Ash Keating’s Activate 2750 was a temporary installation that took place in the Western Sydney suburb of Penrith (postcode 2750) during March 2009. The work comprised ten tons of waste that the artist arranged to have diverted from the Davis Road Transfer Station by SITA Environmental Solutions. Surrounded by two fences, the installation of industrial detritus was positioned in the front lawn of the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, a prominent part of Penrith’s city centre. By situating his confronting and monumental mound of waste near the local Westfield shopping centre, Keating aimed to address unsustainable modes of consumption and raise awareness with regard to waste management.
In addition to the waste installation, Activate 2750 also entailed a series of performances. Over four nights, Keating and local choreographers and performers paraded across town, starting (for example) at the Westfield shopping centre and ending at the Sutherland Centre. During the parades the group donned spectacular and colourful costumes fashioned from the installation’s waste, and pushed “mobile sculptures”—shopping trolleys brimming with more waste. All aspects of the work were documented. The subsequent video installation was shown at an exhibition of Keating’s work, Activate 2750, at Breenspace gallery in Sydney in 2009.
Aesthetic/Visual: With its diversion of a mass of industrial and consumer waste to Penrith’s city centre, Activate 2750 aimed to raise public awareness and debate with regard to unsustainable consumer practices. Keating observed:
Local people will question this as being more of a pile of waste than an art project—and they are right in thinking this because the aim of the exercise is to replicate a small pile of what are thousands of these types of piles being created and compacted daily in landfill around the country.
Innovation: By collaborating with SITA (which initiated the project in collaboration with C3West (for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney)), Activate 2750 aligns itself with an emerging field of art practice that aims to forge new models of public education in collaboration with business. Other such projects include Jeanne van Heeswijk’s Talking Trash: Personal Relationships with Waste, 2008. (Talking Trash is also a C3West project completed in collaboration with the international Environmental Services company Veolia.)
Social Activation/Debate: In Activate 2750, Keating aimed to generate debate and awareness with regard to the nexus of consumerism and waste. He says:
Everyone is implicated, including myself, in being part of this type of society […] Being able to bring this project to Sydney’s west is a way for me to be able to open up a dialogue about the way in which we live.
Community Development: Activate 2750 is part of a larger project initiated by the MCA’s program, C3West. It aims to mobilise cultural innovation, and raise community awareness with regard to sustainability, in Sydney’s western suburbs through contemporary art.
Waste Reduction and Management: Activate 2750’s diversion of waste was temporary. It was all returned to SITA’s transfer station at Wetherill Park following the project. In this sense, it did not aim to directly intervene in waste management systems, to re-distribute, for example, waste for recycling or upcycling. Rather, it aimed to alter consumer behaviour by bringing the public into closer proximity with its landfill and waste.
OUTCOMES & IMPACTS
Methods of Evaluation
During the project, researchers from the Centre for Cultural Research at the University of Western Sydney measured the public’s reaction through interviews. These reactions spoke to the key cultural, social and environmental aims of the project. Some viewers were unconvinced by the work:
It’s a joke! It’s the biggest load of rubbish I’ve ever seen. I’m English, and it reminds me of the fifth of November. Where’s the Guy? I think it’s a load of crap. Excuse my English. It is rubbish. Anyone who thinks that’s art is nuts. That’s my view. Doesn’t do anything for me. Maybe for somebody else? – Male Penrith resident.
I’m a bit confused. Like, I get conceptual art because I study art at school. But I can’t see a message behind it. Like, it looks alright. I like the stick things coming out. It’s sort of hard to grasp. – Female school student.
Others were appreciative of Activate 2750’s aims:
I wouldn’t exactly call a pile of trash ‘art’, but raising community awareness is always tops in my books. – Male Penrith resident.
Oh, I think it’s fantastic. I think any kind of artwork is great for the area. And especially [art like] this to raise people’s awareness of what we’re actually putting in landfill, and what’s not going to decompose, and what’s going to stay there for thousands of years or whatever. So we have to be aware of that sort of thing. And I think this is fabulous. – Female Penrith resident.
Recognising the potential of the materials embedded within Keating’s waste pile, two tradesmen commented: “We could reuse just about everything in there.”
Reflecting on the project’s impact, Ash Keating’s assistant Rus Kitchin observed:
I suppose all of the responses, really, were valid. The project hit a chord and certainly questioned a lot of people’s notions of just what is acceptable in a civic space. We seem okay with the creation of waste daily, but just not [with] being reminded of this.
As the public response demonstrates, the project was successful in mobilising a discourse around consumerism, landfill and the in/visibility of waste.
In 2002, Ash Keating began working at his mother’s waste audit and consultancy company, visually assessing the amount of commercial and industrial waste sent to landfill. “This experience,” explains Keating, “opened my eyes to the disregard that industry in general has for sustainability.” Deeply informed by his mother’s work as an environmental activist, Keating began to create a series of inter-related projects addressing landfill and consumer waste, namely 2020? (May 2008) and Label Land (August 2008). Crucially, for 2020?, Keating recruited the environmental solutions company SITA to divert a mass of waste to Melbourne’s Meat Market (an arthouse/cultural venue), enabling Keating to create a large-scale site-specific installation.
In October 2008 the Museum of Contemporary Art’s C3West invited Keating, and other contemporary artists, to submit competitive proposals for a project that could address unsustainable waste practices in the Western Sydney suburb of Penrith, and that could work in collaboration with SITA Environmental Solutions. SITA manages three waste management sites in Western Sydney, and wanted to work with C3West and the MCA in order to raise awareness of its work in the local community.
