A Month of Compaction

Matthew Hope

The object is the space: A depository of activities, resources and recordings

The project was initiated by the acquisition of a large industrial waste compactor, which was delivered by a commercial entity, downloaded and placed in a public thoroughfare. The object – its immediate environment, its exterior fabric, interior space, and shifting “contents” were subject to a month of interventions. Adjustments to the object-environment are achieved not only by such formalities as the temporary declaration of an “art” space (using the interior to host works) but by offering a continuous series of re-contextualizations of a current artistic practice into the vacuum where waste should be.

Throughout the entire placement period the occupation of the object was engendered by gestures of continual feeding of the internal void through its uncloseable entrance. Such sustenance included the temporary, shifting and relocation of my own works and projects, but also a facilitation of the interior space as an available zone for a range of social, sonic, and performative activities.

The Compactor and its accumulating contents will morph and grow. The open entrance allows viewers and visitors to tamper with its contents, assisting in the re-editing and arrangement of the day’s objects or events. The physical limitations of the Compactor are set to contain and define these works and happenings.

Clearly, I do not intend the Compactor to function as a precipitant of some modular utopian vision. Far from it. As the original purpose of the object was to collect waste, it will continue to discharge this primal function, a task-orientation signaled by its lack of customization and informal intersection with ambient utilities. This Compactor will not become designed or contrived so as to so disrupt this function. The only event binding the myriad sub-events will be the final gestural of removal. Everything will go, including the activity itself. Threatened by its very function and its ceaseless appetite to compress discard and dispose with.

The delivery

Meeting its appointment for an unsuspected function with astonishingly punctuality, the Compactor arrived exactly on time. It is now in full view, delicately perched high on the truck’s chassis, its purpose briefly obscured by its stark geometrical outline, which appears deceptively streamlined, almost optimistic.

Once the truck is in position the off-loading of the Compactor commences. This is extremely dramatic. The drone of hydraulic motors and slow extension of actuators that launch the container concur in an intense mechanical gesture. The truck’s engine revving at full throttle, producing excessive exhaust gases. The Compactor is deployed in the horizontal position but quickly rises up to an unnerving 40 degree angle until its open end hits the floor with a punctuated bang. The truck shunts the compactor which travels on a set of heavy, stone-age rollers, to the desired location (where there is enough room on both sides to permit the flow of human traffic). At the given the signal, the truck pulls away. The Compactor sits in its final resting place.

As soon as the Compactor lay at rest, I began to examine and reflect upon, its construction. In contrast to the conventions of the White Cube it is the exterior of the Compactors, rather than its insides, that are the most polished surfaces. The thing was far cruder than I had remembered from our first encounter in the sweltering heat of Waste Managements toxic depot (the company from which I hired this), located in suburban sprawl, El Cajon, near San Diego.

When visiting the yard I was unable to view the interior of the Compactor as it was tightly packed and backed up against a field of others. The exterior was somewhat acceptable as a finished product, its construction unified by a thick coat of flesh-colored gloss. Crude details could be found: thick steel plate cut for the medieval door mechanism lay raw and unfinished; gouging marks left from the cutting torch were proud and serrated.

The interior manifested the scant material usage and economic means of construction that the Compactor was victim to. It is blatant and unadulterated. The seams between the folded steel plates that were so punctually welded on the outside are here left raw and incomplete. Here, slag from the workers cutting torch forms oxidized deposits, hanging down around the circumferences of inserted hose ports, solidified on the axis of exact gravity.

One soon finds out what this thing really is: a folded steel box. Notice the gaps between the plates and their folds and you are presented with the savage face of production and its accompanying mentality of adhesion.

Plastic identity tags from the steel mill are still evident in places, partially burnt from the head of a MIG welding plant. Scored in engineer’s chalk by a worker, the manufacture’s name reads “Marathon.” It is still visible. These fragments of industrial process not only uncover the nature of construction, but raise questions about the cultural value of this structure, or the lack of it. Despite the importance of this object, its articulation with what society excretes, even the workers who made it apparently disregarded before its completion. Around the rim of the octagonal entrance the exterior gloss paint terminates, fading into a dull rust. The paint sprayer stopped painting when they encountered the inside. No one will (ever) see this.

In Allan Sekula’s Fish story we encounter further residue of industrial processes from workers in the Korean ship- building industry.

