Objects have a language; they speak of culture and context. And because objects have cultural associations they can be used symbolically and metaphorically to create characters that are recognisable by their social values.
During the Prop to Protagonist workshop we will explore a random selection of everyday things – scissors, sponge, screwdriver, plastic bag, cup, etc. – to find out what objects have to say about ourselves and society.
One technique is the interview. Participants choose an object to be displayed in a museum 200 years from now and to present it as a curator would: “This is a chair, people used to sit on it, this one is small so it probably belonged to a child.”
The group then asks the curator questions – “did every home have one? Were chairs only used for sitting? This chair is red, was colour important?” – and the curator’s responses help draw a picture of the object and its social function.
Then the participants ask the object questions, speaking directly to the object rather than to the curator. It works best if the curator doesn’t try to animate the object or pretend it is a character, they simply hold the object in their hand, look at it, and say whatever comes to mind.
During a recent workshop, a can of coca cola was asked: “We have heard you make people happy” (the curator had given this information in their presentation), “How do you do this?” and the coke replied: “I alter the chemicals in their brain”.
Humans tell one side of the cultural story and objects tell another. Objects are often worried about cleanliness and being handled correctly. They are quick to point out the difference in a man’s and woman’s touch. They talk about society and its codes.
There was once a toilet brush who was at the bottom of the hierarchy in the bathroom but maintained its dignity because it became the most important when guests were expected. Often there is a pain in the object. I remember a fish scraper who was allergic to fish and hid at the back of the drawer so it couldn’t be found.
We can’t easily access this information unless we talk directly to the object and let it speak. Human beings tend to censor information but objects are honest.
We don’t have to be intellectual to understand objects, we simply need to look at them. During a recent workshop, three bottles of soft drink – a pepsi, a fanta and a water – stood side by side with a coca cola can between them. “What do we see?” I asked and the reply came without hesitation: “A short fat man and three models. They are beautiful women from different countries”.
Everyone nodded, recognising these characters from the fact that the bottles were curvaceous and the juices were different colours. Someone added: “the women are open about their feelings but the man is closed, he doesn’t show what he is thinking.”
That such interesting and potentially complex characters can be discovered in transparent plastic bottles and an impenetrable aluminium can! This is why I love working with objects.
This blog post was written by workshop leader Rene Baker.