Modus Operandi

 

"The principal object... was to choose incidents and situations from common life... to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way[.]"

—William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads

 

 

Preface

With the recent incentives to “go green” comes the implementation of new technologies—or perhaps a reinterpretation of pre-existing technologies.  Travelling the back roads of rural Ontario, for instance, one might happen upon a curious contrast: the sight of common, rusting, out-of-use windmills decaying on the properties of family farms, juxtaposed by the new government-subsidized solar panel projects, whose metallic veneer and sharp, immaculate edges are reminiscent of high modern sculpture.  Just as those now-rusting green projects of old, built between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, seem to have stood defiantly in the face of obsolescence, one cannot help but wonder what the future holds for the technology that has supplanted it, if these modern adaptations, having outlasted their utility, will also stand defiantly—perhaps a little overrun with vegetation—as examples of the modern picturesque.  Because some of these rusting technologies are deliberately preserved, either allowed to quietly linger, or are treated to a coat of paint as appropriated works of art, the idea that obsolete equipment might take on new life as lawn ornaments or folk sculpture has interesting implications for how we perceive everyday things that tend to recede into the backdrop of modern experience. (Click here to view windmills and solar panel projects.)

Some time back in 1999 when I was still a high school student I acquired a book entitled Country: Old Memories, written by a local farmer named Mason Fletcher.  It was purchased at Roy’s Coffee Shop in Strathroy, Ontario, where the book was being displayed at the cashier’s counter as an impulse item.  Lacking the ISBN or cataloguing information typical to a mass-marketed paperback, the book appeared to be an enigma with its uniformly flat orange exterior the colour of a slow-moving vehicle sign—standard accoutrement adorning the rear of tractors and other sluggish but roadworthy farm machinery.  In spite of my teenage cynicism (the volume, after all, is populated by what Fletcher acknowledges to be some pretty “corny ‘stuff’” [ii]), two things fascinated me about the book that directly led to surrendering the ten dollars to Roy for the purchase.  Admittedly I was intrigued by self publication, which was still relatively rare and expensive in 1999.  The book was printed in Canada at The Aylmer Express, a Google search of which will return the address and profile of a small print-on-demand service operating in the town of 7000—after which the press is named—just north of Lake Erie.  More significantly, as I leafed through the book at the cashier counter I was intrigued by the thought of why someone had taken the time to produce a volume that included prose pieces and poetry on outhouses (precursor to the modern porta-potty), rusty tools, and defunct farm equipment, the kind of rural objects that one might see decaying on the properties of generationally-inherited family farms, “weather-beaten object[s]”—as they are described in “The Passing of the Backhouse”—of “simple classic art” (lines 3, 10).[1]  Working in the ekphrastic mode (I suppose), some of the poems and prose pieces are accompanied by photographs of the now anachronistic technology they memorialize: old corn planters, antiquated surveying equipment used to measure plots of land, manually-powered post-hole augers, crockery ink wells, horse-drawn hay mowers, crank pumps, glass milk bottles.

            Unbeknownst to me until this past October, only a few concessions from where I grew up lives an artist named Scott McKay.  Essentially McKay’s work involves the “repurposing” of metal into sculpture—what might be considered a form of objet trouvé in a similar territory as Marcel Duchamp’s misappropriation of urinals, bicycle wheels and snow shovels, everyday objects rendered uncanny through a type of misuse or de-contextualization.  Because the raw material of McKay’s work is comprised of “scrap” or refuse, I was struck by a description on his website about how he locates and acquires the materials for his work, a process which at times necessitates clandestine rambles through forests and the back lots of farm estates to annex the material unconscious of a way of life that both conceals its obsolescence, yet invites an aesthetic intervention.  Intrigued by his artist’s statement about how his “eye catches a form in the forest or a scrap pile that deserves tribute,”[2] I contacted McKay, introduced myself as an academic debutant of detritus, and asked him a few questions about his work, particularly, about how seeing those aggregates of human-constructed debris abandoned in forests and on rural properties influence his artistic practice.  Although McKay downplayed the “rural” slant to his repurposing venture, living in a rural environment (a few kilometres from Newbury, Ontario, population 436) certainly makes him guilty by association, as much of the ready-at-hand material he requisitions is the same brand of rural objects immortalized by Fletcher in photography and verse.  “Frequently I will go at night if there is a question of ownership” McKay told me in an email, adding parenthetically “I would prefer to avoid the debate on the value of a pile of rusting steel with an old farmer that has the ear from his first pig” (email).  The value that some of these farmers place on “scrap” seems ironically contrasted by that scrap’s existence as devalued refuse and the value that artists like McKay place on it as deferred art, as material with potential alterity.  McKay adds: “I have asked many farmers about their scrap pile.  Some are happy to see it gone, some will have it turn to dust or perhaps they say to their wives ‘This will all be yours when I am gone’… only to have it go for less than scrap value at the estate auction” (ibid.).

