A History of the Object in 100 Worlds

I was the Visualist-in-Residence at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry, Los Angeles during the summer and fall of 2012. My project proposal was “Object-oriented Exhibit Design”. Below is documentation of the installation and the text I used for a public presentation on October 13th. The project spun off into strange, yet fertile, territory. Object-oriented exhibition design was merely the dock from which I set off on a journey into paradox, poetry and noise.

TL;DR: The display of an object is also its breaking.

Object-oriented Exhibition Design

I started this project with the intention of developing an “object-oriented exhibition design”. By that I meant a means of designing museum exhibitions that did not place the human at the center of the universe, or, to put it differently, placed the objects at the center of the design process. “Wait!”, you cry. “Exhibition design already does this!.” I contend that what counts as “exhibition design” today either undermines or overmines the objects on display. The undermining of an object is the process by which we subordinate it to some ideology, often in exhibition design, narrative. Or, undermining can be the scientific naturalist approach in breaking an object down into some ultimate bottom God-particle, to say that all objects are constituted of the same material. Overmining, on the other hand, is the denial of objects altogether, the argument of which maintains that what is essential are processes, flows, dynamism, universal movements, etc. that are larger than any specific object, where specific objects are merely manifestations of this universal movement.

What is Exhibition Design?

My research into exhibition design is not exhaustive, but numerous sources and authorities state that their beginning point is a narrative concept and that objects and materials are then selected to best create an environment that illustrate a story.

When an exhibition is designed according to a narrative structure, the objects themselves are not allowed to be the multi-faceted wonders that they are. A strict delineation and delimitation occurs that specifies that this thing is this thing and no other. (As we will see later, this is not the case; once an object is removed from its context and situated in a new context, it becomes an entirely new object, though still the same on the interior, its intentional or sensual qualities are altered by the new relations and objects within which it becomes situated).



Heidegger shows us in his tool-analysis that we relate to objects in one of two ways, either ready-to-hand or present-at-hand. The well-worn example is the carpenter and his hammer. When the carpenter is hammering, the hammer is ready-to-hand. He is not necessarily thinking about the hammer as a hammer, but is instead engaged in the process of hammering. But, if the hammer breaks, he turns his conscious awareness to the hammer and it becomes present-at-hand, no longer functioning as hammer. Now, an object doesn’t necessarily need to break to become present-at-hand. We need only turn our conscious awareness towards it.


Along comes Graham Harman, who has this idea called tool-being. Harman extends Heidegger’s tool-analysis to all objects, so that it is not only humans who encounter hammers either ready- or present-at-hand, but the hammer also encounters the nail it strikes as ready- or present-at-hand. For Harman, all beings are tools. You, me, this computer I’m writing on, the screen or page on which you are reading this, etc. Furthermore, ready-to-hand is the tool in its being, whereas present-at-hand is the tool broken. Again, broken-tool doesn’t necessarily imply that the tool actually breaks. What it means is that the tool is no longer doing its tool-thing in the world. It is removed from its context. It ceases to function in its tool-being.


So the display of an object is also its breaking. It may, in fact, be a double breaking. The first break occurring when the object is accessioned. The second break occurring when the object is placed in a wall case, on a pedestal, or in a vitrine. Either way, what is important for this discussion is that the object is now broken. It is no longer doing its tool-thing, though it is now doing an entirely new tool-thing. The object, that which constitutes its mysterious inner core, does not change, but it’s relations do as do its sensual qualities and accidents as the new context, or object, in which the first object finds itself redefine and reconstitute it as something different. Take for example the stone axe, once used for chopping and cutting, maybe some killing: in the museum, it performs none of the above. It is in a case, under lights, on display. It is effectively a new object, though still the same stone-axe. It is also effectively broken as it is no longer doing its stone-axe-thing. The stone-axe is not actually what narrative defines it as. It is something entirely different. It once, speculatively, may have been an implement of harvesting and warfare, but is now something entirely different. Narrative tends to deny this new role accorded to the object.

Furthermore, when you encounter the object on display and you pause to contemplate it as an object, you are removing yourself from your context, turning your conscious awareness to your thoughts about this thing, you are effectively breaking your mind. So, the display of an object is the encounter of two broken-tools.


Objects are paradoxical. They are defined by their relations and yet simultaneously withdrawn from all relations. No matter how we weigh, measure, photograph, x-ray, crush, pulverize, or disintegrate the stone-axe, we will never access its inner realm. It is forever hidden from us as are our own bodies. We will never truly know these meat bags that constitute our being. What we instead encounter are the sensual qualities of any given object.

The Great Exhibition

I had access to the ‘vault’ at the ICI, the storage room holding countless treasures. I dug through the boxes and found one containing a random assortment of objects. I used these objects as the subjects for a series of drawings and poems.

