Garbage and Care in Public Spaces. Discovering the Art and Politics of Public Environments with Lisa Torell

Sweeping (Figure 2224), 2016, Lisa Torell

Amanda Winberg

for #III. pure danger / dangerous purity

Differens Magazine, winter 22 / 23


For over a decade, the Swedish artist Lisa Torell has been exploring the intricacies of the public realm through her art practice. Utilizing a site-specific approach, she engages with chosen places and situations, creating contexts that reveal and challenge the structures and purposes of the specific location. Torell holds that every public space is unique and shaped by cultural, social, aesthetic, and political factors. Through her work, she examines for instance how the welfare state is manifested in urban environments and public spaces, while revealing the presence and absence of care and attention.

Torell’s process involves close investigations of the site, as she’s working during both day and night to discover signs of care and consideration as well as neglect. Her art practice is a combination of observation and participation, relating both to the observer and the observed, as she often invites the viewer to participate in discovering the complexities of these interralations alongside her. In this manner, society and social systems are gradually exposed through collective analyses of paving stones, detritus, imprints, and their textures. 

In her piece The Pavement, a Masterpiece, she takes the audience on an ethnographic city walk through Tromsø, to engage the participants in the environment. She talks about the many relatable transitions of being human; the experience of being on our four legs, sitting in a baby stroller, or taking the baby stroller down a little too steep ramp, or of being on crutches. In this work, she talks of the implementation of pavements, street lights, and emphasizes the importance of the tactile differences between gravel, asphalt, and wavy concrete slabs, not for their aesthetic value but for the guidance they provide for those with impaired sight. She points out how this urban planning feels in our bodies and that, if this type of urban planning fails, many citizens would not even be visible in the public spaces.  The Pavement, a Masterpiece thus make a great example of how Torell highlights and deals with the ways in which society and individuals positions themselves in relation to visual and spatial codes.

Torell’s artistic focus also extends to semi-public spaces, such as fenced-in parks, art museums, libraries, shopping malls, and swimming pools, which have limitations like controlled opening hours, membership, or entrance fees. For Torell, public spaces are society’s open stage, where politics and reality are constantly played out. She sees the white cube of the art institution or museum as a space for possible visions or speculations of society, which in turn foster forms of perception and modes of perspective.

Her work also explores the agency of art and the ways in which artistic methods can communicate, open up, and embody the politics of places. In her performances, she uses performativity as a tool, since it enables her to work with the presence in every moment and situation that may arise. While performance is acting, performativity is the unique occurrence of an act and the way it unfolds in the presence. [1]

Many of her works are developed outdoors at special locations, and it seems as if she is always seeking ways of working that allow for her to make use of the situations that arise on site, in collaboration with the audience and other foreseen or unforeseen agents. In her work Take Care of the Garbage from 2017, for example, she asks a member of the audience to help her carry garbage, creating a moment of uncertainty that elevates the sense of presence and establishes a sharpening of the senses, provoking new situations and experiences to take form.  

For Lisa Torell, public and semi-public spaces offer opportunities for both private and universal experiences. They are spaces where we can reflect on ourselves, compare ourselves, and discover ourselves. Through her work, she invites us to consider the ways in which these contexts shape and are shaped by our communal experiences and perspectives.

Sweeping (Figure 2224)

In her work Sweeping (Figure 2224), Torell explores the complexities of public space and the role of those who maintain it. The piece, which was performed in the backyard of the Istanbul-based gallery Depo, finds the artist meticulously cleaning an asphalt surface in the district-specific municipal orange-red summer uniform typically worn by street and park maintenance workers. As she sweeps away gravel and dirt, a searchlight illuminates her, casting her actions in a powerful and evocative light. This performance allowes for reflections on the ongoing conflicts in the city at the time, as well as on those who had the task of cleaning up after the demonstrations and conflicts. She specifically raises questions about uniforms (park attendants, police, and nurces), trying to investigate if attitudes and general respect towards workers wearing uniforms had changed.The artist also raises important questions about the purpose and function of public space, whose history and experiences may be considered to be swept away when it is cleaned. Throughout her performances, Torell exposes herself not only to the audience but also to the unpredictability of public areas. She willingly puts herself at risk and leaves her comfort zone in order to push herself into a state of total presence and experimental fervor in the present moment. She emphasizes the need to be inventive and to juggle with contexts and materials in order to increase concentration for everyone and notes that a successful situation is often one that verges on failure. This concept of ”slight trembling” is key to her work as it allows for experimentation and interaction.

