Paper Balls and Plastic Bags

On 30 November and 1 December 2007 ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) held an international conference entitled Trash it? Burn It? Use It! Rubbish Dump or Workshop? Creative Approaches to Trash, in cooperation with the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (MKG). This conference accompanied the ifa exhibition Pure Gold – Upcycled! Upgraded! and looked at the structures of a globalised consumer society and its conspicuous ecological consequences, and also discussed solutions in trash avoidance and the use and value enhancement of waste.

The international curators of Pure Gold – Upcycled! Upgraded! and further experts from the fields of the environment, research, and the creative economy held keynote talks that introduced diverse themes. The conference also included workshops, interactive discussion and action formats and networking opportunities, as an open platform for designers, the maker scene and civil society.
Sabine Schulze, director of the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, and Elke aus dem Moore, director of the Fine Arts department at ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) welcomed the guests, and Géraldine de Bastion moderated the opening evening.

The act of wasting time

In his introductory keynote on the subject of waste, Friedrich von Borries acknowledged that the project Pure Gold and the methods of upcycling reverse the traditional concept of waste in two ways. First of all they define what today’s economic logic deems waste to be gold, and secondly they show that design itself thrives on waste, but not material waste – rather a different form of generosity in the act of wasting time. Designers try out new material combinations and techniques and thus create new value with a very special aura.

In her lecture, "The Exhibition as a Space of Opportunity," Angeli Sachs addressed the theoretical background. What is the role of objects in museums? Who is speaking? What is the significance of the visitors? Are they mere recipients or is a dialogue created? Unlike artworks, design objects presented in museums are removed from their intended use and only then become exhibits on plinths. Museums are also more and more becoming places for participation and the locations of social change. In this sense formats such as the workshops, the conference and the digital platform used in Pure Gold – Upcycled! Upgraded! are integral elements in successful exhibitions today.

© photo: Anja Beutler

The two opening keynotes were followed by a "world tour," in which each curator presented a short overview of specific aspects of upcycling in their region. Volker Albus (Frankfurt), the curator with overall responsibility for the exhibition, called for this subject not to be treated only rationally. High-standard aesthetics play a key role in upcycling. This exhibition questions the basic assumptions of upcycling as a green niche project, in which style and a sense of form are not relevant factors. On the contrary, upcycling techniques result in aesthetically outstanding objects that arouse our desires.

Trash as a resource for the daily struggle to survive

Brazilian curator Adélia Borges (São Paulo) looked at the issues from the perspective of the "global south." She pointed out that most people in the world have to live off less than 10 US dollars per day. What might be seen as "trash" in Western industrial nations is often a resource and everyday tradeable good in many others. Extending the life cycles of products is simply a strategy of survival. Of course influential Brazilian designers and architects like Lina Bo Bardi and Aloisio Magalhães used upcycling techniques in their work. But, Borges asked, do we really have to look up to the famous to be able to move on with relevant discourse?

Tapiwa Matsinde (London) looked at the issues in Sub-Saharan Africa. Rubbish heaps and more and more electrical goods waste coming in from the industrial nations are a massive problem in many places in the region. As the infrastructure for functioning trash disposal is often not in place, this work is increasingly done by private protagonists. Initiatives give inhabitants vouchers per kilo of trash, which they can use in local shops and businesses. The trash collected can be sold on to central state agencies. According to Matsinde these private initiatives have a number of positive effects. They have social relevance, creating jobs and income, and are also important in ecological and political terms, because they represent a growing environmental awareness and influence. There are now first state regulation measures of significance. States like Eritrea, Ruanda, Somalia, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya have forbidden the use of plastic bags. It is nonetheless in many cases not easy to implement these laws.

© photo: Anja Beutler

Bahia Shehab (Cairo) looked at the informal urban quarter of Manshiyat Naser in Cairo, known as "Garbage City." The streets are covered with trash, the stench is almost unbearable. Here 80 per cent of the trash of the Egyptian capital is recycled, not in high-tech factories, but by countless small businesses. Under these difficult circumstances, a group of active Coptic women founded the Association for the Protection of the Environment in 1983. They organised weaving, paper, metal and electronics workshops, and also infrastructural measures like schools. The historical Coptic cave church of the quarter is a symbol for decentral forms of organisation in places where state institutions fail.

Thai designer Eggarat Wongcharit (Bangkok) also emphasised that upcycling is not a cultural export from the West, but firmly anchored in Asian culture, as many examples from Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia showed. That these techniques can also compete successfully with the aesthetic tastes of Europe has been proven not least by Wongcharit’s own products, which have been exhibited at the Salone del Mobile in Milan, amongst other places.

Traditional handcraft in the age of technologisation

Chinese curator Jie Zhang (Beijing) appealed for the preservation of traditional Chinese handicraft techniques, for which she wishes to create a new basis in the age of rationalisation and technologisation. These traditional techniques of course use natural and sustainable resources sparingly, thus preserving the environment. Jie Zhang noted that these have found very little resonance so far in modern Chinese ways of life, but she remains an optimist, not least in the light of first events like the Zero Waste Festival in Beijing.

Following the world tour presented by the curators, the innovation officer for waste disposal of the city of Hamburg, Reinhard Fiedler, took the audience on a journey through cultural history. His talk, entitled "His-Stories of Trash," led to what is probably the most famous trash heap in the history of the world – one which is mentioned in the New Testament. This is Gehenna, a valley outside the gates of Jerusalem, known as the "valley of eternal fire" and the epitome of the abominable. According to Bible scholar Wolfgang Schneider, the name is also the etymological origin of the word "hell." Where should be put our trash? This question has worried humankind ever since we began to create settlements. While ancient cities were again and again rebuilt on top of their own rubbish, with Troy as the most famous example of a city whose height was elevated by nine metres over the centuries, for modern societies this is now a question of optimising efficiency. Since the nineteenth century centralised trash incineration has been the favoured solution. But sorting trash can be economically beneficial. Fiedler referred to the Aurubis copper works in Hamburg, which is paradoxically also Europe’s largest gold producer. Aurubis makes copper from electronic goods waste, and the gold (in 50,000 smartphones there is a total of one kilo of this precious metal) is just a by-product.

In his lecture "Cycling Up Design," Axel Kufus stressed that upcycling creates added value for society in many different ways. Kufus is responsible for the digital platform and for workshops for the exhibition project Pure Gold – Upcycled! Upgraded!, which will take place throughout the ten years the exhibition is on tour, and he called for global networks of designers, makers and the generally interested public. He sees the conference in Hamburg as the first important impulse, and he emphasised the pilot function of the platform for the further development of the touring exhibition format.

Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg

The Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (MKG) has for many years dealt with socially critical issues. Not only does it look at the crafting of objects, but also the industrial production processes from raw material to end product. Following an exhibition about the causes and consequences of plastic waste, came "Fast Fashion. The Dark Side of Fashion" which is on a worldwide tour since 2015. The current exhibition, "Food Revolution 5.0", critically investigates the global food industry and consumer behaviour.