We continue our series about artists working with communities and local governments to address urgent environmental issues with a story by the US artist sTo Len about the Trash Museum in Bishkek. A collaboration with artists, activists, sanitation workers, and municipal government in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to promote awareness of waste management, the Museum opened in October 2023.

sTo Len’s experience as an artist in residence at AlexRenew Wastewater Treatment facility in Alexandria, VA and the Public Artist in Residence at the Department of Sanitation in NYC gives him a unique perspective on the multi-year work of the Kyrgyz activists to address local environmental crises. Together, they continue creating tangible pathways to community-building in the pursuit of a cleaner, greener future. Their work ignites both hope and a sense of urgency, reminding us that environmental stewardship is a choice we can and must make every day.

The Trash Museum opened as part of the international eco-art festival “Interpreting the History of Pollution – Art Prospect & TRASH-5” in Bishkek, produced and curated by CEC ArtsLink, the Bishkek School of Contemporary Art (BiSCA), and TAZAR Kyrgyzstan. In an inspiring coda to the story, sTo shared with us that the curator and activist “Bermet Borubaeva and BiSCA have been leading tours to the museum, and I’ve been in contact with the sanitation workers who are interested in curating future exhibitions there, which is a dream. They have also planted many trees around the museum with grand hopes to create a public park in that space.”

Bermet Borubaeva (Bishkek School of Contemporary Art) and Aimeerim Tursalieva (TAZAR Kyrgyzstan) are co-curators and co-organizers of Trash Museum. For the fascinating visual story of creating the Trash Museum of Bishkek, check out sTo Len’s recently published zine.

By sTo Len
Bishkek landfill, Photo by Vlad Ushakov

Trash is the autobiography of our existence that we all co-write every single day. The bulk of this history are the remnants of what sustained us or entertained us, from a simple pleasure to an absolute necessity. Even the most conscientious of us leave a trail of imprints on this planet from the moment we are born. Follow them and you will discover a life path interwoven with the products and technology of the day. It is easy to be overwhelmed by this essential ritual of subtraction that both defines our private life and our shared public spaces, thus it often resides in the shadows, unseen, ignored, banished “away” for others to deal with. “Away” however is always a real place populated with real people doing some of the realest jobs.

In Bishkek, that place is the landfill that is often referred to as the Poligon or the Hill, located in the most northern part of the city, near a neighborhood called Altyn-Kazyk. Everything comes there by truck or donkey in an ever-flowing single stream of trash 24 hours a day: from food waste to paper, plastic, metal, dead animals, and sometimes live ones too. There is surprisingly a lot of life amidst the trash mountain heaps. I observed packs of wild dogs, stray cats, crows, horses, and even some chicks freshly hatched from their disposed eggs. I heard horrifying tales of dead bodies and abandoned newborn babies, chemical waste, and ever-raging trash fires that would sometimes self-ignite due to the methane gas but thankfully this seemed to be of the (not so distant) past. Just as recently as May 2023, the landfill was openly burning the mixed garbage which of course created horribly toxic conditions for everyone working and living here.

In 2022, Bishkek’s air quality was ranked second worst in the world, and its main culprits were the landfill, coal usage and vehicle emissions (catalytic converters are scarce.) So the fact that the landfill had recently stopped burning was a really big deal. The local artists and activists that I had been in contact with have been working on these issues for over a decade and their hard work was beginning to pay off. A compassionate new landfill director enabled these changes and so when I brought up the idea of creating a Trash Museum at the landfill, everyone seemed to be on board.

When I arrived to town, things were already in full swing. A shipping container was to be placed on site at the landfill for us to use and the first time I visited, we watched as it was getting craned into place. Immediately following this celebratory moment, a local news blog wrote about the project and subsequently some government officials got wind of this Trashy Museum and effectively put a stop to our humble idea.

In the spirit of not taking no for an answer, we naturally decided to fight this decision and began to show up regularly at City Hall and other various city offices to find the right people to talk to. One person would lead to another person and then another, all as unlikely as an ally as the next but through some sincere conversations (and gifts of NY sanitation swag), we were beginning to change their minds. It was an incredible thing to witness, the change in perspective as we presented our case.

The idea of mixing the arts with municipal waste management is still radical in most parts of the world and so it wasn’t particularly surprising that this idea didn’t initially go over well. Trash is also such a touchy subject because no one really wants to think about it nor promote actually going to see it lest something goes horribly wrong. Once they realized that we were not trying to exploit or endanger anyone, or attempt to make them look bad either, I think they could see this as an opportunity for a positive and educational partnership with public outreach that they don’t normally get to have. 

