Us and Our Broken Things
A conversation with Professor Sandra Goldmark on sustainability, art, and repairing “stuff culture.”
By Elizabeth Jackson
“Stuff is broken.”
Sandra Goldmark launches the introduction to her recent book, Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet, with these three words. For years, Columbia students have come to know Goldmark as Associate Professor of Professional Practice in Theatre at Barnard. She is a set designer, a backstage artist, someone accustomed to repairing the tangible and breakable things that put the world of make-believe before us. In Fixation, Goldmark describes her frustration with the many things that break on a regular basis in our lives: toasters, backpack straps, vacuums. But she expresses an even greater concern with the often impossible task of getting them fixed. Goldmark reminds us that our consumer economy is built in a fundamentally linear way: purchase, use, break (or get sick of), throw away. In addition to wasting huge amounts of value, this structure is tremendously damaging to the environment.
Goldmark, who is also Barnard’s Director of Campus Sustainability and Climate Action, is working to reimagine our economy as a circular one. Such an economy would prioritize repair, reuse (including selling and buying used items), and, eventually, recycling. As part of these efforts, Goldmark and her husband Michael Banta, the Barnard Theatre Department’s Production Manager, started a series of pop-up repair shops around New York, which they named Fixup. But these repair services need to be integrated into the economy more generally, as Goldmark discusses in Fixation. Along with other theatre professionals, the couple also created the Sustainable Production Toolkit, a comprehensive guide to producing a show that builds in environmental sustainability and prioritizes equitable treatment.
I first heard about Goldmark and her fascinating integration of sustainability into habits of both ordinary life and theatre-making from my roommate, who took Goldmark’s set design class last year and now works for her. Upon hearing that she’d published a book, I rushed to read it, always drawn to discussions of making our lives—and our art—more sustainable. Goldmark’s opening statement resonates with me deeply. Stuff is broken. Our relationship to nature, our prioritization of instant gratification over the long-term health of ecosystems and people, our ways of making, taking, ignoring, and being. She deftly addresses this broken “stuff” too, connecting our intimate relationship with our stuff to humanity’s broader relationships with our production processes and with the earth.
In our conversation, Goldmark and I discussed her many projects, her teaching and design philosophies, the role of art and individuals in climate action, and Fixation’s central mantra: Have good stuff (not too much), mostly reclaimed. Care for it. Pass it on.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue and White: What first attracted you to design work in the theatre? As an undergrad, were you already involved in that and in sustainability, or not so much yet?
Sandra Goldmark: I remember when I was very young, probably eight or 10, being in the car on a trip. I have two sisters and [my dad] said to us: “Girls, I really think one of you should become a climatologist.” And, you know, we’re eight and 12, we’re like, “Okay! Forget that.” But I remember that because here I am all these years later. I’m not a climatologist, but I am up to my neck in climate stuff, and I think, well, that wasn’t such bad advice. But the steps to get here from that car ride were really convoluted. In undergrad I studied American history and literature. I did not study theatre. It was always just an escape from classes. But then after college, I really did not know what I was doing with my life. I thought about how I enjoyed doing theatre. So I started working as an assistant designer and started designing shows downtown, then went to grad school for theatre. All this time, increasingly, I’m becoming more and more aware of environmental concerns. But as that urgency in my personal feelings about climate is growing, it created a divergence. So there I am at home, rinsing my little yogurt cup and bringing my canvas bag to the store—but I’m going to work and I’m creating thousands and thousands of pounds of waste. Every show, every year, every season, every theatre I work in.
So I had a little crisis, and I thought, “Okay, I might need to quit. I might need to—” This was a funny one: I figured I might need to become a director or a playwright. Because as a designer, they send you the play, you get hired or you don’t, but you don’t have as much agency over the content. I thought, “Oh, if I’m directing or writing, I could write plays about recycling. And then I realized that this was a horrible idea. I’m not a playwright. Nobody wants to read or see a play about recycling, and that’s not what I want to do anyway. I am a designer. I loved making things. What I didn’t like was the intersection of that design and production with the reality of climate change. Or the non-intersection.
I started changing the way I design for theatre. First, it was almost in secret. This was still, believe it or not, in 2010 or ’11. If you’re on a show and you’re the “green designer,” sometimes people are like, “Oh, god,” rolling their eyes, or it was an attitude of “yeah, of course we want to be green and sustainable,” but when push comes to shove, nobody’s willing to adjust or change any practice or behavior on the show.
