The Museum of Everyday Life

By Clare Dolan

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The Museum of Everyday Life in Glover, VT

Perhaps the best, most basic introduction to The Museum of Everyday Life can be found in a text written on the occasion of its inaugural exhibition in 2011:

“The creation of The Museum of Everyday Life grew out of the following questions: What would it be like to imagine a museum which looked like a giant cabinet of curiosity, but filled with perfectly familiar objects rather than exotic ones? Could there be an institution which, rather than preserving rare and “authentic” objects, dedicated itself to deteriorating objects of no monetary value, but of immense ordinary-life consequence? What would it look like to defy the commodity-based model of collection and display? And how might it be possible to create exhibits by soliciting contributions from the public, to create massive participatory collections of objects and personal stories? Our goal is to explore, analyze and celebrate everyday life objects. This museum is the co-creation of all of us who live ordinary lives and have relationships with ordinary objects. Its purpose is a heroic, slow-motion cataloging of life; a detailed, theatrical expression of gratitude and love for the minuscule and unglamorous lives of the unfamous. We celebrate mundanity, and the mysterious delight embedded in the banal but beloved objects we touch everyday.

In addition to a robust and ever-expanding permanent collection, our special featured exhibits have explored ordinary objects such as the safety pin and the match. These exhibits look at the objects in-depth, tracing their surprisingly fascinating origins, and additionally presenting a wide array of unique perspectives and uses of the objects. The creation of these special featured exhibits has involved the input of many people, from neighbors to college students, from fanatical collectors to local artists and performers, all of whom have donated their time helping to construct exhibits, maintain and improve the buildings and grounds, advertise, and perform at openings and events.

The Museum has three components: 1) The Museum of Everyday Life Philosophy Department, involving the production and publication of theoretical writing about people and their relationship to objects, curatorial methodologies, and encylcopedism, 2) The Museum of Everyday Life Performance Company, which creates puppet shows and performances in an ongoing effort to examine everyday life via the life of objects, and lastly, but most important 3) The Museum of Everyday Life Exhibitions and Collections, comprised of actual exhibits which make the theoretical work tangible and concrete. We are located on Rt 16 about 5.5 miles south of Glover village in Northeastern Vermont, and here, in the imagination of the beholder…”

The Museum has been something I’ve carried around in my head for a long time– an idea, a sensibility, and a wish. When I bought a dilapidated house and barn in remote rural Vermont in 2004, I immediately indulged in fantasies of what it could become. But it took me until the spring of 2010 to make my first exhibition. And it wasn’t until 2011 that the first official Museum of Everyday Life exhibit: “Locofocos, Lucifers, and Phillumeny: A Celebration of the Match,” inaugurated its opening season.

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International matchbooks from the exhibit, “Locofocos, Lucifers and Phillumeny: A Celebration of the Match”

In the beginning, I approached the museum mostly in a spirit of fun, wanting to play with the museum as Establishment, to mock the high seriousness and expense of these institutions. I started by writing a manifesto and making declarations about what a museum “should” be (see “The First manifesto of the Museum of Everyday Life”). But as I became more and more absorbed in understanding the actual mechanisms of arrangement and display, and the way different display strategies can encourage different feelings and responses in the viewer/participant, I began to more seriously develop the idea of the homemade museum as a real and potential tool for transforming our relationship to our lives – helping us to be both more self reflective and present in our day to day moments, to transform the way we think about being “ordinary” people and the mundane parts of being human. I would like to force all of us to look more closely at the questions “what do we value?” and “in what way do we value?” and “what objects surround us and why?”

The understanding I have now of the “everyday” is the foundation of everything I make, perform, and write about. I have discovered that this is my central concern, and gives coherence not only to my art projects but also to my politics, to how I try to live my life.

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Bread and Puppet Circus, 2009

I started forming this sensibility when I worked at the Bread and Puppet Theater, which was where I “grew up” as an artist and learned how to think about art-making and living. Bread and Puppet gave me an example of how one artist, (founder and Director Peter Schumann) and subsequently a whole constellation of people who have worked with the theater over its 52-year existence, have found ways to integrate an art practice with fierce engagement with the rest of the world, and to not forget or leave behind the dumb normal tasks of life that we spend 90% of our time doing. Schumann is a genius at connecting his relentless art-making to everything else: the world, its politics and people, everything that happens culturally and rhetorically and politically, plus the sunrise and sunset, eating, sleeping, scratching, getting dressed, sneezing, pooping, etc etc. Inspired by this, but being my own person, a woman of a particular age, I have developed my own perspective, and emphasis, and tactics. But the Museum of Everyday Life is my ultimate expression of this understanding: a locus where the everyday object is the vehicle for examining the intersection of the Ordinary and the larger world stage of politics, power, economics, historic events, natural disasters – the “big” things.

