19.06.2020 Objet trouvé in a dumpster or how a collector can rehabilitate rubbish

Kora Tea Kowalska – archeologist and cultural anthropologist, lecturer, writer and a collector of things thrown away by other people. She’s the creator of an online project od rzeczy skład (ig: odrzeczysklad). She has worked with many institutions, co-creating cultural projects, art installations, organising workshops and curating exhibitions and museum collections. She’s currently working on a book about the phenomenon of trash in culture.
Kora wrote an article about art collections created with trash. We encourage you to read it in relation to Fortepan exhibition, which started from a bag of thrown away photographs  – you’ll be able to see the collection in August during Fotofestiwal, 
 
Kora has also taken over our Instagram and she will be showing you a part of her collections. Message us on Instagram if you would like to show us your collections during a takover as well.

 

Objet trouvé in a dumpster or how a collector can rehabilitate rubbish

 

PENTAX Image

Both things and us exist at a specific moment in time, when more things meet us and each other than ever before in history. Their accumulation, this massiveness of materiality, results in the fact that it is not things that happen to us in order to serve us, but we happen to things as their fleeting companions. However, in times of mass production and global acceleration, there are no things that are absolutely necessary, just as there are no irreplaceable things, so all the useful and necessary items of today will end up in a dumpster tomorrow. A collector increasingly often feeds on the dumpster of history, extracting things that are flawed, spent and valueless. He or she acts like an artist or anthropologist: rehabilitates them, turning a common thing into an objet trouvé; cleanses them of all the pre-attached values in order to return to them and look not at things from the angle of people, but at people from the angle ofthings. Collecting is becoming more and more frequently and effectively the plane on which one can retrieve objects from the past and make all these seemingly worthless buttons left by an aunt-turned-dressmaker, leaflets from the rightly bygone era, little shitty trinkets from some village fair, boundless quantities of sentimental junk and other people’s photographs become new entities filled with causative power. But how does it happen that some anonymous piece of waste refused by culture which is in the rite-of-passage phase comes back to life again, thanks to being found, and becomes an active participant of the reality?

As we recall the words of Mary Douglas, it should be noted that every thing that finds itself in this rite-of-passage phase (and thus is “out of place”, somewhere between disgust and non-existence) becomes transparent or unclean in our consciousness. Rubbish is the opposite of cleanliness, but the very idea of cleanliness and dirtiness is a complex creation a notion that is far from universal. The decision to degrade an object, letting it become superfluous and unnecessary, is largely dependent on socially and culturally constructed categories. The existence of things is undeniable – their material nature hates (as a rule) the relativists’ opposition. However, calling things rubbish will always be relative and dependent on the current historical and political context, philosophical affiliations, cultural status quo or arbitrary judgements of archaeologists, museologists or art critics.

Surprisingly, it is the category of rubbish that is particularly susceptible to changing its status and becoming a collector’s item, i.e. a permanent object. The universe of things encompasses not only temporary objects (used and consumable) or eternal objects (that is those that are desirable and valuable), but also the third, hidden category, namely rubbish. As Michael Thompson writes in his Rubbish theory, this hidden category is not subject to control mechanisms and therefore offers the possibility to change the status of temporary objects permanently. The rubbish category is a margin and t the same time a place for communication between values, tastes and objects themselves – new stories and new meanings are created near other things, assigned to them every time they are viewed. As Douglas adds, on the fringes of a collector’s item whose areas are devoid of a structure, there is energy. But how is it that ephemeral objects are just as eagerly thrown away as they are collected? Why is there energy hidden behind “rubbish” that allows the context to change? Can everything become “rubbish” or cease being it? Finally – who, how and why collects “rubbish”?

It seems than looking for answers in objects themselves is a lost cause. As Manfred Sommer, who made an attempt to present a philosophical approach to collecting, suggests, not everything that is different will stand out, intrigue and attack the senses. This is only true for things that are strange and peculiar, interesting and rare in relation to other things that are similar to them. However, these are not properties that belong to things in themselves, they rather owe them to their relationship with us and our relationship with them. For this is peculiar what we separate from other things; this is bizarre what just arouses our curiosity; this is rare what we rarely meet. We are differently and subjectively sensitive to objective (if there are such) differences between things. This personal selection of objects for the collection is inseparably connected with a feeling of nostalgia, an emotion that draws its energy from the fact that the past has been lost forever. Nostalgia is therefore somewhere on the borderline between history and memory, and participates in creating quiet but evocative memories of the past. Significantly, this kind of emotion
over a thing was also formerly ascribed to kitsch sensitivity and later to camp style
sensitivity.

