Georgia Dickie: A Topography of Free – Canadian Art
Skip to content
Features / February 9, 2021

A Topography of Free

A Toronto installation artist accumulates materials for her found-object sculptures by navigating neighbourhood free piles and scouring curbside detritus
Free pile in Toronto, August 2020. Photo: Georgia Dickie. Free pile in Toronto, August 2020. Photo: Georgia Dickie.
Free pile in Toronto, August 2020. Photo: Georgia Dickie. Free pile in Toronto, August 2020. Photo: Georgia Dickie.

If the best things in life are free, then why was this $1.99? My neighbourhood block goes hard for a pile positioned at the threshold of a property line. Items of interest in your community: trampolines, hamster wheels, wreaths. In all their forms and styles, makeshift vessels containing miscellaneous offerings, unloaded; life’s shoddy, just-shy-of-appealing offcuts. Not yet useless enough for the trash (but headed in that direction), these bland curbside street molluscs are destined for something greater still. With near-daily updates, I monitor the ever-changing shards of living people. Regionally significant detritus. Free things, residual things, blatant eviction things, things that are but barely at all. I’ve seen dry shampoo and frozen empanadas, half-consumed bottles of the order Condimentae. Unruly free bins and bins that take to the street. These objects are no longer under control, they’ve been discharged. A toddler stomps my head shadow. Can I get a free refill? Curb alerts are not garbage day. The transitory on display, like when I accidentally printed an inventory count sheet on top of my father-in-law’s eulogy. The big satellite story. The audible as a free bin. “Practice makes profit.” Free-leavers surrender to the ease of proximity and resist the temptation of a potential sale, concede all the bads just outside their own fortress walls. The last hopeful stop before landfill.

A free box on casters follows me around like a Roomba, catching kale stems that, through soiled dishcloths, have Plinko’d down the oven door, and collecting the debris of my days to prepare it for redistribution. Judge Judy after school. Flat bunny. Asphalt egg. Party with the Celebration Mix. Free problems, free relatives, free used face masks, free housing. Free boxes all over town and free bins big enough to fit entire cities. What about money? I’ve never seen that. Language as a free bin. “Furniture that steals your heart, not your wallet.” Whose wallet? The cheapest thing on their website is $89, which is better than I was expecting. “Curb alert: free stuff at up to 90% off!” accompanied by reassuring messages like, “These pens work, we just have too many.” This stuff is a burden, get it out of here! But don’t go too far…. The pile builds at lightning speed and dissolves just as quickly. I started before I’d intended to. Possible subjects include: fragments, hygiene, shrimp rings, Notes app, eating shows, reheating cold coffee, nail biting, Gillian Welch, sparkling water, the Lupine Lady, attention, learning to play the drums, cystic acne, Universal Excellence, creamed corn, taxes, oats, Shia LaBeouf’s mom.

Georgia Dickie, <em>ede elop en</em>, 2020. Found objects, paper bags and cutlery. Dimensions variable. Courtesy Emalin, London/Cooper Cole. Georgia Dickie, ede elop en, 2020. Found objects, paper bags and cutlery. Dimensions variable. Courtesy Emalin, London/Cooper Cole.

Objects spill out, then recede. At this point, 311 recommends transferring unwanted free items to the garbage for collection. What’s mine is yours, unfortunately. People take what they need and leave a mess, is that it? It was a fucking mess to begin with. Shoutout to the mini-cottage people too, who by implementing rigorous protocols, and with the best of neighbourly intentions, gentrify the cardboard box. Please don’t bring this back, I never want to see it again. The idea is this: diminish your own heap, stoke another’s.

Dear tenants,

It has recently been brought to our attention that garbage is being left throughout the building; this includes materials with a note stating “Free to Take” or similar. When garbage collection service stopped at the property you were reminded that at no time is garbage to be left anywhere outside of your unit unless it is in a landlord authorized bin waiting for immediate pick up.

The building is certainly not a dumping ground and any persons found to be leaving garbage outside of their unit will be charged for garbage removal. Furthermore, if a tenant continues to leave garbage around the building, it is grounds for eviction.

