My memories of childhood in Romania tend to be dominated by a mute color palate, more often than not entirely monochrome. While the exact reasons for that elude me, I attribute some of it to the fact that during the 1980s Romania was still a communist country, largely disconnected from the rest of Europe and the rest of the world, and commercialism had not yet taken a foothold in the country as it would following the revolution of 1989.
That year marks the fault line in my imagination when everything seems to have suddenly turned bright and colorful. As soon as the Ceausescu’s were overthrown and communism had fallen, so did the country’s borders, giving way to an influx of consumer goods from other countries. What stands out most to me about these products is how colorful they were compared to what for me had appeared mostly bland and dull. Another side effect of the advent of consumerist culture during the early 1990s was trash. The eye-catching packaging for all of these goods that we now had the chance to purchase and consume unfortunately ended up by the side of the road.
Again, it is difficult to recall for certain if before the revolution there was simply less trash on the street or I just did not pay attention to it (as with the monochrome memories of my childhood), but I remember quite vividly how the trash suddenly appeared as out of nowhere. Among the discarded items the things that caught my eye the most were used cigarette boxes and soda and beer cans. They looked cheerful, designed to catch the eye, and were decorated with lettering that seemed exotic simply for the sheer fact that I did not understand the language. And I wasn’t the only one. My friends and I, ranging from about seven to ten years old, started collections of empty cigarette boxes and beer cans. We traded them the way you would trade baseball cards. If someone had a double they would trade it for a box or can that they did not have. I remember that Marlboro and Kent cigarette boxes were pretty common, so it became pretty difficult to trade those.
Of course we kept all of these treasures in our rooms, never thinking twice that we were actually collecting garbage. Part of that could be because we did not have that concept, of waste/trash as something that dominated the imagination. I realize now that we simply did not know any better, we were part of a society still feeling its way through what we could roughly refer to as Western culture.
And having been closed off from much of it for so long, as children we also had little knowledge of the dangers associated with playing with such things. Our curiosity was often satisfied by playing with whatever we could find outside, and since we had found these items technically outside they seemed fair game. So did something else that we came across immediately following the revolution, which, looking back now is not as innocuous as the discarded boxes and cans we scavenged from the trash.
During the violent revolution, or right after (details were never established), Romania received quite a bit of aid in terms of medical supplies. For reasons yet again that are elusive, many of those supplies never made it to their destinations or to the places that needed them. Boxes of these supplies, specifically syringes and needles, ended up being dumped right outside of the capital, Bucharest, along the road that lead to the village where my grandparents lived. The boxes naturally were found, opened, and their contents scattered far and wide. Eventually some of the items came into our possession since as kids we had few limits in terms of where we could go and what we could do (Romania, as I was growing up, had a relatively low crime rate and playing outside was not only considered safe from morning until night but actually encouraged). I can still remember how fascinated we were by those syringes and needles. We divvied up what we found and kept them next to the other treasures. Sometimes I played with them as miniature water pistols. When recently I helped my mother administer some medicine to my three-year-old nephew using such a syringe I was tempted to show him the possibilities. I refrained, until he’s a bit older.
Of course I realized only much later how dangerous it was to play with those medical supplies. The cigarette boxes and the cans of beer or soda could have contained germs. The syringes much worse. We were lucky in a way that our experiences with such items was temporary. But around the world too many children play in environments where they cannot avoid encounters with waste products, where sanitary conditions mean that a plaything could very be the source of disease. For someone such as myself, now living in the US, waste is a byproduct, trash is something used and discarded and I have the choice and luxury to avoid it if I want to – for others, that choice is not entirely in their hands.
Here are a couple of other stories about playing with medical supplied that have been shared by contributors:
We lived next to a children’s hospital, and once I found a big glass syringe next to the hospital dump. The tip and plunger of the syringe were metal; it was fun to play with. I brought it home. When my father saw it, he asked me where I got it from, and then gently suggested to throw it away, promising to buy me a new one.
