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Reflecting on Collections and Collecting Dust and Other Things

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The following is a philosophical reflection on the manner in which we collect things, whether it is art, souvenirs, or stories. In doing so, we reveal to the world how we picture ourselves through the lens of an inanimate object.

These thoughts were also reassembled under the auspice of a performance piece, held at Four Walls Gallery in San Diego. The performance was entitled Collecting Dust and Other Things. Finally, this commentary attempts to put into perspective the roles and objectives of the performers who participated, in relationship to what is missing within their artistic community and their needs, along with possible solutions to satisfy them.

We are all collectors to a certain degree. It is perhaps the connotations, prestige, and expectations associated with collecting, say, in the arts, that separates the true collectors from the penny well. You could easily spend your lifetime buying and collecting white tube socks because you like how they look and feel when you wear them, but it is unlikely that you would be considered a collector; a consumer yes, strange maybe, but definitely not a connoisseur.

It seems the difference between buying the same brand of Levis or Gap jeans over and over again — which, arguably, is a form of collecting brand names — and collecting Coco Chanel perfume bottles is the difference between the object desired and its utilitarian function. After all, how many salt-and-pepper shakers can you shake before you return to the first ones you bought, after tiring of cycling through the hundreds of sets you otherwise own? Not many, I would imagine.

This is because, when collecting, there’s a tipping point to having too much of a good thing. Surely, not all collecting is a form of gluttony. One might rightfully protest that plenty of what is sitting in any art or natural history museum is, in part, due to the thoughtful foresight and panache of the individual who collected and then donated it – all the Indiana Jones’ of the world aside.

However, there’s something about collecting for better or worse that preserves and immortalizes a person’s historical and social rank, which in turn, banks on its future. In doing so, it also emphasizes the difference between a private and public practice, which begins in private, as — this is my collection only to be seen by friends and family; and later becomes public, as — here, my gift to the museum.

“I don't buy art in order to leave a mark or to be remembered; clutching at immortality is of zero interest to anyone sane.” – Charles Saatchi

If you believe Saatchi’s assertion, then there must be other things which are also collectible that do not give us immortality, but do give us the same feelings of satisfaction and preservation, the same “high” that comes with it, without the expense or loss of space.

I once worked with a young artist from Washington, D.C., Vanessa Kamp, who, like Collecting Dust and Other Things, literally collected such things as dust, cat and pubic hair, and any other sediments that fell to her apartment floor that she then meticulously compacted into little blocks of grey and brown proboscises displayed on shelves in the style of Donald Judd.

Vanessa’s “act,” I believe, is similar to that of collecting, and yet another manner of recording time and place. Isn’t it also a testimony to a certain desire or need, that at the same moment is instantly fulfilled? Collecting can become an accurate portrait of someone’s life — their thoughts, physicality, hopes, tragedies, and vision ad nauseam, willed upon an object of consumption or passion which supposedly contains an inherent quality or meaning — a thing that has no voice, but speaks volumes about its saviour and benefactor.

It is an illusion of comfort we cannot possess nor attain in our lives that gives us a bit of solace and contentment, and a physical connection with an object that keeps us spiritually weighted and materialistically or financially bound. Do we, therefore, collect because we do not want to be alone?

Collecting probably involves some ancestral reflex rooted in survival that has become diluted over time as the need to survive has been replaced with the question of what to do with the leisure gained. Instead of foraging for food, we now forage for entertainment.

Huddled around the campfire, safe in numbers, and with a full belly leads naturally to the most ancient and universal form of leisure time: storytelling. Gossip, jokes, and first-hand accounts of tragic or spectacular events are also forms of telling stories in which we have participated, received from other collectors, or parlayed to others in bars, locker rooms, hair salons, board rooms, and in the deepest darkest depths of the jungle.

It is by far the most democratically social form of collecting that exists. We are no longer savage; we only enjoy hearing that we are. Besides, everyone likes a good story, don’t they?

Collecting Dust and Other Things, under the auspices of Four Walls gallery, is a different story altogether. I wonder, as a participant and someone writing this preface, was this art, an interview, or just talking shop? Or, for that matter, was this reality TV, since everyone knew they were being recorded?

It appeared from the outset that we were all invited to come in to get our hair cut. Stylists were present, appointments taken, and clients sat down as stories were clipped from their mouths in the process. Falling to the ground, each raconteur’s history was swept up like dust in Vanessa Kamp’s aforementioned pieces, and then later compiled into neat little stacks of insight and dialogue.

How important was the mise en scene to all of this? Perhaps little if you compare it to the goal of organizing a local town meeting. Was it a crash course in cultural anthropology, or a form of participant observation of familiar behaviour, collected from a specific group that demonstrated their very different public and private faces?

The distinctions between a professional self and private persona is very similar to the act of collecting since we exhibit different sides of our character and personality to those who are looking at or interacting with us. In Collecting Dust and Other Things, the only characterization it seemed required, was to come as you are.

