A History of the Object in 100 Worlds

Alt Text I was the Visualist-in-Residence at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry, Los Angeles during the summer and fall of 2012. My project proposal was "Object-oriented Exhibit Design". Below is photographic documentation of the installation and the text I used for a public presentation on October 13th.

The project spun off into strange, yet fertile, territory. Object-oriented exhibition design was merely the dock from which I set off on an incredible journey. Paradox, poetry, and noise.

The project can be summarized thus...

The display of an object is also its breaking.

Alt Text

Object-oriented Exhibition Design

I started this project with the intention of developing an “object-oriented exhibition design”. By that I meant a means of designing museum exhibitions that did not place the human at the center of the universe, or, to put it in differently, placed the objects at the center of the design process. Wait!, you cry. Exhibition design already does this. Not so, says me. I contend that what counts as “exhibition design” today either undermines or overmines the objects on display. The undermining of an object is the process by which we subordinate objects to some ideology, often in exhibition design this is narrative. Or, undermining can be the scientific naturalists approach in breaking down an object into some ultimate bottom God-particle, to say that all objects are constituted of the same material. Overmining, on the other hand, is the denial of objects altogether, the argument maintains that what is essential are processes, flows, dynamism, universal movements that are larger than any specific object, where specific objects are merely manifestations of this universal movement.

What is Exhibition Design?

My research into exhibition design is not exhaustive, nor is the field itself fully defined. What I have discovered, though, is that the guiding principle of ED is narrative. Numerous sources and authorities state that their beginning point is with a narrative concept and that objects and materials are then selected to best create an environment that communicates. I disagree with this approach for two reasons, which are essentially the same. 1. First, the human-centered aspect of narrative. Narrative fallacy, the abstracting of complex systems. 2. Second, the subordination of objects to narrative. When an exhibition is designed according to a narrative structure, the objects themselves are not allowed to be the multi-faceted wonders that they are. A strict delineation, delimitation occurs that specifies that this thing is this thing and no other. (As we we will see later, this is not the case; once an object is removed from its context and situated in a new context, it becomes an entirely new object, though still the same on the interior, its intentional or sensual qualities are altered by the new relations and objects within which it becomes situated).

What is OOO?


Heidegger shows us in his tool-analysis that we can relate to an object in one of two ways, as either ready-to-hand or present-at-hand. The well-worn example is the carpenter and his hammer. When the carpenter is hammering, the hammer is ready-to-hand. He is not necessarily thinking about the hammer as a hammer, but is instead engaged in the process of hammering. But, if the hammer breaks, he turns his conscious awareness to the hammer and it becomes present-at-hand, no longer functioning as hammer. Now, an object doesn't necessarily need to break to become present-at-hand. Turning our conscious awareness to an object does this.


Along comes Graham Harman, who has this idea called tool-being. Harman extends Heidegger's tool-analysis to all objects, so that it is not only humans who encounter hammers either read- or present-at-hand, but the hammer encounters the nail it strikes as ready- or present-at-hand. For Harman, all beings are tools. You, me, this computer I'm writing on, the screen or page on which you are reading this, etc. Furthermore, ready-to-hand is the tool in its being, whereas present-at-hand is the tool broken. Again, broken-tool doesn't necessarily imply that the tool actually breaks. What it means is that the tool is no longer doing its tool-thin in the world. It is removed from its context. It ceases to function in its tool-being.


The Display of an Object is Also its Breaking

So, to display an object is to break it. It may, in fact, be a double breaking. The first break occurring when the object is discovered and moved into the research laboratory. The second break occurring when the object is placed in a wall case, on a pedestal, or in a vitrine. Either, way, what is important for this discussion is that the object is now broken. It is no longer doing its tool-thing. Though it is now doing an entirely new tool-thing. So, the object, that which constitutes its mysterious inner core, does not change, but it's relations do as do its sensual qualities and accidents as the new context, or object, in which the first object finds itself redefine and reconstitute it as something different. For example, the stone axe. Once used for chopping and cutting, maybe some killing. In the museum, it performs none of these tasks. It is in a case, under lights, on display. It is effectively a new object, though still the same stone-axe. It is also effectively broken as it is no longer doing its stone-axe-thing.

So, the stone-axe is not actually what narrative defines it as. It is something entirely different. It once, speculatively, may have been an implement of harvesting and warfare, but is now something entirely different. Narrative tends to deny this new role accorded to the object.

Furthermore, when you encounter the object on display and you pause to contemplate it as an object, you are removing yourself from your context, turning your conscious awareness to your thoughts about this thing, you are effectively breaking your mind. So, the display of an object, is the encounter of two broken-tools.


Objects are paradoxical. They are defined by their relations and yet simultaneously withdrawn from all relations. No matter how we weigh, measure, photograph, x-ray, crush, pulverize, disintegrate the stone-axe, we will never access its inner realm. It is for ever hidden from us. Likewise, our own bodies. We will never truly know this meat bag that constitutes our being. What we instead encounter are the sensual qualities.

The Great Exhibition


This project has brought me back around to art. I was done with it after grad school. The conclusion I came to after becoming a “professional” is that ART IS THE MIRROR HELD UP TO REFLECT THE DIVIDE BETWEEN NATURE AND SOCIETY. I still believe this, but now I no longer think it's a bad thing. Humans will never change. We are forever cursed to be stupid animals that believe we are smart. Drawing is a means by which to communicate the magical qualities of objects. Art, that is. Art, when it's good, situates us in an environment, in our environment, and teaches us something we didn't know, or did but forgot, about objects and the world we inhabit. Art when it's bad is mired in signs, signifiers, meaning, about-ness, and endless layers of social coding that only those in the know can decipher.

I don't know that the drawings in the lab perform this, but it was an experiment to investigate and communicate aspects of the objects that may go unappreciated.


Poetry is the language of paradox. It is the economical means by which to express more than one idea, often contradictory, simultaneously.

It is also a tool by which to undo the strict bounds of language and highlight languages tool-being as an object in itself. Words are tools.

The poems in the lab are my experiments in writing didactic wall texts as poetry.


Joined Not By Logic Or Power Or Use But By The Gentle Knot Of The Comma

A toy truck stamped “Redwood Logger”, a pair of shoe lasts, size 11C, with the inscription Captain Boyd McCook, retired (deceased), an unknown object, a candelstick holder, three melted wax balls, the larger two black, the smaller white, two metal fittinings, hot blackened, a strip of film, two chalk stones, an alligator bone, an OPEN/CLOSE sign, a plastic box, a pinecone, a Horlick’s malted milk bottle, a charred piece of bamboo, a scrap of Chinese newspaper, all within a cardboard box.

  1. Tiny, Separate, but Contiguous Universes
  2. Everything Sits Suspended
  3. The Infinity of the Meanwhile
  4. San Pellegrino
  5. Three Broken Objects
  6. Two bottles and you.


Quadropscopic view of four bottles breaking, brought together into one image. To use technology to “see” something we can't with our own eyes, ever. We will never be able to watch four bottles break simultaneously from four vantage points.

Music to Break Phonographs By

How to play both sides of a record? A record that would loop forever must be a Mobius strip.