Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Significant Objects Project

How to create a significant object:

1. Find some tchotchke. Any tchotchke will do. The weirder the better.

2. Pretend in your brain that it is significant.

3. Write a story telling everyone about how significant it is.

4. Sell the object, and the story, on Ebay.

In other words, (from the web site of the Significant Objects project): A talented, creative writer invents a story about an object. Invested with new significance by this fiction, the object should — according to our hypothesis — acquire not merely subjective but objective value. How to test our theory? Via eBay!

In order for the significance to be created, the object must begin with no significance at all, before the story is written. The items in the project were collected at thrift stores and garage sales, obtained for very little coin. If an object of no actual value gets valuable via its place in a piece of fiction, then these garage sale finds (the web site categorizes them as talismans, totems, evidence, and fossils) should be commanding a higher price on Ebay than they did at the garage sale. According to the evidence, this is actually happening. Take for example Susannah Breslin's story about the button in the photo, the All American Official Necking Team button. The button is for sale on Ebay, along with the story, and the bidding is now over $35. It was listed at $0.50, which was the price it commanded at the thrift store. There are five days left -- who knows how high this piece could sell for?

The idea of making "real" the objects that appear in fictional work is not new. Here's one example: When author Joshilyn Jackson toured with her book The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, she took along a quilt that represented the quilt created by her artist main character. The actual quilt was made by collage artist Pamela Allen, and brought the quilt in the book to life in the smallest detail. Another example: last month a gallery in the UK showed a collection of books that exist only as titles in other books. The idea of an object from a piece of writing coming to life as a physical object you can hold in your hand is kind of magical, it creates the kind of fetish object that deserves the title "totem" or "talisman."

However, when I think of these pieces from, I am less interested in the value created in the object via the fiction, and more interested in the value created in the fiction, via the object. How difficult would it be for an author to sell a short story on Ebay, without the object attached? Especially a story given in full, which a potential buyer could immediately read online or print out for him/herself? Pretty difficult. Yet here is a story, connected to an old button found at a thrift store, that's selling for the price of three paperbacks. Remember, we are in a time when even books are seen as archaic, where people download cheap digital versions of novels, and fiction is readily available all over the internet in a bazillion online magazines.

Maybe what this buyer is actually purchasing is a feeling of ownership that escapes the average reader of a Kindle download or a mass market paperback. This reader will possess the button, and therefore possess the story, in a way that no one else will or can. Like an illustrated text, before the printing press was invented, there is a real sense of exclusivity to this type of writing -- it can only truly be owned by one person.

For more info: For more significant objects to bid on, follow @significobs on Twitter.

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