At the Dump, an Artist in Residence
RACHEL MARTIN: Have you ever looked at a work of art and thought to yourself, that thing is a piece of garbage? Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing, certainly not at the Nor. Cal. Waste artist-in-residence program. That's right, you heard right. It's a residency at the San Francisco dump. Since 1990, SF Recycling & Disposal has offered up its piles of refuse to artists to do with what they please, hopefully make some art out of it. Paul Cesewski is just finishing up his four-month residency now. He joins us on the line from the dump studio. Hi, Paul.
Mr. PAUL CESEWSKI (Artist in Residence, San Francisco Recycling & Disposal, Inc.): Hi. Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: So, all the components of your pieces are found objects that you actually find in the dump, right?
Mr. CESEWSKI: Yes. These are all stuff that's coming through San Francisco's waste stream. I have access to, you know, every garage getting cleared out that comes through the dump. And a lot of small businesses, you know, that come here to get rid of their waste, a lot of construction materials, a lot of metal, a lot of pipe, and all the stuff is what people are throwing out. And I'm kind of picking through it, and pulling - I'm not looking for, you know, the Kewpie dolls or the objet or anything, I'm looking for parts to build these machines.
MARTIN: Now, be honest, Paul. If you are in the middle of this really intricate project, and you're just missing, like, this three-quarter-inch lead bolt to fasten the whole thing together, no one's looking. You could just run over to Home Depot. It's just down the street.
Mr. CESEWSKI: Well, it's part of the residency here that we make it all out of junk. So I'm forced to, you know, go out and look again. And so, yeah, everything that is made here is made from public disposal here.
MARTIN: So let's talk a little bit about your pieces. There's definitely an element of fun and play in what you make, right?
Mr. CESEWSKI: Yes. Fun is a universal language. And I think that it's a really good way to tell people that your refuse is not necessarily something that can't be had fun with, or repurposed.
MARTIN: Let's talk about some of the pieces that were the hit of the show. What's something that was really popular, that people really got a kick out of?
Mr. CESEWSKI: People really got a kick out of the cyclone, which is a pedal-powered ball drop. So, people liken it to Mousetrap.
Mr. CESEWSKI: And it's kind of this ball drop, and the ball runs on a track. And then the people - it gets to the bottom and then the people pedal a stationary bike that has a generator on it. And I made the generator out of a wheelchair motor. And that wheelchair motor powers another wheelchair motor that operates the conveyer. And the conveyer takes the basket up on a bicycle chain, and drops it at the top of the run. And it does a drop down to the bottom, and it rings bells and makes a whole lot of racket.
MARTIN: That is so cool. I love the game Mousetrap, so I can imagine a real-life interpretation of that would be really fun. Now, interactivity, you say that it requires an actual human being to sit down on that bike and use their power to let the game run its course. Is interactivity something you've always used in your artwork? Or just specifically related to this residency program?
Mr. CESEWSKI: Yeah, that's something I've been playing with for a very long time. Oftentimes, people will reveal a little bit of who they are through how they interact with the machine.
MARTIN: I live down the street from the Museum of Modern Art here in Manhattan. It's a very different experience, I imagine.
Mr. CESEWSKI: Yeah, when you get that one-on-one experience of actually animating the sculpture, it becomes a different thing. And I had another piece called the Bicycle Rim Shot, so people get up on the Bicycle Rim Shot, and they tell a joke. And the joke, the joke that a person chooses usually is kind of revealing about their personality, and you know, it gives them the rim shot. The timing can be all wrong and it's still funny.
MARTIN: And - wait, am I not understanding how this works? The machine can actually - is responding? What the machine does is a product of the joke the person has told?
Mr. CESEWSKI: The machine does not have a funny sensor. But people animate it by pedaling it, so they pedal it, and then there's a gearbox that makes it turn really slowly. So it's the little - it's not super predictable when the rim shot's going to happen.
Mr. CESEWSKI: So you try and, you know, time your joke to the machine.
MARTIN: I understand.
Mr. CESEWSKI: And usually, the timing's off, and it's still funny.
MARTIN: What comes first? Do you have an idea of what you want to make, and then you go out and procure the necessary ingredients? Or do you just go kind of generally scavenging, and you found something that you're inspired by?
Mr. CESEWSKI: Usually when I go scavenging, and I have something in mind, it won't show up. So my method was to just get a critical mass of stuff at first. So when I first came here I was just pulling, you know, cartload after cartload into the studio, until I had a great pile. And the things I find, some of the things I found were inspirational, like a shot-put, you know, for the ball drop, and like, you know, some nice pieces of old lawn furniture for some nice curves in that. But a lot of it was, you know, made from short pieces, because there aren't a whole lot of long - you know, anything here at the dump. It's all little chunks of whatever I find, and then I, you know, I did a lot of welding to make short pieces into long pieces.
MARTIN: What's the most bizarre thing you've ever found out there?
Mr. CESEWSKI: I found a microwave onion cooker. You're supposed to put your onion in it, and it increases the efficiency of your microwave.
MARTIN: Did that make its way into one of your pieces?
Mr. CESEWSKI: Nope, that was one that just confused me though, that was the most befuddling of all the things I found here. It was like, who's cooking their onion in a microwave?
MARTIN: No one, because they threw it away, apparently.
Mr. CESEWSKI: Right.
MARTIN: Some of this is about learning to use things in different ways. It's about recycling and coming up with ingenious ways to take something you might think is refuse, and repurposing it, right?
Mr. CESEWSKI: Yeah, well, that's kind of the point here, is to take it all and you know, you make two pieces of junk into one piece of junk, or one piece of art. So think of those things you're throwing away, because it's not going - where is away, anyway? Because if it's not getting melted down and reused for anything, it's going right into the landfill.
Being here at the dump has really ruined my shopping experience. I go in to shop, and I find that, you know, it's all the same stuff. People are buying new stuff and throwing their old stuff away, and being down here for this long has you know, really blurred the difference between the junk and the new things we purchase.
MARTIN: Paul Cesewski, he is the artist in residence at the Nor. Cal. Waste artist-in-residence program in San Francisco, and he joins us on the line from the San Francisco dump. Hey, Paul, thanks very much. We appreciate you coming on and sharing with us about your work.
Mr. CESEWSKI: Thank you, Rachel.
MARTIN: I've got to say, I like dumps.
PESCA: Do you?
MARTIN: Yeah, I do. When I was little, going to the dump was a big deal. it was a big field trip. We'd get all dressed in our overalls. I'm making myself sound like a bit of a hick.
PESCA: Budget cuts in the Idaho Falls school district?
MARTIN: My dad made up a song.
PESCA: How'd that song go?
(Soundbite of humming "William Tell Overture")
MARTIN: And then we'd all pile in the trunk and take stuff to the dump.
PESCA: So your dad was Rossini, is what you're saying? The "William Tell Overture," your dad said, I wrote that?
MCKINNEY: They said that they sing that same song.
PESCA: And the song that you sing before the baseball games, did your dad take credit for that one?
MARTIN: Wait, he did write that.
PESCA: Rockets' red glare? And that was him, too?
MARTIN: He didn't write that?
MARTIN: Oh, we've managed to do it again. Now I sound like Car Talk. This is another hour of the BPP. We're online all the time at npr.org/bryantpark.
PESCA: Don't drive like my co-host. I'm Mike Pesca.
MARTIN: Don't drive like my co-host. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.