Aging dye, one of the many materials found in the Making Memories Distressing Kit
When I was little, my mother had an acquaintance who purchased, at considerable expense, a piece of brand-new furniture. Soon afterwards, she paid someone (at even greater expense) to turn it into an antique. The transformation was both rapid and remarkable, begging the question: how did this happen?
“Easy!” replied the acquaintance. “We hired someone to beat it with chains.”
The image of someone being well-compensated for performing what was essentially a hatchet job on a spanking-new table struck me then, as now, as rather strange. (At the time, it also provided a tangible image for my then newly-minted understanding of the word arriviste.) Yet as time went on, I began to notice a slow but steady increase in the public consumption of such things. The civilized world was awash in the faux provenance — from Ralph Lauren’s staging of all things preppie to Pottery Barn’s smooth maneuver of shabby chic — old, it seemed, was the new new.
And then it hit me. Long before the product hits the shelves, way before the manufacturing of a book or a toy or a poster or a package, there are materials that dramatically accelerate premature aging. In an age in which the exactitude of printing enables such things as (pardon the inevitable oxymoron) reproduction ephemera, what is there to say about paints, glues, dyes, brushes, inks and other tools whose purpose it is to intentionally — and archivally — age something new?
Assortment of materials in Distressing Kit
These materials — and the methods they conjure —are a source of absolute fascination to me, and I have been experimenting with them for the last year in my studio. As an ephemera collector and collage maker since childhood, I have always been careful to preserve materials which seem hell-bent on self-destruction: paper is ephemeral, after all, and it’s damned good at it. So you copy something and save the original: but the copy looks like a fake, so you’re screwed, and you work doggedly to fake it back to some semblance of its original incarnation — soak it in tea bags, pray for a miracle — while keeping the original item in a plastic, protected sleeve, lest it decompose before your eyes. Anyone who has ever availed themselves of a rare book library understands that handling original manuscripts basically requires that you hold your breath, manhandle with caution, and say a prayer to the God of the Incunabula that little pieces of paper don’t start flaking, willy-nilly, into your lap. (I’ve always felt that there should be some sort of paper-based Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm.)
The ethical side of all of this is not without its own inherent complexity. Say, for example, I take a new copy of an old photograph and “distress” it to give it the patina of age: I’m helping to preserve the real thing locked away in a temperature-controlled cryogenic holding cell, so that future generations may benefit from witnessing something truly old, and real. On the other hand, such forgery raises questions about reality, about honesty, about the willful deployment of artifice: I’m essentially suspending a kind of temporal disbelief.
Detail from collage based on early twentieth century census maps. Vintage postcards, real and reproduction ephemera and aging dyes
As a maker, have I succeeded because it looks convincing? Or have I failed by creating something so clearly disingenuine?
Old appeals because it offers instant provenance — it’s pedigree by proxy — and it bears saying that such material simulation is hardly restricted to the domain of the two-dimensional. Software programs like iMovie include “aged film” filters, lending your summertime theme-park video clip, say, a palpable sense of Sputnik-era panache. Architecture participates equally in this time-warp masquerade, with phony-Colonial and imitation Georgian arguably among the more preferred styles in new construction. Consider, too, the tony psychological profile promised by suburban residential enclaves identified by bizarrely pretentious names — Fox Run, Heathcote's Landing — with developers branding “heritage” one MacMansion at a time. (This, I hasten to add, is a particularly American phenomenon, and I think I speak for many Americans when I say its not something we’re particularly proud of.)
Legacy, it seems, looms large. Curiously, as a consumer society we doggedly retain the handle “New and Improved!” even as we hunger for its opposite: we want antiqued and weathered and yes, distressed. Are we better off for rescuing the old and replacing it with the new-old? Or are we hypocrites, unwilling to let go, wanting to have it all — a place for every thing and every thing in its place? Is it cool if we do it with irony (think Steampunk) or creepy if we don’t (nostalgia = death)? Why, for instance, do we award kudos for re-purposing something, but invect criticism if the thing preserved means duplicating the thing itself — “bad” because we’re undeniably producing more inevitable waste?
Which brings me back to distressing, the verb — not the adverb. Most of us would agree that it is distressing to consider the potential implications of, for example, a photograph of Iranian missiles manipulated to resemble an even more terrifying display of weaponry — while it is not actually distressing to, um, beat a table with chains. (It’s just goofy.) Nevertheless, the art of distressing something — from high-priced denim pants to bespoke digital fonts — serves as a tangible reminder that a significant portion of the public still yearns for a certain age-based authenticity. Meawhile, we reassure ourselves that everything that brings us closer to the model of the paperless office brings us, by conjecture, that much closer to a kind of virtuous state of material independence.
Yet some day soon, will we regret this? Will we regret moving so quickly that our lives were unlogged, recorded only in passing, our diaries comprised of a series of Facebook status updates, now vanished? Will we regret our reliance on push-button mapping, on split-second transmissions, on souped-up speed? Will we regret relegating paper to the trash heap, dismissing it as old-school technology, ignoring its value and intricacy and depth? And along the way, what kind of story will we leave behind through our morphed and manipulated paper trail — provided, of course, there is one?