“What kind of art do you make?”
“I make object theatre.”
“Oh, cool… What’s that?”
I love objects. I love old objects. I love the histories that live inside of them, the imaginative worlds they invite to be imposed on them, their desire to be curated with other objects, their lifelessness that can come alive in an instant, with a gesture, with a voice, with a placement. I love their mystery and coyness, their whispers of the lives they have lived before arriving into mine, and they seem to love to be found, rediscovered, reutilized, rather than be thrown away.
I started working in the medium of object theater because my apartment was being overrun with things (and I use that word lovingly here) I had picked up over the course of several years from junk shops and thrift stores, objects I couldn’t let sit and collect dust any longer, objects that needed a home, objects that spoke to me. I would curate them in miniature tableaus around the apartment on windowsills, on the back of the toilet, on bookcase shelves, in the pots of plants. It was only until a professor of mine looked at the kind of text I was writing for the stage and said I should make object theatre that I started to enter this terrain of serious play in my art. Though, what form of play isn’t serious?
There is a ritual to puppetry, to theater at large as well, but with puppets and object theatre, there is the breathing of life into the inanimate that makes for uncanny surprise and that adds additional layers of meaning to the work that cannot be accessed with only human bodies on the stage. There is a transcendence of meaning that takes place when a set of cow bones is reanimated to life by five performers. There is something magical when you realize as an audience member you are identifying and empathizing with a pair of talking porcelain doll legs, a glass bottle, a plastic miniature deer. When a curation of objects is placed in a performance context, the result is a moving sculpture, like a magic trick, like a Catholic Mass, since the performers are always in view, their hands as integral to the performance as the objects themselves. This distinguishes it from puppetry, though both forms seek to conjure an alternate reality through the animated inanimate.
Growing up Catholic I was very drawn to the ritual of mass, and as an altar server, I reveled in the use of objects to conjure and represent the past as present. The host that transubstantiated in front of an entire church full of adults and children alike, all of whom stood, incanting and looking on at this circular object held high in the air, felt so mystical and ancient to me. My sisters and I would then “play church” at home, forming a single file procession with one of us in the lead, carrying a Bible high overhead, the other two of us following with a candle, a cross. We would carve crosses into white Necco wafers with a butter knife, and round up all the candles in the house to light on top of a coffee table donned with a doily table runner. We wanted so badly to recreate the recreation, to feel the power to transform objects into not only the symbols they could come to represent, but also to transform them into a new form of being, just as we had seen performed every Sunday. My question looking back is, were we successful? Did we transubstantiate the Necco wafers?
As a poetic playwright, objects give me so much. They offer inlets of understanding into what can otherwise be a form of text that is too dense for live performance. They slow down time somehow, yet extend it by adding their own density of meaning. And then there is a warmth between them and I, a warmth of understanding that makes it impossible to get rid of any of them once the show’s over. They are collaborators who contribute equally to the work, since I almost always start first with an image of them entering a space, turning downstage, ready to speak, and it is my task to channel what they wish to say, like a medium, fingers ready at the keys.
~ Megan Murtha
An upcoming play:
Too Many Beers (or Sea Legs)
Thursday, December 13th @ 7:30pm
161A Chrystie Street
New York, NY, 10002
Tickets available here: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pe.c/10349202
Bone Play (1-4): Jorge Luna Photography
The Glass House Speaks (5-6):Rachael Shane
The Women of Saranac (7-9): Megan Murtha
When my grandmother passed away, my parents’ apartment grew big and quiet. She had always lived with us, filling the space with her presence: a tall, loud woman with endless energy and endless stories. Even in her last years, when illness and old age were claiming her little by little, she still retained the same ability to become the center of everything and command everyone’s attention.
In terms of possessions, there was not too much that she left behind, at least it felt like that at first. Since she had lived in the same apartment with my parents, we did not have to go through a house that would be left behind or find new owners for furniture, books, etc. But we did not know what to do with her clothes. She had many flower-patterned cotton dresses that she’d wear around the house; she is wearing them in the family photos, in my memory of her sitting in the armchair with a crossword puzzle, at any moment that I walk inside that apartment and for a split second imagine that I’m going to look up and see her in the kitchen, she is wearing one of those dresses. How can you throw them away or donate them? What does one do with the clothes of a loved one that is never coming back?
We put them away, out of sight, in one of the closets and didn’t look at them for a couple of years. This past summer, when I was visiting my parents during the summer vacation, Mom and I cleaned out some closets and found the dresses. It almost felt like seeing her again, the familiar patterns and colors, it was heart-warming and visceral – the way I could almost hear her voice, almost feel the touch of her hand.
Instead of putting them back this time, we decided to let the dresses become once again more present in the apartment. We cut them up into patches and found a seamstress who agreed to make two quilts out of them – one for me and one for my sister. When we go back to Russia next time, the quilts will be ready and waiting for us.
In the photos, you see the dresses as we were cutting them up to prepare them for a second life. I don’t know if I will cry or smile when I see the quilt. I do know that I am waiting to see it, thinking about it often, thinking about her wearing a bright cotton dress, signing in the kitchen, her voice deep and cheerful. The most incredible woman I have known.
~ Natalia Andrievskikh
For all the possessions that are acquired many more are disposed of. I bought a beanbag so that I could have a comfortable spot by the window to pour through old library books. I knew I could empty the beanbag once the year was over, fold up the linen cover and carry it to another alcove, then refill it. In the spring we left many of our things—from the lamp without a light bulb to dented garbage bins—out in the corridor of our apartment building; soon after we heard shuffling, then the clanking of metal parts as the objects were carried away by students assembling their own temporary homes.
But the beans... I did not realize how difficult it would be to get rid of them. They are made from expanded polystyrene, a material that resembles Styrofoam. They are mostly air, 98 percent, and cannot simply be thrown out, because pouring them over the trash sends the small pieces flying, clinging to hands and all surfaces, and evading any attempts to contain them. NPR published an article claiming that the chemicals from discarded beanbag fill are in our shellfish. I reflected on this finding as Matt and I sat indulging in local fare of oysters on our last evening in Cambridge. The things we discard, presumably sent away to accumulate elsewhere as we move on to a new city, actually end up travelling in our very bones and capillaries.
At the end of the year we packed up our apartment and drove it to Matt's house in upstate New York. We returned the butcher block for safekeeping, and added our books to the shelves. For many years Matt's mom has been taking pieces of old fabric and making them into quilts. In her bedroom there is one such quilt made by her great great grandmother; it oversees her work as she stitches. When Matt and I bring our own belongings into this house, we entwine our stories with those of countless generations.
But what of the things we never bring back? What of the polystyrene, and the lamps with no light bulbs? Some will carry on lives elsewhere, others will stay with us even though they were never meant to be kept, making their way back through clams and oysters. As we pack and unpack, procure and discard, we pass through the lives of those who accumulate things in place. Maybe one day Matt and I will stop migrating and disposing. Instead we will take pieces of the things we no longer need and stitch them together. We will add these to his mother's quilts, and those of her great great grandmother. And we will wonder about the durability of our traces.
My mother had a stroke in 2005 and I moved her in with me. I was then tasked with cleaning out her house, which had been continuously occupied by my family since its construction by my great-grandmother in 1908. Everything that went into the house in 1908 came from the farm we’d owned for 70 years prior to that. Nothing had been thrown away. The house was filled with treasures: art and folk art made by family members, quilts and needlework, antique furniture, dishes, and tools. There was also a large library begun by my great-great-grandfather and added to over the generations. The most unusual items were the folk art created by my great-grandmother: a hair wreath in a seashell and pine cone decorated frame, a feather wreath in a seashell decorated frame, a “memory jug” covered with buttons and tiny bisque dolls, and picture frames and shelves decorated with leather shaped into fruit and flowers. The oldest things in the house were a set of 4 straight wooden chairs, an ogee mirror, and a clock labeled by my grandmother as having been moved by oxcart from the Mohawk Valley to this area in 1829.
My mother collected art from fellow artists. She also collected coins, stamps, postcards, sheet music, and rocks. My parents came of age during the Great Depression, which explains their penchant for saving everything. My mother would quote a saying from that time: “Use it up, wear it out. Make it do and do without.” I, on the other hand, grew up resenting much of the stuff in the house because it took up so much room, and I am now the opposite of a packrat.
As I sorted through everything, I saved bits and pieces of stuff which would normally have been thrown away: pieces of wood and metal, scraps of wallpaper and linoleum, old spectacles, broken toys, ephemera, and costume jewelry, etc. From all this flotsam and jetsam, I created a series of collages and assemblages called “My Family Home.” Everything in the series came from the house, including the picture frames for the collages and the wooden fruit crates for the assemblages. I had never done assemblage before, so working in 3-D was a new challenge for me. The assemblages had specific themes relating to our lives. One was about our childhoods, which contained old toys. Another one was dedicated to items belonging to my late sister. “Our Foremothers” and “Our Forefathers” are homages to our ancestors. Creating this series helped me process the ordeal of the cleanout and having to part with the house after so many years.
I did selectively keep some things from the house, including the beautiful mahogany parlor furniture my great-grandfather had purchased in 1851, my mother’s collections of stamps, coins, and postcards, hundreds of old family photos, and thousands of letters dating to the 1830s. I kept a pipe my great-grandfather had carved from a laurel root during his service in the Civil War. I also kept the art books and favorite books my mother had read to me, books she had had as a child. My favorite possession is my great-grandmother’s piano, which every female member had played since 1895.
After my mother passed away, I sold more antiques, art, and folk art. Having grown up with such a rich heritage, it helped form the person and artist that I am. I decided to sell these items because I had internalized their value and no longer felt the need to possess them any longer. Parting with the treasures was liberating, as I no longer had to make room for them or take care of them. They are, after all, only inanimate objects and are a poor substitute for the loss of my entire family.
~Jane Evelynne Higgins
I inherited the statuette from my mother. Sort of. She didn’t will it to me; I plucked it from the detritus of her house after she died. Not quite five inches tall, all grey except for an orange fun- fur ruff of hair glued from ear to ear, a protruding Day-Glo pink tongue, and the yellow and pink flower she holds. Her loopy smile and bulbous head make her look like a toddler, but she wears an apron. The statuette’s probably dirty, but it’s hard to tell. Etched into the pedestal is this title: “World’s Greatest Mother.”
Where had she come from? Well, most recently, from me. I’d found her in a junk store in Saskatoon called “Indefinite Articles,” twenty-five years ago or so. I gave her to my mother, who’d laughed, as I’d hoped she would. “It was so ugly I just had to have it”: her rationale for so many purchases. Of a pair of second-hand, psychedelic shoes: “I had to get them; they’ll clash with everything!” I’d never have dreamt she’d keep the statuette.
When I tried to go through her house after her death in 2010, the statuette was a few ounces out of what was close to a ton of stuff I kept, including an oak sideboard. Most of it—including the sideboard—I discarded, incrementally. Most of it. For the last seven years, each yearly trip to my hometown in Saskatchewan has involved my spending hours in my in-laws’ basement, where they’ve kindly allowed me to say goodbye to my mother and her things, over and over and over. Each trip, fewer of those things made it into my outsize suitcases or into shipping boxes and more of them over to the Mennonite Community Closet, as I got better at recognizing and culling those things that had been special and even beloved to her, but not to me. All that’s left there now is a small pine cupboard from her grandparents’ farm in Finland that I’m going to ship to my own home in upstate New York next month, to use as my bedside table.
Last spring, when I came across the statuette again in a box in my garage, I gave her a home on a shelf near my desk and did a little research. I can’t tell if she’s a mass-produced ceramic figurine of the mid-60s to early 70s—contemporary with troll dolls and the nude yet nearly androgynous “Love is. . . ” comic-strip lovers—or if she’s a parody of one of those. The ceramic figurines go on eBay now for a few bucks, skyrocketing to as much as $15 in the case of exceptional rarity. Although I have not found one identical to my own, I believe that, if I were to take WGM to the Antiques Roadshow, I would not discover that I’m a millionaire. I’d say, “Oh, I only paid a couple of dollars for it. Five at the most.” And a tactful appraiser would say to me, “Well, I think you’ll find it’s kept its value nicely.” And then we’d both laugh. Our brief exchange would not be recorded.
