‘Live at the Dump’ turns trash into art

Where some see trash, others see art.

When the Northeast Philadelphia recycling center Revolution Recovery and the nonprofit Recycled Artist in Residency (RAIR) program opened its gates June 12 for the debut of Live at the Dump, their goal was to offer a unique perspective on the creative process for artist and audience alike.

RAIR’s co-founder and director Billy Dufala and debut Dump performer, Martha McDonald, fashioned a new live venue from rubble, refuse and stone.

The pair’s performances June 12 and 19 will be followed up with Live at the Dump’s next event on Sunday, June 26, when sculptor Tom Sachs and Creative Time artistic director Nato Thompson discuss the axis of trash and art with a barbecue following their chat.

“We are imbedded in an active construction and demolition waste recycling facility, in a huge cement yard surrounded by mountains of broken drywall, rubble and twisted metal,” says opera singing performance artist Martha McDonald of the mix of construction material and demolition trash – the personal flotsam of one’s life with memories attached.

“There is humor and pathos there, which is pretty much what it’s like at the dump,” said McDonald.

Dufala said their mission was to create awareness about sustainability through art and design.

“We do this by putting artists in the middle of a waste stream that most people outside of the trash industry will never see. We make it visible in alternative ways; make people confront it with a different perspective, from both outside and inside the industry,” he said.

Lucia Thomé, RAIR’s Director of Special Projects, says the central reason they make art at, and from Revolution Recovery and bring audiences to see it is to discover where their trash goes and how it is recycled, literally and figuratively.

“Most people have never been to a recycling center or dump,” says Thomé. “No finger wagging or preaching about how we could or should be less wasteful.”

Thomé and Dufala have been working with Revolution Recovery since 2010, introducing other artists to the sites and permitting them to create work built from scratch and trash.

A 2015 grant from Pew Center for Arts & Heritage helped RAIR figure out new ways of bringing audiences to the site. Having McDonald – a legendarily site-specific artist – perform her “Songs of Memory and Forgetting” in the trash heap made for a stunning, apt display of artist and setting.

She strolled through trash she collected for the sake of poignancy and led the audience pf about 200 through the cement yard, singing and activating objects with the audience behind her, moving through the trash-lined space, Dufala and Thomé worked the heavy equipment – tractors, cranes – choreographed like dancers.

“What’s unique about this is that performance is not just being researched and inspired by the contents and physical workings of the dump, but it is actually being staged in the dump,” says McDonald. “I’ve been making almost exclusively site-specific projects over the past 10 years but they were usually in historic sites, beautiful ones. The dump is neither historic nor romantic. It is dirty and exposed to the elements and in a constant state of flux because 400 tons of materials move through and out of there every day. It can be harsh but also amazing.”

McDonald says audiences for additional Live at the Dump events will find it challenging to stand within a “windswept, concrete yard surrounded by piles of rubble and twisted metal” but they will also experience moments of magic, beauty and sadness.”The site is so powerful and evocative of the impermanence of life and the passage of time,” says McDonald.

Sunday, June 26, performances at 3:30 p.m., Free. RAIR at Revolution Recovery, 7333 Milnor Street. Philadelphia. Information: www.rairphilly.org

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