So, I would secretly make shows out of all reclaimed objects or secretly not buy, you know, Luan, which is a common material we use in theatre that is made of a tropical hardwood, chopped down from virgin forests. But then, over time, I started thinking, “This is ridiculous.” I’m in a privileged position because I have a teaching position. I can be pushing for industry-wide change. So, on my own, when I worked off-campus and with my colleagues at Barnard, we started really thinking about institutional change in theatre and building these tools—building resources, building budgeting systems. Now we’re working with other organizations and other theatres to help them really think at the institutional level: How do we make it so we’re no longer dependent on one frustrated designer choosing to make one show in a sustainable way, but where every decision and every sort of process in the organization takes into account social and environmental impact?
At the same time, I started doing the Barnard campus sustainability work and I started the repair shops. I realize now it really is for me all about this question of, on the specifics of consumption, how do we develop a circular economy onstage and off? And how do we as institutions, whether educational or performing arts or whatever, begin to really incorporate this thinking into our decision-making and into our mission?
B&W: With the changes to the design process, I also wanted to ask, have you had to change the aesthetic appearance of the sets that you design? Have your designs become more minimalist or have you been able to do exactly what you would have done with new materials with reclaimed materials or more sustainable materials?
SG: I wouldn’t say exactly. And this question was one that I really struggled with in the beginning. I did go through a whole period where I was really into minimalist designs and I did a ton of really spare, elegant designs with, you know, a big wooden floor with one tiny chair on it, and that was it. And those are sort of sustainable in the absence of stuff, so that’s good. But then I started being really interested in the opposite aesthetic in terms of what I call “clutter shows,” where you take the entire contents of the props dock or the garbage dump or whatever it is and you put it on stage. [But later] I started [deliberately] trying to do shows [where] … you shouldn’t necessarily know this is sustainable or not. There are certain things that I no longer can do, because of certain materials I won’t use, certain design choices I just won’t make. But the look—hopefully you shouldn’t really be able to instantly recognize it as, “Oh, yeah, that’s that [designer whose] every set is made of Poland Spring bottles.”
B&W: In the toolkit that I was looking at, I know you talked about the materials that are used for projection. There isn’t really a good one, or at least you didn’t list any that were favorable.
SG: Yeah, I mean projection surfaces—well, I’ll tell you a good one, the back wall of the theatre. A stock flat that you already own, that you’re going to paint a certain color. It’s all—basically, the materials thing, it’s so simple, but you have to keep saying it over and over again: we have to really drastically reduce the amount of new materials that we extract and manufacture. New stuff is where the impact comes from in terms of design and production. So if you’re going to project onto something and you already own a giant RP that’s made of vinyl, use it. But if you’re going to be buying something new, do not buy vinyl. And even cotton is challenging, especially at the widths we use in theatre—there’s no such thing as an organic cotton drop that’s a hundred feet wide. So you just have to think about what materials you’re using and how you can use what you already have or what your neighbor has, basically.
SG: And if you do have to buy new, don’t be buying vinyl.
B&W: Understood. And how has the process of teaching your set design class changed?
SG: I did have this other epiphany in the classroom, where I realized that that linear thing that we were doing in full scale in the theatre—just basically extracting the resources, putting them onstage, and throwing them away, which of course mimics the linear process we use offstage in every production process in the world. We were ... creating the seeds for that in the classroom as well. So, the traditional format for a set design class is: You have an empty stage house which is just a model of the theatre. It is usually made of foam core, which is already nonbiodegradable material, and nonrenewable. And then, when you’re done, you literally either throw out that model or, in fact, sometimes we reclaim the pieces of the model—but that design process doesn’t involve, really, any consideration of either the materials you have in the studio or the full-scale materials that exist in the theatre.
So I started creating these exercises in class to get us to even just begin thinking that from the beginning it’s not a totally blank slate. For instance, what if I couldn’t, for my show, order any type of wood from all over the globe or any type of material or product from Amazon or build—what if it wasn’t “the sky’s the limit?” I had them build a set in a little quarter inch model for one show, and then they would read another play and just hand their model box over to somebody else in the class and you had to design the next show just from what was in the box already.
B&W: As you say, each show is not necessarily a totally new beginning. You’re not starting from scratch each time.
