The city of living garbage : improvisational ecologies of Austin, Texas
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“The city of living garbage” tours private houses in Austin transformed by their inhabitants into quasi-public places – art environments and permaculture systems made possible by urban waste. The creators of these micro-utopias collect and improvise with salvaged materials like roadside junk, greywater, unwanted animals, and half-forgotten cultural forms to cultivate habitats where undervalued things flourish. They revalue waste through a variety of practices like caring for, teaching, learning, enjoying, and tinkering. Becoming part of these relational patterns is a way to slow down and find wonder and pleasure in the ordinary, but also to act on ecological problems in the larger world. The landscape patches that emerge are lively but vulnerable assemblages that artists, activists, and their nonhuman allies belong to as local characters. By being open for tours, the places loosely connect publics that share modes of attention set on urban natures, salvageable garbage, and vernacular aesthetics. These informal institutions, non-profits, and vulnerable for-profit businesses are caught up in Austin’s current sustainable and cultural development strategies, but also share in an informal economy through their use of valueless wastes. Some articulate with contemporary localization movements that seek to reconfigure water, food, and energy production to decrease their precarious dependence on globalized economies. Others refuse the boundary between art and everyday life by recasting houses as never-ending aesthetic projects. Similarly, as wildlife habitats and urban gardens, they are thriving examples of cultivated places that disrupt an assumed antithesis between cities and ecosystems. These embodied critiques or dreams are small-scale manifestations of what urban natures might become. Borrowing from Deleuze & Guattari, Haraway, Latour, and Thrift, I attend to these places’ ecological and aesthetic relational dynamics that communicate directly through bodies, senses, and forms. This non-representational approach recognizes the contributions of nonhuman agents like plants, animals, microbes, and machines in composing affective landscapes. The writing strives to be a mode of research that is isomorphic with the phenomena it describes. It is impelled by a love of the places, people, and beings it researches; it aspires to preserve a little bit of them by redoubling their presence in the world.