Organising an international conference is an awful lot of work, but it pays off. That’s the lesson that we four members of the Vienna Doctoral Academy (VDA) – Theory and Methodology in the Humanities – Timo Frühwirth, Iris Gemeinböck, Eugenie Maria Theuer, and Elisabeth Lechner – learned from organising a postgraduate conference on the topic of trash in all its literal and figurative meanings.
When I say that the conference “paid off” I mean that hosting this event was worth it in so many ways: We got the chance to meet and get in touch with great young researchers from all over Europe – establishing scholarly connections from Ireland to Russia and from Sweden to Italy – encountered a multitude of useful, interdisciplinary approaches towards trash, heard inspiring keynote lectures by Prof. Andrea Braidt (Vice-Rector of the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna) and Prof. Laia Manonelles Moner (University of Barcelona), and most importantly, realized the extraordinary academic potential of trash in its manifold meanings that kept our discussions going way beyond the formal panels of the conference.
After an energetic early-morning opening by the conference organisers and our special guest Prof. Eva Horn (Head of the Vienna Doctoral Academy from the German Department, University of Vienna) – for whose introductory remarks and financial support as head of the VDA we are very grateful –
what started our two-day series of talks and lively discussions was Andrea Braidt’s insightful keynote “Trash! Shame! Situating Queer Perspectivity in/on Art.” Prof. Braidt began her talk with an almost empty slide saying “Rondo”. What followed was five minutes of “Rondò Veneziano” (click here to get the song stuck in your head too) – a wonderfully light-hearted, catchy melody that is considered musical trash by critics. This track did not only put everybody in a good mood, but also served as a foundation of Braidt’s reflections on what it means ‘to like trash’ and if enjoying trash (still) equals being trash. In the course of her talk, Braidt likens camp aesthetics (cf. Susan Sontag and her “Notes on Camp” from 1964) to trash aesthetics and uses affect studies to theorize the transformative potential of overcoming/trashing shame in the context of queer art.An impressive example of how shame can be made productive in queer art is Jakob Lena Knebl’s Schwule Sau (2013, see also http://www.tranzitpaper.com/?p=21068) at Vienna’s Morzinplatz (i.e. the location of the Gestapo headquarters during the NS rule in Austria (1938-45)). In her article “Gay Pride, Queer Shame. Austrian Cases” Braidt describes the installation as follows:
“Knebel presents a temporary memorial to the homosexuals, lesbians, and trans-gender persons persecuted and murdered under the Nazi regime. She deliberately relies on discriminating terms such as “schwule Sau” (faggot) or “Mannweib” (bulldagger) used disparagingly and deprecatorily in everyday language. He employs these terms in the sense of Judith Butler’s view of the political discourse as performative and her hate speech concept, turns himself and his body into an exhibition and projection surface, and confronts the public in his installation. By appropriating the terms, she deprives them of their offensive impact to which homesexuals, lesbian, and trans-gender persons are themselves exposed to and forestalls her vis-à-vis’s verbal insults against herself.” (Braidt, 143)
We were lucky and immensely grateful that Prof. Braidt could stay with us for the next panel on “Artistic Trash”, which she chaired and which hosted a great variety of different approaches towards ‘trashy art’/trash in/as art. Lindsay Polly Crisp (Goldsmiths, University of London) introduced the audience to Michael Landy’s Break Down, an impressive piece of performance art, in which the artist ritualistically destroys, or rather transforms everything he owns, leaving behind only colourful shreds and shards (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/culture/story/20160713-michael-landy-the-man-who-destroyed-all-his-belongings). While our next speaker Diana-Christina Bulzan (Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna) talked about “Trash as Unwanted Film Material and the Use of Found Footage in Experimental Film”, Víctor Ramírez Tur (University of Barcelona) in what can only be called a passionate presentation bursting with energy (we almost couldn’t stop him from sharing more and more fascinating details from his research with us!), focused on the “Body as Trash in Communist Regimes and its Artistic Expressions.” The panel’s closing talk was delivered by Maria Moreno Cano (University of Barcelona), who got to the very heart of bodily trash in art with her talk “Poop, Ass, Fart, Piss: Making Jokes about Trash in Gilbert & George’s The Naked Shit Pictures (1994)” that left many people in the audience smiling (see http://www.gilbertandgeorge.co.uk/work/pictures/1994/naked-shit-pictures to find out why).
