chapter  2
The materials of life
Pages 16

Let me begin by describing an experiment I have carried out along with the students in the very first week of the 4 As course. For this experiment, I asked them to gather a selection of objects that they found lying around the ‘things’ on which they had chosen to focus their projects. They arrived with a motley assortment of odds and ends: there were coins, paper clips, drinks cans, cigarette butts, a rubber ball, the feather of a seagull, and much else besides. First we deposited all the stuff they had brought in a heap in the middle of the floor (Figure 2.1). We looked at the heap, from which a spider scuttled out across the carpet. It had arrived as a passenger with some item, but no one knew from which. Or was it actually a part of the item? Picking up each object in turn, we examined it, investigated its form, interrogated the finder on where it was found and why it had caught his or her attention, and attempted to reconstruct the story of how it had fetched up at that particular place. The coins, for example, told of pockets and purses and of countless transpositions from hand to till and back. The paper clips once fastened the documents of a busy official, while the cans – previously filled with liquid – had been held to thirsty lips through which, only moments before, had been inhaled the smoke of smouldering tobacco. From the tooth marks on its surface, it was apparent that the rubber ball, recovered from a sandy beach, had been the plaything of a dog, while the feather had once graced a bird in flight, high in the air. All of these objects, in short, evidenced other lives – human, canine, avian. And yet in becoming objects they had broken off from these lives – like fallen twigs from a tree – and were left lifeless, as so much bric-a-brac stranded on the riverbank. Only the spider escaped.