Plums for Trash and the Object Ethnography Project: Praxis-Based Value Networks

Artist Christina Freeman began her MFA thesis project, Plums for Trash, by taking a suitcase full of odds and ends she didn’t need from New York City to outdoor markets throughout Sofia, Bulgaria. She traded her objects in these markets, often for objects that had been pulled out of the waste stream. She made this trash exchange trip twice. Now, she has brought these third generation discards back to the U.S and is trading them a final time in New York City at her MFA thesis exhibition beginning May 16th, 2012 (details below).

Freeman (on the right) trading objects in Sophia.

One of the New York City trades Freeman participated in was brokered by the Object Ethnography Project, a creative platform for researching the role of narration in the value, exchange, and circulation of objects.  She took a Light from Dead Horse Bay and left behind the Top of a Bulgarian Taxi, which was in turn taken by someone else. The Object Ethnography Project works by using stories as currency for trade: anyone can donate an object with a story, and anyone can take an object if they tell a new story about it.

The Light from Dead Horse Bay- via The Object Ethnography Project.

Freedman told a story about her project in order to take the Light from Dead Horse Bay:

I’ve never heard of Dead Horse Bay or Barren Island until today. When I first saw this rusted light fixture I thought it looked pretty strange and ugly. After reading the story I realize this is part of history with a story.

For the last year and half I have been working on a project trading trash (unwanted objects) with people for their unwanted objects. I started with my own things that I took to Bulgaria to collaborate on this project with my friend who works in the Roma community as a researcher on waste management. The description of Barren Island reminds me of the community where my friend does her research, a neighborhood where many people make a living from trash picking. I will be taking this light fixture back to Bulgaria in April and inviting people to trade for it.

She also left a story with the top of the Bulgarian Taxi:

Top of a Bulgarian Taxi, via the Object Ethnography Project.

This is the top of a Bulgarian Taxi. I received this in exchange for a pair of men’s shoes, which were given to me in exchange for a blue leather wallet. All of this trading took place in a flea market in Sofia. I took my own things that I didn’t need anymore in a suitcase and proposed trades with people in the market there.

The blue wallet was a Christmas gift from a student, whose parents were rumored to own the Empire State Building.

The Top of a Bulgarian Taxi was then taken by a couple living in New York, who told another story about it. They are currently looking for a new light to put in the taxi sign so they can mount it on their bicycle:

This light from a Bulgarian cab immediately caught my interest on a number of levels and I felt some of my stories of travel in Eastern Europe immediately merging with the original story. We traveled extensively in Romania 5 years ago and as is usual for us we made no plants other than a one-way flight to Bucharest. We left Bucharest for Sigashora with, as always, no accommodations. We arrived and just started meeting and talking to people and just figured all else would emerge. Within and hour we met someone living there who does work with the Roma people and serves as a human rights advocate on their behalf to the Romanian government. We ended up staying with friends of her family and exchanging numerous things.

We continued to travel like this all through the Carpathian mountains. We returned to Bucharest after three incredibly exhilarating but quite exhausting weeks. That evening included perhaps the craziest bus ride ever, which included a shirtless, very friendly bus driver who careened through busy evening streets at high, nearly out-of-control speeds.

This all leads to our intention to immediately travel to Bulgaria– I had already purchased our tickets to Istanbul via Bulgaria. But after the intense prior three weeks, and the prospect of hours on a crowded train, my wife just looked at me with eyes of sheer fatigue and said “I can’t do it.” I trained vainly to convince her otherwise but realized it just wasn’t in her.

Sooo- though we didn’t make it that time (and haven not made it yet) we have a little bit of Bulgaria on our home now, that I’m sure will eventually be passed on again sometime.

Both Plums for Trash and The Object Ethnography Project are praxis-based forms of research that use the circulation of discards to investigate value and the networks that create, sustain, and are sustained by them. Value is defined as “Worth or quality as measured by a standard of equivalence,” yet in both projects, equivalence is not determined ahead of time. The interaction between traders, either through their stories or in person, not only results in a trade that determines equivalency (a blue wallet for a taxi sign, a taxi sign for a story), but also creates a relationship that may or may not continue after the trade. This relationship is part of the valuation of the objects. Another definition of value is “worth based on esteem.” This esteem is both for the object and for the trader, and as such can include trust, charisma, familiarity, stories, and history. This is the crux of material culture work: it is not just material, and not just cultural, and the two cannot be separated during an analysis because both contribute to the phenomena or situation under study. Plums for Trash and the Object Ethnography Project, as material cultural laboratories, make this explicit. The Object Ethnography Project, in particular, will be publishing findings on how these networks create and maintain (or not) value both through in-person exchanges and via online communities.

Plums for Trash exchange table

You are invited to participate in Plums for Trash by bringing an object you no longer want, but that someone else might find valuable to the Hunter MFA Thesis Show, May 16-June 16, 2012, at Times Square Gallery, 450 W. 14th St, NYC 10036. The opening reception is May 16th from 6-8pm.
Gallery hours are 1-6pm Tuesday through Saturday, and Christina Freeman will be available for trading on Fridays, Saturdays, and by appointment (please contact her at if you are interested).

You can participate in the Object Ethnography Project by donating or requesting an object. Details are here.