“Would you be an object for a week?”
That’s how it starts. A flippant enough request, an equally flippant answer, but quite complex in reality. The brief was fairly wide — be irreverent and avoid any particularly brutal single entendres.
As part of My Life As An Object, I was asked by Rattle to voice an object on twitter. The rationale for the project is better explained on Frankie’s blog, but the core aim is to take static exhibits, bring them and their history to life — to make them part of living culture again. This partially meant to make the objects ‘real’ again, to recontextualise them and engage people in a way that you can’t just by looking at them. Most people are used to talking to objects, but not many really expect an object to talk back to them.
One of my main concerns in undertaking this sort of ‘post-oral non-history’ was that it had to be about the object, not the user. The task at hand was to vocalise an object, to get under its skin and understand what its thoughts would be, how it would feel, watching people, experiencing being used, unused and aware.
There were a few interesting items to choose from, such as a Storr butter cooler, a lace-making machine, a jewelry box and a pair of slippers so ostentatious even Liberace would gag.
I settled on one of the more recent objects, a yellow, MK1 Raleigh Chopper. I had some ideas of how the other objects could be, what they’d see/think/feel, but felt the majority of them would be about the user rather than the object itself. Too many could probably last a day of interest, but may not have that much to say about themselves. I found the ego of a Raleigh Chopper to be self-evident: it’s a proud, cocksure feat of irrational design. An object so idiosyncratic (odd-shaped wheels, notional braking system, unfortunate gear stick placement, lively suspension) that its obvious personality leant it a longer life-cycle with more conversational content.
The next step after deciding on the object, and the personality that came with it, was how the week would progress.
The simplest, most effective way to engage people is through a good story. Plotting out the seven days knowing only the start (being unwrapped as a gift) and the end (arriving at Nottingham City Museum as an exhibit), a hyper-exaggerated version of the Chopper’s history made sense. Starting as the coolest thing on two wheels, an easily personalised object of instant hip caché, through life as a ridiculous stunt bike injuring plenty and ultimately ending up obsolete and superceded by the latest bike craze: BMX.
Top of the agenda was to be fun, to have people want to get involved. There needed to be some kind of emotional resonance from the audience, a connection between the fiction unfolding on twitter and their experiences. I wanted their anecdotes and their memories. I also wanted them to be sad when the chopper was down, buoyant when it was happy.
Secondly, there was a need to share information about the object in an organic, non-spammy way. I’m aware of the desire to shout “look at this awesome product, it does this, this and this,” but that is really not interesting to anyone. The information needed to come out differently than it would in a museum, i.e. not a bullet point of the object’s features. The narrative arc meant that each day I could share certain pieces of information through a natural conversation. People started to ask questions about the bike, enabling me to offer tidbits of history or pithy retorts.
The delivery was half pre-written, part responsive and part on-the-fly. I found that the more energetic times earlier in the week, the unveiling and the adventures, were easier to write in one go. I used LaterBro to queue up a stack of messages to post the next day. This worked a treat initially. When it came to the crisis point in mid-week, of being stolen (Frankie’s suggestion of a nice detour) and becoming unloved, it was much easier to write and instantly publish. The slow, sad emotional trajectory of the latter part of the week worked better in a slightly detached way, the same way the owner grew to treat the object.
My personal experiences of this week have been very odd indeed. I became quite attached to the bugger, excited when riding through parks, sad when abandoned, hopeful when rescued and proud when on display. Yellow Chopper occupied a lot of my brain space over the week, with some rather awkward questions prompting extra research. I explored the geography of Derby where the chopper was based (here’s a map of places I ‘visited’), learnt a lot about the history of the Chopper (some links I remembered to bookmark) and the sad decline of the Nottingham bicycle industry.
I hope that my experience is mirrored in some of the audience, and that they are inspired to visit the museum, to reassess how they approach objects in exhibits and to contextualise the objects within their original culture.
Now that the Yellow Chopper has expired, I’m enjoying watching week two of My Life As An Object unfold, a collaborative narrative fiction about a Paul Sandy picture that exists on Flickr. Go get involved, it’s a superb project.