In the wake of World War II, Ukranian farmer Dmytro met his eventual wife Sophia in a displaced persons camp, and the couple migrated to the US in 1949. The former Nazi prisoner and his wife made their way to Syracuse, where Sophia died during a miscarriage in 1951. In the wake of her death Dmytro declined and was hospitalized at Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane.
Dmytro arrived at Willard in May, 1953 with a plain brown leather suitcase laden with personal photographs, a Washington Monument thermometer, a carved dog knick knack, immigration paperwork, flowers (from his wedding, for which he had a photograph), notebooks laden with complicated mathematical work, and a clock amidst some personal effects. The things were idiosyncratic but consequential invocations of Dmytro’s life, prosaic things he or his friends may have hoped would anchor him in the face of mental illness. Dmytre (as he came to be known in Willard) remained in the hospital until 1977, spending much of his time painting and eventually moving to some smaller homes before his death in 2000.
Dmytro’s suitcase remained behind at Willard, along with over 400 other suitcases of patients who arrived at the hospital in similarly bleak life moments clasping simply a few things. On the one hand, the suitcases are not especially unlike any archaeological things: long separated from the people who once held them, the suitcases hold assemblages of things around which we now weave narratives about the people who once carried them into Willard. On the other hand, though, words seem to clumsily capture the desperation and disconnection of Willard patients like Dmytro. Jon Crispin’s continuing photo project documenting the suitcases focuses on the visual and material dimensions of the suitcases in an effort to tell the patients’ stories with aesthetically compelling yet prosaic things. The sober measured steps of conventional archaeological storytelling might be expanded by confronting the intersection of materiality, aesthetics, and our own emotional reactions to these things.
The standard archaeological assumption is that things simply reflect various dimensions of identity like wealth or ethnicity; archaeologists acknowledge measures of irrationality, idiosyncrasy, or imagination are part of all materiality, but since we cannot systematically account for and explain them we generally place them outside archaeological narrative. The Willard suitcases may reflect some contextually distinctive material symbolism in the hands of patients, and perhaps the Willard patients had a material imagination that reaches beyond stereotypical rationality. Nevertheless, that does not imply that everyday consumption outside Willard’s walls is rational, conscious, and strategic, and the asylum suitcases probably make no more or less sense than any bourgeois living room.
In a moment of unique desperation at the boundaries of self-conscious reflection and mental illness, the suitcases might have been packed with a vast range of intentions by patients and families alike. Dmytro, for instance, appears to have held tightly to his past, as did many of his fellow patients. Irma had traveled throughout Europe (including a 1925 French trip documented in the notebooks in her Willard suitcase) and taught languages in New York City before being admitted to Willard in the late 1930s. Like Dmytro her suitcase was laden with the evidence of a rich life before Willard, including a dense range of sheet music and travel literature. Irma would never leave Willard, dying there in 1971. Frank was admitted after World War II, and his suitcase included a dense collection of wartime paperwork documenting his service as well as his uniform and personal photographs (alongside objects like pliers and luggage tags). Frank was only at Willard for three years, but he went from there to a Veteran’s Administration facility and never lived outside institutions before his death in 1984. Anna died in Willard in 1987, leaving a suitcase with a carefully transcribed list of her stylish clothing, some of which remained in the suitcase. Thelma’s fascinating suitcase included a collection of religious literature, dog figurines, the Tony Martin record “I Guess I’ll Have to Dream the Rest,” the circa 1948 pamphlet “A Primer on Race” by the Northern Baptist Convention Council on Christian Social Progress, and a figurine of a couple.
After Willard closed in 1995 the suitcases were displayed in the exhibit “Lost Cases, Recovered Lives: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic,” which became the online exhibit The Lives they Left Behind. Jon Crispin began to systematically photograph the Willard suitcase contents in 2011, capturing their evocative aesthetics and our own imagination of life in an asylum. There is perhaps a tendency to interpret the suitcases as expressions of some consistent logic, but they are not simply systematic biographical narratives. In Crispin’s hands the suitcase owners have biographies, but they and their long-lost intentions are perhaps less significant than our own imaginations. We may cast the suitcases as vehicles for storytelling, the material evidence of otherwise lost lives; however, we might just as well accept them as the emotionally fascinating things they are, leading us to a compelling if inchoate imagination about the boundaries of madness and normality and their intersection with prosaic materiality.