The World’s Greatest Mother is dead, long live the World’s Greatest Mother! When my daughter was little, she told me once that I should have bought her a Mother’s Day present because she was the reason I was getting any presents at all that day anyway. The child is the mother of the woman. If repossessing the trophy meant that I’d ever pretended to the title of World’s Greatest Mother, I have since renounced that specious claim.
My mother died in a hoarder’s house, but she hadn’t always lived in one. While I was growing up, our house was sparsely furnished and even, arguably, kind of chic, though it would be years before minimalism, Ikea, and the tiny house movement would make that modest war-time home desirable to any but the most discerning eye. The only objects I remember existing in notable masses were books, houseplants, and canning jars, full or awaiting filling. She never liked housework, but even after my father’s death, she did okay; my brother and I helped a little. During the short northern summertime, she would be in her garden every hour she wasn’t working rotating shifts, as a psychiatric nurse, or sleeping. Late summer and fall meant canning. Winter was for reading—novels and poetry and seed catalogues—and catching up on house stuff. Come the spring she’d be back in the garden, long before the last frost: coaxing, tilling, assessing the soil, and—her favorite pre-planting task—shoveling manure. No more time for the interior of the house again until winter.
But then she retired from her career of more than thirty years (of “shoveling shit,” as she called it). A few weeks later, I moved halfway across the country for grad school. She began to fill her house with the spoils of frequent shopping at regular stores, but also with others’ discards, acquired at yard sales, rummage sales, and thrift stores, some of them the same ones we’d donate so much of her stuff back to. I remember pointing out one Christmas that she lived alone, yet had seating for seventeen. But there was nothing wrong with any of those chairs, so why should they go? I tried to help, when I was home, by furtively pitching excess, not knowing then that that’s the worst thing you can do to someone whose relationship with their stuff is complex: that is, a living person. By the time I gave her the statuette, it probably carried, as so many gifts do, the giver’s judgment of the receiver’s taste.
She missed me; I missed her. Once I called to ask if she still had a drawstring cotton laundry bag I remembered from when I was little. On one side, screenprinted on a white ground in turquoise, orange, navy, and brown, a smiling woman and a cat wash clothes in a laundry tub; on the other side, they hang the wet clothes to dry. She’d laughed. “Why would I keep that old thing?” A few days later, it came in the mail. I wish I could see both sides of it at once, but I can’t unpick the seams.
On our last trip home before she died, she wouldn’t let me and my husband and daughter into the house. She would meet us on the front steps every day that week, as though that was just the way families arranged their annual visits. We’d spend the day together, then we’d drop her off, see that she got into the house. She’d turn the light on and poke one hand out from between the closed curtains to wave.
Following her death, my brother and his wife and I did our best put her house in order and to unearth our family’s modest treasures. After weeks of digging, trashing, sorting, cleaning, donating, lugging all that stuff I couldn’t part with over to my in-laws’ house, and after a massive tag sale, we gave up and called in the house-clearers. Maybe they found her wedding ring and wallet. We couldn’t.
I don’t deny that I’m often opaque to myself—though my seven-year sorting effort has helped a bit with that—but I sometimes think that, in some ways, I’m her opposite. I don’t like to garden. What had been her joy is now my chore, even though, throughout our childhoods, she’d reserve small plots for my brother and me to plant in any way we wanted. I had little interest in gardening, but I liked being close to her. Sometimes we’d take breaks in the maple’s shade and have tea and raspberries or gooseberries, still warm from the sun.
Before we put the house up for sale, relatives, friends, and neighbors took many of her plants. Her magnificent garden is now a stranger’s junkyard. A garden isn’t its plants: I get that. Still, my husband’s sister sends me pictures of my mother’s wild roses in bloom outside her own front door, and I like to see them.
Her ashes are buried on my brother’s riverfront land in Nova Scotia, roughly 2700 miles southeast of her home in Saskatchewan and 3700 miles southwest of her birthplace in Finland. Call it halfway. Some time after her memorial service, my brother sent me a kind, uncharacteristically formal email outlining his proposal to take her urn there with him by motorcycle on his annual trip the following spring. The reasons were outlined in bullet-point form. She would be in nature; she would always be with family, as that was to be his retirement home; she’d never wanted to be buried on what she called “the bald-headed prairie”; she’d always wanted to see his new place, and perhaps one day would have consented to live there with him and his wife in the “grandma-house” he’d promised to build her. But the clincher was this: “She always said she wanted to jump on the back of my Harley but she didn’t have the guts. Now she won’t have a choice!”
The next summer, I drove up with my own family from New York to Nova Scotia to help my brother and his wife lay Mum’s ashes to rest beneath three flowering shrubs, gifts from friends. We dug holes, mixed her ashes into the soil, then tucked in the roots of the fragile, pretty green plants around her. The World’s Greatest Daughter, then six, closed the ceremony by briskly dusting her palms together and announcing: “My hands are all dirty now from burying people!”
Sleeves, Boxes, Wrapping Papers, Elastic Bands: What We Never Think About When We Think About Photographs
Before mentioning who I am today, I should start from the beginning... Even though I am a 43 year-old woman, a mother and a self-employed worker who tries to catch up with the course of life, I think I have never completely broken up from my childhood.
As far as I can remember, I have always loved books, pictures, and old things. I used to spend a lot of time leafing through family photo albums and picture books. At my grandparents’, I liked to feel under my fingers the carved bas-relief of the waxed heavy Breton furniture; I also loved the enchanting atmosphere of their dusty attic full of old-world treasures. I had a blue box where I kept a shining pebble, some foreign coins, an earth beads necklace, and a very small dry branch that looked like a dog's paw. To me, those items were fascinating and potentially useful for something. I was a collector as a child, and I remained one.
I was an adolescent when I discovered photography and began to practice it. It became my means of apprehending the world. It was exciting: I was able to turn what I looked at into a tangible image. I was lucky enough to develop my practice and my knowledge through my studies, more specifically in the 1990’s at the National School of Photography in Arles (France). It was certainly the most intense period in my life. I produced a lot of images; many of them were of leftover things or places that invited you to daydream, where a little stone became a whole planet, a piece of motor a spaceship. I also made collages with the little pieces of photographic paper that is used for determining the exposure. It felt wrong to simply throw them away: incomplete images revealed such poetry!
I soon realised that my personal photographic production would not earn me a good living and I did not feel like becoming a professional photographer. At that time I was discovering with great interest the history of photography, and that is why I decided to study photography conservation. It would enable me to make a side step into patrimonial photography (heritage sites, objects, portraiture, albums, architecture, etc.) without leaving aside my personal photography work. I was, and am still fascinated by all this photographic material that was very often neglected until the end of the 20th century. Lots of it is in danger of disappearing, every day, because it’s too altered, or because few people really take care of old pictures. Taking care of them became for me like a mission. Photography conservation is about observing items and collections, making a diagnosis, finding the treatment, and putting it into practice. The treatment can be conservative or curative. All the interventions must be documented and justified, and above all, must not interfere with the authenticity of the object. So, even if I am in a way rescuer of photographic objects, I have to remain very humble towards them.
One day as I was doing photography conservation work in a museum, I opened a box full of negative rolls wrapped up in papers of various colors, exactly as the photographers had stored them many years ago. I felt an urge to take a picture of these rolls in the condition I found them. It was even more necessary since for purposes of long-term preservation, the rolls had to be taken out, cleaned, cut, and repacked according to contemporary standards. Most probably, the boxes and wrapping paper that came with the negatives would be disposed of. The conditions to take the pictures were not excellent (fluorescent light and cell phone), but this was the start of resuming my personal photography work. I kept on taking pictures of these "archaeological states," either of photographic materials I received for treatment at my workshop or ones that I found at flee-markets... or even in waste bins. I named them "Placentaires" (“placentars”) – let me explain why.
For some time, I have been thinking of some analogy with the photographic collections I am entrusted with for preservation work, which after treatment are sent back tightly wrapped up in white paper, neatly settled in their grey cardboard cradles. Usually, the rest of the stuff that originally comes with the rolls of negatives – sleeves, boxes, wrapping papers, elastic bands – is not considered important in any other way than a source of information for the inventory. Very little of it is materially preserved.
One day, it struck me that all of the original wrapping that served to envelop the life of these photographs closely resembles placenta. Placenta is a very odd organic material. Starting from the same material as the cells of the future human being, in some way it "denies itself" so that this one can develop and reach life. At the time of delivery this large piece of meat is severed from the baby when the umbilical cord is cut. It is then disposed of, unless it is used for research or medical purposes. In the end, who cares about this singular organ, which is obviously a part of the person to be? I have always been fascinated by this placentary poetry, its nearly nothingness that drives it to disposal. Beyond its image, the materiality surrounding old photography collections fires up my imagination.
For the past two years I gradually accumulated a corpus of work. This personal work is like a dotted line I keep drawing in the spare time. I have not officially presented any of it yet. I like things to settle, in order to see what will emerge. It gives some poetry – and motivation – to my conservation work. It evokes what excites me in my daily contact with patrimonial photography: its serendipity and materiality, the range of human emotion I find in the pictures and their packaging, their montage, their aging. It also evokes what is considered as patrimonial, what is noted as important by museum institutions and what is not.
~ Gwenola Furic (France)
More at https://gwenola-furic.jimdo.com/
For grandma, it started with a Staffordshire china duo.
The second hand stores around our neighbourhood had been filling our home with furniture and knick knacks for years, and grandma has always been known for having a good eye. The only things that entered our home and didn’t immediately leave it as a gift to someone else were either flawless or priceless, and this duo was one of them. Grandma learned about English fine china at her English class the week before, and had come home inspired to seek some out, just to see.
The duo was simple in its elegance. White, emerald green, and gold, the handle on the cup boasting a flick—like a cat-eye—at its tip. Gold lined the rim of the cup, the rim of its foot. Another line drew a boundary against the inside of the cup, and a similar design was echoed on the saucer. It looked rich to me, and it looked good for its age.
Other than that, I hadn’t paid the cup and its saucer much attention. I was of a generation and countenance that didn’t find delicate golden things particularly exciting, but grandma displayed the cup proudly in the living room and showed it off to anyone who came by.
Within a few weeks, it wasn’t one cup, but two. And then three.
Not all of them were Crown Staffordshire china. Now we had Paragon and Aynsley, Hammersley and Royal Winton. By now, the stores near our home had been cleared entirely of their stock of old china. Some of the store owners even kept the cups aside, when new stock came in, just for grandma to see and assess its worth to her.
Before we knew it, we had two glass-front cabinets in our living room, housing this budding collection, and countless compliments of grandma’s incredible eye for beauty.
The cups ranged in age, as well. The youngest were from the late fifties, her oldest at that point was somewhere in the early 1900s. And as proudly as she displayed them, grandma just as proudly set them to the table when people came over, allowing each guest to choose their favourite from the cabinets to enjoy their tea or coffee in. To her, the cups were beautiful, but they were also useful. Why have a cup that collects dust, when it could serve tea? Tea tasted even better when it was drunk from cups with history, rather than from porcelain mugs we used for our day to day living.
The cups rotated within their displays, stacking in two or three levels high when space became scarce.
Within a year, we had three glass-front cabinets.
It was funny, because it was always grandpa who was bringing home random pieces of wood and rusty screws to store in the garage “for a rainy day”. A habit kept from the war, I think, when everything was extremely hard to get.
By now, grandma had to branch further afield to find anything of interest, with the collection growing. Mum took to the internet seeking for cups in other cities, learning quickly who was there to push prices up and who actually knew their real value. She had pages upon pages of printed information on every stamp and marking that could be found on the bottom of each cup and saucer, she took the time to date every new cup that joined its siblings in the cabinets in the living room, and to catalogue the entire collection in a photo album, so grandma could quickly access it without having to bend and find the cups in the cupboards.
I found myself turning over any cup I saw in a shop window, running my eyes over the name, trying to remember if that was a manufacturer that my grandma collected, or one she wasn’t interested in. After a while, I, too, could tell which design belonged to which era, which shape was from which year. Still entirely uncaring for flowery things, I could now tell the difference between Royal Winton’s “Crocus” and Aynsley’s “Orchard Gold”.
It became a habit for everyone in the family. It became a habit for our friends. Every birthday and Christmas new cups and duos and trios entered our home. And at the first opportunity, most were returned to the second hand stores from whence they had come.
