For a brief spell In 1999 I had no material possessions, literally nothing except for my embarrassing collection of Hawaiian shirts and a single unappealing ashtray. A small group of people in overalls had been to my flat and offices in Manchester, carefully noted everything on clipboards and then taken it all away in vans, never to be returned.
In 1971, without irony, John Lennon had sung ‘Imagine no possessions…’ at the white Steinway in his Berkshire mansion. In a draughty empty former warehouse 28 years later I was living that dream. It is an interesting and liberating feeling.
Amongst the thousands of items taken away were 200 telephones, 36 TVs,100 coffee machines and at least as many toasters, vacuum cleaners and hairdryers. It is probably best to point out that this was my ‘collection’ rather than the ill-gotten gains of an enthusiasm for house breaking. The overall people were museum curators rather than a forensics team.
The Joy of Consumerism. Customised 1950s advert Credit: Michael Trainor
For 15 years I had been an uber-consumer, charting the social, cultural and aesthetic history of the 20th century through the ‘things’ that had been manufactured to mark our progress through it. After a few short days everything I had acquired and used on a daily basis was removed and transplanted into the permanent collection of Hampshire Museums’ Service – and I wasn’t even dead. It felt like and achievement but it was hard to say why.
A couple of years later in 2001 artist Michael Landy set about systematically destroying all of his possessions in a public installation/performance of intertwining conveyor belts and technicians called ‘Breakdown - produced by Artangel. The demolition roster included all of his music collection, his Saab car and various artworks given to him by well-known artist friends. I was impressed by, and a little jealous of, this highly creative approach to dispossession. Everything I owned would remain forever in a museum; everything he owned had been carefully dis-integrated and granulated into plastic sacks. As I recall he ended up with his underpants and a boiler suit.
Breakdown – Michael Landy. Installation image credit: Artangel
My own response to owning nothing was partly fuelled by my insatiable desire to collect (which is probably a disorder of some sort), and partly by a desire to further explore what being a consumer, and we are all consumers, means. What does it say about us individually and as a society? Why has it become an essential vocation? And importantly what are the environmental consequences of endless choice brought about by a global shift towards mass manufacture of consumer goods?
Bearing in mind that conspicuous consumption as an acceptable past time in its own right had arguably only started in the 1950s and has been increasing exponentially ever since to the extent that shopping and its secular temples, the shopping centre and retail park, are now almost the dominant structures in the 21st century landscape.
I decided to collect ‘Everything I haven’t Consumed’.
So, as the proud owner of nothing, on 1st January 2000 I embarked on a new 25 year project to keep that part of consumerism that we don’t really think that much about, the hidden bit – the stuff that comes with the thing that you actually want. This is predominantly, but not exclusively, packaging. Every 5 years, for a full year, I keep, label and store everything which isn’t the thing I am actually consuming – every empty sugar sachet, paper coffee cup, wine bottle (there are a lot of these), computer printer box etc. etc. etc. This is not the same as collecting my own rubbish – that would be madness! For example if I buy a new light bulb I keep the box but not the bulb, even when it is dead, because I have consumed that.
Everything I Haven’t Consumed (2000) - Michael Trainor Credit: Joel Chester Fyldes
In 2025 I will exhibit it all. It is an absolute pain. Endlessly washing and storing takeaway containers, fighting airline attendants for my plastic non-consumables, posting stuff back to myself from foreign trips, fastidiously dragging bags of empty clinking bottles, learning sleight of hand techniques to secrete empty packaging up sleeves and into pockets without having to explain myself.
It is a small thing in a way but as an artist it is something that is within my powers. I can’t single-handedly reverse the course of 70 years of unwitting overproduction and consumption that is cumulatively and progressively damaging our only home but I can shine a creative light on it and maybe influence a few others on the way.
On my Clore Fellowship year, I was seconded to work with the excellent Peter Gingold of Tipping Point on one of their artist and scientist gatherings centred on creative and cultural responses to climate change. These predominantly ‘open space’ format jam sessions bring the problems (illustrated by the scientists) face to face with the potential solutions (created by artists, activists and academics) and catalyse brilliant proactive projects that attempt to tackle or promote understanding of the complex issues. Far more impressive than my own tiddling efforts.
As you may have gathered my own exasperations and passions are centred on highlighting overconsumption and unnecessary waste (over 6 million electrical items are thrown away in the UK alone each year – and there is gold in dem there electronic hills).
But fear not, all that is required for environmental sustainability to be an inherent positive aspect our lives is leadership and creative solutions.
Also on my Clore year I met Diye Wariebi who had set up Digibridge in London – a social enterprise with the aim of “inspiring socially disadvantaged people to improve the quality of their lives and environment through the benefits of IT, re-using and recycling wasted materials.” In short they take the technology you throw away, train people to repair it, and sell it or provide it back for free to those who would most benefit from it.
On a much vaster scale on another secondment to an arts organisation in New Delhi I made a special trip to photograph the ‘scrapmen’ of Mayapuri. In a junk yard the size of a town thousands of surprisingly happy, mostly Sikh families, disassemble and recycle almost anything from a circuit board to an industrial plant. This is done almost entirely by hand with absolutely no protective clothing or health and safety restrictions – it is reclamation on a mind-blowing scale but somewhat terrifying to watch.
The Scrapmen of Mayapuri – photo series. Credit: Michael Trainor
Increasing and embedding the notion of environmental sustainability into our daily lives and practices is really an exercise in global change-management – it has to happen and is achievable but it is vast and complex.
For me there are 3 conceptual difficulties which need to be addressed to make this change through leadership and perception change:
1. Intangibility – when you recycle a plastic bottle in Norwich a polar bear does not clap in Greenland. The causes and effects are long-term and involve complex systems and it is difficult for an individual to see what difference they are making – so what is their motivation? Climate change is a good example of this – it is easy to ignore or deny as it is not linear, there will still be cool summers and freezing winters even though the overall very long-term trend is warming. Make it clear.
2. It is a broad church – environmental issues cover everything from recycling, green belts, geo-politics, global transport of goods, toxification of the seas, consumerism, road building, social injustice, tree hugging and whether or not it is ok to eat tuna. Pick your battles.
3. Atavism – solutions to environmental issues are often presented as hectoring calls to stop doing something or live without something. They frequently feel retrograde or undesirable and we naturally resist them. In the world of Jeremy Clarkson cars are only good if they are more powerful or go faster – anything else is risible. A modified perception, however, could reposition cars as only being good if they last for 50+ years and travel furthest with the least fuel consumption. Everyone can still have a car. It’s a marketing job. Elon Musk of Tesla electric vehicles may be starting to crack the technical and perception barriers, if not the price one – even his mum can’t jump the waiting list for her son’s next battery powered desire machine. Lead by example.
Michael Trainor is a professional artist, Clore Fellow and director of Art Bed and Breakfast CIC www.abandb.co.uk
This article is part of a fundraising campaign for the Clore Fellows’ Fellowship in culture and environmental sustainability, find out more and donate here.