Like many if not most archaeological assemblages, our interpretations of the suitcases are shaped by the contents themselves as visual and material things. The suitcases are not really about intentions; that is, they are not simply documents of how a patient or their families intended to shape the experience of life in a total institution. Instead, they are fascinating because they evoke the barely expressible but visually and materially arresting boundaries of human experience.
2004 Life of “Dmytre Z.” emerges thanks to exhibit, and some journalistic sleuthing. Ukrainian Weekly 14 Mar 2004: 1.
Fiona R. Parrott
2005 “It’s Not Forever: The Material Culture of Hope. Journal of Material Culture 10(3):245-262. (subscription access)
In the annals of consumer activism, last week’s protest of Eurasian Economic Commission regulations may not seem especially momentous. Consumer movements have often been at the heart of consequential political moments: Nonimportation Agreements and the Boston Tea Party rejected state control of one of the American colonies’ most prized commodities; antebellum free labor stores lobbied for purchasing goods that were not produced by captive labor; and “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns by African Americans made consumer space a battleground for civil rights from the 1920’s onward. Last week that activist heritage was revisited by women gathered in Moscow, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to protest a Eurasian Economic Commission ban against the sale of underwear containing less than 6% cotton, which eliminates all lace lingerie. Thirty Kazakh women in Almaty were sent to jail while wearing panties on their head and chanting “freedom to panties.”
This may have somewhat different historical consequence than the Greensboro sit-ins, but it is symptomatic of the political meaningfulness invested in prosaic commodities and the way such things fuel contemporary political consciousness and activism. Things have always been moralized and politicized, but Jean-Christophe Agnew argues that in the second quarter of the 20th century Americans’ politics began to be articulated in consumption; Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America argues that American rights are measured by access to consumer goods despite the persistence of longstanding class, racist, and gendered barriers to such access. It is one thing to argue that a material thing like lingerie is politicized; it is another to suggest that our public political practice springs from consumption, that we articulate our rights and the state’s obligations in response to our material desires and consumer experiences. Read the rest of this entry
Westerners have long been fascinated by poverty, simultaneously enchanted by human resolve in the face of hardship and anxious about gross human injustices in the midst of affluence. In 1896, for instance, traveler H.C. Bunner noted that “I have missed art galleries and palaces and theatres and cathedrals (cathedrals particularly) in various and sundry cities, but I don’t think I ever missed a slum.” Bunner and many of the observers chronicling the lives of the poor often painted pictures of impoverishment that are patently ridiculous at best, and in many cases the representations of penury are simply reprehensible.
One of the most crass contemporary interpretations of poverty may be the Emoya Shantytown Hotel, a faux South African “informal settlement” in Bloomfontein borrowing the aesthetics of South African townships. The hotel allows guests to “experience staying in a Shanty within the safe environment of a private game reserve. This is the only Shanty Town in the world equipped with under-floor heating and wireless internet access!” It is difficult to resist ridiculing such offensive enthusiasm for an overnight descent into poverty. Gizmodo, for instance, mocked the resort’s effort to “recreate the joys of slum living without the nuisances of crime, disease, or poor sanitation”; Atlas Obscura concluded that “Unlike the atmosphere of struggle and danger that exists for the millions of people living in real South African shanty towns, Emoya’s Shanty Town attempts to foster a warm vibe of back-to-basics community,” which “may be the nadir of class tourism, a place where people can pay more to pretend to have less”; and Stephen Colbert dubbed the odd resort “glamour slumming.” Read the rest of this entry
Since her introduction in 1959, Barbie has been greeted by exceptionally zealous defenses as well as fevered attacks on the doll’s representation of femininity, sexuality, and consumption. Barbie is often reduced to monolithic symbolism: e.g., Barbie as hypersexualized breasty flame; ditzy hedonist; or a model that “girls can do anything.” Such simplifications tell us very little about why the doll has been so compelling to over a half-century of consumers, and Mattel has often remained studiously separated from discussions about Barbie and sexuality; instead, Mattel suggests that Barbie is a sort of “blank slate” onto which children project their unfettered imaginations.
