Orphaned Objects: Gift Giving and Other Lost Gestures (2010)
Gift giving has long attracted the interest of anthropologists as a central part of maintaining cultural rituals and hierarchies.[i] Each country has its own traditions in which gift giving, often somewhat warped by capitalism, functions. Gift giving takes both material and immaterial forms, on both individual and collective levels. New media practices such as SMS (Short Messaging Systems) have been conceptualised as part of this genealogy woven together by repository and obligation.[ii] Whilst the gift giver may have the intention to give without repository, there is no such thing as a gift without presence. As Igor Kopytoff observes, objects—like people—have their very histories, or biographies, which “… concentrate on innumerable matters and events” encompassing the entire “life span” of an object.[iii] The act of gift giving creates a special point of puncture in the object’s biography in which the intention of the giver is often different to that of the receiver’s use.
In a recent project, under the group title PLAYBOUR PROJECTS, my son and I collaborate to make a truly genuine gift in the Derridean sense[iv]. As a typical baby, he loves objects to play with whilst we walk. Also as a typical baby, his attention quickly wanes and he drops the object. Usually this act begins the practice of fort da—the returning of the lost object as discussed by Freud.[v] This fort da is usually the mum who picks up the object and returns it to the baby. However, in this project, the object is left; a gift to someone, somewhere in the future.
Orphaned objects toys with Dadaist games such as Tzara’s making of poems by tossing a hat full of words on the ground. In this case, the cut out words are replaced by my son’s toys. Wherever Jesper drops a toy, he makes an installation of the genuine gift. I document and leave. Like a toy version of a bread crumb trail… we leave toys in the pathways that we walk and rewalk. A series of postcards are made from the photos and left for strangers to take and to send their messages with, a gift of co-presence, to someone else, somewhere else.
Orphaned objects was born as we walked around the grape fecund surrounds of GCC, framed by massive mudflats nearby, in which we accounted many lost and neglected objects—orphaned objects to be precise. Like a scene in Stalker[vi], discarded shoes, abandoned children’s toys and bikes, deserted TVs, and piles of rubbish could be found littered throughout the countryside. When the mudflats appear, new forsaken objects can be found. The indelible footprint of humans’ gifts to the world: rubbish. Once an orphanage, the specters of the past before GCC are still omnipresent despite renovations. These are the gifts/present without presence to ghosts past, to all things lost and found.
[i] Mauss, M. (1990 ) The Gift: forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. London: Routledge.
[ii] Taylor, A. and Harper, R. (2003) ‘The gift of gab? a design oriented sociology of young people’s use of mobiles’, Journal of Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 12: 267-96.
[iii] Kopytoff, I. (1986) The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process, in A. Appadurai (ed.) The social life of things. Commodities in cultural perspective, pp. 64–91. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 66.
[iv] As Jacques Derrida noted, the genuine gift remains in an ambivalent state outside the act of giving and taking. The gift is destroyed by the attempt to propose equivalence and in the very act of acknowledging it as a gift. Giving a thank you gift, through acknowledging the presence of a gift and thus its proposition of equivalence, is to rescind the gift. For Derrida the only way to avoid this situation is for the act of gift giving to remain anonymous, thus deleting a clear relationship and causality between giver and receiver. Moreover, the giver cannot even acknowledge that they are giving as such an act can involve a sense of self-congratulations on their acts of perceived ‘kindness’. Derrida, J. (1991 ) The Gift of Death, trans. Wills, Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Derrida, J. (1992) Given Time. trans. Kamuf, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[v] Thanks to Esther Milne for fort da conversation.
[vi] Tarkovsky 1979.