Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Dear Materials & Methods Instructors and Classmates,

Due to the fact that my final piece is made up of paper from across departments and initiatives here on UF campus, I have decided to show my work to the true intended audience – the community itself that spawned the material. This is the resolution of a lot of struggle in terms of how can our timely and impactful ecology/material cycles-themed art reach the public forum and thus have a more substantial effect/social value.

So instead of the courtyard, I will be installing in the middle of Turlington Plaza. If you want to see the work in person, I suggest doing that before class - it will be there from 10AM-10PM. There will be documentation at the critique, but you can't dive into the piece (literally) the way you can in person.

Check out my event 'Papernet' on Facebook to learn more,

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Challenge of Consciousness

An interview between Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks

Discussion on the physiological, psychological, and metaphysical concepts of consciousness, identity, and present awareness of the world, (at least that's what I got from it).


Interesting excerpt, out of context, as applied to the idea of consciousness (and therein, I believe, identity) being understood as a physical manifestation:

Parks: But again, should we be thinking of consciousness as a thing, or a process?
Manzotti: Well, if the world that surrounds us is made of things, objects, and physical processes, consciousness is likely to be one of them. People tend to be extremely hesitant when approaching consciousness and to treat it as a special case. But I’m not sure that’s helpful. If it is a real phenomenon, and most people agree that it is, why shouldn’t it be like all other physical phenomena, something made of matter and energy whose activity is explicable by its physical properties?


Perhaps a bit off the rails from materiality and our current discussions, but I think it's something to consider when approaching the idea of how we, as human beings with consciousness and awareness, perceive material itself.

Over-consumerism (Outdated video, but still interesing)

Buy Nothing Day


Video here

Bay Area conceptual artist David Ireland is widely admired for installations and sculptures made with humble materials that he accumulated over time. His best known work of art is his house at 500 Capp Street, a ramshackle Victorian in San Francisco's Mission district that he spent more than 30 years transforming. The house and its furnishings showcase Ireland's unique use of materials and wonderfully rich sense of humor, following the basic principle that any object or activity can be art if it is experienced as such.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Comments for Linda Weintraub reading "What is Ecology? What is Environmentalism?" "Eco Art Themes" and "Eco Art Aesthetics"

Comments for Reading: Robert Williams Disjecta Reliquiae: The Tate Thames Dig /1999

