The human urge to salvage
by Clara Houghteling; graphic by Mikala Sterling
"I don’t know. It’s sort of nice. Has good bones,” my sister says, referring to the dress I’m holding up for her inspection. It clearly dating from the 1980s, and is so hideous it’s almost alluring, the daisy-print sundress was obviously donated to the ARC for good reason. Why I am putting it in my cart for checkout is less evident. If prompted, I could give this explanation: I want to make a sundress for myself and it’s easier to work from an existing dress. I won’t have to buy material or deal with hems, zippers and such.
It’s a blatantly embellished excuse. Really, the dress’s flimsy material is not worth its $6 pricetag, costing more per yard than the colorful spectrum of cotton prints lining the walls of the Hobby Lobby next door. And while hems and zippers do constitute the two-headed bane of my seamstress existence, they only become more difficult to manage when they are secured in a finished dress. Every thread is attached to another. When I challenge one, I challenge them all. Once I start plucking at seams, the whole dress threatens to unravel in protest.
Using an existing dress was not the easy route to creation. Truth be told, salvaging another’s work is seldom cheaper and more convenient than creating something from scratch. Adapting existing objects to fit a new creative vision requires impressive feats of problem solving. As the artist gets to know the reclaimed object better, all of its complexities come to light and the original creator’s vision emerges from the fabric.
A battle ensues; the salvager’s aesthetic fights for dominance over the creator’s vision. Unanticipated costs accumulate as the salvager tries to smother the object’s intrinsic nature with new materials. Artistic compromise, anathema to most artists, is the inevitable end. The finished product may not look like the original, but it probably won’t look anything like the salvager’s vision, either. Still, salvaging remains a popular artistic method. What inspires the refashioner, the restorer and the found artist to embark on such frustrating artistic processes if they’re not cheaper, faster or easier?
We come to the mystery of the human impulse to salvage. I feel the desire to reuse and revive, to save an object (if only temporarily) from the inexorable progression of decay. Salvage isn’t creation. It’s resurrection.
My sewing room is full of Lazaruses and Frankenstinean monsters, disparate pieces of yesterday’s clothing awaiting my galvanizing hand. My personal reason for salvaging is a moral one. By habitual association, I relate the difficulty of an enterprise with its virtue. Salvage certainly seems to be the difficult choice. Therefore, it must be very moral indeed. Guided by my syllogism, I shun the craft store and instead frequent the thrift shop.
The thrift shop is my boneyard. I sift through the skeletal remains of decades of fashion to scout out worthy pieces. The older, the better. Substitute “more detailed” or “more unique” for “older,” and the maxim still applies. As a refashioner, I use detail and uniqueness to distinguish a few promising items from the racks upon racks of “nothing special.” Of course, other types of salvagers look for different qualities. With her Depression-era ingenuity, my grandmother can find a second use for anything that has “quality.” Why throw away a perfume bottle when it could be a paperweight? What about a cracked soufflé dish? A flowerpot comes to mind. At the very least, anything that looks old or interesting can become a trinket on one of her innumerable shelves. She is a salvager of the collector sort, the fox of her neighborhood Goodwill. My mother is a salvager of yet another variety: the restorer. While she occasionally dabbles in thrift stores, she generally searches for bigger fish on Craigslist. Under the circumstances, she refinishes and reupholsters antique furniture. Given endless funds, she would likely spend her life remodeling dilapidated houses.
Mercifully, my mother never had this disposable income. House restoration is a whole new kettle of fish—or more accurately, a small lake full of untold numbers of wriggly, squirmy, problems that are impossible to foresee. It’s where salvaging becomes not only cost-ineffective, but prohibitively expensive and even life draining. Take the cautionary tale of my friend Patrick O’Brien. When he was four, his family moved into a beautiful clapboard house built in the 1880s. The structure had excellent “bones.” Really, it would be perfect after Patrick’s parents made a few renovations.
15 years later, the house is nowhere near finished. The secret is: it never will be. The O’Briens undertook a process of “unfinishing,”—their house had passed through a full lifecycle and was ready for demolition. It was finished in the most permanent sense. And then this young family decided it wasn’t. Now one re-roofing job will follow on the heels of the wall re-plastering and the façade re-shingling and the light re-wiring. That house will remain the O’Brien’s child long after Patrick and all of his siblings have left. In fact, I know plenty of couples that have chosen a house over children. After all, how many expensive, needy and often disappointing projects can two people reasonably undertake?
House restoration is a good example of salvaging’s metastic potential. Some salvagers live perfectly normal lives, managing collection and restoration as benign hobbies. In other cases, “salvage” evolves from an activity into a lifestyle. It is no longer a verb, but a noun. Those who suffer from it live at the edge of society. Dumpster divers tolerate the disdain and disgust of the passerby. They spend untold hours picking through the bones of others’ lives in order to furnish their own. In a very literal interpretation of “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” dumpster divers look for hidden value in trash. Some “trash,” like new shoes still stuffed with tissue or unused notebook paper, doesn’t require much looking. But even items that seem worthless become extremely useful in another context. To the diver, most waste is just that: a waste.
Dumpster diving reveals the civic implications of salvaging. Sure, there’s a financial incentive to get free stuff, but there’s also an ethical imperative. Sentencing still useful objects to a symbolic death in the landfill is unconscionable in the face of human need. Economic systems of overproduction, overconsumption and forced obsolescence—think seasons of fashion or generations of electronics—are comprised of social and ecological abuse. So long as someone can find a purpose for an object, its disposal is not only premature, but irresponsible. In that sense, society’s preoccupation with newness has roots in a lack of imagination. Work done by found artists exemplifies this point.
There is perhaps no artwork that better encapsulates the concept of salvage than Marcel Duchamp’s famous sculpture “Fountain,” a used urinal flipped upside down and signed with Duchamp’s pseudonym. That inverted urinal literally turned the concept of value upside down. Without changing anything but its intellectual context, Duchamp elevated basic human objects to the status of high art. He sculpted “Fountain” not with a hammer and chisel, but with a different perspective. Meaning supersedes form and calls into question the very basis of art. Does art necessitate physical creation, or merely the generation of ideas? Without producing any new materials, Duchamp created art.
Using ideas to give an object another life is the how and what of salvage. But why do we salvage in the first place? Certainly, there are moral obligations and financial incentives and the thrill of the hunt. Yet the impulse to salvage exists even in the absence of all of those factors. It could be rooted where all inexplicable impulses lurk and evolutionary instincts. The human aversion to waste is bound up in survival. All things being equal, the most resourceful Homo sapiens would be the most likely to stretch their limited resources to live and to create.
Then again, perhaps the salvage impulse does not result from our subconscious recognition that we could die and must fight to survive, but something equally inherent: our desire to deny our mortality. In a sense, salvaging is a quiet rejection of death. Restorers and reclaimers build something new from the bones up, thrusting objects doomed to decay into a new existence. Found artists go even further, saving not only an object, but an idea, allowing it to revive countless times in the mind of each new viewer. In a small way, salvaging allows us to create life where we found death.