Take Care of the Garbage

In the already mentioned work Take Care of the Garbage, an artwork performed by artist Lisa Torell in Venice in 2017, the artist delves into the theme of urban duality, exploring the distinction between what is visible and invisible within the city. Through a series of observations and recordings made during both day and night, Torell juxtaposes the image of laundered clothing hanging on clotheslines in certain areas with the covert disposal of wastewater by the Hilton hotel into the sea. For this piece, Torell spent ten consecutive nights traversing various neighborhoods in the city, filming and recording soundscapes. This process culminated in a silent public walk, during which Torell carried a week’s worth of collected garbage to a designated disposal location. As she moved through the city’s narrow alleys, the sound of cans and glass bottles clinking together provided a sensory accompaniment to the work. Take Care of the Garbage exposes as such the gap between the public representation of the city and its unseen workings, and encourages the viewer to consider the impact of identity versus global necessity.

Another work Differens Magazine is honored to present in this issue is Human Population, a series of performative city walks performed between 2016 and 2020 by Lisa Torell, where the artist leads groups of participants on guided tours of various urban centers in Sweden, including Norrköping, Sundbyberg, and Västerås. Through close examination of these public spaces, and of how their spatial and visual codes are understood, the group discovers the societal care, visual priorities in the urban environment, and its direct bodily consequences. As a part of the performance, Torell spreads out a large, translucent sheet of construction plastic on the ground in front of various buildings and on streets and creates frottages with a rubbing technique that gradually reveals the structure of the ground beneath. With tape measures and spirit level, she checks the centimeters and their degrees in relation to accessibility laws. She points out that together, this creates a 1:1 imprint or souvenir over the factual political reality. [2] Through this process, Torell also speaks about the history of accessibility as a human right, exploring themes of voting rights and inclusion in society. Additionally, she points out the significance of the difference between asphalt and wavy concrete pavers to highlight the importance of directional lines and how they can aid those with impaired vision.

What Was Seen, Could Be Seen

The work What Was Seen, Could Be Seen, was concieved within the interdisciplinary project ”Residency-in-Nature, Mammas hus i Lainio”  that Lisa Torell, together with Åasa Jungnelius and Hans Isaksson, were artistic leaders and participants in. The project took place in the northern village of Lainio in Norrbotten, Sweden in 2018 and 2019, where she and other practitioners lived and worked for limited periods during the years. This rural area is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the Torne Lappmark. Throughout the history of this area, several mapping acts took place, and some more brutal than others. By using drone filming and environmentally friendly chalk spray Torell wanted to draw attention to the act of mapping; what it does to us, places, landscapes, and regions. Through her participation in the project, the work explored the relationship between public and private spaces, land, landscape, and ownership, hierarchies. It also embraced the differences in working as an artist and as a curator. In a region where mapping has been shaped by the process of Swedification and eugenics, Torell’s work came to reflect on questions about the intersection of these histories and their impact on the present.

Noise Reduction and Glitches, Echoes from the Past and Future

In recent time, Torell’s artistic exploration has centered on the digital society, particularly in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on our interactions and communication through screens. Through her recent work, she discusses the shifting boundaries between the public and private spheres in the context of digital practices, particularly focused on the ”semi-public” spaces of the home office. One notable work, exemplifying this, is Torell’s 24-minute long sound installation Noise Reduction and Glitches, Echoes from the Past and Future, which invites visitors to reflect on the human body, individual and social responsibility in a potential future society. Through this piece, Torell encourages visitors to consider various possible scenarios and needs as they navigate the traffic intersection and connection point at Korsvägen in Gothenburg.

The sound installation is a thought-provoking exploration of the meaning of humanity in the year of 2070, and of what this meaning says about our present. The piece thus blurs the boundaries between present and future, as well as utopia and dystopia. Concepts that were once purely science fictional become everyday reality. The work also reflects on the ways in which our bodies and society are being both enhanced and degraded through advancements in technology, genetics, and the manipulation of environments. The narrator’s voice moves between different times and viewpoints to convey a sense of a world in transition. Through its evocative soundscapes and thought-provoking narrative, the installation prompts listeners to question what they are choosing not to see today that is shaping the future, and what they refused to see in the past that they must now live with.

This project, whose 24-minute audio part Difference Magazine is very proud to have the opportunity to present on our website, was produced by the Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art in collaboration with the City of Gothenburg’s Traffic and Public Transport Authority, Cultural Affairs Administration and Göteborg Konst as a part of the West Link Project. The installation can be listened to through the GIBCA app or on the website with earbuds while you are walking around in the surroundings close to the travel center at Korsvägen until the year of 2026.

English autoplay version here:

Noise Reduction and Glitches, Echoes from the Past and Future (English), 2021 – 2026, Lisa Torell

Swedish version here:

Noise Reduction and Glitches, Echoes from the Past and Future (Swedish), 2021 – 2026, Lisa Torell


[1] Mieke Bal. Memory Acts: Performing Subjectivity. 2014.

[2]  The video documentations of her performances, Lisa Torell has titled In-Situ Souvenirs referring to and paying homage to the French conceptual artist Daniel Buren’s term Photo-Souvenir. For Buren, the documentation of a site-specific work can only be a souvenir of the original work.