Rolando Politi, Trash Worship
December 6, 2001

Rolando Politi lives in a nice squat on the edge of Alphabet City. You can find him upstairs, in his well-appointed four-room apartment, surrounded by buckets of scissors, jugs of bottle caps, and a ferocious little cat named Miu. One room contains a loft bed and a computer; another features a camp stove and simple furniture.

There's surprisingly little trash.

The strange thing about this void is that often when you meet Politi he's surrounded by trash. If you catch him at a Blackkat party or maybe some underground space like Rubulad he'll be engulfed by plastic cups and paper plates and empty cans. But look at his pile a little closer and you'll find something else: brightly colored flowers, wee perfect candle-holders, fantastic angel wings.

Rolando Politi makes art out of trash. And he wants you to join him. For the last year, the 55-year-old Italian-born anarchist has taken a bucket of tools and some raw materials to gardens, block parties, raves, and all sorts of strange events. He usually sets up in a corner with a few collaborators and goes about transforming the space. Often, partygoers will come over to see what he's doing and end up pitching in -- making costumes, party favors, or temporary decorations.

Politi started his group Trash Worship just over year ago, but he's been working with trash, making art, and refurbishing buildings for more than 20 years. He's a longtime activist and an old-school squatter who tried to keep the Lower East Side from transforming into the East Village.

We sat down with Politi in the backyard of his building, at a table in the shadow of a large water tower that had been converted into a rocket. With an ashtray and a tape recorder set on a wire-spool table between us, Politi smoked bidi cigarettes and talked about anarchy, parties, and trash.

The following interview was conducted a few weeks after September 11, which was on both of our minds. It has been edited for length and to make us both sound smarter and more articulate than we are. We will gladly send out unedited transcripts upon request. Politi will be worshiping trash at the Blackkat carnival on December 15.

NONSENSE: I've seen some Trash Worship performances, but just so we're clear, I should make sure I understand everything you do. So, at the typical Trash Worship show, trash is brought to a location, or trash is found, and then it is transformed into objects of art or ...

ROLAND POLITI:It could be objects of art, or functional [things], or a combination of both. And underlying it, there is always a concept of work, of moving these objects around, not putting your name on it and letting it stay like a big statue.

N: Why?

RP: Trash is a weed. It is a resourceful weed, but if you don't move it fast, before you know it you can be up to your neck in trash.

N: When did you start Trash Worship?

RP: Well officially it was a year ago, in the year 2000. We had the first Trash Worship at La Plaza garden. It was the first ceremony.

N: What do you mean by ceremony?

RP: This one was dedicated to insects, and we went sunrise to sunset, and a lot of trash was brought and transformed on the spot while there was dancing in a circle, and costumes homemade from found materials.

Since then we did a lot of side shows in the New York scene. We are also connected with the cirkus network and puppeteers.

We have also done some spontaneous performances in the street, in communities and at block parties. We bring the tools, the resources, and then let mostly kids and teenagers go at it.

N: Sometimes when you do a performance at a party it takes off and everybody gets involved. But sometimes it's you and one other person over in a corner rooting through the trash, and a lot of people are wondering who that weird guy is and what is he doing. What makes some of your performances very successful and others less so?

RP: It goes back to us. It depends how many worshippers come and how high is our energy level. We assume that people just come to party and don't get involved more than just their own group. It is up to the performer to be strong and break that. Something about trash, or our approach to the worship concept, needs a little bit of pushing to get it through to other people. It's not as simple as doing a strip act on stage.

N: So what happens when someone comes up to you at a party? Do they just start making things immediately, or do they ask you what you're doing, or ...

RP: A few make things immediately, and you know that person, he or she, was already a worshipper. But most people want to know who you are and what it is you are doing. And I've developed a patience so that I can get into these people, so they can open up to me, instead of just thinking, "Oh my god, these people are so stupid." It's back to the worshipper, who, with the right degree of humbleness, can get through.

N: So how do you make the distinction, when you go to a party or an event, if it's something positive, or something superficial? What are the indicators for you? What makes a good party?

RP: First, the total degree of involvement: You don't have a crowd that just stays in one place, waiting to get high or something, just drink and do drugs and jump up and down mindlessly. Or if the music, the sounds, and the acts are pretty much repetitive and don't show connection.

But I see now that we need more breaking-the-ice with people. More low-tech. Break away from pacifiers like TV and going around with an empty head. It's just not a good habit anymore to just drop out and go around with an empty head -- you know, too abstract and passive.

N: What were you doing before you had Trash Worship? I assume you were by already a trash worshiper.

RP: Yes, by nature I have always been a worshipper. These buildings [today's squats] were trashy when we found them -- it was naturally working with available resources. Also, [trash] is one of the mainstays in the autonomous world, which is all around the world -- anarchy, in the best sense, in the most philosophical sense.

I have done my own shows, but it is not for me to work with the gallery world, or the visual art world. I always wanted to do something that was more binding with what is around, not so egocentric. Even the two shows I had back in the early '90s were already setting the stone for Trash Worship. One show I had here at Bullet space, was during the Gulf War, 10 years ago, and the show was titled, "Bye-Bye Throwaway Society."

N: You mentioned anarchy earlier. There are a lot of different philosophies that fall under anarchy. Can you explain what that means to you?

