ON FURNITURE. PRE-PANEL DISCUSSION

The following is a transcript of the conversation that happened between John Preus, Lane Relyea, Kevin Henry and Shannon Stratton prior to the panel discussion On Furniture, held at the Center for Book and Paper Arts in conjunction with the exhibition The World as Text, which ended August 12th, 2011.

On Furniture
We sit on furniture, we think about it; furniture is a vessel and a source. Is the relationship between art and craft a collusion, a collision, a collaboration or a constellation?   It depends on who you ask. For the panelists in On Furniture, unpacking the well-crafted object is at once an intellectual, conceptual and formal project.  With a focus on productive dialogue that addresses this subject from multiple angles, panelists will address furniture, artists’ books, contemporary craft, designed objects and architecture.
Panelists:  Lane Relyea, John Preus, Kevin Henry, Shannon Stratton
Location: Center for Book and Paper Arts
Kevin Henry
Hi
I could go any number of directions on this although the art versus craft nexus is one I’d personally prefer to avoid. I’m very interested and have written a lot lately about craft as a ‘mind-set’ a la Richard Sennett’s redefinition of craft; also the emerging technology of open source and open design and what these are doing to re- ignite communities around making and active consumption and thus redefining a new synthetic craft.

There’s a lot to talk about just based on the word furniture- it’s etymology derived from ‘mobile’ as in movable- muebleria, moebel, and mobili.  IKEA redefines moveable- moving around the planet for cheap materials and labor to produce mobile furniture (that is stuff that will move from raw material to land fill in an incredibly short period of time).

I’d love, for example, to talk cheap versus valuable.

Lots to talk about.

Hope this helps.

Best

Kevin

John Preus
Sounds good Kevin!  The question of cheap vs. valuable is a direction I’d like to follow too, and to stay out of the art v. craft thicket will be difficult but noble.

I wanted also to recall Lane’s piece on platforms that he wrote for a questionaire I did with Sara Black a while back, available here:  Lane’s response is the second one down, under Darby’s.   It is a valuable warning about the complicity between neoliberal entrepreneurial tendencies and activist, relational, dividualistic… art practices, as I become a businessman with a beret.   It prompted me to think more about what appears to be a kind of cycle in which traditional craft incorporates the anti-aesthetic, embracing the concept of an avant garde, just as art abandons the territory for more ‘useful’ political or social ends.

Here’s the statement I wrote for the show, which I hope will serve as a  primer.

Most of the time furniture just sits there like a wallflower looking stupid (or beautiful, gleaming, cluttered, un-dusted, harrowed and long-suffering, much too polished, resentful … )  Furniture, like other things, has (at least) two states of being, as a thing to be looked at, and a thing that performs some essential function more or less efficiently, which in furniture’s case is to obscure, camouflage, cover up, support, enable the performance of some other task.  There is the face it presents, and something that happens in, around, upon, or because of the thing.  But when something is happening on it, (sitting, writing, reading, eating…) the piece of furniture becomes invisible.  Its appearance disappears into service.  It becomes too close to see.  You have to stand up from the chair to see it.   You have to leave the building to look at it.  This division between function and appearance (symbol and structure; form and content, what is said and what is done…) is text, the space between the lines that we read to determine if the form suggests a function that it cannot deliver, or presents a facade that is incongruous with its interior.  This reading informs judgments about authenticity, honesty, belief, commitment, intention, earnestness, identity, rhetoric, value, meaning what you say…

Indeed, there may be nothing outside of the text, here meaning anything that requires an interpretive intervention, in which case reading is as inescapable as breathing, and the staging of a reading room simply invites a particular kind of attention to a structural framework in which the book in hand is simply the most obvious interpretive activity that we are all currently performing.

