At the centre of my design interventions is the idea of working in the margins, on the edge, in the spaces between. “Embodiment” refers to the tension and struggle between a world in which what is valued is increasingly digital, distant, and idealized and a world of everyday relationships, sensations, and mystery.
I have lived in the interstices, gleaning, struggling for meaning between street protests and my job in an ad agency, building furniture while working in refuges where it always seems the world is falling apart. When I was first becoming an artist/designer, I didn’t gave any thought to where I’d get my materials. I went directly to the piles of stuff left behind by other students in the workshops, finding abundant treasure just as I had done as a young traveler. When I work with discarded materials I bring the sensitivity I learned through years of working with women and children in crisis. I am committed to the objects’ integrity and new life.
Throughout the process, I find myself in relationships with people who attach sensations and stories of their own. It is not a conceptual design process. We stop for coffee and a smoke. It’s a slow journey with these unwieldy objects moving through my house and all their ghostly owners and our inquisitive neighbours accompanying.
When I was a child we used to go as a family and get things. We’d go to paddocks and pick mushrooms. We’d go to pick rosehips off the side of the roads. And firewood. So it’s within my family to do it. Later, when my politics finally won the battle with my career I went to live on communes and wanted to never going shopping again. I resolved to not buy anything that I didn’t need. I went to Australia with a group of people. We lived for 10 months with no money, hitchhiking, sleeping outside, getting our food from the skip bins behind the shops.
So when I became an artist and designer, from the start I was getting my materials in the way I was used to. “Look, here’s a pile of materials in the workshop.” That wasn’t an artistic decision, that’s just how I operate.
Bourriard writes about what he calls ‘relational aesthetics’. New technology has served to separate us from each other. The example that he gave is that now that we go to the ATM to get our money, we expect professionals to behave more like machines, and we have a higher level of intolerance for people’s personal foibles. But we miss out on all those opportunities to have those interactions that can be pleasant, or not pleasant, the experience that you develop your social/relational skills. Gleaning and swapping and exchange for me is a way of recreating new relationships with each other.
Gleaning isn’t a gimmick for me. What is found is enough. It’s not that I happened to find a few interesting objects, or that gleaning is a cool activity. It’s that for a long time I’ve been living with a sense of sufficiency and richness and pleasure, and treasure, in the interstices.
We talk about objects today as being designed to have built-in obsolescence. They might break really quickly, and they’re so cheap that you just get a new one. But a lot of the things that I’ve found are obsolete just because there’s something new to replace them, or someone has moved on emotionally or mentally from having that object. I understand that because I always want to redecorate my house according to how I’m feeling. Obsolete is sad, no longer useful, no longer fit for their purpose within the previous context. I want things to stop being obsolete, or to be in a new place where they are no longer obsolete.
When I first met them, these objects had become, as Avery Gordon describes it, “a sad and sunken couch that sags in just that place where an unrememberable past and an unimaginable future force us to sit day after day.” They had become furniture with memories that people had rejected, or with memories tucked away within them but forgotten by the possessor of the object.
My job as a gleaner is to pay attention to the things that no one else does, to recognise the potential of these objects, to listen to their stories, to explore their pockets, to imagine their possible histories and futures, and to get them home again.
The Icon Drawer was an object that I found while on a gleaning expedition on Waiheke Island. Every two years the council arranges an inorganic rubbish collection day, when everybody who has large rubbish can put it out on the side of the road and the council picks it up for no charge. As in many places, the rubbish is put out during the week preceding this removal date and local people drive and walk around “shopping”. I knew the story of the house fire. This drawer was the one intact piece remaining and it immediately caught my eye. The chest and the drawers were all badly burnt and broken amongst other burnt objects piled haphazardly. On the inorganic day, you always have the idea that you’re going to find the treasure. It was an intimate and tragic and yucky search. I was really aware that this was a pile full of somebody’s misery. I was treasure hunting in tragedy.
I find things that I think are beautiful and need a little bit of something to make them elicit that feeling that they are beautiful again. At some point somebody chose this object. And then, for whatever reason, they un-chose it. The challenge is how to intervene with them.
I’m attracted to interventions that are gentle and reverent. With a feeling that this object has a history and is full of stories, and I am involving myself in its stories.
I usually live with the objects. I don’t leave them in the workshop. I bring them home and I live with them for a little while. I know them. I get an idea about what they are before I start working on them. I’m attracted to them for whatever reason. It’s not always clear, at first, what attracts me. The drawer and the table were instantly evocative of memories. Whereas the office chairs took me a while to sit in to what I was going to do with them. But I really liked the form, and the wheeling and the spinning.