The Infinity of the Meanwhile
Everything Sits Suspended
Tiny, Separate, but Contiguous Universes
Joined Not By Logic Or Power Or Use But By The Gentle Knot Of The Comma

A toy truck stamped “Redwood Logger”, a pair of shoe lasts, size 11C, with the inscription Captain Boyd McCook, retired (deceased), an unknown object, a candelstick holder, three melted wax balls, the larger two black, the smaller white, two metal fittinings, hot blackened, a strip of film, two chalk stones, an alligator bone, an OPEN/CLOSE sign, a plastic box, a pinecone, a Horlick’s malted milk bottle, a charred piece of bamboo, a scrap of Chinese newspaper, all within a cardboard box.


Drawing is a means by which to communicate the magical qualities of objects even if that object is the drawing itself. I don’t know that these drawings perform this, but it was an experiment to investigate and communicate aspects of these objects that may go unappreciated.


Poetry is the language of paradox. It is the economical means by which to express more than one idea, often contradictory, simultaneously.

It is also a tool by which to undo the strict bounds of language and highlight the tool-being aspect of language as an object in itself. Words are tools.

The poems associated with each drawing are my experiments in writing didactic wall texts as poetry.

Dear Mr. Green, This Carolina Al-
ligator, did it taste like chicken, sir?
Bamboo or bamboo? That is the question.
This object here, is it a flute played by
some octopus? No, merely candlestick.
Two stones of chalk, it is a crime to write
on public blocks: the most benign tagging.
This filmstrip here is evidence that at
the end of the world is nothing. Just look.
An iron fitting for a machine lost
Fine tuning knobs, a bit of rust, four screws.
Aluminum adjustment knobs for tightening
Black anodized, what is this for this thing?
Metallic paint not malted milk
is Horlick’s secret, “The Original”.
I cannot read this, to me it’s all Greek.
Decision: Open, closed. It can’t be both.
Perhaps: o’osed, op’sed, ope’ed, opend?
Upon closer observation, a pine
cone looks like stacks of breasts. Oh sticky sap!
Made in Taiwan for Woolworth Co, New York
The S K U reads 6 3 2 5 3.
Is this a toy? It isn’t clear; the bark
has too much bite for little grubby hands.
A Captain Boyd McCook, deceased did not
out last his lasts. They are a size 11C.
I don’t know what this is. Disturbingly,
my speculations drift toward my ass.
Three balls of wax, they aren’t Descartes’. The whole
of these objects is quite the shooting match.

Breaking Objects

If the display of an object and your encounter of that object is a double breaking, then what we have is a quadruple interaction between objects as the object itself encounters you while simultaneously breaking. In the image above, there are three broken objects: two bottles and you.

I consumed an inordinate amount of San Pellegrino while working in the lab at the ICI during a very hot Los Angeles summer. One day I knocked a glass bottle off my workbench and when it shattered on the floor I got inspired to see what multiple bottles would look like shattering at once. I recorded four individual bottles dropping and breaking at 60 frames per second, broke the video into still images and then stitched the four sequences together into one and re-rendered it back into video format. Fun to make but a pain to clean up.

Music to Break Phonographs By

The ICI holds a small, but eclectic, collection of 45s that intrigued me. Vinyl records are objects inscribed with a message that is both visually and tactilely available to us but only ultimately accessible via an intermediary object, a phonograph.

In addition to Graham Harman and Ian Bogost, I was also reading Timothy Morton during the development of this project. In The Ecological Thought, he discusses a concept Douglas Hofstadter proposes in Goedel, Escher, Bach, of a record designed with the explicit purpose of destroying the phonograph on which it is played. I loved this idea but realized it was beyond the scope of this residency (and maybe my life) to create such a thing and so considered other paradoxical possibilities.

How do you play both sides of a record? I initially proposed building a phonograph that would play both sides of an album simultaneously. (I may still do this, but it was also beyond the scope of the residency.) I set out to do this by digital means. While listening to the 45s in the lab on the portable phonograph pictured above, I became particularly interested in the ‘end skips’ of each 45. When each side of the 45 reached its end, the phonograph, unlike most contemporary phonographs, continued to skip on the noise inscribed in the vinyl. I photographed both sides and recorded the end skips of each 45 from the ICI’s collection.

I initially designed the application in openFrameworks, merging both A- and B-side images of each 45 and playing the end skip on a loop. Visitors progressed through each 45 by pressing a button.

You can also experience it yourself as a web app here: http://jarednielsen.com/history-object-100-worlds/

Mobius LP

Lastly, I created my second 3D animation using Blender (my first being the title sequence for The Hello World Program), a record as a Mobius strip, both sides playing forever.

The Blender file for this animation is available in the assets directory here: https://github.com/nielsenjared/history-object-100-worlds

Art is the Mirror Held Up to Reflect the Arbitrary Division Between Nature and Society

This project brought me back around to art. I earned an MFA in the Studio Arts program at UCIrvine. It was a terrible experience. I no longer wanted to be an artist after grad school. My thesis statement was:


I still believe this, but now I no longer think it’s a bad thing.

Art, when it is bad, is mired in signs, signifiers, and endless layers of social coding that only those in the know can decipher. Art, when it is good, situates us in an environment and teaches us something we didn’t know, or did, but forgot, about objects and the world we inhabit.