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#binlife (June 2017)

#binlife is a performance concept that parodies the #vanlife and tiny house phenomenon while contemplating the future of my generation: one where the lack of affordable housing combined with the high cost of living means that we will never be able to own a house of our own.


As an artist from Singapore who lives in London, I have inadvertently found myself shuffled from one expensive city to another. In 2017, Singapore was ranked the most expensive city in the world. In Singapore, the median “price” for a new Build-To-Order (BTO) 4-room flat is between S$236,000 (US$170,290) and S$475,000 (US$342,740) in May this year, and the median resale price of a 4-room flat is between S$350,000 (US$252,530) and S$811,500 (US$586,760) for the first quarter of 2017. Note that all these prices are for public flats. Similarly in London, the cost of owning a home has become increasingly unaffordable and the dream of owning a house continues to evade the average person (much less an artist).


Thus, young people living in cities are faced with two options: continue living at home with their parents or move out and rent at the mercy of landlords in sub-standard accommodation However, both options leave out the possibility of ever attaining a sense of ownership over a house of our own in the foreseeable future.


Does unaffordable housing and the high cost of living mean that young people have no place in cities and urban environments such as Singapore and London? Are we faced with a future where young people are forced to move away from cities if there is to be any possibility of them owning any property in at all? Will cities be structured such that the richest live in the middle and the poorest the furthest out, hierarchically tiered by class and income like rings around a tree? What about tiny city-states like Singapore where there is nowhere else to go, no countryside to move to?  Does this mean that there might not be a place for me to build a home in my own country? Where do people without traditional jobs with financial stability such as artists exist? Does it mean that I have to live with my parents forever?


#binlife reacts to this bleak future by suggesting an alternative living arrangement. Designed in collaboration with Anna Robinson, we have turned the ubiquitous garbage bin, a staple of every urban environment, into a sustainable living space. 


The garbage bin is emblematic of the contemporary urban environment. Yet, it goes unnoticed in our daily lives and often sits at the periphery of our attention. While streets and housing estates are often lined with these nondescript bins, few people actually have a vested interest in interacting with them. This makes the unassuming garbage bin the perfect object to be turned into a living space, providing camouflage and allowing the user to seamlessly blend into the urban environment. 


Furthermore, the garbage bin serves as a sardonic response to the vintage Volkswagen campers of #vanlife, the bohemian social-media trend adopted by beautiful young white heterosexual couples. According to an article in The New Yorker, #vanlife is an aesthetic and a mentality that has become a “one-word life-style signifier that has come to evoke a number of contemporary trends: a renewed interest in the American road trip, a culture of hippie-inflected outdoorsiness, and a life free from the tyranny of a nine-to-five office job”. But more than that, it is a social-media trend that takes advantage of the supposed carefree nature offered by this alternate lifestyle through heavily filtered images of yoga on the beach and vans in the woods coupled with the cheeky product placement. Thus, #binlife serves to comment on how #vanlife is an unrealistic lifestyle that remains within the domain of white privilege. 


Yet, by offering users a chance to own a living space of their own, #binlife requires users to declutter their lives similar to the minimalist and tiny house trends. Thus, it also tests the limits of how little we need to live sustainably in a city. This question of sustainability extends into issues concerning the legality of living in a garbage bin as a permanent resident. Garbage bins are often situated on private or government property, which means that while the user might own the bin, they might not have anywhere to actually park it. Is this a paradox of the modern condition that we must forever contend with? Will a sense of ownership continue to elude those of us who are unable afford it? 


It must be said that #binlife cannot be a permanent situation. The solution to this millennial problem is not for all of us to start moving into garbage bins. In fact, having #binlife become mainstream undermines the very camouflage and subversion that the project offers. Instead, it is a conceptual provocation as well as a design challenge: how can find a way to own a living space of our own? And how do we turn the previously uninhabitable garbage bin into a sustainable living space? Ultimately, #binlife is a metaphor and a symbol of protest against the bleak future that faces the contemporary millennial.

#binlife was first presented as a talk/workshop at CONTINUUM: a performance festival of future futures, a three-day performance festival at Bethnal Green Working Men's Club. Participants were given templates and encouraged to design their own bin.

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