(REVIEW) Waste Extractions, by Andrea Mason
Richard Capener boldly sifts through the textual detritus of Andrea Mason's Waste Extractions (Broken Sleep Books, 2022), tracing the elements it might have touched on its way to becoming 'a glorious mess of narratives'. Drawing on waste theory and tensions produced by objects colliding and proliferating, Capener identifies the unerring glimmer of modern trash-scapes.
While reading Andrea Mason’s Waste Extractions (Broken Sleep Books, 2022), I couldn’t help but think of Mike Kelley’s 1987 installation More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid.
As Kelley presents viewers with homemade stuffed toys mounted onto a canvas, Mason rearranges found language, and language generated by documentation, to proliferate their narratives.
Kelley would mention in interviews (timestamp 1:10:10) that the stuffed toys he made his name with responded to New York ‘commodity art’, which ‘was all about the allure of the new product’. For an artist that often came across as misanthropic and confrontational, More Love Hours… creates an emotive tension.
The value of these toys was to comfort children, to socialise them: to provide the illusion of companionship that they might no longer need it. That the toys are arranged like abstract expressionist paintings, most obviously Pollock, implies the manifestation of the unconscious, drawing attention to desire and social bonds only to be laid to waste: more love hours than could ever have been repaid.
Waste Extractions is a part of Andrea Mason's ongoing project, currently titled Waste/d. As with Ada & Carter and unpublished excerpts, this cumulative novel collects found language, and materials mediated through language: an archive of the deceased’s possessions in Ada & Carter or, in Waste Extractions, literary, visual and sonic media.
The first section of Waste Extractions, ‘Fragments’, sets up the second, ‘Recycled’. Readers are introduced to two characters –– The Finder and The Saver –– whose relationship functions exclusively in relation to waste: ‘The Finder trawls through The Saver’s archive, and makes attempts to meet, but the meetings are always cancelled’.
It’s an opening Beckett might have dreamt, impersonal character names carrying out absurd actions, but Mason’s ‘Fragments’ exist less within an apocalyptic vacuum and more against a world of litter. There’s no abyss here, just lots and lots of stuff.
The fragments aren’t used to break apart a whole. Nor are they used to send readers down narrative cul-de-sacs springing from a central, linear plot. They dissipate, abandoning The Finder and The Saver to reflect on the politics of waste:
If we organise our waste we will be organised. Waste is the key to unlock society’s ills, and asses its functionality. […] We can be subject to a waste analysis, from which a prescription can be issued: eat less processed foods, read less crap magazines; lots of vegetable peelings, good, poo is no doubt regular.
This meditation gives way to cultural references. Stein, Žižek, the Pixar film Inside Out and Perec, among others, are invoked not as texts to be critiqued but detritus to be noted. The emphasis is on what accumulates around these references, from the reflective (‘I am a cultural accumulation. I can be that’) to the anecdotal (‘Chee informs us she would count the verbs in their manuscripts’) to recollected dreams (‘Jumpers on a hill: young people, crouched like stones’) to the personal (‘In the 1980s, when I lived in Brixton, there was always a mattress propped against a wall’). To manage waste is to manage narratives.
The section is written in a way a general readership might expect a novel to be written, where characters, sequences and ideas are imagined by the author. Yet traditional storytelling is inverted: developmental narrative dissipates; non-recurring characters segue to seeming non-fiction, narrated in the first person. If a frame narrative bookends and contextualises, then ‘Fragments’ foreshadows Mason’s finds and then discharges them through the second section. The formal effect is not one of containment but an active, amorphous whole.
These are not the clean conceptual gestures of Goldsmith’s Soliloquy, Bergvall’s Via or Mark Rutkosi’s Words of Love, but a truck full of bin bags driving to the landfill. If Kelley formally nods to Pollock, Mason nods to doomscrolling: a sluice of language. ‘Recycled’ begins with a list of commodities from DeLillo’s Underworld:
cereal-boxes newspaper cans jars cans bottles bins tin aluminium paper-bag bags bag wax-paper
“[…] But there are full professors in this place who read nothing but cereal boxes.” “It’s the only avant-garde we’ve got.”
There’s a dual reading here. The exchange situates packaging in a set of 20th century aesthetic heritages (i.e. cereal boxes as concrete poetry). Secondly, DeLillo collapses any distinction between commercial products and aesthetic products. The avant-garde, the frontline attack against the bourgeoisie, is subsumed by the bourgeoisie; as such, the avant-garde contains its own capture.
In parsing DeLillo’s epic to a six page statement, its postwar timespan becomes the surmise of its objects. Furthermore, these objects have distinctions between their commercial value and aesthetic value collapsed. As with More Love Hours…, the reader is not to deduce an argument but allow these different, conflicting, narratives to create tensions.
But waste is not only textual. In ‘Blow Up: TV, Fridge, Chicken’, Mason describes the blowup scene from Antonioni’s 1969 Zebriskie Point. As Mason noted at her book launch, Peter Bradshaw calls the scene, ‘A slo-mo detonation of the vanities.’ The materials of postwar optimism are not only obliterated, ‘vulnerable innards revealed’, but the miniature is blown up in size until the trace it leaves behind is emphasised: ‘CUT TO: a Wonder loaf, upside-down, top left of frame. An apple beneath. Mid, bottom of frame, blurred: a bottle’.