Free things are not allowed in some places. Like mandated garbage disposal, there are rules to be implemented and standards to be upheld. Exceptionally strange in the case of my studio building, considering that for the majority of tenants, the cycle of free material is an unspoken language inherent to producing art. Or, improving your life in some way or another. Regardless of context, it defies how things work. (The awkward, sincere threat of immediate eviction as a punishment for setting out a free stool is obviously harsh as well as disproportionately ironic considering the amount of trash that would be left outside unit bounds as a result of such a hasty measure). Keep your stuff inside and out of sight, remain eternally tethered to that which you possess.

Free pile in Toronto, August 2020. Photo: Georgia Dickie. Free pile in Toronto, August 2020. Photo: Georgia Dickie.
Free pile in Toronto, August 2020. Photo: Georgia Dickie. Free pile in Toronto, August 2020. Photo: Georgia Dickie.

Full hamper of my life contains:

Brand new mould
Platinum mask
Silicone master
Surgical star
A boxed gallon
A lower unit
Robust dollars
Hauling back totes

from every store in the universe

It’s a loose Monday in a tight world, sometime before noon. Late August and hot. I embark on a nine-minute walk. First up, refrigerants warm in the blazing heat. Cooling the curb perhaps. Next, looking like they’re on the move horizontally, a pair of knee-high leather boots, soles glued flat to a patch of lawn. Three miniature plastic clothes hangers for children. Insignificant and boring, but I haven’t seen it before. The chill mom with the skateboarding daughters and the white Tacoma truck saunters past in the opposite direction, smoking a joint. I get a free inhale of weed, whether I like it or not (it’s free, so I like it). Moving on. Oh, what’s this? A handful of addresses down, there are two more freefloating kids’ hangers. Someone has picked them up only to discard them again before making it home. They’re not far from their curb of origin, unless I have it backwards. Maybe they’ve returned home. Same goes for the cup of plastic toy whales that found its way around the corner over the course of my work shift. Whose problem are they now?

Georgia Dickie, <em>Train, Prepare, Believe (disciples)</em>, 2019. Found metal and boxing gloves, 73.7 x 19 x 15.2 cm each. Courtesy Oakville Galleries/Cooper Cole.  
Georgia Dickie, Train, Prepare, Believe (disciples), 2019. Found metal and boxing gloves, 73.7 x 19 x 15.2 cm each. Courtesy Oakville Galleries/Cooper Cole.

I did that with a mirror once, ditching it on someone else’s lawn when it got too heavy. I guess that’s illegal dumping. My mom had a rule about street trash: “Kick it three times and pick it up.” I only kicked that mirror twice but got seven years of bad luck. Another time, at the bulk food store, I went off on my own and reached into the big bin of pretzels, squirrelling a few away in my cheeks until it was safe to chew and swallow unnoticed. Free samples, so I claimed. My mom took this thief by the hand back to the store to confess and apologize. The sales associate didn’t care, she was part of the revolution.

I’m blushing and it’s too uncomfortable to stand here any longer. I survey a few offerings across the street, but I decide to keep going and circle back. On the way, I come up on an empty photo album, the most common of street freebies after shoe racks. It’s actually kinda nice, in lonely-seeming but relatively pleasant comparison to the melancholy rush of scattered findings up ahead. It’s not research, but rather a potential score. I don’t even know what you are. Free Budget rental van with keys in the ignition. Jumped the curb and driverless. I scan, look over my shoulder, process the hesitation. In rare instances, a full turnaround is appropriate. At least three wine-and-beer-bottle clusters today. They’re not free though, they’re trash with a specific value. Junc spelled with a “c” and I can’t even argue. Humidifier on your left, DVD player to your right. How Many Ways Can You Cut a Pie? 47 Beavers Just the Facts More Pies! Fort Life Pete Seeger’s Story Songs Spiders The Frown Hansel and Gretel (x2) Leave the aisles clear.

Free pile in Toronto, August 2020. Photo: Georgia Dickie. Free pile in Toronto, August 2020. Photo: Georgia Dickie.
Free pile in Toronto, August 2020. Photo: Georgia Dickie. Free pile in Toronto, August 2020. Photo: Georgia Dickie.

