100 Hours up close with things

IMG_2271For the first time in ages, we actually found ourselves at the same event a few very hot days ago, so we thought we’d put together our thoughts about it. In a grand room overlooking the quad at UCL, a bizarre collection of objects was ranged along a series of low cupboards – at the end of the line, a slice of meteorite, a Nupe stool shaped like a spider, some Edison Dictaphone Tubes (now silent), a set of miniature plaster models of sea creatures. We were there to discuss the findings to date of the 100 Hours Project – 10 researchers, 10 UCL objects, 5 meetings, 100 hours is the tag – a lively, experimental bringing together of subjects from different disciplinary perspectives within the Humanities with a disparate collection of objects from the UCL museums collections.

Catherine chaired a morning panel whose participants reflected on the shifting perspectives afforded by a protracted engagement with things. James Paz, an early medievalist, talked about how too much looking had begun to ‘uncreate’ his Egyptian oracular bust, breaking down its anthropomorphic features. Florian Roithmayr, a sculptor, suggested that not knowing his plaster models extended his curiosity and postponed knowledge, and discussed how things might teach what they do not know by a process of facilitation based on form. Emily Orr, a design historian, raised Nabokov’s concerns around an involuntary ‘sinking into history’ as opposed to skimming over matter. She found a maker’s perspective on her stool, from the bottom up, the carving communicating the movement of the carver’s hand. Finally, Kate Smith, one of the project’s historian organisers, discussed the way objects cultivate forms of intimacy (which might include knowledge) and suggested how those forms might be explored through gesture – those we make now in response to things, in a museum situation, and the ones they might have initiated in their first users. Her ‘object’, parts of a whistle which might, or might not, be able to be reassembled into an instrument for testing the pitch of hearing, picked up on questions across the day about completeness – what is an object, the part or the whole, and how do the categories into which we slot things develop?

I was fascinated by the tensions in this and other sessions between the historians’ urge to contextualise, to give their objects a history and know them through it, and the possible release from what James referred to as ‘information overload’ proffered by objects that had no histories. Tying down models for other kinds of knowing, probing those productive gaps between people and things that Florian mentioned, seems like a way forward. And the different ways in which the contributors turned their interactions with objects into narrative form has kept me thinking ever since – how do different disciplines articulate their dealings with things, and how might they develop their practices in the light of the kind of sustained attention – the long looking – advocated by 100 Hours? Just what is the relationship between objects and narrative…?

For me (Tara) the 100 Hours Forum raised important questions about definitions and terminology, both in terms of the subject and process of enquiry. Firstly, what do we mean by the term ‘object’? As Catherine mentioned, in questions we discussed the tyranny of ‘wholeness’; are we really talking about fragments rather than complete things? In considering what might indicate the extent or boundary of an object there is also the matter of framing, packaging, protecting and presenting things that becomes part of its biography. Several of the featured items from the UCL collections were in fact collections of things, mounted and displayed in an album, glass case or protective box. Should this material intervention, aggregation or accretion now be considered integral to the thing? How do we get to grips with the unbounded nature of the material? If we are studying “intersections not objects” how might close and repeated encounters with an object attend to this interest? Is a thing a thing or a meaning? Can we distinguish between them? Should we refer to material things not as objects but as specimens or assemblages? Or, as suggested by one respondent, should we call them ‘shares’ to capture the intimate quality of shared things and experiences?

In terms of the process of enquiry, the range of approaches adopted by the 10 researchers raised questions about what it is we expect or wish to find out through close encounters with objects and thus what it is we are doing as researchers when we engage with things. Much of the interpretation was refreshingly freeform, without a systematic strategy apart from the recommended close, repeated looking and without the need to produce a particular ‘finding’ other than to reflect on this process. This raises questions about the status of the object as evidence and its relationship with other sources of information. Several researchers stated their conscious rejection of recourse to text in an attempt to reverse or redefine their disciplinary training and tendencies. This desire to keep the object centre-stage produced some fascinating creative journeys; I was particularly struck by the presentation on the Nupe stool. The absence of any associated documentation to contextualise the particular object meant that its researcher, Emily Orr, followed the form of the stool, allowing its surface and shape to resonate and prompt associations and “conversations” with other designed objects. But in privileging the object (and the terms ‘seduction’, ‘fetishism’ and ‘idolatry’ did come up in discussion) are we losing sight of our original research questions and strategies, and if so, does it matter?

This leads to the issue of the beguiling quality of things, provoking particular forms of response. It was pointed out that the researchers were able to choose their object and many picked curiosities or wonders – is the impulse therefore to understand, ‘explain’ or simply to enjoy these striking, captivating things? Might the fascinating quality of the chosen items also explain the evident attachment and claim to ownership researchers articulated in giving an account of ‘their’ object and the fondness they had developed towards it? There was quite a bit of discussion around the implications of the familiarity created by the ‘return’ or repeated close viewing of an object which prompted the widespread adoption of the keyword ‘intimacy’. We wondered whether we would feel as comfortable being ‘intimate’ with other kinds of distasteful, subversive things. But cultivating forms of intimacy through the ‘return’ is not necessarily cosy; Kate Smith pointed out that repetition is in fact disruptive because each exposure is informed by new knowledge and experiences. If getting intimate with things is the way forward for historical disciplines, what are the practical constraints and what is the role of mediation (both in terms of research process, e.g. curatorial involvement, and for communicating research)? How can a researcher communicate the intimacy of their encounter to an audience lacking this same access? This was discussed in looking forward to outputs from the project, with other communication channels such as TV or radio mooted as an appropriate alternative to reflect on and share these experiences with things. Whatever the channel, the 100 Hours project is an exemplar of the rich capacity of research agendas that promote exchanges with objects and exchanges about objects and we look forward to the wider dissemination of these ‘shares’.

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1 Comment

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One response to “100 Hours up close with things

  1. Sounds challenging and exciting!

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