Launched in 1984, the Sea-Land Quality was one of the first ships built at the Daewoo Shipyard on the island of Keojo off the south east coast of South Korea, one of the series of “econships” commissioned by the now-defunct United States Lines of Malcom Mclean, the trucking executive who initiated containerized cargo movement in 1956. These were the biggest container ships ever built to date, deliberately slow: exercises in the economies of scale, cheap construction, and conservative fuel use.

When the American crew picked up the first of these ships from the Daewoo dockyard, completed the sea trials, and began the voyage back across the pacific, they discovered in the nooks and crannies of the new ship a curious inventory of discarded tools used in the building of the vessel: crude hammers made by welding a heavy bolt onto the end of a length of pipe, wrenches cut roughly by torch from scraps of deck plate. Awed by this evidence of improvisatory iron-age approach to ship building, which corresponded to their earlier impressions of the often-lethal brutality of Korean industrial methods they gathered the tools into a small display in the crew’s lounge, christening it “The Korean Workers Museum.” (Allan Sekula)1

The order

With the advent of modern communication networks, almost anything has been made possible, even immediate dispatch and relocation of a space, physical matter and manpower. This work embodies and facilitates the notion of the “Hire” as a powerful method of commanding, arranging and orchestrating.

The activity of the Hire can be chiefly attributed to the construction industry, the entire mechanism of which is a set of temporal components, operated by a dispensable workforce. As a method of work, construction hire has been further defined with the advent of the “Hire Shop”: an international chain of plant hire outlets that provide temporary workforces with even more temporary tools. The systemic disposability of contemporary economic relations is interrogated in Michael Landy’s important work, Scrapheap Services.

Landy’s installations, videos and drawings create an artificial world that reminds us of some of the more sinister aspects of the society in which we live and our complicity in sustaining its dehumanizing values. Scrapheap Services, his best-known large-scale installation, first introduced us to the fictitious cleaning company which offered its services to a “prosperous society [which] depends upon a minority of people being discarded.” (2) The British Art Show

The ease with which I obtained the industrial Compactor (one phone call), and the speed of its subsequent delivery, is underlined by the ultimate facility of its future removal and disposal. The initial transaction, an ordinary citizen acquiring industrial equipment through a rapid delivery system, creates a brief yet bizarre cross-cultural engagement. This kind of equipment arrives at an early hour clearly associated with the routine of the manual work force. A perpetual cycle of monotonous regularity: early mornings and evenings fueled with the subsistence exitance of inadequate pay cheques. For a single moment precipitated by the exchange of this waste Compactor, we briefly encounter the often invisible or virtual system of manual labour, meshing with its regimen across the arrival, foundational function and departure of this apparatus.

When and if industry recalls the Compactor through excessive waste generation, my activity and the physical presence of the Compactor will be devoured accordingly. The Compactor not only arrived to pose the possibility of the implosion of artistic space, but to present an object of deterrence. The removal of my practice leads to the ultimate implosion of the White Cube. Here in this vacuum of post-artistic and cubic space we can find room to maneuver again. This space of physical aftermath ultimately defines a not only a sculptural notion but effect.

The notion of the “Hire” is further informed by a technology and a subculture that has learned how to abuse it. Contemporary digital youth culture has in part replaced the act of financial transaction for media with the endless opportunity to download from digital networks at no charge. For this culture, the downloading and massing of virtual objects, be it ripped-off movie clips, cracked software or mp3s, has grown to such proportions, that it has emerged as a primary method not only of media retrieval and consumption, but of informational exchange.

Media technology has now reached the plateau of the digital stream. Here users tap into a data feed—whether music or video or News—in which they find themselves unable to copy or own the data, encoded for viewing only for specific amount of time. By virtue of its implicit functionalities and potential for occupancy, the Compactor poses some of these questions. Why is it that that no one’s able to own waste systems objects.

To hire, or stream is perhaps one step further than the ready-made, which ultimately one might own, but never make. Once the task of hiring or streaming is complete, the bulk of material is retrieved, leaving only a light residue of the activity behind. Such lightness is opposed to the weighty artistic endeavor of craft or making, often a formally intense, an indulgently labour intensive process. Hiring, downloading and streaming combine to form the ultimate statement of efficiency. This not only raises interesting questions about authorship and ownership, but engenders the almost total removal and further dismantling of skills.

