A Global System of Objects


This interview is an excerpt of the conversation with Gean Moreno and Ernesto Oroza recorded in Miami on April 4, 2014 for The Funambulist’s podcast, Archipelago. Both are artists and writers based in Miami and their common work involves multiple articles (including the two discussed here, “Generic Objects” and “Learning From Little Haiti”) and publications. In this particular conversations, we discuss about the global system of objects and its appropriation, in particular in the neighborhood of Little Haiti.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: In your common work, you refer to “generic objects,” that even give the title of an article you wrote for E-Flux in 2010. Could we start by having you defining this term for us?

GEAN MORENO: We think of generic objects not as objects that hold no qualities or are so bland as to be lost in the flow of things. We call generic objects artifacts whose most important attribute is the embodiment of a set of information. It is data structured in such a way, translated into a such a particular morphology, that the resulting objects are optimized to fit inside larger networks. They become generic when they lose the quality of authorial presence, or brand name, not as a gesture on the part of the designer, but, rather, because the privileging of a data set is the most important thing and displaces all other components.

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LL: You give a few examples of these objects in your work: the shipping container, the bucket, the milk crate, the palette, etc. and you explain how these objects are produced through capitalist logic as their dimensions are calibrated holistically. Their weight, their structural resistance, their length, etc. are part of a global system. You talk about how the shipping container can be considered as a paradigm in this matter since its dimensions are not only in relation with the ship on which it is carried, but also the crane that will extract it, the truck that will transport it, as well as the highway, etc.

GM: Generic objects are a set of potentials above anything else. In the case of the bucket, the stackability matters as much as the shape, and the range of potentials — which is almost an infraspace proper to the object — is more important than any exterior quality it might have. These objects are embedded in a system and any change at any level of this system “climbs” either up or down to every other level. If one element is altered, all the other elements feel the pressure. The ribbon of information is transversal to the entire network. This is what is interesting to us in the generic object: if anything changes, it is almost a catastrophic wave that cascades down or cascades up the system. This makes generic objects different from other objects. If you alter a table, for instance, you do not necessarily induce changes external to it. While if you alter the dimensions or shape of the container, you need to change the crane, the ship, the port, the storage facility, the truck, etc. And, something else that we were interested in looking at is how difficult it has been for artists and designers to interface with this kind of object. Instead of looking at the way in which it functions, at what it really is, they settle on a rhetorical procedure: a bucket, considered morphologically, looks a bit like a lamp shade, so they turn it upside down and stick a bulb in it. Easy analogy. This negates everything that is new and interesting in this object. It is also a sort of alibi, because treating the object in this way excuses a lack of deep thinking about the object itself. It is remains at the level of a discourse that has to do with the poetics of the mundane or the revaluing of the discarded or other inane proposals of this sort.

ERNESTO OROZA: One could think, furthermore, that between the container and other generic objects employed in storage and distribution, there is a high degree of susceptibility. It’s as if they were all structured out of one susceptible compound, prone to corrupt itself and corrupt more generally by establishing certain complicities. Even though this “compound” is consolidated as morphological, metric and useful data, it is willing to spread beyond these data in order to “corrupt,” or better yet, to “blackmail” other systems. It’s as if this plane of susceptibility, which is also the vector plane which assimilates and guides the catastrophic waves mentioned above, incites and “blackmails” its standards and minuscule and punctual efficiencies all the systems that it traverses. Can one track this ”blackmail,” which is transversal in this case, to all the elements involved in the labor of storage, shipping, transportation, and distribution: that is, to warehouse, port, crane, truck, etc.? Can one stretch it to find a “complicity” between objects and infrastructural systems, such as tolls and weigh stations in interstate highways, and in the design of rest areas for truck drivers? It is through this “blackmail,” as unstable and changeable as agreements between neighborhood delinquents, that peripheral systems adjust to norms of global commerce in order to extract benefits.

LL: Gean, earlier you were talking about the consequences of the change in one piece of the system that would cascade up or down. I am wondering if you were also interested in seeing how you can also bring a piece from outside the system as a strategy of sabotage — the sabot (i.e. wooden clog) in the machine — or hacking of the system, taking advantage of this ripple effect.

GM: I think this is indeed the problem. When an object hacks the system, it can acquire an identity, so the question then is: “What kind of identity?” When these generic objects migrate into the design world or the art world, they acquire, I think, a very uninteresting identity, because it is the identity that these worlds provide to it through their established and rote procedures. But there are other ways for an object to exit the system and thus gain an identity. For instance, we can think of situations of economic pressure and precariousness: the identity these objects acquire is a very totalitarian one, exclusively bound to a potentiality that may not be its main function. So one should ask: “When an object exits the system, what constrains are applied to it and what potentials does this unleash?” And then, one should further enquire: “How do these objects go back into the systems they are structured for? What are the possibilities that the system offers so that they can go back in, and what does this return entail?” Of course answers to the latter may be disappointing. It may not entail much.

EO: The system itself is very autistic: it does not care about you nor does it care about the social field around it. There are two realities for a generic object: the reality within the system, and the one outside of it, but they never collide with each other so I think that hacking is impossible in these conditions. An infested or hacked object never goes back into the system.

GM: It can always come back, but in no way does it injure the system. The system has a built-in capacity to lose some of its information and to reabsorb it again. But this does nothing to the system itself. You can never lose enough containers for the system to break down, nor can you insert back enough for it to clog: it’s always going to move. We wrote somewhere that these circuits are going to continue even after the apocalypse because they have this autistic internal logic.

