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TOUCHMARKS: THE SOCIAL LIFE OF PLASTIC BASKETS

A THESIS PAPER
SUBMITTED TO THE DEPARTMENT OF ART
STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK AT NEW PALTZ
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS
FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF FINE ARTS

VENETIA DALE MAY 2009

Culture is no longer bound to a physical place as images, people, ideas, and


objects are part of individual and collective agencies colliding, reconciling, and
transforming cultural identities. i The objects I create are representational of my ethical
and intellectual observations of objects flow through production and exchange and are a
response to the way in which people interpret and recreate meaning through use. I
intend for my work, in the immediacy of experience, to invite reflection through the
negotiation between real and fiction, fragmentation and reclamation, the familiar and the
unknown.

EXCHANGING VALUES AND VALUES OF EXCHANGE


My studies at New Paltz began in examining commodities as indicators in defining
personal and cultural values. The work Tiffany and Company consists of collected dead
flies, as entomological specimens, painted Tiffany Blue in color. Direct and absurd, the
relationship between agents of death/decay and desire/luxury magnify the conflict
between socially constructed values and that of
inherent value.
Recognizing the collaborative environment
where notions of value are defined and
transformed led me to investigate value in
relation to agents of exchange. Human
interaction with physical objects, and one

Tiffany and Company, flies, paint,


pins. 2007

another, inherently rely on some form of exchange. We exchange the tangible (goods
and services), and the intangible (ideas, beliefs, values), all which shape the world in
which we live.
The controversial auctioning in March 2009, of Mahatma Gandhis personal belongings
(pocket watch, sandals, eye glasses, cup and bowl), is a poignant example of the
complexities with which values are embedded and the conflict that arises beyond
qualitative and quantitative measurement of value regarding cultural heritage and
representation. The exchange of Gandhis things exemplifies the commodification of
Gandhi as an icon while undermining the anti-materialist agenda that shaped the
philosophy and spirit of the man himself. The sandals once worn by Gandhi maintain a
life beyond Ghandis utilitarian need and have been identified and re-imagined in a
Manhattan auction as artifact, commodity and tangible Indian heritage. In my own work, I
rely on complex interpretations of objects to highlight particular cultural associations and
assumptions in the use of specific objects and materials.

The ubiquity of the plaid plastic bag, found in New Paltz, Venice, Lima, and Accra,
motivated the series of bags titled Inclusion/Exclusion. Investigation in the visual
reinterpretation of a transnational object, the abstracted versions of the original bags
provide a visual ambiguity that parallels the relationship between the intention and
consequence of use occurring within time and space of exchange. The abstracted forms
maintain their reference to a bags utility, mobility,
displacement, as supplemental to a users daily
exchanges and travels. Luggage aims to track the
shifting significations of what constitutes belonging and
the naturalized relations to place. (Rogoff 37) Inclusive in
its utility, bags are inherently exclusive in what kind of bag
one may acquire, what can be contained inside, and for
Plaid Bags (left to right):
Peru, New York City, Venice,
Kingston

what reason does one need to transport things.


Recognition in the familiarity in the plaid material, as
cheap and utilitarian, juxtaposed with the color palette of

red, white, and blue, confronts the viewer with questions regarding hierarchies of quality
and consumption within the global economy.

SAME, SAME BUT DIFFERENT


Domestic, imported, brand name, imitation, pirated, new and stolen goods all share
common stalls within a markets collaborative stage. While walking down Khao San
Road in Bangkok you will hear the saying same same but different from voices of Thai
vendors luring eager consumers into the dance of bargaining. Ubiquitous in the Thai and
tourist lexicon, the saying is most commonly used in the sale of imitation goods.
Proposing that two things, bootleg and brand name, may be more similar than they are
different presents an alternative interpretation in the evaluation of difference to that of
the binaries of modern epistemology.ii

What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond
narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or
processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural difference. These in-between
spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of self-hood- singular or communal-

that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation,
in the act of defining the idea of society itself. -Homi K. Bhaba The Location of Culture

