"Object Retrieval was a mass participation art project that took place from 15-21 October 2009 on a converted Routemaster bus in the main UCL (University College London) Quad on Gower Street, London. A single object from the UCL Pathology Collection was exhibited on the bus and explored by thousands of people from their own personal or professional perspective for 7 days, 24 hours a day. The response was extraordinary as you can see for yourself from the enormous amount of information uploaded on the Object Biography page. Contributions ranged from the hyper-scientific to childhood memories via the Gospels, Jack Kerouac, Psychoanalysis and pretty much everything in between. While Object Retrieval has finished, the website will remain open to your further contributions surrounding this simple object, this toy car that once belonged to a 4 year old boy."
This is the description by the curator and artist of the Object Retrieval Project on the website devoted to the project.
The Autopsies Group took up the invitation to research and think about the little car exhibited in this project. That car, depicted above and below in photographs taken by Jann Matlock during our work sessions at the Routemaster bus, on 21 October 2009, was a tiny toy car, modelled after the Ford Galaxie Sunliner, that entered the UCL Pathology Collection in 1963 in relation to a case of lead poisoning involving a 4 year-old boy. The case notes are reproduced here.
In these case notes, that justify the "appropriation" of the object today in the Object Retrieval Project, and its display in the Pathology Collection that originally housed it, the little boy was diagnosed in three ways: as a "case of mental retardation" (possibly relating to his lead poisoning as Rebecca Harrison notes in her contribution), as having "pica"--or the propensity to eat things that were not destined to be eaten--not so much a disease as a symptom, but at the very least an attribute that was part of a strange discourse of blaming victims as both Karolina Kendall-Bush and Harrison dicuss below; and being different, in this case, of "non-European extraction." Despite our best efforts, we do not know what happened to the child or even whether follow-up studies were done on any of the children studied by Dr. Moncrieff in 1963 about whom he published an article reproduced on the Object Retrieval site. We do know that this little boy was not one of the specific cases detailed in that study. We can also assume, from the evidence of his lead poisoning levels, and the diagnosis of severe learning disabilities, that he may not have had the future that other children born in 1959 would today enjoy. If he is alive today, he would be 50. In the year that he entered the Greater Ormond Street Hospital, Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream Speech" (on 28 August 1963). Also that fall, on 23 october 1963, Bob Dylan recorded an important political ballad, "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." That song, which told the story of one of the most tragic injustices of the civil rights era in the U.S., detailed how the scion of wealthy tobacco farmers killed a black woman with his cane because she was slow in bringing him a drink--and then was given the minimal penalty of only six months in jail for manslaughter:
William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll
With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger
At a Baltimore hotel society gath'rin'.
And the cops were called in and his weapon took from him
As they rode him in custody down to the station
And booked William Zanzinger for first-degree murder.
But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face.
Now ain't the time for your tears.
Dylan tells the whole story, in his way, almost as if he's providing a newspaper account of the murder that occurred in February 1963. The version below is from a public domain appearance on the Steve Allen show in 1964.
Zantzinger's story is relevant to the Object Retrieval Project for two reasons: first because his victim, like the little boy in the Object Retrieval Project, was of another background than European and justice was dispensed on the basis of that racial, ethnic difference. Second, because Zantzinger left jail to become a major slumlord in Maryland and in the Washington D.C. area. See this account in The Guardian, (and in some slightly more anecdotal accounts here).
Arrested in 1991 on charges of fraud and deceptive business practices, Zantzinger was like the slumlords who in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and even today, refused to do anything about the lead paint in the apartments they rent. He was also like the lead paint companies that have fought tooth and nail all attempts to force them to indemnify their victims for pretending--well into the 1970s--that lead paint was safe and for claiming, even today, that their paint was no more to blame than other things in the environment. See these examples from Life Magazine:    (1967!) Pencils, pottery, and yes, little toy cars, have taken the fall for an industry that has chosen not to participate in the clean-up of the home environments they promised to make sparkling and safe.
William Zantzinger died in January 2009. For a contemporary activist's account of the era, read this.
Tragically enough, in 2009 as well, on July 2, the Rhode Island Supreme Court reversed a legal decision that would have forced the three big lead paint firms to pay to help clean up the housing that their paint has made toxic. After more than 30 years of hiding the health risks of their lead paint, Sherwin-Williams, NL Industries, and Milennial Holdings were set to begin paying billions to repair the damage to housing where lead paint risks still persist. Cases are pending in California and Ohio, where courts could still make the lead firms share in the cost of making homes safe. Until then, justice for the millions of children who suffer from lead paint poisoning, will remain as elusive as for Hattie Carroll.
This is why the Autopsies Research Group played Bob Dylan's song at the end of our research visit to the Routemaster bus in the UCL quad on 21 October 2009. While we would rather remember 1963 for Martin Luther King's dreams, we also want to remember the injustices committed by slumlords like Zantzinger and by the lead paint companies both of whom profited from little boys such as the one who once loved a little toy Ford Galaxie Sunliner.
Wherever he is, we hope he is not alone.
When is a thing an object? Or rather, when does an object become a thing?
Bill Brown, in his seminal essay, "Thing Theory," argues that "We look through objects because they are codes by which our interpretive attention makes them meaningful." Thus objects are imbued with meaning that is relevant to the objects’ owner/s. By contrast, "we begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us." (Critical Inquiry 28, no.1, Autumn , 1-22). Things are dead objects.
Something about this analysis troubles me. This feeling of unease stems from a semantic disagreement between Brown’s use of the terms "object" and "thing" and our everyday deployment of the terms in the English language. When was the last time you told someone that you had remembered to bring your "objects" with you?
"It’s okay, I have my things with me."
"Put it with the other things over there."
"I don’t want to leave my things lying around."
We play with things, use things, buy things, worry about things. We own things. At the point of ownership, the object undergoes a metamorphosis and becomes a thing.
The object is the mass-produced Polaroid camera made by a corporate retailer with a nation-wide chain of stores. The object is boxed and packaged to look like a million of the same, identical objects. It sits on a shelf in a store and we, the customers, are objective to it. It is just another Polaroid camera.
Someone buys a Polaroid camera. It is no longer a camera but their camera, the camera which will travel with them on holiday, catch fleeting moments at parties, remind them of the time they visited such-and-such for Christmas.
"I’ve had this thing for ages, I hope this bit doesn’t come off. It would be such a shame if it broke."
"I wonder why she hasn’t swapped to digital? I guess using Polaroid is just her thing."
The thing is an object imbued with life, meaning and personality. The thing is an individual; the object is one of many. The poet Charles Baudelaire describes how ‘the overriding desire of most children is to get at and see the soul of their toys" (The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, New York: De Capo Press, 1994). This is what we do when we use our things, as their proximity and familiarity to us slowly reveals them.
When their lives are over, our things become objects once more. They are thrown out, burnt, destroyed, ripped up, sold on. Our things become dead objects. In second-hand shops, our things become objects become things again. In museums, things are taken to represent entire cultures or societies. They are stripped of their individuality. They are made anonymous, generalised and objectified in glass cases and displays.
Curators say: "I have a wonderful collection of objects."
But what of stuff? Is stuff going to be the next big thing?