Artists have used trash forever, but in a new Seattle residency, the dump is actually their studio.
This dump—okay, it's a recycling facility—has only been in South Seattle for two years. It's nicknamed "The Murph," because it's called MRF, or Material Recovery Facility, and it's owned by Recology CleanScapes, a recycling company that is based in San Francisco, where it runs a great artist residency program. When Recology Cleanscapes built the MRF in Seattle in 2014, it started supporting artists here, too, on site at its 75,000-square-foot facility.
Dakota Gearhart and Alexander Keyes were the recent artists chosen. Their work was only up for a night, in Flutter Studios, in Pioneer Square, because of venue logistics. But the program continues. A residency includes three months at the MRF with space to work, a stipend, and an exhibition.
What Gearhart and Keyes didn't expect is how inspiring an experience it would be just spending time in the MRF.
It's the place that receives and manages much of our recycling throughout King County.
"There are 50-foot tall piles of garbage and recycling," Keyes said, sounding like a kid recalling a dream.
"You can get so caught up in looking in there," Gearhart echoed, dreamily, too. "It has a beautiful paint job inside. Bright colors. There are so many vantage points—you climb up these staircases and look out over bulldozers shoving trash up these hills and the bulldozers are almost tipping over. You can open up peep holes and watch these things shoot out cans. There are magnets sorting. Huge piles of dust, dust piles huge like you've never seen. And you think, like, this is the plan?"
For her piece, Gearhart created photographic collages that hung on the walls, as well as a pulsing, glowing enclosure made of things people got rid of—shelving, a smashed monitor, stainless steel fly traps, and shredded paper reconstituted into charismatic gobs using collagen—the animal protein that goes into glue. Sometimes you could still make out the words "balance due" on a shredded bank statement. She focused on the psychology of waste, the way it may break down but never really goes away.
"It feels so good to throw something away, but then it comes down the line and some other person has to reach out and put it somewhere else, and—I don't know why I thought it was so mindblowing that what I throw away has to be dealt with," she said. "But that's part of the problem, right?"
Keyes built a monochrome monolith out of white packaging materials. "They're pure waste, a design flaw," Keyes said. He strung to it a cord and other stuff he found on site to make it look like a boat. The night of the show, the artist was surprised when people plugged their phones into the cord to charge them or play music. Well, use it for what it's used for, I guess.