Can an unwanted, discarded item of consumer kitsch be imbued with new value by the simple act of telling its story? And what if that story was completely fabricated? This is the question that Significant Objects poses. The experimental online fiction project taps authors to write stories about objects found at thrift stores or yard sales. The objects are then sold through eBay auctions, in an experiment to determine which stories increased the market value of objects that initially had none.
Significant Objects is the brainchild of Rob Walker, New York Times Magazine columnist and author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, and Joshua Glenn, a columnist for the Boston Globe and editor of the cultural studies blog hilobrow.com.
Since early 2009 the duo have run the site, calling on authors both prominent (including William Gibson, Julie Klausner and Jonathan Lethem) and obscure to invent the secret history of the discarded products of yesteryear, heightening their status from thrift store detritus to desired art object, or as Walker and Glenn categorize them, "talismans, totems, evidence and fossils." Over the past year and a half, the authors' stories have collected $3992 for charities, as readers taken with particular stories bid for once-worthless items such as heart-shaped candles, napkin holders and commemorative ashtrays.
Now three "volumes" in–with proceeds from volumes two and three donated to 826 National and Girls Write Now, respectively–the Significant Objects project has earned a fair share of notoriety, including a published collection due in 2011. In the process, Significant Objects has demonstrated that the value of objects are tied up with the stories we tell about them. A slightly tongue-in-cheek literary experiment has proven to be a lens through which we can view how driven our consumerism is by the stories that are told about the products we lust for. Those stories aren't the exclusive domain of the marketers and advertisers who sell the products. It may take a noted author to bring romance to an object as prosaic as a Missouri-themed shot-glass, but we can reconsider the source of the stories that compel us to purchase new ephemeral products–and maybe find new value in our old objects with stories of our own.