Specifically I asked McKay if there is any sort of preservationist motivation to his work.  His response was that he does “feel a motivation to preserve the work that was put into the individual pieces[,]” to display the visible remnants of the defunct tools and equipment he appropriates.[3]  The reason for this will to preserve seems to be an infectious reverence or nostalgia—transferred from owner to owner, or artisan to artisan—for the human agency involved not only in the original design, but also in the history imbued in its use:

Take a gear for example.  To get to that point there was ore that was mined and refined, steel produced, a form made and the rough casting produced, several levels of mill and lathe work, the gear is installed on a piece of equipment, the equipment is unserviceable for some reason, the gear is removed and taken to a scrap yard… I find it.  That is a lot of people involved and I always think it is a waste that so much effort is put into a single piece.  Even if it can be melted down and made into something else all those steps and human effort are gone. […] This thought developed in me from going to auctions, which I have done for a long time.  I used to buy a box of good crap for 25 cents.  So many little items.  Things worn out, bent steel, jars of screws that have stripped threads.  Each screw has a story, each piece of string that is too short, the jar that houses the useless parts was on the table of a family in the presence of family conversations.  It unsettles me at how sentimental I am about useless crap. […] I was working on a piece of steel a few years ago that had been a set of drags which were pulled behind heavy horses.  The steel quality was amazing and some collectors would have shot me knowing that I had cut it up to make a pronghorn antelope!  While grinding the steel I could smell the soil, the sweat from the horses, the leather […]  

Without a doubt McKay’s background as both a miner in Yellowknife and a millwright has instilled in him an appreciation for the minutiae of the manufacturing process, the progression from harvesting, refining, and shaping, as well as the life infused in those objects through use and through presence—through residual memory of the labour, the things those objects helped to create and sustain, their presence in the mist of human exchange.  It is at this moment that a trivial object, a tool or a piece of equipment, ceases to be a mere object and becomes something beyond its phenomenological husk, something ontological, a thing.  As Bill Brown explains in his 2001 article “Thing Theory,” “We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy…” (4).  In other words, an object reaches a sort of thinghood the moment it is wrested from its typical function, at which point, as Peter Schwenger puts it in The Tears of Things, we “see beyond the mode of blind pragmatism” (53), we see the object for what it is rather than for how it is defined by its equipmental value.  “The thing things”—as Martin Heidegger aphoristically summarizes (“The Thing” 172); it becomes ontological, transforms from inanimate object to animate abstraction that evokes an arresting, perplexed spectatorship.  “The story of objects asserting themselves as things,” Brown goes on to say, “is the story of a changed relationship to the human subject…” (“Thing Theory” 53); this mutable relationship between object and subject is precisely where thingness occurs: in the space between the dialectical exchange of spectator and object exists the ontological trace of use, the potential for new contexts, and the capacity for new modes of observation.  In “Origin of the Work of Art” Heidegger famously attempts to distinguish things with equipmental use value from those with properly identifiable aesthetic merit.  Choosing the example of a pair of peasant’s shoes, he implicitly equates the minimalist exhibition of mere shoes with those rendered in a more readily identifiable artistic medium, namely, Vincent Van Gogh’s well-known “pictorial representation.”  “A pair of peasant shoes and nothing more.”

And yet—

From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth.  In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of [the peasant’s] slow trudge through the far spreading and ever uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind.  On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil.  Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field path as evening falls.  In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. (32)

Just as Heidegger traces the ontological complexity of the subject-object relation in the leather, the “stiffly rugged heaviness” and the “dark opening of the worn insides” of a common object that represents metonymically the residue of human agency, McKay’s fascination with the ontological nature of seemingly “useless crap” functions to re-evaluate that residue; the fascination becomes a hermeneutic exercise that focuses not on utility, but on trace.  Through our email correspondence I was myself fascinated by what McKay said was most amazing about his repurposing experiences: our “insignifican[ce] in a temporal sense[,]” the transitory memories that “live on” in ephemeral things, and that can be “quickly forgotten… and rediscovered for a moment… maybe… like the smells of horses on steel” (email).