SG: And, of course, in theatre, we have these practices of reuse and circularity that are ancient. Literally the Greeks used to have periaktoi and they would paint over the different sides and reuse them. So in some ways in theatre we just need to understand that those ancient practices are really valuable and forefront them and replace some of the linear, more damaging practices with these older ones.
B&W: So I know the focus is generally on reuse and repurposing and repairing but in terms of recycling, I wanted to ask, what do you think of organizations like Terracycle that recycle very unconventional materials but charge consumers a fee to do so?
SG: So recycling has gotten so complicated for so many reasons because, first of all, we leaned on it so hard for like 20 years as if it was going to be the solution to everything without looking at the top of the pipe. So we’re continuing to manufacture things that are essentially designed for a linear life cycle and then we’re trying to capture those materials and totally failing because we didn’t plan for it. I think the plastic recycling rate globally is something like 10%. So, recycling is amazing, it’s a key core component of the circular economy, [but] you can’t effectively recycle unless you’re really truly designing through that whole life cycle. Terracycle is complicated. I feel like they’re trying to capture some of this huge tsunami of materials as best they can, but there’s only so much you can do when you’re just at the end.
B&W: What are things that you would like to see most in the Climate School—either classes you’d like to see or practical things you’d like to see realized?
SG: So, the Climate School process so far—I’ve only been involved in it for this calendar year. It’s been a real pleasure. I just never had an opportunity before, as a theatre professor at Barnard, to really connect and engage with some of these amazing scientists at Lamont or at the Earth Institute centers. And now, because of the Climate School, here we are in the same room, and it’s super exciting for me, and I think that is, to your question, one of the great opportunities that the Climate School is trying to build, is the chance to bring people together who might not otherwise be able to. And to cross-pollinate, to work across disciplines.
B&W: Also, when I was reading Fixation, it makes the climate crisis feel much more intimate by connecting it with our stuff, and that’s also something that I’ve thought about in terms of art. I’ve always thought that nature writing and Romantic poetry and that sort of thing makes the consideration of nature and climate change feel much more intimate. And I wanted to ask what you view as art’s role in the climate crisis.
SG: I think about this a lot and don’t have one good answer, but I have two maybe examples of things. One is related to what you said, making things close and personal and maybe even actionable. It was pre-pandemic, but I was coming back from Boston ... I got off the train, I had to go right to my office and then I was supposed to go to this invitation-only dance rehearsal that they were doing in the Movement Lab at Barnard [for a group called Livable Futures]. I’d gotten up at the crack of dawn to get on that train and I was like, “Wow, the last thing I feel like doing right now is going to a site-specific, immersive, audience participation dance piece at eleven in the morning.” But I went, and I got there and first it was totally immersive. They would hand us these little bits of paper and you would read it and you were supposed to do an action that was on the paper. And slowly you saw all the audience members click in and get into it and, before you knew it, by the end of the piece, audience [members] were crawling on the floor, going into this little polar tent they had set up. ... And I realized that the whole piece, for me at least, was about taking action, was about moving from that passive spectator role and taking that first step, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable it is.
So that was a kind of beautiful, concrete example of artists addressing one of the core problems right now in the climate crisis of collective inaction. And proposing, through their choreography, actual steps that could be replicated, not in a dance piece but in the real world, in terms of getting people comfortable and engaged and immersed.
And the second thing ... just comes from my own example of my little repair shops—there was something kind of magical about sprinkling in all of these different bits of wisdom and knowledge from all these different disciplines. So, there was [the fact that] we were running a small business or a little social enterprise, we were sort of community organizers, we were sort of activists, we had to pretend we knew how to do marketing, and yet at the core of it all we were these backstage artists. ... So it was again a very small scale example of where that interdisciplinary work and the kind of skills and practices of the arts all added up to something surprising and unique and that had impact.
B&W: With situations like planned obsolescence and big corporations that have designed things in ways that make them not conducive to a circular economy, do you think the answer to that is just patronizing more sustainable competitors? I’ve heard many undergraduates—especially in my major—feel quite powerless in terms of going up against very big corporations and feeling ... like my individual patronage of somebody else isn’t going to matter very much. Do you think the solution lies that way or in more kind of lobbying, or anything else?
