Use It All Up

Use It All Up

In 2006, I freaked out about trash. Also, my life was apparently falling apart. In hind sight, those two things seem connected. While things have settled down, I'm still freaked out about trash—how much we collectively produce that has no right place to go, the relentless cravings and conveniences that keep it happening—I just don't give it my full attention.

The name Use It All Up first emerged when I decided that I use up materials I already had—no more shopping needed. This was both a reaction to my own earlier extravagances (see Installations, 1998-2001) and to a sudden, belated understanding of supply chains and materials extraction. Use It All Up also recognizes that collectively, however innocently we might be as individual, people in capitalist economies behave with apparent determination to use up all resources.

Use It All Up included many things and actions, but especially these major categories:  outerwear  //   lingerie   //   documents  //  billboards and signs   //  containers 

This project never resolved. It did spawn specific, somewhat unlikely groups of objects. These useful objects were deliberately not put to use, except briefly for private rituals. So they might be properly taken (or mis-taken) for art. 

From about 2006 through 2011, I harvested all non-recyclable and non-compostable trash that I and my family generated. I cleaned and sorted this trash and worked to process it, in all its myriad typologies, into newly useful raw materials. During this time, at least a couple people became well known for similar, but usually shorter-spanned, versions of this experiment. Without duration, I believe they missed crucial information, particularly how difficult it is to continue living a "trash-free" life, right now.

Belatedly, posthumously, #convenienceequalsdeath became the slogan for Use It All Up.

Selected collections of trash. 2009

Selected collections of trash. 2009


I did two basic things with the trash, neither of which was making art objects. What took up most of my time (since my hands like to be busy and I was upset about my life falling apart) was deconstructing complex things and attempting to construct usable things from the components or materials. But there were so many pieces, and only so many hours in the day. Really, a small family needs its own recycling machinery.

All the pieces that composed Mel's handbag. 2009-10

Handbag parts. Many labor hours to disassemble, while maintaining each part's integrity. Photo: Jeannie O'Connor


The other activity was designing just that: a household-friendly-size recycling machine, including a section that output new and of course useful things from the newly processed materials. It could fit in a food truck, or next to your dishwasher. While I was dreaming about this, a few people succeeded in creating such things, setting them up in garages and workshops around the world. If only this had an impact on the volume of trash we generate, because the scale of the response is just wrong. And so many objects we take for granted have a bizarre number of components and materials, which make them difficult, if even possible, to turn into something else. (See All the Pieces, above.)

Knickers and mask. Reversible (from green to black). Small bag hanging from mask has extra cord. Size XS. 

This cloth got pulled off a derelict sofa, before it got set in the street, found in extended family's apartment back room. Clear nylon panels on knicker sides leftover from a 2001 installation.


The methods of Use It All Up are familiar to any old school quilter and every human before mass production: no scrap is too small to make use of and, indeed, to honor. In our era, with all materials painfully undervalued—which is to say, only valued monetarily by ignoring the upstream costs—it is fabulously easy to be up to your eyebrows in way more than scraps. Too much stuff, even with no shopping.

Rules emerged quickly: Everything I made had to be functional, which included acts of repair, reconstruction, and mending. I could only purchase binding and marking materials (glue, thread, needles, pencils, paint, brushes)—which, I grant you, is already a lot. Everything else, I sourced from the bottomless well of first world installation artist leftovers, household trash, and kid detritus. Many people offered me their unwanted things, which I soon learned I couldn't accept. Nor did I pick up what I found on the street. There is simply too much.

Basket. Unfinished. 2008-10

Found plastic and steel packing straps. Electrical and computer wire. This basket is surprisingly heavy for its size. Had it reached completion—big enough to hold a human—it would weigh roughly the same as the person inside.


I discovered something. There are TOO MANY KINDS of plastics, many of which don't play nicely with each other. Or, when handled with heat or pressure become weak and brittle, not recyclable. It is too convenient to have these materials in our lives. The solution, really, is live with so much less, to live without disposables, for legislation to stop toxic materials from entering into our ecosystems and bodies. I wish I knew how to be a lobbyist. I also learned that industrial waste hides even more successfully than municipal waste. 

Studio wall. Rebus. 2010

False starts, odd materials, strangely shaped finished things. Photo: Lia Roozendaal.

Words for Mel Day

Words for Mel Day

Signs and Billboards

Signs and Billboards