Calgary Haines-Trautman

Freedom is a Leaky System

Reality is messy. In the mismatch between the world as it is and our ability to understand, predict, and respond to it, systems leak. Out of this complexity, leaks accumulate—visible issues without clear causes or responsibility. 

Waste management is one such leaky system. People upset by litter misunderstand its sources, and look for simple solutions that surveil, fine, and punish culprits. But leaks are unavoidable. The choice lies in how we respond.

The Department of Strange Beauty engages people struggling with the mess. Working between institutions, the DSB is not here to stop the leaks, but to help people use tools and strategies to understand and respond to complexity. Faced with the mess, we invite you to choose: pick it up or let it go.

The Department of Strange Beauty

It starts with a fistful.

A fistful of candy, a fistful of flowers. Sometimes it takes you by the fistful, grabs you by the shirt, look

And why would I ever look away? What could possibly be more important in this moment than looking out this train window / at this peony / these cats / this stone against sky? When it is so beautiful it hurts (that’s a cliche, but it’s true). The sky is always breaking my heart, because of the way it makes the trees, buildings, rocks, stand out; how that live edge grabs my gaze. Eventually, I have to look away—return to my walk, get back in the car, make that turn on my bike. It cannot last forever, yet it would.

* * *

The Department of Strange Beauty is a unit that works between City departments and residents. We creatively engage leaky systems by meeting the mess as it is and acting to positively shape our communities. The DSB helps people struggling with leaky systems find beauty in the messy world and participate in ongoing processes of maintenance and care.

Strange beauty is beauty that surprises, beauty in a place you don’t expect. Sometimes, beauty comes easy—a cascade of roses across a trellis; the glittering ocean—but strange beauty often requires us to pause, to go beyond an initial reaction and see something without the trappings of judgment.

At its best, strange beauty is like the “beauty experience” from Timothy Morton’s Being Ecological: “there is some kind of mind-meld-like thing that takes place, where I can’t tell whether it’s me or the artwork that is causing the beauty experience.” What would it mean if we could allow more things to have this kind of power over us? Can a discarded can of Bud Light, nestled in a patch of daisies by the road take hold of me? Should I let it? 

Truth is, sometimes when I’m feeling enchanted by the ruins of a gate in a grassy lot, I almost step on a dead rat. “Stepping in it” dangers abound. Still, I turn myself over to this “beauty experience” whenever possible. Beauty is not only the nice-to-look-at, it is how you look, how you surrender yourself, your attention, to something that shares space with you.


An image collage of two organically-shaped orange signs on a neighborhood street; one reads “Litter accumulates 500 FT,” and the other says, “Be prepared to pick it up or let it go.”

Two Department of Strange Beauty signs posted on a street in Federal Hill, Providence. The first reads, “LITTER ACCUMULATES 500 FT.” The second says, “BE PREPARED TO PICK IT UP OR LET IT GO.”

The Leaky Trash System

Trash: Something considered no longer useful; something that has been thrown “away.”
Litter: Trash that has escaped the system. Trash that won’t go away.

We think litter comes from a personal moral failing, but trash leaks from the system at every step of the way.

* * *

I visited the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Center for a Full Facility Tour in April. Trash was blowing around everywhere. Driving around the landfill, our tour guide Bill explained that they tried their best to curb the amount of trash blowing around, and to limit how far it could go. Still, trash blows out of tipping trucks, off of the landfill, and catches (mostly) on tall perimeter fences and a few moveable fences that are put around the active tipping area. “On a windy day like today, it’s awful,” Bill commented. (Most days are windy). Bill was frank: crews come to clean up around the property, but it is “almost an impossible task to be completely clean all the time.” Something always gets by the fences: “It’s a never-ending problem.”