Kevin
Thanks John
I had read your statement which got me thinking (as well as scratching my head).  I’m not sure if I’m just reading this incorrectly but I can’t agree with the statement that…… Furniture, like other things, has (at least) two states of being, as a thing to be looked at, and a thing that performs some essential function more or less efficiently.  It seems to me that you are conflating furniture with sculpture or art more generally. I’d argue that furniture like other designed objects has at least two states (I don’t want to go any deeper than that for the moment) and one is, as you say, to perform a function. The other, in my mind, is largely symbolic- which I don’t think of as connected to looking alone. Traditionally the symbolic involved real costs, craftsmanship, and other attributes. As Arthur Danto said in an exhibition catalog- the word chairman has symbolic value attached to the artifact.  Hence the chairman sits in a bigger chair which is generally positioned at the head of the table and so on. Round tables are democratic- they deny hierarchies. We all like materiality it’s just some of us actually know it when we touch it whereas others are fine being fooled by surfaces (the great 20th century hoax).  Wood-grain formica is after all a plastic photograph and pretty crappy to the touch.

Every product that I can think of has its functional value and its symbolic value.  It’s the symbolic value that is usually questionable- hence you get interesting jokes about Porsche drivers and their small appendages :).  Of course in Porsche’s situation the functional value is overstated (ditto for any boutique manufacturer of cars- Ferrari for example) since to drive them in America is to be denied their true functional value which means a Porsche owner is barely getting half the value. All good products should disappear during use if they truly afford a real (and engaging) experience. They reappear generally when resting- cars included. I can’t really see my phone when I’m using it and I don’t want to- I just want to call someone.

Nevertheless I like the idea of the space between the function and appearance.  I think this is what’s problematic with ‘cheap’ because it has to over emphasize the ‘symbolic’ value because it has very little in terms of real functional value.  In fact it has very little symbolic value for that matter. Products  that everyone knows will fall apart have both short lived functional and symbolic value…..and I would argue that it is no longer even about symbolism at all but rather about illusion of a completely different order.  And therein lies a large part of the problem. The symbolism (let’s just call it optical effects) somehow override one’s better judgment (or people no longer have better judgment) because they would simply like to be repeatedly fooled because its cheap and easy and fast.

Capitalism’s greatest strength (or ploy) was to transform the means of production into something so rarefied that no one else could afford to do it (other than highly capitalized manufacturers)- it came in the form of injection molding machinery, very sophisticated tooling costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and cheap petroleum in the form of plastic pellets. This technology is the golden goose that lays golden eggs. When 100,000 or 200,000 units are sold the amortized investment breaks even and starts literally making money and does not stop until the symbolic (read fashion value) runs out or the mold breaks. This technology and process (the antithesis of craft as we know it) requires a highly symbolic value- its skin- which is also pumped up through advertising dollars. Otherwise people see it for what it is- merely a screw driver or a widget.

What hacking, modding (even fabbing) and other interventionist activity does is attempt to break the hegemony of industrial production- to say: we can do this ourselves because we understand enough about this domain to unsettle it or reconfigure it, re-purpose it, or build it from the ground up because more of us now have access to the necessary knowledge (and the technology in the form of rapid prototyping technology) required to do so.  It’s as if certain types of manufacturing have been operating like the Wizard of Oz and now the dog has pulled back the curtain to realize it’s a large microphone and a little man….. lot’s to talk about.
best,
Kevin

Lane Relyea
Hi everyone, This is great, but before I respond more fully I have a really quick follow up question to Shannon’s first email. Is the panel scheduled for this Tuesday or Thursday?

Shannon Stratton
Tuesday. (If I’m wrong, and it’s Thursday, I will be in San Francisco, not Columbia College).

This is really great – I will wait to hear what you have to add Lane and then I’ll circulate back a an “outline” for the conversation to keep us moving through the most exciting points. We of course, might deviate a little bit from that – but it will help map out where all we want to travel and I can keep us on track.

Lane
sorry, I was going by the website which lists it as June 23

Shannon
Uh-oh – Jessica?

John
Oh dear.  It’s Tuesday, as in tomorrow.  Can you still make it Lane?