But no one knew about that. Grandma was particular, but she wasn’t tactless.
When we had to move house, our friends, mum and grandma carefully wrapped and stored over 180 cups and their accessories for transportation. Nothing was broken in the move.
When I returned from my first trip to London, I presented grandma with her 194th cup.
By now, the market near us was empty of the known names. Now, any cup that was beautiful found its way to grandma’s collection. We even had a dozen Japanese cups, the porcelain so thin you could see through the bottom of a cup to the stamp. Sometimes, a Geisha would look back, blush coming and going with the light as you turned the cup.
After a while, it was hard to circulate the cups, and fewer guests chose them from the cabinets to have their tea in. After a while, grandma didn’t even look at her catalogues anymore. But still, Gran often asks mum or I to open the doors of the cupboards, to look at the beauty transcended through the years and centuries. She feels better seeing them.
Over a decade of collecting had found our home filled with over 200 fine china cups and saucers, silver dishes, kettles and monogrammed gravy boats, and the occasional porcelain flower. Five cabinets can’t contain the entire collection, and we store the “orphaned” cups and saucers – those without a pair or a three – elsewhere, out of the way.
The oldest cup in our collection heralds from 1820.
Daily, the cups watch the sun rise and set through the polished glass of their cabinets. They watch our family go about its day.
I’ve always believed that objects carry a feeling with them, something left behind by the last person to have touched them, or let them go, and all our cups hold kindness and love. They’re not discarded anymore; they’re as much part of our family as the rest of us are.
Contribution by Val Prozorova
Story location: New Zealand, Aukland
Time period: The oldest cup in the collection dates from 1820
Although I am a musician, I never really considered myself an “artist” because I always thought that one had to be able to draw and paint beautifully detailed and shaded still life, portraits, nature scenes, etc. When I was a kid I could barely draw the pirate on the matchbook cover that would qualify a young artist to a dubious "scholarship" opportunity. But I have always loved the collage-like album covers from the 1950's "exotica" recordings as well as the work on the 1960's jazz and psychedelic records, so I just spent my youth listening to music and envying the work of Cal Schenkel, the artist responsible for the covers on Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention lps. Even as a musician I guess I was always subconsciously also cultivating my visual muse.
When I turned 34 I needed a steady, good paying gig to support my family, so I became a Letter Carrier for the United States Post Office, where it turns out that carrying mail is the perfect activity for stimulating one’s muse. With so much time alone with my thoughts, my songwriting became effortless. I carried around a cassette recorder to capture my songs on the fly. Soon after, I became very interested in objects that I'd find on the road, such as catalytic converters, hubcaps, rusty hinges etc. I'd dutifully pick up these objects without much of an inkling of what I'd do with them. I would, however, bring the objects back to my basement and organize them somewhat. After a while I realized that the objects reminded me of Schenkel's album artwork, which lead me to research other artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Cornell, and Willem de Kooning. It was like an epiphany – "You need not be able to draw in a straight line to be an artist!”
Shortly after this insight I began gluing, painting, and screwing together the various objects in my basement. The process is wonderful. One such creation (above), “Give Me the Music Makers”, features a photo of poet and member of the Fugs, Tuli Kupferberg, collaged with a found reel-to-reel box. Another piece (below), “Working for the Man”, includes the figurine of a man bowling from a vintage game, an industrial beater for mixing food, a shoe insert, and a stool.
Over the years, I have become more selective of what objects I'd pick up and sometimes I have no idea of what will become of them, but when the idea arrives, sometimes years later, the project and the objects take on a life of their own. I do get stuck sometimes, but the key to getting unstuck is playing some avant garde recordings in my studio and cleaning up my last mess while sipping bourbon. Before I know it a title strikes me and I am back to gathering objects for the new "canvas". For my family’s sake, it is usually best when it is not a work night because it can be a long meandering dance!
Today I no longer carry mail. I retired last year after 30 years. Now I am a substitute teacher in the same public school system where I attended public school. I always enjoy teaching Art class, and as part of my "lecture" I display some of my work on an easel and explain the process and the excitement. Their eyes widen and they say: "You really sell that stuff"? I think that there is a mix of admiration, confusion, and excitement at the suggestion that Art is not only for the chosen few.
Contribution by Tim McCarthy
It looked pretty innocent really. “Feb 2000” in black marker on the side, the handwriting was my mother’s; predating that in cursive “Cin’s box. Do not open.” Oh, certainly that had been too much for her. My mother, the woman who bore me and who always wanted to understand me, to love me better. I could never let her.
At some point in the past, I had rescued my read diaries from that box, only vaguely glancing at the other contents. My heart and stories again violated, the secrets I could barely admit to myself, all my happiness and shame. This was the second time. I wondered with whom she’d discussed her complicated daughter’s words. The truths I gripped so tightly were mine and mine alone. Her forced intimacy made me ashamed of what my words could expose. For years I couldn’t write. When I did I couldn’t share.
I needed distraction desperately that day. It had been almost a year since the red string that had once darned my heart had been gently tugged. Thinking I would be better for it, I let it unravel, I let it unmake me. For a year now I had been suffering my unmaking. Trying to build a new home with the pieces of myself that had been returned to me. Tides rose and fell. I told myself it was just a moment.
I wanted some guidance and I hoped I would find it in the stars. Somewhere in that box was an astrological chart. I didn’t believe in astrology really. I don’t see myself in space, time is always playing tricks on me. I just wanted to distract myself from the my lurking fear that you can’t cut red strings. The red strings are your ARTeries. They are attached to your beating heart as long as you are alive. How I wished to be free of all my veins and capillaries.
The warning was on the box. I saw it marked clearly and I ignored it. Not distraction but destruction. Inside the box was all that I couldn’t throw away when I ran into the big world hoping to lose myself. The yellowed masking tape disintegrated easily.
My ancestors were in that box: the blood that ran through my veins, my inherited characteristics, my genetic memory. In old broken frames, the forms of their faces, their strengths and weaknesses, their stories of love and pain, printed in black and white, their lightness and their darkness. It was all mine. It was my origin. I understood their darkness differently now. It became very clear I could never have come from anywhere else.
I took my maternal grandmother from that box. She was unconditional love. I needed her. I would rescue her from my grandfathers wall, in the box also by relation. Somebody should have rescued her from him.
To the geography teacher and careers advisor that once told me my only hope was to marry an important successful man: I am a writer you arsehole!
My grandfather: adventurer, horseman, geologist, opal miner, builder, plumber, electrician, gardener, instrument maker, husband, father, grandfather, story teller, christian, jew, victim, rapist, pedophile. I kept a letter from you in my box. I kept the photos from your wall. Your genetic imprint and the photo of the woman you married I will carry, the rest, I will give away.
My parents, you are here too: young and beautiful, full of love and hope, the future stretching out before you, accomplished, colourful and flat... this is the way I saw you first, when you were my entire reference, and I didn’t understand how I could have come from you.
What shocked me to the core was how much God there was in the box. Catholic school reports, tracing the education of a little girl who grew further and further away from faith in anyone or anything. My First Holy Communion certificate, accompanied by work sheets in my neat trusting printing. The Catholics get you young; colouring in Mary and the baby Jesus, copying prayers and learning them by heart, confession. CONFESSION. What the fuck does a seven year old have to confess?
A large, dark, cruel crucifix with a silver emaciated Jesus, dead. What a delightful ornament for any child’s room. Confirmation certificate. More worksheets covered in copied broken promises. Gifts: small porcelain angels, good little girls praying while tending sheep, pictures in tiny frames of Saints... this should be funny but it isn’t.
Mary, the mother. Even today I still place a candle at your feet when I sneak through the door of the church, after service, to look at the pretty windows and smell the cold, high space. My circular tour, the stations of the cross, my programming.
“Mary,” promised my mother, “can take away your bad dreams and protect all the children from harm.” How I wanted to believe this. I stared at the tiny green snake at her feet. How may times have I sat exhausted and inadequate at Mary’s feet and thought about my own children.
My hand goes to my throat and there they are again, a cross with a tiny diamond and Mary- my maternal grandmother’s medal, complete with toothmarks from one of her many difficult labours. I never take them off. I have tried to disguise, or balance, I’m not sure which, this yoke with other charms: the hand of fatima, a spinning disk with the promise of love, the buddha.
Covering my charms as if to protect them from the sweep, I bundle everything into and empty red shopping bag. I am angry. I really don’t need that shit.
A very pale, self conscious little girl with wire frames glasses and blond plats; the same little girl slightly older and cheekier; glasses off now and old beyond her years; what the fuck is going on with her hair?
Old friends, mostly transient witnesses I have escaped but some red string ones too; those who know all the girls I have been, those from who I hide nothing. I am grateful.
Pictures drawn by old school friends as a gift during a stay in hospital to remove skin cancers. Every dance and gymnastics certificate I ever received. Athletics ribbons won by a little girl who wasn’t athletic, just so much bigger than the other kids her age. Best Dressed Pet? Six tiny books of fairytales the size of postage stamps from a christmas stocking in 1981. What do these things say about me, other than everything.
My first flatmates are in here, young and funny. My own Jack Kerouac, I will never put you in a box again. For 20 years you walked behind me ready to catch me if I fell. I have lost your thread but found your words and face.
My first resume making so much of so little. The idea of becoming which quickly degenerated to shrunken, skinny, sold out, made up, track marked arms covered in a fake fur coat, wearing what looks like a nightdress. The world she had believed was her oyster, had closed around her like a giant clam. What is she doing in my box? It is so hard to look her in the eye. I am sorry. I want to apologise to her and brush the knots out of her hair. She is only just sixeen.
I have hidden from her for 20 years. I have hidden from her drug consumption and her pursuit of men, her homelessness, her desire to charge straight towards death. For a long time I have kept her very quiet (except on the nights where I find her in the bottom of a bottle, screaming).
Miracle Max you are here in the form of a cat, black and white cleaning a delicate paw in the long long grass of the knock down that became a refuge. You are in my box and my inbox still. You have watched from the couch, me sleeping around and falling in love with the men who would never love me back, as though I am a reality tv show. You shoved me into the arms of the first man I would trust myself with. You have been an enemy and a fast friend, a prisoner, a dad and brought back my Wesley from the dead. We laugh at the darkness that should scare us.
Pay slips from nursing, the first job I would ever truly love. My old ladies who needed to talk as much as I did; gentle touch that demanded nothing. I took love to work with me every day and tried to make amends for the damage I had done (to whom?). I found some confidence in myself again. I imagined a future. I learned to study.
Salvation, through you I discovered relationships were more valuable than oblivion. With you I became the part time mother of a little girl; a role I was safe in, competent at. I found my way back into the garden, put some roots down, risked my first tight blossoming. I shared my bed and body with one man, long enough to actually enjoy both.
I wanted to believe I was safe forever and that you would be my family. That wasn’t our story. You woke sleeping beauty. You didn’t want a ridiculous prince role imposed on you.
Friends and furniture were divided. I found a flat and fucked myself up.
There were the months where I tried to keep functioning, I tried again to give my body to strangers and found that either I couldn’t or they wouldn’t take it. My back left shoulder blade burned as though pierced by a hot knife. The heart that would gently open, recognising the beauty of things in the world, remembering itself would suddenly close, tight. A fist. A sea anemone.
Then I met H, but the diaries and photos from that time have been rescued from my mother and the box.
What remains are old greyhound tickets, the paper ones and the laminated ones. We were so young and happysilly together. That trip. Most of that trip I took with me 20 years ago when I left. They are A4 black and white pictures. We are walking together. I am wearing some very ugly overall shorts that don’t really fit. I am looking at H with all my honest love. He is looking out into the world.
Last night, compelled beyond my very limited self control I had been on the telephone to Wesley. Emptying my heart and glass after glass of wine, I wanted my friend back... only he wasn’t my friend. The Wesleys of the world defy such labels. I don’t know what to call him.
Once we were, very definitely, friends. We had been friends for years. Wesley’s first true love was one of my few female friends. I found her in the box, smiling and lively and confident. He had gone to school with Salvation and somehow, GEOgraphically perhaps, I had been allowed them when we had divided the furniture and friends.
He heard my stories and I heard his songs.
