small acts of repair*

Let me start with a question: “How do you make a repair?”

“Well,” you might respond, “it depends. What do you need repairing?”

“A sock, ” I say. “A pair of jeans. A mug, a bicycle, a car. A beach” When the sock is worn or the jeans ripped, repair usually involves darning, in which we effectively replace the worn-out heel or toe with new yarn; or patching, in which we may reinforce the tear with stitching and then cover the whole thing with new fabric. A broken mug handle may just need to be stuck on with glue, (or you may choose to make a new handle,) and with my bicycle I may need to remove a part and fix it or replace with a new part that works. It’s off to the mechanic with a car because I know nothing about cars, but I imagine the same principle as with my bicycle applies.

In all these cases repair involves adding to, or replacing something of, the original object, so that we are changing it to a lesser or greater degree. (And in the case of my sock, when the darning ends up being darned, one can imagine that although the sock retains much of its original form, it actually becomes a very different sock as the original yarn is replaced with more and more new yarn.)

What about a beach? Just how do you repair a beach? Well, what I do is to remove, rather than add. I take things away from the beach – the plastic bottles, food packaging, fishing net fragments, polystyrene and countless identifiable and unidentifiable fragments of the plastic that surrounds us in our daily lives. The beach, in its essential beachness, stays the same. Or rather it is returned to the state it was in before the rubbish arrived: the rocks and sand, the seaweed and limpets will still be there when I leave. So this is a notion of repair that is a restoration to an earlier state rather than an adding or replacing.

I might not want to make any of these repairs: darning a sock (or mending a mug, or a bike or a car,) requires certain tools and materials and takes time and patience not just in learning the skill, but also in practicing it. It is slow, and in the case of the sock may well be futile since we know that any darn will only wear out again. Why bother, when I can buy a new pair of socks easily and cheaply as I shop for groceries in the supermarket?

Another good question. After all, when everything can so easily be thrown away and replaced with new, why would anyone bother to fix anything? “But there a lots of good reasons!” you reply. “Because I will save money; because my granny knit the sock for me; because that broken mug has monetary value, or is no longer available new.” Good reasons, all. And my favourite reason for repair, one I stole from my yoga teacher when he invited us into a particular pose, is not for any perceived benefit. It is ridiculously simple and also extremely liberating: Because we can.

“Because we can” answers some little questions that have been nagging me since the first time I came home with a bag of rubbish picked up from a beach. Why are you doing this? And why bother? Tomorrow more people will arrive to leave their litter behind, and the tide will bring in more. In 23 beach cleans over 7 months last year we removed approximately 12,000 pieces of mostly plastic rubbish: a drop in the proverbial ocean. Globally we now produce 300 million tons of plastic a year, of which half is designed for single use. Only 5% of those plastics are recycled and about 40% are unaccounted for: dumped illegally or simply lost in the waste stream. Much of it ends up in the ocean, where the UN estimates there are 45,000 pieces of plastic for every square mile. If cleaning beaches to remove ocean plastic pollution is a kind of repair, it’s a very slow repair, and very possibly futile.

So, let us return to our original question: “How do you make a repair?” Goat Island director Lin Hixson asked this question at the beginning of the process that led, two years later, to the Chicago-based company’s eighth performance piece. She relates finding a 1970’s manual in November 2001 that detailed repairs such as how to replace the grip on a tennis racket or reface a ping-pong bat, instructions that she describes as “Small acts of repair. Calming the hands in a troubled world. Restoring damage to use.” As an artist responding to the then-recent attacks of September 11, Hixson found the notion of repair more useful that revenge or retaliation. In fact it was “the smallness of (the repair instructions”) that struck me, in comparison to the big event that had happened.”

In much the same way, the discovery one day of rubbish on my favourite beach and my consequent, if rather sporadic, attempts over the past two years or so to repair what I saw as damage by picking it up, has led to something I could never have imagined then: a body of artwork, this blog, becoming part of a global group of similarly crazy beach cleaners and soon, I hope, an MA. And along the way I have come to rely upon the doing of these small acts of repair for something even greater than the satisfaction that comes from doing something because I can. There is a deep pleasure to be found in returning to the same place over time. In immersing myself not only in the job of picking up rubbish and restoring the beach, but also in the physical sensations of a warm breeze and the smell of seaweed, or the thrill of a stormy sea, or the pure joy of diamonds of sunlight dancing on the waves. These small acts of repair, directed at the beach and motivated by an awareness of an impossible global problem, have restored me.

*For this post I have shamelessly stolen from the title of a book: Small Acts of Repair: Performance, Ecology and Goat Island, (Stephen Bottom and Matthew Goulish, eds, New York, New York, Routledge, 2007.) All the quotes in this post also come from this wonderful and mind-blowing book, quite unlike any book on art I have ever read.

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6 thoughts on “small acts of repair*

  1. This is a beautiful article. And so true, all of it. There really is a deep pleasure in returning to visit the same place. To see it evolve, change, yet always be there. To know its rhythms, to do even a small part to repair it. Just love this.

  2. Pingback: feeling somewhat ROPEY! « expressions of an intimate ecology

  3. “Because we can” answers some little questions that have been nagging me since the first time I came home with a bag of rubbish picked up from a beach. Why are you doing this? And why bother? Tomorrow more people will arrive to leave their litter behind, and the tide will bring in more. In 23 beach cleans over 7 months last year we removed approximately 12,000 pieces of mostly plastic rubbish: a drop in the proverbial ocean. Globally we now produce 300 million tons of plastic a year, of which half is designed for single use. Only 5% of those plastics are recycled and about 40% are unaccounted for: dumped illegally or simply lost in the waste stream. Much of it ends up in the ocean, where the UN estimates there are 45,000 pieces of plastic for every square mile. If cleaning beaches to remove ocean plastic pollution is a kind of repair, it’s a very slow repair, and very possibly futile.

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