appropriations - process
In July 2019 and July 2020, two workshops were organized in Kariobangi North and Ngomongo Village, low-income neigbourhoods in Nairobi, Kenya. Participants included artists, artisans and humanities scholars.
Starting from the creative potential of the concept of 'orodha' (see below) the workshops focused on appropriating standardized devices to develop new technological objects and ideas that connect to personal, local and regional practices, memories and myths, Some of the questions that informed the process were: What kind of technologies would reflect local and regional cultures and advocate their interests? What would everyday technologies be like if they are no longer developed to primarily serve the interests of an ever-growing globalised market economy? If African countries were to export technologies to colonize the rest of the world, what should these be like?
The workshops were organized by Joan Otieno and Greenman Muleh Mbillo. In 2019, Dani Ploeger also took part.
The objects in the images to the right were made by the following workshop participants: Objects by Onyango Geke, Greenman Muleh Mbillo, Joe K’ochola, Wanjiku Wa Mwangi, Charles Otieno, Joan Otieno and Dani Ploeger.
Orodha: The Ultimate Fetish Commodity and its Reversal
Dani Ploeger, 2020
The Swahili word orodha can be translated as ‘junk,’ or ‘waste.’ However, in Kenya, it is mostly used to designate a particular domain within the trade in second hand products. Orodha items have usually been intercepted at some point on the way from their existence as everyday use-objects to a final state as refuse on the garbage dump. They are often broken or incomplete and in the case of electronic devices, the sales person as a rule won’t be able to tell you whether something works or not. The term orodha is used to designate these objects, but also their traders and the places where the business takes place.
On the orodha market, one can find almost any imaginable everyday object, ranging from television remote controls and kitchen devices to toys and plumbing articles. For many things the use-possibilities are clear. An old remote can serve as a replacement, a broken kitchen blender can be harvested for spare parts, and plastic dolls can be readily used by kids to play with, even if some limbs are missing. However, there are also orodha items for which the possible use-value is not that straightforward. The remains of a slide projector, which I find in Kariobangi North, a suburb of Nairobi, are an example of this. It can no longer be restored to its original state, because too many parts are missing. Besides, there are no slides on offer in the stall where it is sold and neither the salesman nor any bystanders are aware of anybody who might still have some.
Of the device’s electrical components only the cooling fan and the mains cable remain. The fan still works and its metal blades make it look like a robust component for today’s standards. However, it can hardly be used as a spare part in contemporary electronic devices. Their fans usually operate at 12 Volts, while the one in the orodha projector is powered with 220-240 Volts, straight from the power grid; the transformer is integrated in the motor. This also means that the object is unsuitable as a kids’ toy: they’d likely electrocute themselves. When queried, the salesman tells me that “it’s a projector,” but when I ask whether he thinks it can be repaired he just laughs at me. He then takes a projector lens from his pocket, which he puts into the hole in front of the object. It doesn’t really fit and clearly belongs to another device, but that doesn’t seem to bother him.
In the market places I frequent in the Global North, this object would most probably have been discarded long time ago. With no apparent remaining possibilities for use, it would be ejected into the realm of what anthropologist Mary Douglas calls ‘the heaps of common rubbish,’ (Douglas, 1966) the final destination of discarded use-objects where they lose their individual identities and become part of a non-descript mass of materiality. Instead, as orodha, the object seems to have a liminal identity that hovers somewhere in between this state of common rubbish and a commodity that has a designated place in market exchange. While there seems to be little – if any – possibility that a use-value will be identified by either seller or potential buyer, the object is still put on display as a commodity-for-sale in a prominent place in front of the stall. Moreover, although restoration is acknowledged by the seller to be impossible, the original identity of the object as a slide projector is maintained by providing potential buyers with a projection lens, albeit not fitting.
Looking at it from this perspective, the object becomes somewhat mysterious. How are we to understand this apparently useless thing’s status as a commodity that is traded on a market? The Oxford Dictionary of English defines a commodity as something “that can be bought and sold,” but also as a “useful or valuable thing” (Oxford Dictionary of English, 2010). The former does apply, but the usefulness of the object remains unclear. Hence, if we are to consider it as ‘valuable’ this would most likely only be in terms of what Karl Marx (1974 ) calls ‘exchange-value,’ the value in market trade exchange, usually expressed in money. There doesn’t seem to be any ‘use-value,’ in Marx’ terms. As such, we could say that it’s the commodity fetish object par excellence. For Marx, ‘commodity fetishism’ is a perception of the relations of production and trade exclusively in terms of monetary exchange, instead of a social process in which people’s interactions are central. Thus, commodity fetishism promotes a process of alienation where social interaction loses relevance in our interaction with things. In case of the orodha technology we are considering here, not only the realm of production, but even the social potential of practical use seems to be excluded from its perceived value on the market.
But is this really all there is to it? The first objection to this reductive interpretation would be that, due to its apparent lack of use-value, the process of trading this object is actually highly focused on the social interaction between seller and buyer. Since the seller seems to have little idea of what the object might be used for, their estimation of an appropriate price appears to be almost entirely based on their judgment of the potential buyer through their interaction with them. What does their behaviour disclose about the value they might attach to this object? What does the way they dress – or the color of their skin – suggest about how much they would be able and willing to pay? The commodity itself appears to move to the background in this process, so rather than becoming a trope of alienation it actually acts as a catalyst for social interaction.
It may be more fruitful to take an altogether different viewpoint though. Instead of looking at this object as ‘lacking’ use-value and therefore designate it as a merely symbolic – and potentially alienating – entity, we may also look at the apparent absence of use-value as a material space of opportunities. The object is still connected to its original purpose and the allure of the paradigm of consumer technology it originates from. This is emphasized by the lens that is provided with it. It doesn’t fit and there is no hope for restoring the object to a working projector, so – as mentioned above – the role of the lens should probably be understood primarily as an act to frame the object in terms of its origin as a consumer technology. As such, the new owner becomes part of the world of high-tech consumerism. However, this seemingly symbolic process has a material dimension. The buyer does not not merely become a consumer of a pre-manufactured technology. The trading process implies that they need to do something with this thing, but what exactly, remains unspecified.
The object becomes an invitation to embrace technological remains and indulge in their – at first sight – apparent uselessness. Stripped of any possibility to regain functionality in terms of its original identity as a typical Euro-American consumer technology – a domestic slide projector – the object becomes a material stimulus to imagine and create a technology that goes beyond the commonplace logic of everyday techno-consumerism. Instead of responding to a set of ingrined affordances of a readily functioning device, the most apparent way to engage with this object is through experimentation and play. What could we make with it and what could it do? What could everyday technology become, once it drifts off the path of self-replicating consumerism?
Douglas, M., 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge and Keegan Paul.
Marx, K., 1974 . Capital (Volume I). London: Lawrence and Wishart
Oxford Dictionary of English, 3rd ed. 2010. s.v. Commodity.
Joan Otieno explains the concept of 'orodha,' July 2019