A theory of waste


Essay published in the the exhibition catalog One Hundred And Six Columns, Four Heads And One Table, Villa Concordia, Bamberg, March 2011

The work of João Leonardo takes the form of a vast theory of waste. Waste is a recently rediscovered entity. Previously, it was merely consigned to the dump as inconvenient and dispensable in the Cartesian sense, ignored by science and eschewed by art. It had no positive validity and was indeed anathema to Positivists.

Positivism looked for valid, concrete objects, and waste was a problem. In addition, it was a formless, soft, insubstantial problem. Reconstructions of the world, such as art and science, tried to avoid it. The ideal world that they sought to create was a world without waste. From a positivist point of view, waste was worrying.

It is the present that has realised that the world (and the stories within it) without waste is pure fiction. If we wish to understand the many ways in which reality presents itself, we need to take account of its waste. The world does not truly exist without this awareness, without a consciousness of waste; all that is offered is approximations that are necessarily unfocused. Awareness of waste gives the world contours, lines and definition.

The real world is an infinite accumulation of waste.

From a social and mechanistic point of view, Work is a battle against waste, in which the first stage is to realise that waste is inevitable, and the second is to deal with it.

All Work can be understood as a negentropic process (as negative entropy), as the need to intervene in the world in order to stop or at least to postpone its inevitable decay.

Negative entropy behaves (from a thermodynamic perspective) like information. Living beings are negentropic creatures because they use information to create structures, meaningful shapes. Shape with meaning and structure is the antithesis of disintegration, of the spread of waste.

Information is civilisation. We set up civilisations to combat what philosophical sceptics would describe as unavoidable decay.

Work is therefore the great utopia that organises the world. To have work, to work, means to counter this natural development, this natural order of things. Work consumes energy and transforms it – literally and metaphorically – into information. An item produced in a factory is (from a thermodynamic perspective) information.

Work is thus a way of organising, of constructing the world, and of circumventing the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that the universe tends towards greater entropy. Work has therefore always been associated with the concept of progress. “Progressive forces” have been the forces of labour. Work is the great strategy that civilisation invented to combat inevitable decline.

This is the context in which a thermodynamics of work arose to confront the rules of physics and nature that postulated disintegration, decline, terminality, and an infinite, disorderly accumulation of waste. Work was this battle against waste. Work was construction.

The enemies of Work, idlers, were regarded with suspicion since they had fallen prey to decadence.

However, Work itself produces waste, pollution. In the wake of the post-industrial revolution, work and enterprise therefore became cleaner and began to re-use the refuse that could no longer be swept under the carpet.

A new Philosophy of Work arose, no longer discarding refuse, no longer banishing it, but facing up to it and disposing of it.

I believe that this is the philosophical framework for the work of João Leonardo. If we see him painstakingly emptying ashtrays and picking up cigarette butts from the ground, we feel we are witnessing the creation of a “new man” or new type of cleansing operative, the cigarette butt remover.

But this professional “tidier” does not restrict himself to removing the curious remains of consumption but subjects them instead to a whole series of operations, splitting them and reorganising them.

He regards waste as the beginning and not the end of a process. In his artistic system, it is the starting point for a better world, and like a deus ex machina of this world, or like a Faust making a pact not with the devil but with art, he transforms the waste of others in his aesthetic laboratory into powerful and communicative (and therefore, in the thermodynamic sense defined above) informed works of art.

As we have observed, waste are today at the heart of new theories that seek to map reality more effectively. Remainders have become more important than the result itself, since a result that fails to mention the remainder is a falsified result. What used to be out of our line of vision now inescapably catches our eye, for although the world might be pleasanter without taking this diversion, it would certainly be less real.

Remainders can also be mistakes or accidental. And the greatest mistake of modern thinking, according to Edgar Morin, is “the mistake of neglecting mistakes”. A true map of the world can only be drawn if we include accidents and incorporate waste, remainders. And waste can be beautiful. It can be aesthetic.

The work of João Leonardo builds on this paradox. It is on the one hand a work about waste, secretions, rejects, in short, refuse. But it is also a work of great formal and conceptual purity.

João Leonardo is therefore not a refuse artist but an artist of its purification, organisation and seriation in that he defines systems for organising the refuse that he or others produce. I knew him early on when he was collecting packets from cigarettes that he smoked (Calendar #1, 1996-2006) and semen that he produced (White Cube, 2007). But while others limited themselves to collecting and displaying refuse, or adding their own refuse to the refuse of the world, João Leonardo began to develop an obsessive theory of waste directed specifically at organising, separating and seriating it.