The above anecdotes about Fletcher and McKay serve a few purposes in relation to my project.  First, tracing the origins and influences (direct or indirect) of my interest in the aesthetics of rural waste and obsolescence is an important way for me to orient myself in relation to the narrative I am attempting to weave out of the fragmented, artifactual, intersecting residue of human design—what McKay called the remnants of “human effort.”  The distinction between whether that residue of human effort might be regarded as artifacts of significance or superfluous waste material seems to be the question up for debate in the museums and galleries of modernity and post-modernity, where, as pop artist Claes Oldenburg claims, a “refuse lot in the city is worth all the art stores in the world” (qtd. in “Thing Theory” 14).  The paradox that exists between what still seems to be idealized (perhaps by those removed from the context) as a simpler, tidier, earthy, and more ideal existence has always been sharply contrasted, in my experience, by the debris of hoarded, preserved, or appropriated material things in a state of deterioration—things abandoned, vacated, farm homes communally ransacked, relics of former habitation turned up in the soil (perhaps offset by shards of a broken soda bottle), properties left to accumulate the detritus of consumer culture that generates a collage of newer and older forms of technological production.  Second, in the midst of erudition, where one can become removed from the place where these things are happening on the ground (so to speak), I find reassurance in the idea that the impulse to archive and aestheticize the defunct materials of a past which, as it progresses, is perpetually removed from its contextual boundaries, is a compulsion that operates at a “grassroots” level.  Third, the motivation behind Fletcher’s self-published book on agrarian obsolescence, as well as McKay’s description of the residual history, human agency, sentiment and subjectivity cathected in even a de-threaded screw, provides a fitting example for why the phenomenology (and noumenology) of material things in an age of mechanization and mass-production has become the subject of meticulous academic scrutiny. 

Included in Fletcher’s book is a poem by William Wordsworth entitled “The Solitary Reaper,” reprinted from Fletcher’s fourth grade reader—a fitting poet to make the cut in terms of the subject matter of Old Memories.  Wordsworth, one of the monumental literary precursors attesting to the drive to poeticize rural landscapes as well as the deteriorating dwellings and objects found within them, helped to popularize at the close of the eighteenth century what he calls in the prospectus to The Recluse the “simple produce of the common day” (55).  As an advocate of the rural dérive, Wordsworth, as he puts it in the “Preface” to the 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads, set out to locate that “simple produce” not only in the “plainer and more emphatic” “elementary feelings” attributed to “the real language of men” (60), but also in strange but common “rural objects,” uncannily familiar yet anomalous artifacts that “will be found unnamed… [of] a private and peculiar interest” (“Poems on the Naming of Places” 323).  Responding to the imposition of industry and new technologies on the rural landscape, poems like “The Ruined Cottage,” which aestheticize the remnants and waste materials of rural dwelling—the “broken wall” of forsaken habitation (60), “a well / Half choked with willow flowers and weeds” (62-63), “The useless fragment of a wooden bowl” (91)—offer the most explicit examples of the archaeological drive to sift through, explicate, and re-order/catalogue the still-visible remains of a past that is quantifiable only at the moment of impending loss, the moment when those objects become obsolete and abandoned, and are slowly consumed by the wilderness that surrounds them.  The compulsion to breathe new life into the decaying detritus of “simpler” times as a response to the industrialization, mass-production and commoditization that makes the past obsolete might indeed be regarded as a last-ditch effort to document and reify that which has become uncannily other to itself owing to the deterioration of objects that verify its former existence; and though, as the author of “The Passing of the Backhouse” suggests, one in the present moment might not linger long “On what was left behind” (24), even the outhouse—a figurative repository of the material of what is discarded or “left behind”—becomes a “dear old country landmark” when caught in the moment of that transition to obsolescence (37).


[1] A number of the poems compiled in Fletcher’s book are admittedly borrowed or adapted from copyrighted material, and the poem “The Passing of the Backhouse” (pages 123-124), submitted by Ann McLean, is seemingly one of these adaptations.  A Google search of the poem yields two possible original authors: James Whitcomb Riley or Charles T. Rankin.  Absolute authorship of “The Passing of the Backhouse” is not specified by Fletcher.

[2] I originally accessed the web source for this material on October 15, 2010.  McKay’s artist’s statement has been slightly modified since then, but he still maintains that his work is “Informed by the natural world… as a tribute.”  His statement can be accessed at <http://www.strongarmforge.com/Artist%20Statement.html>.