In search of ways to articulate the space between things, I have looked more closely into
life historiesiii (Kopytoff) of transnational objects. The social life acquired through an
objects production, consumption, and domestication is evident in the reinvention of use
and meaning as an object acquires new ownership, and is re-identified within new
contexts.iv The intention in use for a plastic basket could be for organizing and storing
ones material detritus. However, the function calculated in the knowledge of production
may be, and is often times, re-imagined as it is consumed. Cultural imagination
(Appadurai 31) favors the uncertainties and complexities within the lived world, where
creativity is activated in response to evolving global processes.
In my current body of work Touchmarks: The Social Life of Plastic Baskets, I
transform fragments of plastic baskets, and create new objects in response to my own
empirical research. The forms are fabricated to suggest a process of use. Familiarity in
scale and form to domestic objects
and associations with decorative
elements provide a familiarity that
provides a link between each of the
individual works. My persistence in
formatting the work, as analogous
to one another, is an attempt to represent the cultural associations
Touchmarks Installation at Dorsky Museum of Art
May 2011

that same same but

different poses on global

relationships via the

commodity.v Through material and format, each individual work in this series embodies
the exchange of difference (looks like a basket, but is not). Collectively, the works
present an extension into the inquiry of same same but different. Presented on a single
plane juxtaposed as natural distance from one another, furthers the conversation
between what may be similar and different between the works.

BREEDING PLACE AND TOURIST GAZE


Popular signifiers of place, identity, and memory found souvenir spoons and
pewter dog key chains are assembled, at random, into a series of hybridized spoons in
Breeding Place. Dogs, like souvenir spoons, assist
in crafting an owners identity. Serving as tokens
of love, affection, status, and lifestyle, the
reduction of dog to image on a key chain creates a
generic yet highly personal object in its function.
Displayed on a house-shaped spoon rack, the
relationship between place (crest with city, state,
or country name) on spoon juxtaposed with dog
Breeding Place, altered key chains,
spoons, found spoon rack, 2008

portrait (ribbon with breed name) addresses the

interconnectedness, deterritorialization, and ambiguity of cultural identification.


Culture itself has become a commodity constantly negotiating homogenization and
preservation. Handmade objects are emblematic of individual and collective expression and
contribute to sustaining individual and cultural identities within communities. Notions of
authenticity continue to shape craft conversation, determining the value by which craft is
evaluated and appreciated. Authenticity invites the search for
the other, exotic, traditional and influences the way we
value real experience. As catalyst for polarization, the search
for authenticity requires a certain degree of autonomy between
things in order to support the illusion of the authentic.vi It is in
this distance that notions of over there are supported and
maintained. Touchmarks: Aristo uses the appropriation of the
plastic weave that is itself simulacra to an original wicker
weave. Transforming the material from its appropriated plastic

Touchmarks: Aristo
pewter, 2008

to pewter further distances the viewer from the real. This distance
is imperative in this particular work, as it challenges assumptions regarding what is real,
creates an opportunity for negotiation between the familiar and the unknown, in an attempt to
re-establish a new structure for evaluation.
Plastic baskets epitomize Western relationship to many goods: cheap, accessible and
disposable. The plastic woven pattern, as simulacra to the handicraft of basketry, evokes a
longing for that which the hand once crafted. Frederic Jameson describes this as nostalgia
of the present, a state in which we consume nostalgia divorced from lived experience.vii
Paradoxically, we continue to consume the new as representation of the past: shabby chic

furniture, stonewashed jeans, vintage logo t-shirts. Blinding us of the present, the woven
basket pattern and patination of pewter in Touchmarks coddles the viewer into this illusion, to
be confronted with an unexpected reality: Made in China.