At the same time, the museum is also a profoundly intimate space. The Museum of Everyday Life lives inside each of us, a vast and echoing cabinet of curiosities, every minute of every day filling our endless drawers and cases with new additions to the permanent collection. My choice of the match as the subject matter of our first exhibition reflects both this intimacy and its connection to the “larger” world. A simple household match hums with danger and hope. When we strike it for a moment we hold between finger and thumb the Promethean gift of Possibility. Each match is a tiny revolution, a promise of radical transformation. The match reminds us that all objects in some way come from the human body. Not only does the design of the match accommodate the requirements of the thumb and forefinger which must be able to grasp it, and the shapes of cup handles and bowls, for example, mirror the human hand, but also the bowl and the cup and the match echo the very shape of human hunger and thirst, the body’s need for heat, the eye’s requirement for light in order to see. Every object in our museum of everyday life speaks to the body, amplifying it, extending it, the way an echo in a deep canyon empowers a whisper. Belying their status of apparent insignificance, these humble, mundane things toil away endlessly to unburden us of the vast problematic contingencies of the body.

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Title: Woman-Shaped Toothbrush. This toothbrush was found by Ron Kelley in 1985 when he moved into an apartment at 520 E. 11th. St. in NYC. Several years later Ron left the city for Southern Vermont. During the spring of 1990 his wife discovered the toothbrush lolling about on his desk. It surprised her. A lively conversation ensued. Since that conversation, this toothbrush was removed from Ron’s desk and brought down to the tool section in their basement where it languished for 24 years until it was resurrected for this exhibit, titled, “Toothbrush from Twig to Bristle In All Its Expedient Beauty”

Just as the bowl and the cup handle and the match are shaped by the demands and needs of the body, so also do the objects in the museum of everyday life record our attention and ministrations. The upholstery on the arm of a couch is worn smooth by caressing elbows, the chipped corner of a lacquered box is carefully glued back into place, a favorite wallet is creased and cracked by being opened and closed countless times. These things bear the proof of the lives we have led, the things we have done. They remember us.

In Syria, where everything is on fire, millions of people are on the move, carrying their last, salvaged possessions on their backs. Recently, the nation of Denmark declared its right to confiscate cash and valuables carried by refugees. Humanely, it claimed, excluding items of “sentimental value” from seizure. But what is sentimental? And what are “valuables”?

A gift from a lover, a family heirloom, a note, a paperclip, a pocket knife, a picture frame: in the museum of our everyday life a million invisible threads are tied to our fingers, ears, lips, and eyes, which are tied to every object, which are tied to the lips, ears, fingers, eyes and hearts of other people. The web is invisible. The object is seen, can be picked up, and cradled. Objects have secret powers that are not easily understood. In the noisy world of what we call our “popular culture” (the clangor of video and cell App and cinema and mp3 and reality show, of celebrity and specialty and infamy) the secret powers of the ordinary can appear to be muffled, smothered. Until the next hurricane. Until the lights go out.

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Pencil sharpener exhibit

These are some of the reasons I am compelled to pay such close attention to ordinary objects, and why I feel they deserve not just one museum, but many museums. And because I am in love with the visual vocabulary that is available within the museum form – boxes and frames and short texts and titles, vitrines, dioramas, curtains, drawers, shelves, pedestals, maps, doorways – I take particular pleasure in putting together the exhibitions on my own. This past February I picked the special featured object for our upcoming season and then began spreading the word. People have responded from all over, sending everything from ideas, associations, ephemera, suggestions of where to find multiples of the object, art made out of the object, special examples of the object, and unusual uses of the object. I do a lot of research and scour garage sales, the internet and my neighbors’ barns and basements for objects. Slowly an assemblage materializes. The fun is in sorting through it, arranging, describing and contextualizing – giving it shape. That is how the exhibitions come to be.

That’s the story of The Museum of Everyday Life.

Gator Bait: A Love Story

The alligator wants food to chew
Feed him just right or he’ll feed on…YOU
Better be lucky, with the spinner
That tells you to eat him
Or take out his dinner
Give him a TV only he knows
Just when his jaws are ready to close
Take out a jug, put in a case
He’s losing his patience
Just look at that face
Feed him a can
If that’s what you choose
Throw in a block and…YOU LOSE
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Original artwork from the ALLIGATOR  one sheet poster, 1980

By John Campopiano

All of us have a memory of a moment that we’re not entirely sure actually occurred. A blurry instance that we think happened but that we can’t corroborate with someone else or find evidence of no matter how sophisticated the keyword search in Google.

With this in mind, is it likely one might have a childhood memory of sitting inches from  a television set and watching a giant, man-eating alligator burst from the depths of a sewer onto a public thoroughfare? Doubtful. But maybe?

That’s the scene childhood friend, Zac, describes of his first viewing of the 1980 cult classic, ALLIGATOR, directed by Lewis Teague, starring Robert Forster and Robin Riker, and written by the man who also brought us PIRANHA (1978) and THE HOWLING (1981), John Sayles. Originally from Massachusetts and now residing in Chicago, Zac and I shared in a screening of this film at a young age – perhaps too young to be watching the likes of an animatronic monster devouring unsuspecting pedestrians left and right – in his North Attleboro basement.

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Spanish version of ALLIGATOR poster

 

Zac recalls viewing this oddity, “My first memories of seeing the movie are burned into my brain. I was far too young to watch it, maybe six or seven (ca. 1991-92?), and I was downstairs watching it on TV in the basement by myself. The image that is forever etched into my mind is the scene where the alligator bursts out of the street where there is a manhole cover and comes above ground. It was terrifying…”

Clearly the film made an impression on Zac, as it did on me the first time I saw it (Zac’s 2nd go around with it.) Twenty years later that experience with Zac is somehow both vivid and largely unclear in my mind, much like a memory of an experience you can’t quite decipher or confirm. Zac again: “I had that memory of the movie [the alligator bursting from underground] and it had an impact on me for years, but it wasn’t until the two of us connected over it later that I realized it was a real movie in the world. I think I always half-thought that I had imagined it and made it up. Lo and behold, on a second viewing as a teen or adolescent, the same scene came up and it was all confirmed as a real thing in the world.”