In the past when I’ve designed, I drew and made models. It’s a completely different process working with objects that already exist. I work with them directly, rather than imagining something, drawing it, and then making it. From the moment of finding these objects, I am having a relationship with them, not with some abstract idea in my head. They aren’t taking shape, they already have a shape and presence. It’s a fully embodied process, rather than a formal one
My intention is to work with and support the feeling of the original object. I preserve the integrity of the object, and don’t introduce a striking difference or a new aesthetic. I like to develop the object within its own aesthetic.
When I had a broken chair, I realized it had been made poorly, so I rebuilt the frame correctly, based on studying the original design. Rather than replacing the leg, I examined why it was broken and took a craft approach to the problem. In this way I increased its value with reverence for its own form, for well-made things and for craft. If it’s broken, I repair it. If it’s a fragment I find interesting, and draw attention to its interest and beauty, but I won’t mishmash it up with other things.
I like to blur the difference between the old and the new. It needs to be obvious that something has happened, but I don’t want to do it in a way that is jarring or abrupt. I don’t make aggressive interventions. I’m not interested in destroying in order to recreate. I’m just wanting to shift things slightly, to create an intervention that might actually shift things quite a lot mentally or emotionally for myself or people. I want an intervention that is subtle, but can be intense for people who are paying attention, but almost invisible to people who are not paying attention. I want to create a connection for the participants, not a spectacle. Tiny motions can be so dramatic for those who are involved.
I have reverence for the original design that is still there. I’m not just looking for parts. At the same time, it’s not veneration of the object. It’s not refurbishing or restoration, which simultaneously wipes away the lived history of an object’s use while locking it away into history as “antique”.
I didn’t have a story for the Store Cabinet and I realize that the story is essential to my process in this project. Even the incomplete pieces still have integrity. I don’t force objects to completion. The Store Cabinet doesn’t have a story, I can’t work with it yet. Its story hasn’t come. I’m letting it be. I’m not forcing a story on it. I’m not making one up. And I still love it. We haven’t matured together to the point where I’m going to be able to get it dressed up and send it on its way. As a shop cabinet it hasn’t spent enough time in a home yet whereas the other objects have already been in homes. Maybe I’ll put the little empty suitcases of a foster child in it.
I’m patient. It takes me time to get to know the objects. But the intervention itself, ideally, I imagine it as a quick thing. I have this idea about the process, that I could find these things, make some minor, small change that enhances the character, rather than changing it. And then put it out there again to be wanted and used.
Bourriaud (2002) refers to the term ‘interstice’, which Karl Marx used to describe “trading communities that elude the capitalist economic context by being removed from the law of profit”. Recently Australian economist Gibson-Graham identified the many forms of production, exchange, and consumption which exist outside of market and employment calculations. Gleaning and salvaging is part of a dense network of unofficial economic activity. Some gleaning has a recognizable barter characteristic (such as my acquisition of the Screen in exchange for some carpentry), or something more subtle, such as some exchanges I have made in which the “payment” was a story, or simply a feeling of connection.
The system that we’re in is a net; it’s pretty tight and controlling. But there are always spaces in the net. Things fall out, other things happen. Those are the interstices – the ignored places within our story and within our control system. Those places are desolate in some ways, but they are also places where the rules don’t get enforced. They imply both abandonment and impoverishment, but also freedom and an opportunity for creativity.
The side of the road is an interstitial location. People identify objects as rubbish and put them out for the collectors. I enter that space and redefine the objects. The interstitial space provides an opportunity for an experimental intervention into a unquestioned process.
At the point of intervening in the objects, I find myself attracted to the spaces in-between. The space that’s inside, the space behind, cushions and backs splitting open. .
Certainly, when I intervene with these objects, I am standing in a place between their past and their future, and my own.
I am attracted to the interstitial because for much of my life I have been dealing with the expected surface of things, and the places where that breaks down or changes, or just isn’t true. But regardless of the reality underneath, or how committed we may be to an “alternative reality”, the surface is still part of the story and I see those those spaces and tensions as interesting, informative, evocative. Our lives are full of fissures.
