Hi-Vis Invisibility: ReFashioning Waste and ReWriting the Progress Myth

close up of woman's face wearing a helmet with visor

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You peer inside yourself

You take the things you like

And try to love the things you took

-On the Radio, Regina Spektor

During some of my first visits to the transfer station, I was surprised at how alone I felt among everyone’s trash — heaps and piles of furniture, clothes, toys, building materials, brush, and debris. So this is where the displaced go, the once cherished personal effects. This is where things end up when you move, when you start over, when you die, when you grieve, when Goodwill won’t take it. In my home city of Portland, Oregon alone we send more than 2.4 million tons of waste to the landfill each year, and once we dump it, we hope to never see it again. That is, until I come along.

Last March I began an artist’s residency with GLEAN, which afforded exclusive access to the expected and unimaginable treasures hidden within the heaps and piles of the dump. It’s definitely not glamorous, but it was an adventure. My challenge lay in being scrappy — to make something out of nothing, or, more accurately, a few things out of a lot of things. I have always liked found and used materials, out of necessity and a favor towards the worn. What we toss out says just as much as what we decide to keep. So I asked specifically: how could clothing reflect this transience?

Very early in my exploration, I discovered a box of books in decent condition. Among those was Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild, a collection of essays on our relationship to ourselves, others, and the land. He describes “wild” as not the opposite of tame or civilized, but rather an individual or system that flourishes without interference. So, my initial question evolved to: how could clothing explore this idea of “wildness,” which many might reluctantly embrace or sever from their lives? Rather than perpetuate cycles of consumption and progress, how could the construction and style of the pieces demonstrate making our own choices and overcoming the difficulties we face? How might we reconnect with our desires for independence while using what’s available?

As The Dark Mountain Manifesto states: “The myth of progress is founded on the myth of nature. The first tells us that we are destined for greatness; the second tells us that greatness is cost-free […] Both tell us that we are apart from the world,” so that our story is one of how “people will cope with the crumbling of their own myth.” But we aren’t apart from the world, in fact, we are inextricably linked and that network calls for a better approach. When all we’re left with is detritus, we will have to create a new myth — a myth that is wary of consumption and adamant about overhauling systems and restructuring of our relationships.

My collection is made of pieced together bits of reflective safety gear, tents, athletic wear, and everyday fabrics. It simultaneously blends in and stand outs as a journey into the space where industry and the natural world collide, so that we may find ourselves in a future where everyone thrives.  

Photos by Kurt Lee Nettleton.

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