[As our April guest editor, designer John Patrick interviewed Victor Castro, a Mexican artist whose conceptual sculptures deal with issues of sustainability and the environment. Below, watch the short video to learn about Castro's latest project, a collaboration with the community of Madison, WI, and then read on to learn more.]
John Patrick: Give us your real talk bio.
Victor Castro: I’m an artist working in social sculpture. I was born in Monterrey, Mexico and I am currently living and working in Madison, WI. Previously, I have lived and worked in Mexico City, Lima, Peru and Madrid, Spain. My work focuses on questions/issues of sustainability, the environment, educational strategies and social networks. Most of my projects are community-generated and are made from thousands of repurposed, often discarded, everyday objects that are gathered in collaboration with people from all walks of life.
JP: Name some artists you admire. Do you consider these to be your "influences?" Do you identify as part of an artistic tradition?
VC: I’m not sure that my influences come from other artists, I think my surroundings are my biggest influence and leitmotif. Several of my ideas and developments come from my experience with reality, with the world and the people around me.
I can tell you which artists I admire, and yes, you can find some influences from them in my work. For example, the first one is Philip Glass, a musician. I found his music in 1989, at the same time that I was interested in art and I decided to become an artist. Since that time it is recurrent that I hear his music at the studio when I’m working. If I need to mention other artists, I think Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, Donald Judd, Gego, Rufino Tamayo, Francisco Toledo, Tony Cragg and Ai Weiwei for example.
JP: How did you arrive at your current project? What's the deal with Tetra Paks? What are they? You worked with bottle caps in the past; how are Tetra Paks different?
VC: Each material I choose, I have different reasons for considering them as an art material in my projects. The physical properties of each one is the principal, but also the history around the material and the community I’m working with. Then I can decide to work with the materials if they could help us to talk about what we are doing with them after we use them. In the case of the plastic bottle caps for example, I used to work with them in places where there was not an established recycling system that comes to your door to collect all your recyclables, including the plastic bottles. Then if you don't decide to bring those materials to the recycling facilities, they just went to the landfill, or stayed around as pollution, or sadly arrived to the ocean with catastrophic consequences. Working with caps leads to talking about the bottles, where, for example, I used to ask people to collect the caps for the project but to also separate and reduce the volume of the bottles so somebody else could recycle them easier. Working with kids, for example, lets us think in several parallel processes like the volume of the things (and the consequences). But in all cases, I try to think about doing something with the material before it becomes trash. I ask people to save it, to clean it, to treat it as an art material after it has finished its purpose, its “useful life,” then repeat before it becomes trash. I reject the word recycling and trash in my practice.
The Tetra Pak is an interesting and complex material. It is the name of a company, and the name of a material. The company’s slogan is “protect what is good” and they claim that they are doing a lot, but the material is very complex to recycle because it is a mix of materials and some places can't recycle it at all, where it then becomes trash. If the box has recycling information, because half of the brands just don't print any info, it will say: “Recyclable only where the facilities exists, for more info please visit http://www.recyclecartons.com.” Then the reality is that where they do have recycling options, like here in Madison, the people just put them in the trash because the packaging info is confusing. Using this material lets us talk about this issues and show the amazing properties you can develop if you use it in a creative mode. In all my practice, the focus is to use challenging materials that others consider trash. But I think of them just as art materials — Tetra Paks are like bronze for me now.
I have a technique to put together this material without using glue, and I'm making sculptures with this. My current project, The Meadowridge Art Project, is a site specific sculpture for the new Meadowridge Library in Madison, where the pre-existing location is being renewed with a strong community focus. We received a grant for the Madison Arts Commission to develop this piece and we are running a complete participatory program involving the neighborhood and the community as a whole. We decided we would need to collect at least 2403 empty boxes, a symbolic number that represents 1% of Madison population, and members of the community are collecting them and bringing them to any of the nine library locations around the city.
JP: What led you to connect trash to the earth and the environment?
VC: When I started to work with repurposing materials 15 years ago, it was casual and I never set a goal to work in this way to improve the environment. But immediately I saw the potential, and yes, I decided to think and work as sustainably as possible. Then the people started to relate my work to environmental activism, and now I’m comfortable with that.
JP: What's it like to touch so much trash? What have you learned about our relationship to waste?
VC: I rejected the recycling and trash terms since the beginning because my intention is in the artistic side of the things, and I’m trying to ask the people to participate in the project to have a proactive attitude and prevent the materials from getting dirty. When we ask for clean and dry materials, the simple answer to your question could be that I have the same experience as those touching yards and yards of fabric — just exciting!
About our relationship with waste, I have learned that we have a lot to develop and redefine. One of the slogans we are already using is, “Are you sure it is trash?” Because I am never sure.
JP: What practical advice would you give to young aspiring artists?
VC: Dream big, be focused and work hard. My philosophy is that art materials are already there and you do not need to pay for them and create more debris.