When I stepped off the Q39 bus in the Woodside neighborhood of Queens, I was transported to a no man’s land. Behind me were approximately 3 million burial plots in the Calvary Cemetery, and in front of me stood an enormous fortress known as the New York Department of Sanitation’s (DSNY) Central Repair Shop, said to be as long as the Empire State Building is tall. I felt rather small and inconsequential standing between the two entities. But when artist sTo Len led me into the building, where he currently has a studio as part of the Department of Cultural Affairs’s Public Artist in Residence (PAIR) program, the element of intrigue became more prominent than any sense of existentialism and despair.
At its near-million-square-foot capacity, the Central Repair Shop is the headquarters for all DSNY vehicle maintenance as well as the “Office of Invisibility,” a made-up department spearheaded by Len as a resident artist. When he was selected for the program, Len spent time touring multiple DSNY buildings before choosing the shop as the home base for his project because of its existing facilities and obscure nature in the grand scheme of recognizable sanitation procedures.
With the “Office of Invisibility,” an interdisciplinary art project that spotlights and reinterprets archival media from DSNY, the artist’s tentative end goal is to spark curiosity from the public about sanitation practices. Len hopes to re-contextualize the DSNY as diligently working toward a healthier and more sustainable city rather than as a group of invisible laborers operating on autopilot.
Len brought me to the shop’s formerly defunct screen-printing studio, which was an explosion of colorful, large-scale prints suspended on drying lines like Tibetan prayer flags along with archival DSNY posters and signage lining every flat surface. DSNY once had its metal signs and posters printed or hand-painted onsite before adopting the contemporary vinyl cutting machines that create standardized decals.
Thankfully, no one ever bothered to rifle through the print studio after it became irrelevant, resulting in the inadvertent preservation of decades worth of screens and signage. These relics span several decades of marketing schemes, including borough- and neighborhood-specific tag lines, and even multilingual messaging based on popular demographics. Some of the archival content documents the DSNY’s introduction to separating and recycling and multiple anti-littering campaigns aimed at different demographics.
Last year, Len got to work printing all of the existing screens to add to the DSNY archives before remixing them on his own terms. “I just happened to stumble upon all these materials and then started to archive them,” he told me. “And I think it felt good to actually be doing something for the department. Preserving all this stuff and then being able to have access, which you normally wouldn’t have, to make something new out of all of this.”
His oil-slick-like prints made using the Japanese suminagashi water marbling technique are emblazoned with authoritatively capitalized phrases like “DON’T LITTER — IT’S THE LAW.” Beyond the typical advisories regarding the consequences of breaking the law and the pleas for human decency, it was exciting to see how DSNY has used cartoon characters, naughty quips, and pun-based humor to introduce and familiarize city residents with new initiatives and proper disposal guidelines.
After we pored over the poster collections, Len brought me up to the fifth floor to show me the real goldmine — the long-lost broadcasting room at the end of what felt like a mile-long corridor. Even Mierle Laderman Ukeles, sTo’s predecessor and DSNY’s artist in residence for over 44 years and counting, wasn’t clued into the existence of this sanitation-specific Library of Alexandria. Having lain dormant for at least a decade, the broadcasting room contained hundreds upon hundreds of photo slides, VHS tapes, DVDs, and film reels of documentation footage following the DSNY’s operations for generations — the earliest of which dates back to 1903, Len said.
Len has been digitizing the footage to contribute to the DSNY media archive as well, claiming that he’s gotten through around half of the records so far. These documents of now-defunct incinerators, residential trash collection procedures, and operations across the city’s inactive landfills, he says, are a missing piece of New York City’s history.
“Trash is not a new issue,” Len remarked. “It’s a problem that needs to be worked on constantly, just like sanitation. Looking back through this historical footage, it’s sort of horrifying to see how we used to do it, you know?”
He referred to the time he watched pre-Environmental Protection Agency footage of sanitation trucks dumping garbage right along the water at the Fountain Avenue Landfills which have since been converted into the Shirley Chisholm State Park below Starrett City, Brooklyn.
Len’s fascination with waste removal started when he was a child growing up in Alexandria, Virginia. He spent a lot of time exploring beside the city’s wastewater treatment facility (which he used to call the “poo poo factory”) and the illegal dumping ground nearby. His interest led him to develop multiple series of works both capturing and commenting on the pollutive practices affecting our waterways. In 2019, Len became the first artist in residence at the same wastewater treatment plant.
Len’s “Office of Invisibility” meanders like a styrofoam cup bobbing along with the current, ensnared by the whirlpools of information and oddities that bloom within the DSNY. Neither he nor the department had any intrinsic objective for what would culminate from his stay, which has since been extended at his request so that he can complete the archive. Len recently displayed an installation and held a talk about his residency at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, but as it stands right now, the work is far from complete.
Down the line, Len wants to create an accessible media library from his archive work to encourage city residents to learn more about DSNY’s history and evolution and improve the line of communication between the two.
“I think that we learn a lot by looking back,” Len said. “I’m always curious about what, we as a society decide to remember, forget, or resurrect. And with DSNY who goes out and does the work every day, I think this archive will help everyone step back and think about how we can improve things moving forward.”