for Richard Sennett
[First published on thingsthatfall.com in 2006]
Over the past four years, Thingsthatfall (TTf) has opened seven separate retail sites, mostly on the European continent. Our stores are modular and therefore capable of being transported and set up almost anywhere, allowing the products on display to be tailored to each store’s local community.
Our 13-square-meter store in Bruges, Win-Win, is located on the Werfplein, a green space in the middle of working-class neighborhood along the northern arc of the pseudo-historical city’s central district. The store specializes in seasonal accessories and apparel and its grand opening featured several classic, yellow hooded raincoats. “People are responding very positively to them,” said store rep Darwin Martin. “Because if it’s raining—which it often is in Belgium—you can get a raincoat. And if it’s not raining, you’re so happy it’s not raining that the sight of something so far from your mind as a bright rubber raincoat is really quite pleasing. Either the product is useful, and therefore welcome, or it is useless, and equally welcome.” The Bruges store is made of structural steel and Macroform plastic, a German product noted for structural integrity, shimmering translucency and light weight.
In Villeurbanne, a suburb of Lyon noted for its museums and restaurants, TTf has opened a 9-square-meter Do-It-Yourself Annex. The DIY Annex is devoted exclusively to the DIY coffin, a timely design object that is the result of subtle alterations to standard IKEA components. The DIY Annex affords customers a hands-on opportunity to test drive the DIY coffin, either by assembling the product from scratch or by reclining in a recently completed model. Says Joe Scanlan, “The French are notoriously self-sufficient and introspective, so the DIY Annex appeals to them. They seem to enjoy the self-determination that the Annex allows, and yet they also seem to appreciate the existential dilemma that comes with being presented with the opportunity to assemble your own coffin.”
Ikon Gallery in beautiful Birmingham, England, is home to our 150-square-meter Pay Dirt Processing Plant. The plant is dedicated to the reproduction of Pay Dirt, a synthetic potting soil that is comprised of waste materials collected in Birmingham that are then processed and repackaged in elegant 6-liter bags. Having entered the plant as as a chaotic pile of postconsumer data, Pay Dirt exits the plant as two beautifully conceived brands: Ikon Earth for general purpose gardening, and Black Country Rock for gardeners who are also fans of David Bowie. The Birmingham region is known as “the black country” due to its industrial history and the distinct air quality that has resulted from it.
As such, the Pay Dirt Processing Plant’s reproduction of waste material is similar to the role that art museums often play in the reproduction of contemporary culture. As regional manager Steve Canal Jones stated in an interview with BBC 5, “There’s nothing cynical about a museum being a site for making luxury-grade potting soil. That’s pretty much what museums do: take stuff from the world, refine it and repackage it, and then sell it back to us as culture. Pay Dirt is no different. In fact, it offers a bonus—even if you don’t want to accept it as art, you can still grow dahlias or tomatoes in it.”
In Vienna, TTF administers a 14.5-square-meter modernist learning center, titled Miesian Gymnasium, in the heart of the city’s museum campus. The learning center is just steps away from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Kunsthalle Wien, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Wiener Secession. In keeping with Vienna’s affection for righteous architects—from Rudolph Schindler and Adolph Loos to Richard Neutra and Hans Hollein—the Miesian Gymnasium offers for consideration the elegant formal principles of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the German architect who turned Loos’ local complaints into a global aesthetic.
Mies’s ideology—which is visible in everything from prefab housing to war memorials to “box stores”—has had a lasting impact on our culture. The question central to the Miesian Gymnasium, however, is whether Mies van der Rohe’s ubiquitous design influence is based on his formal principles or on the ruthless economy of means those principles have inspired. For all his exquisite proportions, material fetishes, technical innovations and attention to detail, it could be argued that Miesian austerity lives today not because it is beautiful but because it is profitable.
The Miesian Gymnasium adheres to this argument. However much Mies might be spinning in his grave due to all the buildings being designed according to the size of a sheet of plywood multiplied in every direction, we cannot deny that his rejection of ornament and his commitment to structural integrity has been transformed by the likes of IKEA and Home Depot into a rationale for making everything similarly and interchangeably. Not because that approach to design is aesthetically appealing, nor because it is a technical marvel, but because it is the cheapest way to make as many identical things as possible.
In this spirit, the Vienna learning center is built entirely out of interchangeable modular parts. Once designed, the Miesian Gymnasium can be built and shipped the world over, with no variation or loss of quality. Of course, there can be no gain in quality, either. That is the price we pay.
