by Rachel Meade Smith
If I had a motto, it would be: no new things unless they’re old. The world is overfull, brimming with junk, the kind we can hold and the invisible kind that saturates our skulls. One could argue that everything we’ll ever need, besides maybe food grown in the earth, already exists. But for better or worse, our drive to create is innate (Vonnegut summed it up this way: one “flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.”). This syllabus explores a humble solution: to make new but only by way of (relatively) old. It asks: what if our ingredients were only or mostly sourced by chance or accident, pre-existing, created for a different and often distant purpose? Can we satisfy (and spur!) our productive impulses while rescuing forgotten shards of history and labor from the landfill of time?
I’ll essentially ignore practices that simply place found items in new contexts, like the Dadaist readymades and Richard Prince’s stolen Marlboro men, and the discourses that work often spurs (“is it art?,” etc.). I’m concerned instead with work that treats found material as raw even when fully cooked, from people moved by the constraints of rules, who through searching, gathering, rearranging, accumulating, reconstructing, composing, and renaming, abstract old until it is undeniably new.
My own exhilaration in working with found material lies in the promise of far-flung destinations I’d never reach if left only to my “own” devices. I link arms with the stuff, led by serendipitous juxtapositions and discoveries instead of muscled conceits. There’s a reason we’re bewitched by dreams—all the matter of our waking lives, tossed around and churned into plots we’d never purposefully construct in a million years.
This syllabus explores the use of found and recycled matter across three mediums, beginning with the most material of the three, and ending with the most intangible:
- images / moving images
Each unit notes a few featured projects, people, or topics, and includes some homework (other things to read/watch/listen to/explore, and a prompt). At the end you’ll find a final set of links and prompts.
I’m leaving out many mediums with rich histories of and potential for material reuse—sound art! cooking! sculpture!—and the examples below are just a teeny, tiny tip of a very large iceberg. The intent is to open you to the creative potential of reuse that lies absolutely everywhere.
Circular approaches to clothing—for example, turning a tired t-shirt into a headscarf, or patching old pants with an old shirt—are, for me at least, the most obvious example of creative reuse. This doesn’t make them uninteresting. Beyond the environmental benefits of these practices, they possess an aesthetic quality, maybe best described as rough-hewn and deliberately random, that makes them particularly appealing in our time of algorithmically-induced sameness.
Some of the oldest and most recognizable textile traditions are, at their core, traditions of reuse. Typically originated by artisans lacking easy access to new materials, these practices showcase how (seemingly) constraining choice and working with only what is at hand, even towards purely utilitarian aims, can lead to stunning and unexpected outcomes.
Boro is just one of the many Japanese textile traditions rooted in reuse. It originated in Japan sometime around the 19th century, when new fabrics were reserved for the country’s elite. Working-class households had to save every tattered garment and mend every hole, layering scrap on scrap and securing with a simple running stitch. The result of this humble improvisation was a patchwork mosaic that could hold up for generations. It has become an influential aesthetic unto itself (despite being a shameful marker of poverty at the time).
Of all textile artisans, quilters are perhaps the most prolific reusers. While many now purchase pre-cut fabric swatches for predetermined patterns (and it shows), legendary quilting communities like the Gee’s Bend quilters, and Amish, Shaker, and Appalachian quilters, have been known to hoard retired bedsheets, napkins, and clothing, improvising idiosyncratic palettes and compositions from whatever’s in the scrap bin.
In the Philippines, you’ll find basahan mats welcoming you inside most spaces. Made from old household and factory scraps (called “retaso”—literally remnants of fabric in Tagalog), weavers abstract the original patterns and colors into eccentric, vibrant palettes within a stark woven grid.
In this house, paper is a textile. While collage artist Francis Davison didn’t work exclusively with reused paper, the collages he made from old envelopes and scrap paper (only tearing, never cutting) demonstrate how reuse can elevate the most mundane of materials to a new plane of existence.
- How to unravel a sweater
- Manufactured Landscapes by Jennifer Baichwal
- Recycled Art Inspired by African Traditions
- Sabrina Gschwandtner’s film quilts (a fun crossover with the next section)
- Fabscrap or a secondhand market in your area
- Foxfire’s online textiles exhibition
- Megumi Arai
- Ask three friends or family members for a garment or household textile they no longer want. You might give constraints (e.g., no florals; only florals), or leave it up to god.
