A new table, which might not be understood as clean in modern terms

For a project in a council flat/gallery in a modern block in South London I needed a table. The table was to function partly as a facility where people could sit down and read an information booklet and partly as a roundtable for a series of meetings arranged as part of the project. There was not a suitable table in the flat, so I had to find one. Beyond the fact that I was interested in a functional and a somehow aesthetic piece of furniture, I was thinking in terms of economy. The spur to the project, relating to the modern environment of the block, was an analysis of the ideological space of modern architecture, city plans and object designs. Drawing upon a collage of ideas from key propagandists of heroic modernism and colliding the ideas with practices of late-modern everyday life I was interested in engaging in a contemporary discussion of the 'new'. I decided that I would like to find a new table without having to buy one.

Health and hygiene were important issues for the modern pioneers and reformers. The discovery of the direct connection between germs and incidences of disease was brought forward by the French biologist Louis Pasteur et al around the middle of the 19th century. Antiseptics and an understanding of the need for keeping the operating theatres in the hospitals clean of germs were introduced in 1867 by the British surgeon Joseph Lister. These discoveries are crucial historical events, informing the analysis of the ideological background to the modern project. A scientific based division between the clean and the unclean was established. This distinction was an important part of the rationale behind the evolution of modernity, giving it a scientific base from its outset. The cholera epidemics, which caused havoc across Europe around 1850, are often said to be the main single event that spurred the hygienic shift. The disease devastated Hamburg and Paris in 1848-49 and in 1849 and 1854 respectively 53.000 and 20.000 people lost their lives in England. After the last epidemic in England the local physicist John Snow was successful in proving that polluted water was causing the spreading of the disease. From there on, beginning slowly due to the massive task and accelerating at the turn of the century, sanitation reforms, the centralisation of refuse collection and the layout of large landfills and waste incinerators outside the cities emerged hand-in-hand with the evolution of modern hygienic architecture.

At the end of the 19th century, practices of rag picking and recycling which were part of the underprivileged classes economic survival strategies, lost ground due to the new understanding of sanitation and hygiene. The scientific discovery of germ's disease causing ability made waste into a health risk. Waste was harbouring germs. The resulting educational efforts combined with more effective systems of refuse collection removed much of the potentially disease-carrying material from the local communities. This affected the cultures of self-organised trade in recycled waste which was an integrated part of urban life at the time. Rag pickers usually paid the refuse collectors to get access to the waste and they separated the usable parts and sold them on to ragmen for recycling and new production. Baudelaire described the rag picker of the 18th century Paris as an archivist, a cataloguer who sorted through "everything the big city has cast off, everything it lost, everything it disdained, everything it broke." The leftovers from the rag picker functioned as food for pigs and chickens. Only dust and inorganic material were thrown away. These self-organised practices declined due to the hygiene reforms; traces of these cultures can be found today at car boot and junk sales.

Waste is socially defined. What is waste to one person is usable to another. There is nothing inherent to the material itself that will tell us whether or not it is waste. Waste is a quality that is imposed on various materials by a process that is wholly social. Vital for the development of the modern industrialised society was the imposition of a clear and universal definition of what is waste and what is not, and how to separate this potential threat to public health from life in the cities. A universal definition would make sure that impurities would not disturb the cycle of society, which had been upset so often before through epidemics of various diseases. Gradually waste became difined as a more or less homogeneous matter of negative value. The new difinition cancelled the grey zone between waste and the usable through which rag pickers and economically underprivileged people were able to create value. Practices of recycling and creative maintenance and adaptation of objects for daily use were deemed unclean and the knowledge inherent to these practices lost ground. The doors were opened for the clean world of consumer culture.

This poses the question as to whether this modern conception of waste is just pathogenically based or whether it refers to a more fundamental system of value. If waste is socially defined and is to be understood as matter out-of-place rather than something fundamentally valueless, then a larger social system of valorisation comes into play. Generally speaking most of the modern pioneers within architecture, design and city planning were not revolutionaries in the political sense of the word. As Le Corbusier described it himself, they preferred architecture to revolution. By morphological means the architects and planners overturned the old world through the hygienic architecture and the health-centric environment they intended to realise. They valorised the new and the clean as well as geometrical space and industrial production as inseparable parts of the same package. There is no dirt in Euclidean space. But as the anthropologist Mary Douglas states: "In chasing dirt, in papering, decorating, tidying up we are not governed by anxiety to escape disease, but are positively re-ordering our environment, making it conform to an idea." This line of thought brings the whole discussion of modern waste and hygiene into a psychoanalytic field and opens readings of the treatment of waste as an practice referring to social hierarchies and symbolic systems; hierarchies and systems, which are hidden behind the imposed valuelessness and homogeneity of modern waste. The scientific based modern distinction between the clean and the unclean links, in various ways, the clean with the new and generally links the clean with life in modernity. And there is no way between life and death.

From my drifts around the streets of South London I have noticed that a considerable gap is still allowed to occur between the 'secretion' of rubbish from households and the collection of refuse. This grey zone between the private and the public space, between the household and the city is, for me, the source of a sort of unsystematic psychoanalytic gaze. The bodies of refused material mainly consisting of bin liners are frequently mixed-in with more or less crushed pieces of furniture. Sometimes the bin liners have been torn open and various signs of everyday practices are leaking on to the pavement: packaging, bits of food, sawdust, clothing etc. Often I have come across modern pieces of furniture dumped in the street: Marcel Breuer-style tubular steel-framed chairs or smashed up wardrobes and bookshelves made from easily cleanable melamine-laminated boards. I find it paradoxical to see these pieces of modern furniture, which were intended to manifest a new and clean world, lying dumped as rubbish in the streets. They appear as ruins telling a story about a project which might have been an outright success, but which over time caused a series of side effects simultaneously undermining the project. The ideology of cleanness embedded in modern furniture somehow means that it shouldn't really float around disintegrating in a heap of rubbish. They should last forever.

I decided to collect pieces of melamine-laminated boards from the scrapped wardrobes and bookshelves in the streets. The boards could be recycled as raw material for the new table needed. In a week I had collected enough material for several tabletops. With glue I patchworked the pieces of board together into one big tabletop. It was cut into an appropriate shape with a jigsaw. Though a synthesis of dirty materials I produced a table ... a new one which, might not be understood as clean in modern terms.

JJ 2000