Single Stream at the Museum of the Moving Image

On exhibit through November 3, 2013 at the Museum of the Moving Image, Single Stream is a new video and sound installation created by Brooklyn-based filmmakers Paweł Wojtasik and Toby Lee, and Boston-based sound artist Ernst Karel. An inquiry into ideas of material transformation, time, and waste, Single Stream is a massive work that throws a 50´ × 8´ image onto MoMI’s panoramic lobby canvas–a space uniquely designed for large-scale video installation, curated by Rachael Rakes and Jason Eppink.

Single Stream

Over 28 minutes, Single Stream follows the flow of domestic refuse through the Casella Waste Systems “single stream” processing plant in Charlestown, Massachusetts, as humans and machines separate like-objects for recycling. The detritus of daily life filters through a kind of disassembly line—cardboard, bottles, cables, cat food cans—in this stop in the production chain of waste management.

Wojtasik and Lee’s images capture horizontal and vertical movements of trash flow along their expansive frame, pushed, pulled, and puffed via conveyer belts. Karel’s sound design, a carefully modulated industrial din of hisses, clacking, and groaning, completes a cascade of trash that threatens to overwhelm the senses, just as it overwhelms the real world around us.

Single Stream is an immersion into an exceptional and mundane site of temporal overlap, where cycles of past, present, and future converge in an orchestration of garbage indexing, and where the human footprint is impossible to miss. An ethnography of place and American consumption culture, it is a look at a historical moment, when the packaging of daily life often has more consequence than what it holds.

Chi-hui Yang (Rail): I understand that this project has its origins in the sonic environment of Charlestown’s single stream recycling plant.

Ernst Karel: I was talking to Rob Gogan who is the head of recycling at Harvard about the University’s recycling program, and he sometimes offers tours of the Charlestown facility. I joined a tour and found it a super fascinating place. I got in contact with the people there to see if I could do a sound recording project and ended up spending a couple days going around the facility, just recording sounds.

Rail: What was it about the environment that drew you to it? Is it the architecture of the place, or the process that it houses?

Karel: It has to do with this basic struggle that we have, trying to live in an overdeveloped society where we’re dealing with waste constantly, these products which are manufactured and packaged, things that people buy and don’t need and dispose of in landfills. I’m interested in this whole set of ecological problems around recycling, complicated by the fact that this whole facility exists because it seems like an example of a basic human failing—that people cannot sort their own recyclables.

Rail: How did this project originate?

Toby Lee: Ernst had come to UnionDocs [where Lee is Collaborative Program Director] and played some roughly edited sounds from the Charlestown recordings. Paweł and I were in the audience and were blown away. Something Ernst said really stood out, which is that in an ideal world, a single stream would be one super long conveyor belt. But because these recycling facilities are only useful when they’re close to densely populated urban areas and those areas don’t have space for one-mile long conveyor belts, they end up getting housed in old airplane hangars and have to twist the belt around itself. I remember being really impressed on a formal level by that idea of one really long belt.

Paweł Wojtasik: The Charlestown facility’s long, conceptual stretch of conveyor belt—a hypothetical arrangement—was broken up into several segments and packed into this building. The building is composed of all these belts that look like a scene from Metropolis. There are these walkways on the conveyor belt that you can go on and we experienced some amazing things. We saw what looked like rain falling in the distance. As the panorama opened up, there was a 50-foot drop and from somewhere a jet of air was pushing confetti-like debris all over the place—garbage raining down. It looked like Christmas day.

We were already thinking about the long screen at the Museum of the Moving Image, which is very expansive—you have the impression that you’re immersed as you walk along it. It’s different than a cinematic experience because you position yourself and you move along the screen.

Lee: For me, the particular aspect ratio of the

museum’s screen is very closely connected to the way a single stream facility works. And the idea of a conveyor belt with things passing from one side to another, through constant lateral movement, was the link.

Rail: We can see the Charlestown plant as an historically exceptional site; the workers and the machines are disassembling modern life: it is a factory that takes things apart instead of putting them together. What are the larger questions that the plant raises for you?

Wojtasik: There are three levels that I could see that this piece corresponds to. One is the personal, bodily level. When we consume food, we consume complex compounds and the body breaks them down and then recombines them into yet other compounds to build our flesh. Single Stream is a window onto a very similar process that really has no beginning or end. Nature is just a series of these transformations, and the energies applied to them.

The second level is a social level where we as individuals have a basic, existential suffering. In Buddhism, it’s referred to as the first noble truth. We experience suffering because of our impermanence and mortality; all things that we care about eventually vanish. We compensate by indulging in greed and consumption. Through the images we show in Single Stream, the vastness hopefully drives home the point about our social problem of wastefulness.

The third level we can call spiritual or philosophical. We get attached to things as being permanent—including ourselves—and we develop conceptual frameworks to work with this. Things are in a constant process of transformation; nothing stays still and everything is subject to impermanence. That’s the overarching idea of Single Stream—circular movement.

Lee: Sometimes it feels we are at the end of history, like we’re on the edge of something, especially when you walk into that space and see the incredible amount of waste that comes every day. It almost feels apocalyptic. But then when you step away, you actually realize that that facility is itself a place of production. It’s a place for raw materials—you might even say it’s similar to a mine of some sort because those materials that are separated then get sold in bundles to China and India. And these materials are then processed into other things, and we not only see ends but also beginnings.

