Insignificants was an experimental exhibition series curated by Tim Flohr Sørensen as an exploration of the aesthetic and epistemic potentials of insignificant and incidental objects. The exhibition series was a part of The Hub for Speculative Fabulations upon Incidental Observations. The first exhibition was launched in June 2019, and a new exhibition was mounted each month (except July 2019) until June 2020.
The format of the exhibition series was deliberately neglectable. In an attempt to permit insignificant objects to remain precisely insignificant, the exhibitions were conceptually and proportionally limited to a small glass case. In this glass case, selected objects were exhibited, all of which were dislodged from culture-historical relations, or which were not decodable through retrospective causalities. Precisely where the objects came from, or how they ended up where they were found, is unknown.
The exhibited objects and the exhibitions had to obey certain requirements:
1) The object must not in itself have any culture-historical, artistic, economic, informative or sentimental value, nor retrospective narrative power
2) The object must have been procured by chance
3) The object must not belong to the past; it has to exist here and now
4) The object must not explicitly resist being exhibited
5) At the time of the exhibition, the object must not be larger than its exhibition case
For each of the exhibitions, I commited to these activities:
– To set up a minimal exhibition, reusing the same glass case, measuring 15 x 24 cm.
– To produce at bookmark with a speculative formulation printed on it.
– To produce a poster, announcing the exhibition.
– To offer a short introduction to the exhibition at the exhibition launch.
Motivations and inspirations
The purpose of the exhibition series was to explore how insignificance comes into being and whether it can be sustained. Frequently, insignificance is explained as the consequence of something losing its significance, of it being ignored or disregarded, being forgotten or overshadowed by more important things. At other times, insignificance is attributed to the failure of things to step into character and to redeem their potential, so that they remain anonymous and impotent. Hence, insignificance is regarded either as caused by the object losing its meaningfulness, or by its failure to deliver its potential, or by withering away in comparison with something else. In these perspectives, insignificance, meaninglessness, deficiency of value are all created by circumstance and relations: nothing is categorically insignificant. The exhibition series challenged that idea by asking whether it is possible to be categorically insignificant. What does it mean to be fundamentally insignificant? What is the raison d’être of an insignificant object—without provenance, context, function, purpose or direction? And is it possible for an object to maintain its insignificance, when we direct our attention towards it, stage it and point it out?
In many aspects of life, whether personal, civil, academic or political, we are very quick to distinguish the significant from the insignificant. This is of course a very helpful capability when making priorities and deciding how and where to focus one’s attention. Yet, typically, it also means that whatever is deemed insignificant passes into oblivion, is relegated to a position not only beyond caring and concern, but even as far as a form of non-existence. The Insignificants initiative explored whether there may be something to be learning from the insignificant – without knowing in advance what this epistemic potential might be, and accepting that there may be nothing to be learned at all.
So far, the initiative has suggested that even though insignificant things might be incidental, trifling, ephemeral and of limited scale, such objects can, nevertheless, generate questions, wonder and speculation. Since the objects are neglectable, lacking provenance, context and consequence, these speculations do not necessarily have a strong explanatory power. Accordingly, speculation must go in other directions: what to do with the object? What does the object want? Where is it heading? How do we get in touch with the object? And perhaps most importantly: what epistemic detours might insignificants engender?
The speculative methodology circumscribing the exhibitions draws on researchers such as Sigmund Freud and Donna Haraway, amongst others. Freud formulates a passage that is explicitly ‘far-fetched’, and which he frames as ‘speculative’ (Freud 1961: 24). His intention is ‘to follow out an idea consistently, out of curiosity to see where it will lead’ (ibid). Haraway coins the concept ‘speculative fabulation’, which she uses to ’stay with the trouble’. According to Haraway, speculation can weave new possibilities without determining them; without them leading to one well-defined destination. Speculation, for Haraway, is open as well as rugged, both imaginative and factual, and speculation does not discriminate between the disappeared, the present and that which has yet to redeem itself (Haraway 2016: 31).
Inspired by such notions, Insignificants were built around the idea that speculation necessarily must be imaginative and can depart from anything. Anything, or, more specifically, the utterly self-effacing; what Georges Perec refers to as the ‘infra-ordinary’: “what happens every day and recurs everyday: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual” (Perec 1997: 206). I am inspired by Perec to pursue ‘the rest’: “that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens” (Perec 2010: 3). The aim is not to lead to an objective answer as to where the objects came from or what they mean. As Kathleen Stewart contends, “The poesis of the ordinary draws attention and becomes habitual because things don’t just add up. Something throws itself together and then floats past or sticks for some reason. Some such things have meaning per se; most have force in some other form” (Stewart 2008: 74). In this light, culture-historical, psychoanalytical and semiotic origins and meaning do not determine insignificants; otherwise, insignificant objects would not be insignificant. Hence, the aim of the exhibitions—to the extent that they have an ‘aim’—was to set the scene for wondering how we relate to incidental and insignificant objects in a world, where sense of purpose, relevance, results, progress, impact and value have become the undisputed, exclusive raison d’être of things.
Freud, S. 1961. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVIII, pp. 191-209. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis. Originally 1920.
Haraway, D. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.
Perec, G. 1997. Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Originally 1974.
—. 2010. An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. Cambridge, MA: Wakefield Press. Originally 1975.
Stewart, K. 2008. Weak Theory in an Unfinished World. Journal of Folklore Research, 45(1): 71-82.
Some of the exhibited objects were tediously trivial and banal, others tediously incomprehensible and obscure. In rare cases, the objects just kept on giving. In combination with the limited scale of the exhibitions, there was not be much to see, and visitors were warned that they should not expect to take away an awful lot upon visiting the exhibitions. The aim was to allow insignificant objects to remain insignificant. Whether that was possible was – and still is – the question at the heart of Insignificants.
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