It is not without reason that I recall here the kitsch category. From the very beginning, i.e. from the moment the term was coined in the Munich art historians’; circles, kitsch was perceived as an abhorrent, morally evil phenomenon. For decades, it was synonymous with rubbish in culture; it was called “style impurity”, a dwarfed and mawkish reflection of high art for the tasteless, dilettante masses, or even “cancer preying on the body of art”. Thus, the degradation of kitsch, similarly to rubbish, was in a way an obligation imposed by culture. Otherwise, the latter would be at risk, because, as Douglas wrote, impurity and dirt must be excluded if order is to be maintained. Equally importantly, both rubbish and kitsch are relative concepts, entangled in a web of social and cultural relationships. Even Andrzej Banach – although he would find features of kitsch in Renaissance painting, as well as in jazz and Romanticism literature, and when reading his dissertation about this phenomenon, one can get the impression that only the European art informel in Hans Hartung’s version is devoid of kitsch – admitted that, in the assessment of things, there are changes connected with time, number of people interested and with the boldness of their perception. When attention is paid to them, they become precious, literally and figuratively, and even the evil and cursed creation becomes fashionable, by way of perversity.

Through the passage of time, the number of copies of given artefacts decreases, and their increasing rarity contributes to the loss of kitsch or rubbish properties A thing becomes an object of interest for art collectors and connoisseurs, because of the anecdote of an old, distant form and “uncommonness” contained within it. Collecting things is therefore inextricably linked to the perspective of time and place – their distance sometimes works in favour of things, enabling recipients to change their judgment of their value. It is significant, however, that all those researchers who have justified historical rubbish rehabilitation (according to Paweł Beylin’s principle that kitsch is not kitsch because it is ancient) equally eagerly considered some phenomena contemporary for them as a kitsch-related threat. However, the chuckle of history in the face of these judgements is inexorable, which is perfectly illustrated by the example of a paper published in Polska Sztuka Ludowa, in which Aleksander Jackowski speaks out against cheap and village fair-like production, against trashy souvenirs and newsagent’s toys which “are made to the liking of the hillbillies, teenagers and children, and their colours are predominantly bright combinations of green and pink”. However, among the abundance of illustrations documenting this state of affairs, one can find, for example, a celluloid figurine of a sailor, a Communist era toy bought at a newsagent’s, from the 1960s, which, 40 years later, has become a sought-after collector’s item, not only among kitsch collectors. This figurine was a part of a series depicting the professions of the society of that time, it cost PLN 1 in the early 1960s and was available at almost every newsagent’s in larger cities. The sailor is made of celluloid, i.e. plastic that is easy to manufacture, but also flammable and brittle. Going back to the Thompson’s theory of rubbish, this toy was probably nothing more than a fleeting temporal object, destined to wear, tear and disposal, and thus devoid of value. With the passage of time and the irrevocable destination of destroyed items ending up in a rubbish tip, the original context of these objects has been obliterated and outdated. Proportionally opposite to the number of figurines, the interest of collectors of Communist era souvenirs has been growing; nowadays, there are both private and museum collections of Polish toys, and individual artefacts reach exorbitant prices on the auction market. What is important, it is the collector who alters the valuation – once a low-quality, mass-produced souvenir gains the status of timelessness when it is a part of a composition with a collection of similar items. Thus, what was once a kitschy piece of garbage – thanks to a collector’s gesture, their personal choice and placing it in their collection – becomes rehabilitated.

It is difficult to explicitly decide whether the refinement of trivialities, such as a tiny celluloid toy, has taken place through a change of context, the passage of time, or the audience’s interest in vernacularity or their sensitivity to the camp style.

