Bin Diving In A Pandemic
Daniel Wilson is a writer, musician and sometimes lecturer, carving out an existence on the outskirts of mainstream society. Here he reflects on how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting his ability to survive, as well as the lessons he has learnt in his years on the fringe.
Nina Carter is an illustrator and is the Art Editor of It’s Freezing in LA!, a magazine exploring climate change.
Reality’s unexpected upchuck has a habit of making our imaginative creations look crude and simplistic. In February this year, the experimental music quartet I perform in — Oscillatorial Binnage — announced the release of our seven-years-in-the-making, post-apocalypse-anticipating album ‘Agitations: Post-Electronic Sounds’. The CD+booklet release envisages how exploratory, abstract electronic music might be made in the wake of an environmental collapse, or a catastrophic solar flare — a coronal mass ejection — disabling the world’s electronics. Thus the sounds are all made acoustically, using physical objects.
The timing of this release was unfortunate, as it coincided not with a coronal mass ejection, but a coronaviral mass infection, and a subsequent lockdown resembling something uncomfortably close to the doomsday scenario insinuated within ‘Agitations: Post-Electronic Sounds’. But rather than a post-electronic scenario, we’ve now gone ultra-electronic, relying on communications technology, and it is second-hand physical objects from the outside world that are now viewed with suspicion. I was semi-prepared for a post-electronic situation, but completely unprepared for an ultra-electronic one: I lack up-to-date technological conveniences such as a modern computer or a smartphone. Horizons have narrowed. All live performance events are now postponed indefinitely, and physical distribution of our album’s stock has been snarled up. The fatal effects of this virus have upturned all our priorities. This project was the outcome of much expenditure, and it now hovers in uncertainty. Elsewhere, what little other work I get has dried up completely.
I mention the Oscillatorial Binnage project for its thematic irony, and also because the modus operandi behind the project relates to bin-diving, hence the group name. (We construct our experimental instruments from recycled and salvaged objects). Whereas the other three group members all share an environmental imperative, they do not bin-dive as much as me. Until very recently, I necessarily engaged in this almost everyday, equipped with gloves, torches, tongs, bin-lid keys, spanners, and telescopic prodding implements. The found stuff I’d find, mend, eat, use or sell are now off-limits. Even in the best of times, windfalls are rare — financial hardship is a normal state for me. I go through long periods of having no income. I’m nominally a self-employed sound designer, instrument-builder, and researcher. To illustrate my story further: I’ve won awards, published and lectured on varied topics, and was composer-in-residence at a community radio station, but I’ve never actually earned enough from my work to meet the Lower Earnings Limit which would make me eligible to pay National Insurance. In this current crisis, not earning enough per year to pay National Insurance is what makes me ineligible for financial relief from the government’s Coronavirus packages for the self-employed, or the ‘new style’ Jobseeker’s Allowance. My previous attempts to submit a claim were rejected for this reason. However, in a new development, Universal Credit claims can now be made online, and I’m in the process of re-trying again, currently awaiting an outcome.
I busk experimental music and sell cassettes by the roadside. I’ve done stints in the employ of businesses; doing manual things such as decorating, small electrical repairs, and temporary warehouse work, but a few remarks from former employers/advisors echo in the mind — “I think you’re more suited for a non-customer-facing role,” was one bit of backhanded advice, and “you should look into self-employment” was another. The latter comment had its attractions, offering a potential respite from such withering assessments. Nevertheless, student debt from 2007 remains unpaid, and I live with my parents who just about survive on a state pension, and on whom I rely for accommodation. Currently there’s no heating or hot water in the house due to a broken boiler. Semi-luckily, it’s a small house and rooms can more-or-less be heated by bodily warmth and breath.
Just before the lockdown began, I was looking forward to beginning a part-time trial working at a bookshop near an art gallery. A generous bookseller friend often calls bookselling “the last refuge of the unemployable,” and certainly, in that world, character tics are not so conspicuous. The same friend was last seen frantically searching for information on how long coronaviruses might persist on books.