This week, though, Barbie appears in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue alongside flesh-and-blood models, an appearance that comes nearly simultaneous with Mattel’s ads that proclaim that Barbie is “unapologetic.” The embrace of Barbie’s inescapable sexuality and the brazen pronouncement that she is not apologetic is an interesting shift in Barbie’s social meanings that reflects Mattel’s willingness to celebrate Barbie’s idealized beauty and attack the doll’s critics. Read the rest of this entry
In 1957 Johnny Cash played a concert at Huntsville State Prison in Texas, the first of Cash’s roughly 30 prison concerts that railed on the American penal system and cemented Cash’s populist politics. Two these concerts were committed to vinyl: Live at Folsom Prison was released in 1968 and At San Quentin a year later, and the set lists are a masterful musical confluence of messages of religious redemption, the challenges of love, and the sobering realities of prison life. Cash cultivated a rebellious image that has expanded since his death, but he never spent more than a night in jail (all for misdemeanors); nevertheless, he is now painted as a hard-living, stylish, and thoughtful renegade expressing resistance to inequalities and repressive social values.
Cash secured pop culture stardom by the time of his death in 2003, and since his death Cash has become a compelling mass-consumed symbol. One of the most famous images of Cash was taken at the San Quentin concert, when photographer Jim Marshall requested “a shot for the warden” and Cash gave him the finger. The image has been endlessly reproduced, including ads run by Cash’s label in 1998, tattoos, smartphone cases, posters, stickers, and numerous t-shirts. Read the rest of this entry
In 2012 Gary Carl Simmons sat down for an enormous meal including a Pizza Hut Super Supreme Deep Dish pizza; 10 8-oz. packs of Parmesan cheese; 10 8-oz. packs of ranch dressing; one family size bag of Doritos; 2 large strawberry shakes; two cherry Cokes; one super-size order of McDonald’s fries; and two pints of strawberry ice cream. By about 4:45 one observer reported that he had eaten roughly half of the nearly 30,000-calorie feast before he was marched off to the Mississippi death chamber. At 6:16 that evening he was declared dead after he was executed by lethal injection for a grisly 1996 murder.
The last meal has become a standard ritual in the contemporary execution, an oddly fascinating public episode in the final moments before society passes its ultimate judgment on one of our own. Today the ritual of a final meal and the last words of the condemned are the only particularly public dimensions of a death sentence. Last meals seem to provide us a final idiosyncratic insight into the mind of the irredeemable; they provide exceptional clarity for the notion of “comfort food”; and the ritual itself may rationalize capital punishment or even humanize the ultimate sentence. The final meal is symbolically fascinating because it balances a fine line between, on the one hand, human compassion and fascination for irredeemable citizens, and, on the other hand, a vengeful mob instinct that bourgeois execution ideology hopes to deny. Read the rest of this entry
This week an American Apparel store in New York secured a flurry of attention after it installed female mannequins whose sheer lingerie reveal dense pubic hair. The Valentine’s Day window display in the American Apparel Soho store includes three mannequins in sheer white underwear exposing netherhair and nipples. The international media attention has focused on American Apparel’s calculated history of “shock” advertising, and delicate sensibilities may stop at this point and choose not to survey the range of the corporation’s provocative advertising, much of which is not-safe-for-work. American Apparel has been predictably superficial in its defense of the mannequins as symbols of “natural beauty” that confirm the “rawness and realness of sexuality.” In the hands of American Apparel the unshorn mannequins are marketing mechanisms that are, at best, an ironic illumination of ideological beauty standards. American Apparel’s mannequins underscore our social uneasiness with deviations from unexpressed feminine beauty ideals; they certainly emphasize how complicated it is to address such deep-seated ideologies in consumer space and in the hands of corporations like American Apparel.
American Apparel fancies its mannequins are statements of a novel notion of uncontrived, “natural” beauty. In a press release last week the company indicated that “American Apparel is a company that celebrates natural beauty, and the Lower East Side Valentine’s Day window continues that celebration. We created it to invite passerbys to explore the idea of what is ‘sexy’ and consider their comfort with the natural female form.” American Apparel’s defense of the “natural female form” is a strategically uplifting celebration of “real life” bodies, and perhaps it inches away from the notion of beauty materialized in super model aesthetics. For instance, last year the firm ran ads with a transgendered model and was crafting campaigns with more transgendered and transsexual models. The corporation has likewise long argued that it refutes the clothing industry’s ideological notion of beauty, suggesting last week that the hirsute mannequins reflected the philosophy of “our advertisements which avoid many of the photoshopped and airbrushed standards of the fashion industry.” Read the rest of this entry
In the past decade a host of panhandlers have stationed themselves along American roadsides, off-ramps and street corners appealing to drivers for support. Panhandling has resided at the fringes of urban consciousness for centuries, and now the desperation of the unemployed, homeless, and impoverished is a commonplace fixture along American roadsides. Stationed along busy thoroughfares, patrolling the medians, and standing vigil on expressway ramps, roadside panhandling sounds some age-old challenges of poverty even as it adds the new wrinkle of taking aim on the unquestioned sanctity of car culture.