At the Recycling Center, there is human intervention at every step of the sorting process, checking the work of the technology that does the bulk of the sorting. At the end of the recycling processing line, at the workstation of someone Bill said was the last person to touch the paper stream, the volume of erroneous sorted material was massive. The man worked so quickly, identifying wet-strength cardboard, plastic containers, and plastic bags by sight, pulling them from the rapidly-moving conveyor. He shoved the plastic bags into a large trash can beside him, and occasionally had to stop to stuff the plastic down into the bin to make more room. Everytime he did so, more pieces of plastic flew by, presumably to be baled up with the paper. The entire recycling facility was littered with material that had once been airborne, blown or tossed off of machinery and conveyor belts to the floor or onto ledges. The entire place was coated in a thick layer of furry, gray dust, an anonymous amalgamation of all of the plastic, paper, glass, and metals that moves through the warehouse each day.

The leaky system is on full display at RIRRC. I mean no shame in this. It is eye-opening to see how a facility completely dedicated to the management of waste, engineered to process it, is still a leaky system. These leaks are tolerated because of the costs of running the facility. A perfectly clean and accurate system would cost municipalities too much, make recycled materials so expensive as to make them unsaleable. We could have a more costly system, but we would have to be willing to care about trash that much more.

* * *

We can’t always know where a plastic bag blowing across the street comes from. In the complex mess of waste management, we can’t perfectly seal everything away. Plugging leaks and cleaning up requires investing more time and money into the system than we do now. Understanding the reality of the system helps us choose how to respond.


An illustrated diagram showing the stages a piece of trash goes through after disposal, with points where trash escapes the system indicated with orange dotted lines.

The Leaky Trash System, showing the journey of trash to a landfill—into a trash can, bagged, placed in a curbside bin, picked up by a garbage truck, brought to a transfer station, dumped at a landfill, and sealed under layers of plastic and soil.

Providence Trash Signs

In the fall, I went for walks and recorded them afterward as part of a journaling practice. Each week, I took one to four walks, depending on time and weather, almost always taking a different route but always walking in one of two areas: Federal Hill and the West End, or Downtown. After each walk, I would use Google Maps to trace out my route as I remembered it, sketch something I had photographed, and note one or two things I encountered but couldn’t or didn’t photograph. Initially, I felt nervous about walking in new places, unsure of who or what I might come across, but with each walk I became more comfortable with the streets I traversed. With knowledge, I could start to curate my walking experiences—swing by this house to smell the lavender, walk all the way to the edge of the highway to get a picturesque view of New England in full fall color. Despite growing familiarity, I always noticed something new—architecture would catch me by surprise, the color of a berry would delight me, a dozen cans of Bud Light artfully strewn in a daisy patch would confuse me. These walks recharged me, connected me, gave me space to be thoughtful without expectations.

I stopped my journaling practice after the fall; it got cold, and the assignment ended. But as the weather warmed, I kept walking. Open and attentive, I note litter and landscape; I hold them both.

* * *

How can I invite other people to pause and allow these moments of strange beauty into their day? How can we change our perceptions of trash, and what might come out of that? The Providence Trash Sign series highlighted aspects of strangeness, beauty, and responsibility about trash and the neighborhood in Federal Hill, Providence. I posted eight signs of various designs around the neighborhood, and attached a QR code that led to a website. Visitors were invited to fill out a Strange Beauty / Litter Reporting Form to share their thoughts on the project. Follow-up conversations with participants about trash, government responsibility, and potential solutions revealed a variety of attitudes, levels of understanding, and feelings of distress among people who take an active interest in trash in the community.


An organically-shaped red and white sign posted on a “No Parking” sign post, which reads, “Without judgment, what is actually happening in this moment?”

A Providence Trash Sign posted in Federal Hill reads, “WITHOUT JUDGMENT WHAT IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING IN THIS MOMENT?” The lettering and color is inspired by the visual language of “No Parking” signs. The form is derived from the outline of a piece of plastic caught in a bush.

Temporary Trash Monument

The first time I saw “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres in the Art Institute of Chicago, I was with my partner. The piece is a pile of candy in a corner, colorful, shiny wrappers spilling down in a steep angle of repose. I don’t remember the particularities of our approach, only that after some time looking, reading the label, watching others, or maybe speaking with the gallery attendant, we realized that we could take a piece of candy from the pile. I was in awe of the complexity and mess of emotions something so simple—a pile of candy in a corner—could summon up. It felt perverse and holy to take a candy. I think we asked if we could take a handful, not really because we meant to, but because we were trying to figure out the rules of engagement for a kind of art piece rarely encountered. I think a handful was not allowed, or clearly frowned upon by the security staff. So we each took one, maybe two.

