The Department of Strange Beauty

Intervention from my graduate thesis research, Freedom is a Leaky System: Living Together in the Mess (thesis download)

Individual project

RISD Fall 2022–Spring 2023


Litter is upsetting.

People upset by litter frequently misunderstand its sources. Those for whom state power has worked often look for simple solutions that seek to surveil, fine, and punish culprits.

Reality is messy.

The path of trash from hand to landfill requires a series of successful transfers between receptacles and responsibility. Wind, accidents, and spills in automated systems complicate trash’s path from here to away. Out of this complexity, leaks accumulate—visible issues without clear causes or responsibility.

Leaks are unavoidable.

There is an irreducible gap between the world as it is and our models of it. In this mismatch, systems leak. Litter is a symptom of a leaky system.

The choice lies in how we respond.

The Department of Strange Beauty engages people struggling with the mess. DSB is not here to stop the leaks, but to help people understand and respond to complexity. Working between institutions, DSB approaches waste management and other leaky systems with reimagined tools and strategies.

Faced with the mess, we invite you: 

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 here, but trash leaks from the system every step of the way.

A plastic bag blows across the street, and we don’t know where it came from. Plugging leaks and cleaning up require attention, time, and money—much more of it than we are willing to give now. In the complex mess of waste management, we can’t perfectly seal everything away. Understanding the reality of the system helps us choose how to respond.

What is Strange Beauty?

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Strange beauty is beauty that surprises, beauty in a place you didn’t expect. It requires us to pause, to go beyond a knee-jerk reaction, to pay attention and see something without judgment.

Strange beauty makes us a participant in the “beauty experience” described by Timothy Morton: “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 us? Should we let it? 

The world is messy, complex, and interconnected. We can never fully understand the world and all the other beings in it. Things will always be strange. The tighter we try to control things, the weirder the leaks become. Strange beauty shows us that even in the mess, we can still have a positive, creative, and interesting relationship with the world.

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DSB Intervention: Neighborhood Trash Signs

The Department of Strange Beauty’s first intervention in an area is to install signs to indicate that work is being done. Signs highlight strangeness, beauty, and responsibility for the neighborhood and its trash. Conversations generated by a form posted alongside the signs connect neighbors who would have otherwise never met. Discussions surface disparities in understanding of the trash system and disagreements about responsibility for leaks.

How can we change our perceptions of trash and litter, and what might come out of these new perspectives? 

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Freedom accepts the possibility of a mess. In the Blackstone Ratio, posed by English jurist William Blackstone, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” There must be slack in the system, though leaks may abound. As we struggle with the mess here and to come, we must remember that freedom is a leaky system. Seeing a leak like litter as a side effect of this arrangement rather than evidence of the collapse of civilization helps us learn to live with the mess. 

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DSB Tool: Temporary Trash Monument

The Department of Strange Beauty provides monument kits to groups of neighbors who want to pick up litter on a block or empty lot. The monument and signs showcase the work of the community, highlight the installation’s temporary nature, and invite future involvement. 

When polycrises put pressure on our institutions and create unexpected and more burdensome leaks in our systems, how should we respond?

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This is not a department focused solely on trash. Trash is a toy that helps us practice living in complex, messy situations. Trash is something everyone understands, and waste management is a leaky system we all interact with, whether we recognize its leakiness or not. The tools and strategies we deploy in the sandbox of waste management can be reimagined for leaky systems with larger scales and higher stakes.

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DSB Offering: Designer-in-Residence Toolkit

The Department of Strange Beauty provides an avenue for residents to take an active role shaping their communities by becoming a Designer-in-Residence. This toolkit provides practical tools for neighborhood care and maintenance, as well as strategies for seeing new perspectives and finding creative approaches to the messiness of leaky systems.

How do we redirect people with power and privilege and who are affronted by mess away from authoritarian responses and toward positive community engagement?

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By co-opting the language of authority, we can grant people the power to transgress boundaries, just as the leaks do. An orange vest gives someone the authority and permission to act in spaces where official responsibility has left a gap. An orange vest is an invisibility cloak, a shield, an invitation. By taking on and distorting the language of maintenance authority and public works, DSB invites people to participate in something they assume should be working for them.

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Full Thesis Book Download: Freedom is a Leaky System: Living Together in the Mess

RISD Graduate Thesis Exhibition: Freedom is a Leaky System: Living Together in the Mess

I designed and fabricated the exhibition March–May 2023, and installed the show myself over three days in June 2023 at the Rhode Island Convention Center. 

Research Process and Experiments


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Baldwin, Taylor, Neftali Duran, Ellen Garrett, Damion Vania, and Ed Whitfield. “‘Some Freedom Now’: Liberatory Practice and Community-Building in the Face of Collapse.” Panel Discussion presented at Collapse, Center for Complexity’s 4th Annual Symposium, Rhode Island School of Design, September 22, 2022.

Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. Grand Central Publishing, 2019.

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