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Campopiano visits the North Attleboro, MA house where he first saw ALLIGATOR (1980), February 2016

Indeed, these bizarre memories of reptilian horror were, in fact, real, and in the two decades since, Zac and I have sporadically cobbled together other memories of the film through various email and Facebook message exchanges. It has been – as these things often are – very enjoyable to wax nostalgic for a pleasant time (albeit foggy) in my adolescence. Of course, if you’re someone who happens to suffer from both nostalgia and an urge to collect, the buck does not, as they say, stop there.

In the years since first seeing the film several things happened: I exposed many friends and family (much to their indifference or outright displeasure) to ALLIGATOR. In 2014 I met the film’s director, Lewis Teague, at a convention in New Jersey and had him sign my original Egyptian ALLIGATOR poster [see photo below]. But it was even earlier, in elementary school that I learned of a rare movie tie-in game produced by the IDEAL company, appropriately called ALLIGATOR – The Game. And in the years since its limited release it has become somewhat of a coveted piece by many horror fanatics and board game collectors alike.

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ALLIGATOR – The Game by IDEAL (1980)

Truth be told, since those elementary school days I’ve kept an eye out for any relics from ALLIGATOR (copies of the film on any format, original one sheet posters, etc.) but it was the IDEAL game that continued to elude me no matter how savvy my search. This all changed when I discovered a seller from North Kingston, RI, selling the alligator piece from the game. No other parts of the game were included, but I didn’t care. The cool part of the game was always the 27″ long alligator itself – in all of its forest green, plastic glory.

The complete game with original box commands a high dollar (upwards of $100 or more) — so to find even the lone alligator in decent condition and under 100 miles from my home in Boston should be deemed a lucky, if not an improbable, find.

But could I really sink my teeth into it and seal the deal?

After some good-natured back and forth regarding price I was able to round third base and slide directly into the jaws of this delicious piece of 1980s nostalgia. After years of wondering when or if I would ever find it, it was mine.

******

On a warm, Sunny Sunday in February I made the trek south to North Kingston, RI to collect my treasure. Almost immediately after breaking through the East Greenwich/North Kingston town line I felt as though I had stumbled into the most rural part of the state. Not much separated the modest cottages from an antique store (with a fabulous bathtub propped up proudly on the front porch) and some railroad tracks. The owner of my beautiful beast lived in (what felt like) an abandoned farmhouse. Kids toys and rusty farm equipment littered the property. I rang the bell.

A woman cracked the door open and peered out at me. Children could be easily heard running around and yelling in the background. “Hi, I’m here for the alligator toy…” I said.

She quickly called to one of her children to fetch the gator. “Here you go,” she said. I gave her the $15 I had haggled her husband down to and went about my way.

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Campopiano immediately after claiming his prized alligator, February 2016

Victory was mine and I couldn’t have been happier. Years of hunting were over. Not dissimilar to how I have felt over the years collecting other memorabilia, I now felt closer to a film I’ve appreciated for years. It’s a true sign of a collector when it’s not enough just to admire something from a distance – we must connect with it in a tangible, realtime way. Somehow it satiates our hunger for the past while justifying the effort exerted on the quest itself to find whatever it is we’re hunting for.

It’s funny how things like films (and certainly music) have a way of not only binding themselves to us but also binding us to others in our lives. My pal Zac and I never see one another, and yet we carry this bizarre little connection with us through life. I can’t pass his old street in North Attleboro or even see a status update of his on Facebook without thinking of ALLIGATOR. What’s more, I can’t see the VHS cover in my collection or catch the film on late-night TV without thinking of Zac. It’s strange, yet also strangely comforting.

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Campopiano and ALLIGATOR (1980) director, Lewis Teague, in New Jersey, March 2014

Interested in other horror movie-themed board games? Check out this great article by John Squires on Dread Central!

DearTomorrow, A Conversation with the Future About Climate Change

By Casey E. Davis, Archivist, DearTomorrow; Founder, ProjectARCC; Project Manager, American Archive of Public Broadcasting

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Since May 2015, I have been working with a team to develop a new online space where people can post letters, photos and videos to their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, future children and future generations about climate change.

As a professional archivist, I was drawn to this project because the collection will become a long-term archive, a record of how people are currently thinking about and taking action on climate change. These messages will be collected over the next five or so years and then re-released back to the public in the years 2030 and 2050, for the recipients and for future generations to see when they are older.

My contributions to the project include managing the letters and metadata and helping coordinate with potential long-term repositories to preserve the collection for research and understanding by future generations.

It has only been in the past several years that I have become aware of the seriousness of climate change and have spent time reflecting on how, as an archivist, I could participate in developing solutions. I want to make a contribution not only to the documentation of this important period of time, but also participate in activities that help shape this period of time. That is why I have joined the team of DearTomorrow and also founded Project ARCC, a task force of archivists striving to motivate the archival profession to effect climate change.

