relations within the work: “Wentworth’s work offers us a quieter, less pedagogic political position than many contemporary ‘interventionalist’ art practices but one that, as this paper will explore, is for all its elegance of form and materiality no less insistent in its critique.”

Hawkins looks “toward a politics and ethics of rubbish and other discarded materials.” As well as the geographies of art; the places, spaces and practices in and through which the work is made and experienced; the politics of display and the politics and places of arts’ production and consumption; and a geographical analysis of not just the ‘finished’ object of art, but to the sites, spaces and processes of its production, consumption and circulation.

Key works cited include: An Area of Outstanding Unnatural Beauty and Making Do and Getting By.

Part 1: A portrait of place: a geographical imagination built from rubbish

On the psychogeographical dimension: “Walking is central to Wentworth’s geographical imagination. In Wentworth’s case his walks are neither set up as the practice of art itself, like for example the singular long distance epics of Hamish Fulton and Richard Long, nor does the actual practice of walking come to have the transgressive political intent of Situationist meanderings. […] His daily perambulations foster a form of close observation, a type of repetitive, recursive, urban fieldwork.” Hawkins also later on references the Situationists’ attraction to discarded outmoded objects and marginal sites.

On the ethnographies and changing values of the discarded/second-hand objects in Wentworth’s photographs: “The arrangement of objects outside the shop ‘Turn Your Trash into . . . Cash’ is characteristic of a group of Wentworth’s photographs. Across this group Wentworth captures a spectrum of discarded things and their position within the economies of the city. Sitting outside such second-hand shops objects become associated with the potential re-sale and re-valuation enfolded within the ellipsis of that shop’s title: Turn Your Trash into . . . Cash. As ethnographies of second-hand consumption sites make clear, these are spaces of transition and transformation where an object’s materiality and meanings are negotiated and contested (Gregson and Crewe 2003; Gregson, Metcalfe and Crewe 2007). Also within Wentworth’s series are photographs of objects left lingering on street corners (Figure 2) or collapsed in doorways. Here object futures rely on their possible enrolment within an alternative economy of the city conducted on street corners and skips. Outside of the obvious resale environments the future re-use of the objects seems much more precarious. In their simplest form Wentworth’s photographs capture the changing of values.”

Matter Unbound: “The framing of discarded objects found in Wentworth’s works resonates with the range of ways in which scholars have thought through what Colloredo-Mansfeld (2003) terms ‘matter unbound’.”

On process (material fluidity): “The processes of materialization, of production and of waste, are ‘increasingly recognized to be as important as materiality itself.” (Buchli 2002: 16) […] Rubbish studies and the analyses of discarded and ‘out of place’ materials, from Mary Douglas (1984 [1966]) onward, have contributed much to the contemporary focus on materials in ‘process’, and to our understandings of the nature and dynamics of material transformations. Recently, disposal ethnographies, salvage geographies, and the aesthetics and ecologies of ruins have acknowledged the critical value of this instability of the meanings and physicalities of objects and places (DeSilvey 2007; Edensor 2005; Gregson, Metcalfe and Crewe 2007; Hawkins forthcoming). […] Wentworth’s cultural politics of rubbish joins an as yet rather limited body of work that embraces material fluidity for the critical value it offers as source of the fecund (DeSilvey 2006; Gregson, Metcalfe and Crewe 2007).”

On the instability (of material fluidity): “The instability and potentialities of Wentworth’s objects denies the collapse of the ‘everyday’ back into ‘art’ and so the resultant neutralization of their material politics. […] “Rubbish studies often centralize the instability of objects and the problems of using them to excavate or salvage traces of the past. […] Wentworth’s […] attention is less on unstable histories and more on the way in which such instability opens up alternative object futures, turn your trash into . . .”

Politics of display: Transgressions between art and everyday space and everyday objects and ‘art’ spaces. History; SI and Dadaist approaches. “The modes and practices of the once revolutionary blurrings of ‘art’ and ‘life’ have become common currency in contemporary art practice (see Buskirk 2003 and O’Dogherty 1987 for further discussions). […] The subject is ‘low’ and the work is displayed in such a way as to ensure that it stays ‘low’, materially at least resisting the reification associated with art.”