- Knit, weave, or stitch them together to make a small potholder.
- Extra credit: Use food scraps to dye your material.
2: Image and Moving Image
Reuse in image and moving image is more conflicted than the material reuse practices explored in the previous unit, and why? We don’t typically think of physical scraps as having an author, whereas in image making, the words authorship, appropriation, and, of course, copyright, are typically within earshot. But these considerations haven’t deterred artists from gathering, appropriating, and assembling images to serve their own narratives—about history, culture, and the production and consumption of images themselves—for probably as long as images have existed.
Today, the “ever-expanding image bank” of the internet (as described by Catherine Russell in her book Archiveology), means we’ve never had greater access to images, or been more immune to them. So the purposeful, opinionated reuse of images requires a particularly focused labor. It takes deliberate research, gathering, and remaking of material, which is in many cases not so much found as hunted. Maybe this is why I’m less excited by Rauschenberg and Warhol framing appropriated imagery than I am by the examples below, all of which bear the signature of extensive and deliberate excavation, curation, and composition.
Carmen Winant’s work is about accumulation and pattern-seeking. Her collages, installations, and publications bring together copious found images to show how certain acts or subjects—e.g., photographs made to teach something; women at work; children’s imagination—have been represented across time and space.
Gertrude Stein said: “Is there repetition or is there insistence. I am inclined to believe there is no such thing as repetition.” Her point was that when we consider like images (or stories) to be merely redundant copies, we ignore the unique emphasis offered by the context, author, and/or teller of each. In Winant’s work, every repeated image insists in a slightly different way, while their cumulative corpus forms a new image altogether.
Onyeka Igwe’s experimental films draw history out of film archives, government and public records, and family artifacts, and converse with it. In her three-short series A Repertoire of Protest, Igwe projects colonial ethnographic films onto a dancing torso clad in a leather skirt, wears a film still of a woman’s face printed on a t-shirt, and uses titles to pose questions directly to the dancers performing for Queen Elizabeth during the 1956 Royal Tour of Nigeria.
Among Courtney Stephens’ films are short works built around single archival collections, like Mating Games (top still; constructed from home movies filmed at Muscle Beach, Los Angeles) and longer ones constructed from many kindred reels found in disparate collections, like Terra Femme (bottom still), a feature-length essay film made from footage shot by women travelers in the 1920s-1940s. She reads the footage for its silent stories, then reconstructs it, sometimes adding her own narration, to make those stories legible.
- Listen: Onyeka Igwe recalls her time sourcing film from the collections of the former British Empire and Commonwealth Museums
- Explore: Kandis Williams
- Archiveology by Catherine Russell
- A Guide to the Creative Reuse of Archive Film by Make Film History
- In Defense of the Poor Image by Hito Steyerl
- Fire of Love, Sara Dosa
- Riotsville, USA, Sierra Pettengill
- Mating Games, Courtney Stephens
- Self Portrait, Joële Walinga
- Listen to Me, Marlon, Stevan Riley
- Our Nixon, Penny Lane
- The Surface of Mars, Maura Brewer
- News From Home, Chantal Akerman
- Sans Soleil, Chris Marker
- Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen
- The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, Esfir Shub
- Open a book and flip to three different pages. Choose a random word from each.
- Go to the National Archives online catalog. Search each word, filtering for image or moving image records that are available online. Browse your results. Then choose and download at least one file for each word.
- Make a still or moving image collage from your found material.
For about six months in college, I only wrote poems using language from the thesaurus. I was invigorated and turned on by this new partnership. If you’ll allow me to share my first:
NARROWNESS. — I. closeness, exiguity; hair’s (or finger’s) breadth, line, strip, streak.
neck, cervix (cervices), jugulum (jugula), hals or halse, clod (of beef), scrag (of mutton; slang of a person’s neck).
II. slim, scanty, spare.
[with little margin] close, bare (as, a narrow escape).
NAVIGATION. — I. voyaging.
headway, leeway, way.
[means of propulsion] oar, scull, sweep.