Lane
yes yes, sorry to cause alarm

John
whew.
This is great Kevin.  My response may have to wait until the panel but you’ve given me alot to think about.  I’m just on my way to the shop (the invitation to stop by is open-for all of you of course).  It’s true that I am conflating the symbolic and appearance, and maybe unfairly.   I would need some help to parse out what you think the difference is between the symbolic, as you see it functioning in designed objects vs. in art.  I agree that art is looked at through a different lens than furniture, generally speaking, and that the looking we do in a museum is framed by the fact that we know that the thing has no other function.  We can’t do anything with it but look at it and try to figure out why we should care about it, if the effect is not immediate or visceral… (This isn’t so much the case any more as art concerns itself with becoming useful.)  But what you are calling symbolic seems to me similar to what I am calling appearance.  The symbolic vs. functional distinction, it is Heidegger’s, and he elaborates on it in Being and Time, describing a hammer is ready-to-hand, almost pure functionality until it breaks, at which point it sort of magically reappears as (useless) material.  It strikes me as an interesting way to think about designed objects, all of which as you say become invisible when they are well designed and you don’t have to think about them.  That is the point of design, to fold the thing so thoroughly into its function that you don’t have to see it.    More later.  Good stuff…

Lane
Hi everyone,
I wish I could come up with something to contribute other than confusion over the date of the panel. But that’s pretty much how I roll. This all looks great so far, it’s always wonderful to hear your thoughts Kevin, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing your show John and talking more. And getting cocktails with Shannon afterward!!! My only reactions so far are this: I wonder what difference it makes, if any, now that we’re living in a more communicational than representational era, when the question is no longer so much about appearance and how it reveals or conceals essence or function but rather about what things do. Things are user and context dependent, they adapt to and feedback with contexts & uses and are mobile enough to deal with many contexts and users as these change, disappear, multiply & fragment. Kevin’s right about me not looking at my cellphone, but what does its look tell me anyway about the gizzillion things it does. And the cellphone is the baseline thing that all other things want to somehow piggyback on. So the issue for things maybe becomes how many functions can be provided and gotten out of them and how flexible they are. Maybe Readymade magazine is about communicational rather than representational furniture, it’s about furniture with a backstory, furniture that feedbacks and adapts to & with other objects & the contingencies of time & context & use etc.

I don’t know if things lasting a long time is the value it use to be (only now that real estate values have disappeared are most people actually thinking about their houses in terms of longevity rather than fungibility). Just like with labor value, what’s more important perhaps is flexibility — adaptability to quickly changing conditions.

The other thing I guess is that I don’t mind so much industrial-scale production, the problem is that it’s owned privately by capitalists rather than by society. I get worried about ditching the need for large-scale social organizing in favor of more DIY-scaled solutions. But then large scale social organizing has historically depended on representational systems like elections, political representatives, politburos, classes, unions, juries, canons, etc. The communicational paradigm perhaps spells the demise of all that. What this has to do with furniture I’m not sure, so I won’t bring it up tomorrow and generally will try to stay quiet.

Also: I’ll be hiding under my chair/furniture when the discussion turns to Heidegger’s Being and Time.
Shannon
Ok – so I’ve distilled down these responses to these 4 trajectories, which I think intersect and feed off one another – I will develop a few direct questions to pose off of this and use that to keep us moving along. Thanks John for the link to Lane’s response on your website – it was very interesting! (And thanks Lane, for writing that)

So I feel like “what things do” is a good over arching theme to our craft inquiry:

- How is craft functioning now, in an era of communication over representation?
- What is the “craft” mind-set
- “Making” communities – open source/DIY – and the discussants positions on “agency”
- The symbolic value of craft today, its objects and practice

It seems these four areas could keep us going, I’ll circulate actual questions by tomorrow morning for your consideration,

Shannon

John

Can I invite myself for cocktails afterward? We should all agree not to bring up Heidegger since there are not any chairs in the show big enough for any of us to hide under.

I think your synopsis looks great Shannon.   I would also like to pursue this question more about appearance vs. function.

