Introduction, 2011, a screenshot, blog Third Family of Objects, photo: author's archive
I devote part of my free
time and space to trying to understand my surroundings. Often I ask myself:
What’s going on here? What’s this supposed to mean? I find clues to these
questions in trivial narratives. In small fragments of everyday reality. I try
to discern a clear and evident reflection of reality within them. This thought
process is precisely what enables me to differentiate and define the phenomena
that determine me as an individual. I probably developed this method to the
fullest extent in the book One Family of Objects.
The book is concerned
with the social and economic transformation that has taken place in the Czech
Republic over the last twenty years. Specifically, it deals with the changing
relationship between the worker and the machine. I illustrate this theme with
the case of a factory in southern Bohemia, which closed down in 2005, where I
completed my apprenticeship at the start of the 1990s and where my parents were
employed for their entire working lives. Most of the machines were sold off –
the new owners included both small scale workshops and large manufacturing
complexes in India and Mexico. And my parents also purchased one of the
machines. This unexpected decision led me to an idea – I would locate other machines
and ask their new owners to photograph them. This would provide the owners with
the opportunity to capture – through a camera lens – their relationship with
their means of production; and thus to find out why they purchased one of those
iron colossi with their hallmark aesthetic: the green finish, the ubiquitous
presence of oil and the pungent aroma of steel shavings.
The name of the book is
derived from Umberto Eco’s essay Two Families of Objects. In his text Eco
divides objects into two families: consumer objects which we all yearn for, and
means of production which we do not desire to own, but which are the
precondition for the existence of the first group.
In reality, he has not
chosen, he has only accepted his role as a consumer of consumer goods since he
can not be a proprietor of the means of production. But he is content. Tomorrow
he will work harder in order to be able to buy, one day, an easy chair and a
refrigerator. He will work at the lathe, which is not his, because (the fair
has told him) he doesn't want it.
We are familiar with
industrial machines from stories told by our parents or grandparents, from
documentary photographs and films. Or, more recently, from DIY stores like OBI
and Bauhaus, where miniature versions of industrial cutting or shaping tools
are on display. They are intended for use by amateur enthusiasts. In other
words people for whom they provide, or are beginning to provide, an escape from
the reality of the contemporary world. The rest of us are just a little apprehensive
about these machines. Their sharp teeth, blades and spikes. They belong to a
different time, a different environment. They belong elsewhere.
I decided to carry on
with the project and focus on the way our relationship with means of production
has changed over the last fifteen years. Again, it was thanks to a coincidental
decision – I decided to wallpaper my computer screen with a photograph that my
mother took of a lathe which she had operated for 22 years. Thanks to the
positive, as well as the deprecatory, reactions of those who saw this
situation, I slowly began to understand the interesting potential of the act I
had performed. The confrontation of two worlds: that of my parents and its
objects, and my own world with its hierarchy of objects.
A room of not more than
eighteen square metres, a bed by the door, two tables opposite, a computer on
each of them. One of them is mine; the other belongs to my girlfriend. These
are the means of production of a visual artist and a photographer. I’m sitting
down, looking at the monitor on which the back-lit photograph of my mother’s
lathe is emerging. A year and a half ago I selected it as the background for my
monitor. I don’t always see it in its entirety, usually it’s obscured by the
windows of open programs, but even so it’s still there.
I look at the photograph
taken by my mother every day while doing various things on my computer; in one
window I’m writing a text, in another I’m putting together documentation; then
there’s my calendar and my email client; I might also be watching a film,
listening to music, and, well, doing lots of other things. During my parents’
heyday, the time of my childhood and adolescence, work and play were activities
that took place in different environments and at different times; the day was
spent at work, the evening either at home watching the TV or listening to the
radio, or out at the theatre or in the cinema. That no longer applies; we sit
in front of the computer and do all that using one device in one place, at a
This is the attribute of
the computer that differentiates it from other machines. It is a means of
production that may not only be used for production – to make a living – but
also for entertainment, or both at the same time; and this is the boundary that
separates the world of my parents from my own; it’s something which they cannot
grasp and define with their intellects – because they have never experienced
For several months I
tried to find a way out of this situation, a starting point for dealing with
this experience. A photograph on my computer and a clearly defined relationship
between work and play was not enough for me; I was looking for something more.
For a long time I didn’t know how to proceed, what to focus on - I tried and I
tried, but I just couldn’t figure it out. And then I realised I’d
underestimated the space between work and consumption, that space-time in which
we immerse ourselves because we’re bored, unable to concentrate or
subconsciously searching for something new. I find myself in this space-time
quite often, dragged along by ostensibly endless and random clicks of the
electronic mouse. At the moment of my realisation, the moment of awakening, a
video called “Sennheiser HD800 Headphones unboxing” was running on the screen
before my eyes. I had discovered the phenomenon of UNBOXING.
Unboxing is the unpacking
of new products, especially hi-tech consumer products. The
whole process is captured on video and later uploaded to the Internet. The term
has been labeled a new form of "geek porn." The oldest video on YouTube using the name
"unboxing" is the opening of a boxed Nokia E61 smartphone, uploaded on June 12, 2006. There are, however, older
videos on the site that show the same activity but using other names such as
"opening" or "unpacking". According to Google Trends, searches for the term
"unboxing" began to surface in the final quarter of 2006.
Yes, I’m writing about
those guys who make videos where they unpack boxes containing computers,
desktop or laptop, and other electronic gadgets and then share them with others
on the net. What’s interesting about this? Primarily it’s the tension between
the voice of the owners, trying to be as impartial as possible, informing the
viewers of what the given object looks like and what it’s capable of doing, and
their hands. They’re in direct contrast to the voice, sweeping over the surface
of the packaging neurotically, bordering on obsessively, ripping apart
everything that stands in the way to the product itself. Most clips end with a
shot of an object surrounded by lots of torn cardboard and plastic. For me the
voice evokes Steve Jobs’ notorious presentations, in particular those about the
iPhone; it’s that evident effort to mesmerise the viewer with one’s eloquence,
convince them of one’s truth. The hands, on the other hand, remind me of the
way a child behaves after getting a present, when it simulates opening the box
with the toy again and again as if for the first time for several days.
Interminably, the child places the toy back in the box, clumsily closes it,
opens it again and cries out in surprise. But there’s more to it than that.
This is only the initial association, the most primitive one. Many, many more
come to mind. One thing is certain, however, we can see a reflection of our own
selves in these videos, of our desires, hitherto posing as rational thought.
Umberto Eco, Two Families
of Objects, Travels in Hyperreality, Harcourt-Brace 1986.
Jiří Skála, One Family
of Objects, 2010, published by tranzit.cz in 2010, translated by Marek
19. 6. 2012.