II. steam; steer, con or conn; sail over (or on), plough the deep (or waves), put to sea, hug the shore; boom (as a ship under full), gather way, make sail, spread sail, carry sail.
This felt not lazy but revolutionary, that I’d found a way to be at once curator, director, and author. The muscles were different. Instead of conjuring new language, I toiled over selection and rearrangement, moving commas, deleting or repeating words, or swapping them for subtle alternatives to create rhythm and a sense of story.
Since then, I’ve come to appreciate other forms of text recycling, often though not exclusively resulting in poetry. As with the image recyclers, many authors working with found text will speak through others’ words, stitching them together to serve as surrogates for their own. Other times, sentences and passages retain, roughly, their original form, but are fed back to us in new arrangements, fat removed, their meanings starker.
Years after my own affair with the thesaurus, I learned that Harryette Mullen made poems in close partnership with the dictionary, among many other sources, even publishing a collection called Sleeping with the Dictionary (“Beside the bed, a pad lies open to record the meandering of migratory words.”)
Mullen has described her process this way:
“Often I work improvisationally, sampling and collaging fragments of written and spoken discourse. I regard conventional expressions, such as clichés, proverbs, jingles, and slogans, as linguistic “readymades” that I recycle in my work. …I’m working with something intrinsic to language, the fact that meaning is socially and historically constructed and that many words have more than one signification, often including culturally specific meanings particular to a social class, ethnic group, or other community constituted through shared understanding.”
Also years later (what is even the point of creative writing professors?), I learned about the genre of found poetry and centos, a style of patchwork poem composed solely of lines/half-lines of other poems (originally, Homer and Virgil), that had been causing trouble/inciting mockery since Ancient Rome. The most famous example is probably T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which borrows from Chaucer, Baudelaire, and Shakespeare, among others.
Now allow me a dense block quote in defense of centos—them being but a self-effacing microcosm of all written things!
“Being in fact the embodiment of absolute intertextuality, the patchwork poems implicitly question every notion of literary originality because they emphasize the interdependence of individual texts representing different literary metalanguages. The cento is therefore ‘recycled’ art only in a more conspicuous way than the rest of literature inevitably is…”
To put it more plainly: no writing is “original” or sui generis—the cento just vigorously nods at this truth.
Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s work reduces found text down to its essential parts and repurposes them. She’s concerned not just with text’s meaning or content, but also its aesthetics, how it appears on the page. Rasheed intuitively selects and arranges words, phrases, and letters based on their resonance, sound, and/or shape, leading to visual text-based works with potentially infinite interpretations.
In 2022, the New York Times published 10 years’ worth of Sheila Heti’s diaries. But instead of daily entries, we get strings of transposed sentences, organized alphabetically by their starting word. “A Diary in Alphabetical Order” is less a chronicle of a decade and more a linguistic study on contradiction, habit, and selfhood.
- “Donald Trump, Poet” by Aleksandar Hemon and Bigly: Donald Trump in Verse, edited by Rob Long
- Radi Os by Ronald Johnson—Milton’s Paradise Lost, rewritten via excision.
- The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin
- Listen: Charles Bernstein reads Charles Reznikoff’s “II. from Amelia,” a poem constructed solely from legal documents.
- Watch: “The Edge of Legibility: Kameelah Janan Rasheed”
- Explore: The N+7 Machine
- Carry a notepad or recording device for a week, recording snippets of conversation as discretion allows. Construct a dialogue or prose poem with your findings.
- Go outside, take photos of all the text-based signage you come across (e.g., billboards, traffic signs, truck/van decals, etc.). Make a poem or text-based visual composition from your findings.
- Follow and Contribute: “No new things unless they’re old,” the Are.na channel I started for this syllabus.
- Explore: Library of the Printed Web
- Read: Elizabeth Goodspeed’s syllabus, On Collecting (Kind of)
- Choose 500 characters’ worth of words or phrases (or 500 words, depending on how much time you have) from this syllabus. Use them to write a story or poem.
- Make an audio collage comprised only of introductions or applause from live performance recordings.
- For two weeks, save all the (relatively clean) packaging, waste paper, and takeout bags you’d normally throw away. Make them into a quilt.
Again, again references On Collecting (Kind of), a syllabus by Elizabeth Goodspeed.