Deadly Circularity: Waste and Ecology in Art of the 1970s and 1980s
This dissertation examines artistic practices in New York City that capture shifts in environmental thought and politics during the toxic decade (1978-1992). In the late 1970s and 1980s, no environmental issue motivated U.S. artists more than the growing problem of waste. The surge in national and global outputs during the postwar period led to a sharpened awareness of the unstable geography and fraught visuality of discarded matter, and artists increasingly turned to the material-semiotic dynamics of chemical and solid waste items and spatial relations. Analyzing work and writings by Betty Beaumont, John Fekner, Peter Fend, Christy Rupp, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles, this dissertation argues that the group participated in an ecological critique of urban space based on the uneven distribution of discarded matter and pollution. In different ways, they creatively investigated unseen or evasive aspects of disposal and its related processes, considering where waste goes, who or what it is forced on, how it reappears or is concealed, and what effects—psychological, social, ecological—it generates. As shown here, these critical investigations illuminate the degree to which urban space is comprised of mutually imbricated socionatures that are mediated by exploitative hierarchies and technical systems.
As a study focused on the late 1970s and 1980s, the selected grouping of artists recovers a key network of ecocritical practitioners who are variously tied to the disparate lineages of land art, public art, graffiti, and the cultural matrix associated with punk and no wave media, categories that have rarely been linked in art historical literature. The resulting analysis implements a metabolic framework to map the intersections of artistic production and disposal relations, tracing urban metabolic processes tied to waste’s spatial dispersal through social and physical infrastructures and to its linkages with nonhuman webs of plants and animals. Just as rubbish migrates from trash can to garbage truck and into borderlands and other countries, the study’s three chapters scale up from city streets to peripheral geographies to global systems: the first relates the use of vitalist rhetoric by artists portraying the city as a living organism to anxieties regarding infrastructural failures and public health emergencies; the second chapter revisits concerns about the spatial effects of disposal and the spread of noxious pollutants; and the final chapter addresses efforts by artists to use satellite systems to monitor international environmental disasters and resource-intensive armed conflicts. By attending to this largely understudied scene of artistic activity, this dissertation thereby offers a place-specific analysis that shows how aesthetic undertakings at a moment of heightened ecological anxiety developed an immanent critique of the metropolitan environment according to the everyday experience of marginal forms. In the process, the study constructs a portrait of urban space as an emergent system of continuous socionatural struggle and transformation.