João Leonardo wrote in a letter to me: “My studio possesses a peculiar energy, somewhere between a recycling depot and an alchemist’s laboratory.” There is great magic in this process, enabling something new to be created out of the accidental. At the same time, his fascination with waste and order allows him to put the world together in a new way. This does not mean recycling, incineration or chemical transformation, but something that we might call aesthetic electrophoresis. He splits the items collected into their component parts in order to organise them subsequently into serial systems and then catalogue them. The title of this exhibition, One Hundred and Six Columns, Four Heads and One Table, clearly illustrates the need for a serial stocktaking, which also creates its own poetics.

Cataloguing means producing an epistemological system for arranging the world. Modern inventorial methods have led to the emergence of the science of documentation.

The work shown here is therefore also negentropic, because it embraces cataloguing, seriation, documentary science and inventorial and organisational content, like a library or an archive, a genetic code.

DNA is the most negentropic text in the world since it contains the most information within the smallest space. The human genetic code is the most complex encyclopaedia in the world, recording all fundamental evolutionary achievements while devising a system for expressing them. For me, João Leonardo also creates an aesthetic genetic code, a system in which information is first treated, then compiled and finally reproduced as a work of art. As Work.

Seriation had already appeared in the almost infinite series of words picked out of a dictionary, the List of Verbs (2006), and in the crossword puzzles arranged in the form of a calendar, Calendar #2 (2006). The text painting Prana (2010) can be seen in this exhibition, a sequence of inscriptions, “breathe in, breathe out”, alternating with a regularity reminiscent of oriental calligraphy, but in which the text only alternates between these two possibilities, like breathing itself.

This exhibition is indeed about breathing, from a physiological perspective.

Its originator makes no moral or ethical statement about the consumption of tobacco, merely using the fact of it to create an aesthetic.

The consumption of tobacco is in this case not an occasion for an accusation or an apology, but for opening out and displaying the world in its component parts, unfolding it in the Deleuzian and Leibnizian sense (Deleuze: Le pli. Leibniz et le baroque, 1988). This unending unfolding, the endless replication, is another characteristic of the biological code referred to above, which regularly reappears in the artist’s serial exercises.

His liking for organisation takes him out into the world. He now no longer just collects his own refuse and stops dropping his cigarette butts on the ground, but he picks up other people’s refuse as well, as if it were a social undertaking. His liking for “cleansing” the world thus acquires a political dimension and is no longer purely a personal act.

Using the tobacco smoked by himself and others, João Leonardo explores a wide range of forms of artistic representation, from Untitled (Self-portrait in profile), the Head sculptures and the drawings in liquid nicotine, to the more conceptual serial works: Untitled (cigarette filter collection) and Untitled (cigarette paper collection).

It is this exhaustive organisation, this desire to waste nothing that makes him the great recycler that he is.

He creates an artistic vocabulary out of an extremely insignificant act, the initially individual and then socially useful collection of cigarette butts. Refuse is not only represented but is transformed chemically, as though in a laboratory, in order to create works that speak of him and his major concerns.

I cannot help alluding to Alain Resnais’s film Smoking/No Smoking (1993), in which the great French director addresses the fact that such a trivial act as reaching for a cigarette can change the course of the world. His film explores a plethora of possibilities deriving from this one decision, to smoke or not to smoke. Chance plays a part at that moment, with the possibility of an aberration. A slight change in the original circumstances can, as chaos theory teaches us, lead to a different outcome; in this case to a story line in the film that branches off and heads in a different direction – a different work and hence a different world.

We can also view this exhibition as an essay on breathing: one might say that the exhibition has taken a deep breath. But above all it is about breathing and combustion.

And there are three stages to this combustion. The first stage is the cigarette’s past, external combustion as it were. The second is the internal combustion inherent in the act of inhaling (“breathe in, breathe out” again), which occurs in the lungs. And lastly, there is a kind of aesthetic anti-combustion. The combustion uses oxygen to release energy and produce simpler units of material. But João Leonardo stops the burning of the cigarette, holds his breath so to speak, in order to fix the materials released by this process. And with what remains he constructs a whole lexicon of possibilities.

A third territory is opened up by this minute handiwork, hovering between scientific precision and artistic story-telling, a territory that is scientific in its organisation and precision but is clearly artistic in its creative content. João Leonardo uses a theory of waste to create his own poetics.

Paulo Cunha e Silva

Rome, February 2011

Paulo Cunha e Silva is a doctor of medicine and lectures in contemporary philosophy at the University of Porto. The main focus of his research, teaching and publications is the place of the body and corporeality in the present day. He is also active as an art critic, essayist, curator, columnist and television commentator. He is currently the Cultural Counsellor at the Portuguese Embassy in Rome. From 2003 to 2005 he was Director of the Portuguese State Institute of Arts, and in 2001 he was one of those chiefly responsible for the cultural programme of Porto Cultural Capital of Europe. Since 1998 he has worked with the Fundação Serralves, a cultural foundation for which he has commissioned various interdisciplinary projects.