LL: I would like to quote you here. In a text written for e-flux journal, you wrote “The loop is like a tide cycle or a whirlpool. Its indifference, its inwardness, the silence generated by its centripetal flows, should terrify us. It is monstrous in the way its energy absorbs all forms and meanings. As objects move in this flow, their contours, weights, surfaces, articulations, and inscribed data (date of production, type of plastic, percentages of recycled material, ownership markings) dissolve. It’s as if they move under such pressure that they are rendered liquid-like and incorporated into a perpetual spiral of activity.” Can you comment on this notion of “monstrosity?”

GM: It’s a question of time. What is the time of this system? There is no time. If you think of it employing the most kindergarten logic, there is literally no clock in this system; the sunrise/sunset cycle does nothing to it; red lights do nothing to it. We, as bodies, have temporal constraints. This system does not share them. We punch in and out of work, even if only mentally, sleep and eat, but there is no conception of time in the system itself. So when you interface with a system that has no time structure, it is terrifying. It is almost sublime in the old way, but it is not an avalanche, because an avalanche implies a finitude and this, on the other hand, implies a logic outside of the infinity/finitude binary.

EO: I would like to explore a new image to diagram this monstrosity. It may be inspired by Harmony Korine’s film, Trash Humpers (2009). Let’s imagine that after finishing a film we stretch it disproportionately, compressing the height of the frame for example — this was a common distortion that Soviet films were adapted for the neighborhood cinemas of Havana. Let’s us imagine that this deformation, this compression as a structural condition, affects the vital essence, the psychic and physical qualities of the characters in the film and the rules of the universe they inhabit. This deformation would surely put new demands to the script. The characters, however, would in no way be aware of this force nor of the structural deformation, even if they develop a propensity to take advantage of it. Their bodies would have new needs to satisfy. They would respond, even in psychological and biological terms, to this structural aberration. New habits and behaviors would emerge. And maybe all these aberrantly compressed bodies would suffer new pains, agonies, and (why not?) pleasures, which they could not explain or know where they came from. The system that concerns us is not yet that altered film, but it shares its propensity, that terrible codependence between entities that remain unknown to one another. In relation to the possibility of hacking the system, there has been some use for this kind of system for political messages, as it happened in the work of Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles. Perhaps you can explain, Gean?

GM: During the military dictatorship in Brazil, when censorship was increasing and there were unprecedented difficulties organizing exhibitions, especially those with political content, Miereles began to silk screen messages with white inks on empty coke bottles. They were invisible when the bottle was empty, and you know, in the old days, you had to return the glass bottles to the shop. These would then go back to the plant, where they would be filled again, and against the dark liquid the messages would suddenly appear, but too late for anyone to intervene and stop them. The bottles would already be back in the city. So there may be ways to use this system, but we can see how even in this case, Meireless did nothing to the system itself. His messages were directed against an external force, a political regime. There may be ways to employ the system, but this doesn’t imply that destruction or injury to it will take place.

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Street speakers in Miami’s Little Haiti / Photographs by Gean Moreno & Ernesto Oroza (2008)

LL: So far, we have talked about these objects in a rather decontextualized manner, but I would like to address the part of your work that looks at more localized specific case. We can talk of your research called “Learning from Little Haiti” in Miami. You looked at the speakers placed outside of this neighborhood’s shops that all play Creole music in the street, creating a sort of intensive territories — intensive because, of course, the further you are from them, the lesser you are part of this territory. Could you tell us about how it relates to this more generalized research about generic objects, and how they create a form of sonic urbanity that designers or architects did not necessarily foresee?

GM: Two things about this: there is the individual artifact and the field of intensity that you are describing, and there is also recurrence. You can always have a speaker in a boutique in a hip neighborhood and create an “intense sonic field,” but what matters in this case is the recurrent gesture, which is what establishes a new urban feature. It is what makes this neighborhood different from others; it makes the speaker an identity marker and a useful tool to the point that the very repetition of the gesture becomes inevitable, self-perpetuating. If you don’t have a speaker, you may lose some business…

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The Jitney (private alternative bus) of Miami’s 2nd Avenue, in Little Haiti / Photograph by Léopold Lambert (2014)

LL: I would also like to talk about the negotiation that this sonic urbanity provokes through these objects that, themselves, already carry this notion, since they are movable and adjustable. It is a negotiation between the shop owners themselves but also between what you call “imported habits (putting speakers in front of stores) and what the city allows (speakers that remain seemingly impermanent or extractable elements of the commercial structure).”

EO: Little Haiti as a big field of forces. There is a zoning process that defines the use of the street. The regulations in terms of facades are very strict and the process to obtain authorization to put signs is difficult and expensive. The speakers are a way to go around this limitation and have a sonic informal sign, rather than a visual formal one. The speakers “speak” of this negotiation. Let’s say that their sounds, the Caribbean music that they emit, responds to commercial strategies (competition, business identity), but their constitution — the negotiation permeated by the logics of their fabrication and placement — speak of tactics.

GM: If we perceive the neighborhood as a field of forces, we can see how, on the one hand, there are legal forces, which have to do with zoning, inspectors — you know, inspectors in neighborhoods like these are not abstract figures—, and on the other hand, you have the “force” of the stock of material you have. If you want to build a temporary shed, the plywood only comes in one size. In the Caribbean, the shed might be 7 feet tall, but in the US it will most likely be 8 feet high. That’s a force, this homogenous stock: it costs you more to not work with it. The third force is the economic precariousness of the neighborhood. It is from this triangle of friction that solutions pop out, and one of them has been the speaker. There are other solutions, such as the Jitney — private buses that travel up and down Little Haiti’s main artery — which responds to a faulty public transportation system. That is how I interpret the notion of negotiation that you were evoking.