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Dumpster dive your way to a better future

Pinar & Viola explain why jumping into rubbish skips might actually good for your soul

The latest work we made was a music video for the upcoming singer Sofie Winterson, where we turned her into a dumpster diver, a modern day hunter. We imagined Sofie as a determined, playful girl with an outlandish high tech look. She lives in her own fantasy word with a very specific fascination: dumpster diving, an activity often considered as taboo.

The video is filmed in the streets of Paris: the City of Lights has been the background for countless romance movies but has never been associated with garbage. Yet. The music video depicts Sofie’s day time adventures: she goes through residential waste and discovers treasures, a necklace, a macaron, a teddy bear and even a reproduction of Gustav Klimt’s Kiss. Meanwhile, her clothing is stays intact thanks to Ultra-Ever Dry, the product of the future. If you are not one of its 8 million YouTube fans, Ultra-Ever Dry is a new nanotechnology product that completely repels almost any liquid. (Actually, it turned out to not be as magical as marketed, so we had to cheat with After Effects).

With this video, we created a charismatic scenario on dumpster diving and recycling, hoping that Sofie can inspire people next time they look at garbage in the streets. We want to tell the story of people who approach street garbage as an opportunity for fun, discovery, recycling and adventure; people who aren’t repelled by the idea of putting their hands in dirt.

For those who are not familiar with the term, dumpster divers are people who do not want to be dependent only on the resources that exist in our immediate surroundings. They go through commercial or residential waste with the intention of finding discarded items that may be useful, like food, clothes, or decoration.

Dumpster divers are called garbage pickers, skimmers, scavengers, freegans... But they’re often viewed by outsiders as marginals or clandestine anarchists (or even homeless people). It’s an easy conclusion to link ‘dumb’ and ‘bum’, but you don't need to be poor to find useful items in garbage. You may well be a post-consumerist idealist with an alternative take on shopping malls. As Pinar & Viola, we would rather refer to dumpster divers as futurists or modern day hunters.   

We are so accustomed to paying for mass consumed food at shops and restaurants that it doesn’t occur to us to have a look for food elsewhere. On the other hand, it's not like we live in the countryside where foraging and gathering can be a fun adventure with friends. Cityscapes are pretty much built on a space-time efficient algorithm, leaving almost no space for playgrounds that operate on non-monetary systems. The act of setting up your own rules to gain free access to food penetrates the heart of our “keeping up with the newest product" times. As Jeff Shantz's academic paper on dumpster diving, One Person’s Garbage… Another Person’s Treasure, puts it: the practice is the “antithesis of competitive consumerism”. 

It’s a small, anarchic crack in the system that manifests a political impulse to redistribute the wealth. Dumpster diving is just a window to an entire new ecosystem of mindful and creative ecological activities, like guerrilla gardening, clothing swap parties, couchsurfing and squatting; all of which enhances the feeling of community without overtones of moral condemnation. The emphasis on community is what makes garbage picking a futuristic activity. According to Jeremy Seifert, the filmmaker behind the dumpster diving documentary Dive!, the practice is built on the belief that giving is more satisfying than getting.

It’s quite the upside-down world these days. The word ‘community’ is popularized by notorious Silicon Valley geeks, whose natural habitat is spent in between browsers and apps. For those of us who think of a computer tab when we hear the word ‘home’, the feeling of community as being a place free of social isolation becomes even more important.

Dumpster diving is getting more and more common in the US, where mass food consumption occurs in epic proportions while every year. While 46.2 million of the nation live in poverty, 96 billion pounds of food is thrown away on a regular basis. Unsurprisingly, alongside the Netherlands, the US is now leading the online and offline freegan movement with meetup groupsFacebook groups, and even organizations such as Food Not Bombs that openly encourage dumpster diving.

“the idea of diving into a smelly container as a conscious and proud activity does not exactly resonate with a for-profit system"

It’s hard to understand why going through garbage would even merit a discussion. It violates some of the most strongly espoused values of advanced capitalist society, like hygiene, class, status, pride and privacy. The pharmaceutical and household culture revolves around fighting the terror of bacteria and viruses, so the idea of diving into a smelly container as a conscious and proud activity does not exactly resonate with a for-profit system. It’s even harder to see any meaning in opening and going through garbage bags if you live in a country with a non-equal distribution of wealth, in which people work hard to differentiate and distance yourself from the poor.

Like any other taboo-breaking act, dumpster divers are subject to a hostile gaze. In January, three people were arrested near a local Iceland for taking a mushroom and few vegetables out of the garbage. Jeff Shantz’s paper alleges that supermarkets and restaurants also put bleach into discarded food products specifically to keep them from being used without purchase. Shantz adds that large supermarket chains sometimes have the strongest dumpster security, which can include razor wire enclosures. This is despite the fact that dumpster diving is pretty much a legal grey area: it is tolerated in Britain with very little enforcement, while the practice is completely legal in France.

Personally, I think I could be a dumpster diver if I wasn’t living in the heart of Paris. It's not like I would be offended by the piercing judgmental looks of Parisians who'll whisper "vous n'avez pas le droit" (you don't have the right to). It’s more like I wouldn’t have the motivation to open other people’s trash bags while an abundance of food is available in the market next door (thankfully). But if there was be a fancy dumpster diving club, like a running team of cool kids, I’d be taking my swanky knives, torch and tech gear with me, the same way I take my yoga mat when I go to pilates. I'd see Paris not as a secret hermitage of untouchable grandeur, but more like a beautiful adventure land filled with secret treasures for me to discover. Maybe one day in Silicon Valley?