TOUCHMARKS AND MAKING


My individual contribution to cultural identity is rooted in my reverence and
dedication to metalsmithing as a practice. I embrace ethos of hard work, mastery of skill,
and persistence of craftsmanship. Pewtersmithing, as a craft and a material, is
commonly looked at as a reflection of the past. Villages like contemporary Colonial
Williamsburg and Old Sturbridge Village support the presentation of pewters role within
colonial history through the preservation of its past. Pewter participates in places like
Colonial Williamsburg, as a cultural marker, constructing a sense of identity, attachment,
and belonging to a time and lifestyle long past. The relationship of pewter, as colonial
indicator, both strengthens and weakens the materials cultural identity in a
contemporary context. The stronghold on preserving the material and objects utilitarian
role in Americas history is simultaneously critical and detaching to the understanding of
and potential for pewters use within our contemporary context. Looking more closely at
the pewter objects created today we see similar tokens of memory, fantasy, and utility.
Wizard figurines, dog key chains, and souvenir spoons reflect the desirable properties of
pewter within the production industry in its ability to maintain efficiency and affordability
in industrial processes. I begin my own investigations negotiating contemporary
industrial pewter settings and Americas colonial past. Through the action of my own
hands I attempt to re-identify contemporary relationships with industrial pewter methods,
and of the mass-produced plastic basket, through the making of craft object- reclaiming
resemblance toward the history from which these objects are rooted. I work with pewter
to defend the importance of its history, as evolving tradition, not as illusion of idealized
past.
Touchmarks, adopted from silversmithing tradition, were marks stamped into
pewter work recording the quality and location of the work being produced within guild
community. Guilds regulated the authenticity of alloy being used, methods of making
number of apprentices, and place of work where the pewter ware was to be produced
thereby providing authentication of a works quality, style, and pedigree. In my current
work, fragments of plastic baskets provide evidence of current production regulation.
These modern day touchmarks define country- Made in India, company- New Ocean
Plastics, or production code- No. 901. Markers designate coding for global exchange

reducing human relationship with production labor and distribution labor to complex
numbering systems or simplified to the generic label of a vast country. Discrepancies in
knowledge as presented by Arjun Appadurai exist as distances increase (between
producer and consumer), so the negotiation of the tension between knowledge and
ignorance becomes itself a critical determinant of the flow of commodities. In
Touchmarks: Social Life of Plastic Baskets, plastic corporate markers, cast in pewter,
are embedded within the transformed objects, creating a place for contemplating the
relationship between producer and consumer and addressing the value of labor.
My interest in the practice of metalsmithing is driven and confirmed by my
satisfaction in the making process. Problem-finding roots my research, observations and
reflections of the interactions between people, place, and things. Making becomes a
response to my findings, a problem-solving of sorts, resulting in objects that represent
both decisions made in the deliberation of intellectualizing and in the intuitive impulses
that lies within the formal investigative making process. The plurality of metalsmithing
and the life of commodities in my work are analogous to current negotiations between
the reinvention and preservation of tradition as being challenged within the context of the
globalization process. I use metalsmithing techniques evolving from the past with the
anticipation of its relevance in the future. It is in the presence of current global times that
my work is in conversation with the present. viii The social life of this work will be
transformed, new meanings will be inscribed, viewer imagination will transform the work
as experienced beyond this moment of its conception.
i

Refer to Inda, Jonathan Xavier and Rosaldo, Renato. (eds.) The Anthropology of Globalization: A Reader.
Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.
ii
Refer to Oates, Tim. Get Real! On Being Yourself and Being a Tourist Travels in Paradox: Remapping
Tourism Rowman &Littlefield Publishers, Inc 2006
iii
refer to Igor Kopytoff The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process in Appadurai, Arjun.
The Social Life of Things: Commodities and Cultural Perspective. London: Cambridge University Press,
1986. P. 64-95
iv
A poignant exampleof this is the ethnographic research by Karen Tranberg on the revalorization of
Western clothing in Lusaka, Zambia. Transnational Biographies and Local Meanings: Used Clothing
Practices in Lusaka Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 21, No.1 Special Issue: Urban Studies and
Urban Change in Southern Africa (Mar., 1995) Taylor and Francis Ltd. Pp. 131- 145
v
The framework from which I am addressing cultural difference is with Appadurai in mind as he states
culture is not usefully regarded as a substance but is better regarded as a dimension of phenomena, a
dimension that attends to situated and embodied difference. Stressing the dimensionality of culture rather
than its substantiality permits out thinking of culture less as property of individuals and groups and more as a
heuristic device that we can use to talk about difference. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of
Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. P. 13
vi
Refer to Chambers, Erve. Native Tours: The Anthropology of Travel and Tourism. Illinois: Waveland Press,
2000. P. 95
vii
Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneaplois: University of
Minnesota Press, 1996. P.77
viii
Octavio Paz makes reference to the presence of the present in The Search of the Present Nobel
Lectures, Literature 1981-1990. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co., 1993.
http://nobelprize.org/nobelprizes/literature/laureates/1990/paz_lecture.com

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