Harmony in Poverty? Or Can the Landfill Harmonic Project Really Transform Communities?

By Stephan Manning.

The new documentary “Landfill Harmonic” tells the story about a group of children from Cateura, a Paraguayan slum, who play instruments made entirely of garbage from a nearby landfill. A related Kickstarter campaign raised $214k in May this year to support not only the film project, but outreach programs and a world tour of “The Recycled Orchestra”. Is the Kickstarter campaign right in saying that “[such] creative and simple solutions can bring powerful social transformation to the poorest communities”? The campaign and a related video posted on Kickstarter, upworthy.com and other websites sparked a recent controversy about the real impact of such initiatives.

Dirk Matten at York University, Toronto, and co-editor of the Crane and Matten blog posted on Facebook:

“I am enraged. Does nobody question why these people have to live from rubbish in the first place? This is just romanticizing poverty – maybe we have all read too many papers on the BOP (Bottom of Pyramid) myth?”

David Levy, here at UMass-Boston, comments:

“My instant reaction was to see parallels with ghetto orchestras in WW2. Yes, it’s a diversion for the trash dwellers/inmates, and we can admire their efforts to find dignity and create beauty amidst the horrors and poverty. But the video also serves to cynically divert our attention from poverty, death and oppression. The video has a strong ideological viewpoint; it’s a heartwarming story of human transcendence. But has the celebration of creativity and entrepreneurship become the new ‘opiate of the masses’? Does it soothe us, the audience, or mobilize political action? A very different video might use the orchestra as a hook to examine the realities of life in the trash piles, and explore the economic, political, and environmental factors involved. ”

The provocative question whether this initiative may “cynically divert our attention from poverty, death and oppression” sparked a number of follow-up comments by members of the OSC research group. For example, Banu Ozkazanc-Pan sees in “The Recycled Orchestra” a potential form of resistance:

“As I watched this, I thought of agency–who speaks for whom? Can ‘we’ as privileged academics call attention to social stratification while at the same time acknowledging some form of agency here? Is music a form of resistance to the material conditions that try to define and constrain us? And is this agency…”

Yet, Marc Lavine identifies another cause for concern in the using of poverty as a marketing angle. He notes:

“There are a host of artistic endeavors that use the social conditions of the artists/performers as part of the marketing. […] If you can intervene, make a movie, organize a touring orchestra (they played with Metallica!) you can surely get proper instruments for all of the players. It bothers me that all the word play of the Landfillharmonic and even Recycled Orchestra is designed for an English speaking audience (doesn’t translate well in Spanish). Is having everyone play on recycled instruments a variation of enforced primitivism or a clever tactic to stand out and potentially shine a light and help transform poverty?”

As for myself, I am torn between recognizing the intent and questioning the effect of this project. On the one hand, I can see a powerful message: People should not be treated like trash only because they are forced to live in slums. On the other hand, given that several orchestras exist in poor communities, do you need to live at a landfill and be able to turn trash into music instruments in order to be heard? Is the Kickstarter generation of social enthusiasts not so different from mainstream media consumers after all? And is it true that such creative campaigns are no more than a diversion from structural problems, as David Levy suggests, or can they really transform communities, as the campaigners want us to believe?

We invite your comments on this! (or longer reflections that we’ll publish as a blog post)

Further references

Homepage of Landfill Harmonic

Landfill Harmonic Kickstarter Campaign

Documentary Waste Land: In line with David Levy’s call for “a very different video [which] might use the orchestra as a hook to examine the realities of life.”, Marc Lavine suggests that “Waste Land” delivers on these aims by exploring the economic, social, political, and environmental realities for those involved as well as the complexities of collaboration between privileged artist and film maker outsiders and people living in extreme poverty.

Katherine Boo (2012) Behind the Beautiful Forevers, reviewed here in Slate. Life for trash sellers in Mumbai.


6 thoughts on “Harmony in Poverty? Or Can the Landfill Harmonic Project Really Transform Communities?

