As I ponder how Scott Mitchell’s way of being in the world might be positioned or discussed in relation to broader frameworks of art and design, it becomes increasingly apparent that this distinction is an afterthought.1 He privileges neither art nor design, as such inhabiting a space where both modes of practice might in some ways operate outside themselves, being repositioned in relation to the maker.
I feel dubious about using the term ‘practice’ when discussing what Mitchell does. I think there is a sense inherent in the term of a disciplined output that can be received separately from a life, or which co-opts a life. It would perhaps be more appropriate to talk about Mitchell’s sensibility, for the element of expansiveness this might afford: something like what ‘lifestyle’ used to mean. Mitchell is a gentle person, a trait that infuses his approach to modifying and producing objects. I have seen him knit socks that sculpt perfectly to his feet, troubleshoot and reconfigure complex and fine-wired electronics, build simple and elegant furnishings, construct graceful and functional aerials, and direct students in building a machine for blowing enormous smoke rings. Always the project is undertaken thoughtfully and often laterally.
The relation to a contemporary art context is one that Mitchell pointedly circumvented in his recently completed PhD thesis, its industrial design context demanding a design-oriented approach. It is not that Mitchell disavows this relationship: he completed a Bachelor of Fine Art prior to his PhD and has long had a foot in both camps. Mitchell’s approach to presenting his work in an art context begins with an idea of the gallery as a readymade platform for presentation, complete with an accessible community of viewers, listeners or users, as the case may be. It is not that galleries don’t usually perform these functions for artists, but that the system of understanding is structured somewhat differently: the intended neutrality, and the elevating function of the gallery space, are not at the centre. This frees the work from the commonly felt impulse to subvert this context despite relying on it, seeing it instead as a resource to be utilised like any other. Because Mitchell’s work is often introduced into, rather than made for, a gallery context, the reification of the object by its placement in the space might be understood more as a residue than a corruption; for Mitchell, it does not define the stakes of object-hood. I would position this in contrast to an art context-oriented practice such as that of Claire Fontaine, for whom the modification of objects is also central. Significantly, Claire Fontaine’s practice is equally grounded in art historical narratives and is geared towards gallery presentation.2 As such, it attracts a critical interpretation derived from its role as a meeting point for subversion and high-end commodity production. Though Claire Fontaine engages strategies of subversive modification, their practice insistently reveals an agenda of bringing these processes under the umbrella of art, seeking to claim them for their practice and for art in general, in the process enacting what might be seen as a cynical neutralisation of such subversion by co-opting it for the realm of the cognisant collector.
In Hegel’s master–slave dialectic, the slave produces the master’s world while the master, making objects of desire of everyone and everything around him, paradoxically denies himself the possibility of recognition, since recognition must come from an equal. In a recent lecture on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, Bryan Cooke put forth the proposition that contemporary consumer society posits a reconciliation between master and slave, in that recognition no longer comes from how hard one works, but from what one is able to consume, making each member of a consumer society at once a master and a slave.3 Mitchell’s practice complicates this relation: the modification of an object that was produced to be consumed in its original, homogenous state and discarded when it reaches its pre-programmed finitude, is an ebb against the flow of the consumer system, indeed the system of mass production is set up to thwart modification attempts with unopenable casings, voided warranties and so forth.
In Tools for Conviviality, Ivan Illich discusses the distinction between two kinds of knowledge: that which is ‘derived from the primary involvement of people with each other and from their use of convivial tools’,4 and that which ‘accrues to them as a result of purposeful and programmed training to which they are subjected’.^5 Anyone working in an academic context will have experienced the effects of measures taken to increase what Illich terms the ‘cost–benefit ratio in education’,6 which is forcing a shift in the grounds of ‘knowledge transfer’. Seen in this light, the Internet gives hope as the primary platform for knowledge-sharing, enabling the anarchisation of education (in the etymological sense of the term from the ancient Greek ἀναρχία, anarchia, meaning ‘absence of a leader’).7 Internet-based modification communities are a crucial resource for Mitchell, providing templates and technical data for many of his projects, though this does not constitute a disavowal of the educational institution. Rather, both are seen as sites possessing different productive qualities. There is in Mitchell’s approach a troubling of the relationship between production and research; one often encountered as problematic for arts practitioners in an academic context. In the introduction of his thesis he states clearly that the writing is not to be viewed as a ‘key’ to the object production, but that they are parallel lines of understanding, two distinct ways of knowing rather than a research component underpinning a practical one.
Mitchell is not striving idealistically for another mode of existence, but looking for ways to improve this one. He engages the objects of mass production such that a residual critique is produced, deposited by the display of improvement and the subsequent opening up of possibilities for the object. The critique is latent in his efforts to improve our engagement with the world of human-made objects. Often the reifying characteristics of luxury goods lie in the particularity of their materiality, the sense of workmanship. Mitchell’s treatment of objects often produces results that are possessed of these qualities, the message being that a sense of luxury can be derived from a considered relationship to what we surround ourselves with, beyond mere consumerism. Mitchell himself is not much of a consumer. He owns only a few items of clothing, and though he once expressed interest in studying shoemaking, to my knowledge he owns only one pair of shoes.
Inherent to Mitchell’s approach is a deep consideration of an object’s nuances and how they inform its place in the world, along with a belief that objects ought to be adapted to endure shifts in context rather than being approached through a mentality of accumulation and expurgation. It is a mode of caring for material objects that can be extended outward to meet more aspects of the world. In a discussion of modification in architecture, Vittorio Gregotti comments: ‘Every architectural operation increasingly becomes an act of partial transformation within a situation: reuse, restoration, but also something new and different through the contextual relationship of already significant materials.’8 Approaching our engagement with the world as modification rather than production might facilitate the development of a less wasteful paradigm for human existence. Overturning capitalism before we dwindle as a species, and drag a great deal of biodiversity along with us, seems such an insurmountable task that at times the temptation is to surrender to hopelessness. Mitchell demonstrates that one can still seek agency and an ethical relation to objects in spite of the consumer condition.
Helen Johnson is a visual artist and writer, currently working towards a PhD at Monash University. More information on Scott Mitchell’s projects can be found at http://www.openobject.org.