Rob Walker | Essays

What To Make Of It? A Contest.

So what are you up to this weekend? Here's a suggestion: Take a little time to invent a story about an insignificant object.

Photo by Amy Pearl for Studio 360.

The other day I had a post here about ekphrastic expression — creativity inspired by creativity, art about art. I don’t know if there’s a similarly impressive word for creativity inspired by junk, but there ought to be. I’d use it to describe the short story contest being run by Studio360 and Significant Objects right now, inviting  listeners, writers, creative people, anyone with an imagination, really, to dream up fictional tales about cheap stuff picked up from a thrift store.

Joshua Glenn and I have had a lot of fun with the notion of creativity inspired by the banal, mundane, and overlooked through Significant Objects, which started out as an online experiment. We were, in the beginning, investigating whether stories – even explicitly made-up stories – could add measurable value to a thing. We certainly proved this, by selling thing/story pairs on eBay, and observing an increase in marketplace value of more than 2,700% per object.

We were not surprised. But we were surprised to discover how much writers and creative thinkers of all stripes loved the idea of using a negligible-value doodad as an imaginative prompt. (One of our early team-ups with an esteemed entity was a series of stories co-published right here on Design Observer.*) The resulting stories ended up being so good that there's a book version of Significant Objects coming soon, and that’s what led to the current contest.

I recently visited a thrift shop in New York with Studio 360’s Kurt Andersen, and we picked out the three objects pictured here, for a grand total of $11.98. “Your task, is to make one piece of junk (or more) significant,” Studio 360’s contest page explains, by inventing an imaginary backstory for, or simply devising a fiction that involves the thing (or things).

The contest was announced on the show last weekend, and the entries seem to be arriving at a brisk clip. A few excerpts are being read on the air in this weekend’s episode. So I hereby encourage you to join in, and/or spread the word to others who migtht be interestsed. There will be one winner per object. The deadline is April 8.

Photo by Amy Pearl for Studio 360.

Having stumbled upon the appeal of the geegaw as muse, I'm now attracted to the transformative power of this exercise. It's not unrelated to the "developing interest in the role of significant objects in our lives," noted here recently by Rick Poynor in his useful assessment of The Museum of Broken Relationships. But I like the idea of taking that interest in a slightly different direction. The objects you see here have been severed from whatever narrative their former owners may have projected on them. That void can be seen as an opportunity. And if invented significance can transform the meaning of these things — which is clearly the case — what does that say about the relationship among story, object, and us? 

I should mention that our wonderful publisher Fantagraphics has committed to sending each of the three winners a copy of the Signicant Objects book when published. And also something else: The person who comes up with the best story inspired by each object will win … the object itself. And that's pretty special, if you think about it. This $12 batch of unspecial stuff is in the process of becoming three one-of-kind, priceless objects, standing for the surprising power of the creative imagination. 

Photo by Amy Pearl for Studio360.

* I can’t take credit for that; it pre-dated my involvement here and was arranged by Mr. Glenn. Tom Vanderbilt’s story is in the forthcoming book, and we also had great contributions from Adam Harrison Levy, Jessica Helfand, Rachel Berger, and Teddy Blanks (who impressively upped the creative-response stakes by writing and recording an original song inspired by a porcelain scooter!). Recommended reading, all.

Jobs | March 04