A Visual Representation of Consumption Versus Use

Ownership: The Invisible Trap

This month I began an art/personal research project I’ve been preparing for about 6 months. The idea came out of my fascination with consumer culture and the modern distinction, or lack there of, between need and desire. I am guilty of enjoying the rush of endorphins that comes after a purchase, and am not immune to the barrage of advertisements that we are all exposed to as New York City pedestrians. The concept of only owning what you love or need is not a novel one, but it is one that has formed an avid community that has grown in direct relation to the insatiable appetite of consumer culture. The community, like most movements, has a large spectrum of doctrines preached by various leaders who often attack each other’s methods as much as they do their mutual opponents. Despite the discord (often brought on by the pursuit of ironically selling books on minimizing one’s consumption), I believe there is still truth at the heart of the movement. As I read more about the ideology of living with less by choice, I realized it was linked to a philosophy of communal living, and as our population explodes, sharing limited resources will be a necessity rather than an alternative lifestyle.

We are either in debt ourselves or know someone who is. Three quarters of all American households are in some kind of debt, and nearly a third of those Americans owe over 50,000 dollars. It is a well accepted practice to spend money we do not yet have. It is a structure that has allowed for tremendous growth in our country, as well as tremendous consequences. Though I cannot speak to how we can eliminate the debt from education or home ownership, I think that awareness of our smaller spending choices can bring about valuable insight.

A Personal Experiment

I am a visual thinker, and seeing a pie chart is far more impactful for me than a written statistic. So I decided to create a representation of items I used in a single day. To start, I’d make a written list of all the objects I utilized, and then form that list into a visual map. What I discovered was at first contradictory; The list was surprisingly long, yet also felt brief. I realized that I had used a lot of items in my day for practical uses and for pleasure, but even though that number was great, it was a very very small fraction of the number of items I owned. So to get a sense of that proportion, I tried to write down all the things I owned in my apartment from memory. I wrote down 421 items, all somehow fitting into my modest New York flat, but the kicker was that I was over 150 items short upon checking my estimation. And the number of items I used over the course of one average day? 51. That list included everything from my bed sheets to my computer mouse, and was less than a 10th of what I owned. Perhaps using 10% of what you own on a daily basis isn’t so bad, so I took an inventory of my just-in-case items and other such objects that are only used on specific days, but are invaluable at those times. This list included items such as a plunger, a spare set of keys, and an umbrella. Those are necessities in their own way. But several items I found were barely used since I had acquired them, and would be very unlikely to prove useful in the near future. Some examples from that list included my hammer, 5 different colored highlighters, white out, a letter opener, and a spare coffee machine. In the past I had told myself these could be useful items one day, so I should keep them under my bed or tucked in a closet “just in case.” But in reality, I had kept these items for over 3 years and had not once made use of them, even though I’d carried them to and from 4 different apartments. Someone, somewhere, was in need of a jar of white out, and yet here I was hoarding a one, drying out a little each day. It seemed so absurd and selfish of me. If this small exercise could be so shocking to me, perhaps it would be for other people. Perhaps others are far more reasonable with their items than I am, or perhaps less. So I decided to do an informal little study to find out.

Ownership Project: Part 1

While tallying my own objects, I took a photo log of most of my items, so that I could view my material life-like a catalogue (image below), which inspired my exercise in visually representing others’ findings.

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I asked a couple of friends and family members to make a list of all the items they used throughout a day. I then took the lists and compared the numbers, and also looked at what items on the lists were communal objects versus personal. I also asked them which items were items they used almost every day, every week, or rarely ever. Rather than asking them to photograph the objects, I decided I’d create small icon-like drawings to represent each object, and use the opacity of each symbol to represent the frequency at which the item is used in a week. An example below:

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Ownership Project: Initial Results

Everyone’s lists were between 45 and 65 items. Obviously this very informal study was just for my personal understanding, and I did not verify their diaries nor try to account for subjectivity in their logging practices. The results created a wonderfully personal portrait of each person. My friend who is a theater prop designer makes his props out of items bought at thrift stores and salvaged from junk yards, so his list of full of whimsically absurd items along with many carpentry tools. My father, who is an eye doctor with a love of cooking, had a list full of medical tools with 8 syllable names, as well as an equal number of tools used to make his fresh pasta at the end of his workday. The objects we use are very revealing about us, but not perhaps in the same way consumer culture leads us to believe. Owning rock climbing shoes, a state-of-the-art grill, or a Gibson guitar does not make someone a mountaineer, an accomplished chef, or the next American Idol. Yet, that is what the sellers tell us will happen when we buy the item. We will be happy and creative if we drink Diet Coke, we will be strong and attractive if we get a membership to Equinox. It is the oldest trick in the advertisement book, and despite us all being aware of it, we keep lining up for the next product. But if instead of looking at what we own we look at what we use and enjoy, the gap between the two is revealed to be quite large for many of us.

Ownership Project: Part 2

To accomplish the visual representation that I believe will be most impactful as both a portrait and a statement about object use, I decided to create a series of maps of the lists created by my peers. I am currently in the process of drawing out the objects from each list I have already collected, and I hope to create 4 foot by 2 foot boards with the digitally printed object maps. In the meantime I also am asking other people from various cultural and economic backgrounds to make lists that will be translated visually as well. I hope to have the maps displayed somewhere side by side, as both individual portraits as well as comparable representations of lifestyles. I am still very unsure what this project has to say, but is currently simply a method to explore my curiosity about the reality of object use. As I continue the project, perhaps more opportunities will reveal themselves so I may expand on what the project can say.

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Rough Draft of object map

Though the project will be created as physical posters, I also hope to publish a digital copy of each portrait. My hope is that people will see how much we rely on objects for our lifestyle, but how few we use in relation to how much we own.

The Environment

You may be wondering what this has to do with the environment directly. Consumer culture has always been at odds with the planet’s natural systems, whether it be the use of fossil fuels for production or the need to allocate land for unprecedented solid waste disposal. Can we consume less by using communal products? Can we take more time when we do purchase items and buy objects made responsibly and with durability? Can we purchase local items rather than shipping items to our doors, causing more carbon emission in the transportation and cardboard boxes wasted? Can buying fewer items keep us from handing over money to corporations that would use it to further deteriorate our planet? Can freeing ourselves from our addiction to consume mean more money, more freedom, and more happiness? Perhaps these questions are naive, As we increase our awareness of our physical world and the consequences of our lifestyles, we can make better choices that benefit ourselves, others, and the future of the planet.

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