Personal ill fortune is a familiar display in the fashion, bodies, and handmade signs dotting early 21st century streetsides, and some communities aspire to render that desperation publicly invisible. The presence of impoverishment and panhandlers in public space has long vexed ideologues: Some urban centers have tried to abolish “aggressive” panhandling (spearheaded by a 1987 Seattle ordinance, and now followed by over 100 cities including Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Evanston, Illinois, and San Antonio), and a few communities have tried to expressly outlaw or manage roadside solicitation (e.g., Ocala, Florida, Montgomery County, Maryland, Durham, North Carolina). Much of this apprehension responds to no especially concrete threat, even though most communities cite ambiguous worries about danger to pedestrians. Instead, the effort to legislatively control roadside solicitation reflects that uncomfortable class and privilege anxieties are fueled by the visibility of our most desperate neighbors. Read the rest of this entry
Sometime in the late-1960s the proprietors of a modest shoe store closed its doors, leaving the stock neatly stacked along its walls. It remained there apparently untouched until a year ago, when a descendant opened the doors to find a mountain of shoe boxes and footwear and a typical small business seemingly as it had been left the day it was shuttered. Shoe collectors’ hearts leapt at the prospect of the magical specter of “old store stock” in its original packaging transformed to the status of “vintage.” The implied riches of the assemblage on ebay have captured much of the popular curiosity with the little store, but the more fascinating story is the “time capsule” effect of the assemblage and similar “pristine” abandonment spaces, not simply the allure of a pair of vintage wingtips.
Ruins are material and aesthetic vehicles for the imagination, sometimes simply for a “lost time” and in other hands as moral statements about the collapse of cities, industry, or communities. The undisturbed shoe store is an example of perhaps the most compelling of all abandoned sites: the “time capsule” left as it “really was” in an un-staged moment arresting the flow of a distant material life. The archetype for the time capsule site is Pripyat, the nuclear city rapidly abandoned in April, 1986 after the Chernobyl disaster. Tours now venture to Pripyat to walk amidst the detritus of everyday life and the specter of disaster apparently arrested in time. Read the rest of this entry
Observers who doubt marketers’ capacity to package nearly any concept may be impressed by the ambition of Urban Outfitters’ “Urban Renewal” line. Urban Outfitters aspires to make the notion of urban renewal a desirable style that signifies a “totally one-of-a-kind” vintage aesthetic disconnected from urban displacement and decline. The branding is perhaps an irreverent or innocent play on Urban Renewal’s symbolic link to urban youth culture, invoking “streetstyle” in the strained ironic juxtaposition of “new one-of-a-kind vintage.” Yet Urban Outfitters is a carefully constructed “lifestyle” brand consciously selling a caricature of urban decline to a youth demographic that their CEO described in 2012 as “the upscale homeless person” with “a slight degree of angst.” Urban Outfitters aspires to evoke the authenticity of urbanity by linking urban decline and displacement to a style embodied in its “vintage condition” wear.
Urban Outfitters has a reputation for appealing to hipster chic, catering to the consumer who is indifferent to being labeled a hipster. Most consumers accused of being hipsters are raiding thrift stores and flea markets, constructing makeshift assemblages of mixed styles and old things and typically skirting the charge of being labeled “hipster,” but the Urban Renewal line promises genuine vintage (or a persuasive reformulation of it) without descending into the flea market. Nevertheless, because the vintage shopping experience occurs in “real” places outside consumer space, the Urban Renewal line often refers to its garments’ spatial or social roots. Urban Outfitters’ British web site, for instance, invokes the garments’ ambiguous American origins by touting the Urban Renewal line as a “vintage destination” that offers everything from “one-off finds in LA warehouses to awesome pieces from the world’s most obscure flea markets.” The Urban Renewal line’s “vintage mechanic shirts” do not come from a specific place, but they secure some origins by implying class roots that evoke their salvage from proletarian closets. The Urban Renewal garment descriptions on its American web page routinely herald their “handcrafted” production in Philadelphia, where the chain was established near the University of Pennsylvania campus in 1970. Ironically, the neighborhood was transformed by genuine urban renewal that a University archival exhibit refers to as “a lasting public relations disaster” addressed by the 1990’s introduction of local retailing that included Urban Outfitters. Read the rest of this entry