A Museum Where It's Okay to Trash the Art
Anyone who’s ever given a young child a gift knows that the present itself is often considered less exciting than the materials it came in. There’s bubble wrap to pop, wrapping paper to tear, and cardboard boxes that double as spaceships. What we as adults see as trash, kids reimagine as the building blocks for a new game or great adventure.
This idea of giving new life to garbage is the concept behind TRASH, the hands-on exhibit currently installed at the New Children’s Museum in San Diego. For TRASH, the museum commissioned 12 contemporary artists to create kid-friendly installations that explore the challenges and possibilities of waste. The main goal is to raise awareness about the impact of landfills and mass consumption, and the importance of re-using and recycling. But as kids touch, look, create, and play, they’re also learning how much fun art can really be. We spoke with Tomoko Kuta, the museum’s director of education and exhibits, about TRASH, and why drawing outside the lines should be encouraged.
NEA: Why is trash so appealing to kids?
TOMOKO KUTA: For kids, it’s one of those things that they learn about very quickly in life. You consume something, you buy something, you eat something, and then there’s that leftover wrapper, that leftover container, the thing it came in, and [throwing] it away is kind of a fun thing for very little kids. They learn about trash, they learn about recycling. It’s also a bit of a taboo thing: you take something that’s meant to be garbage and then we turn it into a work of art. It’s kind of twisting things around. It also helps us teach different ways of thinking about objects. For kids, it’s fun when they discover, “Hey, it’s not just for the trash. I’m going to turn it into a monster!” We have these great reused plastic sculpture-making workshops that are taking place right now in the museum.
NEA: You brought up a point I want to elaborate on: when does trash become art?
KUTA: It’s a very good question, because a lot of artists are focused on the idea, the concept, before the execution. So in their mind, looking at the materials---used trash, or used plastic---it’s a work of art as they’re thinking about what the project is going to be. Because kids are so literal, and they live in the moment, I think it’s as they pick up the materials that we provide in our workshops, and they start to transform them, either through connecting different pieces together or cutting them up into new shapes, that's when, for them, it turns into a work of art.
NEA: My guess is that most parents or educators wouldn't instinctually turn to art when thinking about how to talk to their children about waste, and trash, and recycling. Why does it work here?
KUTA: Our whole museum is focused on art and all the tentacles that go out from the word "art": what that means to different people, how it can be turned into something that's meaningful for society. So for us, it's just a natural way of dealing with a very important societal dilemma. We have this trash that we keep putting into landfills and our landfills are filling up. So we thought it would be a great opportunity to examine that through the eyes of artists. Artists are working with trash in very interesting ways. Kids are learning rules, but they're also still very flexible in their thinking. So if you say "Hey, you know, that milk jug is not just a milk jug, it can be a planter pot, or it can be the base of a robot," they're like "Oh, yeah!" and they gravitate to that without much pushing on our end. It really helps us expand and underscore what creativity means.
Visitors look at Pictures of Garbage by Vik Muniz. Photo by Philipp Scholz Ritterman
NEA: Can you tell me what you would like children to come away with from the exhibit, both in terms of their understanding of trash and recycling, and their understanding of art?
KUTA: We really want people to reexamine the world around them. We've got a play-on piece that's made from a giant dumpster. It has used tires as the climbing structure on to the top of the dumpster, and then from the top, you can come down this curling slide. It's brightly painted, it's all very clean, so no one would get dirty. But you can tell this is a dumpster, something you're not supposed to really play with, and these are used tires, something, again, we don't usually provide access to. So we want kids to immediately understand there are different ways of looking at things.
In terms of art, sometimes that message is a little bit harder. But we offer a lot of hands-on opportunities through our workshops. Our timed workshops are led by facilitators, and they focus of a particular artist that's on display right now. There's a discussion about it, and then there's a hands-on project related to the artwork. Our all-day art studios are places where anybody can come in at any time. Right now we have a junkyard set up, with an old vehicle and old tires and an old dog house. These are junk, trash, but you can paint on them. It's this large outdoor patio area, and there are giant buckets of paint and giant brushes. We pick a [different] color each day, so it's very bright and fun, and just another way to think about how art doesn't have to be on a piece of paper and it doesn't have to look like a tree or a landscape. It's really the creative process… We really want people to understand that art is accessible for all. You don't have to end up with a fantastic piece that you're going to frame or put up on a pedestal. It's the exploring, the taking risks that are involved with art that are important, and that help massage the flexible thinking, the creative thinking, the critical-thinking skills that we feel are really important in today's society.