‘Blow up’ becomes as much about unseeing –– or, rather, categorising the absence of objects which are as fictional as they are real. They’re props in a fictional movie: real props. Readers question the objects’ fictional narratives in relation to their materiality. The repeated use of ‘CUT TO:’ functions as a pun signifying not only a screenplay’s edits (and the destruction of commodities) but a psychoanalytic cut where readers are confronted with the objects of desire only to find absence.
With such an emphasis on the postwar –– Underworld, Zebriskie Point –– Waste Extractions becomes a commentary on the 20th century. In the shift to the internet’s hyperspeed, any sense of time has been smoothed and smothered, leaving cultural detritus in a continuous present. This might be why Zebriskie Point is a source, with its seven minute detonation sequence: waste temporally stretched.
As with ‘Underworld’, ‘Rashomon Recycled’ extracts components from Akutagawa’s Rashomon. In contrast, this piece is bulkier than the former’s listing:
Red stands at the black cliff edge. There seeing gold flashes and silver explosions arising from the bow of a red sailing ship. They will be all showing their white teeth, lips blue, Red decides.
Textual narrative is emphasised while working against it. Where other pieces in
‘Recycled’ abstract their sources beyond recognition, this keeps Akutagawa’s fingerprints. The act of recycling breaks the source’s narrative and, in so doing, opens it to an array of readings.
There’s the startling decision to name each part of ‘Rashomon Recycled’ after songs by Black Midi. On reflection, I situate Black Midi in relation to post-punk: a period which recycled different rock, avant-garde and pop motives. Mason, viewing her source materials in a signatory network, likewise refuses to exist in a vacuum.
If previous sources for ‘Recycled’ are literary and cinematic, the final piece, ‘Emotional Payload’, transcribes the auditory: John Cage’s 1997 performance, Empty Words, a two plus hour reading of sounds and syllables from the Journal of Henry David Thoreau:
CLAP, CLAP, CLAP, CLAP, CLAP, –––––––, –––––, –––, COUGH, COUGH ––––––, urgh, –––––– cough, cough, ––– –– cough, –––, de rrr k, d, cough, –––––––––––, ––, cough, ––––, cough, –––, cough, ––––––––, cough, ––––––, ––, cough, –––, cough, ––, cough, ––– , cough, cough, ––––––, ––––––, cough, cough, cough, cough, cough, ––, SHOUT, paper sounds, cough, umpa, vrwrrrr, rrrrr, aaaaaaa, n st, ck, k, fsut, cough, ahh, mouth noise, re er eeeres, uuuu, ll ll, grr grj rrr, r fffff, cough, cough, chatter, chit, chit ep bo sleeps, what, freeees, p, cough, cough, paper rustle……,
This piece prioritises what Charles Bernstein (quoting Steve McCaffery, who’s quoting Bataille) calls a ‘general economy’ in Artifice of Absorption:
[T]he economy of reading suggested here is not a utilitarian “restricted economy” of accumulation (of contents, devices) but a “general economy” of meanings as “nonutilizable” flow, discharge, exchange, waste. An individual poem may be understood as having a restricted or general economy. Indeed part of the meaning of a poem may be its fight for accumulation; nonetheless, its text will contain destabilizing elements—errors, unconscious elements, contexts of (re)publication & the like—that will erode any proposed accumulation that does not allow for them.
For Bernstein, exposition functions by restricting meanings whereas, without such restrictions, the ‘discharge’ is foregrounded. It troubles language’s utilitarian function. As such, ’Emotional Payload’ is a double whammy –– a ‘nonutilizable’ text from a ‘nonutilizable’ text.
It’s difficult not to think about Cage’s anarchist politics, how chance operations democratise sound and text away from conductors and composers towards a utopian cacophony. In transcribing Empty Words, Mason reiterates that these acts of categorisation, description and transcription are ideologically constituted.
In using Kelley’s installation to think through Waste Extractions, a radical step can be taken: Kelley’s soft toy installations would sell for over $2 million.
Only the dreariest critical imagination could discount contemporary art on the basis of art industry sales. Indeed, Kelley would go on to explore the tension between art and industry; More Love Hours… recycled sentimental value into aesthetic-critical value into monetary value (which still has aesthetic-critical value). Mason likewise undermines literary production through literary production: by questioning novel-as-form; by typing her finds; by the text’s foregrounding of a network of texts, causing it to produce meaning in a non-expositive way.
To form a systematic critical response, defining how these objects function aesthetically and ideologically, isn’t the point. The point is that these narratives proliferate, produce. Art opens meaning that narratives convey. And Mason’s waste is a glorious mess of narratives.
For these reasons, I would defend the assertion that Waste Extractions is a novel. By any conservative definition, it’s too short at 45 pages. There are no characters except for two non-recurring characters at the beginning. There’s no overarching story, and barely any contained stories. But the objects Mason handles are loaded with economic, cultural and historical narratives. Far from being too short, Waste Extractions is infinite: index cards for commentaries on late-capitalism in the Library of Babel.
 More Love Hours… is paired with the smaller piece, The Wages of Sin, to which Google Images doesn’t do justice, so I’ve never been able to get a proper look at it.  Published in a limited edition of 30 by The Aleph in 2020. I published the full version under the title Promession on my now defunct, allegedly successful, online journal The Babel Tower Notice Board the same year.  I’m linking to the website as it quotes the relevant passage and I no longer have a hardcopy of White Noise. Reader discretion is advised as the blogger comes across as inept. Retweets aren’t endorsements, etc.  I should probably note Underworld’s main character is a waste management executive.  Also, check out Black Midi’s album covers. Big waste vibes.
Text: Richard Capener