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Textile Waste and Audiovisual STS

Hanna Rose Shell

13 March, 2015

You can see the heap from the highway. It is hard to tell what it is, though, and if you were driving, you’d probably pass right by. Reaching about twenty feet at its highest point, it could easily be mistaken for a mound of manure but for the fact that it's dappled gray.

The smell is also different: like rotten wool, or perhaps wet dogs. If you decided to come closer, you would see small glittering items amid the gray—stray rhinestones, buttons, and an occasional zipper. There are a few peaks that rise up like mini-Matterhorns. All around are shredded remnants of the textile industry, including everything from the scouring process detritus from one of the two remaining wool treatment plants in the area, to dust from the exhaust fans employed in the nearby manufacture of mattress pads from ground clothing.

The dust that rises off of the heap, ground up bits and pieces of old clothes, is the laundry lint of the textile world. Here there are used wool old rags, socks and so on, old clothes of all kinds slowly disintegrating into the earth. In the case of the scraps, shreds, and fibers of wool here and there, this slow disintegration means a transformation into nitrogen-rich fertilizer for the agricultural fields, in this case, rhubarb. In various states of chemical decomposition, in strata-like layers, is waste turned— at least in part—to productive end. The heap we see is viable, and indeed potent, as a source for scholarship because of its embodied status, its being in the world and in time. Looking, touching, searching, smelling, filming reveal a story with historical and contemporary implications, and–for me– lays out the framework for a material archaeology of waste. The site of the heap is the starting point for a book and a series of interconnected short films and interactive media in progress, an excerpt of which is shown.

Hanna Rose Shell is Associate Professor in the Program in STS at MIT and is also the editor of the new “Beyond Words” film and media reviews section for the journal Technolology and Culture. The author of Hide and Seek: Camouflage, Photography, and the Media of Reconnaissance, her book on textile waste is in progress, and the film Shoddy Aliens, was completed earlier this year. 

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