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Eloquent objects

December 9, 2012

renebaker

My writing brain isn’t working this week – my head and heart are too occupied with closing my Finnish life chapter and moving back to England – so this is a reworking of a post I wrote for the MIMO project blog about a workshop I gave during the first MIMO seminar on social arts and wellbeing.

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I always look forward to the moment in the workshop when we choose objects to represent people.

“This is me” a woman said, opening an umbrella. “I like to shield people, protect them. But sometimes I close up.” She folded the umbrella and began jabbing with it. “And I can be sharp and poky. Not nice.”

“I am this vase. My life is empty at the moment. But I’ll soon be filled again.”

“I am a pair of glasses. I like to see but I also like to hide behind them. My mother is also a pair of glasses but she is more decorative. I have a plainer frame.”

“My mother is this plastic bag. She holds me and keeps me safe. But…” and the woman squeezed the bag shut, trapping a balloon of air inside, “… sometimes she doesn’t let me breathe.”

When the circle ended we were all surprised by how accurately objects had described people and how easy it had been to choose them. Above all, we were impressed by the honesty the objects permitted and how sensitive information had been shared so simply. No-one would have been so open if I had asked “now tell me about your relationship with your mother”.

Expressing oneself through intermediary objects protects the self and disarms the ego defence mechanisms because the person is not directly addressed or exposed; the focus is on the object, not the person moving it.  Both puppets and objects provide this psychological distance but they are different.

To bring a puppet to life I create its character by imagining what it is like to be, for example, an elderly lady suffering from Alzheimers or the personification of war. A puppet is empty until I give it thoughts, feelings and actions.

Objects, however, already have a language. They speak of culture and context.  And because objects have cultural associations they can be used symbolically and metaphorically to create characters that are recognisable by their social values.

During the MIMO workshop we explored a random selection of everyday things – scissors, sponge, screwdriver, plastic bag, cup, etc. – to find out what objects have to say about ourselves and society.

One technique is the interview. Participants were asked to each choose an object to be displayed in a museum 100 years from now and to present it as a curator would: “This is a chair, people used to sit on it, this one is small so it probably belonged to a child.”

The group then asked the curator questions: “Did every home have one? Were chairs only used for sitting? This chair is red, was colour important?”, and the curator’s responses helped make a bigger picture of the object and its social function.

Then the participants asked the object questions, speaking directly to the object rather than to the curator. It works best if the curator doesn’t try to animate the object or pretend it is a character, they simply hold the object in their hand, look at it, and say whatever comes to mind.

A can of coca cola was asked: “We have heard you make people happy” (the curator had given this information in their museum presentation), “How do you do this?” and the coke replied: “I alter the chemicals in their brain”.

Humans tell one side of the cultural story and objects tell another. Objects are often worried about cleanliness and being handled correctly. They are quick to point out the difference in a man’s and woman’s touch. They talk about society and its codes.

There was once a toilet brush who was at the bottom of the hierarchy in the bathroom but maintained its dignity because it became the most important when guests were expected. Often there is a pain in the object. I remember a fish scraper who was allergic to fish and hid at the back of the drawer so it couldn’t be found.

We can’t access this information unless we talk directly to the object and let it speak. Human beings tend to censor information but objects are honest.

We don’t have to be intellectual to understand objects, we simply need to look at them. During the MIMO workshop, three bottles of soft drink – a pepsi, a fanta and a water – stood side by side with a coca cola can between them. “What do we see?” I asked and the reply came without hesitation: “A short fat man and three models. They are beautiful women from different countries”.

Everyone nodded, recognising these characters from the fact that the bottles were curvaceous and the juices were different colours. Someone added: “the women are open about their feelings but the man is closed, he doesn’t show what he is thinking.”

That such interesting and potentially complex characters can be discovered in transparent plastic bottles and an impenetrable aluminium can!  This is why I love working with objects.

One Comment

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  1. Terenja Wright #
    July 12, 2015

    Wonderful, insightful, thank you.

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