The Stories of Objects

The Museum of Contemporary Craft (MCC) in Portland currently has an exhibit called Fashioning Cascadia: The Social Life of the Garment.  This exhibit, according to the website, aims to understand “all aspects of the design and production [of apparel], as well as those forging new production models based on locally-sourced and produced supply chains.” This is more or less what we have been calling an ecology, although we are interested in the artisan lineage through and between industries. But it’s the exhibit’s second objective that serves as the basis for this post: the exhibit hopes to explore the “social meaning that becomes embedded in garments.” Well, so do we.

Garments are, of course, the material object of the artisan’s craftwork – the actual tangible work that fashion artisans produce. In general, theorizing about artisanal work must include a space for these objects. Based on our research to this point, we would be shallow to claim that artisans and makers produce objects solely in order to exchange them for money or wealth. We believe that during the creative process, the density of meaning transferred from artisans to their product is rather high.

Transferring human qualities to objects is a familiar concept; Marx, for example, pointed out that humans transferred value to objects through their labor, which entitled them to ownership. For Proust, it was time (memory) that became embedded in objects. Walter Benjamin sought the traces of collective human intention that became embedded in objects through the dialectical process of becoming and disappearing. He studied ruins and places in decline (specifically the Parisian Arcades) because these material places could be nothing other than honest about the course of human history.

Benjamin conceptualized human experience as the way in which one interacts with the material objects around them. The materials they interact with become imbued with stories – stories of struggle and political angst, but also of optimism and utopian visions of the future. As a collection, these stories say something about how society constructs itself at the moment of an object’s production, and in the right light those stories can be revealed to the attentive observer. Importantly, the object is produced in such a way that the subject – in our case, the artisan – reveals something about their perceptions of society. Taken as a whole, perhaps we can say that the production processes of artisanal objects is a barometer for human imagination at this particular time in history.

Returning to the aforementioned Museum of Contemporary Craft exhibit, one facet the museum features is a blog called Sentimental Value PDX that is based on Emily Spivack’s project of a similar name.  The goal of the project is to reveal the stories that give clothing its value. Interestingly, the stories on these sites are told from the point of view of the eventual owner of the object rather than the object’s producer. While our research generally focuses on the production side – as mentioned above, our research has uncovered a plethora of stories that artisans make into their objects – maybe one of our tasks, as academics, is to theoretically connect the stories on either side of the exchange process between artisan and consumer.

With the artisan economy, the producer and the consumer are brought closer together. Given that artisans and makers inscribe their values on the objects they produce, the proximity between artisan and consumer allows the stories of the artisan to be known to the consumer and thus becomes an integral part of the exchange process. In many cases, we could say that the stories of an object’s producer merge with the stories of its eventual owner; this is how Deleuze and Guattari envision the process of becoming, a theoretical insight that Benjamin would likely agree with given his own affection for the idea of becoming.

The MCC exhibit’s sentimental-value projects show us more clearly how objects carry not just the stories of their producers, but also the stories of their consumers. Perhaps we can conclude that sentimental-value can be thrown into the stew of exchange and use values that are coded within an object during artisanal work; maybe it is the value that consumers eventually connect to. When consumers are faced with an object that bears the marks of artisanship, and they know the stories of the artisan, it seems rather straightforward to assume that human attachment can, in these cases, be mediated – even fostered – by the artisanal object.




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