When I came home full of the future but very much alone, Wesley’s first love had gone. When they divided furniture and friends, somehow, GEOgraphically perhaps, I had been allowed to keep Wesley. I had never been so frightened and unhappy in my life. I wanted the child that was growing inside me, but I couldn’t even look after myself. He, had been abandoned by the woman he had loved since he was a boy. Together we grieved our imagined lives.
We were consolation. He was the prize of my consolation. For months we listened to each other; he played, I talked. It was never too dark or too late. He touched me in a way I had never been touched, without wanting anything in return. I was safe when I was with him. He looked straight through my fears as though they weren’t there. He saw nothing to fix. I had lost him 20 years ago but he had found his way back to me.
And here we were again, broken. Not only was he outside the box, he was inside it too and I found him amongst the cruel evidence of my unwantedness. I found him with Malou, the girl who would be his wife, banish me from their lives.
The hardest thing to see in the box were H’s letters. The letters he wrote me when I had come home to have our first child. They filled me with fear and remembrance. Our pregnancy was the biggest mistake he had ever made. He had never been so desolate. He didn’t know what to say to me. There was no love in these letters.
Our finding each other, back then and now, should never have been a punishable offense. I had found consolation because I was alone. I had let it be a lesson. Evidence of my nature. No better than a stray dog in the park.
Then there was reconciliation. Hopeful baby footprints and messages infused with enthusiasm and optimism. Cards congratulating me on the birth of my first son. A beautiful, creative card from H to celebrate my birthday. And more baby footprints.
I came home again with two beautiful children to wait for H to grow up and be ready for us. I mothered them alone and I did it well. I returned to school part time. I began to learn french. I tried to be worthy of all of them. My books were here, proof.
He came back for us eventually. We started practicing being a family, first in Australia, then in France.
There was a card from my grandmother, now long dead, wishing me Bon Voyage. I had just come home.
~ Cinthia (Sydney, Australia, 1990's)
Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (New York: Laurel, 1969) 39. (qtd. in Lasusa)
At some point I stopped buying souvenirs. Keychains specifically were a weakness wherever I’d traveled in the past. As any collectible, it was never about function. After all, how many keys does one have? Even after all keys (and duplicates) are neatly secured onto loops and rings and other securing mechanisms, one is still left with more keychains than could ever be put to use. What I ended up with in my case was a set of interconnected keychains, each one holding onto the other for dear life. It was poetic in a sense – Prague holding on to New York City holding on to Florida holding on to Bucharest holding on to a seemingly random benefit for X charity.
And there they sat, locked and tucked away in a drawer, never to see the light of day for months and years at a time. I could not get myself to throw them away, but I also did not feel a tinge of some particular sentiment when I stumbled across them. At some point they had lost their ability to call back to a particular moment, to act as a relic imbued with some deeper meaning that would justify its preservation. It had, in other words, become mere accumulation – just stuff.
In “Eiffel Tower Keychains and Other Pieces of Reality: The Philosophy of Souvenirs”, Denielle M. Lasusa seeks to address some of the rationale behind our compulsion to collect souvenirs. Lasusa argues that along with symbolic value souvenir collecting sheds light into “one’s tacit employment of a methodology by which he or she builds an archive of personal history and gives himself or herself a sense of meaning. We find aspects of all of these philosophical issues when we begin to unpack the souvenir-filled suitcases of contemporary tourists.” This is how Lasusa begins her exploration of the meaning behind souvenir collecting, and it seems to me that it begins with a rather broad and assumption about the practice. First, she indeed raises it to a “practice”, something that has method and purpose, and therefore suggests that “collecting” is necessarily connected to a need to construct meaning.
But what if, for argument’s sake, we think of this practice not as “souvenir collecting” but “souvenir purchasing.” How would a simple change in terminology impact how we think about it? Is it possible then that purchasing a souvenir could be considered merely a compulsive “act”, a “re-enactment” if you will of what is expected of the typical tourist (much as the requisite photograph with the Eiffel if one should ever visit Paris)? Could such an act then be raised on the pedestal of a methodology by which we give ourselves meaning? Or has the act been co-opted by what we might call the conspicuous consumption of cultural symbols? If that is the case, then much like the person who cannot stop from compulsively buying new pairs of shoes that they might never wear and sit idly in boxes, we might have over time robbed “souvenir collecting” from its potential to signify anything else than the completion of rote behavior that does not register long after we have returned home and resumed our day-to-day lives.
That is not to say, of course, that purchasing souvenirs does not have significant meaning for many people. In many instances souvenirs are proudly displayed in people’s homes – from a miniature spoon collection hung on a wall to snow globes adorning shelves to thoughtful gifts brought home from a loved one. It also has significant impact that we often do not even consider when engaging in the act. When purchasing souvenirs, as Lasusa mentions, we must also recognize that “it is not necessarily [an] ethically benign activit[y]; there are myriad economic, cultural, social, political, and ethical implications of these modern behaviors in increasingly globalized world, each of which deserves critical evaluative judgments from various perspectives.” For example, and this is only one of many such critical approaches, tourism and its related activities such as the selling of souvenirs, often provides jobs to local peoples and plays a crucial part in the local economy, while also possibly sustaining unethical practices such as low wages and less than desirable working conditions.
Lasusa ends this way: “Perhaps these arguments will find fruition elsewhere—for, indeed, they are important evaluative claims which ought to be explored—but the fact remains that I, too, have done my fair share of souvenir collecting. I have a shoebox full of pamphlets, ticket stubs, postcards, and photographs. I, like the character of Kurt Vonnegut’s claim, am trying to construct a life that makes sense from the things found in gift shops. Thus, for the purpose of this essay, I am content to simply argue that souvenir collecting is, in fact, meaningful as a tool for the construction of the (post)modern identity—that it can, in fact, tell us something about ourselves and our world.”
I want to agree with the first part of her claim, that there are important evaluative claims to be made surrounding the reasons for why we collect souvenirs and the impact it might have beyond the acquisition of the “thing” itself. But I am not so sure that I fully embrace her claim that we purchase souvenirs because we are “trying to construct a life” and that it is always a “meaningful tool”. I am also not sure that I can disagree entirely, and this project itself is a testament to our belief in the importance of materiality to shaping one’s identity. What “I am content simply to argue”, to borrow Lasusa’s own words here, is that at times the fine line between meaning and meaningless makes it difficult to know how to approach and assess our relationship to material objects.
Does the fact that I keep a tangle of keychains (sans keys) in a drawer imply that they “mean” something to me? Do those objects play a role in “constructing” a life? Or do they simply (or perhaps in even more complex way) “tell us something about ourselves and our world”? Perhaps they tell us that someone is a hoarder, a compulsive shopper, a collector who resells for profit, and perhaps it helps shed light on the complicated relationships we have with the places and people we visit, and why it is necessary to have a “calling card” to prove one’s travels. I raise these questions because they are all possibilities, and because I’m still trying to make sense of – and to find out if there is any sense in – that 7-ball keychain joined at the ring to a carabiner stamped with the name of my Alma Mater.
And then there is the bottle opener keychain with a picture of the skyline of New York City, the iconic Twin Towers still visible. I assume that it was purchased soon after my arrival in American in the early 90s, an ironic calling card from a place where I would not leave again, and which I could only attribute to “it’s just what you do when you see New York for the first time.” And after that initial purchase it sat tucked away in various boxes and drawers, never actually used for anything – neither to hold keys, not to open any bottles. It had lost all function and all meaning. Today, excavated from its storage space, it has become once again an object with meaning, through no intention of my own. There was no tacit methodology behind its preservation, no trying to make meaning – that, I realize, it does now on its own in accordance with the course of history, of which we, and all of our things, are inextricably connected.
There are times when I am like a magpie, or to paraphrase Joni Mitchell, "a black crow flying...diving down to pick up on every shiny little thing." Of course, much of what I stop to pick up along a sidewalk, or perhaps while exploring a vacated apartment, is only shiny in my mind's eye. Take, for example, the cigarette break at work during where I passed what I thought to be a dark brown piece of corrugated cardboard in the alley. At first I merely thought about the ways that litter seems to gather and become especially prominent on blustery days, but as I was heading back something about the shape of it caught my attention. It was then I noticed that the object was actually plastic, a milk-chocolate-brownie-colored piece that looked as if someone had nibbled off its edges. On even closer inspection I realized it was the bas relief of a structure, a souvenir depicting Washington Cathedral, and not far from it were the two broken corners that completed its frame. I picked up and put the pieces in my pants’ pocket, wondering if someone in a fit of pique had hurled it from a window or if a gust had come through that person's cubicle and tore it off the wall. I could picture it sailing, a tiny raft, a bit of refuse on its journey, quite happy to be saved by a garbage picker who just happened to walk by.
What will I do with this thing? I don’t know yet. Maybe glue it together and use it for rubbings, for stencils? Incorporate it into some future art piece?
All of the spaces where I've lived have accumulated these sort of fragments, not necessarily organized in any sort of cohesive fashion, nor even stored intelligently for preservation purposes. I am a dumpster diver with snobbish aesthetics, a bag person with a strange artistic strain. There used to be some sort of guilt or shame about this, but as I've gotten older and as much of this detritus has found its place in various art projects, I've come to the conclusion that this quirk in my nature might be doing the environment some good and is far less macabre than it might appear.
On occasion I may be asked where a particular scrap originated from – an arrowhead, jewelry bit or old lighter holder depicting a jade whale – before winding up in a mixed media artwork, but many of these things now have a sort of mist about their roots, keeping their secrets like curves within sea shells. This is the case even for materials I have painted on and glued things to, for I am also a recycler of found canvasses and paintings that others have chucked. Sometimes I decide either to paint over them and sometimes I allow details of the original composition to come through.
I have two equally distinct memories of how I came across an old three-piece mirror I instantly recognized as a future “altarpiece”, but again there is that mistiness about location. It is the seeing and bringing home of the actual object that is most clear. The mirrors were still attached to the backing, their shininess giving them away in the darkness in a pile of trash. Solitary insomniac hours are a good time to rummage through what others have discarded.
In any case, vanity be damned (though I kept them and later used them as backings in makeshift tableaus) I wasn't really interested in the mirrors. They caught my attention initially, but it was the shape of the backing, the curves of the three panels, held together by a couple of somewhat rusty hinges that had really called to me. Seeing a potential triptych altarpiece in a junked mirror is just the sort of thing that gives me the frisson of creative excitement – the wondering about exactly what images would arise as I removed the mirrors for instance, or the technical aspects of canvas vs. paper as a surface for the backing. And there is also excitement in thinking that this choice of ultimately composing angels on the piece – the sweep of their wings, their eternal task such as dropping rose petals – was offered to me by what somebody else had tossed out.
The complete altarpiece is now stowed away in a zipped pillowcase in my own cellar. After I die it may one day find itself heaped with rest of my work on its way to a landfill, just another orphaned object among many. It seems to me the triptych acknowledges that fate with something like tender compassion and grace – and for that I am grateful.
~Stephen Mead is a New York-based artist and writer. His latest work is an art-text hybrid, "According to the Order of Nature (We too are Cosmos Made)". He is also working on a memoir, "A Thousand Beautiful Things", which consists of ruminations on the rooms where he resides and the objects they contain.
gerund or present participle: recycling
It is July 2014 and I am helping my aunt build an enclosure for a mother hen and a dozen or so chicks that are several weeks old. Up until then they had been kept indoors, in the kitchen, with an old cardboard box serving as shelter during the night. As the chicks grew they needed to be moved outdoors, and it was necessary to build them a larger enclosure where they would have access to more space, sun, and grass. I walk with my aunt to the back of the garden, to a spot that resembles a miniature junkyard complete with rusted pipes, broken doors, planks of wood, glass panes, plastic crates, and much more. This is where everything goes once it is no longer in use, either because it has broken or because it has been replaced with another. Everything has been exposed to the elements, sometimes for years, and some barely covered by a piece of corrugated metal. We rummage through the pile for what we need: a drawer without any handles, four lengths of rebar, wire meshing, a sheet of linoleum.