Mark Dion born 1961
Tate Thames Dig
Date1999This text discusses two related works, Tate Thames Dig 1999 (T07669) and Tate Thames Dig - Locker 2000 (T07670).
More about Thames dig here
During the summer of 1999, U.S. artist Mark Dion and a team of volunteers drawn from local groups combed the foreshore of the Thames at low tide along two stretches of beach at Millbank and Bankside, near the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) and Bankside Power Station, which would become Tate Modern the following year. As with Yard of Jungle 1992 (Museo Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro), where he literally removed and examined a yard of jungle floor, Dion focused on a natural, historical constant. In this case, he turned to the banks of the River Thames, looking for fragments of individual and ephemeral histories. London's location, its growth and its fortunes can be attributed to the Thames. The two sites yielded a wide variety of artefacts and tokens of life as lined Millbank on the north shore of the Thames and Bankside on the south. Working over a number of days, Dion's team collected large quantities of items, including clay pipes, vividly decorated shards of delftware, oyster shells and plastic toys. The finds were then meticulously cleaned and classified in 'archaeologists' tents' on the Tate Gallery's lawn at Millbank during the summer of 1999.
First shown at the Tate Gallery as an Art Now installation between October 1999 and January 2000, the finds for Tate Thames Dig are presented according to location in a double-sided old-fashioned mahogany cabinet, alongside photographs of the beachcombers and tidal flow charts. There are also five 'treasure chests' which contain larger items, but which are not part of this work. Organised loosely according to type (such as bones, glassware, pottery, metal objects), the viewer finds them in seemingly unhistorical and largely uninterpreted arrangements. Antique items sit alongside contemporary items, ephemera and detritus are next to objects of value. Each is a material witness, performing the same function as a historical proof. This lack of distinction is an important aspect of Dion's approach and he resists the reading of history as a necessarily linear progression. The only differentiation is a geographical one, the two sites retaining their individual identities. The lack of historical categorisation suggests a subversion of standard museological practice. Viewers are free to create their own associations, to trace histories across time, not necessarily in a linear direction.
Tate Thames Dig - Locker did not form part of the original Art Now installation and stands as a kind of postscript in relation to the project. The work comprises a field locker filled with items belonging to or used by Dion. Its appearance contrasts with the solidity and solemnity of the double-sided mahogany veneer cabinet. The side panels and door of the locker are constructed from sturdy wire mesh, so that the contents are visible. It has the quality of a theatrical prop cupboard; the assembled objects and articles stand as attributes of the artist-archaeologist-collector. On the top shelf sit various items and a number of books, including S.J. Knudson's Culture in Retrospect: An Introduction to Archaeology. Hanging from pegs are Dion's orange boilersuit and cap, a Tate Modern site jacket, a specimen bag, and the white lab coat that he wore while camped on Millbank lawns. Alongside his boots on the floor, there are two rubbish-filled dustbins, labelled 'site 1 Millbank' and 'site 2 Bankside'. These suggest humorous connections with the Art Now treasure chests and prompt us to question the categories of disposable and valued.
Dion's practice incorporates aspects of archaeology, ecology and detection. His projects focus primarily on current issues surrounding the representation of nature and on the history of the natural sciences. Dion is simultaneously fascinated and repelled by the principles of taxonomy which have been used since the eighteenth century to classify and interpret the natural and man-made ephemera of the world. His principles are informed by the writings of Stephen Jay Gould, the contemporary evolutionary theorist, who points out that taxonomic systems do not provide objective criteria but are contingent upon our value systems and thus rooted within our social structures. By re-enacting the processes of scientific research, Dion questions the premises upon which these activities are based. His investigations have led him to construct laboratories and to embark on experiments and expeditions. An essential aspect of his methodology is collaboration with other artists, scientists, community groups, and both art and non-art institutions. His work can take the form of installation, sculptureperformance or film and video. Typically, these present a reworking of the orthodox procedures of collecting, identifying and classifying to suggest a more poetic and open-ended approach to interpretation.
Further reading:Art Now 20: Mark Dion, exhibition leaflet, Tate Gallery, London 1999
Mark Dion, Tate Thames Dig: Beachcombing London's Foreshore, exhibition leaflet, Tate Gallery, London 1999
Tina Fiske and Giorgia Bottinelli
February 2002

Comments for Reading: Mierle Laderman Ukeles "Flow City"

More about Flow City here at GreenMuseum

Ecological Restoration
Mierle Ukeles, Flow City

  • How does Ukeles use people's stories or oral history as an artistic method of inquiry?
  • How does Ukeles question social categories that define as opposites such terms as personal and political, nature and culture, art and life?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of questioning systems of opposition that are part of everyday language systems?
  • Can the direct experiences of sanitation activities create a sense of responsibility and affirmation in community residents?
  • What new forms of interpretation can the opportunity for observation provide in a sanitation visiting center?

by Don Krug

The art of Mierle Laderman Ukeles is about the everyday routines of life. In 1969, after the birth of her first child, Ukeles wrote a Manifesto for Maintenance Art that questioned binary systems of opposition that articulate differences between art/life, nature/culture, and public/private. The manifesto proposed undoing boundaries that separate the maintenance of everyday life from the role of an artist in society. Ukeles was interested in how the concept of transference could be used by artists to empower people to act as agents of change to stimulate positive community involvement toward ecological sustainability.
In the 1960s, Ukeles completed an undergraduate degree in history and international studies from Barnard and studied visual arts at Pratt Institute in New York. Ukeles' work at this time was experimental, and visually and symbolically conveyed social unrest associated with events such as the women's movement and the Vietnam War. Ukeles became increasingly restless about the separation of the artist in society from everyday activities like child care, household work, and other routine labor practices that she felt should be reinterpreted within the contexts of personal and political aesthetic values. Ukeles stated, "Avant-garde art, which claims utter development, is infected by strains of maintenance ideas, maintenance activities, and maintenance materials. . . . I am an artist. I am a woman. I am a wife. I am a mother. (Random order.) I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc. Also, (up to now separately) I 'do' Art. Now I will simply do these everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art." (Ukeles, 1969)

