There has been radio silence on this blog of late because I’ve been immersed in preparing a small exhibition at the Institute of Cultural Inquiry. Evidence of Evidence opened Sunday March 20 and
runs ran until March 30th. It’s the second in a series of 10 speed-curated shows that the ICI is putting on in which curators are given a very short time—10 days, start to finish—to assemble something from the archives. Knowing what a challenge this would be, I chose to work with a partner, the writer Ruth Coppens.
We took on the project because both of us are fascinated with archives, those idiosyncratic collections assembled in honor of memory that so often seem to transmute over time into semi-organized taxonomies of oblivion. Although we started the project with a blank slate, we had a joint belief in the certainty of finding something that would interest both of us. Something that might not seem to be much of anything at first glance, but would reveal itself as evidence for a larger project. We were looking, in effect, for evidence of evidence—the title we ultimately gave the show.
Most of our early finds turned out to be dead ends or, at best, ‘possibles’. Eventually, serendipitously, we stumbled on a hundred-year-old copy of the Ladies’ Home Journal in which was an article entitled “How I Furnished My Entire Flat from Boxes” by one Louise Brigham. This proved to be our Ariadne’s thread.
Brigham was writing about a system she worked out for building entire suites of furniture out of recycled materials—specifically, packing crates. I was intrigued by what seemed an early appearance of an ethos of sustainability in design and wondered why I hadn’t heard of Brigham before, or of Box Furniture, the book she wrote about her system. Or perhaps I had come across her and just forgotten? But when I went to google her, I discovered that very little has been written about her since her heyday, apart from a small handful of recent articles that also claim her as a pioneer of sustainable design (see here and here). She did not even have a Wikipedia page.
So Ruth and I decided to build our exhibition around Louise Brigham: who she was, where she came from, how she fits into early modern design, what happened to her. We dug out the contemporary newspaper articles, we got a copy of her book (it’s also available as a PDF download from several websites, including Google Scholar), and we reconstructed as much of her life as we were able to in a little over a week.
Enormous gaps remain, and Ruth and I are now working on an article that we hope will add something to the picture. Meanwhile, we have written a Wikipedia page for Brigham, and we invite anyone in the Los Angeles area to visit our exhibition at the ICI while it’s up. The exhibition includes “The Digger,” a short text that Ruth wrote, inspired by Brigham’s work with abject materials that were at high risk, by their flimsy nature, of being erased from history.
There is also a forthcoming limited-edition ‘catalog’ for the exhibition. For this series of ICI exhibitions, the catalog is an existing book given a new dustcover and a set of photographic inserts. Under the dustcover is a book that has been important to both Ruth and myself, one that bears an affinity for the subject of our exhibition: Lewis Hyde’s wonderful Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. We chose it because in thinking about Louise Brigham’s work with discarded materials, and her own near-erasure from the historical record, we found ourselves discussing what Hyde calls cultural dirt work, those means by which “order deals with its own exclusions.” The photographs inserted into the book are drawn from work in the show, and themselves comprise a miniature, original artist’s portfolio. I’ll post an update when these catalogs become available—as of this writing, they are still in production.
For both of us, delving into Brigham’s life turned into a close-up look at the messy role that evidence—and its absence—plays in the formation of those cultural myths we like to call history.
Note: I’ve written another brief item on Louise Brigham over at Difference Engines, a techno-feminist blog I contribute to.