The drawer will serve, standing up, as the back wall for the makeshift chicken pen, but it needs a more stable foundation and the roof extended using other planks of wood that we pull out of the wreckage. And for that we need nails. My aunt points to a metal cabinet with more odds and ends and an assortment of containers with nuts and bolts, ball bearings, and nails. The only nails I see are in an old dominos wooden box, sans lid (see Fig. 1), and all of the nails inside are rusted and bent. I still remember the time it took sifting through those nails, looking for the ones in the best condition, then kneeling down on the pavement and trying to pound them as straight as possible with a hammer. Whether it was the nails themselves or the act of manual labor, that moment is inseparable for me from the memories it brought to the surface of my grandfather and the tool shed he kept when I was a child. As a young boy I was fascinated by all of the curious objects he kept in there and would spend a good amount of time picking through boxes and containers that seemed to hold nothing but old and broken parts of things. What I can still recall to this day is the smell of the place – of rust and metal – which working the bent nails rekindled for me. And I know that some of the objects we recycled into the chicken pen were once handled by him, functioning in their new lives as a link to the past – suggestive of what they are no longer, and also that we have changed as well.
My grandfather’s tool shed and the miniature junkyard in my aunt’s garden complicate conventional notions of waste and the phases objects pass through from use to neglect. They are also examples of attitudes toward recycling in the developing world as compared to what we might find in developing countries. More than a quarter century after the fall of communism, Romania is still the poorest country in the European Union, and for a significant number of its citizens in rural, farming regions, life is still a matter of surviving with the bare minimum. This reality forces us to acknowledge that to recycle in such places means a completely different thing than it does for you and me as we sort our used containers into paper, plastic, and metal to be picked up by the curb once a week. While we might be tempted to think of our actions as environmentally conscious or done with the best of intentions, we seldom consider that it is a luxury to even contemplate environmental concerns or where a tuna can might end up if we don’t place it in the correct recycling stream.
gerund or present participle: upcycling
In the West upcycling has become increasingly fashionable, a consumer fetish for taking trash and discarded items and turning them into upscale, often high-priced items of leisure and decoration. For example, alongside the rubbish heaps of Londons we might find artist Rupert Blanchard who creates industrial-style furniture from landfill-bound materials: discarded drawers, refuse plywood, used doorknobs and other hardware found at flea markets. In the United States, self-taught welder Raymond Guest takes vintage tailgates from Ford and Chevrolet pickup trucks, and along with repurposed wood and metal parts turns them in thousand-dollar benches for the backyard or your very own man-cave.
If you’re crafty enough, numerous websites have sprung up within the past decade or so catering to the DIY spirit and offering endless suggestions on how to turn old into new. One such site, Upcycle That: Upcycling Ideas and Inspiration (www.upcyclethat.com), has been around since 2012 and bills itself as “a resource for people interested in reusing items in innovative ways.” Among the hundreds of ideas you can find out how to make your own beer bottle lamp, drum kit lamp, egg carton flower lights, bottle cap portraits, and a slew of suggestions for turning wooden pallets into tables, chairs, storage containers, and more. What such sites geared to the everyday craftsman have in common with artists such as Blanchard and Guest is the assumption that one has either the luxury of time or money (or often both) to undertake such projects or afford them.
Ultimately, the ability to upcycle is a sign of privilege, of a freedom to choose a certain aesthetic that makes an ecologically correct statement. As post-communist countries are catching up to the West with its patterns of consumption and disposal of material goods, the move from recycling as necessity towards recycling and upcycling as a rhetorical statement is taking place. Upcycling, in its strive to turn exhausted material into a valuable commodity, foregrounds and celebrates the creator of the commodity more than the material, whereas recycling out of necessity does not concern itself primarily with the talents of its maker by focusing on utility. Consequently, repurposing objects in developing countries does not fit the decisive element in the definition of upcycling, namely, the upward move in the monetary value of the object, focusing instead on the object’s presence and its functionality. A woman in Eastern Europe using straps of cloth from old rags to make a floor rug does so without ever knowing that a similar rug would cost upside of $100 on Etsy.com. On the contrary, upcycling in the West, regardless of its (undoubtedly praiseworthy) power to promote responsible patterns of consumption, remains largely bound by its cultural status as fetish.
~Andrei & Natasha
Photos: Recycled/Upcycled scarves and pencil pouch made primarily from discarded Soviet-era workwear/uniforms.
It started literally with trash--discarded McDonald’s drink cups strewn along my street. Picking them up and recycling them didn’t seem to be enough of a response. Realizing that my obsession with trash and the fate of the environment could translate into an art show, I started to see something different in those drink cups. The result was by no means a foregone conclusion and ultimately was the least of the discoveries on the way to TRASH! a Collaborative Eco Art Exhibit at the Cooperative Gallery in Binghamton NY in June 2016.
El Anatsui of Ghana says, “I have a desire to manipulate the material to get something else out of it.” He creates elaborate and massive tapestries from flattened liquor bottle caps and other scrap paper. “I collect rubbish and create something beautiful from it. I collect something that has no value and give it new life,” says South African Mbongeni Buthelezi. Bryant Holsenbeck of North Carolina states: “I use these everyday items to make work, which transforms the objects and surprises us.” I was delighted to know that more accomplished artists had already articulated what I was beginning to appreciate about trash.
I was not alone in this sentiment as more than two dozen artists responded to the call for this show. Robert Skiba was one individual whose obsession with a material that is environmentally a toxic nuisance created something that show attendees called the “Dale Chihuly of Plastics.” Skiba created a colorful, fantastical “Vertical Garden” of cut up vitamin bottles in long fronds, leaves, and feathery shapes. (photo) Joanne Thorne Arnold created “something else” out of cardboard, a material so common as to be invisible, yet she found textures and details in the corrugation that surprised and delighted.
Rae Freeman-Doyle found a medium and a message in the form of six pack plastic that causes the death of so many marine animals. An oceanic gyre the size of Texas is whirling around the Pacific; her “Gyre Wave” uses those plastic bits to create the froth on stylized waves painted on a piece of scrap wood. Chuck Haupt, normally a fine art photographer, also found a message in “United States of Plastic” made of the ubiquitous plastic bags.
“But is it art?” was a question that I kept coming back to, and knew that gallery attendees would be thinking. My criteria was where it started: did the artist transform—and transcend—the material itself? Did the viewer see an intriguing piece of art, and then notice the material used? That second look, that delight in being surprised, is what I was looking for. Interspersed with TRASH! art were Chuck Haupt’s photos of bales of recyclables which kept art lovers grounded in the environmental concerns about the by-products of our consumer culture.
Artists have always drawn attention to society’s flaws and many artists have always been attracted to a cheap medium for their art. For example, working with plastic cups I created grid art with two inch squares of consumer slogans, reducing them to color and shapes. In the process I learned about the properties of plastics, in terms of malleability and adhesives. And, I confess, the trash that I loathed as I walked my neighborhood became prized materials for my art project. My perspective on the trash that had been there the whole time had shifted, however slightly, and maybe that’s what happened to someone wandering around the gallery in June. It would have been enough.
The pieces call to me and I must respond. They call me into attics and basements, to trash bins and curbs. Friends and family drop them off. Small wooden tables, chairs and stools, boxes and shelves. Often covered with dust or mold, chipped and warped, I can see their deeper selves shining through. I can feel their potential, their possibilities, their hope. So I pick up my sander, my wood glue, my paint brush and I begin to play. I never work on new pieces. They don’t need me or want me. Fresh new wooden pieces have their own journey. They will find me soon enough in this throw-away world.
I was not raised during the Great Depression but my Irish/Welsh ancestors were. Consequently, I grew up rinsing out used plastic bags and rinsing off used aluminum foil. My first husband broke me of the aluminum foil habit, but I still rinse out zip lock bags, turn them inside out, and hang the on the tall, narrow jars in the pantry to dry - looking like tiny slim ghosts having a standoff.
Growing up, my family tent-camped for several weeks every summer. As a child I automatically sorted the garbage into - what goes into the camp fire and what is recycled by the weekly trash truck that came through the campgrounds.
My mother made sleeping bags for my sister and me out of our father’s old Navy Pea Coats and she lined them with disassembled and reassembled real fur cast-off coats and muffs from the local Thrift Stores. It was so exotic to sleep outdoors on soft, shinny furs that had been rescued from a vastly different experience.
Like bringing them back where they began. Where they belonged.
When my first son was young, as a single mom, we scoured junk yards to find bicycle parts and triumphantly built him a beautiful multicolored bicycle. We learned the hard way that there are actually right and left peddles, but once we got that down there wasn’t a hill in the neighborhood he couldn’t take.
In addition to my furniture rescue, I now collect old abandoned quilts; hand sewn creative fabric stories of love and life from the past. I re-mend them, add a wild new border, fluffy new stuffing and quietly deliver them to adults and children who need a soft, unconditional hug.
Thou I am often saddened by the sight of an abandoned quilt or tossed out wooden stool, chair, or table, I can also see the beauty and value in spite of stains and tears, beyond broken legs, and beneath scratches and bruises. I can see their Second Chance.
We collect things. Most of them we stumble upon; others we seek out. Some of these things have value, but usually we like the way they look or feel or they remind us of something or someone special, so our home becomes their new home for a while. We also like to learn about things that other people collect. Talking to another person about their collection and handling the items is an intimate way to gain insight into that person because there is usually a story that goes along with each piece.
We occasionally use one or more of our objects in our photographs, but decided that we wanted to do a series using nothing but objects - a still life series. Maybe it was a way to justify our collecting but we decided to let them tell stories. There is not a single story for any image, but each sets the stage for the viewer to tell their own story. These images form a series we created using articles/objects collected by us and others, titled Implications I, in which two similar images of collected articles are photographed and interwoven, resulting in images that place emphasis on certain areas of or objects in the image or play with the viewer's expectations.
The first three images contain articles we collected - books, vessels, containers, keys, candlesticks, fabrics and other objects. "Dead Roses" (above; the rest of the images in the slideshow below) is set in the long-ago past, with its old brass candelabra and ancient books, one showing a period costume. The flowers are so old, they're dead. "Lilies" is reminiscent of a mother's or grandmother's home setting. It has a ceramic pitcher and candlestick, a baby picture, hand-embroidered table cover, a decorated lipstick case and a full and feminine arrangement of flowers. "Mixed Flowers" is more of a mixed bag. Depending on the viewer's experience, the setting could be more along the lines of shabby chic with its hand-embroidered piece contrasted with the heavier hand-woven piece, the ceramic pitcher next to the bone china sugar bowl, and variations in the flowers, as well.
The other three images show others' collected objects - primarily native art objects and wearables. "Cactus" is a friend's collection of art/craft objects from North and Central America made of natural materials, such as wool, trees, grasses and clay. Because of the smaller size of these articles, they are generally intended for decorative purposes, but could be
of some use. The collector was drawn to the skill and design of the crafts people and was less concerned with their functionality or collecting a specific type of article, nor is he actively trying to add to the collection. "Faux Flowers" contains some of the many items collected by Frank's mother and kept with her in her room at the nursing home until her passing at age 102. We decided to use these to create a biographical memorial of sorts. She loved wearables, every kind of clothing and accessory, especially hats. Though not all used here, most of the snapshots we found pictured her, including one from the '70s, wearing the tiara and another from the '90s, wearing the sombrero. Even the flowers and vase were found in a drawer in her room. A few of the hats and all of the snapshots became part of our collections after her passing. The rest of the articles were passed on to organizations so others might give them a home or decide to destroy them. "Tulips" is a memorial to Terri's aunt. She enjoyed costume jewelry, dress gloves and other accessories, collecting primarily in the late '40s and early '50s, after she graduated from nursing school and before she married. This collection included a set of cuff links and pin to wear with her nursing uniform and a durable, but stylish watch with a second hand that doubled as a tool of her trade. Again, a few of the articles became part of our collections after her passing; the rest passed on.
Each of us has our reason for collecting something. We might even have different reasons for collecting different things and might have different constraints on our collecting, such as space or money. These reasons are all personal, whether they are emotional, economic or aesthetic and are what make each collection a unique window into the collector's soul.
Terri St.Arnauld & Frank Yezer are Artists/Photographers who collaborate and live in Austin, TX. They work primarily with large-format film, printing in platinum or gelatin silver.
I consider myself a self-taught artist, a third generation color field painter with a passion for creating assemblages and visual poems on wood and paper using a wide variety of mediums and materials. My assemblages are puzzles, incorporating my color paintings and using found objects, the aged and broken bits of our culture's debris, that explore life and the world we live in. I like to think of my work as visual poems, a form of storytelling. In my work I juxtapose artifacts that are incongruous but that work together in an intriguing way around a central theme, which is sometimes serious and political, sometimes whimsical and humorous.
