The Life Of The Object: An Experimental Workshop And Conference On Production, Consumption, and Creative Reuse In American Culture (Apr 2011, Madison USA)

Trevor Dixon, Still Life:

(This image is pretty fantastic, too.)

The Mid-America American Studies Association (MAASA) Conference at The University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Sponsored by the UW Art History Department, the Material Culture Certificate Program, the Material Culture Focus Group, the Art History Grad Forum, and the Chipstone Foundation.
April 7-11, 2011
Deadline for submission: 15 October 2010

Historians and cultural critics who study objects have long focused on the relationships between production and consumption, but these dynamics deserve reexamination in today’s object-flooded world. At the same time, the concept and aesthetic of reuse is enjoying the spotlight in contemporary fashion and design, but has been employed for many years by architects, artists, and the American public as a strategy for survival as well as a political statement. This interdisciplinary experimental workshop and conference invites questions related to the core themes of production, consumption, and reuse in American history and contemporary life.

This workshop and conference offers an unconventional venue for considering the role of objects in American culture. It will consist of hands-on workshops and experiments with objects while also offering a more traditional scholarly context for the presentation of papers. We believe that our understanding of material culture relies as much upon rigorous scholarly research as the sensorial and tactile engagement with artifacts and cultural landscapes.

The Participatory Element

We will hold an interactive event in which all conference participants explore the shops along State Street in Madison to consider the three main themes of the conference: production, consumption, and reuse. State Street is the area’s most diverse shopping district and it includes stores selling everything from handmade Tibetan garments to The Gap’s clothing, and Wisconsin cheese to Einstein’s Bagels. Participants will be asked to think about themes such as globalization and production, regionalism and material identity, and the commodification of ethnicity. Conference participants will spend an hour or two in groups documenting evidence of these themes with digital cameras and/or video recorders. We will then reconvene as a group, share these collected images, and participate in a panel discussion moderated by scholars in each of the three themed areas.

We will also offer the opportunity for object studies at the Chipstone Decorative Arts Collection in the Milwaukee Art Museum. The chance to closely examine and analyze these pieces of early American material culture will provide a sense of real life engagement with artifacts rarely found at most American Studies Conferences.

Panel Presentations and the Call for Papers

For our panel discussions, we seek papers broadly related to the study of material culture, craft, art, consumerism, design, reuse, industrial design, architecture, and cultural landscapes. Our conference aims to involve academics, independent scholars, graduate students and practicing artists from fields as diverse as American studies, design studies, history, art history, anthropology, geography, sociology, art, English, philosophy, decorative arts studies and cultural studies. We will offer two days of panel papers of twenty minutes in length. Selection of these papers will be based upon originality, scholarly promise, and relevance to the main themes of the conference.

The first series of panels will be dedicated to the act of making. We are open to any topic related to this theme as it applies to American culture. Possible panel themes may include the following:

  • Made In China, Sold In America: The Global Reach of Chinese Material Culture
  • The Obsolescent And The Eternal: Timeless Values of Craft Versus Throwaway Culture
  • Sameness In The Material Culture Of The Americas: Homogeneity in Material Design and Appearance
  • From Production To Consumption: Handcraft and Industrial Production In America in Contemporary and Historical Contexts

The second set of panels will explore issues of consumerism and overconsumption. Possible panel topics may be:

  • Overconsumption On The Couch: A Gluttony For Objects
  • The Fine Line Between Spaces of Laziness and Spaces of Leisure: The Rec Room and The Man Cave
  • Bursting Bubbles in American Housing: The Material Impact of Financial Crises
  • Foodways and Big Folks: Agribusiness And Obesity in American Culture
  • Credit Cards and Virtual Money: Replacing The Tangible in The World of Data and Images

The final series of panels will focus upon reuse, sustainability and recycling within American culture and artistic practice. Possible panel discussions may include:

  • The Future Of Found Objects In American Art and Architectural Practice
  • From Trash To Treasure: The Perceived Historical and Monetary Value of Antiques and Collectibles
  • Eco-Friendly Green Objects and Their Cool Factor: The Growth Of Green Material Culture, Sustainability and Recycling in America
  • In addition to papers, this panel will also invite practicing artists to submit works of art for display or offer a live performance. Artists will be responsible for the safe transportation and display of their artwork.

We look forward to receiving paper proposals and art projects broadly related to the three panel themes discussed above. Please send an electronic abstract of no more than 500 words and a brief biographical sketch of no more than 200 words to: <> by October 15, 2010. [Don’t forget the Media Studies Student Travel Grant!] Please feel free to include digital images of artistic work. We will notify you of your paper’s acceptance by November 1, 2010. MAASA also awards the Katzman-Yetman graduate student paper prize to the best paper submitted to the conference. Participants submit their papers to the prize committee in advance, and the award consists of $250 and consideration by the journal American Studies. Please let us know if you wish to be considered for this award when submitting your paper proposal.

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