RP: Sure. Anarchy where I come from, specifically Italy, southern Italy, or Greece and Spain, are like cradles for anarchy for a while, some generations now. We are people who generally, instinctively can know each other by culture, but we thrive on being independent, without a government or social system to govern us, to dictate to us. To live this autonomous life it requires taking some different routes. And mainly it is going where the system is neglecting the area.

I don't think a pure anarchy is live and let live, not in a way of taking over the system, more in a way of just surviving for ourselves. Basically anarchists accept the fact that we are a minority and that we will always be a minority. And it doesn't -- and I want to be clear about this because of current events -- not like a group that professes to conquer the other. We just want to survive among ourselves.

N: OK, so you move to New York, you start some squats, you do a couple of art shows, you start Trash Worship. There's 20 years in between there. So what else were you involved in?

RP: Well, the politics and the activism. For a good portion of that time that was almost like full-time, just organizing and going and getting buildings done. Working on buildings. I worked more or less on the front lines on that.

N: You mean organizing squats, but what do you mean "front lines?"

RP: I mean I was more the one that went in, set things up, opened up building after building. I didn't just get into a building, find my spot, and just do my art for the next 20 years. Like I said, I've been here [at Bullet] for two years. But I was at 13th Street, 11th Street, two places on 7th Street ... I've been in about 10 or 11 buildings. I guess it's like the city council person says, "You better stay in Bullet space until it is legalized. You're the only one who's been in every squat in the neighborhood."

That took a lot of energy. That was a priority over art. After the '90s, I could focus more. And now I'm really having fun with Trash Worship. I see myself planting the seed. You know my age. Most of the people I work with are all younger and on the way up with their lives. It's kind of odd sometimes that I am hanging around, but no big problem actually. So I'm in a good position, to just pass on my experience. And I'm still learning a lot.

N: So it's fair to say that your art always comes from a political place?

RP: Yes. And I always said that, even to the galleries. First comes the action, the community, or first comes the recycling and the trash. Art may come as a byproduct. And that's very important. One critic even wrote that. He said, "His art doesn't look like art. It comes from the street and goes right back to the street."

N: That's a compliment to you.

RP: Yes, but to collectors it's anathema.

N: What was it like in the '80s around here, in Alphabet City and on the Lower East Side?

RP: The '80s were very jungle-like. I don't think there's anything comparable, or the closest thing to it now are the most depressed zones of East New York, or East Bushwick, or even the Bronx.

N: If it was so bad, so jungle-like, why were the '80s considered such a heyday?

RP: Well, for art and culture it was very intense -- it created a lot of movements, like the Rivington School that took all the scrap metal and iron and made sculptures, like the Gas Station. And there were free zones, autonomous zones in a sense: No landlords over you.

If you wanted a space you didn't have to have to explain and have cash up front. There was no need for cash in that sense, to get things going. There was a building, you'd go in, and you'd do something. We had many happenings; just dressed up an empty building for a night, then we were out of there.

N: Do you think now, culturally, it is a good time in New York, or a bad time?

RP: I think it's a good time now. After nine-one-one [September 11], I think this is a humbling experience, but also one that reinforces character. And to really talk of New York, and I think I know this city well by now -- I've really been through it -- maybe this will bring people back into smaller groups and smaller businesses. If the Mickey Mouses will move out the tourists will move out. The mass, the large-scale ones. It might hurt temporarily now because we would lose jobs, but in the long-term it would be good for the fabric of New York.

N: But a lot of people say that corporate environment, this Disney thing, expensive nightclubs -- all of that has given people a lot of reasons to create.

RP: Yeah.

N: So for you, September 11 comes in addition to that, or was that not authentic enough, deep enough?

RP: Well, no. Nine-one-one really marked it clear, the changeover. Which was already going on -- it started, obviously. We know each other because of that, the alternative way to this corporate culture, this corporate entertainment and all that. So looking at the positive, again, this nine-one-one, now more than ever, people need to get away from a numb kind of entertainment.

N: Do you see more of this?

RP: Now I see the awareness of it growing. And by that, I don't mean that we are going to be a serious society, or serious culture. I'm saying that you need to do much more than put a poster out. Before, people would just print "No War." You have to go a little deeper than that.

N: Are you speaking of activist communities? Or entertainment?

RP: Oh, in general. Because alternative entertainment has always been a little deeper, more interesting. I see the alternative entertainment are playing a larger role as an opportunity to take these mass media markets away now that people are uncertain. It's the perfect time to have an alternate culture get new backers, new sympathizers. People are more open and receptive to it.

I can't see the mass culture going back to business as usual. In the first few weeks, when this event was still fresh, the talk shows and the soap operas calmed down. They didn't air. And they're rethinking what kind of mass entertainment to present. They are also thinking that way. We are in this flux of change. The alternative culture has this chance.

N: But does this alternative culture need to grow?

RP: Well I think it's important just for the survival. To inspire the culture how to survive. We are hearing that 100,000 jobs have been lost. There are less comforts, less cash around. And it's going to go for a while.

I don't know -- it's soon to tell -- but just from my instincts, and being fiftysomething years old, I definitely see the cornerstone. The timing couldn't be better. This is the 21st century. I see it a long-term milestone. I don't think that by December we will be back as usual. Something has changed.



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