The artists’ collaborative Material Exchange, currently made up of Sara Black, Alta Buden, John Preus and David Wolf, has seemingly sidestepped most of the sticky questions about whether their practice is, or is not, art, with such ingenuous simplicity that it’s hard to understand how no one else has figured it out. Focused on the repurposing of waste materials, or “salvage, reuse, reclamation, foundness,” Material Exchange (MX) works to re-imagine the utility of obsolete materials in ways that refigure and reinvigorate its embedded values—those inherent to the characteristics of the material itself, and those pesky surplus values of exchange.
In practice, their work operates as a Venn diagram of external design, internal design and direct exchange. These terms are used by MX to describe projects that are directed at diverse audiences. External design refers to largely pedagogical work, such as collaborative projects at the Illinois Institute of Technology and Harrington College of Design, in which students interested in sustainability were introduced to waste materials and invited to design and rebuild them for either a predefined client’s specific needs or the speculative purposes of innovation. Internal design tends to make more philosophical, conceptual and even playful inquiries into the nature of materials, while direct exchange is exactly that: the facilitation of material exchanges between those with excess or unwanted items and those that need them. This willing division of energies creates a flexibility that allows MX to occupy various sites of reception and expectation without contradiction, tedious defense or institutional legitimization. Therefore, a recent refashioning of salvaged doors into a bus stop for Braddock Active Arts, Pennsylvania, is, ultimately, just the thing: a bus stop, with as much or little value as any given viewer invests in it.
On the other hand, Material Exchange has moved easily within traditional art institutions like the MCA and the Smart Museum, entering and altering their art-related waste streams. Their newest project at ThreeWalls Solo, “The Way Things Drag Their Futures Around,” was inspired by Martin Heidegger’s discussion of a hammer in a carpenter’s workshop in the philosopher’s seminal work “Being and Time.” As a thing in the world, the hammer is understood in terms of its future use, how it points to its own definite and uncertain possibilities—to hammer a nail, to join separate pieces of wood, to make a table. In this exhibition, one large mulberry tree and several smaller branches slated for removal by the city have been transported to the gallery and reassembled horizontally with an additional tree house to resemble a backyard disaster of yore. The questions are manifold, but Material Exchange is centrally concerned about the tree’s entropy and new life: do the dried leaves, the wood, the bark call out for specific uses, or do we bestow its utility, its identity, its futurity? In moments like this, standing beneath and among the reaching branches, gazing into the softly lighted, broken tree house containing a mulberry sapling and the potential of resurrection, Material Exchange seems to have found the perfect aesthetic analog to their reuse work—an experience that captures the cyclical life of things and their indeterminate futures. (Rachel Furnari)
Material Exchange shows at ThreeWalls Solo, 119 North Peoria, through August 2.