After a short lunch break (we had so much to talk about, there was not a lot of time for taking breaks) we continued with a panel on “Trashy Literature(s)” that featured our co-organiser and VDA member Iris Gemeinböck with a corpus stylistics analysis of “Cheap Thrills – Cliché in Early Gothic Fiction”, who despite a mean cold fascinated the audience with her data. Her talk was followed by Paul Fagan’s (University of Vienna) hilarious presentation about Amanda McKittrick Ros and bad modernism that not only got us laughing at McKittrick Ros’s ‘bad’ style, but that also made us aware of the understated and underresearched influence that Ros had on Irish Modernism (e.g. Joyce and O’Brien). When we were still giggling about Ros’s love of hyperbolic metaphorics and her aversion to call a thing by its name, Elena Ogliari (University of Milan) introduced us to “The Master and the Bedpan: Henry James Confronting Trash in David Lodge’s Author! Author! (2004) and Joyce Carol Oates’ The Master at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, 1914-1916 (2007)”, taking up the scatological discourse we had begun with Maria Moreno Cano’s paper in the first panel.
Our last panel on the first day was “Trash on the Screen.” It was kicked off by our colleague Barbara Maly-Bowie’s talk on “Why there is (no) Trash on Netflix”, in which she was pondering the implications of Netflix as being set at a conjunction of neoliberalism, modernity, mobility and globalisation, as a “no trash discourse” that discards not only the past and the present, but also the material. Her talk was followed by the presentation “From Grindhouse to Arthouse via Trash: Towards a More Dynamic Definition Cinema”, in which VDA member and co-chair Eugenie Maria Theuer introduced a new way of approaching ‘trash cinema’ as a threshold category bridging ‘rubbish’ and ‘the durable’, put in Michael Thompson’s terms used in Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value. After her inspiring attempt at redefining ‘trash cinema’, Ranthild Salzer (University of Vienna) continued with our last paper for the day on “Futures without Thrash? Narrative Power Hierarchies between Cleanliness and Contamination in US-American Sci-Fi Film Franchises”, i.e. Blade Runner (1982) and Star Trek (2009).
The lively discussions that the last panel brought about were continued at a less formal get-together at VinziRast, where we got to know each other and discovered common interests over a glass (or two) of wine.The second day began just as impressively as the first one had with Prof. Laia Manonelles Moner from the research group Art, Architecture and Digital Society giving her keynote on “(De)Constructed Landscapes: Ruins, Rubble, and Detritus” in contemporary Chinese art. From the 1990s onwards, “China’s political, social, and economic transformation has had an impact on the urban planning and design of the big metropoles and the lifestyle of its citizens” and brought about changes “manifesting themselves in the construction of new districts and the building of spectacular skyscrapers.” “[T]hese practices”, however, “imply the destruction of heritage, real-estate speculation, increasing pollution, precarious labour conditions and risks for real-estate owners in the areas affected by these changes, who sometimes have to leave their homes to be relocated”, her abstract reads. Prof. Manonelles Moner consequently elaborated on how contemporary artists reflect and criticise those changes in their art – we saw mostly photography and performance art – that they need to produce out of deeply felt loss and trauma. By making visible that which the government wants to remain hidden – “ruins, rubble, and detritus” – these artists “visualize the problems that arise from the development of these new cities, inciting critical reflection via fabricated images and para-theatrical pieces featuring unique characters that live and interact in these new ecosystems.” Among the most memorable examples of her fantastic talk were artists like Li Wei (e.g. “29 Levels of Freedom”, “Li Wei falls to the Earth”), Chen Qiulin (e.g. “Garden”), Yang Yongliang (e.g. “Phantom Landscape”, “Heavenly City”) and Song Dong (e.g. “Eating the City”).
