Sep 7, 2012

Third Family of Objects and Confrontational Readings

In his new project, Skála continues to explore the relationship between people and objects in the context of transition from the Fordist mode of production to the precarious times we live in today. Following his 2007 exhibition Two Families of Objects, and One Family of Objects, a book published in 2010, this is Skála’s third elaboration on the subject. His 2007 exhibition portrayed employees of a shut-down factory who bought the machines they used to operate when it was still up and running. Through the act of the purchase they upset the boundary between two categories of objects, as defined by Umberto Eco: between commodities as things designed for pleasure, and machines which represent strictly utilitarian and unattractive objects used for the production of commodities. In his current project, Skála examines objects which possess the qualities of both. This third category is comprised of machines and other practical tools which are primarily commodities, such as different kinds of electronic devices like computers, sound systems or fashion accessories. They belong to the world of leisure and entertainment. They are fully functional but they are not a part of any manufacturing system. Even though they are designed to serve a practical function (computers are often the principal means of production), they are treasured as pure objects of desire, valuable in themselves and revered, like a fetish, for their functional, technical parameters. Functionality is thus separated from function and transformed into a point of attraction. A phenomenon called unboxing, which has recently been spreading on the internet, demonstrates this curious attitude to commodities. Unboxing consists of unwrapping a brand-new product in front of a camera. The proprietor enjoys every moment of the sensual experience of removing the layers of packaging one by one until he eventually discovers a beautiful new device.
          The first one to notice that the quality of a ‘thing’ multiplies in connection with capitalist mass-production was Karl Marx. In the section on fetishism of commodities in the Capital, he described commodities as mysterious and fantastic ‘things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses’, whose exchange- value replaced their use-value. According to Marx, money illustrated this phenomenon at the most extreme: although money has no use-value, it is the most worshipped because it is the dominant means of exchange. Guy Debord attempted to describe further erosion of the use-value of commodities in the context of the growing power of the entertainment business and mass media culture. He suggested that in today’s society of the spectacle we no longer need to possess the object of our desire, we are satisfied with gazing – a commodity is replaced by an image. The dichotomy of reality and appearance which formed the essence of Debord’s critique of the spectacle, disappears in Jean Baudrillard’s concept of ‘hyper-reality’. Baudrillard argued that there is no real model for ‘simulacra’ and that ‘sign-value’ has replaced the exchange-value and use-value.
          All these concepts clarify the schism between the instrumental purpose of a commodity and its fetish status, as it relates to the capitalist mode of production and which is growing stronger today. Our choice of theory to interpret the examples of commodity fetishism discussed by Skála will depend on what perspective we assume – the one of the consumer, factory worker, or of the freelance artist? The author himself is informed by all three because his life experience contains elements of each. Skála was born in a family of factory workers and worked as an apprentice in the same factory as his parents. As a contemporary artist, however, he operates in the Post-Fordist mode of production, which sees no difference between work time and leisure. After all, not even he can fully resist the seductive power of beautiful new devices sealed in packaging which is still intact – and neither can we.

Václav Magid, Prague, 2012