Recycling Sucks! The History of Creative Reuse: Garth Johnson at TEDxEureka

Recycling Sucks! The History of Creative Reuse: Garth Johnson at TEDxEureka


Translator: Martina Cavallo
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven A couple of years back,
I wrote a book about creative reuse, and it had a thousand things in it
that had been made out of other things. There was furniture. Check out this chair that’s been made out
of a lovely garbage can. Housewares. Here is a bowl made by Boris Bally
out of ethically sourced street signs. (Laughter) There were electronics. This amazing USB keyboard
made out of Scrabble tiles. Art. I’ll forward through this
before you get nightmares. (Laughter) Jewelry. This is a New York based jeweler
named Margaux Lange. The main material that she likes to use
are pieces of recycled Barbies. And there is also Judaica. This particular menorah made out of cast-off bits
of repurposed plumbing hardware is called the Manorah. (Laughter) When I was putting the book together, I realized that I had to have
a fitting introduction. I started thinking about really good ways
that I could start to frame the book. I teach Art History,
so one of the things that I realized is that maybe I could talk
about the history of creative reuse in the beginning
of this introduction of the book. So I started to do some research
and kind of came to an aha-eureka moment. And that is that I
couldn’t even really begin to scratch the surface
of the history of creative reuse in 1000 words
that I had in this introduction. In fact, what I found out is that every culture
from the beginning of time has practiced creative reuse, and that we, as a culture, even though we like to think
and pat ourselves on the back that we discovered recycling, we don’t even come close
to any of these other cultures. Another thing that I started to find out the more that I did research
in the area of reuse was something that is
a little bit counterintuitive. And that is that recycling sucks. Like I said, it sounds
a little bit counterintuitive. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it, but I want to frame this
through talking about the three Rs. You guys all know the three Rs:
Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Have you ever thought about the fact that recycling is the third
of those three options? It should be your last resort. So if you’d like to save a lot of energy,
don’t use something in the first place. If you want to use, maybe,
a little more energy than that, maximize the life
of whatever you’re using, and reuse it when you are done. And then recycling, like I said,
should be your last resort. What follows is going to be
a very brief history of creative reuse. And I wanted to point out,
as we’re talking about creative reuse, that here in Humboldt Country,
we have an amazing reuse option, and that’s a new organization
called SCRAP Humboldt. So you should look up SCRAP Humboldt
and interact with them however you can. Let’s do a few terms first
to kind of set things out. Let’s define what recycling is. Recycling is the act of processing
used or abandoned materials for use in creating new products. So you have an aluminum can,
you melt the aluminum can down, you make a new aluminum can. Creative reuse, on the other hand, is the process of taking
used or recycled materials and turning them
into creative pieces of art, home decoration or other useful items. In thinking about creative reuse, we’re going to go all the way back
to the Ancient Greeks. And I wanted to give you a little example
about why recycling sucks from the point of view of art historians. That’s really what the “recycling sucks”
is about as the title of this lecture. In thinking about Ancient Greek sculptors,
their favorite material to use was bronze. Yet we only have a few examples
of Greek bronze sculptures left. And the reason that we only have
a few of these left is recycling. Most of those bronze sculptures
got melted down to make other sculptures, but more often than not, they got melted down
to make implements of war: spears, shields, helmets – like this. So all of the sculptures are lost to time,
in a way, because of war. In thinking about creative reuse and how something has been preserved
through creative reuse, you can start by thinking about Stonehenge
and other Neolithic cultures. But let’s talk about the Egyptians. In Ancient Egypt, most of you know
that the pharaohs had boundless ambitions. They loved to build huge monuments. Yet the materials
that were available to them, to build the monuments out of,
were fairly limited. So the two things often butted heads. So the solution was creative reuse. The Egyptian kings would wait for previous monuments to maybe
fall into a little bit of disrepair. They would declare eminent domain,
and they would knock them down, and they would use those pieces
to build their own monuments. This is a monument from Amenhotep III,
and it survived in Karnak. You can see bits of hieroglyphs
from other monuments recycled into the fabric of the building. But I want to introduce you to, perhaps, the unchallenged champions
of creative reuse in the ancient world. And that is the Romans. The Romans loved to reuse things and they reused them
for all sort of different wares. One of the main things