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DearTomorrow recognizes that one of the greatest challenges for addressing climate change is the disconnect between future climate change consequences and the need to take action now. By asking people to reflect on climate change through the eyes of someone young that they love, the project aims to make climate change a more relevant, accessible and immediate issue.

I personally experienced this shift in thinking when I wrote my own DearTomorrow message. In my first letter, I wrote about my October 2014 life-changing experience of coming to terms with the imminent threats of climate change on the future of our planet and its impacts not only on society but also on the responsibility of archivists to preserve history for future generations. For months after I had this awakening, I was paralyzed in fear. I was unable to talk about it with many of my family members who still deny climate change, and I didn’t know what to do about it to have a personal impact. In my second letter, written several months later, I wrote about how ProjectARCC was making a difference within our profession, and how the fear that I experienced was turned into action.

I’m not a parent yet, but as an archivist and as someone who thinks about the past — and a lot about the future — I understand the importance of preserving this epochal moment in history for people to one day understand what we knew, what we didn’t know, and what we did about climate change. DearTomorrow will be a resource for our loved ones to look back and see the actions we took for them. It will be a resource for scholars and researchers to gain an understanding about this moment in time. And right now, it is a bridge to action among those to take the time to think about the people to whom they are writing and for whom they are taking action on climate change.

I invite you to learn more about what I feel is a very powerful and important project, and think about ways that you can contribute to the project. Here’s how:

  1. Participate in this historic project by writing your own letter to the future. The key here is to think about someone young and important in your life who will access your message in the year 2030 or 2050. What will you say to them about the world we currently live in? Write about how you currently think about the challenge of climate change. Or perhaps reflect on a place or experience that is important to you and that you would like to preserve for them to experience in the years to come. The process is open-ended so what you say is up to you. Submit your message with a photo that is important to you.
  2. Participate in the photo promises project. Think about one new action that you could take in 2016 to reduce your environmental footprint.  This could be something in the home or in the community. Write it down, take a photo and submit it to deartomorrow.org.
  3. Participate in the crowdfunding campaign. Our team has raised over $14,000 in donations and commitments from over 150 people ranging from $10 to $1500. Contributions in all amounts are welcome.

Contribute a skill or expertise to the project. Our all-volunteer team is always looking for creative and motivated people to join in the project. Contact us if you have an idea about how you can contribute.

The Tao of Trash

By Siobhan Lyons, PhD Candidate
Department of Media, Music, Communication and Cultural Studies
Faculty of Arts
Macquarie University
Sydney, Australia

“For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride, I adopted an extremely moralistic approach to all environmental technology. I loathed machinery, I abominated cities, I equated the Industrial Revolution with original sin and mass media with the Fall. In short, I rejected almost every element of modern life in favor of a Rousseauvian utopianism. But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was, and I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century–Yeats, Pound. Joyce, Eliot–had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of the processes of cognition and creation. I realized that artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience–from trash to treasures. I ceased being a moralist and became a student.”

-Marshall McLuhan, Playboy Magazine, March 1969

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Courtesy of Trash Culture Journal

An Intro to Trash

The above is an excerpt from famed media scholar Marshall McLuhan, in an interview with Playboy magazine. His notion that artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experiences, from trash to treasure, shows the theorists’ own perception of where art comes from. Moreover, McLuhan himself can be described as transgressing the ordinary boundaries of art—appearing in Woody Allen’s classic Annie Hall, being alluded to several times in hit HBO program The Sopranos, and of course, being interviewed in Playboy magazine, as authors Anthony Burgess, Graham Greene and Vladimir Nabokov have also, already disrupting the conventions set up around high and low brow forms of culture.

Trash Culture is an elusive concept, and does not conform to one particular cultural group or categorisation, which is why, then, it proves to be an intriguing concept. More than popular culture, trash culture carries with it certain cultural and societal definitions and assumptions, all of which are subjective, though undeniably unfavourable. 4100886174_7ac06e4196_oBut it changes and adapts. J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous epic series The Lord of the Rings was considered ‘juvenile trash’ when first published (Sandbrook, 2015), but has gone on to be included on various ‘greatest works of literature’ lists, and is now considered essential reading for most youngsters.

Trash touches each and every aspect of culture; from music to fashion and literature to philosophy. Anybody who has read or is familiar with Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (1957), for instance, will appreciate the merging of theory and trash in such essays as ‘The World of Wrestling’ and ‘Toys’, in which Barthes shows how useful these so-called ‘trashy’ elements are in society. Theorist Susan Sontag, too, was known for her embrace of pop culture, keen to shatter the ‘false divide between pop culture and “high” culture’ (Popova). Stravens, moreover, argues that Sontag embraced ‘certain forms of pop culture as simply another turn of the avant-garde’, and ‘embraced mass culture at the same moment that she was embracing the French nouveau roman’ (283). Objects seen as belonging to separate ‘fields’ are therefore considered, by some, to exist on the same plane of cultural existence, with trashy mass market paperbacks coexisting on the same bookshelf with Tolstoy or Nietzsche. The assumption that trash cannot function alongside high art is perhaps this century’s greatest myth.

What is Trash Culture?