Hawkins argues that siting a readymade/everyday object in the gallery is much less politicised now [neutered]; “Seeing something ‘everyday’ situated in a gallery space tends to frame it discreetly as ‘art’, even if the critical value and intention of these objects was to make visible such a framing. […] Wentworth’s discarded objects—seen in photographs or incorporated into sculptures—refuse to settle, instead the objects continue to oscillate between the two conditions, discarded, devalued material in the street and object in an art gallery.”

Part 2: ‘Making Do and Getting By’

In this section, Hawkins looks at the poetics of common practice and politics of possibility, specifically the spatial politics, power relations and theories of practice of de Certeau, referencing keywords “strategy” and “tactics” in his book The practice of Everyday Life (Making Do). Hawkins analyses the subjects of Wentworth’s photographs as “tactics”; particularly the interactions between people and objects, and argues that the Wentworth’s photographs suggest object use that escapes the cultural over-codings of capitalism.”

Beyond signification objects become “all kinds of unspeakable ‘message bearers’ … material process … technical devices, instruments and graphics, and bodily capacities, habits and skills” (Whatmore 1999:29)

Hawkins also introduces the notion of “scrappy ethics (from Smith 1988) in relation to this analysis, as well as “an interface of sociality and material culture that decentres the ‘meaning’ of the objects in favour of a focus on ‘practical arrangements lived out through bodily activity” (Dant 2005:64).

On ‘lyrical materialism’: “Wentworth’s re-valued objects are not re-valued for what they mean but what they do, or rather what they could do and what people could do with them.” She describes his photographs are “en framing of tactics, small-scale political practices carried out on a daily basis and in an unconscious manner, practices which are set against the spatial constitution of dominant power relations” and “document embodied encounters with rubbish, picturing the interwoven fluidity of material culture and social life. […] What Wentworth pictures, however, is not discarded object being enrolled into the existing networks through which we understand their use, but rather he photographs instances where these objects become enrolled within new networks, put to work in different unintended role. […] Wentworth photographs object reuse based on a human attunement to object affordances and an assessment to their material properties” whose fabrications are “not solely human and not wholly conscious […] actions ‘devoid of foresight’ and have ‘an instantness about them’ (Wentworth quoted in Watkins 1992:6)” The re-use photographed is based on “material capacities, intensive internal properties and emergent capacities dependent on context.”

Wentworth identifies the importance of ‘a very well developed physical sense about the material characteristics of things, of the strengths and weaknesses of, for example a cup, tire or coat hanger” (Wentworth quoted in Watkins 1992:8)

Rubbish as interstitial material: “The critical ‘value’ of his previously undervalued objects lies not only in their indeterminacy but also in this interstitial condition. […] Insistent politics and ‘scrappy ethics’ attributed to rubbish as a fluid but also as an interstitial material, a material situated dynamically and uncertainly at the margins of the human and non-human (Buchli 2004; Butler, Laclan and Zizek 2000; Sennett 1970)”.

Hawkins also notes the democratizing effects of unstable materials: “Unstable materials become understood to have political potential. As Lipovetsky suggest, the inherent alienability of some object as fleeting and as frequent cast offs provides ‘the very terms by which social viability and enfranchised subjectivity are possible’ (1994:2410).

Hawkins notes that Wentworth’s work can appear apolitical but suggests that it operates within a more radical/critical political framework: “Buchli observes ‘the production and waste of objects … are two sites of larger process of materialism that facilitates the terms of social life, perpetuating its inclusions and exclusions as well as reworking and challenging them’ (2002:15). Realising the effects of such claims situates the politics and poetics or ‘rubbish’ and discard within a broader landscape of critical and radical politics.”

Summing up, Hawkins concludes (amongst other things) that works like Wentworth’s exemplifies/foreruns a move from “the fetish of the ‘new’, for here is a sense that artists need not stage opportunities, need not intervene, for things are already happening.”