Make sure to check out these videos of Song Dong’s installations “Eating the World” (Lijiang, 2003), in which the audience was invited to eat a world map made of fruits, and his installation series “Eating the Cities”, in which visitors of the exhibition held in different cities around the world were encouraged to ruin cities by eating the crackers and biscuits they were made of:
Eating the World (Dong Song, 2003): https://vimeo.com/131887531
Eating the Cities (Dong Song, 2010): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asHDYVTQL2Y
The first panel on Sunday was about “Trash in Literature” and featured some fascinating talks by Kristina Åström (independent researcher, Sweden), Harald Freidl (University of Vienna) and Richard Ehmann (University of Vienna). While Kristina talked convincingly about “The Retracing of Waste in Paul Auster’s City of Glass” in the sense of Derridean traces, Harald focussed on “The Continuity of Material and Immaterial Trash in Tom McCarthy’s Remainder”, in which, as he argued, Baudrillard’s postmodern theories are put to test in theory and practice. In a similar vein, Richard continued with “The Lustre of Trash and Trashy Relics in Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island”, in which dirt, pollution and mutation play an almost ubiquitous role. In the ensuing discussion, our questions mostly focussed on character construction in those complex novels, the postmodern deferral of meaning, and discourses of authenticity.
The second panel of the day entitled “Material Trash” featured talks about literal trash. While VDA member and co-chair Timo Frühwirth talked about “Object, Thing, Exhibit: Trash in the Estate” – a presentation, in which he explained and referred to key concepts in Thing Theory (see e.g. Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter for her distinction of things and objects that goes back to W. J. T. Mitchell or Bill Brown’s Thing Theory), Tara-Marie McAssey (Maynooth University, Ireland) in her talk “’Dirty, Dusty, Broken and Old’: Reclaiming Trash at the Flea Market” showed how discourses of disposal and re-appreciation of ‘old stuff’ intersect and how one man’s trash can quite literally be another’s treasure. On a completely different note, sociologist Anastasiya Golovnyova (University of Amsterdam) presented a case study on “Dirt and Loathing in Post-Socialist Russia: How Waste Disposal Systems Produce Citizenship and Sense of Common Good”, in which she demonstrated how people become active waste disposers, who accept long walks or rides on buses to collection sites, as the state fails to deliver waste disposal services. The panel closed with Rino Bosso’s (University of Vienna) linguistic study of “Hybrid Trash: Material Trash Invades Online Discussion”, in which he looked at how waste disposal and cleaning are negotiated online with the help of English as a Lingua Franca between international co-habitants of a student residence in Vienna.
After we returned from the break with enough caffeine in our veins to keep us focussed after two days of following a fascinating, but very dense programme, we continued with our last panel called “Trashy Subjectivies.” It started out with a talk by Laura Benítez Valero (Autonomous University of Barcelona) about “Bodily Trash and Toxic Intra-Actions”, which focussed on bio-hacking performance art. Laura Moisi (Humboldt University of Berlin) then addressed “The Politics of Waste: Cultural Imaginaries of Excess and Exlusion” in her presentation, in which she theorized trash as a political matter in societies whose symbolic order is structured along the lines of waste and abjection. The most memorable example of waste as a matter out of place (see the work of Mary Douglas) was the invisibility of sanitation workers in NYC, which Robin Nagle describes in her publication Picking Up. I followed Laura with my talk “On the Problematic Resignification of ‘White Trash’”, in which I used feminist, intersectionality and critical race theory to show how discourses around feminism, race, class and gender intersect in the development of the ‘White Trash’ discourse with a case study on Lena Dunham. Our conference was closed by Eva Schörgenhuber (University of Vienna) and Eugenie Maria Theuer, who together talked about “(Un)Following the Rules of the Game: Trash Femininities in Celebrity Culture.” They addressed the issue of ludic femininities with agency in the showbusiness using a game theories approach (see Johan Huizinga), showcasing the examples of Miley Cyrus and Arvida Byström.
That the conference left everyone in a good mood is quite aptly represented by these final pictures of us having fun, being inspired and happy about new insights and international friends in research.
By Elisabeth Lechner
uni:docs Fellow at the Department of English and American Studies, University of Vienna
 Braidt, Andrea. “Gay Pride, Queer Shame. Austrian Cases.” In: Milevska, Suzana (ed.). On Productive Shame, Reconciliation, and Agency. Sternberg Press: Berlin, 2016. 130-145.