Mierle Laderman Ukeles' most recent work synthesizes art and life within the contexts of social, political, environmental, and feminist theory. Patricia Phillips (1995) points out, "The artist's own family dynamics and personal observations underlie the authenticity of her inherently public work, which seems a more effective way to respond to cataclysmic, unanticipated shifts. In fact, this by-play of private-public, the mixing and merging of formerly oppositional designations, has stimulated a wider reconsideration of institutional systems while supporting a process of feminization in the public realm, animating the popular slogan 'The personal is political.'" (p.169)

Ukeles' work is created through a process of participatory democracy that unites people in open dialogue about the characteristics of important community ecological issues. I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day (1976) was a performance/project exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Ukeles collaborated with 300 hundred maintenance staff at a bank in Manhattan. She took Polaroid photographs of men and women doing routine jobs and asked them to discuss their labor as either art or work. Jobs were often discussed by the same person, at different times, in different ways. Later, she exhibited the workers' narrative statements alongside pictures of their daily chores. She asked viewers to challenge the social constructions of aesthetic and cultural values that define what work and art mean.

Similar forms of juxtaposition that challenge definitions of art as separated from life can be seen in other works by Ukeles such as Cleaning the Mummy Case, Keeping of the Keys, and Wash. Ukeles believes that positive social change can occur through the direct interaction of art and life. Art can create a climate for change. Ukeles writes, "Art can give us new air to breathe." (Phillips, 1995)

In 1976, Ukeles accepted an unsalaried position as artist-in-residence with the New York City Department of Sanitation. She proposed to do work that would incorporate dialogue, community participation around life-centered issues, and ecological sustainability. Ukeles focused her creative energies on a series of long term projects: Touch Sanitation (1978-1984); Flow City (1983-current); and Fresh Kills Landfill and Sanitation Garage (1989-present). These projects provided visitors with points of access to issues of urban waste management.

Touch Sanitation was Ukeles' first project as the city's new artist-in-residence. She drew attention to the maintenance of urban ecological systems in general and the use of pejorative language to represent "garbage men" in particular. Ukeles traveled sections of New York City to shake the hands of over 8500 sanitation employees or "sanmen" during a year-long performance. She documented her activities on a map, meticulously recording her conversations with the workers. Ukeles documented the workers' private stories, fears, castigations, and public humiliations in an attempt to change some of the negative vernacular words used in the public sphere of society. In this way, Ukeles used her art as an agent of change to challenge conventional language stereotypes.

Flow City is another example of how Ukeles addresses issues of positive social change through her art. At the 59th Street Marine Transfer Station, Ukeles constructed Flow City as a point of public access to the reconceptualization of urban ecological systems. Phillips (1995) writes, "Using the culture of sanitation work as an allegory of global environmental management, the project reflects Ukeles' commitment to bring citizens to a visceral, participatory experience of the scale and issues of solid-waste management in New York City. As always, the social, political, and environmental issues are inextricably connected." (p.185-187)

In New York, a marine transfer station is where garbage is loaded onto barges prior to being transported to and dumped in a landfill. Ukeles constructed this visitor center as a way for people to view the transference of used and recyclable material and the labor of everyday maintenance workers. She constructed a space with three separate views of city life and urban ecology. Facing east was a beautiful panoramic representation of the city; to the west was a picture of large barges filled with trash and urban waste; and to the south was a bank of video monitors. Scientists, ecologists, artists, and others were invited to contribute information for video displays to help educate people about ecological urban issues. These three perspectives provided a range of views for visitors to see and question everyday consumer choices and to learn more about the consequences of their lifestyle on creating a healthy environment in the future.