[3] Images of McKay’s work may be accessed at: <http://www.strongarmforge.com/Sculpture.html>.  Considering McKay’s technique that preserves the visible remnants of the technology he incorporates into his sculpture, one might be reminded of Walter Pater’s statement in his collection of essays The Rennaissance (1893) about how on the crown of Michelangelo’s David there still remains “a morsel of uncut stone, as if… to maintain its connexion with the place from which [the creation] was hewn” (49).  Essentially Pater is addressing a particularly modern aesthetic whereby the work, which always has the capacity to be modified by the present, should bear the somatic signs of its rawness, display the chain of process.  Such works that strive to display their impromptu origin conform to a standard of high modernism—the Eliotonian “fragments” “shored against… ruins” (The Waste Land 431)—which attempts to represent the haphazard and ad hoc nature of modernity in the fragments become monuments, ruins built as ruins.

 

Works Cited

 

Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry 28.1 (2001): 1-22.

 

Eliot, T.S. “The Waste Land.” The Complete Poems and Plays. London: Faber and Faber, 2004. 61-75.

 

Fletcher, Mason. Country: Old Memories. Aylmer: The Aylmer Express, 1999. “The Passing of the Backhouse.” Country: Old Memories. Aylmer: The Aylmer Express, 1999. 122-124. 8-118.

 

Heidegger, Martin. “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Perennial, 2001. 15-86.

—. “The Thing.” Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Perennial, 2001. 161-85.

 

Pater, Walter. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. 1893. Ed. Adam Phillips. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

 

Schwenger, Peter. The Tears of Things: Melancholy and Physical Objects. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2006.

 

Wordsworth, William. “Poems on the Naming of Places.” Lyrical Ballads. 1802. Ed. Michael Mason. New York: Longman, 1992. 323-332.

—. “Preface.” Lyrical Ballads. 1802. Ed. Michael Mason. New York: Longman, 1992. 55-93.

—. “Prospectus to The Recluse.” 1814. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th Ed. Eds. M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. Vol. 2. New York: Norton, 2000. 301-303.

—. “The Ruined Cottage.” William Wordsworth: A Critical Edition of the Major Works. Ed. Stephen Gill. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984. 31-44.

 

 

The Rural Artifact and the Phenomenology of Thinghood

The project I am undertaking will examine the aesthetic nature of ephemera and waste material as found objects situated particularly within rural landscapes.  My intention is to photograph anomalous juxtapositions of old and new technologies—or new arrangements and configurations of old technologies—as well as the remnants (waste) of commodity culture as it appears situated against what is a modern pastoral, as opposed to urban, backdrop.  The philosophical drive for my work stems from two areas: first, it builds on William Wordsworth’s contributions to Lyrical Ballads (1798) and his endeavour to poetically document “the real” within the English countryside.  As noted in works such as “Poems on the Naming of Places,” Wordsworth’s interrogation of “low and rustic life” at times occasioned confrontations with strange but common “rural objects,” uncannily familiar yet displaced artifacts that “will be found unnamed… [of] a private and peculiar interest” (323).  Second, I will be connecting the theories of material culture that emerge from Wordsworth’s investigation of rural objects to the modern poetic discourses of W.C. Williams, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, all of whom have inspired recent scholarship surrounding the aestheticization of everyday objects, what Wordsworth in the prospectus to The Recluse calls the “simple produce of the common day” (55).  Williams’s interest in abandoned, broken, and anomalous “things” in collections of poetry like Spring and All (1923) will provide the theoretical groundwork for how the excesses of urban commodity culture have been documented in rural environments and archived in a more modern context.  What, for example, is the compulsion to write about the juxtaposition of “greygreen” “leaves” in conjunction with “glass broken, bright green” (Williams, “Lines” 1-2), or “old chicken wire” and “parts of boxes” that are “of vast import to the nation” (“Pastoral” 10, 14, 22)?  Why is old chicken wire of vast import to the nation?  In other words, how has the poeticization of rural ephemera and waste material persisted from Wordsworth to modern period, and how might the aestheticization of such material—its reification in poetry—be substantiated not only poetically, but also visually in the rural locales of Southwestern Ontario?  My intention while collecting/archiving photographs of the debris of commodity culture set in a rural environment is to locate the raw material analogous to that which drives Williams’s interest in “things,” and to explore how this drive to archive and poeticize a human-constructed, discarded object’s incongruous proximity to a natural environment sets the primal scene for what Peter Schwenger in The Tears of Things: Melancholy and Physical Objects calls the “appropriative act” of removing everyday objects from their typical function or purpose (54), fulfilling “the ‘look-again’ function of art” (53). 