I feel like we are in the same zone.  The basis of my decisions in building things is largely based on expediency, opportunism, using existing technologies and platforms, but allowing myself and my crew some degree of playfulness and thought within that framework.  In that sense, I imagine the furniture “doing” what furniture does, but taking into account a whole host of contemporary contingencies;
-the cost of human labor and materials, social, environmental, political
-the cost of space and administration
-the wish to create a community of thinkers around this way of building
-imagining waste as the next “raw” material
-the mobility factor and the lack of interest in “heirloom” objects
-the adaptability necessary to build with a constantly changing material source
-relying on basic skill sets that don’t require massive amounts of initial capital and investment to get off the ground (I have deliberately kept my shop pretty low-tech for that reason.)
-the logic of the furniture market and how things become valuable (which only has a little to do with craftsmanship, and more with fungibility, as Lane suggested about the housing stock)… I am in a way working at cross-purposes in this regard since I am relying on symbolic value, just as art and design do, to make it feasible to work in the way that I do.  I have to politically claim dilettantism as a platform, as a kind of niche marketing strategy.

I have been trying to come up with some furniture equivalent of the iphone actually, a piece of furniture that does everything, but isn’t a mobile home.  The ibox.

And this feeds into the conversation about things like houses.  While the market was hot, houses became like stages, or platforms, a speculative investment that was considered a temporary place to keep your stuff until you could resell it at a profit, with the smallest possible investment of elbow grease or cheap labor.  They served more as temporary shelters for global capital than as roofs over our fragile heads.  But I am also thinking of platforms as stages in the theatrical sense-you didn’t go very far down this road, Lane, but it strikes me as relevant that the appearance value of the house (or the car, or the phone, or the clothing…) begins to outweigh the functional value at some point.  With houses, cars,furniture, appliances, materials, it is rarely that they don’t work anymore that we get rid of them.  It’s cheaper to get rid of it all and try on a new identity when you move, it’s cheaper and easier to get a new printer than to fix an old one, it’s cheaper to replace a chair with a broken spindle than to get it fixed, cell phone companies encourage you, both by changing the technology, and as a way to renew contracts, to change your phone often… But what if getting a chair “fixed” (as in neutered? ha ha!) meant cutting the back off and putting another chair part on top of it?  I mean, it’s only temporary so why not?  The appearance of stability is still wanted even if the bones aren’t there.  Maybe that is what I am trying to get at, and change through my work.  But I also agree with Lane that I get nervous about everything going local and small scale, I guess because I don’t think neighborhood farms can sustain a city of millions, nor can a whole host of mini furniture shops replace IKEA… Is there an endgame, or is this a constant balancing act?  Do artists become interested in organizing, and relationality, and collaboration, and skeptical of subjectivity, individualism, and creativity partially because institutional critique succeeded and institutions are just as unstable as everything else now? (probably not so much from the activism of artists but still.)

And isn’t there something revealing about your phone, that it doesn’t look like anything special and yet it does a gazillion things, isn’t there a kind of modernist non-chalance, a posture of unbotheredness and capacity that reminds us of the white cube, the appearance of neutrality camouflaging deep political commitments, In global markets and material sources, trade agreements, market stability over justice…?  I’m not suggesting that we should make phones more bulky and less invisible, simply that the appearance, or lack of, demonstrates a kind of complicity, and a convincing stance that everything is ok.  And it is also important in my view that the phone is ostensibly for communication, yet the type of communication it enables can become pretty impoverished, but that it also enable a denial of communication with the people and things that are in the same room.  In a way communication becomes increasingly dispersed, and our presence is increasingly diluted. (Heidegger again.  Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Alright, I have to do something else, as much as I am enjoying this conversation.
Looking forward to the discussion.
john

Kevin

Hi, Well it looks to me like we can simply post the email exchanges on the website and call it a day :) No need to be in the same space for a panel, we seem to be doing fine like this.

I like John’s comment about temporary-ness (whether with a cell phone or a house) and it’s connection to theater.  I strongly believe that few of us really have an interest in permanence as it pertains to stuff- ‘durable goods’?  We have all the stuff we own because we’ve been convinced that we want all of this stuff by everyone who came before us……it’s what we grew up.  There’s so much now in our world that is being dematerialized or at least minimized proving that we might not in fact really want stuff- what we crave is contact with others (the big social or any of the particular social imaginaries).  I don’t think that people really want to own cameras- all they want is the ability to record their lives and to share it with others. That is now easier than ever with a cell phone.  We only frame pictures because we have these big surfaces called walls in our caves that seem very barren- and besides everyone else has pictures in frames on their walls- the mass mimicry model.  Of course this is overstated for effect- surely we want some stuff (cherished books or keepsakes, etc) but I’m convinced we are truly conflicted about stuff and inertia keeps most of us from dumping it.  I think most of us would be perfectly fine with a basic chair- even a cobbled-together chair if really interesting conversations happened around it.  The problem is that’s often not the case.  We all know there’s an insane percentage of the population doing what they hate simply so they can acquire stuff…..which I would argue they really don’t want in the first place.  Is this theater?  Maybe unintentional theater.

