Last night, I had the chance to see Robin Nagle give a talk at Ohio Wesleyan University. The title of her presentation was “The Gift of Garbage: Ethnographic Curiosities of Waste, Value, and Infrastructure,” which drew from her on-going research with the Department of Sanitation in New York City. In the first half of the talk, she focused on understanding waste through anthropological theorizations of gift exchange, describing the contemporary production of garbage as “a passive form of competitive exchange” and a type of “inverted potlatch.” She shifted gears in the second part of her presentation, and asked us to help her solve a puzzle. She then showed us what she referred to as the “Molina Collection.”
Around 20 years ago, Nelson Molina, a New York City sanitation worker, began picking out items from the garbage that caught his eye. Eventually, Molina’s pickings developed into a veritable collection, a museum of sorts, that was housed in the Sanitation Department garage. Nagle shared images of the collection: rows of old polaroid cameras, dozens of furbies neatly aligned on shelves, old sports pennants, super hero dolls–an endless array of fascinating little things that told us about the history of New York and its people.
Similar to “folk art,” some people have described this as “folk curation.” Molina didn’t receive formal training in curatorial studies, but nonetheless, he had developed his own understanding of what it could be. And he had a distinctive vision for what fit into his collection and what didn’t.
Nagle explained that it is illegal for sanitation workers to collect anything from the garbage in New York. The city—in pondering his case—responded that he hadn’t taken any of the items home so he hadn’t broken the law. But following Molina’s recent retirement, the question remained of what the Department of Sanitation should do with the collection. At first, they had considered throwing it in the garbage! “Then calmer minds prevailed” Nagle said, and they began to consider other alternatives. Some suggested selling it on Ebay. Others questioned whether the collection should be broken up at all. Could it be moved and housed somewhere else? What would it be called? Could it be part of the Sanitation Museum of NYC that is now in the works?
So Nagle’s puzzle for us was: what to do with the collection? And how does garbage destined for the incinerator become something else? How does it develop affective registers that clearly strike the people who visit it?
This got my mind going. And I thought about the film Benjamin Button. A reviewer (A.O. Scott?) had explained that the emotional impact of that film–of watching Brad Pitt age in reverse–was not so much about seeing a young Brad Pitt again, but rather revisiting memories of a young Brad Pitt, which took us back to the places where we had been when we first saw him in A River Runs Through It or Thelma and Louise. The magic of Benjamin Button was that in seeing a younger Brad Pitt, we saw a younger version of ourselves. It was a bittersweet nostalgia. And we felt it.
But then, thinking more about Molina’s collection, I saw that it was not just about our feelings of nostalgia. Nagle described him as a very generous person, perhaps even overly generous. If he was asked to do a task, he always did it with care and consideration.
It then became clearer what his collection was about, and why it impacted people. At its core, it was about human care. The collection could even be seen as a museum of human care.
When we throw something away, or discard it, we are committing a fundamentally careless act. We are demonstrating that we longer have concern for the object or any affective ties to it. In capturing things that had been discarded carelessly, Nelson Molina took garbage–which is an undifferentiated mass of objects–and recognized the singularity of those individual objects. In doing so, he made them live again– he reanimated them. And from what I heard Nagle say about him, it seems that people who visited the collection could sense the care he put into his work and into the project of curation. They could sense that moral dimension possessed by objects once discarded that were cared for again, and that struck them.
A lingering question hung with me: How do we continue to care for things in a world that seems to accelerate out of control–an endless stream of things for which we have no greater capacity for care than when the stream began to pick up steam?