At first, this struck me as one of those "only in New York" phenomenons—and then, more recently, as a sign of the economic times. Yet as I watched this self-organized, nocturnal flea market rise up again this past Thursday from my parlor window [Albert, across the street, was sizing up a small, solid oak door left as debris from a neighboring renovation], it struck me that there might be something else going on, that maybe we're all upcyclers now—if not in the physical world, then certainly online. Is the social Web's culture of sharing, sampling, re-tweeting, and appropriation spilling offline, encouraging more sampling and appropriation throughout our lives? [Albert told me today he plans to turn his find into a dining room table, based on an article he saw on Facebook, and start a "how-to" blog to share the experience. Eventually, he says, he hopes to create a do-it-yourself-design business.]
Call it Upcycling 2.0—the rise of a whole new crop of amateur and professional artists, entertainers, designers, and business people who are not simply recycling their garbage, like Terracycle, which makes consumer products from animal waste and old soda bottles. This new wave is re-contextualizing older objects and ideas; creating new visual and structural dialogues between the old and the new, the organic and synthetic, between one set of ideas and another.
One of the most prolific and inspired of these new upcyclers is Adam Kalkin, an artist and architect, whose Quik House projects convert old boxcars into pre-fab and low-income housing. For years, Kalkin has been developing these projects for commercial use, but he's also now organizing a SWAT team of designers to offer such housing to refugees of economic dislocation and global conflict around the world. "The container is a purpose-built object, but when you re-contextualize it—put it in a residential context—you both destroy its original context and create a new one," Kalkin says. He calls this a "new form of upcycling"— in his case, the act of taking modest storage forms [like boxcars] and materials and using them for a higher purpose. Kalkin says his work in this regard is "very much informed by the swell of Web-inspired appropriation and re-appropriation informing our culture at large." [For more on Kalkin's work, click here.]
My favorite example of upcycling, however, is from the world of entertainment—60s crooner Paul Anka's rendering of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit (click, left, for Nirvana's version). Anka is not simply "covering" Kurt Cobain's grunge rock hit of the early 90s. (Kalkin agrees with me.) Anka is creating a higher form of the original. Here he is, below:
For more upcycling, check out Patti Smith's version, here. Also check out Terracyle's latest projects here, as well as William Kamkwamba's work building a windmill in Africa. Also see how the design community is putting on another show this spring to promote numerous examples of upcycling. The trend also is happening in Second Life. Says machinima documentarian Douglas Gayeton, creator of Molotov Alta series on HBO, "Second Life is now more fertile than it ever was, and not driven by commercialism now so much as by idea-sharing and experimentation...an effort by some to upcycle the real world."
(Illustration, Green Machine, by Matt Hertel)
Labels: adam kalkin, blogging, Douglas Gayeton, kurt cobain, molotov alta, patti smith, paul anka, quik house, re-tweeting, second life, social enterprise, social media, terracycle, the social web, upcycling