Basurama (trash-o-rama), a non profit organization based in Spain, is preparing a public waste audit for MIT’s Media Lab Festival on April 20th. Their unique point of intervention that goes above and beyond a regular waste audit and the goal of quantification and classification of waste,  is how to represent two tons of waste.

Basurama developed the graphic above to think through how they might display the waste after the audit. I’ve posted elsewhere about the logics of a theater of proof, a phrase coined by Bruno Latour in The Pasteurization of France, to describe the sudden manifestation of an otherwise invisible phenomenon legible to lay audiences. In a theater of proof, viewers can see the phenomenon under study in “black and white,” can understand it all at once as it becomes apparent in sensible, indisputable terms. This is the often goal of doing public waste audits (or at least it is for so many of my students who want to do such projects so people can “just see” all the waste they produce in their lives/dining halls/homes, and by doing so magically internalize the severity of the problem and change their behaviours).

Like most information visualizations, the problem Basurama is asking on their blog post about how to visualize two tons of waste is about the best practices of theaters of proof. How do we make such a theater? How can we arrange our raw materials as a sort of information landscape that makes the issue at hand apparent to lay audiences? How do we transform information, via this trash, into affective work for the viewer? How do we make the usually invisible, always heterogeneous, mashed up world of trash legible? How do we use aesthetics for intentional intellectual messages? What sort of things can trash say?

Personally and professionally, I am often concerned that tashy messages will reiterate popular mythologies about waste: that we, as individuals, make too much waste, when we, as individuals, have very little agency in the matter and are rather part of an infrastructure of waste. I would like to see a display of industrial vs. “personal” waste, where all the waste is in the former category and nothing is in the latter. The same could be done with systemic vs. unique waste, or waste generated in the pursuit of capital vs. that which is not (perhaps some community agricultural waste would end up in the latter pile). In short, I’m saying that Basurama’s step number 4, classification, is where the qualitative work of quantitative work comes in. Classification determines what will be proven in the theater of proof.

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Max Liboiron is a postdoctoral researcher with the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing and the Superstorm Research Lab.