The artist used education as a powerful tool to engage community members in active learning processes. Community involvement and affirmation are at the heart of Ukeles' art work. Phillips (1995) states "By creating a point of access, Ukeles enables members of the public to make more incisive connections with the physical dimensions of their urban and natural worlds. Both the city and the river are seen as relational; Flow City serves as the suture that draws the extremes of the natural-culture dialectic into visible coexistence." 

Phillips, P. (1995). "Maintenance Activity: Creating a climate for change." In Nina Felshin (Ed.). But Is It Art: The Spirit of Art as Activism. (pp. 165-193). Seattle, WA: Bay Press.
Lacy, L. (Ed.). (1996). Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. Seattle, WA: Bay Press.
Oakes, B. (1995). Sculpting with the Environment: A Natural Dialogue. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Comments for Reading: "Design and Handmade" Chap. 5 Sculpture Now

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Dead or Alive MAD

Dead or Alive online here

Dead or Alive, presented by the Museum of Arts and Design from April 27 through October 24, 2010, will showcase the work of over 30 international artists who transform organic materials and objects that were once produced by or part of living organisms-insects, feathers, bones, silkworm cocoons, plant materials, and hair-to create intricately crafted and designed installations and sculptures.

The exhibition explores a territory related to MAD's Second Lives: Remixing the Ordinary, which featured contemporary works created from multiples of ordinary manufactured items. In Dead or Alive, the materials transformed by the artists are entirely natural. Once-living parts of flora and fauna are recombined and rearranged into works of art that address the transience of life, and all that is elegant and alarming about the natural world.

Dead or Alive features new site-specific installations and recent work by contemporary artists from around the world, including Jennifer Angus, Nick Cave, Tessa Farmer, Tim Hawkinson, Jochem Hendricks, Damien Hirst, Alastair Mackie, Kate MccGwire, Susie MacMurray, Shen Shaomin, and Levi van Veluw among others. A special weeklong visitor preview starting Thursday, April 22, will allow MAD visitors to observe artists as they create and install site- specific works in the museum galleries.

New commissions include works by Costa Rican artist Lucia Madriz, who will create a massive, politically charged floor installation made from black beans and rice; German artist Christiane Löhr, who fabricates fragile nests of thistle and dandelion silk suspended in the air; American artist Jennifer Angus, known for her architectural interiors covered with thousands of dried insects that are pinned to mimic vintage wallpaper; and Kate MccGwire who will create a large cascade of 1000s of pigeon feathers emanating from one of MAD's signature glass bands that cut across the gallery ceilings. Chinese artist Shen Shaomin has created an imaginary animal skeleton made from pulverized bones; and internationally renowned installation artist Xu Bing will make a shadow version of a 24-foot Song Dynasty painting using only vegetable detritus, weeds, leaves, and roots.Dead or Alive

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Mary Mattingly Art21

Videos here and here

Do objects come with responsibility? In this film, Mary Mattingly transforms personal belongings into sculptural forms that she later incorporates into photographs and performative actions. Experimenting with living in her Greenpoint studio space, Mattingly is determined to live with just the bare essentials. Over several months, she undertakes a process of recording every object she owns and tracing the history of each of her belongings—how it came into her life, its distribution via complex global supply chains, as well as where the raw materials for its manufacture was sourced—before uploading a digital version of each object to her website OWN-IT.US for others to access. Throughout this process, she takes stock of the environmental and societal impact of her personal consumption, wondering if “maybe we need art more today because we’re in a world with so many mass produced things.” Mattingly aggregates all of her personal belongings into boulder-like sculptural bundles, held together with rope, so that she is able to roll and drag them. She’s photographed walking the sculpture Fill (Obstruct) (2013) across the Bayonne Bridge, from Staten Island to New Jersey, and to the Port of New York New Jersey—symbolically returning her personal belongings to the place where they entered the East Coast. “It’s kind of really incredibly Sisyphean in a way,” says Mattingly about her actions, eventually attracting the attention of the Port Authority Police and Homeland Security who surveil the port. Also featuring the works Kart (2008); Floating a Boulder (2012); Pile-High (2012); The Furies (Titian, again) (2013); The Damned (Titian, again) (2013); and Life of Objects (2013).

