I mined San Francisco’s trash for art

Jenny Odell (Filter: Elena Scotti/Fusion)

This summer, I was an artist in residence at a dump.

That might sound strange. Why would an artist spend three and a half months among objects so unwanted, unappealing, and unloved that they had been thrown away? But I am not the first. Recology SF, a waste-processing facility on the outskirts of San Francisco that is perpetually shrouded in seagulls, has provided a studio, a shopping cart, and free access to the public disposal area to its artists-in-residence since 1990.

What you might find in there varies day to day, hour to hour. Amidst a sea of construction debris, boxes, and trash bags, you might find a working Nintendo Power Glove, a 1906 bank ledger, or a half-eaten cheeseburger. “The pile,” as we called it, has a life of its own.

1 - pileJenny Odell

The pile

Perhaps because most of my work has involved cataloguing, organizing, and tracing — as well as “alienating” something so that we might see it more clearly — the most immediate reaction I had to being in the pile was the desire to create an archive. My dump studio became the Bureau of Suspended Objects, a one-person agency whose task was to “suspend” as many objects as humanly possible.

Researching a piece of trash

Researching a piece of trash

Suspending an object meant:

  1. Rescuing it from the pile and the giant front loader that would eventually crush it,
  2. Photographing and isolating it from multiple angles, and
  3. Conducting obsessive online research into the objects’ materials, use, manufacturing origin (with Street View imagery of the factory where possible), company history, initial and current value, original TV or print commercials, etc.
12 - BSO wallJenny Odell

In collecting and annotating what would become a 200-object archive, my goal was not to focus on any particular decade or type of object. Instead, I was trying to create a time capsule in the present: an archaeological approach to the everyday. Ideally, an alien could land on Earth, browse through the archive, and get a pretty good idea of “human stuff” (at least in the Bay Area).

An alien could land on Earth, browse through the archive, and get a pretty good idea of “human stuff.”

A selection of 'suspended objects'

A selection of 'suspended objects'

My research often felt like detective work. One day, I found a Tonka Mighty Dump truck (Item 074 in the archive) that had mysteriously been painted silver all over.

The trashed Tonka truck

The 'suspended' Tonka truck

Thanks to the exhaustive work of whoever is running, a fan site that lists every change in every Tonka product year by year (until production was moved to China in 1998, at which point the site owner apparently ceased to care), I was able to date the truck to 1990 based on the wheel shape. That was the year Tonka celebrated its 25th anniversary, occasioning a limited silver edition of the Tonka Mighty Dump. Clearly, what I had found was not the silver edition, but it explained why someone had painted it, perhaps as the next best thing.

The collector's item

The collector's item

The truck had been manufactured in a Tonka facility in El Paso, Texas. Later in the ‘90s, after Tonka moved manufacturing to China, the plant was turned into administrative offices for El Paso Community College. As with the majority of items in the B.S.O. archive, the truck’s birthplace no longer really existed.

Suspended sexy pig

Suspended sexy pig

Who did this sexy pig belong to? Why was it at one point appealing, and then no longer so?

One object whose birthplace did still exist was Item 181: “Sexy Pig” Figurine. The pig had no markings except for a sticker saying “CHINA,” and yet I was able — after much non-linear travel down various internet rabbit holes— to trace it to Quanzhou Jinhuoba Gifts and Crafts Co., Ltd., in Yanling Industry Park, Quanzhou, Fujian, China. The factory makes bobbleheads, fridge magnets, and most importantly, sexy pigs: sexy pigs on the beach, sexy pig bodybuilders, and sexy pigs doin’ it in a basket. Apparently, what I had here was a vintage sexy pig, since all of the current pigs on their Alibaba page were significantly raunchier, sporting leather caps and busting out of their pig bikinis.

Sexy pig's origins and relations

Sexy pig's origins and relations

Who did this sexy pig belong to? Why was it at one point appealing, and then no longer so? Presumably for some time this pig sat on a shelf in someone’s room, part of a personal archive of belongings, before making its way into the pile. By the time I found it, the sexy pig was an anonymous object, stripped of personal meaning just like the unrelated objects surrounding it.