SG: Yeah, this is the big individual action debate, and so I believe firmly that your individual actions do matter. That where you spend your money—if we’re just going to talk about consumption—matters. And this is because, one, on a personal level, I want to spend my money in a way that aligns with my values. But I think, beyond that, it matters because there’s a lot of finger pointing that goes on, so some people say individual actions don’t matter and they point at the corporation and they’re like, “It’s all up to them.” But then, the corporations turn right around and they say, “Well, there’s no demand for these products, so we’re not going to do anything, nobody will buy them.” And then everybody’s stuck. It’s a system and they’re interrelated, and all of those little micro actions are part of a bigger, collective action. And the corporations feel and are responsive to those trends. It’s true that one person’s purchase is not going to change the policies of Apple or Ikea or any of these big companies—but trends do. And trends only happen when we all make different choices and when we begin to join together.
B&W: And for the individual choices, I know in the Sustainable Production Toolkit you have a very helpful list of different suppliers and different items to purchase and alternatives, but I’ve found when I’m trying to purchase more sustainable things I need to do a lot of research in order to find them. I just discovered that bar shampoo was a thing. It’s sort of ridiculous that I’m in this field, I care a lot about this, and I don’t know that such things exist. Do you think there’s a better way of making sustainable options more widespread in terms of knowledge, rather than just word of mouth?
SG: You’re sort of getting at a little bit of the overwhelm, the ridiculousness of it all of like, “Oh my god! Should I be using bar shampoo? Should I be not washing my hair at all?” It can get really overwhelming very quickly. So I do try, in the book, to break it down into five simple steps: The first: … have good stuff. So if you are buying new stuff you do want to pause and think about what you’re getting and try to make an effort to get something that’s sustainably and ethically produced, that’s durable and repairable. “Not too much.” Just don’t buy too much of anything if you can avoid it for a whole number of reasons. The third one, “mostly reclaimed,” is really the key. It doesn’t apply to shampoo, but the number one thing we can do to rebalance our stuff-diet and to push businesses to begin to diversify their business model is to reduce the amount of new goods and increase the amount of used goods that we’re buying. “Care for it” is all about repair and maintenance and “pass it on” is completing the loop and passing it on.
And then the last thing I would say, in answer to this bar shampoo conundrum and all of those comical things, is nobody’s perfect, there is no perfection. All we can do is keep moving in the right direction, and so I do try to help people realize that you don’t have to feel shame or anxiety about your consumption patterns. ... It can feel very difficult to do the right thing, but if you follow some simple steps and do the best you can to do your research, and of course advocate for community level and policy level changes, then I think that that is what, I don’t want to say the best we can do but that’s how we get there.
I mean, ultimately what needs to happen is we need real business model change in a serious way. Some of that needs to be regulatory where it’s no longer possible, for example, to employ people for substandard wages overseas and, therefore, introducing reuse, repair, and service will become more financially feasible in the United States and Europe. So that’s some big-scale policy change that will help us get there, but we can’t wait for that, and individuals and businesses can begin to introduce circular models that will help those other kinds of even bigger level policy changes come along.
B&W: You talk about treating stuff as things ... not just viewing it as objects all the time and thinking about what it would want and what’s best for it.
SG: That whole section of the book is really funny because, on the one hand, I’m not advocating that we sort of revere our stuff and … fetishize it in any way. But on the other hand, I think, right now, we’re so far on the other end of the spectrum in our society, we have such disregard for the labor and the materials that went into even this stupid coffee cup. [Addressing coffee cup:] You’re not stupid, I don’t mean to say that. But I do think that I’m arguing for a little awareness to actually see the stuff, it can also extend to nature, like that opening of our minds to say, “Wow, this wooden table was once a tree and somebody polished it with their hands, and before I had it in my home, it was in my sister’s apartment.” Just this acknowledgement that all the stuff around us has value, that we are interconnected with it. A fundamental problem that we face right now is a disconnect from everything, from coffee mugs to the planet.
And in their defense, our lives right now are kind of crazy. People don’t have time to sit around and consider the labor and value of their coffee mugs. I understand why we are here, but, as we all understand, we have to change, we have to get out of this place that we’re in.
B&W: I’ll just open it up if you want to add anything else on any subject.
SG: One fun fact is that all of this work of rethinking the way I design in theatre, and building these tools for budgeting in theatre, and running the repair shops, and building the Climate Action program at Barnard—all of that has really been done with students either working with me, or being in classes, or being willing to intern in a crazy repair shop. So that’s just been a treat for me, to feel like the co-creators and the people helping figure this stuff out are my students. ... They’re willing to try things and then go out in the world and iterate and take it to the next level and so that has been a really nice part of this whole journey.