As artist Michael Arcega sorted through a mountain of disordered garbage and inhaled massive amounts of dust, he kept only the most sentimental items: a framed photo of a wide-eyed dog, a fully packaged Matrix VHS tape and an obscene amount of unopened wine bottles. While these items were once considered too mundane to keep, they are the inspiration behind Arcega’s immersive installation, revealing that one’s man trash is another man’s treasure.
Arcega was one of six individuals chosen for the Artist in Residence Program at the recycling and waste company, Recology San Francisco. Arcega began working on the project in February, but his curiosity for recycling and reusing materials spawned at an early age.
“So I guess this whole concept has always been in the back of my mind,” Arcega said. “When I was in elementary school and they asked you what you want to be when you grew up, I said I wanted to tap the resources in the dumps because I knew that methane and tons of resources were coming out that could be harnessed and reused to mine the dumps.”
The artist will continue to rummage through the dump areas at the recycling yard until the May 22 debut of his exhibit proposal, which explores the meaning behind what the things people discard.
Since beginning the residency with Recology San Francisco, the Stanford graduate has consciously tried to distance himself from the former owners of the reused items and the overall American culture. The theme of his exhibit will center around the given anadrome ‘Nacirema’ to create a fictional realm where the discarded items stand on their own instead of for what they were previously utilized.
“The overall project is based on an anthropologist named Horace Miner, he wrote about the ‘Nacirema,’ which (spelled) backward is American,“ Arcega said. “I’m trying to make things about, for and maybe from the Naciremans, so it’s a kind of fiction; there is a little room for play in there.”
The curator for the Artist in Residence program and SF State alumna Sharon Spain said she saw Arcega’s exhibit proposal as a possible look into society and how it is identified through discards.
“I think Michael’s work dealing with the concept of the ‘Nacirema’ is really a perfect fit for this residency,” Spain said. “It’s a strangely democratic reflection of the community at large.”
The residency program will provide the sculptor and installation artists with a studio, a monthly stipend and unlimited access to the dump area for materials. In addition to the time dedicated to the program, Arcega will also teach three classes at SF State and has recently debuted three pieces in the on-campus exhibit Hydarchy: Power, Globalization and the Sea.
Program director of the Artist in Residence Program and SF State alumna Deborah Munk aided Arcega’s search for hidden gems in the vast hoards of unusable appliances and family albums.
“(Michael) is wonderful to work with, very smart and dedicated artist and I think a little overworked too,” Munk said.
Arcega said his work for the residency does more than create an immersive experience through reused materials; the project poses as a philosophical aspect for the artist to explore and to ask questions.
“There is a kind of memory that accompanies the objects and you can kind of create narratives around how a person lives their lives through what they throw out,” Arcega said. “That’s one of the perks– that you get to go through the debris of the culture you participate in.”
Since 1990, the Artist in Residence Program has given Bay Area artists access to create pieces with discarded materials through their unique art and education program. The recovery resource company hopes to encourage individuals to reuse and reapply materials in order to create and promote the innovative ways of thinking about the environment.
“I think the project that he’s working on is a completely different take on working with reused materials,” Munk said. “Nobody has ever even suggested anything like that and I think it’s a very specific project that will incorporate the materials in a different way.”
Arcega begins each visit to the dump with his hardhat, a shopping cart and with no expectations of what finds he will uncover that day. After 20 minutes of rummaging, the artist said he could end up not using any of the things he found or using them all. For Arcega, the search is not just about the materials he finds but about the cultural significance they hold.
“Art is more of a philosophical endeavor (for me),” Arcega said. “Its posing questions, exploring and being inquisitive – it’s a philosophy in objects.”