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Training & Education
Monday | 31 January, 2011 | 5:12 am

Repurposing refuse

By Lauren Duensing

January 2011 - Students at the School of Visual Arts, New York, transform the Zastavia Koral, better known as the "Yugo"; a gas-guzzling Chevy "Monster" pickup truck; and New York City phone booths into works of art. "I gave students a simple assignment," says Kevin O'Callaghan, chair of the 3-D design program at the School of Visual Arts. "Give this Yugo a new life--one it was intended to have. It didn't work as a car; what else could it work as?"

Students went to work, employing a number of methods and using a plethora of materials to create unrecognizable transformations of the forgotten automobile. In some cases, students found themselves employing welding techniques and using metals to weld together their visions. O'Callaghan recalls how one student set out to change the Yugo into a submarine, but he needed copper to complete the project. "He didn't have the finances to do it out of copper, so he decided to work with aluminum flashing instead. I convinced him to go directly to a supplier that works with copper," O'Callaghan says. "He went to the company, showed them his plans for the project and they loved it and ended up donating all the copper for the project." The result was an unrecognizable copper-laden submarine.

Another student constructed a subway car, using tin flashing that he rolled up. He cut the tin and hammered it to the flashing. In the case of an accordion, a different student "actually bent the metal, which always blew my mind," O'Callaghan says. "She got help with someone who worked in welding to complete the necessary bodywork."

"This is high-quality stuff," says Jason Vuic, assistant professor of history at Bridgewater College in Brigewater, Virginia, who is the author of "The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History." "These (School of Visual Arts) students were able to transform these cars." Vuic's book focused on an 1980s-era automobile that sold 150,000 a year and hardly made a dent in the American market. At the time, Americans found themselves purchasing 77 million cars annually. The Yugo was "using data technology dating back to the 60s and poor quality materials," Vuic says. The company manufactured the car in communist Yugoslavia. "In order to sell something cheap, margins were low and the company made $500 a car. You don't have a dealer network...the whole story is that it's a mess, a comedic marriage."

O'Callaghan's "repurposing" philosophy breathed new life into the scorned relic, creating a new dimension to how the right materials and skills can transform a lack of engineering and imagination into a work of art.

Reinventing a relic
Another assignment challenged the students to transform a 1980 Chevy "Monster" pickup truck, a vehicle known for its "fuel inefficiency, averaging approximately nine miles per gallon," according to the exhibition's website.

"I had this idea," O'Callaghan begins. "We found this gas-guzzling, smoke-stealing vehicle on Craigslist for $500 and the students all met one weekend and systematically took every single piece of the truck and transformed it into a one-bedroom apartment." The students transformed the truck into pieces of furniture, including a couch, pedestal sink and bookshelf, among other things.

"You look at this apartment and you'd live in it," he says. "It was made of every nut and bolt of the truck, all metal."

The phone booth dilemma
O'Callaghan noticed that in a cell phone age, the need for New York City phone booths on corners throughout the city was no longer necessary. "I read that the city was moving these booths out of New York and I found 50 of them," he says. "I found out they were sending them to the Midwest where they were being dismantled or repurposed in third world countries." Once he collected the booths, he assigned his students to take the enclosure and give it a new use. Again the students went beyond the scope of one's expectations and reinvented the booths. One student transformed the booth into a mini daycare center, another became a studio apartment and another was completely padded so frustrated New Yorkers could take a break and punch out their frustrations.

"I'm a big believer that computers are a wonderful thing and a great tool, but they don't teach you the integrity of materials," O'Callaghan says. "You only learn the integrity of a material when you hold it. A computer can't tell you how it's going to bend. My class is very hands-on, and I'm a believer in coming up with a big idea, and no matter what problems arise, taking it head-on." MM

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