It takes an artist's vision to work at a waste-processing facility (a.k.a. a dump) and see beyond the piles of discarded, unwanted stuff -- to instead see those objects for what they were, are and could be, and to treat them with the reverence and care ascribed to art. Jenny Odell's "Bureau of Suspended Objects," currently on display at the Palo Alto Art Center, provokes the viewer to think about what defines art and what is relegated to rubbish.
At first glance, the exhibit space evokes the atmosphere of a hipster, minimalist store -- the kind that curates its shelves, making each object look like it was specially selected to earn a spot. The 50 objects, all donated to the project by community members, range from a stuffed-animal version of Master Shifu, a character from the movie "Kung Fu Panda," to a pair of worn Tom's shoes.
Each object is labeled with a brief description of what it is, but the information goes far beyond what immediately meets the eye. Viewers can scan the QR code on each object's label, which links to Odell's online archive of the specific object's history -- an impressively thorough catalog of all kinds of information.
Odell, currently a faculty member in Stanford University's Department of Art and Art History, thinks of her project as a "historical approach to the present" and, in keeping with that historical approach, she has painstakingly researched each and every detail about each and every object in the "Bureau," from when, where and how it was made and manufactured, to where it was sold, who owned it, why that person chose to rid themselves of it and how guilty they felt about giving it up.
The scope of the project touches on many layers: historical, psychological, emotional, environmental, just to name a few, but Odell sees these layers as connected, comparing her process to detective work.
"I think all of my work is trying to represent networks ... I really think this thing," she said, pointing to a folded pair of jean cut-off shorts on display, "is the intersection of a place in Cambodia, a system of distribution, some guy's feeling about it, and why he made them into shorts and why he doesn't want them anymore."
Odell picked up a worn stuffed dog from one of the shelves -- a perfect example of this process. Without a tag, it would seem nearly impossible to find any background information on this object, but Odell stumbled across a very similar dog on eBay -- the seller called it a "Morgan Dog." That led her to further research Morgan Dogs, discovering that they were made in 1973 and based on a celebrity basset hound named J.J. Morgan. She even discovered a fan site dedicated to this particular model of stuffed animal.
One of Odell's goals is to provide a concrete sense of where objects come from. While serving as artist-in-residence at Recology in San Francisco, Odell recalled that she was struck by people's widely varying definitions of waste.
"Something that I kept thinking about while I was at the dump was kind of the arbitrariness of this category of trash," she said, adding that, with the exception of food and other disposables, it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to pinpoint the exact time at which someone decides something is trash.
Many times it's just an emotional decision. This emotional component not only factors into people's reasons for giving an object up, it also affects the viewer's experience.
"Something that I noticed at the opening was that ... people had emotional connections or associations with the objects. So, for instance, a lot of people get really nostalgic about the Nintendo entertainment system or a lot of people had the Western Electric 500 telephone model ... because these phones were just distributed to everybody, so everyone thinks that phone looks familiar," she said.
Odell decided to survey the individuals contributing objects to the project, asking contributors to rate their level of guilt about throwing them out. A graph in the exhibit displays the data Odell collected. According to this data, the majority of objects were given as gifts.
"I think it definitely says something about objects that function as a kind of collateral for an immaterial desire," she said, adding that she's trying to sell people on the idea of taking an object off a person's hands instead of giving them a gift.
"If everyone did this, maybe objects would eventually settle to their most appropriate locations," she said.
Though it might be hard to imagine "getting" instead of "giving" for, say, a friend's birthday, the idea is rooted in recycling, something that informs Odell's framework. In fact, during the opening reception viewers were allowed to claim objects for themselves. So far, she noted, the most popular objects seem to be ones that the original owners were most eager to be rid of.
"I really love the idea of objects surviving into the present in this really unlikely way, and I think that that's opposed to a culture of disposability," she said.
Odell sees this attitude toward objects -- taking care of them, understanding what went into making them, how they work and how they need to be repaired -- as a small way to engage with a huge idea like waste.
"It seems small and insignificant, but if everyone had a slightly different attitude toward their belongings and what it means to own an object versus consume an object, I think that far less stuff would end up being disposed and that far less stuff would end up being bought," she said.
The project's underlying environmental commentary is why it's part of the art center's "Creative Ecology" project, which brings art and science together.
Odell, who grew up in Silicon Valley and whose parents work in tech, readily incorporates digital media into her work. Besides the QR codes, there are displays of rotating 3-D models of a couple of the objects.
"I like the idea of archived things being in a kind of limbo and so that's a visual analog for that," she said.
Additionally, there are a few large images of the objects. Viewers can download a free augmented-reality app that shows the undamaged version of the image on top a direct example of the object's life cycle.
Odell, who drove from Facebook's headquarters, where she is currently an artist-in-residence, is expanding the inventory in the "Bureau of Suspended Objects."
"With new media projects or digital products, an association that a lot of people have with that medium is this idea of fast-paced, one-off projects ... I'm really inspired by projects by people I know that are multi-year, serious endeavors, and so I am hoping that the 'Bureau of Suspended Objects' someday has 1,000 objects," she said.
What: "The Bureau of Suspended Objects"
Where: Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road, Palo Alto
When: Through Dec. 11, Tuesdays-Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (open Thursdays until 9 p.m.); Sundays 1-5 p.m. Jenny Odell will give a lecture about her artistic process on November 2, 7-8 p.m.
Info: Go to suspended-objects.org and Palo Alto Art Center.