Debris as Object, Theory, and Method

An Interdisciplinary Seminar and Workshop on Value

Scraps are the detritus, the excess materials, and the unintended results left over from other primary processes of creation, consumption, and demolition. Scraps appear as matter out of order, partial objects, secondary byproducts. As a medium, scrapbooking is often seen as self- indulgently personal and overly sentimental. To many, valuing what others discard borders on pathology, on hoarding, an error of attachment that inappropriately assigns emotional worth to unworthy objects. Disparaged along lines of gender and class as a domestic hobby, scrapbooking is a craft that is seemingly incapable of rising to art. In this workshop-seminar, we will focus on the collection, contemplation, and deployment of devalued materials to ask how value circulates in physical form, through communicative media, and in conceptual productions. What might we learn from what we keep and what we discard?

By addressing scraps and scrapbooking in an expansive sense, we examine both online and offline communities of practice for the lessons to be learned from materials and media on the margins. From the surrealist technique of collage to digital applications for collecting snippets of experience, clipping images, and sharing screenshots, we see how scraps can be elevated from their original content and context to serve as elements for curation. The goal of this course is to move beyond familiar scholarly forays in “visual anthropology” through prestige media like film and documentary photography. The aim of taking seriously these devalued materials and practices is not simply to mine the margins for inspiration, but to question the assumptions that lay behind ideologies of creativity to reveal implicit cultural judgments in assignments of artistic value.

“Scrap/Books” 2019
in Bookmarks: Speculating the Futures of the Book and Library
Stamps School of Art & Design
May 2019

The semester’s readings and activities will draw from writings in archeology, material culture, social and cultural theories of art, as well as from literature on value, materiality, and labor. We will read works from authors including Walter Benjamin, on the contradictory modern material conditions of excessive production and extreme destruction; Michel Foucault, on shifts of historical knowledge that arise through addressing “material[s] which had hitherto had no pertinence for history and which had not been recognized as having any moral, aesthetic, political or historical value.” Students will engage collage and assemblage through aesthetic theories, including Max Ernst and others’ work that explore the productive potential of chaos, serendipity, and juxtaposition. We will follow this theme through James Clifford’s conception of ethnographic surrealism and methods of cultural juxtaposition. In addition to political theory, philosophy and aesthetics, we will also consider how different technologies and media allow for new framing of materials, particularly what new forms of value and sociality arise in communities organized around curating experience on multi-user platforms like Pinterest and Evernote, as well as those that prevent traces, in emergent disappearing/ephemeral media like Snapchat and TikTok.

In addition to the readings and discussions, students will develop “scrapbook” projects, in a format and medium of their choosing, which will be accompanied by essays detailing the processes of creation and analyzing the work through the lenses provided by the readings and discussions. By combining a rigorous critical component with an engaged project-based workshop approach, the course allows for the expression of analytic and applied skills in a collective experiment in crossing the boundaries between theory and practice.