IN CASE OF FIRE

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Maxime Weiss


Discipline(s): Writer and Art Historian
Bio: Maxime Weiss is a Writer, Art Historian and Curator based in London. She recently completed her MA at University College London.She traffics in research, and burning questions, historical confrontations, and increasingly opinionated prose on postwar art and its documents. And long lists, too.
Project title: Conditional Objects
Project Description: Conditional Objects explores a vibrant category of objects, fire extinguishers included, that take on a strange sort of dualism, standing at the ready to be used, but only in case of. Beyond those cases and not fulfilling those conditions, they take on agency as talismans of protection and comfort. In this essay, Weiss tiptoes between flight of fancy and honest-to-goodness examination of use-value and agency to consider these comfort 'things' in the context of a global pandemic and when they are not performing their useful tasks.

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Conditional Objects 

  I’ve accidentally fashioned a nest of two handknit blankets on my bed. On the coldest nights and during the grandest upsets, the blankets creep up around me in a tight swathe. Their knitted fibres provide comfort in the most literal sense: they’re both a degree of soft and hold extraordinary warming powers. Of course, I know that comfort comes from their certain nostalgic value too. Each was crafted by a family matriarch; the white cloud-like one at the base of my bed was knitted especially for me, stitch by knobbly stitch. Separated by an ocean, the blankets are stand-ins for homely comfort and protection. 

  “[The data] makes it obvious that contact comfort is a variable of overwhelming importance in the development of affectional responses…The security that the infant gains from the presence of the real mother is no greater than the security it gains from a cloth surrogate” (Harlow, 1958)  

  In the last six months of the global pandemic, some strange objects have taken on new roles as mass sources of comfort. By the last week of March, perky rows of Clorox wipes in phalanx on the supermarket shelf became a fantasy. Later in the summer, feeling vulnerable to foreign bodies, I bought a package of pomegranate Dettol wipes on the first day I emerged from self- isolation. They smelt like shit but they came with me everywhere. I stationed them in my bag with the reverence I’d give an amulet. 

Its barely shocking that utilitarian staples like toilet paper, bleach, alcohol-based disinfectant and pantry staples are serving new uses, staving off fears of post-apocalyptic collapse. But remember the same tendencies have surfaced throughout history during extraordinary events like bomb threats and mass fogs. Stockpiling supplies is synonymous with survival.   

 “ … we could never understand fully the need for love no matter how much we might know about the hunger drive”. (Maslow, 1970) Maslow concluded that physiological needs take cognitive priority. Only once these needs are met might motives of love, esteem, and self-actualization take effect. 
 
My scent of faux-pom anti-bac is no longer. In our current state, the threat has evolved slightly, and Sainsbury’s has restocked unscented Dettol . They also restocked their depleted sachets of yeast, bags of flour, and frozen fruit. Maybe returning to a degree of normalcy has taken priority. Nevertheless, for some, each outing remains a battle against the un-inevitable threat of an intangible waft in the air. But we’re not completely without options and a trip to any off-licence or superstore will prove that we have bounty of options for personal protection: ergonomic masks, cartridge masks, shields, beard shields, face shields, shield-masks, balaclavas, etc. It’s those who are unequipped who are, of course, the most vulnerable. Well, my army of masks and Dettol are at the ready.  

It just happens to be patently the case that persons form what are evidently social relations with ‘things’. (Gell, 1998)  

I wear my two favourite masks on rotation. They’re both black, the first is for “warmer weather”—its technical fabric doesn’t wholeheartedly prevent breathing, which I can’t say for my other double-layered, thick cotton number. But I’m in debt to both of my LBMs (little blackmasks) for the hard work they’ve put in over the months, protecting me from overpopulated tube stops and backwards-feeling grocery stores with drunken shoppers. One even served as an accomplice to my brain on a particularly stressful occasion. At Heathrow Airport it helped my mind convince my body to drag itself to Gate 64B for a foreign departure. All the while I was in a tango with my protective mask; two steps into danger with the promise of saintly protection, one step back, acquiescing that my mouth and nose felt the barely gale-force winds of a nearby vent.

Somehow still, I was euchred by its promise. The mask was just as much barrier to viral breath as imaginary armour.

I was paralyzed without it.

“A room devoid of objects, we may agree, is practically uninhabitable, in order to make it ready for any activity, it has to be furnished”. (Ingold, 2010) Ingold likes to quote Gibson, “The furniture of earth, like the furnishings of a room, is what makes it livable”. (Gibson, 1979)    

I painted quite the romantic picture of my nest-shaped blankets earlier. Sure, they seem more of a trivial source of comfort than a mask or piece of PPE. But ask a child what better protection from pillow fights there is than a fortress of blankets. Like the Dettol , which once signified a sparkly shit palace, and now a usable door handle, or the masks, which once belonged in the domains of dentists and doctors, now to ‘clean air everywhere’; the blanket's identity as an object is flexible. It’s the same threads of woven fabric that can be huddled in a nest or protect from the threat of incoming pillows. Only user intention determines if the benevolent weighty object is soft comfort or taut protection.

“Let me propose… a provisional definition of the concept: Agency refers to the socioculturally mediated capacity to act.” (Ahearn, 2001)  

But the fort , the disinfectant , and the mask do not always act, they also prevent. The protective object operates not only by facilitating action, but by being still, by creating a barrier between foreign bodies (human, germ, or particle), and user. The blanket fort stands ready to thwart off weaponized pillows, the disinfectant searches surfaces for infected molecules, the mask perches on a nose waiting to bounce off viral aerosols. In the time that passes in which the object does not fulfill its duty, its condition of protection is suspended. But in these moments, the object plays an equally important role of providing comfort to its user. I don’t always use the Dettol , but I keep the package with me, and my mask isn’t shielding from malevolent aerosols when they aren’t present in the air. Their role, quite simply, is to quietly be the reagent to the doubly displacing reactions of people, things, comfort, and protection.  

“We participate in the thing’ thinging in a worlding world” (Heidegger, 1971)