Turning Junk Mail Into Art
By Alecia D. McKenzie

PARIS, Oct 5, 2009 (IPS) - Like everyone else, Barbara Hashimoto hated the junk mail coming in through the door. Until she decided one day that it could be transformed into art, and lessons about the environment.


Hashimoto, a U.S.-born, Japanese-trained artist, has created 'The Junk Mail Experiment', in which huge quantities of unsolicited advertising mail are shredded into temporary installation art and eventually into sculptures.

The 'Experiment' is currently on view in Paris and in Chicago.

"I was working in a firm and was amazed at how much junk mail we received," says Hashimoto, a slim dark-haired woman who speaks passionately about her work.

"When I read the incredible statistics, it inspired me as an artist to do something visual that could also teach people about what we're doing to nature," she told IPS, as she took a break from crafting the installations.

According to the environment group ForestEthics, some 100 billion pieces of junk mail are sent each year in the United States alone, accounting for a third of all the mail delivered globally. Nearly half of that amount is thrown out unopened or unread, adding to the trash heap, although some of it is recycled.

The group estimates that about 100 million trees are used annually in the production of junk mail in the U.S. The toll on the environment includes emission of greenhouse gases in manufacture of the mail.

The advantage for business is that direct-mail advertising generates about 646 billion dollars a year in sales in the United States.

Hashimoto said she began the Junk Mail Experiment in 2006. She asked the staff at the Chicago architecture firm BauerLatoza Studio, where she was artist-in-residence, to set aside all advertising mail they received. Within a year, she had collected some 3,000 cubic feet of shredded documents.

"I personally shredded everything and it took forever," she recalls with a laugh.

She first used the mail as part of a performance work titled 'Shredded Junk Mail with Grand Piano. In this, Chicago architect and musician Edward Torrez played one of his compositions while Hashimoto threw pieces of paper over him and the instrument. By the end of the performance, both piano and pianist were "buried" - showing how junk can stifle creativity and art, to paraphrase one critic.

Hashimoto, who studied business at Yale and ceramic art in Japan, has also shredded and framed pages from catalogues, using the strips of paper to form intricate designs. These resemble some of her early ceramic pieces for which she initially became known as an artist.

Barbara Hashimoto

In addition, she has dyed and painted pieces of plastic, sent by credit card solicitation companies, and turned them into artworks with titles such as 'This is Not An Actual Credit Card. In the U.S., millions of credit card solicitations are mailed each month, and most of this plastic ends up in landfills, according to environment groups.

Barbara Hashimoto

In France, the organisation Les Amis de la Terre - Paris (Friends of the Earth) is working with Hashimoto to get the message out about the global impact of junk mail. They provided volunteers to help shred the mountain of mail that some 100 local schoolchildren collected for the project.

"We proposed the idea of collaborating because we also have this problem in France where each household receives around 40 kilos of junk mail a year," Emeline Eudes, spokesperson for the group's forest department told IPS.

"We wanted to show the public, including children, that they also have the responsibility to say 'stop' to senders of junk mail and to do something for the environment," she added.

Students of Senn High School in Chicago have also been involved in the Junk Mail Experiment, saving advertising mail received in their households. Their participation has opened their eyes to environmental issues, says Diane Piette, who teaches academic and social issues at the school and who helped to set up the exhibitions.

"I thought I could incorporate this into my course, and the students have really appreciated it," she said. "They've written some excellent essays on what they can do to protect the environment as a result."

The Paris show is taking place at the Espace Krajcberg at the Montparnasse Museum, located in an area on the city's left bank that was once a meeting place for writers, artists and musicians from all over the world.

Hashimoto's work shares space with the giant tree-like sculptures of Frans Krajcberg, a Polish-born, Brazilian-based artist who was a pioneer in environmental issues. A gallery of the museum is named after him.

"Krajcberg was talking about ecology way back in the sixties before it was fashionable, and so when we created this gallery we wanted to have artists who share that commitment," said Sonia Legros, coordinator at the museum. "Barbara's work is in keeping with this."

In fact, Hashimoto's colourful "haystacks" of shredded mail complement Krajcberg's sombre-looking dark-hued sculptures. But a day before the Experiment opened here, one of Krajcberg's sculptures toppled over, smashing into a wall and just missing stacks of unwanted catalogues meant for the shredder. It was art trying to obliterate junk.