Interviewing the Obsessives
Print: What it was like chronicling your week and then executing the results?
Kate Bingaman: I used to document all of my purchases, by taking a photo and keeping the receipt. I did this for 28 months. I stopped in April of 2004 and it felt awkward for awhile not keeping track of my receipts, but because my assignment for this project was to draw my receipts, I fell right back into 2003. It was easy for me to keep track of everything and I had fun doing it again. I would draw my receipts every night before I would go to bed.
I was pretty obsessive. I think the minute and mundane information is the most interesting anyway, so if the receipt had a barcode on it, I would draw it. If the receipt had a tear, I would draw that as well. I like that my drawings can never be mistaken for being traced or machine generated. Ha! Nicholas Felton: I began documenting my week equipped with the stopwatch on my mobile phone, a digital cooking scale, a set of daily survey sheets I made for the assignment, and the notepad application on my phone. I very quickly abandoned my survey sheets, choosing to make notes on my phone and transfering them to the digital survey form every morning.
As with my annual report, the underlying motivator is a deep curiosity. I REALLY want to know how much electricity I use in a week, how much music I listen too, and how much I drink. To that end, the more accurate my recordings are, the more satisfied I am. The figures that are most important to me are the ones which I know to be absolute. I can say with confidence that I know how much I ate and drank, whereas the range of my electricity use contains far more unknowns and moments of shared consumption.
Ultimately, I found the experience pretty difficult. Unlike my annual report, the data collection for this assignment was really intrusive and curtailed the spontaneity of my week. For example, each time I went to dinner I brought along the scale to weigh my plate before and after eating. I had to make sure that my water was not filled before I had a chance to measure how much I had consumed. At home I had to consider each time I turned on a light or ran the faucet, because I was timing these items and it has taken at least a week to stop counting seconds while washing my hands. Ellie Harrison: There was not a lot of time to prepare as we were each recording data in our own little corners of the world over the same time period, which began on Easter Sunday. I was in London at the time, visiting my dad and was pretty badly prepared for what was about to commence. I had no camera with me, so I had to borrow his.
More importantly I was still baffled as to which aspect of ‘consumption’ I was going to document. There was not much point in simply documenting my purchases, as I don’t really buy that much in a week. I could document everything that I ate, which would be like reliving my Eat 22 project, for which I photographed everything I ate for a year, but what about the things that I drank? Surely that was also consumption. It was as though I’d opened a giant can of worms, I became aware that I was consuming in small amounts nearly all the time. Every time I switched on a light or used my laptop I was consuming electricity, every time I went to the toilet I was consuming water and toilet paper, then there was the oil for transport, water for showers, electricity for phone calls, soap, shampoo, medication, television, washing up, vacuuming! Everything required me to consume some small aspect of the earth’s resources…But how on earth was I going to document all of this?
All the equipment I had was a camera, a notebook and a watch. I began manically snapping and scribbling down everything. On the first day I remember sitting down to lunch with my dad and wiping my mouth on a napkin. Then suddenly I realised that this napkin was just going to go straight into the bin after the meal—I’d consumed it!
Midway through Tuesday, I realised I had to rationalise what I was collecting in someway. I had the photographs of all food, drink, cosmetics, stationary and purchases etc, but I also had all the other data, the notes recording the less tangible stuff—the duration for which I used lights or the number of gallons of water I used when I flushed the toilet or washed my hands. I started processing all this information into a giant color-coded spreadsheet.
I also had to think about the format for the commission, the double page spread, what would look most visually interesting on the pages of the magazine. So I decided to use the photos that I had been collecting. There were 180 by the end of the week, and they gave a chronological overview of my weekly consumption. It was a shame in some respects that I was not able to visualise all the data I’d collected. That beautiful color-coded spreadsheet will probably never now see the light of day, but the fact that it exists with those 345 entries detailing every single last minute spent in front of the TV or every single sheet of toilet paper flushed away, is perhaps testament to the sheer amount we as a species consume in a week, most of the time without a second thought. John D. Freyer: In the week before we started documenting, I decided to define my week’s consumption as only things that I would purchase over the week, as opposed to everything that I consumed out of my house, i.e., existing inventory. I set up a white seamless background in my studio and planned to photograph everything I purchased/consumed on the seamless background.
On Sunday, I went out for bread to our Food Co-op and then to our local supermarket. As I walked in my studio with my hands full of bags, I set them down on the seamless and set up my camera. I made a series of test exposures of the bags on the table and then proceeded to photograph every individual object in the bags. My plan was to do a layout using all of the object photographs.
After reviewing the first images, I was drawn to the first test exposures of the bags on the table. I liked the way the plastic bags revealed their contents. Paper or Plastic? Everything comes in a bag, at the supermarket, the thriftstore, the auction house, and the bagel shop.
Have you gotten any criticism or bafflement from friends, family, colleagues, loved ones about the degree of meticulousness involved?
EH: Oooh yes plenty. My boyfriend’s been grumbling since it all began, especially seeing he got roped into taking so many of the photos for projects such as Eat 22. My dad had a grumble just last week, when he realised that I was about to steal his digital camera to take pictures for the PRINT commission!
I think generally, people have a little bit of admiration for my persistence and my dedication. When they realise that I’ve successfully documented an action over a long period of time, such as a year, they can’t help but take back some of those nasty words!