The sensitivity towards the camp style seems to be immanently (though often unconsciously) inscribed in the contemporary collector’s approach to things. The concept and strategy of the camp style, popularised by Susan Sontag’s famous essay titled Notes on Camp, is not clearly definable. It contains only signals of new interpretations of “bad art” and rejected things; it appears not in the object, but in the subject – similarly to the kitsch reception, the camp is born in the eye of the beholder, though in this case this eye winks with irony. Camp preys on kitsch, plays with it and transforms it into a subtle play of associations. It rejects reservations by manifesting that: “it is good, because it is horrible”. Thus, bizarre, old-fashioned, unfashionable, marginal objects or those that simply turned out badly, have become camp's favourite props – the ones that, while aspiring to be beautiful, have too much of everything in
them and their form misses the point.

The invaluable Miss Camp wrote that the canon of camp can change, and time exerts great influence on it, because it can refine what now seems to us to be simply intrusive and lacking fantasy, because it is too close to us. After all, it is easier to enjoy a fantasy when it is not ours. Camp awareness will often permeate hoarding – after all, it feeds and grows on the dumpster of culture, these meticulously sought- after remnants on the fringes of human activity. Nowadays, a collector, just like a connoisseur of camp collecting all sorts of curiosities, no longer values them in term of uniqueness. Both of them express their admiration for unusual everyday life and often draw their energy directly from a dumpster.

Browsing on the outskirts of culture is a well-known artistic practice. Robert Kuśmirowski draws from the dumpster, and earlier Kantor, Hasior or Jerzy Lewczyński, who refers to his actions as the archaeology of photography. The stunning collection of amateur Fortepan photos, gathered by Miklós Tamási, also in most part consists of rubbish. The vernacular character of such collections seems to be an aspect that goes to the credit of both camp sensitivity and Thompson’s rubbish theory – the anonymous and self-contained nature of art, photography or vernacular production, their peripheral, lacking style, spontaneous, subversive and wild status places them in the “in-between” category, exactly where rubbish is placed. Vernacular things – a file of blurred photos from a family get-together found under a dumpster, summer house architecture or hand-made everyday objects are invisible, they do not look in the mirror. It is the collector who becomes their mirror.

The specific aura that collectors used to attribute mainly to works of art and unique museum objects is now more and more often found in objects originating in the mass and vernacular culture. According to Russell Belk, a Canadian collector, even if such items do not have an aura of their own, the ardent search, passionate acquisition and adoring possession of them in the collection can add such aura to them. As early as in the 19th century, a kind of fashion to collect everyday things began, when English collectors passionately collected thimbles, matchboxes, stamps, postcards or cards with images of athletes added to each box of cigars. Contemporary curiosity rooms are also filled with splinters of everyday, anonymous life, found somewhere by a dumpster.

Toasting

All these strategies weed out usefulness from objects, reducing them to abstract matter itself. Time acts similarly. Its passage consumes things, destroys them and degrades their original context and content, most often deteriorating their status to rubbish. Collecting, like camp or archaeology, can recover objects from the lost past and make these worthless “rubbish” becomes a new entity. Relics of the past, composed by the collector into a collection, cease to be what they used to be – they transform into exoticism, curiosity, ephemeral entities. At this point, they start to intrigue us. Wear and tear, patina, verdigris and dust ennoble them, making us realise that the items we see are very rare.

Collecting, as long as it is not merely unrestrained hoarding, is able to use in a subtle way the pretext of things in order to establish extra-material content and seek relationships between objects. Similarly to other artefacts from the borderland of spheres, rubbish-things, if we collect them, can reveal themselves in their collecting mass as subjects capable of symbolic dialogue. An item that, for a non-collector, was an ordinary object, becomes – according to Walter Benjamin – a living being with a biography, origin, past and future for a collector. In fact, possession is the most intimate relationship you can have with objects. They do not live within somebody; somebody lives within them.

Subjectivity of things has been emphasised for a long time by both anthropologists and archaeologists, for whom admitting that the past is built of fragments and waste is nothing new. Underground guts of cities are filled with rubbish whose life does not end with throwing away, depositing in the ground or breaking ties with their depositors. Their life goes on and their excavation, interpretation, analysis, archiving or collection by a collector is the next stage in their life. Things and rubbish have the power of performance; even though they are inanimate beings, their matter exerts effects in the real world. After all, things that have been disposed of do not cease being things. There is no non-existence in the basements, attics, storage sheds and dumpsters – it is a well-filled foreign world. Every object has the potential for eternity; so it is impossible to disagree with Bruno Latour, who writes that it is not things that happen to us, but we happen to things , because their lives are usually longer than ours.