That being the case, it is questionable whether the 14 or so participants ranging in diversity and profession under the collective umbrella of the arts community as it exists in San Diego — i.e., gallery owners, teachers, curators, museum directors, performance artists, art critics, collectors and the like — revealed themselves entirely. If they did or did not, beyond each person’s stated role here, there would not have been any particular reason, in either case to defend, expound upon, and change the current balance of power and cultural status quo, since it was not required of the exercise.

Did we attempt, nonetheless, to leave our own indelible mark upon the work? Did the process yield something vital or useful after all? Were we preaching to the choir or was it an accurate portrait of San Diego’s artistic health and viability? Yes, we all live and work here; some of us chose to, while others just made their way as they arrived. If there is something to be said about us as actors, it is that we are highly adaptable to artistic and cultural change, and like carpetbaggers, we carry our product from town to town.

It doesn’t really matter where you live until you discover what is apparently missing — or that you don’t have, but need to collect –which, inevitably, is always something. The wealth of information to be had from this is invaluable because it shifts perceptions of how our seemingly disparate jobs overlap, and examines various criteria by individuals or clans working independently within the same cultural milieu, which, in the end, have the same problems and needs of exporting Art, with a capital “A,” to the public and to each other.

I’ve seen plenty of bumper stickers that suggest we “think global and act locally,” but often we find ourselves thinking locally as well as acting locally in San Diego. This is not necessarily a problem, per se, except that the parameters for effecting change on a community or global level start to dwindle as the implementation becomes narrower or more self-referential.

Not unlike the progression that collecting takes as your taste and judgment become more refined — which might be good for discerning vintage wines, but not so great if the actions you take become calculated or less altruistic — this can occur when the intent, focus and challenge is how to get noticed or simply, collected.

Who are we collecting – our peers? After all, collecting always involves the choice of one thing at the expense of another, whether it involves friendships, trophies, artists, or the art that they make. An artist can collect galleries, exhibits, and collectors just as readily, but at what cost to their careers?

In the world of art there are always prizes to win, fortunes to make, and glory just around the very next corner, but there remains one piece — la pièce de résistance — which often remains very elusive. It is a reward so great that our feeble attempts of support and recognition of each other pales largely before it – namely, the understanding, empathy, and appreciation of the general public.

The desire to show off one’s collection, although powerful and evident, may just as easily become a numbers game between the haves and the have-nots. It can be expected of the collectors to collect art, artists to make it, galleries to show it, and museums to archive it, but since these individuals and institutions here are fairly numbered and perhaps overly few, an over reliance on them and other sparse resources at this developmental point in time is hardly conducive to healthy growth.

That’s where Collecting Dust and Other Things comes in. The individual participants expressed a panoramic range of personal and professional experiences with concrete examples of their successes, as well as their frustrations — in real time — freely offering their insight and inclinations regarding the arts in San Diego. They were under no obligation to make changes or offer solutions to actual problems, real or imagined.

Hopefully free from posturing or presumption, I therefore offer a couple of proposals for change which continue to build on dialogue in an attempt to collect more than dust, or at least keep it off the shelf of abandoned desires.

First, decide once and for all that the world of art is going to remain an inclusive machine of production, marketing, and sales in which you need the production of art in order to generate sales through either controlling the quality and critically viable interest in that output, ultimately derived from the artist’s hands, or accepting that there very likely is a limited amount of spending which could be labeled as collecting.

For instance, we might realize there are only a few individuals capable of doing these things, and that their tastes might not extend to the full gamut of what is available either out there or locally produced – ditto for galleries, museums, and critics whose choice it is to exhibit and write about what they like.

Without a golden rule or playbook to follow, it boils down to a matter of choice and an issue of courage to make decisions, to probe deeply into how the system functions, to meld inventiveness with the sense of adventure in occasionally recognizing masterpieces in all their multiplicity, and contributing to the discourse in ways that elevate it to a higher form. Doing so would shift the focus off of who’s doing what, how, and with whom, and place it firmly back into the art that is made, where, I suspect, it ultimately should be.

Mostly, however, it’s the sense of value — in offering the public an understanding of how people work and what they actually think — which is deftly promised in Collecting Dust and Other Things, not because the speakers are identified as smarter, but because they believe the public is.

If pro-active and/or pro-art performances like this one can reach beyond its intended or cherry picked audience, it can deliver a wealth of knowledge and power into the hands of individuals who, by being affected by great art, in turn help to provide better access to it. It may also enable the public to respond and comment on a wider menu of artistic content and ideas without diluting or watering the process down, and model the choice to collect in ways that tell a variety of stories of each our own.

Perhaps, in the end, I too am a collector of actions, ideas, and quandaries, someone who is willing to donate my responsibility and faith in the process and power of art.

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About Kevin Freitas