that they loved to reuse was the amphora. The amphora was sort of the 50-gallon drum
or the plastic bottle of its day. Olive oil or any liquid
used to come in an amphora. But because this is a ceramic bottle, they can’t exactly melt it down
and make a new amphora. So the solution is creative reuse. It costs too much to send amphoras back
to their original sources to fill them back up. So, the Romans, in their architecture,
loved to use concrete, and they would take amphoras, and they would embed them in the concrete
to make the concrete lighter, but still keeping the structure sound. This is the Mausoleum
of St. Helena, in Rome. All of the little pockmarks
that you see here are places where amphoras
were originally embedded. Archeologists love to look
at the reuse of amphoras. Here is an ancient well that has amphoras
that are all mortared together. This is actually a sarcophagus. Someone who didn’t have enough money
for a proper sarcophagus, their family presumably chopped
the tops and bottoms off of some amphorae and buried them in the ground in it. This actually comes from Pompeii. Archeologists discovered this,
and they were wondering why in the world someone
would have cut an amphora in half, put a hole in the top
and embedded it in a wall at waist height. They thought about it a little bit,
(Laughter) and they realized they were looking
at an ancient urinal. I’m going to lay a couple
of art-historical terms on you today, and they’re in conjunction
with the Romans. The first one is “damnatio memoriae.” If you were a Roman, the way that you lived forever
was by having other people remember you. So the worst thing
that you could do to a Roman was to remove them
from public remembrance. That’s what “damnatio memoriae” is. I’m going to give you an example, and this is an example
that is not creative reuse. This is the Emperor Septimius Severus. If you recall, Septimius Severus
left his empire to his two sons. This is Caracalla on the right
and Geta on the left. And by looking at this, I think you guys can all figure out
how this worked out for poor Geta. (Laughter) So, they inherit dad’s empire
and Caracalla immediately has Geta killed. Not only that, but he
declares a “damnatio memoriae,” and he has all of Geta’s images removed. And I can really almost imagine
Caracalla’s baggage here and imagine him with the chisel
sort of going to here and say, “Mama always liked you best.
Mama always liked you best.” And you’ve got to really really
really hate your brother to go through painstakingly removing him
from thousands and thousands of coins. (Laughter) But with “damnatio memoriae,” sometimes creative reuse
came to the rescue. When there was a bad emperor –
and there were a lot of bad emperors – sometimes the Romans
would take their sculptures, and they would recarve them
into the sculptures of later emperors. This sometimes led to a few
hinky details with the sculptures. Strange hairstyles, strange head shapes,
strange features, mismatched ears. In the case of this one – by the way, this is Caligula
and it was recarved into Claudius – they recarved the head, and they found out
that it was way too small for the body, so the solution was to cut the head off
and match it up with some other body. And that was the way
that it was preserved. By the 3rd century,
things got really crazy. This is actually
another statue of Caligula that had sat around
for a couple of hundred years, and it was recarved
into a later Roman military leader. One of the telltale signs
with some of these recarved statues is that on the original statues,
the beard sat on top of the face, as it should. In the recarved statues, they would just
hack the beard right into the face to try to save space. Here is another one
that art historians really love. This is the word “spolia,” or spoils. Spolia is the modern
art-historical term used to describe the reuse of earlier building materials
or decorative sculptures on new monuments. Looking around Eureka,
and particularly where I live, there’s a lot of “spolia”
on the outside of buildings. But the textbook example
is the Arch of Constantine. This was consecrated in the year 315 CE, but the interesting thing
about the Arch of Constantine is that Constantine
had it frankensteined together from the monuments
of 2nd-century Roman leaders. Art historians love to debate
why he did this. Was he just cheap? Was he lazy? Were the sculptors of his era
not up to his standards? Or was something else going on? That “something else” is something that everyone who embraces
creative reuse really knows: that everything that you reuse
comes with its own story. And so, Constantine perhaps grasped that all these things
that he was taking from other emperors came with their own story, and therefore reflected
on his magnificence. These are a couple of roundels, and they were taken from a monument
from the Emperor Hadrian. Constantine’s sculptors
painstakingly took out the faces and recarved Constantine’s face
into the face on these. You can see how the classical sculpture
of Hadrian’s Era doesn’t quite match up with the slightly stranger sculpture
of Constantine’s Era. The Romans weren’t the only culture
to embrace creative reuse, of course. Islamic cultures a lot of the time
embraced creative reuse. This is from the Mosque
of Al-Aqsa, in Jerusalem. It was made out of a common material