After two weeks, we officially got the green light. It was a momentous win, not just for this project but for the potential of creating more collaborative art projects with the city government. While we were battling for this victory, we also made sure to hit the municipal archives for records on the landfill and trash in Bishkek. That was an experience unto itself as we dug into the musty card catalogs of their Soviet-era records, snapping cellphone pics of documents and getting some scans of the black and white photos depicting the Brick Factory that was at the landfill site prior to the trash. Needless to say, they were a little baffled by our garbage-related requests and I was surprised at how little there seem to be. Were these records thrown out with the trash too?

With the City Hall win under our belt, I set my sights on the site itself and began going to the landfill on a daily basis. I was initially met with some side-long glances by the locals which is to be expected but I felt like I rather quickly became a regular character among the group. 

I particularly grew fond of Almas, the deputy director of the landfill, who invited me for tea and soup one afternoon. Sitting around armed with Google Translate, we became fast friends as we spoke of our lives, jobs, and common interests in trash. It was so great to be incredibly far away from my life in NY and yet feel right at home with Almas and his crew as we sat in their kitchen at the landfill. The more I showed up, the more I learned and took in. I asked them to add objects they had found while on the job to the “permanent collection” and received bowling balls, candles, a ceramic crane, a Boss wristwatch, and a light up toy that still worked and showed a cityscape whizzing by. 

I began picking up lots of objects myself as my eyes had finally adjusted to be able to discern what was really out there. At first, it is just an overwhelming sea of colors and textures, mangled together through some kind of twisted fate, weathered by the world and encrusted with the land that it would soon be buried into. I recalled the first time I had gone to the desert in California and was able to train my eyes to perceive the full bandwidth of color and life that is really out there in the seemingly blank landscape.

Photo by sTo Len

This was no different. I even became fond of certain sections of the landfill; the patterned textile mountain of fabric scraps and zippers, the digital detritus dump of glistening computer insides, and the party zone with glittery costumes, balloons, and lost parts to amusement park rides. Where there is pain, one can still find joy. I think my default is to find the humor and levity in sites like this, otherwise it is all just too depressing. 

Visitors began stopping by the shipping container as they traveled through the landfill to see what I was up to. One elderly man took a particular liking to me and immediately stuck his kalpak (the white felt hats Kyrgyz men often wear) on my head and proceeded to mimic a cowboy standoff. This was entertaining until he wouldn’t let me get back to work and followed me around saying “Whoa, take ‘er easy there, Pilgrim,” quoting an old John Wayne movie over and over ha-ha.

Truck drivers who were on their way to dump their contents often stopped to see what I was doing and always seemed to immediately get it without any translation needed. Soon fruit and bottles of Coca-Cola arrived as sweet supportive gestures. The museum’s solidarity with the workers was apparent and that was especially meaningful to me.

Photo by Bakyt

I asked Almas for photos and he gave me some stunning portraits taken by the workers themselves which we printed out and put up on the walls. One day out of nowhere a guy showed up and introduced himself as Mr. Sam and told me that he wanted to help. I mentioned that a local artist, Aziz Sedek, was interested in creating a bowling game with recycled bottles and the Earth as the ball and he immediately went to work, bringing several bulldozer loads of bricks that we could use to create a lane and even a patio for hanging out. Mr. Sam wound up being an accountant for the landfill and one of my best friends that I met. He is now a curator at the Trash Museum.

We opened the Trash Museum of Bishkek on October 7th, 2023 as part of the Trash Festival 5, an incredibly ambitious month-long event that brought together dozens of artists, activists, and environmentalists to create work that responded to Bishkek’s waste-related issues. Organized by the Bishkek School of Contemporary Art, Tazar Kyrgyzstan, and CEC ArtsLink, this was the perfect venue for something like a Trash Museum to be created.

Trash Museum opening, photo by by Ermek Jaenisch

The Trash Museum of Bishkek is located at the site of the still operating Bishkek Sanitary Landfill and will continue to be open monthly and by appointment. The inaugural exhibition, Interpreting the History of Trash, examines what we throw away, where it all goes, and who deals with it every day by putting things into a historical context. Using archival material, photographs, artwork, and trash objects, the Trash Museum initiates this important conversation, and then from there we hope to implement a change in the minds of the public and city officials alike. We celebrate that the Poligon has stopped burning and look back at the history of pollution in Bishkek so we can think about how to move forward. We hope that this Museum can be the source of a collective memory and grow into an evolving archive about the trash issues we currently face today.

Trash Museum site, photo by Ilia Denbrov
March 2024
Article Environment Social Practice