Photo by Alicia Eler
As a visual art critic, I spend a lot of time thinking more broadly about visual culture, which includes contemporary art, Internet culture (memes, social media, emoji, the nuances of texting, dating apps, etc.) TV/film, architecture and design. Rather than considering art to be "high culture" and anything pop/TV/Internet as "low culture," I choose to view all these elements of visual culture on a spectrum. Contemporary artists today are inevitably influenced by far more than just other art and the art world; to think otherwise would be absurd. Many of the artists I keep up with also love to post on the most visually inclined social media platform which is -- wait for it -- Instagram, where one can find snippets of an artist's process alongside random cat memes, vanity plates, selfies, sunsets, pics of kids, GIFs, and practically anything visual.
I was cruising along Hennepin Avenue when I spotted a car in front of me with something that seemed to be paradoxical: a Minnesota vanity plate. I immediately thought of all the vanity plate pictures I'd seen on Instagram in Los Angeles. But Minnesota? People don't typically associate Minnesotans with the word "vanity." More likely, the concept of "Minnesota Nice," or Maria Bamford's insider perspective parody of Minnesotans will come to mind. Vanity is more stereotypically associated with a city like Los Angeles, even though obviously vain people are all around us, and vanity is relative. But this Minnesota vanity plate wasn't purportedly about the driver's status or hotness factor -- instead, it was a vanity plate about trash, but its delivery wasn't trashy at all. The license plate, which read REFUSE, belonged to the owner of a shiny black brand new Mercedes-Benz.
Initially, I thought it was a politically motivated plate suggesting refusal of the Trump Administration because #thepersonalispolitical and who wouldn't get such a license plate on their car for the next four years? This vehicle was a Mercedes-Benz. Could the driver have intended it as an ironic gesture? Such a shiny new Mercedes-Benz would be considered a prize, not a fixer-upper trash vehicle. But eventually it, like every other vehicle on the road, would end its life and become garbage.
I recalled a time a few years ago in LA when I purchased a biodiesel-fueled vintage 1982 cream-colored Mercedes-Benz from a friend who was leaving town. I fell for her immediately because she was a total babe of a car, but soon I learned more about some of the car's "challenges" (read: problems). Not only did the windows work only occasionally, creating an accidental and incredibly unpleasant hotbox (read: asphyxiation) situation, but the gas tank meter was similarly non-functional. I had to keep track of how many miles I’d driven against miles-per-gallon, often times losing track and then becoming incredibly anxious about the level of my gas situation. Then I’d pull over to fill up with diesel, washing away the do-gooderness of this once-fuel-efficient-car’s life.
Eventually, some glorious stranger rammed into my car when it was parked on a side street, causing the front bumper to tumble onto the ground, effectively destroying it. When I called the insurance company, it turned out that I’d be better off getting my car towed away and billed as a total loss rather than trying to get it fixed up. I couldn’t afford to keep up the car anyway, and so I let it be ceremoniously exported to a trash heap in central California, where it would be picked apart, its individual parts resold for cash. It was trash-for-cash to me, and soon it would make more money for other people who took the time to disassemble it.
The REFUSE license-plated-car was not at that trash stage yet, however. Plus, it was also an easily Instagrammable license plate. So I did what any trashy millennial would do: I Instagrammed the un-trashy trash plate. Perhaps this was a literal gesture, and the owner of this car was the CEO of a Minnesota trash company, like Aspen Waste Systems, GarbageMan or Waste Management – Minneapolis Dumpster Rental. Trash is big business after all. Everyone produces trash. No one wants to hold onto their own trash. Trash moves. Trash is everywhere.
Intrigued by the state-specificity of this vanity plate – indeed, all vanity plates vary from state-to-state, depending on residents’ interests – I went searching for other Minnesota-themed vanity plates. I didn't find any other trash-themed license plates. When I searched Instagram, a total of 86,479 posts came up tagged with #vanityplate, but only one came up for #minnesotavanityplateclub (KRMUDGN), and just one other for #minnesotavanityplate (HOTNANA). I considered going back and tagging the REFUSE license plate picture with #minnesotavanityplate, but figured that it would become Internet trash one day anyway, no hashtag required.