We pull over at the side of the road to pick up a hitchhiker, who turns out to be a mailbox. It works out at first since he’s heading in the same direction. Tensions mount after a while though; he’s got letters that need to be returned to sender. We accommodate, inconveniently, by zigzagging an impromptu route, making at least 13 stops. When we eventually let him out in Dunsford, he says:

Distressed Metals, like little flags in a slow-motion wind. Rare to find letters. I fucking hate the way spell-check editorializes my shit. I can assist you in removing that function. Some days I feel like a DebtGoose foraging in floating debris…. Free tours of the inside of my apartment. I’ll leave the door unlocked, come right in.

With a calamitous lurch, the roads flood with houses. Porches collide at the toe tip. The architectural prominence of front steps and railings prevents a full merger, which turns the sidewalk into a dam. Windows are pushed so close together it looks as though they might kiss. Moats form in the narrow spaces between homes, and through newly dense channels flows a steady stream of free things. The roads are no more. The curb is no more. Public space is no more. Private units butt up against each other. Leaving home isn’t necessary because everything one needs drifts by. There’s nowhere to go anyway. Sanctioned to our homes, we are rendered immovable like the lead inside a wooden pencil. Surplus is our lifeblood, our cities’ clogged veins throb with it. The new mutual-aid network is an endless loop of accumulation, an all-you-can-consume buffet. People along the channels depend entirely on its faux generosity ecosystem. This isn’t to say one can’t travel, as free vehicles do come along every so often. But people are desperate to spend money. They are tired of free! They beg to be charged! They want to buy! “Name your price!” they scream collectively. In the night, lone rebels ride the city’s conveyor-belt ravine, scouring with labelling guns, illegally price-tagging free merchandise while trying not to get caught, inspecting the residues of bungling consumers. Allotting value is the new graffiti. At high tide the trenches are full with Mating, 1 Divas Live, Unearthing Siberian Gold, Become a Business Consultant, baby food jars, tire, sandals, Hello Kitty backpack, placemat, diffuser, mitre box, brown lamp, fake flowers in a bag, scanner, candle holder, coaster, perfume, composter, choker, ladder, marble, teapot, wok, fish sauce, Bubble Magic, grill, music stand, shower curtain, frying pan, two yellow hard hats, Crock-Pot recipes, cutting board, New Dieters, stained blouse, bubble wrap.

Georgia Dickie, <em>Awful Residues</em>, 2014. Found objects, dimensions variable. Courtesy Cooper Cole/Halsey McKay Gallery, East Hampton. Georgia Dickie, Awful Residues, 2014. Found objects, dimensions variable. Courtesy Cooper Cole/Halsey McKay Gallery, East Hampton.

Why don’t I just take what I want to prove my point? You can take whatever you want, especially if it’s to prove a point. Nothing I do starts from scratch. A perfect fence on a lawn. You ask yourself if it’s free or fallen. Up for grabs or placidly positioned on the grass as the after-product of an unsuccessful trust exercise? The possibility of a free fence is delectably ambiguous and the most provocative to decipher. Reach your arms and rods out long, take what you like.

The slick weasel’s curb is the shoreline, where weeds accumulate like regrets. On a day like this one, a rotting carp washes up, its tail bobbing in sync with the waves’ pace. No sign on it, but surely it’s free. The sun sets as the sound of an organ carries across the lake. I refill the hummingbird feeder. Overhead, seagulls head for the dump.

This is an article from our Winter 2021 issue, “Tangents.”

Georgia Dickie

Georgia Dickie (b. Toronto) earned her BFA from OCAD University in 2011. She was a recipient of the 2020 Sobey Art Award and the 2014 recipient of the Toronto Friends of the Visual Arts Artist Prize. She has participated in solo and group exhibitions in Canada and internationally, including at Oakville Galleries, the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery (Toronto), Rolando Anselmi (Berlin), Jeffrey Stark (New York) and Night Gallery (Los Angeles).