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The Bureau of Suspended Objects at the Palo Alto Art Center

During the summer of 2016, while an artist in residence at the Palo Alto Art Center, I ran a version of the Bureau of Suspended Objects that collected and archived unwanted objects from visitors, who contributed everything from a sock monkey to an unopened bottle of 1990s Glenfiddich scotch. Contributors also filled out carbon copy forms about the objects' (former) significance; the yellow copy was returned to them along with the B.S.O.'s research on their object.

From October to December, visitors to the B.S.O. exhibition were allowed to claim one suspended object to take home at the exhibition run. Their claims were indicated with a "red dot" typical of gallery sale. To my surprise, by December, most of the objects had been claimed. Claimants also received the B.S.O. archive tag for the object, as a reminder that they were receiving not only a functional object but a piece of conceptual art. <<more info>>

The project known as the Bureau of Suspended Objects began while I was an artist in residence at Recology SF, a waste and material recovery facility in San Francisco. The B.S.O., a one-person organization, is concerned with archiving as many discarded or, in this case of this version, about-to-be-discarded objects as is reasonably possible, photographing each one, and doing extensive research into the details surrounding its origins. In our encounters with mass produced objects, they can easily seem like a given. The goal of my research is to posit even (or especially) everyday objects, physically solid as they may seem, as instead highly unstable intersections of material and economic flows.

At Recology, although I was often able to provide a detailed picture of the object’s origins, the part of its life in which it was owned – what it meant to someone, where they kept it, why they had thrown it away, etc. – was obviously not available to me. Therefore, I did not expect personal, emotional investments in objects to be a major part of my project, which was more about manufacturing and global networks. But at the opening for my Recology show, I saw people wax nostalgic over items like the Western Electric 500 model rotary telephone, the Nintendo Entertainment System, the bank ledger from 1906. It was clear that even in their orphaned states, many objects were still able to speak of their places in a collective cultural memory. It was further clear that the phrase “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” far from being a conservationist platitude, actually points to the deeply subjective system of valuation that we apply and re-apply to objects that may or may not be considered trash at any given moment, by any given person.

In the beginning, “suspended objects” meant the objects that had been completely stripped of context and that I found in a monstrous pile of debris at Recology. But following the residency, finding myself shopping at big box stores like Walmart, considering the objects from my childhood at my parents’ home, or passing by the containers at the Oakland shipping port, I began to think of all objects as suspended wherever they were. From a certain standpoint, most objects are constantly – if slowly – in motion on a trajectory that proceeds generally from a manufacturing facility to a landfill. Of course, such motion is not always linear, as things may be repaired, re-sold, etc. And even within this spectrum, there is very rarely a point past which something is irreversibly trash. In fact, things at the store often looked like trash to me, whereas things I encountered at the dump were full of value (to me). It seemed more accurate to say that either everything is trash the minute it’s produced, or nothing is trash at all. Whether something has the label “trash” applied to it -- whether it’s seen as undesirable, unneeded -- is an indvidual emotional decision that more often than not is completely divorced from the material reality of the object.

These thoughts led me to a proposal for a new version of the Bureau of Suspended Objects, to be carried out at the Palo Alto Art Center in the summer of 2016. Put simply, instead of acquiring “trash” from the dump, I would acquire “pre-trash” from visitors: objects they’d been meaning to get rid of for a long time. (“Something where it’s only a matter of time,” I told them.) Upon giving me the object, visitors would fill out a detailed form about their object and answer a few questions from me. These questions had mostly to do with the owner’s relationship to the object, their reasons for acquiring it and (now) disposing of it, and the level of guilt they felt in doing so. I then photographed each object and researched it in the manner characteristic of the B.S.O., typing up my findings on a 1970s Royal typewriter that I myself have almost gotten rid of many times since high school. In return for their contribution, each visitor received a packet containing the archival images, the B.S.O. research, and (if available) images of the object’s production.

The last step in this meditation on value and the symbolism of objects happened during the exhibition of the Bureau of Suspended Objects, where I allowed visitors to place red dots on any archived object they wanted to take home at the end of the exhibition run (a few of these visitors are shown above). Some visitors had already requested objects in advance, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the most intensely desired objects were ones whose owners cared the least about them. Furthermore, the specific characteristics or potentials of the objects that drew these visitors to them were completely different from the things their owners had perceived in them. It seemed that in many cases, an object was simply more legible to one person than another – for instance, being able to identify a Steiff bear, or having seen the movie Kung Fu Panda. I can’t stress enough that these differing perspectives changed the way the objects appeared in a very real way.

What I hope visitors to the exhibition took away from this project (besides a useful or pleasing object) is that waste is as much a psychological issueas it is a material one. Of course we should learn to recycle, but we should also learn simply to look at our own objects, and carefully. Doing so might lead to the (inherently, if subtly, anticapitalist) recognition of the symbolic function of objects – and the ways in which they all too often form the physical collateral of changing desires and circumstances.

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