  1. What is so beautiful about the film is the desire for these children to play music. I agree that these harsh conditions should cause us to act on bettering this community and making a change so children are not forced to live like this. For the moment, I feel it is a beautiful thing for music to be present in the harshest conditions, while it is being taken out of many schools right here in the U.S. People will make music out of nothing.This message is one that we should take from the film without dismissing the socioeconomic travesty of these children’s poor existence. To play music is a sign of life, and even in the darkest places music still resounds. Now lets get these kids some clothes, food, and adequate shelter!

    • As I continue to follow this conversation, and give thought to the topic. I am finding some other examples where the common thread of “children” both acting in positive ways, in the context of questionable economic and societal norms that would make it necessary for their action in the first place, are media featured and continue to raise some question around, perhaps in this case, how these stories are “framed” and what aspect of the story is the resounding message (ie aren’t these children amazing (which they are!), but what about this larger framework being kept to the margins. See two other examples from a “good news” website:

      (Where is the funding? Why is there not funding beyond a child having to initiate this?)

      and one here in MA, also gets a nod due to the cultural love of animals, http://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/family-life/pets/10yo-donates-1k-to-buy-bullet-proof-vest-for-k9.html

  2. After reading Dirk’s criticism, I – after initially having felt only feelings of support for both the documentary and the happening – at once regretted my thoughts of encouragement, believing that they were both premature and naïve. While I wasn’t enraged, I tended to side with the statement, “Does nobody question why these people have to live from rubbish in the first place? This is just romanticizing poverty.” Then again, after viewing the video, and rethinking the alternatives – i.e. the area’s children living in poverty without any access to instruments and musical development – the initiative, however absolving of the existence of poverty one may believe it is – seems more necessary and good than demeaning and fruitless. Clearly poverty is at the heart of why these children are using instruments made out of garbage, and of course we should be more interested in why so many regions remain underdeveloped, BUT…until we actually take action, not to not to mention until we are at the very least aware of where action is needed, nothing is happening at all. This cause and documentary is if but tiny step to the positive of everyone involved. It’s real and is happening, and we’re aware of it.

  3. I agree with Nick that creativity of this kind can be transformative and that we should take the possibilities of transforming the opportunities of particular individuals (rather than the whole system) seriously, even if (or maybe because) this is anchored in the “pull yourself up” ideology. Like Marc, I can very much recommend the documentary “Waste Land” as a both moving and nuanced display of the complexities of living under difficult conditions and the role art projects can play in changing mindsets and in creating new possibilities. That said, I am not so sure anymore if Dirk’s ‘enraged’ comment that “nobody question(s) why these people have to live from rubbish in the first place” is fair or particularly useful. First of all, I think that reasons for sustained inequality and mechanisms by which people ‘end up’ in slums etc. are well-known. And so are the reasons why it’s damn hard to change the whole system. If creative art projects can change the lives of some (and maybe even the thinking of a few more), isn’t this by itself already worth it? Or am I victim of a subtle conspiracy of capitalism that tries to calm people down through imaginative art? But even so, shouldn’t we focus on the HUMAN condition in all its complexity (material, symbolic, emotional, social, artistic etc.) rather than reducing it to material existence? Well again: To stimulate the discussion, let me recommend the documentary “Waste Land”!

  4. My initial response to the promo that was released some time ago was a positive one. I was dazzled by the creative nature and simple physical ability to actually accomplish the creation of instruments out of trash. There is certainly an attraction to the “pull yourself up from your boot straps” dogma embedded strongly in the “American” story of individualism and economic accomplishment. “Look at these kids, even they could do something, so should you.” It feeds, or perhaps echos, a desire within ourselves that despite our challenges, if these children can do this, might we not be able to do something beyond the limitations that appear before us material or immaterial. While the invisible question as to why these kids are there in the first place is left un-checked, and that should be expected despite Professor Matten’s “enraged” response to this fact. The internalized acceptance of the economic model, and its clear creation of wealth distribution that creates extreme poverty, is part of the function of the model in the first place. An opportunity was missed. The maker of the film too could have elevated the purpose to one that included both the astonishing work of these children and include an educational component in regards to global wealth distribution and its cause. I only hope that for each us, wherever we find ourselves, can take the situation we are met with and transform it, whether it be trash, or ideology.

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