My local Citizens Advice helpline is uncontactable. Our local food bank was empty for a few weeks but, mercifully, is starting to restock now. Of course, bin-diving is now impossible. Walking towards the supermarket a week ago, I passed a long row of trade waste bins. Force of habit compelled me to knock upon each of their metal bodies, (their contents levels can be judged by ear without opening the lids,). They all sounded empty. The knocking is a pro-bin-diver technique saving the trouble of opening lids, but in this case it saved me from an awkward situation, as policemen immediately appeared from an alley. They asked whether I was heading to the supermarket (evidently enforcing the lockdown restrictions). “Yes,” I said, “and please, please let there be at least one toilet roll,” I joked in a praying gesture. They did not laugh, and I wondered if they’d seen me knocking on the bins beforehand.
Bin-diving’s legitimacy has always been in question, but now it is even more so. At the moment, the situation makes me question my own legitimacy, not just as a legal entity, but in terms of what I do generally. Over the years, one of the subjects I persistently lecture upon at one-off university talks is bin-diving. Particularly, the potential given by sifting through the chaos of waste, and experiencing new random recipes, both in the Freegan sense (of circumstantial food choices), and also the sonic sense: the unforeseen resonances of chance objects acoustically coupling themselves in a dynamic mixture. This feeds into the aforementioned ‘post-electronic’ idea: that scavenged acoustic objects — the rich debris of consumerist overspill — may equal or even surpass the complexities of sound achievable with expensive commercial electronic hardware. Now, however, the prospect of handling items found in bins has been sullied.
Throughout 2013 I tirelessly promoted my idea of ‘acoustic hacking’, i.e., finding objects, and connecting assemblies of these objects together to influence their sonic behaviour, using invisible force fields generated by respooled transformer coil wire. A student at one of these lectures, Saif Bunni, was inspired by this and wanted to present the ideas in an instrument-making workshop at London’s Hackspace, but as no travel expense cover was available I couldn’t take up his keen invitation for me to present there. This group later became established as ‘Hackoustic’ by more entrepreneurial folk without my involvement. A friend said to me one day, “have you heard there’s someone doing exactly the same stuff as you?” It appeared that more funding-savvy tinkerers were able to make a legitimate enterprise from the germs of my own ‘acoustic hacking’ ramblings, which were born of genuine poverty and social immobility. Contrary to the tone of this paragraph, this wasn’t a particular source of gall — long-term bin-diving does tend to make you less proprietorial — but serves as an example of how my approach may seem non-legitimate as an economic undertaking, whereas more commercially-minded adaptations of the same idea may somehow turn it into a ‘going concern’.
The absurdity of life comes into focus after years of bin-diving: the must-have tech of 2010, catalysts for muggings and thefts of that time, as apotheosised on television’s The Gadget Show and priced accordingly… and suddenly it appears for free in a bin seven years later, boxed and fully working (usually due to second-hand shops not having a qualified tester on-site). But now, or in the not-too-distant future, countless people may be “doing the same stuff” as me: foraging, and cursing the concept of ‘legitimacy’. Whereas once this would’ve been a light hypothetical whimsy, our real-world events now make it seem most distressing, and any disenfranchised souls doing similar have all my empathy and support, which is all I can offer. Such desperadoes will face the same paradoxical conundrum as the one I’m grappling with: whether to engage in bin-diving and risk health and legal consequences, or endure hunger and hardship.
Bin-diving in the midst of a viral outbreak is a troubling faux-pas — even if there was anything worth finding at the moment (which there isn’t), the risk of disturbing contaminated matter renders it irresponsible at best. If clamped down upon officially, it’s clear from the constant disdain I’ve encountered in my commuter town that bin-diving’s loss as an occupation would not be widely mourned. For some though, desperate circumstances may override these quibbles.
Bin-diving speaks of the asphyxiation of those, like me, who occupy this ‘illegitimate’ netherworld: living off the radar. Remedies to such situations are not currently graspable. Some of the above descriptions may sound comical, and I habitually couch things that way when things become harrowing. COVID-19 is a killer. Care and caution are urged even in periods of desperation.