Last Spring, TTF opened an 11-square meter boutique titled Buy American in the Marias, the city’s 3rd arrondissement, that specializes in redefining what it means to be an American. Not the kind of American we came to loathe during the Bush administration, but the thoughtful, doubtful, introspective kind of American who regularly excluded from public discourse.
Commentators are lately fond of saying that America has become a Hobbesian state in reference to British philosopher Thomas Hobbes who, in his signature work, Leviathan, proposed that conflict is the natural condition of man. In some respect this observation is true; two decades of corporate and governmental animosity has created an atmosphere perpetual contestation among the citizenry of the United States: against the world, against each other, against the driver in the next lane—and certainly against corporations and the government. Being competitive at all times toward every person you encounter has become the preferred mode of behavior. If you are not preemptively trying to get ahead of others then they are probably getting ahead of you.
In such an aggressive state of mind, knowledge becomes a hindrance. No person can claim to be truly knowledgeable without admitting that their knowledge has limits, is subject to doubt, and is therefore vulnerable to attack. The more sophisticated the knowledge, the more vulnerable it is. Knowledge is weakness. On the other hand, any person who claims to be faithful suffers neither limits nor doubts. Their willful ignorance in the face of overwhelming opinion or scientific fact only serves to strengthen their faith. The more blind the faith, the more powerful it is. Faith is power. Thus, in the current social environment, traits that should be the basis of human knowledge–curiosity, skepticism, reason, humility–are portrayed as signs of weakness because they demonstrate a lack of faith. To be reasonable or skeptical is to be an unbeliever, and not believing is the work of traitors and evildoers. Consequently, the United States has devolved into a Darwinian society whose only salvation is faith in God, a paradox that would be funny were it not so hostile and disingenuous.
By contrast, the Buy American boutique features goods that represent everything that America is not. The boutique is an act of appropriation, an attempt to leverage hatred for this moment in history by transforming it into love for dissent. Yes! It’s reassuring to know there are still people who refuse to comply. Yes! It’s comforting to know there are people who are congenitally unable to be bellicose and profitable and dull. Yes! It’s encouraging to know there are products being made that are poetic and thoughtful and underwhelming. Yes! They’re here and they need our financial support. Yes! Buy American. Yes.
Due to popular demand, our second store in Paris is a bricks and mortar version of our website, thingsthatfall.com.
Since September 11, 2001, it has become ever more apparent that “things that fall” present unrivaled opportunities for emotional manipulation, economic profit, and political gain. Whether world leaders, stocks prices, Martha Stewart, or the World Trade Center, each thing that falls marks a downward motion that inspires widespread speculation about its eventual rise. It is a kind of blood lust. Not for tragic events in themselves, as Andy Warhol’s Disaster Paintings proposed, but for the profits to be made after a tragedy has taken place.
This reflex has become so natural to American culture that its media, its citizens, its politicians and its stockbrokers all desire things that fall solely for the gains that are certain to follow. Even Robert Smithson, the patron saint of American Art, understood that re-organizing entropy into containers for display (and sale) was not only a way to make his thinking legible to the average person, but also to profit from it.
The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter called this drive Creative Destruction. According to his theory, capitalism cannot advance without perpetually destroying itself and then profiting from its own resurrection. In practice, a simple demonstration of creative destruction is short selling, the stock market tactic in which a stock is sold with the intent of driving its price down, all the while being fairly confident that the stock is valuable and will eventually rise again. When the stock hits what is believed to be its short-term bottom, it is repurchased at the lower price so as to better profit from its long-term rise. Simply put, short selling forces the stock down only to profit from it going up again.
This is America in a nutshell. This is why we love snowflakes, teardrops, flower petals, dirt, silence, brightness, architecture, celebrities, the World Trade Center, dictators, words, packages, angels, handles, sleep, priests, coffins, airplanes, politicians, stocks, factories, ashes, skies, gazes, axes.
Marcel Broodthaers, who was about as un-American a person as I can think of, once famously wondered if he, too, could sell something and succeed in life. His revelation, like ours, can be attributed to the observation that categories, when pushed to the extreme, collapse on themselves and reveal the folly of their knowledge, their order, and their reliability. We hope to do the same for the contents of thingsthatfall that Broodthaers did for eagles, atlases, museums.
For related content see Commerce
Here is an Artforum review