An exchange platform for “trash”: Stories from the Object Ethnography Project

Editors’ note: In this final post of our Ethnographies of Objects edition, we talk to Max Liboiron, Founding Member & Project Leader of the Object Ethnography Project (OEP). The OEP is a project to facilitate the donation of objects among strangers. You can participate in the exchange by telling a story of what attracted you to the object and what you’ll will do with it, and then anyone else can trade an object for a new story. Here, Max shares some of the site’s most interesting stories – some strange, some wonderful and some just plain heartbreaking. Circulating objects in this way shows us how objects can be performative: their meanings arise through a performance with the object in particular contexts. The material boundaries of the object are important to understand in order to imagine their possible futures, but perhaps more important are the spaces they take up in peoples’ lives – in homes, within memory, as gifts and symbolic exchanges. We can’t wait to be a part of an OEP exchange and we’re sure you will too after you read this…

EM: What was the inspiration for the project? 

Originally, the Object Ethnography Project (OEP) was going to be an exchange platform for trash. NYU’s Lucrece Project was sponsoring interdisciplinary methodology projects, and I put out a call for people to create a cultural laboratory looking at waste and value. The original plan was basically an extension of my art practice: I create large-scale miniature dioramas made of trash, and people can interact with the art according to one or two rules of exchange. I use their behaviours to map spontaneous, usually non-capitalist economies.

But the OEP evolved beyond that through a collaboration with Marisa Solomon, an anthropologist, and Vincent Lai, a member of the Fixers Collective. We came together because we were all keen on waste, but we opened up the project so all sorts of objects could be part of an investigation about how terms of value are manifested via circulation and the varied relationships between people and things.

EM: What’s the most interesting object that you’ve seen on the site?

I’m not particularly interested in the objects themselves, but the story-object-story triptych. One of the rich exchanges we had was with Bathtub Suicide. The donor was sure no one would take such a violent and disturbing image, but when we had an in-person exchange event, a man saw the photo from the hallway. He wasn’t part of the event, but the photo drew him into the room. He asked how he could possibly come to own the image, and was told that all he had to do was tell a story about it. So he did. The donor was there, and was so excited that she had her picture taken with the man and the photograph. It’s one of the few cases were there was an overt social connection made between the donor and exchanger.


This box of butterflies was exchanged by someone who was inextricably drawn to the box and felt haunted by it until they realized that it reminded them of their son. Read the stories and see how the exchanger repurposes the objects into a beautiful work of art at the OEP

I’m also interested in the Little White Satin Pillow and why it is not part of a triptych. It was one of our first objects, but I hypothesize that it’s story is so poignant and sad (both in terms of content and how it’s told), that it leaves little room for exchange. It’s like the donor’s story has colonized the object completely, leaving little room for an exchange story. Something similar has happened with Box of Butterflies — the donor’s story is basically eclipsed by the exchange story. Now, whenever I see the box I think of the exchange story of the dead little boy and his butterfly-soul racing his mother to grandma’s, but not the custodian selling butterflies on ebay. The stories are not equal in the exchange, and these cases make that obvious.

Finally, I’m interested in the kind of exchange that might happen with the Road Rubber. It’s one of the only pieces of what might normally be called “trash” in the project, and since waste is thought to be worthless, I feel it serves as a ground zero for looking at how narratives can contextualize an object into a realm of value. I’m still waiting on that one.

EM: What do you think it takes to be a good object ethnographer?

I’m not an object ethnographer myself. I’ve co-created a platform for others to be object ethnographers. The point of the OEP is to create raw data via documented stories, objects, exchanges, and public comments so scholars can look into valuation, memory, sociality, and material culture through an online narrative economy. To use the language of Actor Network Theory, we’ve provided the nodes, and it’s up to others to analyze and describe the nature of the links between them. I think a good object ethnographer would consider the outliers and unusual exchanges–and unexchanged objects–as well as the more common patterns that seem to emerge from the bulk of the cases.

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