My collecting of found objects goes back to some of my earliest memories as a child picking up agates in the road with my dad back in Minnesota during the summer. He would line up the boys and we would walk down the road and talk and find stones as he would talk and tell stories. My love of telling stories must have originated then. In my teens I started to make what I used to call altars of junk in my bedroom on the book shelves; these were combined themes from my watercolor paintings, record albums, and cut outs from art books as the back grounds. Later, when I moved out on my own pad I was mostly playing in bands and I was living in apartments and so my walls became art pieces and again they all had found “things”… golf shoes, branches, shells, rocks and bits of wire, smashed cans and broken neon, lost photos, albums covers, my paintings, writings and poems I had written and cut out images from all over. As I would leave apartments I would throw big parties and give things off the walls to my friends and guests, making a crazy fun creative time of it. I would also save special objects for the new pad and start over again right away making a new wall. These grew into wallscapes which I use to do on 32x40 pieces of rag board and frame them in shadow box picture molding in the early 80’s. These were a larger form of the collages that I make now, which have 2 and 3 dimensional things on top of each other, creating a montage that fits into the theme (usually that becomes the title of the piece).
I still make all the frames for my work and if I have an idea that calls for a certain size I will make a box to fit the piece, always using found or recycled wood usually from a job site that I have worked on. These are lots of fun to make and are an endless source of humor and self-processing in my life. The act of constructing them helps me process our culture and all of the beauty and horror that is the world we live in. I love to do them and I feel it is the only way that I can survive at times. As I read and see the atrocity of the world we live in, man’s capacity to do harm to his fellow man seems bottomless, but at the same time it is equally amazing to see that man’s ability and capacity to be kind, loving, selfless, giving and generous to his fellow man is as deeply endless – something that we/I must never forget.
Having focused on making assemblages for the last 20 years I have become more refined and selective with the objects I use and also the amount of objects I use in each piece, paring down over time. This gives me a set size, boundaries and limitations to work within. As I quit playing music professionally and I started to work more on painting and house remodeling for my day job, I started to use kitchen drawers and scraps of plywood for my work and these became more of official assemblages. I am still working with the found and discarded scraps of our great beautiful ugly culture that we live in, and am using these as statements and reflections on our lives in the 21st century. Each piece is inspired by either my dreams, or what’s going on in my life and or the world we live in. When I work I listen to a lot of jazz, which influences my thinking along the way. In terms of the relationship between visual art and music, I have found that my work has evolved to be almost like a set designs for a play or operatic in design or as I like to say visual poems or puns.
Throughout it all, from my early days collecting rocks as a child to today, what has remained the same for me is the process: the making and doing, very clear direct action, no fear or second-guessing, deliberate thought and movement with intent. I’m at one with the universe when I’m in my studio working, and the universe provides what I need every time. If I need a fastener or a screw or an object to complete a statement then the world manifests it for me in my studio or somewhere in our house or yard. Now this might be because I have lived and worked in our house for twenty three years, but I feel it is also because in my life’s work I have become attuned to the world around me and when I reach out into the world I’m given just what I need to complete the piece that I’m working on.
See more of Hynes' work on our Artwork page, and at christopherhynes.com and lyrical-expressions.com
Remarkably, even the choice of materials that arrest the attention of boys and girls often seems to be gender-specific. Men’s memories cite playing with sticks, plastic pens, metal parts of disassembled devices, and such, and testify to the more aggressive way of playing with these objects as well. Women, conversely, often choose “softer” materials, whether taken from nature or household objects, and play quieter, slower-paced games:
A piece of tube… aluminum, or maybe copper or steel, 5 to 10 millimeters in diameter. Any boy would give a lot for one of those. I was lucky to have one: it used to be a towel hanger in grandma’s bathroom. I sawed it, gave a third to my younger brother, and kept the rest. The guys were jealous: the tube was big enough so a small crab apple would fit inside and you could shoot it from the tube. It would hit far and hard. A weapon! …
Ruslan Dautov, Safakulevo, Kurgan region, Russia, 1990s
Many factories were shut down, and all the equipment that was not sold or stolen was thrown out to become children’s property. From the variety of gadgets that we found and played with, I especially remember lamination stacks from electric transformers: base-metal hunters would disassemble transformers, steal the copper parts and throw away the lamination stacks. Each of those stacks contained a huge number of metal flats in the E-shape. You could twist them into new shapes or assemble things from them, and they also flew really far if you threw them.
Enot, Sevastopol, Ukraine, 1990s
When I was younger I remember using my sister's old baby wipe boxes to build more houses for my Barbies, and to give them a car. I would stack the boxes on top of one another, and arrange different pathways to be the Barbie's room, nursery, kitchen, etc. When Barbie needed to go from point A to point B, all she had to do was hop in her car or baby wipe box and drive there.
Katie, Chelsea, AL, 1990s
When I was a girl of 6 - 7, I remember how we played with my girlfriends a game called daughters-and-mothers or something of the kind. People lived rather poorly at that time and if we had dolls we didn't take them out of doors, we cherished them and kept at home. Nevertheless, we had something even better to play with outside in the yards and gardens: earcorns! Do you imagine what they look like? A long body and a mess of real brown hair on the top - Barbies of our childhood!
Galina, Lebyazhje, Kurgan region, Russia, 1960s
Even though games as described above seem the epitome of conformity, they, too, allow for a self-guided exploration of various roles and models of life. Playing through pretend social situations prepares for a smoother transition into adulthood responsibilities and the many challenges of domestic and public lives. “Trying on” various identities through engagement with material objects facilitates construction of personality, likes and dislikes, and building of relationships to both things and people. What’s more important, however, is that sometimes it is exactly such trying on of cookie-cutter identities and roles that prompts one to look further, to approach things from a different perspective, to look for alliances in the object world that are better suited to express one’s identity.
Many of the games children play serve the function of acculturation into adult life. Several of the stories from The Afterlife of Discarded Objects are about mimetic play: “mimesis,” or imitation of the real world, essentially means mimicking the socio-cultural reality as it is, creating a representation of life in art, literature, or, in this case, games. Children playing with discarded objects that once belonged to the adult world often do so to “try on” adult lives, inhabiting the vast territory of social structures and relationships that has created and made these objects necessary in the first place. Many stories recall playing pretend grocery shops, families, professional lives, etc. More often than not, as Roland Barthes made clear in Toys, such mimetic games emphasize gender distinctions as children are socialized in the gender roles and prescribed behaviors that are reinforced through objects. For example, several recollections by men from different countries feature war games of their childhood:
When I think back to my childhood on the farm in Alabama my mind is drawn back to my brother and I sword fighting in the yard. We had vivid imaginations of war and military strategy, and with a broken tree branch or an old golf club as our swords we were unstoppable.
Austin, Lafayette, AL, 1990s
[…] Some of us used tree branches as automatic guns and played war. To make a good gun, you needed to find a stick with a thick end that looks like a magazine, and then carefully shave the rest of the stick against the fence. The cut off tree branches were also used to make roofs for the snow bunkers that were guarded by kids with those same tree guns. We made bombs and grenades from snow… do not confuse with the snowball game: we firmly believed that we were throwing grenades, not snowballs.
Alexander Yakovlev, Magnitogorsk, Russia, 1980s
Women, on the other hand, have shared memories centered on games that mimicked domestic life: cooking, housekeeping, or caring for others:
We used to go around garbage hunting with my friends and then used it in our games. Though sometimes the process of garbage hunting was interesting by itself. As we were girls we used the things we found as "interior design" and household objects in our makeshift houses. I think regardless of time and place, all girls like this process of setting up home.
Anastasia, Grozny, Chechnya, 1990s
My dad has parked his work truck in the same place every day for the past twenty years. Because of this, grass simply would not grow in that small spot near the side of the house. Every morning, after he left for work, I would make my way outside. I would dig through the trashcan under the carport and pull out Styrofoam plates covered in maple syrup, forks stained red from spaghetti, and cups with the coffee ring still in the bottom. The bald spot in the yard my dad used for parking was always a gooey mud pit. I would make my way out with my new treasures and use the mud to make food. Until the sun was sinking behind the clouds, I would imagine new recipes of fancy foods or trying to make things my Grandmother did.
Kennedy, Woodland, AL, 1990s
The power of objects is that, while serving as props in our games, they sometimes reveal to us something about ourselves that we did not know before. Leo Racicot’s story (Lowell, Massachusetts, 1950s) is one such testimony about a discarded object that, through play, prompted an early self-discovery.
Leo’s story features a fox face fur neck warmer that used to belong to his mother. While it was hanging in the dark closet, Leo says, it looked frightening to him: “It always looked as if it was trying to say something to me - or was I imagining it?” Yet Leo’s attitude changed drastically when he one day found the fox fur thrown away in the trashcan behind their house:
"It looked so suddenly there not scary but scared. My mother had deemed it no longer worthy, not useful. Maybe it had hit her how strange it was to wear a dead animal around her shoulders, how apart from the rest of her clothes the fox fur was, misunderstood, somehow 'other.' I went all sad inside yet didn’t know why. After all, hadn’t these same eyes scared the hell out of me? Hadn’t the mute face refused for so long to tell me what secrets it held? But I hated that the fox had been thrown away as if what it had once meant now needed to be forgotten."
Suddenly moved by the appeal of the fox fur, perplexed by his own strong feeling towards it, Leo salvaged the fur from the trashcan, of course, then hid it from his mother. There in the safety of the house it remained, until some time later:
"The rare day came when I was alone. Hot, hot day. I put the mink over my shorts and summer shirt, wrapped the fox face fur around it, stuck my too-small feet into a pair of matching pumps and ventured outside.
The fox and I came alive.
Parading around the yard in my mother’s clothes. Loving the delicious click-clack of her high heels on the sidewalk. Loving the fox against my neck. It smelled like fur and perfume. I sashayed back and forth, back and forth. I was Audrey Hepburn at a movie premiere, Angela Lansbury in Mame. The world fell away. I was invisible in my discovery of 'me.' The fox felt almost unbearably lush against my face."
The story gets even more dramatic as a neighbor spots young Leo’s parade outside the house, calling him “a sex maniac.” Regardless of the consequences, though, the newly formed bond between the person and the thing proved to be lasting:
"I saved the fox face fur for years, a talisman of sorts, a protector. It freed me to be myself because it was so very boldly itself, a sly thing, an ugly entity that was, in its essence, a beautiful one. I could not bear to see it relegated to the trash heap of someone’s fickle disregard. Once I accepted its oddball charm, I knew what it had been trying to say to me. I gave it back its life and in return, it told me mine."
Faced with the otherness of objects, we become more attuned to otherness per se, more tolerant and open to experiences and sensations. In a world where formation of identity is guarded since the earliest stages, the role of free play is hard to underestimate, and so is the role of objects that act as catalysts of discovery.
I find it significant that in Leo’s story, the change of perspective happens once the status of the object is changed: from a treasured decoration to a discarded, lost object rejected by reason but rebelliously and “boldly itself.” The fox face fur is a perfect example of a discarded object “in the process of becoming”, which comes with an unprecedented freedom: they can be anything, and defiantly so. Broken, in various stages of decay, transformed into an oddly shaped entity that at times does not yield recognition, discarded objects possess what I believe to be an intrinsic ludic quality, exactly what helped young Leo imagine, through play, possibilities of identity.
Many of our contributors share stories about making things from trash. For example, Piter from Togliatti, Russia, remembers spending hours crafting presents as a child: “I loved to make holiday cards from whatever materials I happened to have: sticks from ice-cream, melted aluminum, bits and pieces from ribbons, old beads, glue and paint, feathers, grains, plastic straps from some old boxes. I could spend days creating just one card. I must have had a great attention span back then, sitting over my handiwork for days on end.” For many, a favorite childhood pastime became a welcome hobby as an adult, allowing for a creative outlet and a way of self-expression. Omnidoll from Garden Grove, California says, “The skills and eye for small things I gained then assist me now in repairing old dolls and making dolls for my renewed pleasure as a grown up and to give pleasure to children and adults whose dolls I fix. I am grateful that I did not lose my ability to appreciate overlooked objects.”
