An Interview with Madeleine Roodberg: there is so much food in every garbage bag that you see ever

By Shanti Escalante


Artists are at times those who seek out the uncomfortable in pursuit of the animated in their work — animated in the sense that the piece has a history motivated by ideological or conceptual motivations that the body itself cannot possibly fully explain. In “This is Your Garbage, This is Your Waste” by artist Madeleine Roodberg, we are confronted with something old made new again: the seemingly radical sacrifice to put oneself through discomfort or pain in order to reveal an ethic that was never radical but simply necessary.

Roodberg met me for an interview in which she graciously walked me through the different aspects of her project, from Dutch painters to garbage collecting on the Lower East Side. During the course of our conversation, I was consistently surprised at the potential and actualized narratives surrounding the decision to interact with waste, and above all by Roodberg’s incredible ethic and process.

Shanti Escalante: When did you first know that you wanted to work with trash?

Madeleine Roodberg: This is all happened when I was thinking about how to populate my photos [for my senior thesis]. Because this stuff is already so expensive to produce, I was just trying to think of a way to get a subject without paying a whole lot of money, honestly. But then it all fell into place. I had gone through garbage in the past with NYU Divest, and my most recent project before this was all about plastic, stuff that I had and would have thrown out. Before that, in my freshman year, I did a whole series on trash, so it all worked out really nicely. Once I realized I had been doing this for a while I was like “There it is! That’s my thesis!”

SE: The continuity!

MR: Yeah!

“a lot of these things didn’t expire for like, a week after [the date] I picked them up. And there were the things that I collected that had obviously gone moldy. So, like, there are two issues there, right?”

SE: A huge part of this project that really interested me was the process of collecting trash and interacting with it. You say that you gathered all of this material over the course of one afternoon?

MR: Well it’s all at night. [Collecting trash] is a really intimidating thing, or at least it was for me, for a lot of reasons I think. But I had done it a couple of times before, with friends, when we were trying to get food for a retreat we were doing, so I knew a little bit about it. You gotta go out pretty late, like I never left earlier than 9:30 at night because that’s when everyone has all their stuff thrown out. But then you have to beat the garbage trucks.

It’s a weird process, there’s a lot to it. I’ll be doing it, and then I’ll see people who are doing the same thing, too, to, you know —

SE: Feed themselves?

MR: Yeah, exactly. So, there’s a lot of conflict. There were a lot of times where I couldn’t go digging somewhere because someone was already there then I had to reconsider my schedule, if I should go out later, after people have gotten to it already.

I would go out at 9:30 or 10 normally. I was probably in a twenty block radius of here [the Tisch lobby] because I live pretty close to here. The titles of the work are where I got all the food.Most of the places are suppliers, like grocery stores or whatever. They just have piles of trash. And I already knew that was what it was like, because of when I had done [trash collecting] in the past. But that’s when I realized that there is so much food in every garbage bag that you see ever.

SE: One of the things that surprised me was seeing how whole these products were. Those sandwiches, they look completely consumable — really incredible in that sense.

MR: I was going to include some of the packaging that had some of the expiration dates on it. It doesn’t have as much power when I don’t provide the date from which I had collected the stuff, but a lot of these things didn’t expire for like, a week after [the date] I picked them up. And there were the things that I collected that had obviously gone moldy. So, like, there are two issues there, right? But it’s shocking. All of this stuff, for the most part, is still edible. It just seems like there has to be different options…

Lime Tree Market, Commodities Natural Market, ans Village Farm Grocery,  2018

Lime Tree Market, Commodities Natural Market, ans Village Farm Grocery, 2018

“Sometimes I would get really frustrated because I didn’t want to be around it anymore.”

SE: Was there any disgust or fear interacting with these items at all?

MR: Yeah, for sure. I was geared up, I was wearing gloves. I bought rubber gloves — at first I didn’t, but then I realized how much liquid and stuff that there can be [laughs].There were times when the stuff just smelled so bad. Because they just put everything with everything, you know? Like at Union Market, in Alphabet City, on Houston. They had pies that were like, full pies, but were thrown in upside down so there was no way to retrieve them, and it would be on top of squash, and the squash would be like moldy. Stuff got really gross, for sure.

SE: Did any of this impact the way that you interacted with the material when you were setting it up for the still life?

MR: For sure. I think especially in the meat one, that was a weird one. The process is already long and sometimes smelly. Mixing in raw meats was a really unpleasant process sometimes. Sometimes I would get really frustrated because I didn’t want to be around it anymore. It was also frustrating when I realized I would need something cover the table, which was another material that was going to be wasted and that I would need to think about how to dispose of it.

New Yorkers Food Market , 2018

New Yorkers Food Market, 2018

“I have the means to put more money into some things if I would need to but I don’t want to do something that’s entirely contrary to...the process of doing it.”

SE: Also, the containers that you were using to stage the still lives, were those also foraged?

MR: Yeah, so everything but the fabric I found the same night as the food [were foraged]. Even the crates that I placed them on. There’s the champagne glass and the ceramic things, those were all found too. It’s wild.

SE: In the beginning of this interview you mentioned that part of the impetus [behind this project] was finding something [to photograph] that would be cost-effective. ut were you also going into it thinking that, you didn’t want to create waste throughout?

