Every product has a history.
Even the freshers, crispest, most pristinely unmarked piece of electronics (your computer screen, for example) comes webbed within a whole social, economic and environmental network of narrative. (Even if, as in the case of the recent Foxconn scandal, or intermittent Nike sweatshop outcries, we would prefer, quite frankly, to ignore it.)
There’s the factory workers (probably in China, or Turkey) who worked at the plant. There’s the man who drove the truck to take it to the shop. There’s the daughter that slept in the new bed paid for with her father’s truckdriving wages. There’s the fish that died from toxic spill from the factory outflow. There’s the swamp trees that last saw light of day sometime in the Paleozoic era, before being dug up as coal millions of years later and blast-furnaced into kinetic energy, heat and smoke. There’s the tungsten and the molybdenum and the platinum, formed eons and eons ago in the shadow of the big bang, now transformed into electrical components, the conductors and resistors and capacitors that determine the flickerings and echoings of our screens.
And yet we still think of the things we buy as ‘new’.
I find this strange and oddly impoverishing. What a waste of a good story.
There are, however, a few projects out there that attempt to explore the narratives behind the things we buy.
I thought I’d begin a catalogue. Please send more, there are heaps of instances out there… but here are three to start:
1) The D-Build Project in Syracuse, New York aims to encourage the use of second-hand building materials repurposed from abandoned structures.
It does this by emphasising the narrative qualities of those materials, allowing you to link your lumber or metal or second-hand windowpanes to a story outlining its historical and cultural – as well as physical – dimensions.
Makes me think of that nursery rhyme, The House that Jack Built. There’s never really an end to the story.
2) Virtual Water is a website and an iphone app that tells you – disturbingly – exactly how much water went into the production and transport of the things you consume.
3) And finally, this wonderful Honda print ad from the UK.
I like how it recognises the interlinking of people and products – and by doing so, it humanises them.
More examples? Tell me, I’ll post them.