Found Objects in the Digital World

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About a week ago, I attended an art show. Typically I skip these events, but felt compelled to get out of the house and “do something.” The presented material comprised stenciled images of rappers and pigeons on found objects. The majority of the work was nice, but lacked a powerful hook, or enough body to sink ones intellectual teeth. Two pieces did pique my interest, the stencil work placed on a pair of uninspired landscape prints. In these there was a subtle sense of conversation between found object, stencil and artist. A touch of humor even, perhaps a sense of fun. The rest of it? Well, it reminded me of the decorative projects initiated by the interior design experts on TLC. Take a favorite image and some “cool” thing and then iron on, stencil or sketch it on something. In that, the windows, records, and mirrors pasted with images were not dissimilar to some of the photo shop heavy “brands” that dot the sneaker boutique landscape. I left thinking, once again, that we live in an era of minimal innovation.

Beneath this harsh and sour critique, there was redeeming quality to the experience. For one, like a dull t-shirt company, simplistic artwork helps to qualify the good, better and best of this world. And, let’s face it, helps also to qualify what is complete shit. If the ultimate goal is provoking thought, and the articulation of an idea the most heavily weighed element to judging artistic product, many things on the marketplace are just not cutting it. The democratization of contemporary life gives everyone a sense of possibility, a feeling that they can do things. There also comes with it slacking standards.
The Dadaists pushed the notion of ready made objects. Duchamp, most famously, employed urinals and tools and combs and other prefabricated objects to question definitions of art and artifice. Since then, the found object has played a common, and commonly controversial, role in art. I mention this as segue into thinking about how digital images have become “found objects.”

I began pondering this during my visit to the art show; for despite the relative shallowness of the finished products, the component parts all being located in some way has potential for some future excitement. Salvaged goods are great vehicles for inspiration. The discovery of something, especially when removed from its intended context, can yield new thoughts about shape, color, texture and all the other intangibles that come with physicality. With all the potential for arriving at inspiration via the internet, what is lost in just having the visual?

For example, a few years ago I had some ideas of doing t-shirts based on hair styles through time… profile shots of Anthony Mason, Glen Plake and Agassi. I was planning on putting museum text labels inside the shirt that told the history of the given cut. Then I realized that I would be making something that just looked like all the other crap, regardless of whether the original idea was interesting. In the end, I’m really happy that I never put my stamp on the slippery decline of contemporary fashion. I would have felt like a real asshole.

The majority of streetwear aficionados will probably agree that the mere manipulation of digital images doesn’t equate to winning design. Critique of corporate structure via playful re-imagining of brand logos has lost potency. Even in a clever handling of “C.R.E.A.M.” with recognizable texts, the end result has no narrative depth. As Adorno says people are drawn to what they already understand, but that only makes it popular and not exceptional. This example alone points to the negative impact of the digital age on the “culture.” The simplicity of utilizing digital “found objects” leads to complacency.

A few articles in the spring 2007 issue of American Art (the Smithsonian’s journal) have pushed my thinking. In these critical essays, scholars discuss trends in craft. Defining craft, particularly modern craft, has inherent difficulties. “Craft and the Romance of the Studio” by Glenn Adamson, cleanly relates to discussions about streetwear and consumption. Adamson describes the lore of the studio as a site of pilgrimage for fans and critics. As such the studio becomes a transformative place, where lifestyle overtakes art, and the nature of how someone lives becomes integral to their output. There is some corollary here to the way some shops become a sort of Mecca for sneaker and clothing obsessed travelers. Being able to see and feel the environment from which a favorite brand emerges might help solidify the sense of streetwear “community,” but more so establishes streetwear as something different from the retail norm. The romance of the boutique helps build a (often false) conception of uniqueness.

To return to my central query, the treatment of found objects (be these digital or physical) in streetwear’s current idiom figures strongly into perceptions of what makes it an alternative. Simple usage of found digital images, like in the art show I attended, no longer holds enough cultural currency to denote difference. I believe worthy use of such material can happen, but it will require people who are pushing the standard of thought incorporated into design. The death of a vibrant movement comes when the core energy doesn’t have a discernibly different tract to the status quo.

A second piece from American Art, Edward Cooke’s “Modern Craft and the America Experience,” deftly assesses key themes to push scholarship about craft in the future. In terms of my ideas, the important points are that craft evolves as a social construct, and therefore is ever changing and linked to the language of a specific moment; and that, craft is often not about what it is, but what it is in opposition to. I think these notions are particularly salient in regards to streetwear. How are these sets of jeans and t-shirts different from those sets of jeans and t-shirts? The power of place, as we infer from Adamson, is important, but so to is the strength of classification.

In thinking about definitions and issues associated with craft, the power of the term’s relevance comes in the ability to translate intention to current thought. Trapped in a mire of nostalgia, streetwear is finding difficulty in reconstituting what it means. Just like home art projects can masquerade as art if placed in a “show,” companies can masquerade as authentic in this subgroup by finding way into the cathedrals of the culture. When we begin to champion memories of things that were simply middle of the road, it isn’t just hampering progression, it damages objectives.

It is important to remember that streetwear’s aesthetic and commentary has roots in designing new wearable dialogue. And now that the simple act of creation is easier, setting new standards for acceptability are keys in continuing that tradition.

Final note: Just received Digital Gravel’s 9-20 update. Shout out to Akomplice for illustrating a few of these paragraphs.


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