“There’s no such thing as garbage.” So says Hernando Ruíz, a postmodern alchemist based in Bogotá who transmutes trash into art. With the idea that “the real garbage is in our heads”, he and a collective of Colombian artists started Reciclarte almost 15 years ago, promoting the recycling of waste and our spirits to till the soil for a sustainable society.
Practicing good alchemy, Hernando founded Reciclarte by way of creative failure. His first attempt was in Magdalena, an area plagued by violence and the unnecessary poverty of inequitable land distribution. By day, Hernando was an agronomist; by night, he ran a school where workers improved literacy skills. The learning circle grew into a community on the river. The idea was simple: work the land, enjoying its fruits—“not as owners, but as part of nature itself”. But nature is beyond human control. The river flooded, then war issued the final blow, forcing Hernando to leave. Knowing that energy is never lost or wasted, he let the river recycle him too.
Arriving in Bogotá, he visits landfills that were once farmland, where people live in abhorrent conditions: as collectors of recyclables, they harvest trash instead of food. As Hernando sees it, the landfill problem, at once ecological and social, is rooted in a “corrupt political system” nourished by an alienation from reality: “We stupidly believe that when we throw something away, it simply disappears.” If in the fertile lands of Magdalena, Hernando planted food, in the landfills of Bogotá, he created, using art to question “how we relate to the material world and to each other”.
He examined the discarded material, “its properties, its origins, its potential for transformation” and began to demonstrate that it is more life-giving to recreate than to drown in our own waste. When he opens a small workshop in Kennedy, Bogotá’s largest working-class neighborhood, young people come to produce artwork in every genre, emerging as artists in their own right.
Reciclarte took a turn 10 years ago towards collectivized production, with artists and community creating floats, instruments, costumes, dance and music for the Comparsa—a celebration of Bogota’s anniversary held every August. How humans connect to the material environment through work shapes social relationships, which in turn creates the consciousness with which we perceive ourselves and the world. For three months a year, youth and artists collaborate and cohabitate, living an ephemeral utopia: “Our ecstasy is creation. When our idea materializes, we enter another dimension.” For Hernando, art is really a “pretext” to see ourselves as part of nature and the Other—“to deeply see the other; to touch him, without touching; to impact without aggression; to see from the inside out, without restrictions”.
Hernando suggests that this is how art gives what capitalism takes away. If this is true, Reciclarte may be sparking the grand transformation upon which our very survival might ride.