Splendor in the Trash
Published Oct 1, 2015 8:00 AM
UCLA Professor Maite Zubiaurre's unique course helps Bruin students see beauty in the world through a grease-stained lens.
Garbage. Junk. Offal. Waste. Dreck. Rejectamenta. To most of us, these words simply mean “trash.” To UCLA Professor Maite Zubiaurre, however, they are the subject of serious scholarship. By the time students finish her Honors Collegium course on trash, they never look at garbage the same way again.
It featured a makeshift runway and a bevy of fit and beautiful young models. A casual observer passing Royce Hall might have confused it with a guerrilla presentation of designs from an eclectic new designer. But this was no fashion show — no, it was a “trashion show” staged by Professor Maite Zubiaurre. The models costumed in newspapers, Styrofoam and aluminum cans were students. Unusual? Yep. Disconcerting? Sure. Provocative? Yes, but that was the point. It was just another day for the undergraduates enrolled in what has become known as “the trash class.”
They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but to Zubiaurre, everyone’s trash is somebody’s treasure. She finds beauty in the world through a grease-stained lens, and she has made it her mission to help UCLA students find splendor in the trash.
The connotations of trash in our culture are myriad. You can get trashed, dress trashy, trash your home and your reputation — sometimes all in the same night. We toss it, burn it, bury it and recycle it. What we don’t do is really look at it, smell it, taste it or touch it. Experiencing trash may be like looking at the sun — best done indirectly from the corner of your eye. But students in Zubiaurre’s Honors Collegium course titled “Society of Excess: On Waste, Consumer Culture, and the Environment” eschew that luxury as they take a deep dive into the dumpster — metaphorically speaking, of course, though there’s no doubt that Zubiaurre would literally do the dive if given the chance.
The ebullient profesora — Zubiaurre is the associate dean for equity, diversity and inclusion for the Humanities Division and currently holds joint appointments in UCLA’s departments of Spanish & Portuguese and Germanic Languages, where her areas of expertise include comparative literature, gender studies, urban studies and cultural studies — traces her wonder for waste to her childhood. Born in Bogotá, Colombia, at 3 she emigrated to Germany with her family, and then to Spain when she was 7.
“My family endured hardship. Spain was gray and colorless, a poor country,” Zubiaurre says. “I saw and lived among poverty, and I had compassion for the things nobody wanted.” Today, a tension between order and chaos permeates conversations with Zubiaurre, who goes from serious to sublime in the time it takes to decide whether your paper plate belongs in the garbage or in the recycling bin. Having spent her childhood living under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in Spain, she believes that order can be dictatorial, and that escaping order leads to freedom and liberty. “Urban reality is actually structure,” she says. “And what escapes order? The homeless. Crime. And trash.”
When Zubiaurre was writing her course proposal in 2012, UCLA’s Honors Collegium had requested that classes be “audacious, interdisciplinary and outside the box” — terms that describe Zubiaurre herself. But the course committee proved reluctant to sanction a class on trash.
“I wrote a book on Spanish erotica — it’s very explicit,” she says. “But here, trash was more taboo than sex.” Apparently, the committee found the word “trash” inappropriate for the transcript of an honors student. So Zubiaurre renamed the course “Society of Excess: On Waste, Consumer Culture, and the Environment” and got the go-ahead. She has now taught the course three times, twice for undergraduate honors students and once for graduate students, under the auspices of the Urban Humanities Initiative, funded by the Mellon Foundation.
“This course is the ideal of what we want to instill in students, and that is critical thinking — the ability to do collaborative work and to experience interdisciplinarity,” Zubiaurre says. “But my goal goes beyond that. I want to teach them compassion through trash. I want them to reflect upon what it means to be disposable — be it a thing or a person — and to see trash in all its complex dimensions, which are not only intellectual but also what affect the soul and the spiritual values that we embrace as a culture.”
To meet Zubiaurre’s goals, materials for the course range from the practical to the existential. In addition to the “trashion show,” requisite readings and film viewings, the highlight of the course is a field trip to a working landfill.
Last spring, the class visited a landfill in Calabasas — a city likely best known to students, perhaps ironically, as home to the Kardashian clan. It is deceptively antiseptic in appearance, the well-manicured landscaping creating a palatable aesthetic for the site’s neighbors. In operation since 1961, the landfill is open six days a week and charges $43 per ton of refuse delivered, with a discount for green waste. The tour of the site includes a view of trucks dumping trash, the methane-collection operation and a stop to see where the leachate (a most foul-smelling liquid) is collected. Despite an admonition from the tour guide, Zubiaurre insists the class stop and smell what decomposes.
“I think most of us were taken aback by how sanitized (the landfill) was. We expected to see more garbage, larger heaps of trash,” says Dian Sipes, a fourth-year student. “It’s interesting to realize that there is so much cost that goes into disposing and managing our garbage.”
Near the end of the quarter, Zubiaurre and teaching assistant Elizabeth Warren M.A. ’13 preside over a series of presentations by the students; the instructors’ enthusiasm is infectious, the class engaged. Zubiaurre gives her charges wide latitude, allowing them to present on what interests them. Nathan Chan focused on UCLA’s maintenance workers and their Zero Waste Initiative, which aims to reduce waste diverted to landfill to zero percent by the year 2020. Taryn Frazier examined the intersection of art and trash, while Molly Uyeda presented on lab trash.
Audrey Brown’s topic, “What is Trash, Really? Questions of a Discarded Then Adopted Chinese Girl,” described her own upbringing:
“I am an adopted Chinese girl, and throughout the class I had been thinking about some of the issues that Maite was bringing up. She often draws a connection between trash and women, and trash in childhood,” Brown says. “I had been thinking about those things in connection with my own identity. So I wrote a creative, nonfiction essay looking at trash from the perspective of an adopted Chinese girl, and how I see trash, and talking about trash as an adjective, rather than as a noun. Trash is kind of a quality that we ascribe to things, as opposed to certain things inherently being trash.”
Immediately following the trashion show, teachers and students collaborated on a guerrilla art installation in Wilson Plaza. In “United We Trash,” participants lay on the ground with corpse-style chalk outlines drawn around them, intended to invoke a crime scene; a trash sculpture adorned the middle of the chalk circle. Within the silhouettes, students wrote trash-based facts, such as “One-third of the world’s food is wasted. How much did you throw away today?”
“It’s an interactive installation, an art installation with everybody participating and actually working together to raise awareness,” says Zubiaurre. “We want to be out there on campus, we want people to see, we want to make people aware of the trash issue.”
“I think that more people should be aware of the class, and it probably should be a mandatory class,” says Sipes. “We as a society need to be more cognizant of our consumer culture and our throwaway culture. I think that if we are more aware of this, we can be more mindful and take better care in conserving.”