Susan Coolen is okay with picking up your trash. In fact, picking up trash is part of her job as the 2013 City of Kitchener artist-in-residence. Susan’s artistic residency program is called the Litter-Arti Project and focuses on collecting litter found on Kitchener streets and turning it into art.
With her studio in downtown Kitchener, Susan was no stranger to finding litter on her adventures through the city and saw a way to create an art project that would transform how people saw litter, engage the public in an interesting conversation and build in an element of civic participation.
One of her projects is the cleverly entitled 50 Ways to Leave Your Litter. Through litter pick-up events on Kitchener’s streets, she has collected 50 examples of 50 distinct forms of litter (that’s 2500 pieces of trash!), and turned it into colourful and playful works of art, animated videos and books. Surprised litter could take so many forms? This is why we have artists to help us look at things we might take for granted and help us see it in a different light.
Some of the items are surprising: ear plugs, hub caps and wooden utensils, but for Susan some items illustrate the never-ending repetition of litter. Her interpretation is that we are constant consumers, yet are no different from most North American societies. What she does notice are trends. “There are patterns and habits of high school students in groups, office workers at lunch time, construction worker’s coffee consumption, city recycling schedules, and more,” says Susan. “It’s quite fascinating.”
Susan is a collector at heart and says the trickiest element of this project has been managing her own impulse to pick things up. “I have 2,500 items to work with,” she says. “But I still can’t help myself at times as I am either continually drawn to certain items or want to feed my need to tidy up the world,” she says.
There are several feature projects running as part of the residency, which include animated videos of her work (currently only available for viewing at City Hall), community activities and installation pieces she takes to public events or displays on King St. tree protection fences. “I have no doubt my exhibits will trigger new responses to litter on the street,” she says. “People are concerned about what to do with the amount of debris we generate. I hope people take note and delight in a form they had not noticed before, or pick something up and ensure it makes it into the recycling bin or the trash.”
How can you get involved? You can talk with Susan at the Waterloo Region’s Landfill tour and see her ‘carpet of litter’ on October 26 (call to reserve your spot). And of course you can (and should) check out the exhibits in and in front of Kitchener City Hall and follow Susan’s progress on her blog. And stay tuned for her post-residency project on road kill.
P.S. Susan’s favourite topic of conversation: the constant conversation she has with herself about the things that catch her eye and compel her to capture it visually.