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Reclamation Studio x Spartan Upcycle

The receipt from a shopping 'trip' may only document the financial transaction underway, but behind that quantitative veneer lies a storied history of labor and resources, social and environmental impacts, grit and earth. Likewise, there's a story, a tangled knot of influences driving the buyer's behavior. Access. Wealth. Privilege. Identity. Values.  

Yet, if we weave together the vastly different reasons we buy and products we choose, a common thread is revealed. For many in the U.S., consumerism is simply a part of life, as natural and persistent as the changing seasons. 

Reclamation Studio (RCAH 315) turns that consumer drive inside out and prompts students to simply make do with what is available. As an arts and humanities class, Reclamation Studio does not encourage mere resignation to what is, but instead invites students to investigate and experiment with what is possible. 

Artist and instructor Steven Baibak, Residential College in the Arts and Humanities faculty member and LookOut Gallery preparator, talks to students about the “wake of consumption” and challenges them (and himself) to be “more like a canoe, and less like an ocean liner.” With this phrase, Baibak puts landfill diversion and sustainable materials management into plain language. To bring this concept to life, Baibak and the students meet at the MSU Surplus Store & Recycling Center, where the mission is to manage MSU’s waste as a resource.  

Students are invited to cull through a mish-mash of discarded and/or excess objects that have been collected through the everyday operations of Surplus & Recycling staff, and diverted through Spartan Upcycle, the department’s creative reuse program. Through exploring and creating with assorted cast-off items, students begin to investigate solid waste and its impacts on both sides of the of the point of consumption -- upstream (extraction, production, packaging, shipping, etc.) and downstream (disposal). 

A handful of class projects lead students to revisit and reimagine discarded materials to create reclaimed art. While working creatively to plan and complete each piece, students learn and apply foundational principles and techniques and practice engaged scholarship.  

Interacting with the unpredictable assortment of items, students are led to consider the object from a different perspective: What is the life of the material? Where did it come from? How was it processed? How was it stored, distributed, and consumed? Where does it live in the future? What else can it be used for? 

In this way, gadgets, clothing, furnishings, disposable goods, etc. serve as base material for found/upcycled art, as well as a jumping off point for deeper discussions about the linear economy (the "take-make-waste" model) and the circular economy, which emphasizes keeping material in the system. At the same time, the philosophical or possibly aspirational conversation is grounded in the materiality that structures the course. Design principles take on new meaning when comparing the translucency of particular plastics or the rigidity of copper wire compared to fiber optic cable. The introduced concept of appropriated color is exemplified in a student’s mandala made of mac and cheese packaging. The subtle balance between variance and consistency is exhibited in another student’s curved vase made from toilet paper and paper towel tubes. 

Turning unwanted or tattered items into wearable garments and living room lamps is an ambitious feat that requires the artists to roll up their sleeves and work with unfamiliar tools and techniques. One student cuts pieces of tire with wire cutters, while a few weeks later another uses a sewing machine for the first time. In the cob lamp project, artists engineered working lights, demonstrating the application of sustainable design and eco-conscious art. Throughout the semester, the Collection, Observation, Transformation project encourages students to experiment creatively with a reoccurring item that they typically waste. 

Whether they are handling common or unusual items, their own or someone else's, the students engaged with Reclamation Studio experience a perspective shift. Often, this is experienced as responding to the materials -- the available resources -- and letting their characteristics and possibilities lead the creative process. In doing so, RCAH students discover new ways of knowing and seeing, while collaborating with discards and each other. 

In collaboration with MSU's Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, Spartan Upcycle encourages students to rethink and reimagine their relationship with discarded objects, whether their own or others'. Take a behind-the-scenes look at the MSU Recycling Center.


Story by Katie Deska, Education Coordinator. Video by Lara Clay, Student Upcycle Assistant.