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Generic Objects


By generic objects we don’t mean objects that affect a kind of generic quality—brilliantly commonsensical and ordinary objects that come from the rarefied space of the designer’s studio, and draw their value from that space. We mean really generic—milk crates, plastic buckets, shipping containers, wooden palettes, traffic barricades, decorative concrete blocks, urban trash cans and dumpsters, rubber tires, scaffolding, Scotch tape. It’s not that any of these aren’t designed, but rather that they are designed so incredibly well as to function with unparalleled efficiency within the systems of circulation for which they are intended. Their most telling quality is that they have slipped below the threshold of what would otherwise mark their identity as designed artifacts.

Functioning within the large field of conventions inevitably established by global markets and transnational productive systems, generic objects are designed with such programmatic exactitude that spaces accommodating authorial expression are reduced to make room for qualities that foster efficient and competitive performance in commercial processes. The more extensive and decentralized the circuits of production and distribution in which generic objects participate, the more numerous the universal norms by which they are informed. The space for authorial display or geographically specific markers is compressed to a minimum, when not eliminated altogether.

Generic objects are synthetic genetic objects: a genome or a strict chain of codes, a tight script of metric chromosomes, cuts across them and the systems to which they are attached. The shipping container, for instance, like the bucket and the milk crate, is marked by multiple conventions, by a global consensus—a genome—established between all the parts of the system in which it functions. This guarantees compatibility at every interface. The weight and structural resistance of metal used for the container, the dimensions of the cranes and of the storage facilities in ships, the width of the trucks, the width of the interstate highway lanes used by the trucks, the walkways in the storage areas of ports, the width and reach of forklifts—they all work together. It’s an alliance that generates, in proportion to the efficiency of the system, an internal violence—a force, like that of genetic coding, which imposes morphologies, from the minutest detail of the object to the very edges of the system. Everything is determined by everything else.

What we have, then, is a group of objects determined by a metric regime that they themselves empower, a genetic pool and the shapes it produces through relationships of mutual reinforcement, affected occasionally by exterior demands (which then translate into alterations in the system, into new information). In this sense, every aspect of the generic object has its own dimension of necessity. And every object is an elastic surface: if it receives a blow, it channels it to the entire system, and the blow is manifested in the individual objects that make up the system. If the resistance of the container’s metal changes, then the gripping power of the crane has to be altered. The shape or weight required by these objects, for instance, produces invisible expansive waves that mark the global landscape of trade. The process dictates compatible features to all the elements with which the object engages. Likewise in the opposite direction, a massive change at the global scale of trade sweeps down as a series of awesome waves that alters the shape of the individual elements.

Read the full article here.