But what exactly constitutes trash culture? As a theme or issue, it is relatively under-explored in both academic and everyday criticism. Richard Keller Simon’s book Trash Culture: Popular Culture and the Great Tradition (1999) 511QJuzWmLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_is one of the primary texts concerning the dynamics of trash culture. ‘The relationship between great books and popular entertainment’, he notes, ‘is important and worth examining carefully. What really is the difference between trash culture and the great tradition? Why is The National Enquirer so bad and a tragedy by Euripides so good?’ (2).

For Keller, the difference between trash culture and high culture is in storytelling methods, with Dumb and Dumber standing in for Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Clueless a retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma, and Rambo a revision of the Greek classic The Iliad. And then there is Star Wars, perhaps the most notable creation to be considered trashy, whose narrative is taken from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and in many respects is considered a retelling of The Bible. Trash, then, appears to be linked to a deviation from an original. Considered an inferior product, it gleefully repeats, becoming what philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls ‘difference within repetition’.

Indeed, the issue goes beyond mere class and elitism, and extends towards anything from medium to aesthetics. The revamped version of classic stories supposedly affronts the integrity of the original, making the familiar strange in the process.

Moritz BaBler argues that: ‘the aesthetics of Trash can either appreciate the Die Hard movies starring Bruce Willis or the disco world of John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever directly or mediated’ (32). For Vexen Crabtree, trash culture features ‘Cheap thrills, shock, brainless action, explosions’, with ‘no concentration or depth required’. This is what separates trash from the popular: its apparent absence of any redeeming intellectual quality. Yet this is also where a supposed contradiction emerges, as many highly intellectual figures profess their love of trash. die_hard_by_ron_guyatt-d5mc7ji.jpgAs Sontag herself once noted, she should not have to choose between The Doors and Dostoevsky: ‘I am for a pluralistic, polymorphous culture’.

The simple pleasure of zoning out, long considered a negative trait of humans, is seen to be beneficial for the brain. According to Lucia Peters, science backs up the benefits of mindlessness, saying: ‘Simply put? It’s an excellent way for you mind to solve problems in less conventional ways’ (2015). Evolutionary speaking, temporarily removing the need for in-depth concentration allows the brain to formulate ideas that would not otherwise form. It also gives the brain a much-needed chance to relax, making Trash enormously beneficial in the process.

There is, of course, the simple notion that anything trashy is that which appeals to the masses. But why is this considered such a bad thing? If some medium or story is appreciated on a wide scale, why does this translate as problematic? For theorist Raymond Williams, writing in 1961, the issue is simply that mass appeal translates as the declining quality of the medium itself.

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Raymond Williams

Discussing the notion of a mass public in relation to literature, he writes: ‘On the one hand there is the fear that as the circle of readers extends, standards will decline, and literature be threatened by “blotterature”. Related to this, but involving other prejudices, has been an essentially political fear that, if the common man reads, both quality and order (sometimes the one standing for the other) will be threatened’ (179).

We associate trash culture with more recent decades, but even in the Victorian era, trash was affiliated with the widespread dissemination of books, previously reserved for a minor elite. Famous figures such as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain may have been celebrated for their focus on the working class, but ultimately they were derided by arbiters of taste who were keen to keep literature out of the hands of the lower classes. As Lisa Rodensky argues: ‘Reviewers note – both to praise and to blame – that Dickens’s novels reproduce the language of the lower classes’ (584). She explains:

Set against this cluster of meanings are those circulating in the reviews that relegate the popular to the lowest common denominator, a category of mass-produced novel and novelist that better classes of readers should resist for many reasons, among them the suspicion that a work which attracts so many readers will degrade them, make them part of a manipulated and undifferentiated mass reading public (584).

The issue then becomes about individuality, or what we may understand as the myth of individuality, and the desire to be differentiated from others, in which products and entertainment that is widely consumed makes us all the same. The more unique and obscure the product, seemingly the more unique we become. Because trash is unapologetically repetitive, it is seen to contribute to this dreaded system. Yet when it comes to choice of entertainment and consumerism, there is little difference between choosing between a pop singer such as Britney Spears and the more obscure Tom Waits. Why? Because according to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the products and entertainment we choose to define ourselves by actually say nothing meaningful about us at all. Indeed, they note that ‘something is provided for all so that none escape’. Rather than resisting the system, then, it becomes important to understand the benefits of trash and the place it has in society. Or, as Sontag argued, we may not have to choose between trash and ‘serious’ products at all: ‘There are contradictory impulses in everything’, she stated. Hence Star Wars novels such as The Courtship of Princess Leia may in fact go hand in hand with even the most complex Dostoevsky, without any threat to perceived ‘established’ categories of cultural acceptance.

Learning to Embrace Trash 

At this point it seems only necessary to point out that there is, of course, a distinction set up between Popular Culture and Trash Culture. Yet this distinction is replete with confusion and inconsistencies. While television programs such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Buffy the Vampire Slayer are, arguably, a part of high popular culture, reality television talk shows reside firmly within the area of trash culture.

One the website Human Truth, blogger Vexen Crabtree distinguishes between popular and trash culture:

There is a distinct difference between popular and trash culture. In many countries, the things that are massively popular are not intrinsically trashy. It is not essential that the most liked music has to be the most shallow music, nor that the most bought newspapers have to be the most absurd. The UK in particular has a popular culture that is very dumbed-down, but it has not always been like that (2001).