Houses in the U.S. in the past two decades became bank accounts to fund the perpetual upward motion (mobility) of one’s children. If this stops being the case, as it appears to be, so too will the feasibility of the second mortgage which has funded the 2.5 kids that now go off to college to get a better education than even their well educated parents strapped with the mortgage in question. In other words the temporary-ness of houses is theater but it’s an absurd theater that some are now beginning to see through in my estimation. Is car sharing just the beginning of a new development in the social sphere that values experience over possession? Which brings me around to Lane’s comment about communication.  I think you are exactly right when you say that it is about communication- or the communicational rather than the representational.  But I think you are wrong about the phone- I don’t think people really think of the phone as an object that allows them to do a gazillion things. I think most of us look at it and think it does one thing- communicate.  It’s just that communication now involves text, photos, video, audio, and so on (including games)- its social. And it always involves others even if they are disembodied in the form of text messages, audio recordings, images, or video. The phone is not a camera; it’s the camera that has become a phone (for most people anyway).

I think what Apple did so brilliantly with the iphone was to make it a very unsexy hand held tablet- like a slab of stone. I see very little in the way of symbolic value in the phone- it’s all social value. The phone (I don’t think it should even be called a phone but they had to call it something) is neither ergonomic nor beautiful.  That was not their goal- their goal was to maximize the real estate and functionality- it turned out best to be a large screen and so they said: fine.  They decided it was not important to have it look like a phone.  This is precisely why Nokia is in such deep shit. They just never got that because they were in the business of making phones.  Like the old saying whey you are a hammer everything looks like a ……phone.

This is why d.i.y. is so critical and why the new platforms from kickstarter to quirky are popping up- they are about communication and they are about social- but mainly they are about social which is just so incredibly powerful- Shirky gets this really well and his idea of cognitive suplus is really potent.  I think social and craft have always been married and as a culture we simply lost that connection- craft got relegated to an insignificant activity- like Kafka’s Hunger Artist- the ability to do something novel and really well eventually looses its luster. Craft in my mind has survived today as a giant text message we all want access to so that we can push it around and share it and add to it and change it and so on. There’s so little that we can collectively do together and craft (whether hacking or re-purposing or running with an instruction set from Readymade or Make or instructables) allows us to temporarily touch someone.

Theater is always about drama (or comedy) but more importantly its about either watching or participating. And more of us feel emboldened by the anonymity (and kindness) of the web to want to act out.  Craft is bound to theater through collaboration and NOT (in my humble opinion) necessarily as much to the outcome.  Sure a beautifully crafted chair is something to behold but it’s a heck more enjoyable watching someone make it or participating in the making- it’s the reason on one has dinning rooms anymore- they blew out the walls to make it one big kitchen where making and consuming are intertwined.

As Lane says- it is all about communication(al).  And it’s all about platforms (the iphone is after all a platform). In an age of data (information is only an outcome) I think representation will become far less significant as we learn to relax with data and share data and exchange data.  After all most objects these days are just that- data- they begin and end in computers. See you all tomorrow.

best,

Kevin

Lane Relyea
Hi John, I really like what you’re saying about the iPhone being like the modernist white cube. I remember many years back, long before email or cell phones, there being a discussion about how designed objects, from cars to desktop computers to land-line phones, suddenly were looking not built or constructed but extruded like a chicken’s egg. No right angles with visible joints. Built things looking not built: it’s like buffed objects, where all that labor is only finished when it looks like no hands have touched the thing.

At any rate, at the risk of self-promotion I’m attaching something I wrote (PDF available upon request) with my wife that touches on a lot of this, along with what you’re saying about theater.

See you tonight,
Lane

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