The Data

Inside the Compactor, the viewer encounters a repository of ideas, equipment and supportive reference material. This information has a particular presentational form: it is loosely taped, jammed, tied and magnetized to the Compactors rusted surfaces. The scraps of paper form a temporal surface, a pseudo-organic cladding that migrates through different assemblages.

The data, some of which takes the form of proposals, is intended as an aid to navigate the mind of the viewer on a journey of electro-mechanical absurdity, commencing with the feasible and terminating in figures of the impossible or incomprehensible. The misuse of computer-aided design provides for the efficient delivery of this perceptual itinerary. Like their surroundings, all of the drawings in the Compactor are actual products derived from a process of scouring the Internet, harvesting blue prints stored in the depths of manufactures home pages. Once obtained this technical data is quickly converted, each vector transcribed through import to export. Upon command each model is inserted, scaled and positioned limited only by the speed with which I can relocate them.

The content horizon for these projects is the subversion of containerization. The development of a one hundred and ten kilowatt autonomous sound weapon is presented in a large-scale format. Through its rigorous play and ultimate abuse of conventional schematic techniques, the project grows from a single solid object into a vast array of divergent impossibilities. There will be a kind of climax in the final release of sound energy—a single parabolic horn speaker eight stories high, made possible through the simple selection of virtual products-standard containers. But this only builds a metaphor that questions the desire of the consumer and the constructive capabilities of industrial manufacturing.

At present these actions have occupied three different areas of the vessel. Where the paper ends, the bundling of electrical cables, left hanging and unadulterated, begins. The cables provide not only a dynamic punctuation within the space, defying and intersecting the flatness of the paper, but also resources for potential visitors and happenings. Unlimited Internet, cable television, Internet radio and electricity are piped into the space. At no cost are alterations made to this structure during the duration of its visit. On the floor the continuous stream of Internet radio can be heard. Operating twenty four hours a day seven days a week, controlled by users online. In the far corner a Web-cam streams in real time the activities within, replayed in miniature on an LCD screen.

These cables pass freely through a two inch plug hole. Upon delivery this was fused so hard shut that only the torque generated by a four foot pipe as extension bar provided adequate force to break the seal that had formed. This same stone-age principal used had also grounded the container from its carriage: leverage. Undoubtedly the massiveness of this object commands the tools that service and operate it.

The bold insertion of the Compactor within a resident art community and public thorough-fare, provides an assertive physical presence that is offset by the more “delicate” fragments of residue that accumulate in and under its hull. The floor of the Compactor has not been cleansed of micro debris. Passersby might observe the hulking form, make an approach, and on closer inspection find themselves able to explore the happenings yielded by the Compactor. Particles of various substances are brought into the space by visitors. Shards of glass, polystyrene, popcorn and ear plugs accumulate and shift within the vessel’s cavernous form. These fragments can be heard subtly crunching beneath the movement of feet. The Compactor responds with a metallurgical echo that refracts and reverberates every single action. This accumulation of this noise is subdivided as trampling reduces the size of each particle.

In contrast to the micro debris found on the interior the Compactor has a curious ability at commanding other large objects. Through its duration larger debris have gravitated to its perimeter. The balance that informs this depository contrasts, starkly, with the rigid permanence of the surrounding steel structure. The fluxes of activities within the Compactor will ultimately be framed by its potential function: collection, compression and imminent removal. The object and site will be purged of all content.

During it relocation, the Compactor acts as a particular operational apparatus: it is part think tank, part exhibition space and partly a sculptural entity. It emerges as an apparatus that simultaneously brandishes its formal exterior as an object, and shelters a specific interior volume. Such meshing of object, space and function is an integral strategy in the deconstruction and eventual crisis not only of my practice but of the White Cube itself. Encompassing and subject to cycle of perpetually changing contents, the cube is decimated by the carnage of what it subtends.

During its one-month visit, the Compactor will break up and dissolve the tedious conventions of the gallery. It will explode the concept and practice of the “private view,” for the entrance to the Compactor is always open, free for parties to enter and exit, and parties to form. Except when actually engaged in its defining process of compaction, the Compactor, will, in fact, always be left open, long after it has departed from this particular use and site. Scraps of our duration left within the object may endure in the rusty skin; or they may not. The boundaries and limits of the work are not only fluid, but unknowable.



1 Sekula Allan, Fish Story, Published Witte de with, Center for contemporary Art, Rotterdam, 1996

2 Michael Landy, The British Art Show 5, http://www.britartshow.org.uk/artists/michael_landy.html