            In many instances, trash exists as a form of social anarchy, as seen in the British television program The Young Ones, and undoubtedly many others. Therefore, there is no one understanding of trash, though it has a pivotal role to play in shaping the cultural values of society.

The difference between popular and trash culture, then, is about its very approach; popular culture from Seinfeld to Twin Peaks contributes something intelligent and artistic, even if it appeals to elements as seemingly ‘crude’ as humour and sex. Trash culture is purposefully vulgar and sees the value in momentary mindlessness. A simple ‘Google images’ search gives a good indication of the aesthetics of trash: crude, colourful, and kitschy. Images of vibrant colours and outlandish appearances. It also involves images of sex and the body, the body transformed, alien, strange.

Returning to the beginning of this essay, Marshall McLuhan, whose perhaps most famous for his declaration that ‘the medium is the message’, becomes a useful figure in examining trash culture. His focus on how the medium itself, rather than the actual content, is useful insofar as we can see how moments in time and culture have been shaped by changing mediums.

The twentieth century, as Charlie Anders notes, was seen as the first wave of trash culture: ‘An era where there were a lot of 25 cent paperbacks with gun-toting lesbians on their covers, plus drive-in movies, stag films, cheap comics and weird burlesque shows’. Australian rock musician Dave Graney similarly celebrated the now respected genre of pulp fiction on Jennifer Byrne Presents: ‘The pulp world is very good because it was like 10 cent books for people. It was trash. It wasn’t coming through some critical avenue towards people. People just picked it up.

It was written for money. There was [sic] a lot of great characters in it’ (2011).

But Anders declares that we are currently living in the golden age of trash, and that the changing mechanisms of media in the 2010s exemplifies this celebration of trash:

Why is 2012 the best time ever to love pulp trash? Because we’re witnessing two things: the death spasms of old media, and the unruly birth of new media, at the same time. And both of these phenomena are unloading huge bounties of trash. You’re lucky to be alive at a time like this.

            Trash therefore becomes about experimentalism as a response to change. In the twentieth century, trash culture responded to the changes to literature, witnessing the birth of the magazine, the comic book, a new era which produced outlandish images. Now those very same mediums are changing and adapting, and the elusive space left over is where the experimentalism of trash finds its footing. The leftovers, the detritus, the excessive waste: these are the things that trash celebrates.

References

Anders, Charlie Jane. ‘Are we living in the Golden Age of Trash Culture right now?’ io9. December 6, 2012 http://io9.gizmodo.com/5917853/are-we-living-in-the-golden-age-of-trash-culture-right-now

Moritz BaBler. ‘New Standards of Beauty and Style and Taste: Expanding the Concept of Camp’. Quote, Double Quote: Aesthetics between High and Popular Culture. Paul Ferstl and Keyvan Sarkhosh (eds.). Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi, 2005, pp. 23-43

Crabtree, Vexen. ‘Western Culture: Trash and Popular Culture, Elitism and Multiculturalism’. Human Truth. September 9, 2001. http://www.humantruth.info/culture.html

Lucia Peters. ‘Zoning Out Is Good For You, Says Science, So Go Ahead And Let Your Mind Wander Today’. Bustle, August 8, 2015, http://www.bustle.com/articles/102828-zoning-out-is-good-for-you-says-science-so-go-ahead-and-let-your-mind-wander

Popova, Maria. ‘Susan Sontag on How the False Divide Between Pop Culture and “High” Culture Limits Us’. Brain Pickings. https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/11/11/susan-sontag-the-complete-rolling-stone-interview-1/

Rodensky, Lisa. ‘Popular Dickens’, Victorian Literature and Culture (2009), Vol. 37, 2009, pp. 583–607

Sandbrook, Daniel. ‘Did Tolkien Write Juvenile Trash?’ December 17, 2015. BBC Culture. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20151215-did-tolkien-write-juvenile-trash

Simon, Richard Keller. Trash Culture: Popular Culture and the Great Tradition. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press. 1999.

Stravens, Ilan. Singer’s Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press. 2012.

Williams. Raymond. The Long Revolution, Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1975.

Television

‘Jennifer Byrne Presents: Cult Books’, March 15, 2011, ABC http://www.abc.net.au/tv/firsttuesday/s2815885.htm

Brattle Theater Archives Open House: A Recap

By Steph Pixley

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What used to be a Police Gymnasium, survived a fire, has housed both live performances and projected films, and came out on top after a fight with Massachusetts blue laws in 1955?

Program from the first show at the Brattle in May of 1890.
Program from the first show at the Brattle in May of 1890. Photo by Steph Pixley.

Surprisingly, the unassuming Brattle Theater in Cambridge and the Greater Boston area.

Originally established as a social union hall and live performance theater in 1890, the hall was transformed in 1953 with the installation of a rear screen projection system, permanently converting the Brattle into a destination for film lovers in Cambridge. Even in the early days of the theater, the goal of the Brattle was not to simply entertain the masses. Instead, the early founders were influenced by the European model of art house cinema, and dedicated the theater’s programming to educate and inspire, as well as entertain.

While this mission was probably unintentional in the beginning (the theater was originally founded by Harvard acting club rejects), these days the mission has taken on a more purposeful direction under the guise of the Brattle Film Foundation. Founded as a nonprofit 15 years ago, the Foundation has promised to provide something other than just another place to watch the latest blockbuster. Instead, the Foundation has created a community of active filmgoers by curating programming that teaches, engages, and enriches its audience.

