A Love of Artifacts

Photo courtesy of bluray.com

It wasn’t a year ago when I would still have conversations with my husband about our love of artifacts and how we couldn’t imagine having a digital-only collection of anything.

I’ve been using the word “artifact” in the context of art-making for a few years now, whether to reference books, figures, physical works of art, prints, and so on. More  generally, though, I mean for it to reference an object that has been touched and processed in some way by human hands, and obviously so. A stick isn’t an artifact, but an incised one is.

We would talk about the preciousness of artifacts in opposition, always in opposition, to its intangible counterpart, the realm of digital works. How if, an EMP were blasted at us by the sun tomorrow, what an even more terrible world we’d live in if suddenly all the art disappeared along with the lights. And  for a far less catastrophic scenario, what if your hard drive fails? What if there’s some natural disaster, a tornado or earthquake, where the servers that host your cloud content are located? And that’s not to mention the immensely high carbon, energy, and space footprint of the buildings where these servers are located and the infrastructure the ties them, and us, together.

E-readers are awful. Digital comics are frustrating to read. Netflix sucks. Amazon is no better than Walmart when it comes to business practices.

And then there’s the question of who has your cloud-based media collection. Apple? Google? Google has gone down the shitter over the past 6-7 years in terms of user privacy. Their motto used to be “Do no evil.” What happened? Is it “Do no evil when people are looking” now? There’s also the issue of proprietary file types and software. If you pay nearly full-price for a piece of media, and the company that you bought it from goes under, what do you do if it takes everything you bought with them and you’re left with nothing?

See where we’re coming from? It’s not so simple to say “I don’t want the dead tree version”.

On a purely superficial level, I realized that I hated the look of extensive DVD and music collections displayed in people’s homes when I was reading Bea’s book. The sheer visual overstimulation of  being in the same room as 400 movies has made me incredibly uncomfortable in the past. Libraries, though, I’ve always found to strike just the right balance for some reason.

But the issue comes incredibly close to home when taking my passion into consideration: cartooning. I’ve been toiling away on a 600-page behemoth for several years now, and it was always meant to be read in book form. I can barely tolerate reading my own work online, where it’s currently available for folks who can’t or don’t want to buy the dead tree version (as I do personally believe in making art as widely available as possible). I don’t want sales of my book to suck, I want to be able to pay a few of my bills with that hard work. And I want my friends throughout the industry, who also have dead trees to make ends meet from, to be successful too. But at the same time… so many dead trees.

So many books I’ll only read once. So many books that I’ll never read because I wanted to support them but just never got around to cracking the thing open.

So much clutter.

I’ve never had much interest in digital art for purely aesthetic reasons too. No, I’m not saying that we should be going back to the days of manual color separation, not at all. But truthfully I’ve never seen a digital painting and thought to myself “I want that on the wall”. For me, there’s a psychological barrier preventing me from really appreciating the possibilities of digital art in physical space. To me, it belongs on the computer, in the cloud. It’s inherently disposable. And that kind of freaks me out a little.

Why? Because I will never own a piece of digital work. It will never be uniquely mine, or uniquely somewhere else, of which I have a copy. It exists everywhere, equally. In a sense, it belongs to everyone.

And that’s when it occurred to me that I don’t necessarily need to own all the things I want access to. That’s a philosophy of self-sufficiency and hermeticism that I’m actually rather ethically against: it’s a kind of “every man for himself”.

I got an e-reader a couple years ago, and I remember my husband sounding a little bitter when I told him about it. I very quickly realized that no, I really don’t need to own every book I ever want to read. I really don’t.

So I guess I might start looking at Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime as media sharing tools instead of framing the whole thing through the lens of ownership and hoarding. Speaking of the word “hoard”, it always reminds me of a theory that a friend of mine has regarding Norse folklore. Namely that the image of the dragon that we’re all familiar with, this big monster laying lazily atop a big pile of riches (but never doing anything with it), is related to the draugr, an undead person that refuses to pass on because of greed. (Notice the similarity between “dragon” and “draugr”, too. The Danish version is actually almost phonetically identical, being “draugen”.) Whether they stay in their tomb, surrounded by their treasure and wergeld, or creep out at night to terrorize locals, the cause of their monstrous transformation is a single thing: desire for material wealth.

I am also reminded of a professor’s explanation of wergeld, made plenty of reference to in Beowulf, and generally comprising the gold rings and torcs worn by those loyal to their king in the northern European world. Despite being made of gold, these items weren’t thought of as currency, but rather represented the deeds the wearer had performed in service to his lord. (It also determined his value should he be killed and restitution paid to the family.) These are the riches that he was often buried with upon his death, and, I’m assuming, the riches he comes back to haunt should he turn into a draugr. Lords who were greedy of their wergeld, and were stingy with giving it to their loyal retainers, undermined the entire system and would sometimes face being overthrown.

Even though I love my artifacts–the weight of a book in my hand, the liner notes of a CD, the special edition box set of a beloved TV series–do I want to be a draugr in this life? Do I want to be a zombie bedecked with gold?

“If you love something, let it go” is a maxim I’ve heard a lot throughout my life, more often tongue-in-cheek than not. It seems to be the spiritual spark notes version of this longer quote:

If you love a flower, don’t pick it up.
Because if you pick it up it dies and it ceases to be what you love.
So if you love a flower, let it be.
Love is not about possession.
Love is about appreciation.

― Osho

The first phase of my ZW/minimalist purging phase involved a lot of regular objects– clothes, trinkets, books I didn’t care about, cosmetics, and so on. This next phase is going to be me figuring out how to divvy up the artifacts in my life. My movies, my games, my TV shows. Small drawings friends have done for me. My own childhood drawings. Truthfully I don’t have as much as most do, seeing as how I’ve been broke for the majority of my adult years so far, but this is still an opportunity for me to figure out how to move forward. What to digitize, what to outsource to the cloud, what to keep, and what to refuse altogether. (Of course, always considering who will have access to my things once they’ve been given up to the cloud.)

And once again, I’m bumping up against the need to reframe my internal discourse altogether: from one of absolute ownership, to one of sharing and letting go.

Photo courtesy of Apartment Therapy.