My friend who lives in Yekateringburg, Russia, has similarly carried over an ability to create worlds from simple things to her adult life. She makes hand-made teddy bears that look vintage, using pieces of old cloth, “real” antique details and accessories, such as buttons, and following old-style blueprints. Her teddy bears are aged on purpose: stitches are made to look worn out, there is some patching and special treatment to elements such as brooches to make them look older. Essentially, artificially aged things are “fake authentic,” appealing to the allure of mystery that surrounds old things. However paradoxical, they are aesthetically pleasing, creating a welcoming enchantment.
This aesthetics has become popular only recently in Russia, as fashion and public taste gradually turned away from the glamour of the new and towards appreciation of antique, weather-beaten things. In the early 2000s in Russia, resentment against the hardships and poverty of the post-communist years took an extreme turn: those were the years of the so-called Putin glamour, which glorified an expensive, swaggering lifestyle. Everything had to be new: clothes, furniture, accessories, which meant that everything old was ruthlessly discarded if the owner had a slightest opportunity to replace the old thing with something new, even if it was cheaply made (not unlike the transition from the 80s into the early 90s in the former GDR, as depicted in Goodbye, Lenin!). People were in a hurry to discard the past, hastily replacing the old self associated with poverty and stagnation with a new, shiny façade.
This was, of course, one of paradoxes of the ways in which societies assign value: now, only a decade later, Russian culture caught up with the West and its much more nuanced understanding of the value of old things. “Vintage” and “antique” things are now in fashion.
My memories of childhood in Romania tend to be dominated by a mute color palate, more often than not entirely monochrome. While the exact reasons for that elude me, I attribute some of it to the fact that during the 1980s Romania was still a communist country, largely disconnected from the rest of Europe and the rest of the world, and commercialism had not yet taken a foothold in the country as it would following the revolution of 1989.
That year marks the fault line in my imagination when everything seems to have suddenly turned bright and colorful. As soon as the Ceausescu’s were overthrown and communism had fallen, so did the country’s borders, giving way to an influx of consumer goods from other countries. What stands out most to me about these products is how colorful they were compared to what for me had appeared mostly bland and dull. Another side effect of the advent of consumerist culture during the early 1990s was trash. The eye-catching packaging for all of these goods that we now had the chance to purchase and consume unfortunately ended up by the side of the road.
Again, it is difficult to recall for certain if before the revolution there was simply less trash on the street or I just did not pay attention to it (as with the monochrome memories of my childhood), but I remember quite vividly how the trash suddenly appeared as out of nowhere. Among the discarded items the things that caught my eye the most were used cigarette boxes and soda and beer cans. They looked cheerful, designed to catch the eye, and were decorated with lettering that seemed exotic simply for the sheer fact that I did not understand the language. And I wasn’t the only one. My friends and I, ranging from about seven to ten years old, started collections of empty cigarette boxes and beer cans. We traded them the way you would trade baseball cards. If someone had a double they would trade it for a box or can that they did not have. I remember that Marlboro and Kent cigarette boxes were pretty common, so it became pretty difficult to trade those.
Of course we kept all of these treasures in our rooms, never thinking twice that we were actually collecting garbage. Part of that could be because we did not have that concept, of waste/trash as something that dominated the imagination. I realize now that we simply did not know any better, we were part of a society still feeling its way through what we could roughly refer to as Western culture.
And having been closed off from much of it for so long, as children we also had little knowledge of the dangers associated with playing with such things. Our curiosity was often satisfied by playing with whatever we could find outside, and since we had found these items technically outside they seemed fair game. So did something else that we came across immediately following the revolution, which, looking back now is not as innocuous as the discarded boxes and cans we scavenged from the trash.
During the violent revolution, or right after (details were never established), Romania received quite a bit of aid in terms of medical supplies. For reasons yet again that are elusive, many of those supplies never made it to their destinations or to the places that needed them. Boxes of these supplies, specifically syringes and needles, ended up being dumped right outside of the capital, Bucharest, along the road that lead to the village where my grandparents lived. The boxes naturally were found, opened, and their contents scattered far and wide. Eventually some of the items came into our possession since as kids we had few limits in terms of where we could go and what we could do (Romania, as I was growing up, had a relatively low crime rate and playing outside was not only considered safe from morning until night but actually encouraged). I can still remember how fascinated we were by those syringes and needles. We divvied up what we found and kept them next to the other treasures. Sometimes I played with them as miniature water pistols. When recently I helped my mother administer some medicine to my three-year-old nephew using such a syringe I was tempted to show him the possibilities. I refrained, until he’s a bit older.
Of course I realized only much later how dangerous it was to play with those medical supplies. The cigarette boxes and the cans of beer or soda could have contained germs. The syringes much worse. We were lucky in a way that our experiences with such items was temporary. But around the world too many children play in environments where they cannot avoid encounters with waste products, where sanitary conditions mean that a plaything could very be the source of disease. For someone such as myself, now living in the US, waste is a byproduct, trash is something used and discarded and I have the choice and luxury to avoid it if I want to – for others, that choice is not entirely in their hands.
Here are a couple of other stories about playing with medical supplied that have been shared by contributors:
We lived next to a children’s hospital, and once I found a big glass syringe next to the hospital dump. The tip and plunger of the syringe were metal; it was fun to play with. I brought it home. When my father saw it, he asked me where I got it from, and then gently suggested to throw it away, promising to buy me a new one.
— Maria Bochegova, Kurgan, Russia, 1980s
Once my friend and I (we were 5 years old) found a surgeon’s toolbox in a dump. There were so many treasures in it! Syringes, scalpels, only not sharp, and a whole lot of different clips and what not. We played doctors for a whole month before our parents found out and confiscated the box.
— Olesya, Sevastopol, Ukraine, 1990s
Sound might not be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about discarded objects, but it is one of the ways that we mark our initial interactions with the world – the first wail of a newborn, the cry for food and attention – and it is also the means by which we form some of our earliest memories (the sound of a parents’ voice for example).
Sound has also been traditionally regarded as one of the most important of our five sense from an evolutionary standpoint in terms of survival – it is sound that most often alerts us to danger, makes us perk up our ears and pay attention, even recoil in fear. It is no surprise that sound plays such a crucial role in filmmaking, with sound effects at the core of horror films, but also playing more subtle role to trigger sensations and affect mood ranging from anxiety to melancholy to jubilation.
Sound is considered to be so important to the expression and preservation of who we are that in 1977, aboard the Voyager 1 spacecraft, the United States sent into space a collection phonograph records called The Voyager Golden Records. The records attempt to present a sense of life on earth for those who might encounter the disks at some future date: they include 116 images, a variety of natural sounds, including surf, wind, thunder and animals (including the songs of birds and whales). It also includes musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings in 55 ancient and modern languages.
In July 2015, NASA uploaded the audio contents of the record to the audio streaming service SoundCloud.
You can listen to record here: https://soundcloud.com/nasa/sets/golden-record-sounds-of
Interesting to note is the inscription borne by the records, which alludes primarily to the auditory aspect of the concepts, though more than just sounds were included: "To the makers of music – all worlds, all times".
(continued after the images)
Maybe there is something about music, about sound, that serves as one of the more accurate representations of life. Sound in a way inscribes for us some of our most cherished memories, be it the laughter of a loved one, a certain song that takes us back in time, or reminds of a certain place that is imbued with nostalgia. As much as sound inscribes a person, place, or emotion within us, it too must be inscribed by the object it represents – it carries within it the reverberations, the distant echoes of the thing that created it.
In composer Amanda Berlind’s evocative “found sound” montages, New York City comes alive through a labyrinth of suggested memories and associations. Each of Berlind’s three compositions below are created using snippets of sounds recordings made around New York City. Or, as she puts it: “a pile of recorded sound from around Manhattan, with this sorta relentless piano part I improvised over the top (and a few fragmented violin lines I had a friend play), organized with lots of panning.”
In Berlind’s arrangement that pile of sound takes on a shape and dimension that transcends the realm of sound and essentially sculpts images of places, people, and things within the listener’s mind. Upon listening one is confronted by notes, but also by a park, benches, people possibly on benches or strolling along, birds, and most certainly a squirrel is there too, overflowing city trash bins, irate truck drivers traffic, people crossing the street (most likely jaywalking), etc. In all likelihood, the things that were recorded and preserved by the sounds in Berlin's pieces have long disappeared or are no longer present in the exact same condition that they were captured in. Therefore, the sound records that we have of these items might be the only traces that we have of the once existent material reality.
Unlike many songs where the lyrics themselves might reference such material objects yet we do not necessarily dwell on them, Berlind’s sound assemblages not only call to mind the materiality of the sound, but forces us to make associations and build a world for them to inhabit, the imagination ping-ponging back and forth between things – a world of felt sound if you will.
And much like the Golden Records, or any sound recordings for that matter, Berlind’s creations serve as messages in a bottle, time capsules, preserved representations of time and place.
What we have to remember, however, is that unlike the Golden Records, which were created to travel to outer space and possibly last billions of years, our rather humble efforts at recording and preserving sound comes with a limit. As MR from Istanbul, Turkey wrote of his experience recording his voice as a young child onto cassettes, “All these cassettes, with old Turkish pop songs that were replaced with my creations, are unfortunately lost now.”
Best thing to do is listen, enjoy, and trust our memories.
The first time you encounter Dina Kelberman’s project titled I’m Google, you can’t help but fall under the spell of scrolling through what seems like an endless stream of colorful, aesthetically pleasing images. Of course, that’s the point, and it performs its task to stunning effect. We invite you to explore the site here, but we warn that you might easily find yourself absorbing hundreds of images in one sitting: http://dinakelberman.tumblr.com/
While the sheer spectacle of the project if what initially drew us to it, our interest in its function goes beyond that. It is interesting to think of Kelberman’s project in these terms: a carefully curated archive of found images of things that may or may no longer exist. Given the sheer number of images available online via a simple Google search, one assumes that many of those images have existed and might still exist only in digital form, meaning that they were never developed/printed. Some, we assume, were taken using cell phones, existed for brief periods of time, were uploaded online, after which they were deleted from the device. Therefore, the digital image is all that remains as a record of that object in that exact state in a moment in time. Some of the objects, as evident in the series Kelberman has provided for the Artists page, are indeed “trash” and can be assumed to have been discarded, buried in a landfill, or otherwise destroyed beyond recognition of original function/intent. As such, the afterlife of these objects exists solely in the virtual realm, digital specters of things.
As Teju Cole writes about photography in his article for The New York Times Magazine, “Memories of Things Unseen”, “when the photograph outlives the body — when people die, scenes change, trees grow or are chopped down — it becomes a memorial. And when the thing photographed is a work of art or architecture that has been destroyed, this effect is amplified even further. A painting, sculpture or temple, as a record of both human skill and emotion, is already a site of memory; when its only remaining trace is a photograph, that photograph becomes a memorial to a memory. Such a photograph is shadowed by its vanished ancestor.” He gives examples of Van Gogh’s ‘‘The Painter on the Road to Tarascon’’ and Courbet’s ‘‘The Stone Breakers’’, both of which were destroyed during World War II and survive only in photographs.
Photography therefore can preserve and make available for future generations everything from priceless works of art, historical artifacts and monuments, or your family ancestry. Whether photographic records of boxes of packing peanuts will also be regarded with the same kind of reverence as the works above is to be disputed. But the photographs are there. And upon viewing they tell us something about themselves, and maybe about us.
Below is a brief interview conducted with Dina Kelberman.
Artist’s statement about the project: I’m Google is an ongoing tumblr blog in which batches of images and videos that I cull from the internet are compiled into a long stream-of-consciousness. The batches move seamlessly from one subject to the next based on similarities in form, composition, color, and theme. [… ] I feel that my experience wandering through Google Image Search and YouTube hunting for obscure information and encountering unexpected results is a very common one. My blog serves as a visual representation of this phenomenon. This ability to endlessly drift from one topic to the next is the inherently fascinating quality that makes the internet so amazing.