NEA: For this exhibit specifically, did the artists create pieces that were geared towards children, or does their work in general tend to be more hands-on and appealing to kids?
KUTA: Our approach is to work with contemporary artists who have a recognized practice, and then we ask them to create something specifically for children. That's where the interesting challenge arises for us. We have artists like Kianga Ford and Shinique Smith who have never had to create specifically for a child audience. Our staff is very well experienced in materials, safety, engagement, and what makes sense for our visitors, so it becomes a dialogue between us and the artist. We want to make sure that we are respecting the artist’s intent, and that at the same time we are delivering something to our visitors that will be appreciated and well-used. We use the word "loved"---things that have been used and handled and touched and climbed on.
NEA: Do you have any specific guidance that you give artists about what would make a piece child-friendly?
KUTA: There are so many levels of engaging children. We don't always necessarily need, or want, or look for physical engagement. It can be more visual, it can be more about the ideas in a project. But generally, we think about what interests kids, and then push the envelope a little bit. I mentioned to you the dumpster with the slide, and the climbing structure. We could have installed something that was less complicated. It didn't have to be a dumpster; we could have built it to measurements that could form more of a playground. But it's more interesting, I think, to provide something that might raise a question. A parent may look at it and go, "Oh, that's interesting," or a child suddenly finds himself in a dreamscape because they're allowed to do and touch things that normally they wouldn't be able to. So we're looking for artists who are willing to take a risk, and also are comfortable [working] in a collaborative art-making process.
In museum workshops, children create artwork using materials we normally think of as trash. Photo by Lot116 Photography
NEA: I know that the museum hopes that this exhibit will allow children to become leaders in their families in terms of promoting recycling and teaching their parents about trash. In light of this, how do you think art can be used as a tool of empowerment?
KUTA: Going through the creative process involves a lot of decision-making and risk-taking, and the thing which one ends up with at the end may not be perfect. But it's pretty safe failure. If a child is drawing something, and then they're making something new or working with different materials, they're constantly trying, experimenting, testing. It's a little bit of the scientific method in the art-making process. They're building confidence through that: it's okay to fail, it's okay to not get it right the first time; you just try again. So that kind of activity does help a child, as young as he or she may be, to build some level of confidence, and say to their parents, “This is what I'm doing. This is important," and share ideas. If [those ideas] are specifically about trash that they learned about in our museum, that's wonderful. We teach through the facilitated workshops that it's very important to not just keep adding to the landfill, and that once the piece of trash is placed into the receptacle, it's not the end of the story.
NEA: Obviously this is a very special kind of art museum because it is geared specifically to children, but what would you say or recommend to a parent who thinks their child would have no interest in any art museum, whether it's geared for kids or the general public?
KUTA: We all understand that parents are the biggest influence on children. Sometimes when the parents say, "Oh, my child is not interested," they are actually talking about themselves. They don't have a connection with art, which is very unfortunate, but pretty common in our society. something that we say when you come to our space is that we're not going to dictate and tell you what to do. We're not a science museum where there are steps to things. It's very open play, and there has to be a little bit of a letting go and not being so worried about what is the right answer, or what is the right thing to do. Let the child explore. We find that children are the ones who will lead their parents through the spaces, and will know what to do with the artwork. Sometimes parents are looking for instructions, and we don't post instructions. We have suggestions, we have our staff on the floor who engage with visitors, but mostly we want kids to find their own way of playing with the artwork. We find that the receptive parents really jump in, and they start to play with the kids. They get it, they see it. I think the best advice we can give to people is just enjoy the process, enjoy the discovery, because there's so much to find here.
NEA: Is there anything you wish I asked, or that you would like to add?
KUTA: I just hope that other people can be open and be receptive to the arts. Our museum provides a big opportunity for that, but if someone can't get to a place like ours, try something small at home. If they've never had art materials around, maybe buy some, have them out on the table. Don't worry about what the outcomes are, but just explore and break rules! You don't have to always draw within the lines.