Original posters from the Brattle Theater archives.
Original posters from the Brattle Theater archives.

As part of its 15-year celebration, the Foundation opened up its archives to give the neighborhood a glimpse into its varied history.

The various owners over the years have maintained an extensive collection of monthly screening calendars, newspaper clippings, and programs, dating back to the first play performed in the Brattle in May of 1890.

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Brattle Theater manager log book, July 1995 – May 1996.

Two versions of their original sign, original movie posters (my particular favorite was the brightly colored poster from Visconti’s 1967 film “The Stranger”), and even an exhibit of the different types of film that are (and used to be) delivered to the Brattle over the years were on display. Small groups were even given tours of the projection room, one of the only rear-screen projection booths still in operation in the United States.

Brattle Theater projection.
Brattle Theater projection room. Photo by Steph Pixley.

What was missing from the archives was just as interesting, however: After an unfortunate bankruptcy the Brattle passed hands to new owners who took little interest in preserving programs, posters, and the like. In fact, the late 1960s through the early 1980s are referred to as the “lost years” in the Brattle archives. Reassuringly, Ned Hinkle, the Creative Director of the Brattle, has expressed interest in an archival investigation into these missing years.

…A project for local archivists and film buffs, perhaps?!

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Memory Vault: Curating Community Access Television

By Matt Spry

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Towards the end of high school, I helped produce a live call-in talk show that appeared on my local public-access television station. Given our influences and the overall lack of adult supervision — we once featured a cast member’s dramatization of a classroom finger-stapling incident — I’m not sure we would have created the same content had there been a public event that re-aired that material 20 or 25 years later. Fortunately, due to the efforts of several dedicated media professionals based in Somerville, MA, the Community Vault project does just that.

Local media makers and Somerville Community Access Television (SCATV) members, Amanda Wild, Emily Falcigno, Bryan McKeon, and Erica Jones (SCATV’s Director of Membership and Outreach) are members of the project’s program committee and were instrumental in shaping the theme of the inaugural event. The seed for this idea — the public exhibition of community media content from Massachusetts — was planted during months of casual conversation, and the group sought to create a retrospective program with an emphasis on the dynamic between past and present.

In parallel with SCATV’s own deep dive into its archives for suitable content, the station sent out a call for submissions to sister stations throughout Massachusetts (submissions were required in digital format). After reviewing anywhere from 100 to 200 hours of footage over several months, the committee chose submissions from media centers based in Cambridge, Somerville, Ashland, Northampton, Stoughton, and Easton. In any selection process driven by careful curation, plenty of worthy submissions must be excluded and that was no different here. According to Wild, the committee “didn’t start with specific criteria” for their selections, but a more intangible “fit” — in tone, context, and length — became an important aspect of the review. Falcigno described the challenge of making the program flow as “puzzle pieces all over the table, and parts of puzzle pieces fitting together and having a continuously morphing puzzle.” The result was a program that spanned over three decades of local media production, and ranged from the historically compelling to the surreal and comedic.

On a warm afternoon this past June, dozens of theatergoers packed into Somerville’s Davis Square Theater for a screening of the final product. The program began with the offscreen voice of sitting U.S. President Barack Obama as he spoke at Cambridge Public Library in 1995. In another sequence, a skeleton chatted away while wearing colonial garb. An amateur scientist earnestly guided the audience through the relationship between containers and the “invisible” force of physics. A young Tracy Chapman delivered a subdued but stirring musical performance. Through roughly two hours of programming, the audience was subjected to shifts in tone and subject matter, some subtle and others jarring, but they felt seamless and familiar — despite having no personal recollection of this content, I felt oddly nostalgic for the times and places in which they were produced. For others, however, the screening hit very close to home. Some attendees had even appeared on or helped produce the content that was shown. In a strange twist, a woman tending bar just outside the theater recalled appearing on an early 1990s show called “Somerville Dance Party,” the city’s awkward, adolescent take on the “Soul Train” format.

Falcigno noted that the theater experience “was totally different for me because watching it non-stop, editing, helping Amanda edit, and then seeing it on a large screen in a dark space without distractions — and also hearing how the audience was reacting — made me see it in a different light.” The audience howled with laughter where the curators had hoped (the aforementioned Somerville Dance Party) and grew quiet and pensive when more profound content, such as footage of couples gathered at Cambridge City Hall on the day same-sex marriage was legalized in 2004, was used to demonstrate how far our communities have come and how much further we have to go.

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The short documentary, “The Staircase” — which chronicled the community push for a staircase to provide safe passage down a hazardous hill following a teen’s death — provided such a bridge to the past. In an email exchange last month, screening attendee and Executive Director of The Welcome Project, Warren Goldstein-Gelb, shared that, “[i]t was powerful to see Mystic residents from 30 years ago working hard and paying a big price (a child’s death) in organizing for the stairs to be constructed. I felt inspired by the efforts of Mystic youth and adults so many years ago, and believe that the documentary can inspire a new generation of residents, who, despite much improvement, still struggle for better connections between home and school all these years later.” That a 25-year-old segment of the screening can still resonate so strongly with the audience speaks to the effectiveness of the Community Vault team’s curation process, and the lasting connection between communities and the media they create.
While the program committee has no publicly stated plans for the future of the project, Jones hopes that such a showcase helps viewers “to see community media as not just the Wayne’s World kind of stuff” and that it illustrates to other media stations “a way to collaborate with different groups and members, and other stations, to put together something similar.”

