Encounters with the Madison artist, ahead of his new show at the Central Library.
Victor Castro is obsessed with the freight trains that seem to pass through or near every important intersection in central Madison.
The tracks run right outside Castro’s University Avenue studio, near the University Station strip mall. While Castro is best known around Madison for sculptures that use discarded materials, under the names USgathering and Tetrapakman, the trains have inspired a series of short videos. They’re all over his Instagram feed. Over a beer recently, he tells me about one of the times that the train just stopped right in front of his studio.
“And the driver of the train got down to go to the Subway by the side of my studio!” Castro says.
They can do that?
“No! Definitely not, but he was hungry!”
Did you get to talk to him?
“It made me feel nervous, because I didn’t know that he was going to Subway. I thought he was coming to tell me, ‘Why are you filming my train? You can’t do that!’ Because they are evasive sometimes. They know that they are not the best people. Last week I got this other train, and it’s funny, because the guy when I saw that I was filming, he danced like Michael Jackson, but covering his face [with his hat].”
Castro then pulls up another video on his tablet, showing another video of a railroad worker brusquely discarding a traffic flare on the ground when he’s done with it. “And his action, look, he has attitude. I picked the thing up. It’s full of sulfur and chemicals that the water is going to wash into the lake, and it’s harmful. We should not use that technology!”
The train fascination is more than just a product of Castro being a relative newcomer to Madison. (Castro was born in Monterrey, Mexico, and moved here in 2012 after stints in Peru, Spain, and Mexico City.) The trains, and especially the oil tankers they sometimes carry, represent to Castro a continuing reliance on "19th-century technology,” and by extension the continued dominance of fossil fuels and a society that produces an incredible amount of waste.
And to look around Castro’s studio, you’d assume that he has plentiful access to that waste stream—he’s got crates full of plastic bottles and chip bags, hundreds of bottle caps and aluminum cans, even a bunch of belts hanging on one wall. He says his work is made of 95 percent repurposed material. But Castro says that he thinks people in the community actually hold back quite a bit when he asks them to give him discarded materials for use in his works.
For his new show, Calculations, Abstractions, And Silence, getting its opening reception on Friday at the Central Library, Castro used the nine Madison Public Library branches as collection sites, hoping to gather 20,000 tin cans for a big piece spanning the Central Library’s long third-floor gallery wall.
“I made my plan. But then the coin’s in the air. Today, I’m not sure if I’ve crossed 1,000 cans. It’s dramatically low. I don’t complain. It’s an experiment.”
To Castro, these and other frustrated refuse-gathering efforts reveal people’s unwillingness to confront the sheer amount of waste they generate. He thought about making photocopies of cans in order to incorporate that problem into the finished work. But instead, at this show the big wall will be occupied by tall, haunting figures made of bike-tire tubes, which Castro says represent the CEOs of fossil-fuel companies.
“The silence element comes to be the answer,” he says. "That communication that I’m trying to develop with the community becomes an unanswered call.”
Castro has had several shows in Madison this year, including the opening of a permanent installation at the Meadowridge Branch Library and an installation in the City County Building lobby. Throughout August, the Little Monroe Gallery was filled with cans and baseballs, an installation Castro said he made at the direction of his cat, Mr. Pickles. Mr. Pickles, along with the train, also stars in a companion video piece to the Little Monroe Gallery show. (I haven’t actually met Mr. Pickles, but I can tell that he’s a good sport, as cats go.) In March we went over to his show in Edgewood College’s science building, The Construction Of The Ruins. The title comes from the idea that contemporary society is skipping the step of building monuments, and instead going straight to creating its own ruins.
The most striking piece in that show was “Social Structure,” a hanging sculpture made with plastic bottles. Castro had converted the bottles into a bulbous web. It looked spindly, but to the touch the little tubes of plastic felt surprisingly sturdy, the joints tense. It might not have been a Buckminster Fuller-level work of structural brilliance, but it convinced me that there’s more to Castro’s work than simply arranging common objects into novel shapes. There’s an ingenuity here that backs up Castro’s assertion that, in addition to commenting on our wasteful lifestyle, he also is exploring the “physics” of his chosen materials.
That said, in about two hours of interviews with Castro, I manage to get about 10 minutes of him talking about his physical and aesthetic approach. When I ask, at the Edgewood show, what he wants people to take away from his work on just an aesthetic level, he says, “That’s simple! It’s just, do you like it or do you not like it?” When it comes to the big messages, the environmental and social themes in the work, that’s when Castro gets talkative—reeling off facts about the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, lamenting people’s ability to ignore the urgency of climate change, expounding on Madison’s social and racial divisions, and going off on riffs that sound absurd but also have a dead-earnest core.
“You’re talking about psychology,” he says to me when I visit his studio in March. "We cannot recognize how bad our back stream is. We love our input. We love to go out in public to eat, but why don’t we have restaurants to go to to poop? A public place where everybody gathers around a table and just starts to shit.” I start to laugh a bit. "Why not?” he counters. "It will be amazing. More perfume than in the food. More creative—'I create this, I shit!’”
Not only are people not yet opening shit-restaurants, but Castro thinks his failure to collect as much material as he likes indicates that people don’t even want their neighbors to know just how much they put into the trash and recycling bins. When people don’t answer his calls for bottle caps, cans, or plastic bottles, Castro contends, it means their sense of duty stops at discarding an object into the appropriate container, if that. “It’s like, ‘Helping your process is not my job.’”
Castro doesn’t say this with any particular bitterness or animus. When he doesn’t get enough of one thing, it just seems to egg him on to incorporate something else. Several of the pieces in Calculations, Abstractions, And Silence consist of jar lids, arranged in symmetrical patterns and fastened together with those pesky little clip-tags from bread bags. He rejects the concept of “found objects” and argues that the materials he uses aren’t really trash at all, but instead things that people gave up on too soon. For instance, his Edgewood College show earlier this year included big silvery sheets made of snack bags.
Calculations, Abstractions, And Silence will span from Castro’s more abstract side, of course, to blunt messages and big gestures. A series of works in stark black lettering, with messages like “THE TIME IS NOW,” “DIVEST” and “401.30 JULY 2015” (the last refers to the CO2 in the atmosphere, in parts per million) is actually made with glue and the little black carbon particles from Brita filters. But Castro is cheekily referring to the medium of these works as “tar sands.” And some of those bike-tube figures—the ones representing oil executives—stand at least seven feet tall.
But as interactive, sprawling, and overtly political as Castro’s approach to art is, the most interesting part is the friction he seems to feel with the community around him. He says “frustration” isn’t the right word, and that he sees his artistic process as a social experiment, not a fight. And he’s a gregarious, well-liked man about town. He already feels like a fixture in Madison. Not even a gadfly-type fixture. Even when he’s prodding you about Shell drilling in the Arctic or the need to invest in renewable energy, he doesn’t come off as a pesky activist. He’s striking some kind of balance there even as he persistently pushes those big-picture conversations, and that’s true even with the many younger Madisonians who’ve embraced him.
“I’m part of 100state, and the other day they were talking about future opportunities and how much storage space the devices are going to have,” Castro says. "They’re talking about terabytes in your phone. But the article they were talking about never made a comment about sustainability and took for granted that we are going to still have everything. That’s the most crazy part. We take for granted that in 10 years, this city, this country, this world, is going to be the same."