To prepare his proposal, Keating travelled to Penrith numerous times throughout November 2008. He concluded that, like many other suburbs, “Penrith is a consumption Mecca swamped by superstore complexes and an enormous shopping plaza. The centre of the city is marked by the Penrith City Council, the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre and Westfield shopping centre.” He envisaged that he could ‘activate’ these key public spaces and commercial areas by bringing them into closer proximity with the area’s waste and landfill that is usually located out of sight (and mind) at the SITA landfill in Kemps Creek.
During its planning stages, Activate 2750 encountered a series of challenges. The work was originally intended to be a much larger-scale project than its final manifestation. It had to be scaled down because the large waste trucks required to execute such a project would have damaged Penrith’s infrastructure, for example its footpaths and underground cabling. Moreover, the project faced significant bureaucratic and occupational health and safety (OH&S) challenges. Keating recalls:
Dumping a pile of waste in a city centre sounds straightforward, however various members of Council, people in business, local artists and students along with safety requirements had to be addressed. Every day, after returning from salvaging waste, we would work through the day co-ordinating these various and ever-changing components. Part way through the project we were made aware that the pile would require containment by a fence for safety reasons. We decided to work with it by placing a second fence within it, creating a rat run. This idea helped in creating an apocalyptic zoological habitat.
IMPACTS OF ARTWORK PRODUCTION
What consideration went into the selection of materials? Was an effort made to source materials that were more sensitive to the environment, or to measure the environmental impacts of the construction and maintenance of the work, in terms of:
- energy use in operation and construction?
Certainly using three large trucks to transport the material 20 kilometres, both at the start and the end of the installation project, could be seen as a fairly strong footprint as art projects go. There was also delivery and removal of a large temporary fence that would encase the installation, and there were indeed a few evenings where a petrol-generated lighting tower and generator were used as well. While the overall footprint for this project was measured, these items that are mentioned are seen in the documentation process and are not something that has been deliberately hidden behind the curtain. Throughout the project and its documentation the energy use in operation, construction and deconstruction is exposed as part of the process and the work.
- travel during the construction phase?
For the duration of this project I stayed at an Arts Residency in St. Mary’s, located a 10-minute drive from Penrith. There were also several Melbourne to Sydney flights. Being from interstate, I was very fortunate to be able to stay at St. Mary’s for around one month to prepare and then present the project. My assistant stayed with me also, and we drove a car most days, be it to the waste transfer station for the first two weeks of material collecting or to Penrith leading into and during the days that the presentation took place. There were some collaborators involved who lived close by. Most drove short distances, took public transport or rode a bike.
- embodied energy and other life-cycle impacts of the materials used?
The materials used ranged from timber pallets to fabric, cardboard, timber, hard plastics, rolls of paper, rubber belting, and the list goes on. Actually there was a range of materials selected to reveal exactly what is being deemed waste and not worth or capable of being recycled, and to create awareness that these are important resources. While the various materials were not categorised or singled out during the project, they were highly visible within the installation.
Was there any innovation in the use of materials or processes that were more environmentally friendly than their alternatives?
Of course. The 50 tonnes of materials that were used were all recycled and re-used.
Is the environmental footprint of the work in keeping with the aims and intent of the artwork?
Yes, everything was done that was necessary and that we were capable of managing at the time. To be honest it would be impossible or otherwise extremely costly to be able to create a project of the magnitude of Activate 2750 with little or no footprint. When I think of a project like this I think of the saying ‘sometimes you have to spend money to make money,’ and I feel that in a way sometimes you have to spend energy to make it back in the long run. Actually the project could well have picked up some carbon credits if I had found places for all the materials that were saved from going to landfill, but actually part of the project was to show the hidden truth through the photo and video documentation: to show these materials being compacted in a transfer station and being sent to landfill.
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Angeloro, Dominique. “Interview with Ash Keating.” Artist Profile 9 (October, 2009).
Barkley, Glenn. “Betwixt Art + Rubbish: Activate 2750.” Activate 2750. Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2009.
Barikin, Amelia. “Time Shrines: Melancholia and Mourning in the Work of Ash Keating.” Discipline 2 (Autumn, 2012).
Blackall, Judith. Email correspondence with author, November 15, 2012. On file with author.
Keating, Ash. Activate 2750. http://activate-2750.blogspot.com.au/ (accessed December 8, 2012).
Keating, Ash. “Activate 2750.” Activate 2750. Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2009.
Keating, Ash. Email correspondence with author, December 7, 2012. On file with author.
Lalak, Alex. “Waste Not, Want Not.” Daily Telegraph, March 2, 2009.
Macgregor, Elizabeth Ann. “Introduction.” Activate 2750. Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2009.
Moncrieff, Abigail. “Mess We Create: Interview with Ash Keating and Rus Kitchin.” Activate 2750. Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2009.
Mudie, Ella. “Interview with Ash Keating.” Framelines 8 (May, 2009).
Activate 2750 is a C3West project in Penrith, Western Sydney in association with SITA Environmental Solutions. C3West is a long-term collaboration between the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; Penrith Performing & Visual Arts; Campbelltown Arts Centre, and Casula Powerhouse. The project is supported by the NSW Government through ArtsNSW and by the Australia Council, the Australian Government’s arts funding and advisory body, through its Community Partnerships.