Dumpster Divers Sara Benowitz (right) and Sally Willowbee at the opening of "Archives Alchemy" at the National Archives last Friday; their outfits and the show's artworks employ materials the Archives were getting rid of after a renovation.
A detail from Altabef's large microfilm-and-red-tape weaving.
The red-carpet chatter for the Dumpster Divers’ annual awards banquet at Famous Fourth Street Deli is infinitely more entertaining than at the Golden Globes. What are you wearing, Sara Benowitz? “I’m wearing an outfit made from mortgage documents from the 1950s, governmental red tape (which we learned also comes in beige and white), microfilm sewn together — and I have the Constitution around my shoulders, held together with red tape.”
It’s not the real Constitution, obviously, though until recently it was housed at the Philadelphia branch of the National Archives. Many of the flashy costumes on the 40 or so Divers packed into the awards banquet last Thursday incorporated similar leftovers from “Archives Alchemy: The Art of the Dumpster Divers,” a collaboration between the loose, found-art collective and the National Archives’ trash that would open the next day.
The Archives began a renovation about five years ago, moving much of their collection to a more modern facility in the Northeast from the old marble building shared with the old Post Office at 10th and Chestnut. As with any move, stuff surfaced that had outlived its usefulness: miles of microfilm that had already been digitized, for example, and buckets of red tape.
That’s literal, not metaphorical, says Leslie Simon, regional director for the Archives. In the 19th century, she says, “they used to fold things into thirds, and then tie everything together from a court case with red tape.” The move meant liberating thousands of these documents: “We untie the red tape, or cut it,” unfold and flatten each document, then re-file everything in bar-coded folders and boxes for use or scanning. The renovation involved bar-coding 150,000 items.
The annual Divers awards banquet is the opposite of the Archives, where inside voices are mandatory and everything is in its right place. There’s no schedule. For about an hour, there’s just the din of dozens of simultaneous conversations between people in sequined bolero jackets or sieves repurposed as Viking helmets. It barely quiets down when someone yells at the top of his lungs: “I have an award to present!”
Like their outfits, Diver awards are handmade and have no central governing principle — if you want to bestow an award, you have to first win the battle for everyone’s attention, then do it. Some Divers rolled up with multiple cardboard boxes full of trophies and medals; at least a hundred are given out. It’s chaos.
This is how they like it. “This is a group that has no structure. None,” Neil Benson, a co-founder of the group, declares. At the very first meeting in 1992, he came up with the group’s single, surprisingly effective rule: “You can’t adjourn a meeting until you know when and where the next meeting is.” And so a group that first assembled for lunch more than two decades ago still meets monthly to discuss diners, found art, their latest finds (Benson’s all-time favorite: “Katherine Hepburn’s yearbook,” which he says he found in a trash can at 52nd and Market) and whatever else is on their minds.
The Divers took a ton of materials from the Archives, but they didn’t put a dent in the stuff marked for the trash. There’s so much that I even somehow ended up leaving with a disembodied book spine the size of half a baseball bat. Simon, noticing it in the debris as we toured the near-complete renovation, picked the ancient-looking thing up with a hey-you-want-this? shrug, as if it were a pretty leaf from a September sidewalk.
“When we were taking the shelves down, we discovered a whole lot of spines that had become separated from their books over the years” and inadvertently kicked under the stacks, she explains. Most of the spines have already been tossed or incorporated into sculptures. The one Simon holds out is mahogany-colored leather with gold lettering, from the handwritten 19th-century records of a West Virginia District Court. I can’t bear the thought of this stately object in a dumpster. The same feeling led Simon to call the Divers, whom she’d worked with before.
“It just felt natural when we got into three-dimensional materials to reach out to them to see if they’d be interested, and they glommed right onto it,” says Simon. Diver Gretchen Altabef ended up organizing the exhibit, coordinating multiple pickups of boxes of stuff to be turned into collages and sculptures and brought back for display at the Archives. (Altabef contributed, among other things, a large, striking microfilm-and-red-tape weaving.)
“I have an award for Gretchen Altabef!” someone shouts over the din at Famous Fourth Street Deli. “And I have an award for Gretchen!” yells another, then another — so many that it quickly becomes a joke. But the curator of the show is actually getting this many awards. Without rules or formal leadership, the Divers really show their appreciation when a member steps up to organize something like this. Altabef ends up looking like Michael Phelps.
“I have an award for Leslie Simon!” Another cheer. Simon’s still at work at the Archives, though, so it’s agreed that it will be awarded to her tomorrow at the opening.
The Archives and the Divers seem like diametric opposites: quiet and noise, order and chaos. But both halves of this partnership see great worth in things the average person wouldn’t bother to save, and that shared value goes deep.
As the awards banquet winds down, most everyone is draped in medals. Benowitz and Benson get the coveted Golden Hanger awards for best outfit. Even I somehow walk out with a medallion with dangling microfilm ribbons, awarded to me for unclear reasons. I know just the place for it: right next to my new enormous book spine.
“Archives Alchemy: The Art of the Dumpster Divers,” through April 24, free, National Archives, 900 Market St. (entrance on Chestnut between Ninth and 10th), 215-606-0101, dumpsterdivers.org.
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