Retreading: circular consumption and the philosophy of upcycling

To celebrate the publication of our first ever themed book — Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê — we’ll be publishing a series of exclusive posts over the next few weeks. Today, we bring you Ava Osbiston’s piece that goes right to the heart oftechnê’ — the practical application of art and craft — that this volume takes as its title.

To get a copy of the latest book, or to subscribe to future issues, visit our online shop.

4 Juice Carton Wallet Ava Colour lowres

I have always made things. I remember making cardboard robots and plasticine creatures as a child to an excessive extent, filling the house with childish art. Still now, when left to my own devices I make. Sometimes jewellery, sometimes costumes, sometimes woodwork, sometimes I paint. But mostly nowadays I make bags – rucksacks, pouches, handbags, cases – that I think of a little more like useful sculptures, somewhere between craft and art (although who is defining the difference?) I make my bags largely from Butyl rubber tractor inner tubes and old car seat belts. These materials are industrial, strong, durable, easy to work with, vegan (as far as I know), and mostly quite waterproof. They are also waste. When I first approached a tractor mechanic to ask if he had any old burst inner tubes lying around he said that he mostly gave them to farmers to start fires. The very idea makes my stomach churn now I have worked with and realised the potential of them as a creative and practical medium.

Making is my meditation. It is my own personal escape from thinking. My hands take over and I finally have space from the never-ending ‘to do’ list of modern life. It is not logical, or productive in any linear way, but it’s the art of being present and occupying myself with a generally quite repetitive task and watching something grow that is so calming. If I haven’t done it for a while I can feel it lacking in my day-to-day life. Time moves differently when I’m making, in cool long waves. I cannot do it if I have to be somewhere in a few hours. I swallow whole days with my making mind space.

Using materials that are ‘waste’ enhances my creativity. By making something out of materials that have curves or bumps, or are awkward shapes or sizes has resulted in a level of originality that I would not have achieved with a plain, flat starting material. I collaborate with the material, with the designer of the original product and with time. The pieces I make have a history. The inner tube has revolved in a tyre of a tractor thousands of times; ploughing soil; making hay; towing sheep trailers; distributing pesticides; taking cows to slaughter? I can never know their full story, but I enjoy engaging in some small way with it. The re-use of the materials in a new way is a reminder of the world we live in. When I go to the (very few) scrap-yards that allow me to scavenge the materials I need, I see cars stacked high mostly from car accidents, written off, too far gone to fix, with smashed windows, baby toys on the floor, crumpled bonnets. It is an exciting process for me (if a little perverted) to take the detritus of this general destruction and regurgitate it as something new and fresh and useful and hopefully beautiful. I feel as if I’m working as nature does, scavenging on the old to create the new, in cycles that are older than time.

Up-cycling is strongly connected with the visual demonstration of ‘eco-credentials’ and ‘green’ design and although this is partly true for me, it is certainly not the main reason to make things from waste: after all, the materials are free! I am funding no immoral industries with my making habit. I don’t need to achieve any financial ‘return’ on my creations as I have only invested time rather than money. I have repeatedly refused to financially value my time. If I express doubt as to how much I should charge I am often asked, ‘But how long did it take you?’ I do not earn an hourly wage. Pricing myself like that would tie me into a concept that the more time something takes the more money it should cost. I don’t believe this. I believe in the benefits I receive from the making itself and the joy of sharing that with others. I would often rather give something away than haggle for it. There is much to be said for achieving a sense of self worth as an artist, but why should this worth should come from money? There is a chasm in difference between value and price.

Besides, using waste materials allows me to play in the moneyless space; to experiment with the magic of illogical, conceptual art whilst making practical pieces that can be functional and durable with no need to focus on selling anything. In the crevices of the human creative process dwell the last drops of magic available to us in the Western world; the kind of truth we cannot explain. To put a price on that has always sat awkwardly for me.

Up-cycling is not going to save the world. In an ideal world, nobody would be making butyl rubber tyres out of oil, so there would be no waste for me to play with. But in this world, these scraps allow me to carve a niche in which I can be creative without making too much of an unwanted mess. I am working in the ‘slack’ between consumption and protest. It feels like a step towards something; or at least a step away from something worse.

There’s more where this came from in Dark Mountain issue 8: Technê. To get a copy of the book, or subscribe to future issues, visit our online shop.

Ava Osbiston is a multimedia artist and musician based in Bristol. She uses pre-used materials to make bags and wearable art that are ‘one offs’. Currently exploring improvisation, and alternative bartering in her craft and music, she is also the editorial assistant for Dark Mountain, having written her environmental sciences undergraduate dissertation as a case study of the project. avaosbiston.co.uk

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