that was left around Jerusalem, and that was spolia, pieces of marble,
left behind by the crusaders. India is another place
where you can find Islamic creative reuse. This comes from the Mughal dynasty. This is the Qutb Minar;
it’s outside of Delhi, in India. This is the world’s largest
free-standing brick minaret, and it is made out
of 27 different Hindu temples. The Great Mosque of Córdoba, in Spain. A lot of people in textbooks love
to point to the fact that the columns in the mosque are reused
from an earlier Christian building, but not everybody knows
that archeologists think that there was a Roman temple
on this site, or near this site. It was knocked down, and parts of that were
reused for the Christian church, which was then knocked down
to make the mosque. And of course, Spain
didn’t remain under Islamic control; so, when another Christian group arrived, rather than knocking down
the Great Mosque, they simply plopped a Christian basilica
right into the middle of the prayer hall. Roman jewelry is something that gets reused a lot
during the Middle Ages as well. During the Middle Ages,
there wasn’t quite as much gem mining, and there wasn’t as much gem carving. So the answer was
to take all bits of Roman jewelry and reuse them any way
that they could be reused. This is the Lothair Cross;
it’s in Aachen, in Germany. It was donated by Otto III, the Emperor,
and it was made around 1000 CE. This is a really strange Christian cross because instead of, in the middle of it,
seeing an image of Jesus, we see an image of Augustus,
the Roman emperor. What Otto’s thought process
might have been was a synthesis of different things. Synthesizing the image of Christ, the magnificence of Otto himself,
and the magnificence of the Roman Empire. Of course, this was during the period
of the Holy Roman Empire. Another even stranger cross
is the Herimann Cross. This also comes from Germany. On this Christian cross, we do see
an image of Christ in the middle of it, but instead of having Christ’s normal,
would be golden face here, we have a face that’s taken from a Roman lapis lazuli sculpture
of the Empress Livia. Her face has been cut off
and put onto the face of Christ, presumably to amp up
the value of this piece. As I was putting this lecture together, I confess I was working on this
during Halloween, and I started thinking about skulls
and the way that skulls are reused. We always hear of people drinking from the skulls
of their vanquished enemies. I know I like to. (Laughter) Lord Byron actually kept a skull
around his house, and when he would have
a really wild party, they’d wind up drinking from that skull
at the end of the night. But I don’t have examples of any
of those skulls that I can show you; instead, I’m going to show you
a more gentile example. In Tibetan Buddhism,
they have objects called “kapalas.” These are the skulls of monks
that have been cleaned and dried, and offerings can be left in them. Another major realization that I had was that when I was thinking about
and doing all of this research, I realized something
that comes as second nature to anyone who is older in this audience. And that is that
as a culture, as a society, we can’t even hold a candle to the things
that the World War II generation did, just a few generations older than us. The amount of things
that were recycled and reused are almost beyond our comprehension. Here’s a poster on the left for a salvage drive
for paper, rags and bones. And on the right,
this is from Vogue Knitting. Vouge Knitting during World War II was encouraging people to take apart
and unravel their knitwear, re-dye it, clean it up
and knit it into new things. The final thing that I want
to talk to you today about is also from World War II, and it surrounds a German group
called Der Deutsche Werkbund. The Werkbund was
a group of German designers who embraced good design, clean design. They actually went to the trouble
of putting together kits that they would send out to schools
to teach German kids about good design, instead of bad design like cuckoo clocks,
the nemesis of the Werkbund. (Laughter) After World War II, materials in Germany
were in very, very short supply, so Der Deutsche Werkbund embraced
the only thing that they really could do, which was creative reuse. They used lots of materials
that were left over from the war, and they recycled them into housewares, they reused them into housewares. Here are some strainers
made of the filters from gas masks. Candle holders made
from the same gas mask filters. These are actually shell casings;
they have been enameled and turned into water pots
and cooking pots. The final thing
that I’m going to show you I think is karmic payback
for all of the years that artists have been having
their things taken away from them and recycled into goods
that are going to war efforts. This is a German helmet; it’s been enameled,
and it’s had a handle added to it, and it’s been turned into a pot. It’s not a cooking pot. (Laughter) I can only imagine
that while this thing was being used, I hope that the person using it
sort of grasped the symbolism of using it, remarking on the futility of war
every time that it was used. And my other hope is
that every time that thing was used, somewhere, one of those recycled Greek sculptures got a little smile. (Laughter) Thank you. (Applause)

