The Significant Objects project

Susannah Breslin is a guestblogger on Boing Boing. She is a freelance journalist who blogs at Reverse Cowgirl and is at work on a novel set in the adult movie industry.


A while back, I received an email from Rob Walker, a friend, the author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, and the guy who writes the "Consumed" column for the New York Times Magazine. With a friend of his, Joshua Glenn, who wrote Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance, he was working on a new project: Significant Objects.

The idea is this:

A talented, creative writer invents a story about an object. Invested with new significance by this fiction, the object should -- according to our hypothesis -- acquire not merely subjective but objective value. How to test our theory? Via eBay!

Each writer, Rob explained, would choose from a variety of "junk" objects bought by the curators at garage sales and thrift stores. A smiling mug. A Sanka ashtray. A JFK bust. Then, we would write a short story about the object. Whatever we liked. A fiction. Thereby, at least as I saw it, imbuing this seeming "worthless" object with a greater value, sentimental or otherwise. The story and a photo of the object would be posted on the website and put up for auction on eBay. Readers would be invited to bid on the item. If they won the auction, they would win the object and a printout of the story. No one would be "deceived" into believing the stories about the objects were true, as their fictional relationship would be made clear, and the proceeds of the auction would go to the author, who would retain the rights to the story. Or, as Rob puts it: "Voila! An unremarkable, castoff thingamajig has suddenly become a 'significant' object!"

I chose the All-American Official Necking Team button that you see here. The story I wrote about it has bits of truth and fiction mixed together. My paternal grandfather did die on the IRT and my father was a tall man, but I am not a boy and, so far as I know, my father was never on a "necking team."

After he had passed away, my mother and I had stood over the dining room table upon which sat a large box that contained what was left of him. Cremains, the man had called them. My father, I had longed to correct him. Thankfully, my mother had been willing to share what remained of him with me, his only son. My father was a skyscraper of a man -- six-foot-five, Ozymandias hands, a brooding forehead -- a great man, really -- and so, he had left a great deal of himself behind.

Other writers with story objects include Luc Sante, Ben Greenman, Stewart O'Nan, Kurt Anderson, and there's one coming from Boing Boing's own Mark Frauenfelder.

Check out Significant Objects here, read about the project here, and see all the items on eBay here. You can read my story here and bid on it here. More coverage here: The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The New Yorker.



  1. If the objects become worth anything at all, then fakes and actual copies will be put up for sale in an eyeblink.

    I wonder if it will work.

  2. I actually did something similar many years ago on ebay, when it was easier to post nonsense. I set up a series of auctions for wildly ridiculous things, with very plausible stories as to why they were on sale and then waited to see if we would get queries and/or bids. In every article, we included some little tidbit that would make it obvious the story was untrue, if you really looked for it. I thought of it as a creative fiction project, as well as a test of how far people can go to convince themselves a thing is real if they want it to be. (We set very high reserves so nothing would actually “sell”).
    Our three big “auctions” were for:

    – One of Queen Elizabeth’s “retiring” corgis

    – Florida’s electric chair at Stark (at the time it was being replaced)

    – “King for a Day” of the island of Tonga, on the first day of the new millenium (the island would be first across the int’l date line)

    Not suprisingly, we had bids on every one of these auctions. Alas, they changed the rules and we were unable to post our cemetery plot next to Jim Morrison’s.

  3. Maybe this is the scientist in me talking, but shouldn’t there also be identical or similar items on eBay that the chosen items are compared to? The items with significance should be compared to insignificant items.

  4. @#3: You’re right, their experimental design leaves a lot to be desired, but on the other hand, they found a great way to get rid of their worthless crap.

  5. I hate to tell you this, but you’ve basically just reinvented advertising. Good advertising takes a product and imbues it with some kind of story. The only differences are that 1) generally speaking the product is new instead of used, 2) the story is usually less specific to any individual and more generally applicable to the mass-produced nature of the product and 3) the artifice in the story is more or less deliberately concealed.

    Take any good ad campaign and ask yourself, “What’s the story here?” It’s a pretty fun game once you try it.

  6. “The only differences are that 1) generally speaking the product is new instead of used, 2) the story is usually less specific to any individual and more generally applicable to the mass-produced nature of the product and 3) the artifice in the story is more or less deliberately concealed.”

    Oh, is that all? LOL. Anyway, perhaps both advertising and the Significant Objects project are stories, because *everything* is a story. I could just as easily say that imbuing objects with value is a religion, and then say both advertising and Significant Object are religions, on that basis. Or, we could just admit that everything can be reduced to anything, if you choose your terms broadly enough.

  7. It was with much interest that I read of the Significant Objects project. Last year the collaborative art duo Goatsilk—Ben Bloch and Caroline Peters—launched a nearly identical project, not as writers, but as visual/new media artists. This is from their project statement:

    For 20 working days in June 2008, Goatsilk excavated discarded objects, sites and histories from the lands around Earthquake Lake in southwest Montana. With a series of docu-dramas we envisioned the life of each item, subsequently placing them for auction on eBay. The project unfolded in real-time on our blog, eBay, Facebook and YouTube, creating a linked circuit between 3 of the Internet’s most visited sites and our own virtual outpost.

    Daily Treasures: Living off the Land! experiments with the possibilities for elevating the real value of these all but forgotten objects by restoring some significance to the reality of their loss and decay. The significance we help bring to each item may be expressed in several ways: financial capital produced through eBay sales, symbolic capital accrued with Internet popularity, and the artistic capital derived from the labor and creativity required to realize the project on a daily basis. Weaving history and memory, sentiment and satire, fiction and reality, Daily Treasures evokes the possibilities—and limitations—of “living off the land.”

    I think the parallels to the Significant Objects project are evident, with a difference of profile. My own area of scholarship is not in contemporary art, and I’m making no claims for the relative strengths or weaknesses of either project (full disclosure: Bloch and Peters are friends). But there’s no denying that name recognition and access to major media outlets plays a vital role in the value that the objects in either project are able to accrue. In truth, the issues raised here are not so much about financial capital, but about artistic and symbolic capital (as the comments above begin to suggest).

    As an art historian (in the midst of preparing for a course on “Art and the Public Sphere”) these questions are very much on my mind. In the Eighteenth century (my area) a burgeoning media culture was the key component in creating even the possibility for art as we know it now, but the ideals of democracy/meritocracy replacing aristorcracy were, of course, far from realized. I love the internet, love web 2.0, love the fact that complex projects such as Significant Objects and Daily Treasures exist. I also wonder where the limits to that complexity lie, something that contemporary scholars and critics have examined far more actively than myself. But if projects such as this can raise the question of limits, I suppose we’re on track.

    Lela Graybill
    Asst. Prof. of Art History
    University of Utah

  8. Hey, I’ve been seeing this button all over the internet and was curious where it came from. So I found this and then I also noticed that Flavorwire interviewed Rob Walker about the site and it’s future.

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