Monday, November 7, 2016

Gabriel Orozco: "Asterisms"

Gabriel Orozco: "Asterisms" videos here and here

Found art: Cornelia Parker and Jarvis Cocker share their spoils

Found art: Cornelia Parker and Jarvis Cocker share their spoils
By Charlotte Higgins, May 2016
Full article with images here

What is it to be found? The idea presupposes that something has once been lost; if it’s an object, it can long outlive the loser and bring with it, in its re-emergence, the breath of a forgotten time. Late last century, in the drains of the Roman amphitheatre in London, bits of gold jewellery were found. Not much use to the woman who’d mislaid them in some second-century crush. Finding can be an act of love: the rescue of something or someone that has been otherwise overlooked. Or it can be an act of aggression. All archaeology involves an element of disturbance, of destruction. So does the “discovery” of continents and peoples. Some things do not want to be found.
The loss of children is one of the largest of human tragedies, and their finding is one of the oldest and most persistent stories of folklore: Moses; Romulus and Remus. The story is always about how the child’s true identity, usually deliberately suppressed, reasserts itself. Oliver Twist’s plot is partly motored by the malevolent destruction of the tokens – a letter and a locket – that would prove who he really was.
The Foundling Museum, tucked in a corner of a square in Bloomsbury in central London, tells the story of the Foundling Hospital, established by merchant seaman Thomas Coram in 1739 to give a home to London’s poorest children – an act of finding those who had been lost. In the 18th century, the parents of the children who left them there were asked to deposit a token so that they could identify them later, in case they were ever in a position to take them home.
In the museum there is a glass case of these objects: little screws of ribbon, scraps of embroidery, a crushed thimble, coins rubbed smooth on one side and engraved with the child’s name. Some of them were made with tremendous care; some not so much (one is simply, and eloquently, a label marked ALE). These humble things carry enormous weight of meaning, as if they have become surrogates or stand-ins for the children themselves.
This summer, artist Cornelia Parker is curating a group exhibition at the museum, in which more than 60 artists, writers and composers have been asked to respond to the word “found”. Artists were early supporters of the Foundling Hospital – Handel conducted a performance of the Messiah there and became a governor, and Hogarth donated major works, as did Gainsborough and Reynolds. The museum, aside from caring for its collection of important 18th-century paintings and Handel manuscripts, keeps strong the link between artists and the work of the modern charity, Coram, which still works with children. Parker is hoping visitors might think, too, about the modern foundlings of our world: the child refugees who have been severed from home, family and country.
For Parker, like many artists of her generation, improvising with objects found on the street, in skips or charity shops was a habit of mind formed by necessity. Now much of her work involves drawing out the meaning immanent in objects that already exist. These works have a family relationship to Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades” – ordinary objects, such as a bicycle wheel or a urinal, which he transformed into, or rather redescribed as, art. One of Parker’s own works in the exhibition is an installation made from an old staircase that used to lead to Jimi Hendrix’s flat in Mayfair – in the same building in which Handel lived in the 18th century, now a museum. “It was all chopped up and ready for the skip,” says Parker, who, with her square-cut bob looks as if she has just wafted over from a soiree at the Woolfs’ (Leonard and Virginia lived in a house that once stood next door to the museum). “I enjoyed composing something, improvising with these bits of wood.”
Another figure whose singular aesthetic was purchased on the cheap from charity shops is musician Jarvis Cocker. One day in 1985, he and Candida Doyle, Pulp’s keyboard player, were wandering through the streets of Bristol when they found a binbag full of copies of Romania Today – an English-language magazine promoting the joys of Ceaușescu’s regime. They divided them up between them. Cocker says the garish images fed into the band’s look. “There was this communist attempt at looking glamorous,” he says. “They’d show a yacht, but with the colours pumped up so bright that they would bleed. There was always something that undermined the image. Or they’d try to use a western advertising approach to promoting petrochemical plants, or lathes.”
