‘The loneliness of objects. Their secret lives’ William Gibson.
However banal an object – and few, if any, objects are as banal as this – the human imagination will find a way to use it creatively, to invest it with meaning.
Above, we see Bree modelling an outfit inspired by the breathtaking triviality of the Stripy Bag. Below, the bag elaborately transformed for the market’s higher end [by an artisan from South Melbourne]
Since the mid-eighties, I have been interested in the stripy bag. Lured by the sheer scope of its banality. Fascinated by its everpresence – as the bag. almost certainly, has penetrated every country on this Earth. It has become iconic in the hands and on the backs of refugees. It is a symbol of the uprooted and the dispossessed - and yet there is one, almost definitely, in every second house on the planet.
A few years ago, I tried to write an article on the stripy bag, but I could find out pretty well nothing about it. Befitting, really. Instead, I wrote a short monologue for the theatre which I’ve performed a number of times since…
We are the slaves of objects. We require them for comfort, safety, defence, cleanliness, pleasure, for the sense of self-worth, for influence and for money
We work for them. Play for them. Die for them. We use objects to co-ordinate... other objects. We infuse them with meaning.
We see our future selves in the reaching hands of an infant - whom no amount of objects will satisfy.
We are contingent on them. And they on us. They find us in the crowd and offer themselves up, they lodge themselves in the tissue of our lives, they insinuate themselves into our conversations, they hijack our thoughts.
It is simple and understood. Objects are important. They are pivotal to our existence.
I, myself, am unnaturally adhesive to objects. They swarm about me like stinging insects. I hear their emanations, like... remote machinery. They gather in my house and poison my flow. They nourish and cosset me. They starve and torment me. They accumulate to form the compost from which I assemble my lifestyle...
Some objects are simple, others are fantastically elaborate. Some barely change over time, others are modified. Some are ugly but functional, others we place in museums or galleries. Some are discontinued, while others become perennial favourites. Some have intrinsic value. Some are disposable. Some are well-documented, ruminated upon, the subject of commentaries, technical manuals, reviews, but some...
Some cast no shadow. They are ignored, utterly. They are a booming silence that cries its absence to the world.
The object to which I draw your attention is beneath the cloth.
This is an object that slips under the guard of culture and taste. It seems not to even have a commonly agreed-upon name, yet has the kind of product-recognition that would ramp the blood-pressure of any marketing executive.
In this object, we find a concentrated banality of which we should beware - recalling that evil, in its essence, is banal.
Are you curious? Don’t be. Be the opposite of curious. Be disappointed.
If you’ve never seen one of these before, I’m very sorry for bringing it to your attention.
As near as I can place it, the year is 1983. The place China: ancient nation which gave us Rocketry, Chess, Umbrellas and wheelbarrows has refocused its inventive skills. In our time it is the empire of cheap plastic artifacts, disgorging in torrents. An endless landscape dotted with factories, each one injection moulding or thermoforming a different plastic doo-dad or widget to fill the $2 shops of this world.
1983. Woven polypropylene. A material made by weaving polypropylene tapes to form a lightweight breathable fabric. Bags of this material are sturdy, recyclable, suitable for grains, pet food, minerals and other products, and offer superior protection from moisture, mildew and pests.
I have tried to learn more, but... there is no literature on the subject. I have been able to chip barely a single fact off the great wall of silence.
Considered guesses are all I can offer. 1983. Has the material recently been invented? Has a new development facilitated cheap large-scale production?
Was a middle-echelon employee of a large Plastics Concern doing his laundry, when he had a sudden crystal clear insight into the needs of humans on Earth.
Did he make a little sketch on the back of a consignment form?
But... why the stripes?
And why did he choose red blue and white?
Are they auspicious colours? Used in the flags of France, America, Russia, the UK, Australia. Or are they just the cheapest dyes?
Only he could tell us and today he is - of course - unavailable, a billionaire cloistered in his Ming Dynasty style palace, meditating upon golden carp and chrysanthemums as Stygian extruders churn in the valley below.