Q: I’m Google consists of curated “found” images that you come across during Google image searches. Many of us spend hours on the Internet, often quite uselessly hopping from one site to another, but in your project you seem to have taken going down the “rabbit hole” of the Internet and elevated it to the status of an art form – in other words there seems to be a logic and rationale behind it, even if it might not be readily apparent. This logic manifests itself in the curatorial aspect of the project, which takes place when you select a series of related images to form visual relationships and patterns. You write in your artist’s statement on the CUE Art Foundation’s website that, “In close examination of the simple or the seemingly insignificant the viewer may bring their own limitless associations.” To what extent are you as the artist performing this search and subsequent arrangement purposefully guiding the viewer’s perception and interpretation of the images, as far as some kind of meaning might be gleaned from their arrangement? In other words, when faced with the seemingly limitless potential of choices of found images, how do you choose what to include and what to discard? Do you consider the images’ ability to suggest a certain concept you had in mind, or form particular emotions or ideas?
Like many of my projects this started out as pure self-entertainment, I was collecting images I liked and realized I could string them together in this way and just kept doing it. So I never really thought about what it would be like for someone else to look at it much until way later when other people started looking at it. The choice process is just my personal preference, so I guess if I’m trying to get anything across it’s just my own aesthetic. I do like that about this project, like someone else could do the exact same simple thing and it would look entirely different, that’s nice.
Q: On a related note to the above, the project’s associative properties at times give it a story-like quality. Much in the way an essay or even a short story might work and be propelled forward by “turns” in the narrative (even imaginative leaps), I’m Google similarly contains “shifts” (at seemingly regular intervals) from one set of closely related images to another. And it is within that shift that one sense most palpably the artist’s hand in the curatorial process, in the indication of a “turn” of the eye and the mind. How do you decide when a certain set of images has played its role and you need to move on to other objects to feature?
Oh I just get as many as I can possibly find and then weed them down to the ones I think are most undeniably beautiful. Sometimes there’ll be one that I love but it just clearly doesn’t fit the mix and has to go, stuff like that. But some sections end up longer than others, it’s not a specific amount I’m going for intentionally. I have folders of stuff I keep ready for if I can get to a place to put it in, so sometimes when I know where I’m going transitions or middle-ground clumps can end up faster than the times when I have no clue how I’m going to get to a next thing.
Q: One of the goals of The Afterlife of Discarded Objects is to function as an archive for individual stories and works of art that in some way serve as a testament to our consumerist culture and our complex relationship to “things”. In one sense, Google itself is the ultimate archive of all things relevant or irrelevant, but our project and yours seek a kind of organizing principle to the vast amount of “stuff” out there. Yet, we can’t overlook the fact that what we are organizing the things themselves but representations, mere digital traces. How do you explain and reconcile with this drive to curate and organize things that are in essence “not things”?
I have never thought about that at all. I definitely would and have been a hoarder if I had the space. It’s way easier to hoard jpegs and youtube clips!
Q: Whenever I type I'm Google into a search box I find that I can’t help but mouth it in silence in my own head – the “I” becomes me, “I” become the term itself – essentially inhabiting the phrase. And, in a way, I realize that maybe we’re all “a bit Google”. Was that part of your intent? To what extent do you believe that we have we become our digital selves? Are we indeed “Google”, or is the separation still possible?
Hahaha oh god I don’t know. I just thought it was a funny title because it seemed like an arrogant way to describe creating my own image archive and it also didn’t quite make sense.
Q: Partially related to the question above, you make note in your artist’s statement that you gravitate toward simple, concrete, everyday objects in your work, and that can be said for much of I’m Google. Why do you think that is? For someone who admits to spending quite a bit of time in front of her computer, why the interest in the mundane, familiar materials? Is there some relationship between the Dina whose work very much exists in a digital form and the Dina who values seemingly insignificant material objects?
Oh yes the relationship is that we’re the very same person haha. It relates to the hoarding thing above I guess, I would totally collect a huge junkyard of objects and bulldozers if I could. Definitely my main obsession in life is colors, and there’s something particularly nice and innocent about the use of bright colors in stuff that’s designed more for function than form. Like how every object in the uline catalog is exquisitely beautiful. Also I just really like in art when I can understand all the parts, like I’m more interested in a sculpture made of things I can identify than special materials I’ve never touched before. I like being able to imagine how the objects came together, what it was like to make it, I want other people to be able to imagine that with my work I guess. There’s an art 21 episode about one of my favorite artists, Jessica Stockholder, where she’s talking about her materials and she’s basically like “look at this plastic bucket, it’s just so beautiful look at it!” and that is also how I feel.
Q: German artist Joachim Schmid is known for his series of books of other people’s photographs. Dubbed as a “professional looker”, he’s been at it since the 1980s, presumably having looking at hundreds of thousands if not millions of images since. On Lensculture.com, Jim Casper writes about Schmid: “Using other people’s (often mundane) photographs, he crates artwork that is alluring, intriguing, and captivating. He revels in photographs that other people throw away in public, especially if they seem to have been discarded with some animosity or intense feeling. He is very much a modern day anthropologist who tries to understand contemporary cultures by studying its visual garbage.”
That description seems in part to resonate with some of the underlying impulse behind I’m Google, Your own project began in 2011 and is ongoing, ostensibly geared around “found” images. While the impulse to look and to collect what others discard (even digitally speaking) can be attributed part to curiosity and voyeuristic tendencies (the Internet as a place to see and to be seen), how do you personally explain this fascination with “other people’s things” or “other people’s stuff”?
Because there’s a story to other people’s things and the farther away you get from knowing the actual story the more interesting it is because you can just spin out imagining what the story could possibly be and you probably won’t have the disappointment of ever finding out if you’re wrong! It’s also what makes weirdo people so interesting, that even if they explain to you like why they made a drawing the way they did or something if can be so far from how your mind works that trying to imagine how they made certain connections is just endlessly fascinating. Right now as I write this I’m staring at a baffling drawing my good friend made that fits into this category perfectly and I think I will be able to stare at forever.
Caught up in this constant cycle of improvement and increasing speed (which undeniably has its benefits) there does not seem to be much room for nostalgia or regret over that first PC you owned that took several minutes to boot up and connect you to the World Wide Web via dial-up connection; and one would also assume that you’d be hard-pressed to find many people waxing nostalgic over the original iPhone, however revolutionary it was in its time. But there are certain pieces of technology that still have the ability to suggest and trigger memories of “the good ol’ days”. An old black and white television set, the kind with a dial and rabbit ears that had to be positioned just so might remind us of times when the entire family used to sit around the set to watch live programming (replaced among other things by brilliant flat screens, TiVo, Hulu, and Roku).
And, as Max from New York City recalls, so do video game consoles. Max writes: “I got a GameBoy Advance when I was 6, a SP, DS, DS slim, GameCube, Playstation 2, Playstation 3, and PSP throughout my life.” What Max remembers most, however, are the consoles and the game cartridges themselves, the solid objects that made the gaming possible. What he wanted most as he grew older and moved out was for his mother to save those items. But, over time, and due to his parents’ divorce, many of these items disappeared, “probably gone, lost in a nook, cranny, or fallen through a grate in the sidewalk.” Or, chances are, simply thrown out with the trash.
In an era when gaming is increasingly moving online and serious gamers connecting virtually across the world in real time via their computers and consoles, what seems to be disappearing is the kind of connection that Max had forged with his games. Early game systems such as Atari, Nintendo, and Genesis, just to name a few, required a certain bond between player and game, one of ten mediated through the consoles and the game cartridges themselves. Any child (or adult) can attest without fail to the various creative techniques employed to make a faulty Nintendo cartridge work inside the console. This includes blowing directly into cartridge, and if you couldn’t do it the cartridge went around the room until everyone took their best shot, using different angles, force, speed, etc. Robert Fee at the website Mandatory.com enumerates 12 steps to the process, each one more absurd and hard to fathom (by visiting the link to the complete story you can also get Fee’s more detailed and humorous explanations for each):
What Fee outlines above is part of what made playing those games both frustrating and enjoyable. The consoles and the cartridges mediated the degree of fun to be extracted from the game; they required active engagement, and sometimes a communal effort. Touching a certain game, pushing it into the right slot, and slamming the flimsy door shut activated an entire network of sensations, and by extent they became etched into memory. Those kinds of games are soon to be a thing of the past, much like record players and cassette tapes (more on those in another post). What will replace them are ever more ingenious and elaborate bits of software we could access via dedicated websites, and ever faster processors hidden inside ever more efficient laptops. While it might sound a bit sentimental to pine for the video game culture of the 1980s, one can’t help but feel that something is lost when you don’t have to blow sideways into a Super Mario Bros cartridge or jiggle it just right for those pixelated plumbers to appear on your TV screen. What that loss is might differ for everyone, and if it’s not a video game cartridge as it was for Max, then maybe it’s something else, another object that time has made obsolete but which we’re not yet willing to forget.
Among both artists and contributing writers, a popular method of engaging with discarded objects has emerged in their contributions – the collage, diorama, or the shadowbox, all of which share techniques and stylistic features.
Wendy Stewart’s piece “The Revising Angel” (North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada: 1970s) is related to a diorama entitled “A Place for Everything” that she displayed at an art exhibit in London, Ontario in 2007. Stewart gives us context for the diorama, which she acknowledges is autobiographical: "It’s the story of the lullaby ‘Hush, Little Baby,’ in which the singer bribes the baby not to cry. As each promised reward turns out to be unsatisfactory—deficient, broken, fake—a new bribe is offered. ‘A Place for Everything’ imagines what would happen if, instead of discarding the objects that fail to please, the mother holds on to them. The singer—worn out from trying to deal with all the stuff—is the one who falls asleep, and the baby triumphantly escapes the chaos of her home. All of the substandard objects mentioned in the song (lyrics below) are present in or on the house, which is an old herb garden starter box—stamped “Versailles”—measuring 11” x 3.5” x 3.5”. Stewart explains that most of the items in the diorama are recycled from the household of the Smalls, the family of dolls her essay ‘The Revising Angel’ discusses. The rest are toys from Christmas crackers, gum machines, and the dentist’s treasure chest; magazine and candy-box cutouts, etc.
We encourage you to read the complete story under the Interactive Map feature, a written record of a child’s (and now an adult’s) relationship to discarded items—both typical and highly unusual—that were turned into playthings. And since many of those items no longer exist (the Smalls were, after all, “throwaway people”), the story is all that remains. (Continued after the image gallery)
Stewart’s story “The Revising Angel” refers directly to two tiny angels decorating a gift that she received as a young girl. But it but could also be interpreted as a reference to Walter Benjamin’s concept of the angel of history, especially when considered alongside the diorama. One of the diorama’s conspicuous features is a small plastic doll perched on top of the box, presumably looking down at the pile of rubbish/rubble down below. This gesture eerily echoes Benjamin’s description of the angel of history. In his ninth thesis in the essay "Theses on the Philosophy of History", Benjamin describes Paul Klee’s 1920 mono print thus:
"A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."
One can’t help but look at that toy doll, facing down, and see Benjamin’s words manifested: “he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet”; and “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.” In Stewart’s rendering, the angel (cherub?) is both protected by a makeshift helmet, a toy pan, and also vulnerable as she is facing the world stripped of any clothes. And, in a touch of irony, the angel leans on an oversized trophy, a testament/monument to all that is “sweetest”, but also in its toppled state a caution that those sweetest things do end, pile up and grow skyward. Still, one has hope that the word "Revising" in Stewart's title means we still have a say in how things turn out, or at least in how we remember them.
*A challenge from the artist: In “Hush, Little Baby,” Mama (or Papa, or whoever’s singing) promises Little Baby a series of rewards in exchange for not crying. See if you can find, in the diorama, all the rewards promised in the lullaby:
Hush, Little Baby
Hush, little baby, don't say a word,
Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird.
And if that mockingbird don't sing,
Mama's gonna buy you a diamond ring
And if that diamond ring turns brass,
Mama's gonna buy you a looking glass.
And if that looking glass is broke,
Mama's gonna buy you a billy goat,
And if that billy goat won't pull,
Mama's gonna buy you a cart and a bull.
And if that cart and bull turn over,
Mama's gonna buy you a dog named Rover.
And if that dog named Rover won't bark,
Mama's gonna buy you a horse and a cart.
And if that horse and cart fall down,
you'll still be the sweetest little baby in town.
Here we highlight featured stories from the archive, contributions by fellow writers and artists, as well as reflections and comments on the value and impact of discarded objects in our world.