We are surrounded by refuse all the time. Refuse is the objects that we have literally refused, whether physically, by sending them to a different place, or mentally, by putting out of mind. The mental and physical aspects tend to be conflated. The minute an object goes into the bin, we forget it, and it ceases to exist for us. The bin is a dark hole in our map of the world, an infinite container without dimension or limit.
Except that of course, it is not. The bin is hefted up by workers and machinery, and the contents carried off to various industrial facilities. The material is sorted, processed, recycled, burned, buried, or dumped, depending on what it is. All outside of the awareness of most of us, who are the reasons that these objects came to exist in the world to begin with, and the reason they have ended up in the waste industrial-process.
Jenny Odell’s Bureau of Suspended Objects project interferes with this normal state of affairs. In her artist residency at Recology, the garbage hauling contractor for the San Francisco area, she is allowed into the public disposal area, where she can pull objects from the dump. In her guise as the archivist for the Bureau of Suspended Objects, Odell photographs the object, researches the provenience of it, and documents its current condition. Then she posts this information on the website of the project, hosted on the social media blogging site, Tumblr.
Looking at the archive page, one sees an assortment of what very much look like discarded objects. Useless trinkets, outdated appliances, old and valueless books, decorative items, and toys that would have a hard time being given away for free. But looking deeper, into the information that Odell recorded with the photo, we get a fuller picture of what these objects are. While they are garbage now, they were once bought and sold for money, sometimes considerable amounts. Each has a particular function, was produced in a particular place and time, and someone valued it enough to take possession of it for at least a small period of time. As garbage, they appear static–things to be removed, gotten rid off, lumped together in a box, bin, or pile until they can be taken elsewhere. But they are still functional objects. Recently, Odell has taken to posting animated GIFs on her Twitter account of the Suspended Objects, showing that they are still doing things, even if they are technically suspended. TVs turn on, buttons can be pressed, video games can, in some sense, still be played.
glitch mario pic.twitter.com/cBURYosTi6
— Jenny Odell (@the_jennitaur) August 23, 2015
The Suspended Objects are in some form a reversal of the “readymade”. Rather than an ordinary object made into art by the actions of the artist, these are objects of significance reduced to amorphous garbage by the actions of the owners. Odell has temporarily short-circuited this process, returning the objects to status of interest, by sequestering them from the undifferentiated garbage pile. She does not sign the pieces, but instead researches them, pulling a statement from the history and condition of each. The Bureau is literally her work, but the objects are already produced, waiting in the dark hole of refuse for the artist’s eye to happen across them. Or, failing that, in continued stasis, waiting for the inevitable dissolution far off at the end of an unquantified eternity.