I am a voracious consumer.
I hanker after knowledge that will provide insight into the way we live, so my consumption habit is not for material things, but rather for information. The New Scientist is a favourite read so when it featured a nine-page special on The Meaning of Stuff (29.3.14) I was captivated.
My viewpoint on consumption is skewed by science – the questions why and how occur frequently – only ever partially answered in my research as theories become disputed and overturned by specialists.
“The rise of a biographical approach to things has documented the myriad of taxonomies, uses and valuing regimes that objects can move through before they reach the end of their lives, if they ever do. Framing things as rubbish doesn’t just help us eliminate things from our lives, it also helps us experience the fantasy of self sovereignty and ontological separateness”.
Gay Hawkins, The Ethics of Waste (Rowman & Littlefield 2006).
Anthropologists suggest that our historical nomadic lifestyle prevented a great accumulation of possessions. The first hunter-gatherers slowly evolved to carry fire, tools and clothing, starting to mark themselves out as individuals by garnering objects that reflected status and skills, as they travelled. This “extended phenotype” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Extended_Phenotype) proposed by the eminent scientist Richard Dawkins, adds weight to those archaeologists who argue that our sense of self was established early and its sophistication distinguishes us from other animal species. As a sedentary lifestyle developed it allowed the accumulation of possessions and defined hierarchies within communities. This form of society nurtured a material culture where the display of tokens of grandeur and power reinforced respect and authority – evidenced in the wearing of fine clothes and jewellery. The level of sedentariness drove settlers to accumulate more goods and more livestock to insure against disasters, which entailed acquiring containers for hoarding and buildings and pens for housing the animals. The gradual sprawl of settlements can easily be linked to the history of food, as discussed by Carolyn Steel in Hungry City (Chatto & Windus 2008), whilst embryonic politics and economies emerged with goods being bartered to oil the wheels of peaceful relationships with neighbouring communities.
“The consumer age is predicated on the idea that we no longer consume to live, but live to consume. This ideology of consumption determines how individuals perceive and interpret the world around them; making consumption the dominant social paradigm.”
Hidden Mountain: The Social Avoidance of Waste , Edd de Coverly, University of Nottingham, Pierre McDonagh, Dublin City University Business School, Lisa O’Malley & Maurice Patterson, University of Limerick
Today, we clearly recognise that the possessions we buy tell others about our extended selves. It is not simply about owning things but which things – the right things – this of course changes depending on who you are. Objects reveal “Who we are, where we have been and perhaps where we are going” states Russell Belk, York University in Toronto, Canada whilst Catherine Roster at University of New Mexico, Albuquerque suggests that they are “repositories of ourselves”. She believes that the value can vary significantly from each individual and that its material value does not always influence the actual value to the owner. Here an emotional underpinning is prevalent, starting very early in babies as revealed in their relationships to basic things such as a favourite blanket or toy.
Humans get emotionally attached to certain possessions – usually those that hold sentimental memories. Scientists have found that triggering an emotional response to an object will lead to greater sales of goods. The current innovative project Shelflife, run through Oxfam charity shops, is cleverly tapping into this theory by enriching an object’s narrative through the potential purchaser being able to digitally read the story behind it on an Oxfam app. http://shelflife.oxfam.org.uk/how_it_works/
Andy Hudson-Smith in the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London originally devised the project in 2012. Hudson-Smith reasoned that a digital society could connect with the story buried in the physicality of an object and thereby tap into an emotive thread, but through electronic means. The idea has led to an increase in sales for Oxfam and a widening of the project’s scope to include more retail outlets.
So how does this information inform and guide my art practice?
My own struggle against the fabrication of ‘stuff’ is well documented, made particularly difficult as a sculptor driven to create yet not wanting to contribute to an already ‘over-stuffed’ world. Consequently, my practice ethos is to work with existing objects whenever possible so not to contribute to the mountain of possessions but instead to seconder and reinvent. The conceptual underpinning is vital leading an approach that demands the innovative use of found objects and a considerable amount of searching for that particular metaphorical ‘thing’. Cognitive battles ensue with a rewriting of the discarded and their repositories of memories redefined.
“We are embedded in our trash – there is no way to leap beyond it and build a utopia without garbage, to address the contradiction between the world’s limited resources and our seemingly unlimited ability to manufacture trash. Its production is rooted in survival, represented in every culture, and magnified by economic success. To purge the earth of garbage would be to destroy our own reflection.”
John Knechtel, Trash (Alphabet City Media Inc 2007)
My passion for the tactile and the eroded emerges in sculpture that in its corporeality reveals brooding degradation: the peeling layers inviting a meditation on the narrative exposed. The work appears in distress – juxtaposing incongruous matter to create visual poetry is precarious. Balancing a metaphysical perspective to harmonise or argue with scientific evidence is challenging. This disputed landscape is inhabited with vigour until I retreat leaving the work to command its own domain.
“Artists don’t aim for a reductive simplicity but they, too, have an encompassing sense of what Coleridge called ‘cohaerence’ – ‘the clinging together’ of all the elements in a work to make some kind of whole which is psychically satisfying. This is not to suggest that there is an ultimate fixed reality to be found but the artist’s personal vision will re-inform and reinvent a view of it, sometimes honing in on things that are apparently redundant and inconsequential and paradoxically presenting us with a coherent reflection of a corner of reality that we perhaps should not overlook.”
Siân Ede, Art and Science (Taurius & Co ltd 2005)