On the 28th October the PGR Forum visited the Ecologies and Arts research group where Dr William Viney gave a seminar on ‘Performing Wastes’. MA by Research student Barbora Bartosova interviewed Dr Viney following the session.
Why have you decided to join Durham University?
I came to Durham in October 2012 to take up a postdoctoral position for a year in the Centre for Medical Humanities. I was able to extend my stay through a Leverhulme Fellowship. Durham is simply one of the best places to do the kind of research that I do, which is broadly interdisciplinary and collaborative. Since I have been here I’ve been able to publish a book based on my doctoral studies and develop a new project on twins, to explain how and why they have been embraced as bodies of experiment and evidence.
Can you tell us a little bit about your earlier educational background?
I read English Literature and Development Studies at the University of Sussex, took an MA here in Durham’s Department of English Studies, and then went to London for a PhD in Cultural Studies and Humanities at the London Consortium. I was very fortunate to begin my PhD at the London Consortium in the years before it closed, to have brilliant and supportive supervisors, and be surrounded by a highly diverse student body made up of interdisciplinary researchers, writers, curators, designers, architects and artists.
Has it led you towards your current research interests? If not, what was it that influenced and/or inspired you?
Absolutely: my work on waste came about through an interest in the humanities and social sciences. The book, Waste: A Philosophy of Things, has chapters on anthropological, archaeological, literary, architectural, and artistic responses to and considerations of waste; the idea is to try and see if there are questions or problems common to these practices. This is not an anti-disciplinary approach, nor is it seeking to establish cross-disciplinary universals. Instead, my experience working between disciplines (not without its moments of profound awkwardness and embarrassment) has led me to be aware of how different researchers enclose their research objects and foreclose their research outcomes. Some of this work on waste was simply guided by the desire to follow my object of study into the different spaces, times, and media that waste conditions. I realised this had risks – I was occasionally led outside of the political positions that give moral legitimacy to liberal academia – but also opportunities to note how seemingly local waste vernaculars could be historically and geographically shared.
Can you summarise some main arguments from Ecology & the Arts Research Group Seminar: Dr. William Viney (Durham), ‘Performing Wastes’ for people who couldn’t have attended this event?
During that talk I was trying to give a definition of waste that takes it to be an experiential phenomenon, without inherent or sensual qualities. So I wasn’t taking it for granted that waste is a function or by-product of an overarching, extrinsic socio-economic system of organisation and value creation – this is the most common approach, tethering waste to historically emergent economic systems of resource consumption. Instead, I was keen to stress how objects of waste are a dynamic, contingent, co-created, temporal and narratvised effect of human and non-human interaction; an instance of material entanglement. This propels waste away from being a necessarily ‘bad thing’ – as negative matter that induce states of existential crisis or taboo – a tradition established by Mary Douglas, Julia Kristeva, and others. Instead, I argued that waste is always an active thing of thought; a category of matter comes to be through complex kinds of cognitive and narrativised performance. Those perfomances are the basis on which subsequent environmental or political polemic must be based. So my paper refused the characterisation of waste as ‘mere’ refuse, but stressed its formative importance in the construction of many possible occasions or events, operating at multiple social, individual, and historical sites and scales, and across and between a wide variety of different kinds of media.
Waste that is featuring in the artworks has undergone a certain conceptual transformation: what was once object that has fallen out of its use is converted into object that is open for consumption (art market is in fact often recognised for its prospect of providing the means for lucrative investment, especially in the times of economic crises and unstable economies). Can you then still refer to those objects as waste?
Yes, since my definition of waste is not the opposite of things that are useful. That might sound counterintuitive but actually accounts for how things we call ‘waste’ are very rarely ‘useless.’ That is, the conceptual transformation that waste undergoes in its incorporation into an artwork is provisional and incomplete. This points to the one of the major errors made in contemporary thinking about waste, I think – the idea that waste is an object that cannot ‘do’ or ‘perform’ something. This might be only partially true since waste gains recognition for being the waste of something, precisely because it has not yet reached a point of absolute exhaustion. This provides some of the ambivalence and contingency to waste that is typical of everyday decisions about it. If the artist Gustav Metzger uses waste in his sculptural works this can still be visibly, recognisably waste – contemporary artists frequently draw attention to the ‘found’ nature of their materials. I would argue that one of the enigmatic contributions made to a work of art that includes waste is to raise doubts about the temporal and spatial integrity of the work. That is why, in 2004, Metzger’s work was accidently discarded by a cleaner at Tate; the porosity of art’s relationship with commercial and institutional value was exposed.
You mentioned the Temple of Augustus in Virginia Water. It is characterised not as ‘a reconstruction of a temple, but a ‘picturesque’ style designed set piece using materials from Leptis Magna’ Its original functionality is thus displaced, however, it has acquired a new use value in this particular setting in the new environment. Can it still be seen as waste then?
My definition of ‘waste’ being one that stresses flexibility, one that does not require knowledge of an original function, means that ruins at Virginia Water or elsewhere are understood as a form of architectural waste because their sense of purpose and intention is commingled. Artists of all kinds understand that waste provokes a sense of untimeliness, and part of this temporal complexity can be drawn into their work and utilised. I do not see this as negating the waste status of that which has been used for an artwork, but it puts particular pressure on that analytic process of narrative recognition that ties a thing to its previous or potential uses. In certain periods of history this effect was considered ‘picturesque’ and in others ‘decadent’ or indicative of post-industrial ‘neglect.’ I am especially interested in how architectural follies were celebrated for their ability to fuse the original and the false. Ruinous follies do not simply guarantee what is thought to be ‘original’ about their functionality but are capable of fabricating a fictitious past and an inauthentic origin, a time of use that never has and never will occur. This is all intensified by the fact that many of these structures, like the transposed blocks of stone taken from Leptis Magna, were weirdly hybrid fabrications. In Sophie Thomas’s view, “the ruin’s necessarily constructed relationship to questions of history, and its importance in the creation of the present.” This propensity to stage the past, a past that responds to the way in which the ruin is bound to diverging and necessarily deconstructed times of use and waste, shows the ruin not to guarantee an authentic origin but to provide a narrative departure for many possible narrative constructions. Hence, ruin must be performed, rather than merely intended or encountered.
What is your perception of hoarders? Is their idea of the waste creating new discourse as they are refusing to admit the ‘expiration date’ of objects?
Actually, I have very little to add to this other than to note that the designation of sociological ‘types’ according to a propensity to keep things others consider undesirable or disposable is in itself nothing new. What I’m struck by is how being a ‘hoarder’ is frequently understood as a mental pathology, and I am not aware of so-called hoarding pre-existing a biomedical model of human desire or compulsion. So I think that hoarding and the category of the hoarder is really very revealing; not for what it tells us how to keep and store things but what it tells us about the status of people who appear to ab-use things. Much of that line of interest seems to be rather enamoured with the idea of a human subject, distinct and placed in opposition to the hoarder, who is capable of controlling their environment; the rational ‘disperser.’ Perhaps our thinking about waste frequently depends on such caricatures. But it’s important to recognise that agency over waste things is restricted in myriad ways, at times baffling and humbling, and by no means equally distributed across communities. This is why, as Philip K. Dick claims in a famous passage, in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, our battle with stuff, what he calls ‘kipple’, is often viewed as a losing game: ‘eventually I’ll die or go away, and then the kipple will again take over. It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.’ And so, with that in mind, it might be more sensible to recognise the fatalistic good sense of those who have given up on the effort to resist the weight of things and have, instead, learned to enjoy the stuff of riot.