Still from “The Flea Market Project” video, 30 min. 2000-2005
"Collector's Night" by Gina Vigna for NYArts Magazine Vol. 10 No. 5-6.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic. I embrace the common." And a little bit of each was on display last Wednesday night at Collector's Night, an evening of "Collecting, Collectors, and Collections." From a mint-condition 1969 Orange Sting Ray Schwinn to a compilation of scrap paper used to test pens at stationary stores, these collections (and their owners) are an inspired bunch.
Collector's Night was sponsored by the City Reliquary Organization of Williamsburg, Brooklyn and emceed by the Reliquary president, Dave Herman. The night got underway with a slide show from expert collector, Richard Roth. Roth led the audience through several famous collections, and introduced us to a few of his own, including his powerful and disturbing series of pictures depicting grief in everyday people. The passion for his work was obvious as he claimed that collecting is the indigenous art of our time and that Noah was the first collector, since "he achieved the complete set."
West Virginian arts collective, The Poo Syndicate, premiered their outrageous film, The Flea Market Project. Filmed at several different flea markets in Southern Ohio and West Virginia, the brave Poo members encountered some of the strangest and yet oddly endearing people imaginable. With their help, we met Retired Irene, who travels throughout the country selling odds and ends while scaring off convicts and cooking up home remedies for poison ivy. We also met a man who claims to have invented the space blanket, until of course NASA ripped him off. Not to be outdone was a man who gleefully told our intrepid narrators about the torture chamber he discovered while cleaning out someone's attic.
The most moving part of the night was a presentation by StoryCorps, an oral history project currently based in Grand Central Station. StoryCorps invites people to conduct 40 minute interviews with anyone they wish. The interviews are recorded and installed at the American Folk Life Center in the Library of Congress. The project has been running since Fall of 2003 and so far has collected about 2000 stories. They plan to continue for another nine years and hopefully amass a total of 250,000 stories. We listened to a few brief excerpts from the collection. Some were funny, like the elderly woman who tells of her first encounter with a magazine of "spicy stories". Even more powerful were the sadder stories, like the man who recounts the moment he heard his father had died. In the midst of his account, he pulled out his mother's engagement ring and proposed to his girlfriend, who was conducting the interview. We could barely hear her "yes" as she sobbed into the microphone. It was chilling to hear such raw emotion from a stranger, someone whose face we can't see and will probably never meet. Surely these stories are worth collecting.
But everything is worth collecting to someone out there. And that brings us to the real stars of the night's event, the collections themselves. From pez to bobblehead dolls, from 8 tracks to eyeballs (plastic ones, of course!), a multitude of treasures were crammed onto these humble folding tables.
Christina collects "Dead Umbrellas," as the pithy sign on her table announced. She has over 40 crushed, mangled, and ultimately discarded black umbrellas, all found while walking through Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Perhaps someday she'll extend her collection to include finds in other neighborhoods, but for now, she says she's "not ready to ride the subway while carrying these things!" Fabio collects 8-track cassettes, and laments that the table only has room for a small part of his collection. When I ask him which one is his favorite, he quickly asks me to clarify if I mean favorite album, or favorite cover art. He proudly showed me some of his rarer pieces, like The Heliocentric World of Sun Ra and the soundtrack to the Story of O. At another table featuring cicada figurines, I overheard the collector telling a story about a piece of graffiti found in the London Underground. According to him, some people thought it was a moth, but "there's no way that's a moth. Just look at the head. Everything about that says it's a cicada. The picture looked like a moth to me, but then, he would know!
During a panel discussion, several experts discussed exactly why people choose to become collectors. Some people look for items because they represent their childhood or past memories. Others collect things because they are rare and hold monetary value. Still others want to make a statement or convey an emotion to others. When I asked Elijah, the youngest collector present Wednesday night, why he collects Yu-Gi-Oh cards, he gave me a strange look and said, "I just like them!"