I, Object

Reflecting on "lockdown essentials," and more.

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Paula Zuccotti, from Lockdown Essentials

THE PROMPT: Identify an object you learned to appreciate in a new way during lockdown. Try documenting it.

Last week I wrote about reflecting on the “underdog” places that many of us learned to appreciate during lockdown. Artist/ethnographer Paula Zuccotti has an inspiring project that applied a similar line of thought to what we might consider underdog objects: the everyday things that we have relied on through the pandemic era.

Last April, she put out a general call via social media: “I invite you to photograph the 15 items helping you get through this time.” She got more than 1,000 responses, from 50 countries, and has collated the results on the remarkable web site lockdownessentials.org. She recently told It’s Nice That:

“When the reality surrounding Covid-19 hit, I couldn’t help but notice a shift in the objects we were using. As someone who believes in the power of objects to tell our stories, I was eager to document the items we were using not just to create a time capsule for future generations, but also to find out what these items could tell us about ourselves and our present circumstances.”

(In The Art of Noticing book I mention another cool Zuccotti undertaking: Every Thing We Touch: A 24 Hour Inventory of our Lives, which involved keeping tabs on everything you touch throughout a full day. And as for connecting objects and stories, I can relate.)

Looking through the Lockdown Essentials pictures, I’m invariably drawn to the weirdest object — the kitschy figurine or silly plush toy, or maybe some banality like a coffee mug, whose status as a crucial object seems mysterious. It’s the weird stuff that always yields the best story.

For the last seven or eight years, I’ve taught a workshop on writing about objects as part of the Design Research Summer Intensive at the School of Visual Arts. My main assignment always involved identifying and writing about an overlooked or underrated object discovered in New York (where the Intensive usually occurs). Last year, of course, I had to change it up, since the whole program went virtual. So I modified the assignment to telling the story of an “overlooked object of home.”

[Write about] a designed object that you consider to be overlooked or underrated that you have noticed or paid more attention to since the pandemic crisis began.

We went with that assignment again this year, as the Intensive was virtual again, and I just got to enjoy this year’s results in a critique session this past Friday. It was, once more, a fascinating array of stories about objects both odd and seemingly quotidian — an hourglass, mosquito netting, a mailbox, a bilao, a tulip-shaped flyswatter, an armchair. Each yielded surprising observations and narratives.

What I really like about the assignment — and Zuccotti’s project — is that without this pause to reflect, the significance of these objects would inevitably slip away as life evolves into whatever post-pandemic “normal” awaits. And of course that’s why I think it makes a good prompt in general to consider and perhaps document these things now. In fact, as much as I like this prompt, I suppose that this time next year this it might not even make sense anymore.

And let’s face it: That sounds great. Maybe the best way to think of it is as a ritual marking an end — and a beginning.


In Other News

@untitledassociation, @vintage.paper.love

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All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032 

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