Object expressions panel: insights and reflection

Object expressions panel, research in process

By Tom Lee

The five expert panelists were seated on stools at one end of the room. At the other end, a projector screen to show images relevant to their talks. The audience faced each other in two wings in black plastic chairs.

The panelists bought objects to show the audience while they spoke and these were displayed in waiting on smaller stools at their feet: a miniature nawi, an oyster shell, a tool case, three knitted cushions, a wooden stool and a toaster. The panelists also discussed motor bikes, boomerangs, t-shirts, a bodged-together animation production studios and mobile phones. Members of the audience interjected with talk of broken fences, children’s rubbish sculptures, punctured nylon trainers, landscape and supermarket fruit displays. States of consciousness were discussed, the qualities and implications of cultures of abundance, and what kind of role materiality played when giving form to objects.

A group of fifty or so humans together in a room, assembled to talk about repair and design in relation to different objects and certain categories of expression. To what, exactly, had we gathered to bear witness? Had we come to encounter the truth, like those expert witnesses assembled to view scientific experiments in the early days of The Royal Society? Had we come out of interest or curiosity—those less profound though perhaps no less influential feelings that have been central to the development and dissemination of knowledge? Would consensus, dissensus or revelation determine the insights that emerged from the collective? Would the gathering produce newness, certainty, or ambiguity? Would transformation or conservation set the agenda? Were people expecting to fall in love with objects, like the fawning crowds at product launches of new Apple products? Or was the spectacle contingent on the panelists, who were widely known as charismatic and knowledgable figures in the diverse yet connected vocations they had been nominated to represent? What role would the space play, the free food, and the conventions and expectations associated with gathering for such purposes in the context of a university? What conclusions might a future historian draw upon encountering evidence to which these strange proceedings attest?

In my introductory comments on the night I alluded to what Michael S. Carolan has called “tactile spaces” in which “individuals can experience for themselves the phenomena around which knowledge claims are being made” (2006). While spaces of deliberation involve the articulation and defence of values and knowledges, tactile spaces involve the experiencing of those values and knowledges as tangible phenomena.

The discipline of design at the very least ought to put itself in the position of having to convince the broader community it has a key role to play creating forms of experience that will help with the cultural change less tangible forms of deliberation have struggled to catalyse. It was through such a lens that I hoping to interpret the panel and I hoped the audience would share in this perspective.

Three related concerns emerged in my mind while the panelists told stories about their chosen objects and the discussion started to unfold: 1) Would it be possible to converge on a higher-level set of insights in an event with such a wide-ranging brief? 2) What was revealed in the absences, in the objects and people that weren’t in the room? 3) How had my requests of the panelists shaped the content of the discussion?

My key insights from the events emerged in concert with these and they are listed below:

1. Object as transformation and story

Most of the stories told by the panelists were stories of transformation. Objects weren’t typically discussed as stable, unchanging entities that endured through time. Whether it was a dress, a motorbike or a midden, the panelists gave meaning to the things they discussed through narratives of transformation, even to the extent that it became hard to know what to call some of the objects—a midden is simultaneously a shell, a place, a practice and the source of a useful composite material; a dress can be patterned fabric that takes drastically different forms over a century which is then encountered again as pieces of cloth. One interesting exception was an old toaster, which a panelist described as representing the end of an evolutionary line; a now seemingly esoteric artefact, fossilised in time, and interesting due its mildly freakish form.

It’s hard to say what conclusions can be drawn from this, aside from: meaning attaches to objects that persist through time, persistence if often contingent on change, and change and storytelling go together.

2. Ceremonies of repair

Related to the above, the panelists and the audience returned regularly to role that ceremony played or ought to play in our interactions with objects, particularly with regard to repair. One of the panelists talked about “building preciousness into objects” and another discussed a family ritual of taking broken or damaged items into the garage where they were stored until the right moment arose to repair them. We often don’t have the time to repair things immediately. The time to repair and the places where things wait for repair is in this sense outside the flow of practices that make up everyday life. Not having adequate ceremonies associated with repair is perhaps what often leads people to feel they don’t have enough time (or indeed space) to repair broken things. Repair cafes, maker spaces and mens sheds are one way to offer places of ceremony where repair can be practiced, but there’s lots more scope for innovative thinking in this area. Bunnings take note: maybe weekend ‘repair show and tells’ will be the next sausage sizzles!