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20 Replies to “Recycling Sucks! The History of Creative Reuse: Garth Johnson at TEDxEureka”

  1. It should be mentioned that Ancient Greece's statues (bronze and marble) and monuments were mainly "recycled" not by Ancient Greeks but by the good christians… In Ancient Greece it wasn't accepted to melt statues dedicated to Gods. But even in the case this happened in order to create weapons and armors it can't be considered a lifestyle recycling but a survival action.
    Of course re-using is much more convenient but recycling is inevitable considering nowadays mass production.

  2. I had a really nice bit about Christians throwing the nasty pagan Roman statues into lime kilns… but sadly, I had to cut it for time. Thanks for mentioning it!

  3. I am sure that you've heard of the predictive powers of ART. Perhaps that plastic chair [seen at the beginning of this video] could be manufactured directly from used Garbage containers. That is to say that if the art is the subconscious trying to figure these things out, then the next step would be to use them. Look up the reuse of Denim by the Levi's Company to make their own paper. We are looking into the apathy of USE THINKING. We are a creative species.
    The Earth used it first, right?

  4. Here's a Tedtalk that gets into this from another angle. Steven Johnson: Where good ideas come from. In it he talks about the use of car parts to make a "developing world infant incubator" very cool.

  5. I like your view but I find it a tad incomplete. The usefulness of trash is a band-aid on there being trash in the first place. Art is blindly feeling the problem through it expressions. Never even thinking of the result as an end. The eye is only see an end to the expression. Picasso wasn't trying to invent he was unconsciously attempting to explain- film and cinema to himself. [my opinion]
    We need to solve the problem anyway we can. That's why you feel anything at all about it.

  6. Regarding your photo… That's an expression. The creation of a real world object for the sole purpose of evoking, so forgive that.
    Now for the rest. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. The artistic expression is feeling it's way to something. -Some of the first flying machines- Desperately trying to relieve the burden of something that is gnawing at them. Everything after that is an invention of a third party. -Rockets to the moon from a Novel-

  7. Is it not better as art than landfill clutter? Besides it can be simpler. Any can make art. Engineering isn't a basic school subject. I wish it were. When everything's mass produced, why teach people how to make useful things they could buy for cheap? Or why go through the effort, for that matter.

  8. I have been trying to implement upcycleing and reuse from my privet back yard and the city put me out of business ( competition ) . The big guys get jealous if you divert any of their recycle business See .youtube com/watch?v=HqYdUb2T78g

  9. Happy with muslim "cultures" reusing other people's temple materials? It should be a shame. I do not think they just "recovered" the reused waste, more like they "created" it

  10. Hey Garth! Great video. I am using it as a teaching tool for my art class and our recycled art project. BTW, I am from Eureka (in Thailand now) and met you and your wife years ago at a baby shower at your house. Keep up the good work.

  11. I think you had a very limited thought before saying so much about recycling. I want you to understand that most of the resources where recycled throughout the ancient period in India in every way.

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