Karel: It’s different from a landfill as we’re not seeing the waste at the end of the line. In that sense it shows a persistence of optimism, hopeless or not, where we can take this stuff and do something with it. At one point the idea came up that this is an effort at reverse entropy. Everything comes as a big pile of these different materials, and the point of the whole place is to introduce order; to have glass with glass and metal with metal. And obviously it takes a huge amount of energy to do that because that’s not the way of nature, the way of nature is towards entropy.

Rail: With regards to your images, can you elaborate on how you isolated and located what is seen in the installation?

Lee: Sergei Franklin was our cinematographer and shot with a Steadicam. Our monitor had a wireframe that he had made, that was the aspect ratio of our projection surface at the museum [6.5:1]. When he was shooting and moving, we were working with him to get shots. When we were in the process of editing, the frame he had built was always in the center, but if we looked up and saw something that was interesting, then we would start playing with that.

Rail: In order to create this aspect ratio to fit the museum’s screen, you had to overshoot—there’s a lot within the image that we don’t see, as you only use a narrow band of the images. There’s an excess of imagery.

Lee: We were really interested in ideas of excess and waste, and the scale of it was really important. One experiences the shallowness of the physical space of that lobby

when you’re there. There are only one or two spots where you can actually take a step back; most the time you’re pretty close to the image. That the image itself seemed somehow excessive was important, to reflect on a society of excess.

Wojtasik: Even though it’s expansive and over-the-top as far as scale, there’s a simplicity in that there is one singular image over this wide expanse. It’s not like five channels: there are five projectors but they’re used in a seamless way, to act as one. I have never seen an image that large from such a short distance. You’re overwhelmed and enveloped by the reality of what’s being presented.

Lee: And there’s a real excess in processing and computing as well. Paweł and I must have spent a full month of around-the-clock processing. At a certain point we had five computers rendering. It got to the point where it became this monstrous thing that needed more energy and more power.

Wojtasik: We had to make a file that’s 7,876 by 1,200 pixels, which is enormous. Every frame is that size and as you know there are 24 frames per second. It required a lot of computing power.

Rail: Are there considerations that you give to the audio representation of scale?

Karel: When you’re dealing with sound only, issues of scale become interesting because you don’t have something to look at to judge how big or close something is. You’re dealing with what you can hear, and that will change depending on the environment. Your control over how people are hearing some things changes too—if you give them headphones or if they’re hearing it in a concert hall.

In this case, it is four channels of sound. I wanted as much detail as possible, and so I was always dealing with handheld microphones and spatializing those over the four channels. And because of the nature of the exhibition space, the four speakers are in a line rather than in a Surround space. You are locating sounds in a line along a long screen, and so it really allowed for an unusual opportunity to deal with issues of scale and to play with closeness and distance.

Rail: You’ve created a kind of digital-trash-sublime that operates on the boundary between reality and abstraction. The images and sounds are drawn from real sources, but have been subjected to various kinds of abstraction including slow-motion/speed and extreme close-ups. Can you elaborate on how you chose to represent the images and sounds you recorded?

Wojtasik: That’s a difficult question because we work intuitively. There was a natural tendency for abstraction just for the fact that we had to remove 80 percent of the image because we had a particular aspect ratio in mind.

In my work I always favor the close-up. I like to work on the edge between abstraction and representation. I was trained as a painter and I like abstract painting a lot—Malevich is one of my favorite artists. I like to look at the image and see it without explanations or without naming things as what they are, but just as the movement of the shapes and colors. I’m very satisfied with that level of receiving a piece, a level of pure sensory reception. There’s some nonverbal level on which these abstract images begin to function.

Lee: There’s something about showing something abstracted from its normal context that makes you think critically about it. You might think you know what trash looks like or the position that waste occupies in your life. We wanted to show waste as something captivating, overwhelming, and even beautiful, and make you stare at something that you normally turn your eyes from. Slowing the image down was necessary because of the size of the exhibition space. There’s absolutely no way that we could show these things at full speed just because it would be nauseating and disorienting.

Karel: I think it’s quite interesting that the size of the projection screen almost required this move to slow image motion. This in turn motivated me to play with half-speed sound for quite a bit of it as well. I recorded a lot of it at a high sample rate, 96kHz, and in order to slow down the speed I just simply played it at 48kHz, which is just a normal sample rate for video. There’s quite a bit of the sound in the piece that is actually half-speed, and because the original recording is so shrill and harsh and fast, a lot of it you wouldn’t know unless you were comparing one-to-one. It doesn’t sound like your normal slow motion.

Wojtasik: In one sequence, there’s a massive amount of plastic bottles that are squashed and one is sticking out that says “Tide” on it. Coca-Cola is also being smashed and thrown around—disrespected you could say. But there’s beauty in this. Another scene has a close-up of smashed aluminum cans. The colors that are produced by the various hues and tints create a striking composition; you know they are aluminum cans but also you just get disarmed by the colors and the richness in front of you.

Rail: The viewer is also implicated through the piece’s massive horizontal movement; we can almost feel that we ourselves are on a conveyer belt, and moving with the trash. Or that we are the trash.

Wojtasik: Or if you happen to be in the right place when bulldozers are taking out trash,

it might happen that this giant mound of garbage is being thrown down on you as you walk by. All kinds of drama could be taking place as you walk along the screen.

On view through November 3rd at 36-01 35th Avenue // Astoria, NY |


Chi-hui Yang

Chi-hui Yang is a film programmer, lecturer, and writer based in New York.