When creating a collection, a conscious collector legitimises their interest in triviality, repeatability of patterns and predictability of forms. As it turns out, rubbish can not only be studied in the category of the Other that is worth knowing, but can also played with, collected, and even a biography of rubbish can be written. In order to be able to fully recreate Kantor's “poor” state of affairs, which fascinates me too, one should use a telescope and a microscope alternately, as advised by Krzysztof Pomian, since only meticulous studies can complement the panoramic vision of this peculiar phenomenon of trivialities, which are increasingly becoming the subject of analysis, not only scholarly ones. Consequently, collector’s activity can be compared to the struggles of archaeologists, except that the collector becomes an archaeologist of triviality, and collecting as such is almost like the anthropology of everyday life – a history of things from a practical rather than theoretical perspective.

Found photos: flowerbed, zebras, blackface, post-mortem

Micro-history contained in material objects, which, when discovered, turns out to be a biography of the relationship between things and people, now often becomes the key to creating a collection. Private history and the answer to the question stating how many people and events are gathered in one thing seems to be the most strongly exhibited in vernacular photographs, which are more and more willingly collected. To paraphrase Clément Chéroux, vernacular photography is not art and therefore allows you to redefine photography. Such an anonymous, “transparent” photograph, in a collection of similar ones, becomes metaphotographic. It begins to talk not only about itself, but also lets you see the periphery that, so far, has not been seen. For in a photograph, both on its front and back, the private history, the inner life of an object is revealed. I look at my own collection of such random, alien photographs: from dark, fuzzy ghosts on ferrotype sheets, through neat and studied carte de visite, to colourful prints from someone’s social gatherings. An indistinct Polaroid photo depicting a flowerbed with petunias, a Wehrmacht soldier feeding zebras in a small black-and-white photo with a serrated edge, and a group of dressed-up people: three boys in the foreground with blackface makeup on their faces, the tallest of them wearing the belt of Deutches Jungvolk, the Nazi organisation. And a post-mortem photograph of a girl. A chaotic mosaic of random shots, fragments of someone else’s life, impossible to reproduce. Among them, a thick file of photographs, found in the cardboards boxes that someone threw away, inadvertently becomes a piece of history: n the picture, as a young bride in 1917, she looks a little insecure; then they are together, standing proudly in front of their butcher’s shop, sausages and swastikas in the display window; inside the shop, they pose together at a speedily covered working table, on which there are probably doughnuts, not sausages. After the war they continue to sell sausages, but more modestly, at the marketplace in Berlin’s Neükoln district. Then she retires – cut and blurred photos of some toasts, bouquets of flowers in the background, finally, a full-colour group photo, all dressed in black sit on the couch, she looks insecure again. These photographs, together with the notes on the back, become an involuntary knot intertwining the life of things and the life of man. These unwanted epitaphs of a private collection first thrown away and then reassembled into a collection, also a private one, although completely different, gain some unexpected value.

The specific emotion over the thing that probably affects every collector is not only related to the longing for the inaccessible history. Sometimes imperfect trinkets can make us shed tears of pity resulting from the story they contain – for things stubbornly store people, dates, small events and disasters in themselves; they are dumb, but not silent, carriers of the past, while we suffer from memory loss. To find a thing is to discover a story unknown.
Enchantment with things can be deceptive, because at some point it is things that start to carry the collector, not the other way round, and the process of collecting itself creates certain traps: it can become an obsession, an eternal compulsion, it can turn into chaos resulting from excess and selection problems, and even, as in the famous case of the Collyer brothers, into illness and death. However, the mere accumulation of objects never gives full satisfaction, it is only the beginning of the process. Collection of such objects from the borderland contains ephemeral transcendence, allowing us to reveal time that is not given to us. The strength of the exhibit lies in its potential for representation; a thing mummified in a showcase or on the wall does not tell only about itself, but also represents a number of events; it expands its semantic field and, at the same time, sends it far beyond itself. However, a collector enchanted by the magic of a dumpster not only collects things, but, above all, allows himself to meet them.

A mundane thing becomes an objet trouvé in the collection, and – as it has been found and re-composed in this collection – it will have a much greater effect. As cliché as it may sound, it is Things that best prove that the past really existed. Thanks to their essence, they outlive the people who created them, thus gaining an advantage over human existence and time.


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Fortepan exhibition

Fotofestiwal’s Theme

 

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