3. Elephants in and out of the room

The panelists were all experts who had specific practical and theoretical acquaintance with design. This clearly shaped the way they inhabited the world, particularly with regard to objects. I couldn’t help but wonder how different the stories might have been if the panel hadn’t been curated from a community of practice where design is the orienting concern. One of the distinctive and remarkable aspects of the event was the sense of a group of people whose ability to be articulate depended on objects and for whom objects really mattered. Nonetheless, my sense is that the apparent specialness of the select group is better conceived as exemplary, rather than exceptional in this regard. Which is to say, in general, people care deeply and have much to say about objects, even though this might not be as explicit or sophisticated as in the case of designers or design academics chosen to speak on a panel where they’ve been asked to prepare stories about objects. 

4. The smartphone exception

I asked a question during a break in proceedings about the kinds of objects that weren’t being discussed. I had in mind the inconspicuous everyday interactions we have with anonymous, mass produced objects. Surely most of our lives are made up of interactions with such objects, rather than special objects about which it is easy to tell stories? In response to my question, one panelist mentioned the smartphone. He noted that the smartphone was involved in so many moments in his life, from the important to the mundane. But people tend not to think of their phones as special, as they might a special item of clothing, piece of furniture or accessory. Is this because phones are a relatively recent species in the long history of objects evolving alongside humans? We haven’t yet learnt how to love them? Is it because like televisions and computers, smartphones are less valuable as things in themselves than as interfaces for media content? Plenty of people get excited about the latest Iphone and not only due to its functionality. But it’s harder to imagine repairing and caring for a phone for long enough (how long do you need?) for it to become precious. It seems like a chicken and egg situation: time equals preciousness and preciousness equals time. To some extent this seems to be changing. People are apparently keeping their phones for longer. Perhaps the days of planned obsolesce will end up being a blip in the long history of personal computing? Perhaps the latest device will continue to become less important than the latest software? Who knows. Apple are still making a killing from the hardware but targeted forays into other business interests–TV streaming services, for example–maybe hint at some anticipated wobbles in the future. 

5. Intergenerational repair

Parent-child relations were mentioned several times during the event. Specifically, the relations that obtain between parent and child through the medium of an object: a gift from a now deceased parent that was being repaired (the woven cushion covers), an object rescued from soon-to-be-rubbish that symbolised a connection with a parent (the maternity t-shirt rescued from the ragbag), or establishing rituals of repair with children by dedicating specific times and places for the practice to take place (taking items to the garage for repair). I like the idea of framing repair as way to mend and maintain connections through friends and family. This would hardly be a novel idea in cultures other than the twentieth century Anglo traditions—to use a broad brush stoke—were agency and autonomy between generations is often prioritised at the expense of spatial and emotional intimacy (sometimes for good reason!). Framing the repair of an object as an indirect though intimate way to materialise a connection between generations is a narrative that might have some broader appeal.

6. Avoiding the issue

While issues to do with the environment, sustainability and consumerism loomed in the the background for much of the discussion, it was nonetheless striking how the tone of the event was set by placing an emphasis on positive values concerning connections to objects. This might be something worthwhile to consider if this project seeks at some stage to offer strategic insights for mainstreaming the right to repair movement in Australia. This was further confirmed during Jesse Adams Steins “Can we talk about a right to repair in Australia?” panel, during which John Gertsakis and Guido Verbist both echoed the importance of paying attention to the cultural distinctiveness of Australia and what is likely to motivate middle Australia.

7. Aspirational repair

Although he didn’t come on the night, one friend replied in an email about the event that he had been thinking about the category of ‘aspirational repair’ which described his relations with “items that you hold onto in the hope that sometime you’ll get around to fixing them, but usually don’t”. Understanding repair in the context of what people aspire to do but don’t because they don’t have the time, space, tools or skill seems like an interesting way to make sense of contemporary issues associated with the practice. Finding ways to help people realise such aspirations seems like a good place to be doing some problem solving.

Works cited

Carolan, Michael S. 2006. “Ecological representation in deliberation: the contribution of tactile spaces,” Environmental Politics, 15:03, 345-361.

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