Material Culture


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Found this on my bike after class. Another example of security promotion through microtargetting.

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Sorry for the radio silence. It’s been busy here. New material is in the works.

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I probably owe an explanation for this earlier post. Sprinkles? Betty Crocker? Modernization? 

Well, yeah. Over the course of this semester, I’ve noticed the extent to which the way I look at the world is influenced by what I’m studying. Last semester, I was taking courses in architectural history, material culture, and airport development, and when I looked at the world around me, I thought about it in those terms. My course load this semester has a different, more historical mixture, and one of my classes stands out for how strongly it has affected how I look at the world.

That course, Making America Modern, 1880-1930, is a junior seminar taught by Jean Christophe-Agnew. It covers the fifty years in America when modernity touched down, the world slid sideways, and everything changed. The foundations set during this time remain in place: we are borne ceaselessly forward by machinery set running over a century ago. 

We find modernity everywhere, in the history of our newspapers, our technologies, our mass culture. And so too in the mundane and everyday: These sprinkles index modernity, telling a story of changes in society, technology, culture, gender relations. The ice cream parlor, their host, was made possible by advances in industrial refrigeration (1870s), the invention of the ice cream soda (1874-6) and the ice cream sundae (1890s), the proliferation of the counter-service soda fountain (1903). The spread of the soda fountain and the ice cream parlor was enabled by the transition from a rural agricultural economy to an urban industrial economy, and it, in turn, enabled the rise of a new public and a non-gendered urban social sphere. 

Modernization is like the Big Bang. It dropped a fiery mix of ideas, sparkling new and bubbly hot, and we have watched them pool around us, solidifying in strange peaks and voids. Sprinkles are one of the hunks of rock hurled out of the explosion, through which we may reveal and understand the past.

Patterns, seams, juxtapositions. The meeting of protocols and materials.

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Modification, personalization: Yale’s light trucks, used by its Custodial, Facilities and Grounds Maintenance departments. Relationships made material in bumper-stickers and eye-shadow headlights, identities structured and affirmed.

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A collection of trucks idling on York Street at midday, all making deliveries.

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Different backgrounds, similar tasks.

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A tension between form and content.

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Trucks as a kind of mobile Journal of Urban Typography.

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A momentary herd, parked nose-to-butt up the block.

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The relatively young Swindle Magazine (which bills itself as “the definitive pop culture and lifestyle publication” and whose server may be down at the moment) has an article about the history of spray paint, aptly titled “The History of Spray Paint”. The article, while short, reminds us of the that every object trails a history behind it, like the wake that follows a moving boat. The four-dimensional view extends to material culture, too.

Spray paint specifically is interesting because it’s one of a category of objects that allows direct interaction between the user and the built environment, typically for annotation of some sort (benign, artistic, or destructive). Other examples of this category include hand tools (screwdrivers, hammers, etc.) and binding substances (rope, tape, glue, etc.). Maybe someday, cell phones or digital cameras will be able to leave metadata latent in the environment, although you could argue that GPS satellites already do this.

How do we leave our (physical/electronic) mark on the built environment? Possibly related.

[Swindle Magazine via surplus and the mongrel arts.]

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