By Nona Tepper
From a distance, viewers see a colorful "Forest Park" picture. Up close, however, the audience is confronted with roughly 6,000 images of trash picked up in Forest Park.
This summer, a mural titled, "Science, Art, and Trash" is making its way across the village, with creator Julieta Aguilera Rodriguez hoping the exhibit draws attention to the real scope of trash in Forest Park and inspires viewers to reflect on how they can reduce waste.
"When we see trash, it's always only one piece or 10 pieces. But there are thousands of pieces, right?" Aguilera Rodriguez said.
"It is a critical part of the project to understand the effects of our collective action. We need to look at data. Our direct experience is not enough. So the way we can solve this big problem is when we look at the data [which] gives us a window to the bigger reality of the world we are in, and the effects of our human actions."
Aguilera Rodriguez, who recently completed a doctorate in interactive art from the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, used public images of Forest Park's garbage compiled from the Litterati mobile application to create the "Science, Art and Trash" mural. In Litterati, users take pictures and geotag where they pick up garbage. Globally, nearly 3.6 million pieces of trash have been logged through the app. In Forest Park, more than 8,500 pieces of trash have been picked up, with the Roosevelt Road corridor being the most popular area.
Aguilera Rodriguez said she first learned about the Litterati app in 2016 when she was teaching a class at the University of Hawaii-Hilo and working at the 'Imiloa Planetarium. She liked how classifying litter data made her pay attention to it in a different way. Before Hawaii, she had worked for eight years as the associate director of the Space Visualization Laboratory at the Adler Planetarium. During that time, she learned about citizen science and crowdsourcing through the Zooniverse project. As part of Zooniverse, astrophysicists in England needed help classifying the shape of galaxies, which is something that computer vision cannot do very well and would take a single person months, if not years. Astrophysicists put the data online and, with the help of motivated citizen scientists, classified all the galaxies in just two days.
The message of using crowdsourced data to solve a problem stuck with her, and Aguilera Rodriguez thought engaging the public with collaged photos of their own garbage could help Forest Parkers reflect more deeply on where their trash comes from, and where it will end up.
"I have this drive to leave the world better than I found it," she said. "In our case, we're not just classifying, but generating the data. People pick up litter in our streets and are the author of their own data, it's kind of cool."
Aguilera Rodriguez said the 6,000 pieces of garbage that make up "Science, Art, and Trash" are 64 percent plastic, 31 percent paper and 5 percent metal and glass. Garbage ranges from fast food bags to tequila bottles to cigarette butts. In addition to the larger "Forest Park" logo, Aguilera Rodriguez also incorporates images of such community hubs as St. Bernardine Church, Proviso East High School, the Des Plaines River, and more. She focused on making the larger image beautiful, to make the smaller pieces of garbage accessible to viewers.
"Nobody likes looking at just trash," she said.
According to the Litterati app, Aguilera Rodriguez has submitted the most images of picked-up garbage in the village — "you learn so much picking up trash about people; it's like I'm in their life, it's kind of intimate." She said the five individuals who have picked up the most trash in Forest Park are all women.
"Women are more passionate about it," she said. "I think we empathize with the environment a little more. We are paying attention to what surrounds us."
"Science, Art, and Trash" is currently on display at Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor, but over the next few weeks will move to Creativita, Schauer's Hardware, Exit Strategy and elsewhere. Aguilera Rodriguez said she looked for nontraditional exhibit areas so it could reach a larger, more diverse part of the community — not just those who attend an individual art gallery.
She plans to make at least one more mural to be displayed around town, using additional pictures uploaded through Litterati. Download the free Litterati app at litterati.org.
"It's very rare to find someone who has never picked up trash in Forest Park because we don't want to see it and we want our community to look like it's been taken care of, because we love living here, right?" Aguilera Rodriguez said. "There are things about just putting away the trash that maybe we don't give ourselves enough time to think about the issue of how this should be dealt with. So this gives a chance for us to reflect on it."