— Maria Bochegova, Kurgan, Russia, 1980s
Once my friend and I (we were 5 years old) found a surgeon’s toolbox in a dump. There were so many treasures in it! Syringes, scalpels, only not sharp, and a whole lot of different clips and what not. We played doctors for a whole month before our parents found out and confiscated the box.
— Olesya, Sevastopol, Ukraine, 1990s
Sound might not be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about discarded objects, but it is one of the ways that we mark our initial interactions with the world – the first wail of a newborn, the cry for food and attention – and it is also the means by which we form some of our earliest memories (the sound of a parents’ voice for example).
Sound has also been traditionally regarded as one of the most important of our five sense from an evolutionary standpoint in terms of survival – it is sound that most often alerts us to danger, makes us perk up our ears and pay attention, even recoil in fear. It is no surprise that sound plays such a crucial role in filmmaking, with sound effects at the core of horror films, but also playing more subtle role to trigger sensations and affect mood ranging from anxiety to melancholy to jubilation.
Sound is considered to be so important to the expression and preservation of who we are that in 1977, aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft, the United States sent into space a collection phonograph records called The Voyager Golden Records. The records attempt to present a sense of life on earth for those who might encounter the disks at some future date: they include 116 images, a variety of natural sounds, including surf, wind, thunder and animals (including the songs of birds and whales). It also includes musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings in 55 ancient and modern languages.
In July 2015, NASA uploaded the audio contents of the record to the audio streaming service SoundCloud.
You can listen to record here: https://soundcloud.com/nasa/sets/golden-record-sounds-of
Interesting to note is the inscription borne by the records, which alludes primarily to the auditory aspect of the concepts, though more than just sounds were included: "To the makers of music – all worlds, all times".
(continued after the images)
Maybe there is something about music, about sound, that serves as one of the more accurate representations of life. Sound in a way inscribes for us some of our most cherished memories, be it the laughter of a loved one, a certain song that takes us back in time, or reminds of a certain place that is imbued with nostalgia. As much as sound inscribes a person, place, or emotion within us, it too must be inscribed by the object it represents – it carries within it the reverberations, the distant echoes of the thing that created it.
In composer Amanda Berlind’s evocative “found sound” montages, New York City comes alive through a labyrinth of suggested memories and associations. Each of Berlind’s three compositions below are created using snippets of sounds recordings made around New York City. Or, as she puts it: “a pile of recorded sound from around Manhattan, with this sorta relentless piano part I improvised over the top (and a few fragmented violin lines I had a friend play), organized with lots of panning.”
In Berlind’s arrangement that pile of sound takes on a shape and dimension that transcends the realm of sound and essentially sculpts images of places, people, and things within the listener’s mind. Upon listening one is confronted by notes, but also by a park, benches, people possibly on benches or strolling along, birds, and most certainly a squirrel is there too, overflowing city trash bins, irate truck drivers traffic, people crossing the street (most likely jaywalking), etc. In all likelihood, the things that were recorded and preserved by the sounds in Berlin's pieces have long disappeared or are no longer present in the exact same condition that they were captured in. Therefore, the sound records that we have of these items might be the only traces that we have of the once existent material reality.
Unlike many songs where the lyrics themselves might reference such material objects yet we do not necessarily dwell on them, Berlind’s sound assemblages not only call to mind the materiality of the sound, but forces us to make associations and build a world for them to inhabit, the imagination ping-ponging back and forth between things – a world of felt sound if you will.
And much like the Golden Records, or any sound recordings for that matter, Berlind’s creations serve as messages in a bottle, time capsules, preserved representations of time and place.
What we have to remember, however, is that unlike the Golden Records, which were created to travel to outer space and possibly last billions of years, our rather humble efforts at recording and preserving sound comes with a limit. As MR from Istanbul, Turkey wrote of his experience recording his voice as a young child onto cassettes, “All these cassettes, with old Turkish pop songs that were replaced with my creations, are unfortunately lost now.”
Best thing to do is listen, enjoy, and trust our memories.
Here we highlight featured stories from the archive, contributions by fellow writers and artists, as well as reflections and comments on the value and impact of discarded objects in our world.