Ghost in the Artifact: Object-Oriented Histories and the Archaeology of the Present

by Matt Spry

There’s a scene in the 1994 film Pulp Fiction where Captain Koons, played by Christopher Walken, explains the history behind a gold watch he’s delivering to the adolescent son of a fallen Vietnam War comrade. On its face, this scene is evidence that Walken is a great actor and Quentin Tarantino writes dialogue well. More important, though, it demonstrates that even seemingly mundane objects have interesting and sincere stories attached to them.

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Since founding the Mobile Museum of American Artifacts (MMoAA) about two years ago, director Laurelin Kruse has explored the relationship between objects, the people who owned them, and the stories that bind them together. During a June 2015 event in Somerville, MA (co-sponsored by NEMMC), Kruse stood in front of the 1968 Cardinal travel trailer that houses the museum’s collection, and discussed its origins, objectives, and ongoing collection development.

The fuels that keep this traveling museum running are, according to Kruse, “the sincerity of people who participate” and “feeling the ‘ghosts’ behind objects.” When she drives MMoAA to a new destination, it’s an opportunity to welcome new visitors to the exhibit and convey the museum’s message of embracing the connectedness and richness of everyday life. Then, there’s an implicit opportunity to convert these visitors to donors; many museum patrons (this author included) donate personal objects from their own lives. Some people may learn of the MMoAA’s impending visit to their community and bring a donation during their first walk-through. Others only learn about the museum upon their first visit and are compelled to run home for something meaningful to donate. Every donation is accompanied by a donor form for additional context. Kruse makes an audio recording of each donor’s story about the object — a requirement for every donation — and his or her connection to it. Since Kruse performs no additional research about an object’s origins, the donor’s memories alone comprise the wall text that future visitors will read when the object is exhibited.

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As part of this process, Kruse is exploring an “archaeology of the present” and whether “it’s possible to create [a] kind of intimate, emotional connection between strangers” through the relatable stories that donors tell about their personal items. The objects that line the shelves of the museum’s walls couldn’t be more different — a pair of oven-melted glasses sits alongside a group of “flip” cell phones and an antique doorknob, among other exhibit configurations — but all of them, now divorced from their primary use, attain artifactual value in this museum setting. However, in the space between an object and the donor who once used it, an odd phenomenon emerges, according to Kruse. “[W]e can try so hard to summon a person or a moment through an object, something that was once very much alive, but objects are inherently inanimate, and so this absence and silence is all the more apparent, devastating, creepy, heartbreaking, present. Objects contain the presence of an absence and an absence of a presence.”

MMoAA’s approach to collection development — where the donor might be anyone, the object could be anything, and personal narrative trumps aesthetic value — breaks sharply with conventional museum practice, and Kruse found resistance within the field of libraries, museums, and archives (LAM) even before the project was operational. In relaying a discussion she had with a museum curator, she noted that “he shook his head often, and wondered what I was doing there (with my half-baked idea). I left totally devastated and thinking I’d made a huge mistake, that at best I’d end up with a pile of meaningless junk, or more likely, nothing at all.” Since the project has been on the road, however, Kruse has been surprised and encouraged by the reactions of visitors, donors, and colleagues. “Now that MMoAA has had a little time to become itself, people in the LAM field, seeing the MMoAA parked in front of their institution of employment, or at their local farmer’s market, have for the most part been surprised and delighted by the MMoAA. One of my favorite parts of this whole project is that it inspires spontaneous conversations with people in the field who constantly think about these issues and are at the forefront of how the field is changing.”

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While Kruse’s subversion of the traditional museum model is not without its detractors, it does speak to a continuing trend of community-focused hybridization within the LAM field. Libraries continue to embrace their roles as makerspaces. The success of StoryCorps is evidence of a sustained public interest in oral histories. Pop-up museums are all the rage. As much as MMoAA bears many of the traditional marks of a museum, it can also be considered a sort of object-oriented oral history project. “Not everyone is on board, but my hope is that it will make people think a little differently about museums, our own pasts, objects, the stories we tell, how we assign meaning and value, where nostalgia comes from, why we’re trying to preserve the past or make it known, and whose history we’re telling and who is telling it,” Kruse said.

While her aspirations for MMoAA include collecting donations from all 50 states and a potential documentary project, Kruse remains focused on developing the collection through contributions gathered during artist residencies and stops throughout the country. She added, “as the collection grows and features objects and stories from a wider range of geographic locations and communities, I’d like to play with that more, showcasing artifacts that may contrast with my current location, or complement it.”
The MMoAA will be featured at the Rocky Neck Artist Colony in Gloucester, MA through September 28, 2015, before traveling to The Children’s Museum of Denver in Colorado on October 10, 2015. Kruse and the museum will end the autumn season in Green River, UT for the Frontier Fellows Artist Residency at Epicenter from October 22 through November 22, 2015. For more information on the continuing travels of Kruse and MMoAA, visit: themmoaa.org.