Item 150: Apple Macintosh PowerBook 140 is an example of how every object is part of a “limited edition,” at least in that it represents the unique intersection of variables: of time, money, location, corporate whims, etc.

A suspended computer

A suspended computer

This particular PowerBook 140 was made at a facility in Fountain, CO that Apple bought from Delta General in 1991 and sold to SCI-Sanmina only five years later. The building has long since been abandoned, haunted perhaps by the ghosts of Powerbook 140s. Several different years of Google Street View of the building show signs for different real estate holdings companies, as the building is passed off from one owner to the next.

The computer's birthplace

The computer's birthplace

One unexpected side effect of my project was the objects’ zombie-like continuance as images on the internet, as a result of the Bureau of Suspended Objects’ Tumblr page. Now, searching for a specific item and scrolling through a sea of product photos or eBay snapshots, you might happen upon a trashed version of that object, the version someone selling it wouldn’t want you to think about.

A selection of 'suspended objects'

Pristine and trashed versions of the same object in a Google search

This concatenation of time—the ability to see an image both in its original newness and its eventual “trash” state—was something I tried to make palpable for visitors to the Bureau of Suspended Objects’ final exhibition. Held in my studio at Recology in September, the show included all the objects I had archived from the dump, labeled and put on display for visitors. The exhibit included an augmented reality app so that visitors could scan an item’s QR code to see it in its idealized, original-product-photo state, read about its history, see its factory on Street View, and watch related videos.

Item 171, PowerBook G4, included a video of Steve Jobs rhapsodizing about its titanium body at MacWorld in 2001.

Suspended Powerbook G4

Suspended Powerbook G4

Visitors could also scan prints of the objects for a text overlay of where each individual item was made.

Exhibition of 'suspended objects'Jenny Odell

Exhibition of 'suspended objects'

My research at the B.S.O. was originally meant to be a “catch-and-release” affair, with most of the items going back to the pile. But in the end I gave some items away to friends who wanted them and donated money-themed items to my friends’ project, The Museum of Capitalism. And I had to hold on to still more items for future, smaller exhibitions of the B.S.O. The archive also continues to exist on the B.S.O.’s Tumblr — where it’s searchable by material, origin, color, and purpose — as well as in the book, The Archive of the Bureau of Suspended Objects.

Trash feels to me less like an identifiable category and more like a psychological judgment that is as reversible as it is arbitrary.

A lasting effect of having done this project is that trash feels to me less like an identifiable category and more like a psychological judgment that is as reversible as it is arbitrary. Stores seem full of trash and the dump seems full of products. The effect is temporal as well as spatial: spending time in the decades-crushing pile invites an understanding of the present as imminently historical.

15 - MicroTAC digital personal communicator

Old phone suspended in film and in the Bureau

After all, one day, not too far in the future, the public disposal area will be full of iPhone 6’s: their screens, processors, SIM cards, transceivers, and motors, their rose gold, silver, platinum, copper, neodynium, and europium. Those phones which we so treasure now will be fossils of a time when a company called Apple contracted a manufacturer named Foxconn, which had not yet left China for cheaper sites in India… and so on. Even our most over-familiar possessions are in fact hard crystallizations of time, material and circumstance. In that way, even the most banal object could be said to be rare.


jenny holding trash

Jenny Odell at Recology. Photo by Kelly Lau.

Jenny Odell is a Bay Area native / captive. Her work mines vernacular online imagery and information, often in an attempt to highlight the material nature of modern networked existence. Because her practice involves collecting, tagging and cataloguing, Odell has been compared to a natural scientist – specifically, a lepidopterist. Her work has made its way into the Google Headquarters, Les Rencontres D’Arles, Arts Santa Monica, Fotomuseum Antwerpen, La Gaîté lyrique (Paris), the Lishui Photography Festival (China), the Made in NY Media Center, Apexart (NY), and East Wing (Dubai). It’s also turned up in TIME Magazine’s LightBox, The Atlantic, The Economist, WIRED, the NPR Picture Show, and a couple of Gestalten books. Odell teaches design and internet art at Stanford University. She spoke about the Bureau of Suspended Objects in San Francisco in November 2015 at Fusion’s Real Future Fair.