Tom Lee explains how the Repair and Object Expressions panel emerged as an idea:
Although I can’t remember where it originated, something smelt right about the idea to host a panel on the different ways we relate to objects after I had an interesting corridor conversation with a colleague about the taxidermy collected by her ex-husband, which decorated the walls of their small apartment in Potts Point. While many of the details of this conversation are now lost to me, I do remember a particular image that involved her daughter hanging her school bag on the horns of one of the animals, perhaps a deer of some sort, and the sadness and disappointment she experienced upon discovering that her father had sold the item, her favourite in the collection, without any prior announcement.
The conversation was provoked by a tweet of mine from some days earlier, which read: “If anyone is buying a birthday present for someone in the next couple of weeks I would love to have a chat with them for something I’m writing. PM if interested. I will buy coffee and treat/ or lunch.” My colleague had recently purchased a birthday present for her daughter, and when she mentioned this to me in passing, after having read the tweet, I began to explain the broader project of which the tweet was part, specifically the idea that there are different frames of reference or genres, which in part determine our feelings towards objects, and which objects themselves give us the ability to feel: it is far easier to feel like you have given a gift when you have a gift to give and our sense of giving is enriched by subtleties of the things we choose as the mediators of our gratitude and affection. One of the other so called genres I had in mind, as well as ‘gift’, was ‘collect’, and it had inspired a reflection on behalf of my colleague about her days living among the taxidermy specimens collected by her ex-husband.
What this encounter—and many others like it—confirmed was the intimate connection people have with certain objects in their lives, particularly when those objects are understood as part of ceremonial or ritualistic acts. It seems that access to those ever elusive notions we think of as properly human—such as ‘identity’, ‘subjectivity’, and indeed, ‘the human’ itself—are made tangible through acts or practices in which objects are central—practices like repairing, giving, collecting, disposing, refusing, designing, acquiring, destroying, hiding, and no doubt many more.
This is hardly an earth shattering insight and is well-known, of course, to anyone who has studied, read or practiced anthropological research. Nonetheless, there is a resilient tendency to ignore and degrade objects in many humanities disciplines and in popular discourse derived from them. While subjectivity is celebrated, to be made an object is degrading (this is perhaps a bipolar correction of the contrasting tendency in the sciences to emphasise the objective at the expense of the subjective). Furthermore, in cultures of abundance there is an uneasiness associated with the emotional investment in objects. Sentimentality and fetishisation are often spurned, and the widely used but poorly understood notion of consumerism often obscures whats really going on when people hand over money to get closer to things.
As a writer and thinker, I am never very good at tackling something head on, so when investigating the relationship between design and repair, it seemed appropriate to explore these two object-oriented practices through a set of other, different-though-related practices. I’d always found the commonly trotted out binaries of broken-versus-working—or, if you’re a Heideggerian, ready-to-hand and presence-at-hand—to offer disappointingly impoverished picture of the complex, experiential interweaving that goes on between human subjects and the things that compose our lives. A list of nine different categories seemed to go some way in accounting for the multifariousness of our object experiences (and are there any other kind of experiences?), though even the categories themselves are simply proxies to structure dialogue. My hope is we end up having all kinds of leakage and mixing in-between categories that is interesting more for its poetic dynamism than its semantics.
Since organising the panel, two encounters with different panel members have reassured me of the decision to host an event where people organise their thoughts and feelings by speaking with things and the practices they convoke. One panel member informed me, that after being invited to participate, she dreamt about a particular object. A notion which reminded me of Ian Hacking’s brilliant paper titled “Dreams in Place” (2001), which discusses the perhaps paradoxical centrality of dreams in the history of ideas associated with modern notions of objectivity—paradoxical because this tradition of thinking has worked so hard to distinguish between what is dreamt and what is real. Nonetheless, dreams persist within western knowledge systems as events which give access to the real, whether in Freudian psychoanalysis or investigations of REM sleep. I’d always been particularly fascinated by the reference Hacking makes to a certain Amazonian people who plan their dreams before they sleep in the hope they have a dream “that bodes well for some future concern”. I could already sense the significance, indeed the credibility and authority, that this particular panelist would bring to her story with the help of her dream.
The other panelist with whom I spoke had decided on her three objects, more or less. Immediately, as she began describing her first object, I realised it didn’t quite fit into any of the categories I’d nominated for the panel, but was too good an example, based on the spirit of the event, not to warrant inclusion. It was an object she’d rescued from a bag of rags, due to be thrown out, which evidenced a connection between her and her mother, as well as being thematically associated with her PhD thesis. Nine categories were now ten, with ‘rescue’ a late addition based on the sentiment that particular examples transcend the categories we have arranged for them.
Event details: Repair and Object Expressions
WHO: Alison Page, Andrew Simpson (Vert Design), Catriona Fisk, Simon Von Wolkenstein, Chair: Dr Tom Lee.
WHERE: Design Innovation Research Centre, University of Technology Sydney, CB15.02.22, 622-632 Harris Street, Ultimo NSW 2007
WHEN: 26 September 2019, 5:30 – 7:30pm
BOOKING: Free event. Register here.