Material and Meaning

Throughout and after World War I, there was a vast explosion of new materials the United States learned to fabricate. There was an abundance of cheap fossil fuels throughout North America and companies extracting the resource wanted to sell more of it than was being burned in the automobile. So, they hired scientists from all a round the world and tasked them with the job of figuring out how many useful ways, besides burning it in a combustion engine, this material could be reconfigured, marketed, and sold to consumers. The first of these were synthetics like polystyrene (PS) polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and synthetic rubber. Later, these were followed by polypropylene, commonly used in carpeting and synthetic rope. Or polyamide known more commonly as nylon. While this century long period of creating new types of materials has given us many of the useful materials we utilize today; like toilet scrubbers, cadillac tires, and cell phone batteries, I wonder fundamentally about what they mean. To rephrase that, do all material things, just by there having a physicality or a tangible presence give them the potential to embody meaning? Is a material meaningful because it draws associations or perceptions of the natural world from whence it was extracted. Or are materials only meaningful because of the associations we develop with them through personal experiences? Will I always connect with smooth river stones, in any amalgamation or assemblage, because I grew up chasing the school bus along the creek bed as a boy?

It is my contention that there exists a gradient of material typologies which move from the 'raw' to the 'mock'. 'Raw' materials are those extracted from the earth, acted on minimally, incorporating little heating, beating, or treating. These materials are known by their texture, their odor, or their distinctive form. 'Raw' materials remain closely married to the processes and nature of the location of their extraction. While these types of materials are more difficult to mold and form with the human hand and are increasingly difficult to industrialize, they are unquestionably beautiful, tangible, and authentic.

'Mock' materials are materials, which have gone through a higher number of processes. These materials are heat, beat, and treated extensively. They are increasingly the outcome of chemical compositions that are highly processed and altered from their original state. While 'mock' materials may be more useful today than 'raw' materials, they are many times unknowable by the ordinary observer. For example, would an average consumer know what their laundry hamper, cell phone, or face scrub were really made of? The fact is that most people don't care about what these materials are because they serve a specific function in their day to day lives. A cell phone is important for our ability to connect and share with the people we relate with in our day to day lives. We don't need it to be meaningful we simply need it to work. Yet, it is through this type of items 'function' that it embodies meaning. Similarly, a toilet bowl brush simply needs to not pick up, hold, or transmit bacteria in the bathroom while having some type of scrubber to clean the inside of the bowl itself. These types of products have value in todays society and increasingly, through the invasion of technologies like the computer, seem to have concretized themselves within modern culture.

What remains problematic here is that 'mock' materials embody meaning though their function. It is the task they perform for us, which makes them meaningful. A cell phone means something to us for its ability to connect us with our network of friends and family, to entertain us when were bored, and to keep track of our important meetings and deadlines. While this seems to be no problem at all, it does present a problem for the 'raw'. How does the 'raw' material typology embody this same kind of meaning. I would argue, the 'raw' does not need to fight as hard to obtain meaning, it simply needs to be revealed. Sadly, I feel our approach to these types of materials, on large, has not done as much as is possible to reveal the inherent meaning in the 'raw'.

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