The Eloquence of Objects

Last weekend at the Islington Estate’s annual barbecue we launched the Islington Flats project which will focus on the creation of a neighbourhood timeline, a website where resident’s stories relating to the past, present and future of the estate will be shared. The timeline which will be completed in 2013 will mark two important anniversaries, that of the tower blocks (50 years) and of the larger estate (60 years) and will feature residents perceptions and memories of the neighbourhood, alongside important stories of the processes of community formation through the tenant association.

As important as these stories of community formation and of the neighbourhood are they leave us on the outside of the space where most residents’ lives are led, the domestic domain of the flat. From the outside the tower block presents an inscrutable mask to the world, with few clues as to the diverse lives of those who live behind its façade. On the other side tenants make their homes in flats which are like blank canvases ripe for creative appropriation, adaptation and display, within the terms of a social tenancy agreement of course. The changes we make to our décor, the objects we display in our homes are vital carriers of memory and story, durable things that link the past with the present and the future.

In thinking about the processes through which latent stories bound up with what is displayed or used in the home might be drawn out, gathered and shared among residents of a housing estate, I have been looking at the work of two anthropologists. I came across Alyssa Grossman’s work earlier in the year at the Bangkok Experimental Film Festival. Alyssa is a visual anthropologist whose work focuses on memory practices in post-socialist Bucharest. Her brilliant film Memory Objects, Memory Dialogues, made with Selena Kimball, was the product of a fieldwork process in which citizens of Bucharest were invited to rummage through long-discarded household objects and to share the thoughts, recollections and stories that the encounter with these objects provoked. Among the fascinating stories of Ceacescu-era Romania that emerged from this process was one told to Alyssa by Zoltan, a sociology lecturer. Zoltan recalled that under Ceacescu everyone who owned a manual typewriter was required to register with the local authorities who would take a sample of the type face in order that anonymous anti-regime literature could be identified and traced back to its source. Told in a tone of amused bafflement at the perverse lengths that the regime would go to, Zoltan recalled waiting in line with others cradling their typewriters, an annual ritual because, as the keys wore down, so the authorities needed to keep abreast of the minute changes in the typeface. Central to Alyssa’s work is the potent nature of neglected and discarded household objects, their ability to trigger insights that bring the past into the present in ways that are more charged, evocative and unexpected than consciously commemorative use of objects in the home.

Daniel Miller has been exploring the material culture of the home over a number of years. About twenty-five years ago he wrote about social housing tenants’ practices of creatively adapting and modifying the standard issue council house kitchen, which was perceived by some as an intrusive reminder of the presence of the State and of their own relative powerlessness. Miller explored the reconstruction of kitchens in relation to the shifting demarcations of gender roles and responsibilities and the ethnic backgrounds of residents. More recently, in The Comfort of Things Miller wrote a study of the inhabitants of a single North London street and their relationship with objects in their homes. In the book’s prologue Miller writes persuasively:

“…increasingly, people’s lives take place behind closed doors of private houses. How can we gain an insight into what those lives are like today: people’s feelings, frustrations, aspirations, tragedies and delights…We could try and knock on doors and ask to talk with them, to hear their stories…But asking people about themselves is by no means straightforward. English people, in particular, often seem embarrassed by direct questions about their intimate lives and relationships. Sometimes people from other countries embarrass us in turn by, by gushing these detailed accounts of their lives. Yet often you feel you are listening to a script; something readily prepared for such an encounter… You can ask people about themselves, but the results are often much less informative than one would like.” [The Comfort of Things, pp1-2]

The premise for the fieldwork that Miller undertook with Fiona Parrott is that the interiors of our homes, the styles of decoration, the knick-knacks we collect and display constitute a form of self-revelation: these things and the way they are displayed express the person and furthermore shape and condition the way they live.  The challenge is to know how to listen to what household objects are saying.

Miller’s book is made up of portraits of thirty households, interpretations of the objects and people encountered in each home which explore the ways in which relationships with things and relationships between people are interwoven. Alyssa’s film on the other hand provides individuals an opportunity to write their own account of what long forgotten or neglected objects mean to them, a text they then perform to camera before being interviewed about their memory object.

Inspired by approaches to memory and narrative such as these, as well as the long-standing interest in object–focused stories in the digital storytelling movement we will be inviting residents of the Islington estate to share the stories of treasured and unique or everyday and familiar things in their flats. Who knows what stories and objects this invitation will throw up?

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2 thoughts on “The Eloquence of Objects

  1. NFB’s interactive documentary HIGHRISE might be inspiring for your Islington Project in terms of finding new ways of web display and community engagement: see http://highrise.nfb.ca/. Highrise has been initiated by anthropologist/film-maker Katerina Cizek; some aspects of the design of her project also involve an interest in stories told from a perspective informed by material culture studies.

    • Thanks Adina. Yes, I had a look a HighRise a while ago and thought it looked impressive and impressively resourced! I got in touch with Katerina but I’ve yet to hear back. Closer to home the other inspiring project I’ve been looking at is the one at the Red Road Flats in Glasgow, some very interesting work being done there.

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