JF: For the rest of the week, I continued to photograph every individual object as I brought them in, but I also photographed the bags. My wife and 2-year-old daughter thought I was crazy when I arrived home with a hot pizza and walked by them in the kitchen and down the stairs to photograph the pizza in my studio in the basement. It was a little less hot when we finally ate it.
When and why did you start collecting visual experiences this way, and organizing them into a website or catalogue?
KB: I started doing work primarily focusing on personal consumerism in 2002 and have been doing it full time since. My website went live in 2003, my credit card statement drawings started in 2004 and my daily purchase drawings started in 2006.
I have always been interested in documenting mundane and glossy consumer culture, but I really dedicated myself to it while I was in in graduate school. I haven’t gotten sick of my credit card drawings yet, which I suppose is a good thing because I have many more to do! (I am drawing every month until they are paid off.) I am also pretty happy with the way Obsessive Consumption works on many levels. A 13-year-old girl who loves to shop can find something she is interested in with my work and so can an anti-consumerist activist. I like that I can have a conversation with both. NF: I am naturally a listmaker and while I don’t keep great track of my finances, I tend to keep records of other things quite naturally. This is mirrored by an economy that is constantly tracking and accumulating statistics on us. Some of these records are open, and some are not—I’m interested in both, as well as some things that are only interesting to me. The first few years of compiling annual reports were entirely improvised from records or notes I made throughout the year without any clear purpose. For the 2006 and 2007 reports, I am keeping detailed daily records to track some of the more interesting statistics that not even my credit card knows about.
When I began making my reports, I really believed that they would only be interesting to people who knew me. Yet once word spread about the project, I was amazed at how many strangers were transfixed by the idea. It’s still remarkable for me. Because of this public enthusiasm, I produced my 2006 Annual Report as an edition of 1000 printed pieces, which I wound up sending to strangers in 26 different countries. Of course it takes all types, and I’ve frequently witnessed a progression of confusion, comprehension, and terror from new acquaintances I have introduced to the report … and I think my father remains stuck in the first state.
EH: I first began this sort of work in 2000, while I was still at art college. We went on a trip to New York, and I decided that I would document everything I ate while I was there. More than that, I would also challenge myself to eat as much as possible over the course of those four days. I ate on 34 separate occasions. The project was called Greed.
In 2001, a year after Greed, the idea occurred to me to try to document everything I ate for a year. I began on my 22nd birthday and proceeded to photograph and record data about every single meal and snack I had. I’m not sure whether Eat 22 could be considered a crowning moment, but it was certainly what I would call a seminal work. For the next four-and-a-half years I dedicated my entire practice to the collection, manipulation, and representation of data I collected about my everyday routine. My crowning achievement could possibly be that final project, the most extreme, the one that tipped me over the edge and forced me to stop. For four weeks last summer, I decided to attempt to record everything I did, 24 hours a day. The plan was to be able to analyze just how much time I spent each week performing different activities. I transformed the resulting data into a series of 28 colour-coded timelines, which depict exactly what I was doing at any moment during that time.
Do you find the evidence of a week in the life comforting, anxious-making, satisfying, reassuring, aesthetically stimulating, or something else?
KB: Since I have been doing it for so long, I find it pretty reassuring. It keeps me from being bored with day-to-day life, I suppose. The act of documenting and then making something new from the collected documentation and then sharing it with people is something that I really enjoy and hope to continue to do. NF: I found the results of my week for the magazine fairly reassuring. My consumption of utilities turned out to be pretty low on a national scale, although I haven’t compared it to the average New Yorker. While it was a heavier drinking week than average, I was taken aback a little by what that total came to. Otherwise it was a fun, fairly-typical week, and I’m glad I could share it with PRINT. EH: I definitely found the evidence of a week’s consumption quite disturbing. Especially when you realise how many people around the world are also consuming this much or more. It makes me terrified that this sort of life is just not sustainable. I really do think that everyone should be made to take account of what they use, and need to use, instead of blindly consuming more and more. If we want to prevent climate change, then everyone needs to be much more aware of their consumption and attempt to cut it down. With other projects, I used to think that documenting my life was quite reassuring, sort of like keeping a diary, the fleeting moments would be preserved for ever. Similar to the way Mass Observation did in the UK in the ’30s, I hope that my data will preserve the everyday things that are often overlooked, and to make those into history.
JF: In the end I my collected receipts for a week of purchases totaled $773.76, which didn’t include my mortgage payment, daycare, phone bill, etc. I also didn’t do any major shopping runs. During my All My Life for Sale project, my total sales were around $6,000. I can’t imagine spending $800 in a week back then.
After reviewing the hundreds of individual photographs that I took in the process of documenting my consumption, I kept coming back to the bag photographs. They contained nearly all of what I consumed during the week and really talked about the way I/we consume stuff in such volume that we need giant plastic bags to carry it with us. Plastic bags are everywhere in every store, in the landfill, in the trees, even in the oceans. According to Vincent Cobb, founder of reuseablebags.com, over 500 billion plastic bags are used each year worldwide. The irony of my process is that of the hundreds of photographs that I took to obsessively document my every purchase, I only used these 8 bag photographs. What am I going to do with a nicely lit silhouetted pictures of my bundle of asparagus, my package of tater tots, or my newly acquired Don Ho commemorative glasses?