Bachelard is a philosopher who thinks about interior spaces. He’s interested in how interior spaces connect with our memories of intimacy or security. “With the theme of drawers, chests, locks, and wardrobes, we shall resume contact with the unfathomable store of daydreams of intimacy.” (78). He writes about the need for secrecy, a sense of hiding places. I was attracted to the Icon Drawer which I recognized as the top drawer for these reasons. I take ideas about containment, interiors, secrets and intimacy and integrate that understanding into my design, investigation, and engagement with that existing object. This process is one of revealing, uncovering, opening into the interior spaces of the furniture. In understanding the interstitial as “a space of difference”, expectations are disrupted, opening up possibilities, allowing the furniture to be used and experienced in a new way.
As a designer I need to know if there is really work for me to do. Does the world need more objects? Cradle to Cradle is an important book which encourages designers to concern themselves with issues of sustainability from the start of the design process. I agree that designers should create more sustainable things in this way but I also want to recover the things that are already out there. Doris Salcedo might keep things out of garbage dumps, but she’s moving them from furniture into art. For the moment I stick with what seems the more difficult agenda of maintaining them as furniture.
Enhancing the longevity of an object is not only about materials use, but also about enabling the same object to maintain its relevance. I want to redesign in a way that keeps the object alive, historically present, inviting re-engagement. I see myself in relationship with these objects as one in a long line of New Zealand do-it-yourselfers interacting with furniture. The object is in constant transformation through history, through time. That’s my idea of sustainability.
My project is to make things desirable again. The desire was once there for these objects. Obviously that desire is gone; otherwise they wouldn’t be on the side of the road or in people’s garages. It’s more than a logic of how not to waste materials; it’s how do we continue to like these objects, how do we sustain our desire for the same object?
I’m figuring out how to go to an interstitial location that has been abandoned, or never seen, and give it creative spark, make it a space that people want to be, a space from which new ideas and experiences come. A sense of treasure. The boundaries between exterior and interior are rich and productive. That boundary is where desire bursts forth, where longings are witnessed.
This chair. The one I’m sitting on. A friend of mine walked past it in my house every couple of weeks for a few months. And then I put the zip in and inserted the fabric behind the zip and she was like “where did that come from? That’s fantastic!” Before that it was completely unnoticeable, and unattractive. I didn’t do much to it and it went from being ripped and deflated to being complete again, in a new way, and attractive.
I am figuring out how to make that difference between obsolete and desirable. What makes desire last a long time? Some of the things I have found are considered to be “good design”, even “classic”. How do they become unwanted? What gives objects a staying power in desire? What imparts longevity?
Bachelard’s emphasis on intimacy suggests that objects that touch us intimately don’t become obsolete as much or as fast. So maybe keeping objects alive is about making people feel intimate with them (again).
My intervention seeks not so much to change the object, as to change the perception and practice of the object. A place for daydreams.
The Icon Drawer stirred memories of my Great Aunt who sat at a similar dresser when readying herself for the day or evening or even taking a break during the day. I would watch her and we would talk. She sometimes showed me special things from the top drawer as she went through the rituals of applying make-up, brushing her hair, putting on jewellery.
The finished objects don’t tell a literal story. They carry their own history and histories that I’ve read into them. I do use the concept of assembly, but what I assemble is a jumble of evocative concepts that I’m whispering about, and leaving threads of. But my story isn’t foregrounded and I don’t require people to understand my meanings, I want openness so people can bring their own story.
People do love hearing the stories I’ve attached to the objects, but they sometimes react quite strongly to the objects without hearing the story.
When I talk about “minimalist” intervention I mean that on a conceptual as well as a physical level. I don’t want to be dictating the whole idea and spelling it out. I just want to evoke and open up the possibilities so that someone else can hook on their own story to the object and be drawn into it.
If I were to break the integrity of the object then I would be breaking the possibility that people can recognize it as their own history. If you put in a leg from a different history or style, then they are thinking “why?” instead of “oh, I remember that kind of table.” I want people to be consumed with their own story about the object.
So the objects become desirable by a kindling of memories, thoughts, or emotions. That’s why I keep the integrity of the objects. So my memories of my great aunt suggest that that drawer will trigger other people’s memories. And thereby make it desirable again. So they want to take it home and have it be active in their life as a vessel for their stories.
In a way, I’m not trying to create desire for the object, but for the relationships attached to the object. I am stimulating the desire for relationship in the context of object acquisition. But I don’t want to be manipulative. I want people to want to have the object around them for a while, but I don’t want to sell them anything false. It’s something that’s already inside them, but it becomes an outward expression, rather than something they get home with and feel hollow about and need to go buy something new.
Wendy Neale, as told to Amory Starr, 2009
Also see Tara Robertson’s interview with Wendy in World Sweet World