Amanda Boetzkes


On her book Plastic Capitalism: Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste

Cover Interview of November 13, 2019

In a nutshell

Waste occupies a paradoxical position today: it is made to be disposable, and we want to get rid of it, but we cannot. Where at other times in history, we’ve been able to banish waste—burn it up, bury it, or otherwise make it disappear—today, we are producing forms of waste that do not disappear. While we still have a drive to waste, waste therefore perpetually returns to us, often in toxic forms. Art gives us many perspectives—from the intimate to the global—of these eternal returns of contemporary waste.

This is a book about contemporary art and what it has to tell us about our production and consumption of waste. It charts a general preoccupation with different forms of waste in contemporary art, and it considers how artists use waste to critique, express, and imagine the global ecological condition. The book analyzes waste from an aesthetic perspective, and thinks about art as an ecological form, and specifically a form of waste.

Addressing diverse artistic practices from around the world, the book features artists from the United States, Canada and Mexico, to Brazil, South Korea, China, and Europe, I consider artworks that are situated in landfills, installations made entirely out of fluorescent plastics, performance and body art that engage waste materials, as well as documentary photographs and films that track the movement and accumulation of non-biodegradable waste. So the scope of the book is expansive.

An important facet of the argument is that the forms of waste we have been producing since the mid-20th century are deeply tied both materially and ideologically to oil capital. The rise of the global oil industry has put us at an impasse: we are situated between a cultural imperative to conserve and recycle energy for ecological reasons such as climate change, but we are also subject to an economic imperative to expand oil production, and with it, oil consumption, on the other. How can we both burn oil and conserve energy? Art shows us how the material wastes of the cultures of global oil express exactly this dilemma. Waste keeps coming back in toxic forms.

The book includes a genealogy of waste art from its modernist origins to its contemporary global and ecological conditions. It begins with an analysis of the politics and representation of gleaning and ragpicking in art in the nineteenth century. From that starting point, I discuss more recent forms of waste handling in art, including interventions in landfills, exchange-based practices, ecologically-charged natural history displays, and visual practices involving plastics. These aesthetic forms show the emergence of a new waste imaginary that struggles with the scale of climate change and its effects, the global scope of oil capital, processes of anthropogenesis which change the nomenclature of life itself, and the possibilities of resistance and ethical response that emerge from this fraught terrain.

The best way to read this book is to look at the artworks! The book is beautifully designed, and the sequence of the images articulates the movement of the argument. But more than this, the book is attentive to the language and poetics of theorists and artists dealing with waste, elemental philosophy, and even the aesthetic dimensions of the oil economy itself.