MR: Well yeah, that’s kind of the other thing, I think a lot of this stuff is always conflicting to me — I have the means to put more money into some things if I would need to but I don’t want to do something that’s entirely contrary to...the process of doing it. That’s a constant thing that’s on my mind. And disposing of this stuff was also a whole thing. Like I, ate some of it, I gave away some of it. I had to throw away the meats because I felt like that wasn’t...I composted some of it. I’m constantly trying to not be terrible, you know?

SE: Your piece obviously engages with the idea of trash and consumerism. Was there any specific narrative you specifically wanted to manifest in this work?

MR: I don’t know if it’s so much narrative. I feel like it’s more like wanting to bring attention to the fact that there is so much food waste. I want to bring attention to the fact that it’s grocery stores that are throwing stuff out. How much is being produced in the first place that’s never going to be consumed, or never properly going to be disposed of?

SE: Was there anything that surprised you during the process of making “This is Your Garbage, This is You Waste”?

MR: How labor intensive it was gonna be. Luckily, the way I like doing work is to be kind of consumed by it for however much time it takes. But it’s yeah, the amount of digging, how heavy trash bags get — very heavy [laughs].

Someone offered me money once, when I was looking through trash, which surprised me when that happened, but it also surprised me that it didn’t happen more.

SE: They offered you money?

MR: Yeah.

SE: And what was that like?

MR: I hadn’t really thought about what to do if that were to happen. I had to tell her, “Oh yeah I’m a student, this is for a project, but thank you so much.” I tried to be really grateful, but I didn’t accept it. I think she was really confused. So, yeah, I was also surprised that, as I said, it didn’t happen more.

SE: I think Lime Tree Market, Commodities Natural Market, and Village Farm Grocery was the most surprising for me because of how gorgeous these sandwiches looked. I was gonna ask you if you touched anything up, especially with the cheese.

MR: It’s funny that you ask that. I don’t touch anything up, though I’ll mess with lighting and stuff in post [production].

But yeah it’s ridiculous. Some of the stuff, like the lettuce, was a little old, but even that doesn't look too bad. All this I collected the night before I shot. I think for the most part it was all in my fridge, despite my roommate, like, objecting [I laugh]. But yeah, you can tell some of this stuff is kind of wilted.

SE: Going back to the raw meat thing, what was the process of handling it like?

MR: Oh good question! Unless I was handling meat I would go in and set up with my bare hands. With meat though I would wear my gloves, and I had some newspaper or plastic to rest the meat on when I was setting stuff up — can’t win them all. Sometimes I would have to cover a stain on the fabric from where meat had dripped earlier. And then, oh my god it’s so slippery, especially this one [points to the chicken thigh perched precariously on plastic containers], which was really difficult to handle. I didn’t know whether to keep it packaged or not. This [points to the covered chicken] was packaged just like that.

Union Market and FleursBELLA , 2018

Union Market and FleursBELLA, 2018

SE: And this is where you wanted to show the expiration date?

MR: Yeah, and in this one [New Yorkers Market]. I don’t think it ends up being visible in this one, but that was the one that really struck me. I mean it doesn’t matter anymore because the date’s passed.

SE: No, no, I mean you can tell, that meat doesn’t look past date.

MR: Yeah that’s the thing — they were a week away. And these [cucumbers from Lime Tree Market, Commodities Natural Market, and Village Farm Groceries] were entirely sealed. And this is the type of thing where you can look at a cucumber and see if it’s good or not.

SE: Yeah, there are things that you can just assess with your own eyes.

MR: That was something I was thinking about when I was collecting. I was intentionally looking for things that looked appealing. But even then, after this project, I’ve had to tell myself, you know, “That’s just a bruise on the fruit, it’s still edible.”

SE: So, so interesting. I took an urban studies class last semester and my teacher was very interested in trash because it interacts a lot with citizenship studies. Who do we consider to be affiliated with trash and what are the consequences of that?

MR: Totally. There’s so much to it. I have this huge issue with responsibility, with what I can address, what I have the authority to address and what I don’t, and so I felt like trash is kind of a safety thing. I don’t have entire authority, I’m buying groceries, typically or whatever, but trash is just so universal, and so indicative of so many things at the same time.

SE: When I think of still lives I think of Irving Penn’s work.There’s this very bordered aspect to his work. There’s a kind of singularity to each thing, whereas in your pieces the materials are kind of bursting in their availability and abundance. Was that purposeful?

Italian Still Life (B), 1981

Italian Still Life (B), 1981

Aphrodisiacs, 1997

Aphrodisiacs, 1997

MR: Yeah that was definitely intentional. I was trying to show the spread of what I had, and that’s what a lot of the paintings I was looking at were like. If you look at the Dutch paintings I was referencing, they’re just, like, tables of food and ornamental plates and it kind of looked like someone had just tossed stuff onto a table, and it speaks to the extravagance and consumerism of the time — like, look at how much stuff I have.

Madeleine Roodberg is a senior in at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, she is pursuing a BFA in Photography and Imaging with a minor in Media, Culture, and Communication. This is Your Garbage, This is Your Waste is her senior thesis. Her series can be viewed in the Tisch lobby until March 21st, 2019. More of her work can be found or @madeleineroodberg on Instagram.