A Cardboard Life

Posted on by sarahhwang@berkeley.edu

About the writer: Connie Zheng is an artist and writer currently pursuing her MFA in Art Practice at UC Berkeley. She uses the dialogue between text, drawing, painting and time-based media as a conduit through which to consider the environment of the media and the media of the environment, and these investigations tend to center on the visual culture around environmental crisis and economies of waste and creative reuse. She received her BA in Economics and English from Brown University and worked as a researcher before beginning graduate school. Here, she writes about her current practice and research on cardboard is influenced by the GUH course, Populism, Art and the City.

We are surrounded by cardboard everywhere in the Bay Area: in our recycling bins, on our doorsteps, and scattered on the street. We use cardboard to protect and transport the items that often make up our domestic interiors, whether we are moving between homes or awaiting a shipment that traces its origins overseas. We also see cardboard being repurposed and given new life and context, often by our unhoused neighbors, as signage, shelter and insulation.

This material, so evocative of consumption, movement, and creative reuse, became the subject for a speculative research paper that I began while taking the GUH seminar Populism, Art and the City, with Drs. Angela Marino and Jason Luger. I’m grateful that this paper will be published in the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies this upcoming winter, and that the research I did for this piece has informed other writing, video and installation projects that I have been working on this fall.

The idea of a home space in relation to cardboard struck me one Sunday afternoon in January of this year, when I was walking through the ground floor of the HSBC headquarters of Hong Kong. There, I saw nearly a hundred Filipina and Indonesian women gathered in space. They were Filipina and Indonesian domestic workers assembled in one of many informal gathering sites that bloom and are then disassembled over the course of one day. Sunday was the day they could claim as their sole day off from what would otherwise be a 24/7 workweek in the home of their local or expatriate employers, and I assumed that the ephemerality of this gathering made cardboard a useful material to support its manifestation. When I first encountered one of these gatherings, or assemblies, I found myself struck by an affective response that I later attributed to the sight of cardboard being used to demarcate a new informal space directly on top of an existing codified space.

Initially I wondered if the women were homeless, since I am accustomed to the image of the homeless in the Bay Area sitting or sleeping on flattened cardboard. Closer observation negated this possibility. In both cases, however, the cardboard being used as insulation or shelter appeared to be of unknown provenance, occasionally bearing logos that suggested they migrated from a residence or commercial business. Through conversations with Professors Marino and Luger, and my brilliant classmates in the Art, Populism and the City seminar, I realized that the ubiquitous, utilitarian, endlessly repurposable material of cardboard could possess not only a particular symbolic force that is linked to class inequality and consumption, but that it may also contain the ability to cross spatial delineations and produce a new kind of public space. This inquiry led me to the following research question: how does cardboard circulate between public and private spaces, both physically and ontologically, and what is produced in the moment when it crosses from one semiotic space into another?

I began the project by tracing the movement of cardboard through a trans-Pacific circuitry of trade: I made calls to and visited the Port of Oakland, the Berkeley Recycling Center, the Creative Packaging factory in Hayward, and the International Paper sheet feeder factory in Gilroy. I used walking, sketching, photography, video, and speculative writing as methodologies, in addition to more “traditional” methods of research. The multidisciplinary approach that our instructors encouraged the class to take were crucial for the formulation of this paper and its evolution into more visually-oriented works as part of my artistic practice. In fact, much of the research that I did for this paper regarding the circulation of waste commodities made its way into an oil painting, an installation that I am currently building, a visual essay that was just published on SFMOMA’s Open Space platform (“Familiar Strangers, Strange Familiars”), and the footage that I shot when visiting the Berkeley Recycling Center for this paper found its way into a video piece, Notes on Fluorescence, which showed in the Trace Evidence exhibition sponsored by GUH earlier this year.