Havruta: The Bureau of Suspended Objects at the Contemporary Jewish Museum
January–July 2016

Two people in a museum hallway looking at wooden a display case, which has three separate display sections, each containing a handful of decorative and household objects

For the Bureau of Suspended Objects at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, I collaborated with window designer Philip Buscemi (of Ken Fulk) to create a display that elaborates the concept of the original B.S.O. project at Recology SF in 2015. I proposed to collect and research three categories of objects -- new items from stores like Target and Walmart, things I currently own (including childhood objects), and items salvaged from the dump at Recology -- and Philip designed the case and display. The idea for the installation came from an incidental visit to Walmart with my mother in the midst of my residency at Recology, when it occurred to me that Walmart night be the dump, and that Recology (where I collected things in an old shopping cart) could be considered the store.

The installation includes one book per section (available collected into one book here as well as at the CJM bookstore) with dossiers on the objects' manufacturing location, corporate history, original and current value, etc., as well as an essay that accompanies the exhibition. It also includes two videos of "suspended objects" exhibited side by side: one of containers and ships at the Oakland port, the other of the public disposal area at Recology.

This exhibition was one the CJM's series, Havruta: In That Case, which is based on the Talmudic study principle of havruta, the study of religious texts by people in pairs. For the series, the CJM pairs artists with professionals from outside their field.

Read a review of the show in the SF Chronicle here.

visit the BSO @ CJM archive  

Below a large logo for the Bureau of Suspended Objects, a shelf containing three books, one for each section of the display case
the leftmost display section, showing objects from Walmart, including a small piggy bank, a black and white striped mug, and a clear glass pumpkin-shaped candy jar
the middle display section, showing objects belonging to me or my parents, including a Japanese fan, a peanut-shaped box, and a large pinecone
the rightmost display section, showing objects from the dump, including a blue rollerskate, a red rotary telephone, and a plush goldfinch
a closeup of the leftmost display, showing a Monopoly mug, red sparkly children's shoes, and an LED fountain a closeup of the middle display, showing a miniature wooden piano and a teapot shaped like a nude woman a closeup of the rightmost display, showing an empty bottle of Delaware Punch, a ceramic figurine of a pig in a bikini, and an empty bottle of sake An overall view of the installation including the wooden display case, the shelf of books, and two wall-mounted video monitors showing footage of the Oakland port and the dump

The Bureau of Suspended Objects at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

This essay appears in the catalog of items in the installation.

In the summer of 2015, I was an artist in residence at Recology, a recycling, composting, and resource-recovery facility in San Francisco. My project there was to archive as many items as I possibly could, photographing each one and spending hours researching its manufacturing origin, company history, and more. I called this project the Bureau of Suspended Objects. The question guiding my research was: what are the circumstances (cultural, economic, emotional) that account for the existence of this object in the world?

Objects in “the pile,” as we called it, had been not only discarded but stripped of all of the context that might make them legible as functional or desirable products. I would find a 1940s-era barber’s latherer next to a My Little Pony toy from 2014, or the 1973 edition of Divine Principle next to a half-eaten cheeseburger. When I picked up an object to put in my shopping cart, it suddenly stopped being trash. At the end of my residency, when I returned my archived objects to the pile, they became trash yet again.

As a result, I experienced what was originally a reversal, but then a total flattening, of valuation. Stores seemed full of trash and the dump seemed full of products. I realized that there was no such thing as trash, only the movement – mining, manipulation, configuration, distribution, marketing, merchandising, hoarding, hiding, forgetting, putting into a trash bin, driving to a landfill – of objects that, with a few biodegradable exceptions, will never go away. “Trash” and “not trash” became abstract distinctions. Especially given that we often hang onto things after they’re broken or sort-of broken, the moment of “becoming trash” is not a material transformation but an emotional one that happens in the mind. From the point of view of materiality, there is no trash – or, everything is trash the minute it’s produced.

It was around this time that I began to think about my old job at Gap Inc, which had been to photograph floor sets in a staging area for store display communications to all of the Gap retail stores in North America. Every month I watched the visual merchandisers I worked with open boxes of samples from India and Bangladesh and fold or hang them in studied arrangements. This new layout of objects enacted a transformation wherein the pieces of cloth were now worth $50 or $60. I thought too about the Prada and Louis Vuitton window displays I would see downtown after work, and how those objects would have a completely different reality to me had they been encountered not on a subtly lit plinth but strewn across the concrete floor at Recology’s public disposal area.

Walter Benjamin, a thinker I have returned to time and time again, was also fascinated with store displays. The all-consuming project he was working on up until his tragic and untimely death in 1940 was, in fact, a study of the Paris arcades – something like precursors to the modern mall. With his collections, Benjamin practiced a form of analysis of images and objects intended to produce “a historical object that has been ‘blasted free’ of history’s continuum.” He seemed to be uniquely aware not only of the weight of context upon objects, but also of how objects (once unmoored from that context by a sort of alienated analysis) could be mined for messages from the past – and for utopian impulses ultimately betrayed by capitalism.

Besides rendering all objects equally surreal and “historically interesting,” this process of unmooring lets us see the object not as a product – treated like a product image on a screen, which disappears when it stops working – but instead as a hard crystallization of material and circumstance. What I have borrowed from Benjamin is the treatment of objects as evidence. Things produced today speak more volumes of the era we live in than we will ever be able to recognize in our lifetime. For instance, one day not too far in the future, the public disposal area will be full of iPhone 5’s: their screens, processors, SIM cards, transceivers, and motors; their gold, silver, platinum, copper, neodynium, europium... and those phones will be fossils of a time when a company called Apple contracted a manufacturer named Foxconn, which had not yet left China for cheaper sites in India... and so on.

At Recology, my task had been to lay bare my collected objects as specific intersections of time, money and material. But what the project was missing was the other side of the coin: the ways in which objects are invested with (and divested of) not only of financial value but of emotional meaning. Just as remarkable as the transformation that happened when I put a piece of “trash” into my shopping cart, or when one of my coworkers at Gap laid out a certain (now suddenly desirable) dress, is the one that happens when we have lived with an object for a long time or otherwise assimilated it into our emotional lives. Undeniably, the object takes on an aura that cannot easily be explained, or valued on eBay for that matter. In order to address the role of desire and sentiment in our reading of objects, I needed someone who knew how to manipulate meaning through arrangement, staging and visual elements.

For The Bureau of Suspended Objects at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, I was very fortunate to be able to collaborate with the talented stylist and window designer Philip Buscemi. Philip and I created a “cabinet of curiosities” with three sections: new things bought from big box stores like Walmart and Target, objects that belong to me or that I grew up with in my parents’ house, and objects that I found at the dump. The goal was to provide enough visual consistency that not only would each object receive its due consideration, but the emotional valuations both given to and taken away from them would become palpable. I subjected the new and used objects to the same analysis that I had practiced at Recology, while Philip went about designing the display. The result is not only visually pleasing, but has the same surreal effect as semantic satiation (saying the same word over and over again until it sounds strange). These unassuming objects, finding themselves briefly in the spotlight, become like mirrors. Reflected back at us are all of the human desires, associations, and expectations that occasioned, and still filter our perceptions of, these strange and specific configurations of material.