As we walked away from the pile, my partner unwrapped their candy, held the wrapper for a moment, and then dropped it on the ground, genuinely unsure. What were you supposed to take and what were you supposed to leave behind? The gallery attendant was swift and stern in her admonishment, “Ma’am, please pick up your trash.” My partner did. What abrupt transformation from Portrait to litter. I was mortified. Transgressions from sacred to profane.

I kept my candy until later. When I ate it, I carefully smoothed out the wrapper and pinned it to my cork board. Not trash. A memento, a piece of preciousness. Ross.

* * *

The Temporary Trash Monument is a kit designed to be used by a small group of neighbors to pick up litter on a block or empty lot. Users can pick up the kit from the Department of Strange Beauty Waste Management division and use the temporary monument to store the collected trash until the Department of Public Works picks it up. The kit is then picked up by DSB staff for another group to use. The Monument displays trash collected in clear bags through cutout windows, rather than hiding it away. The signs showcase the work of the community, highlight the installation’s temporary nature, and invite viewers to get involved. 


An orange box full of trash sitting on a curb next to a grassy lot, surrounded by orange signs that say, “A temporary installation by the Department of Strange Beauty May 1, 2023,” “Created by our designers in residence: K.C., Dyan K.—P.A.C.T, Calgary,” and “Monument to the trash we picked up at 31 America Street.”

The Temporary Trash Monument and signs installed by an empty lot on America Street in Federal Hill. The Monument held trash collected by three Federal Hill residents from a grassy yard and an empty parking lot across the street.

Designer-in-Residence Toolkit

I only really ever got in trouble for two things as a child: talking in class, and going into the woods at recess. I would come traipsing back, rueful at being caught and brought back to the tame woodchip carpeting of the playground. As soon as the recess monitor was busy with other unruly children, I would slip back into the trees for the plant I had my eye on. 

I was a rule-follower, a teacher’s pet—not something to be proud of, really—but I was a relentless woods-goer. Maybe it was that this rule didn’t make sense, and I didn’t believe in whatever threat was imagined to be in those woods. My first playground was the woods. Pull on too-big rubber boots, follow my cousins out of the house, off of the deck, down the hill, into the trees. A few planks across a stream, runoff from the roadside ditch transformed by its surroundings into something magical. Sticks stacked strategically between saplings—a house worthy of touring. Lifting logs and rocks to ogle at what squirmed and dove away from bright exposure. Following the ditch-stream to the river, low and amber. To be in the woods, squishing in the muck, smelling the warm, low musk of decaying leaves, delighting in finding a plant I’d never seen before.

I admire people who choose to live by the water. The river floods; the walkway to the river floats up into the trees, rests stranded when the water ebbs. The basement gets damp, fans blow all day and night to lift moisture into the humid air. The water itself is suspect; years of chemical company negligence have left their traces in the silty river bottom. And yet, come down to the river. Wade or swim, depending on how much it’s rained. Set a lawn chair in the stream and lounge. Drop in a kayak and go bird watching. Make a fire on its shore, and be happy that it is there. Orient your life around this river, through good and bad.

* * *

The Department of Strange Beauty invites residents to take an active role in shaping their communities by becoming a Designer-in-Residence. This Designer-in-Residence Waste Management toolkit provides practical tools for neighborhood care and maintenance, as well as strategies for seeing new perspectives and finding creative approaches to the messes of leaky systems. This toolkit aims to reach people who are upset by litter and who might otherwise see their only options as campaigning for harsher fines for littering and cameras to catch perpetrators. The toolkit helps generate new possibilities for positive engagement and living with the mess in the neighborhood.


A woman in an orange vest with “Department of Strange Beauty” on the back uses a trash grabber to drop litter into an orange bucket.

A Federal Hill resident dons a Department of Strange Beauty vest and uses toolkit tools to collect litter from an empty lot. 


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