The Significance of Significant Objects

From the 1939 film No News From The Navy

From the 1939 film No News From The Navy

Rob Walker, he of Consumed, Buying In and Murketing fame has a new project he just rolled out, along with collaborator Joshua Glenn, author of Taking Things Seriously, called Significant Objects. This is a really interesting project, and something right up my alley as it focuses on the importance of storytelling. Rob explains:

“The project is called Significant Objects. We have rounded up a rather astonishing group of creative writers as participants. Each writer has been assigned an object — an almost-meaningless object purchased for a few dollars (tops) at a thrift store.

Each writer then invents a story about that object.

More on the backstory here. Having participated in the Mad Men on Twitter experience, as well as my Foundtracks project, this idea of playing with reality and fiction sounded really cool to me.  But it also raises many questions.

  • Does adding a fictional narrative add to the price of the object, or just to its value?
  • Would the object be worth more if it had a compelling true story attached?
  • What if the fictional story was presented as true?
  • What effect does Rob & Joshua’s involvement have in the value of the object?
  • What is a less talented, but more generally famous person wrote the fake stories? Would that effect the value of the object?
  • How much can a compelling story add to the price of a ‘dud’ object?
  • Would these items sell for higher prices if sold by an Ebay ‘power seller’?

There are so many variables I think it will be difficult to isolate what element most affects the value of the object. Go here to bid on any of the Significant Objects. The stories attached are really fabulous and the variety of items is compelling.

One of the items is a Sanka-branded ashtray (which is fascinating in its own right, but that’s a different story). Currently, it’s going for $10.50 (from five bids). Someone else is selling a very similar Sanka ashtray with a starting bid of $10.99. This will be a good test to see what effect these stories will have in the marketplace.

It will be interesting to evaluate this project after a reasonable sample size of sold items is in. Right now all we can do is speculate and I look forward to checking back in with Rob and the Significant Objects down the road.

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  • Lela Graybill

    It was with much interest that I read of the Significant Objects project. Last year the collaborative art duo Goatsilk—Ben Bloch and Caroline Peters—launched a nearly identical project, not as writers, but as visual/new media artists. This is from their project statement:

    For 20 working days in June 2008, Goatsilk excavated discarded objects, sites and histories from the lands around Earthquake Lake in southwest Montana. With a series of docu-dramas we envisioned the life of each item, subsequently placing them for auction on eBay. The project unfolded in real-time on our blog, eBay, Facebook and YouTube, creating a linked circuit between 3 of the Internet’s most visited sites and our own virtual outpost.

    Daily Treasures: Living off the Land! experiments with the possibilities for elevating the real value of these all but forgotten objects by restoring some significance to the reality of their loss and decay. The significance we help bring to each item may be expressed in several ways: financial capital produced through eBay sales, symbolic capital accrued with Internet popularity, and the artistic capital derived from the labor and creativity required to realize the project on a daily basis. Weaving history and memory, sentiment and satire, fiction and reality, Daily Treasures evokes the possibilities—and limitations—of “living off the land.”

    I think the parallels to the Significant Objects project are evident, with a difference of profile. My own area of scholarship is not in contemporary art, and I’m making no claims for the relative strengths or weaknesses of either project (full disclosure: Bloch and Peters are friends). But there’s no denying that name recognition and access to major media outlets plays a vital role in the value that the objects in either project are able to accrue. In truth, the issues raised here are not so much about financial capital, but about artistic and symbolic capital (as the comments above begin to suggest).

    As an art historian (in the midst of preparing for a course on “Art and the Public Sphere”) these questions are very much on my mind. In the Eighteenth century (my area) a burgeoning media culture was the key component in creating even the possibility for art as we know it now, but the ideals of democracy/meritocracy replacing aristorcracy were, of course, far from realized. I love the internet, love web 2.0, love the fact that complex projects such as Significant Objects and Daily Treasures exist. I also wonder where the limits to that complexity lie, something that contemporary scholars and critics have examined far more actively than myself. But if projects such as this can raise the question of limits, I suppose we’re on track.

    Lela Graybill
    Asst. Prof. of Art History
    University of Utah