Wherever shopping is done. Where laundry is done. Where bag ladies heft their meagre possessions. Where asylum-seekers mill in the holds of fishing vessels; there you will find them.
The bag proliferates, as if on the wave of a massive, yet invisible, advertising campaign -
With no saturation point in sight...
And tell me, do we really have a choice? Are its cheapness, usefulness and ready availability too much for us to resist? You,who ordinarily would never purchase such a bag. How many of you have been forced, by some annoying circumstance, to buy one?
I doubt if anyone, anywhere has ever really made a conscious decision to possess such a thing, yet, inexorably, the bag ekes its way into our lives. Near to immortal, they gather in carports and sheds. With each passing year we own more and more of these bags, sometimes without ever having purchased one
Yes, it is hard to throw out a bag.
But what does it signify that we all share this bag? It spans religious, cultural and monetary divides. It is truly ecumenical - but is it something on which to build a more harmonious world?
No, of course not.
If you haven’t already thought through the implications... of this bag.
Now is the time. Save yourselves. The news is bad.
Outrage at the spread of McDonald’s on the bow-wave of US cultural Imperialism. Outrage at the global Arms trade, taking the spears from the hands of tribesmen and replacing them with AK-47s...
But for the bag... ?
And its silent global conquest?
No comment. Neither in the Age nor the Herald Sun. No mention in the ‘Socialist Worker’ or the ‘Advocate’. Not a peep from S11. Nothing.
But humans often have interesting reactions to nothing.
It lurks stagnantly beneath the public imagination. It slithers beneath the currents of fashion. The bag has no style. Cannot be pinned down to a period or decade. When a terrorist wants to plant a bomb, this is the bag of choice.
Such things - omnipresent, yet impenetrable to research - can provide fertile ground for conspiracy theorists.
1983. Threatened by a global labour shortage, The Gnomes of Zurich identified a huge labour-pool in the Third World. But these potential workers were settled and unwilling to embark upon the difficult process of moving. Higher wages were out of the question, so the powers-that-be developed and distributed a spacious durable product in which all a indigent’s worldly goods could be stored. Suddenly, a cheap highly mobile workforce was available to the world economy..
And who’s to say it isn’t true?
Twenty years the bag has been with us. It is now produced in Iran, Indonesia, Thailand and India as well as China. It is available in a range of sizes and can be found in different patterns. But has it really changed in that time? No. A stable presence in our lives, unnoteworthy in all its aspects.
But subjectively, things have been happening.
When we use an object, a little of ourselves rubs off, and a little of it rubs off on us. A thousand fleeting contacts, glimpses, shared moments. We form associations. An object begins to give off a distinct emotional scent. It is different for everyone, but...
What do you feel when you look at the bag?
For me, it generates a kind of sucking energy that weakens me at the root. If it is a bad day, the bag can make me hate who I am.
It degrades any landscape on which it is imposed. Yet, annoyingly, the eye is drawn to it. Too late, you realise - your day has been... cheapened. And it trivialises what it contains. And it’s always full.
In contemplating this bag, I experience a sudden anxiety, a vertigo, a dream-falling. Like dried egg filtering my vision of the world. Leering faces forming in the dust of my previous selves. Bad decisions clinging like cobwebs to my clothes. All the useless things, the dead-ends, the endless repetitions of mistakes. It trawls up memories of all the tired pointless things that have dogged me all my life. Suddenly they are what defines me.
At once, the barrier between my daily existence and the Void becomes... transparent - and I know somehow that everything I do, have ever done, amounts to a towering zero.
Yes! Bags are useful. They help us organise and compartmentalise. But this bag takes more than it gives. Fresh from the factory, it is an invitation to squalor. A call to Despair. An portent of the End Times.
It symbolises failure, the utter exhaustion of the imagination. If you can: Don’t abide it. Don’t notice it. Don’t recognise it. Don’t use it.
It is a quietly spoken profanity. Look closely. There is nothing there. It is the end of the universe. In a bag.
Sunday, January 6, 2008
‘The loneliness of objects. Their secret lives’ William Gibson.