He and Doyle would trade birthday cards using cut-outs from the magazines, and they culled images to use on posters, too. “Romania Today had a strange afterlife in the demi-monde of south London,” says Cocker fondly. In the exhibition, an issue of the magazine shows a young woman earnestly regarding a modernist sculpture. It carries an enticing coverline: “A supplement carrying the speech of Nicolae Ceaușescu at the Working Meeting of the Party Active from the Sphere of Ideology and Political and Cultural-Educational Activity.” It’s the artist’s job, very often, to look with new eyes on what others have rejected or found uninteresting. One artist I know described a skill of his as being “good at noticing things”.
There are chance encounters, such as Cocker and Doyle’s, with objects that might change you. Then there are the objects that seem to have found the person, rather than the other way around. Artist Richard Wentworth, a connoisseur of the coincidence, is showing a book called Memoir of a Fascist Childhood, which he picked up from a secondhand bookseller in rural France. Only in reading it did it become clear that the author’s family had been his wife’s landlords when she was growing up in the 1950s. The past can find you out in other ways, too: another piece of Wentworthiana in the exhibition is a still of his grandmother from a TV show on BBC4 in 2015. She had been dead for 40 years, and Wentworth caught her image on screen – a ghostly apparition – completely by chance.
Often the found object seems to be trying to tell you something: you have been drawn to it for reasons that reveal themselves only gradually. Novelist Deborah Levy found herself picking up buttons and beads on the streets after her mother died, one of which she has lent to the exhibition. In the catalogue, she writes: “It is the broken wire thread that drew me to this glass bead. I think I was picking up objects that were once attached to something or someone – and were now severed from their place of origin, like me.”
Author Marina Warner has lent an object she found when clearing out her late mother’s garage. At first, she didn’t know what it was. It resembled “a gigantic tooth” that had been severed from its story, with no one left to remember what it was. She wondered if it might be walrus ivory, but then one day, “I came across its double in the Musée du Quai Branly,” the ethnographic museum in Paris.
It turned out to be a sperm-whale tooth; such objects, known as tabua in Fijian society, circulated as currency, and as items of prestige and power. “My speculation is that my grandfather, who played cricket all over the world, was given it – perhaps as a mark of esteem after a particularly spectacular run,” she says. A born storyteller, she has effectively reattached the object to its lost significance, perhaps accurately, perhaps not – it hardly matters, though whatever the truth behind the object’s arrival in her mother’s garage, it cannot help but bring a whiff of empire with it.
The found object, then, is almost always a symbol: something that has a weightier significance than its ordinary appearance seems to warrant; something that acts as a sign if only it can be decoded. In artist Mike Nelson’s case, this is quite literally so. In a market in London he found himself drawn to a beaten-up road sign that reminded him of a sculpture by John Chamberlain. He bought it for a fiver, and then wondered where on earth was “Craco” – the place it had once pointed to. It turned out that it was a sign to nowhere; a medieval hilltown in Basilicata, southern Italy, that has been empty since the 1980s, evacuated by an already depleted population after a series of floods, landslides and earthquakes. “It set me thinking: maybe it’s my destiny in some way,” he says. Nelson often creates haunted, dystopian installations in places that seem to have been recently abandoned by their inhabitants. In a sense, he could have invented Craco. But Craco came looking for him.
Found is at the Foundling Museum, London, from 27 May to 4 September. Guardian Members save 50% on admission until 30 June. For more, go to theguardian.com/members

Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art Manifesto

Creative Time Summit | Mierle Laderman Ukeles video here

Excerpt from "Not Just Garbage" here

A New Exhibition Shows How What We Keep Becomes Who We Are

A New Exhibition Shows How What We Keep Becomes Who We Are

The Woman Who Lost Her Sense of ‘Mine’

The Woman Who Lost Her Sense of ‘Mine’ by Melissa Dahl article here

People get attached to their stuff. Two-year-olds, for instance, have very strong opinions about what’s theirs (MINE!”), and are suspicious about sharing, no matter what nonsense their adult caregivers spew about this caring thing. And although (most) people eventually learn to follow appropriate social norms, that relationship to stuff and things still matters throughout the life span, and even, in a way, beyond it — when you’re gone, after all, your loved ones will likely inherit your most prized possessions. If nothing else, at least your memory will live on through, say, a particularly nice set of dresser drawers you once owned.
People express their self-identity through their belongings, a notion that psychologists and neuroscientists are lately finding empirical evidence to support, though the idea itself is of course not a new one. In 1890, William James, the 19th-century scholar who is considered by many to be the founder of modern psychology, wrote in The Principles of Modern Psychology, “a man’s Self is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and his children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank-account.” (Former President Jimmy Carter was a little late to this conclusion, observing in a 1970s speech, “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns.”)
But this idea — that you imbue your possessions with pieces of yourself, like a benign Voldemort — becomes especially intriguing when you consider a case study published online last week in the journal Cortex (and first spotted by science writer Rolf Degen)about a woman who, at least temporarily, lost her sense of ownership over her belongings. What can a mind that’s lost its sense of that feeling of mine-ness as it relates to stuff and things tell us about our own relationships to our stuff and things?
Here’s an overview of the case study:
The patient: She’s not named in the report, but her neurologists — all from Lisbon, Portugal — do provide some biographical details of the woman at the center of the case study. At the time of the incident, she was 65 years old and widowed, a retired translator who had lived in the same house for more than three decades. She lived alone — well, alone save for the eight cats with which she shared her home. She had recently suffered a stroke, which caused her trouble with speaking and partial facial paralysis. After treatment, however, she was once again able to speak clearly.
The problem: The trouble started after she came home from the hospital after being treated for her stroke. Suddenly, and for seemingly no reason, nothing in her home quite felt like hers. “When I looked at my belongings, I felt they were not mine,” she told her doctors. “As I opened my door, I looked at the painting on the wall, had a perfect recollection of it and knew it was mine. However, I did not feel a sense of belonging as before. Then, I realized I had the same feeling with the sofa, the living room’s furniture, the frames with family portraits, the flowers of the balcony … everything!”
Intriguingly, she told her doctors that she never felt that same sense of detachment toward her own body, or toward the places and the people she knew and loved — and yet the eerie feeling did extend to her cats. She recognized them, and remembered each kitty’s name, but none of the animals quite felt like they belonged to her. “I felt as if I was not emotionally attached to my things anymore,” she said.
The diagnosis: These symptoms don’t really have a name, or a specific diagnosis, at least not yet. But brain scans showed damage to a few particular areas: the left insula, the left anterior cingulate region, and the left supramarginal gyrus. This wouldn’t mean much to anyone if it weren’t for a 2011 neuroimaging study, which found that these areas appear to be associated with a person’s sense of ownership; the researchers, from the University of Aberdeen, found changes in brain activity in this network when their study participants were looking at images of their own things, but not at others’ things. As the authors of that paper note, these brain regions have also been linked with “self-referential encoding and memory” — the formation of a self-concept, in other words.
Some developmental psychologists have theorized that when a 2-year-old insists that anything he’s touched (and many things he hasn’t) is MINE!,” it’s a first stab at asserting independence, through the beginnings of the formation of self-identity. As psychology writer Christian Jarrett has noted, nearly 25 percent of all day-care squabbles recorded by a team of psychologists in 2008 were about just what belonged to whom — the “child either defended his or her objects from another child, or wanted to take an object from another child.” Children at this age are using their things to build their own understanding of who they are, in other words, and this is something that doesn’t exactly diminish as we grow older. Younger drivers, those between ages 18 and 25, are more likely to personalize their cars in some way, “as if marking out their territory,” Jarrett further observes, and when your self-identity is threatened, research has suggested you may be more likely to try to make yourself feel a bit better by buying fancy stuff. “It’s as if reflecting on our things restores a fragile ego,” he concludes.
This woman’s story helps shed a little more light on the tangled-up relationship humans have with their things, a subject which has led many to conclude, somewhat cynically, that “we are what we own.” Fortunately for her, the strange feeling regarding her stuff only lasted three days; one morning she woke up, and everything she owned felt like hers again, as if she were awakening from some fairy-tale curse meant to teach her a lesson about materialism.