The presentation of my project will involve three main components.  First, as mentioned above, it will include a series of photographs of various objects (waste material, broken tools, equipment fallen into disuse, etc.) that relate to the topic.  The objects will be photographed by me, and will therefore bear the stamp of a particular point of view that will require explication (see below).  Second, in keeping with the approach of both the poets who have written on the subject and the academics who have provided a theoretical basis for interrogating “things” in relation to commodity culture, some of the photographs will be accompanied by a written deconstruction of the semiotic, cultural, and/or aesthetic significance of the images, and each deconstruction will appear in the form of poetry.  Third, because I would like to encourage participation, I have created this online archive where interested persons can comment on and submit photographs related to the proposed subject matter.  By incorporating this third component my hope is to make my project more accessible, and to demonstrate how the poeticization of waste objects as they appear in a rural environment is symptomatic of an ongoing debate concerning how the debris of consumer culture is archived, managed, re-appropriated, and understood.

In undertaking this project there are a few essential questions, definitions, and concerns that I would like to examine.  Delineating what constitutes a “rural” environment, for example, will be important for weighing the objects I archive against their potential urban origins and influences: because the particular objects I am seeking are manufactured items related to urban industrial production, I will be approaching “rural” space as a sort of borderland situated among various urbanities, a place where the technologies of urbanity are consumed, but with a different set of regulations for engaging the materials that are byproducts of consumer culture.  In this sense, the “rural” (defined in the OED as “the country or country life as opposed to the town[,]” or that which relates to “agricultural or pastoral”) does not represent a counterpoint to urbanity, but rather exists as a liminal space into which urbanity spills over.  In exploring this liminal space I wish to keep the following questions in mind:

·   How does the rural’s situation in/proximity to a natural-esque environment (i.e. something closer to a frontier/wilderness/hinterland environment—the term “rural” has yet to be exhaustively delineated) foster the type of shock (the “look-again function”) necessary for an aesthetic encounter with the objects in question?[1]

·   How is the space of presentation similar to/different from that in which works of art are displayed in a gallery?  In other words, because gallery space is designated specifically for things associated to artifice or human agency of some kind, how does the space surrounding the objects I am seeking for my project facilitate or complicate how they are perceived?

·   How is one to authentically reproduce the shock or jarring of the encounter with such objects? (Because in my project I will be relying heavily on photography to reproduce the encounter, I must reconcile my own agency as photographer not only with the artifact engaged, but also with the agency of the person who placed it there.)  Is photography a suitable medium for the re-presentation of these objects/moments?  What are the alternatives?

·   What artistic intentionality might be derived from the artifacts I encounter?  In other words, was the artifact meant to be situated in order to be consumed by a type of spectator, or was it meant to be kept out of sight?  If it was meant to be observed, even superficially or for practical purposes, is there any aesthetic rationale—even unconscious—on the part of the person(s) who placed it there?

Overall, what I hope to achieve by archiving these objects is a reassessment of the type of subject matter that furnished many of Wordsworth’s and Williams’s poems about rural locales with raw material.  My intention is not to moralize about the debris of consumer culture, but rather to explore how Williams’s imagist poetry about “things” in all their manifestations—from broken glass to old chicken wire—is an extension of the type of rural dérive popularized by Wordsworth, and that certain facets of modern surrealist exhibition have their roots in “situations from common [i.e. rural] life” presented with “a certain colouring of imagination” (“Preface” 59).  In essence, my project is a somewhat ironic re-visitation of Wordsworth’s wanderings about the English countryside; if Wordsworth’s rural objects were signs to him of “real language” spoken by “real” men (60), what does the appropriated detritus of commodity culture found in twentieth- and twenty-first-century farmscapes say about the present condition of the “real”?  My aim is to conduct an experiment comparable to those of Wordsworth and Williams in order to understand their historical moment in relation to the present.


 

[1] Here I am aligning the project with the “spark” that Ben Highmore in Everyday Life and Cultural Theory relates to Surrealist art (51); this spark, “generated by the juxtaposition of different materials,” produces a shock “that jolt[s] us out of the familiar” (ibid.).  In this sense I will be examining the uncanniness of manufactured objects as existing in a type purgatory between usefulness (their familiar function) and misuse/dysfunction (life after their overtly practical purpose has diminished).