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Making Something Useless

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When I semi-glibly stated that the thread that runs through most of my work is a kind of “sublime uselessness,” I hadn’t really thought through the idea of use. When Despina asked me to make something useless, I was sure it wouldn’t take me long. After a week, I’ve revised my thinking.

Something useful is something that has a purpose, that catalyzes an action to bring about a desired result, intentionally or not. That’s a definition I’m happy with. The problem arises when defining its opposite, the absence of utility. The concept seems straightforward enough—something useless is something that has no purpose, something that brings about no desired result. But the very rational nature of our brains makes such a thing impossible. There is no thing, concept, or thought which our brains can conceive to which we cannot ascribe some hypothetical use. Pathological hoarders suffer from an acute sensitivity to the possible uses of things most of us would cast aside—”I might one day need to reread this article” or “I know this pot is broken but what if some day I need shards of pottery for an art project?”

How can I make something useless?

Because every single thing I can think of, including Jorge’s devilish milk stain on white pants, fulfills this particular assignment, everything has a use. The only truly useless thing is that which my mind cannot conceive, but how can I make something my mind cannot apprehend? I can’t, so I do nothing. I make silence.

Conceptually cool, but a cop out. So while technically what I cannot conceive is the most useless thing I can make, I chose instead to unpack the various possible meanings embedded in the “make something useless” directive and combine them into the greatest possible degree of uselessness.

There are degrees of utility. A Swiss Army knife is more useful in most situations than a stale madeleine. Not always. If you’re starving to death, a Swiss Army knife might not be of much use, but I’d argue that considering every possible situation, the set of situations in which a Swiss Army knife’s utility outweighed that of a madeleine would be significantly larger than its opposite.

My goal at the outset was to identify different types of uselessness. My initial impulse was to conflate an object’s uselessness with the inability to extract profit from its production, largely in response to those Winter/Spring Show visitors who watched me heat up ice cubes with a hairdryer to trigger MIDI sound loops of urban noise or leaned over to smell my scratch & sniff television screen only to shake their heads sadly and ask, “So how are you going to make money with it?” That is roughly equivalent to saying that something is useless if no one wants it. That’s all sorts of problematic. Especially since I can (and frequently do) imagine some eccentric art collector finding this aspect of my work highly desirable and worth many buckets filled with money. There’s no accounting for taste, and because every conceivable object/concept has a use, one must assume that at least one person will want it/be willing to pay for it. Neeeext!

JarHacked Table of Contents

What if the emphasis is on make rather than useless? The directive then becomes to take something’s intended use away from it. I glued an empty jar shut. I cut out all the page numbers in a table of contents. I thought about taking the wheels off of my asshole downstairs neighbor’s bicycle. All of these objects retain many secondary uses—the jar can be used as a weapon, the table of contents will serve as toilet paper in a pinch, and the bicycle frame can be melted down and used to make sadistic steel implements with which to torture its owner—but they no longer contain, index, or transport. That seemed like a promising start.

Handle to nothingIf what is removed in this last case is the principal verb that an object or idea accomplishes, another type of uselessness results from removing an object from the context of its usefulness. A handle that is attached to nothing is useless. Similarly, directions received in a language one doesn’t speak are useless, as are democratic institutions in a society structured around clans.

Then there are closed loops of utility in which a thing reflexively uses itself, minimizing other subjects’ possibilities of finding it useful. A website that destroys itself as soon as you visit it. A candle burning in an empty room. The problem is that this reflexivity threatens to become beautiful, and beauty has all sorts of uses.

Porcupencil 1Ultimately, it was this realization, along with my visit to the Bauhaus exhibit at MoMA that so gleefully described the fetishization of function to which we still reverently bow almost a century later that led to the final form of my idea, the Porcupencil.

I combined two archetypically useful objects—the pencil and the razor blade—in such a way as to obviate their principal uses without obscuring them, resulting in an object that discourages its own use. I don’t think I made something useless, but I certainly limited the possibility space and context in which it is useful.

And it looks nice too.

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