Dumb Things, Addressed

C James Fagan takes Mark Leckey’s lead and runs with it, analysing how we make sense of our world through cultural artefacts…

In a previous article, I quoted Brian Eno. The quote was about how we had become, in his words, ‘perfume blenders’; this was his description of the process everyone undertakes by organising the myriad disparate elements to make some form of sense of the world. The drive of that statement suggested that this was a uniquely contemporary phenomenon.

Perhaps not, maybe there is something fundamental about this process. In the way we create, collect and experience artefacts, and how we call these things culture. How this creates a cycle where the individual impacts on culture and vice versa, and how this reflects the creation of a cultural and individual idea of the self.

The starting point for this line of enquiry began with the Mark Leckey-curated The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, currently at the Bluecoat. The exhibition is a cultural smorgasbord of objects primed with significance, significance which alters in relation to different items. It would take some time to breakdown each individual object’s meaning and the relationships between them all. Needless to say, Leckey has created his own taxonomy, a system of categorising and collecting things based on his concept of ‘techno-animism’. Like many taxonomies it is arbitrary, overlaid on the world by humans.

“We employ them in everything from the sciences to culture, your record collection and book shelves”

The creation of taxonomies is one of the more obscure things which can lay claim to being the ‘oldest profession’. But the earliest taxonomies where created in order to determine which plants where poisonous and which weren’t, so these systems have played a role in our development. Since then, we as a society have employed them in everything from the sciences to culture, and even your record collection and book shelves.

Another reason these systems exist is that they provide a way of communication, a kind of shorthand to a set of cultural ideas, something to allow us to talk about things that, in themselves, are quite nebulous. Think about the sub-sections and genres used to describe different artforms: conceptualism, modernism, post-modernism, relativism. Whatever the terms are, there is this idea that these titles have been arbitrarily assigned by, well the likes of me, responding to the whims of what we call culture. For a much more elegant description of the arbitrary nature of taxonomies I suggest Borges’ 1942 essay, ‘The Analytical Language of John Wilkins’, which features the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’s Taxonomy.

It may seem that by calling these systems arbitrary that I’m dismissing this process. It could be argued that these taxonomies form part of a collective memory, an axis on which this collective hallucination we call culture turns. They are also the systems we use in order to describe ourselves, especially within our western culture. For example I’m male, a writer, artist, nerd; all cultural artefacts which I use to describe myself (this is a paraphrasing of the ideas of what makes the self as suggested by Michael Lewis in the February 23rd edition of the New Scientist, check it out).

In the context of Leckey’s exhibition, we see through his arrangement of objects a description of himself, and a reflection of his ideas of what defines the on-going process that we call culture. How apparently disparate objects share similarities, how they relate to each other and how they relate to each individual viewer; for each viewer will bring their own taxonomies and import their own set of values. For example, I can read the mid-section of gallery 2 differently, due to the presence of the head of a Cyberman. Its presence there can be read as a warning of the dehumanising effects of technology, part of the reason they were created.

Though in the end it can be argued that it’s not about me, or Leckey, it’s about the world we live in  and the way we relate to it. The cultural self we create to exist in a malleable world, a self which is shaped by the world we inhabit and alters thanks to the ongoing march of culture and technology which has been going on for quite some time now. By curating these ‘dumb things’ and examining our relationship with the objects we create, Leckey has opened up a discourse not only about how we define the notion of culture, it also touches on the way this helps define the notion of the individual self. As the two are intertwined, neither exists without the other.

This is where this article ends, please file under Culture, sub-section Arts.

C James Fagan

The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things continues at the Bluecoat until the 14th of April

Posted on 27/02/2013 by thedoublenegative