For the last six years, Kate Bingaman-Burt has documented her personal consumption. Drawing one purchase each day, she publishes the collections online and in a zine. While teaching design, Kate finds time to give zine workshops and run a design resource center. LAB catches up with this busy maker and her personal army of squirrels.
How did Obsessive Consumption start?
It started in 2002 when I decided to photograph and file all of my purchases for the next two years. I had always been interested in the history of objects and decided to focus on my own objects. The original idea has morphed through the years, but it is still all about making work about personal consumption. I took down my first website that had all of the photo documentation on in in 2004. Pretty sure I am regretting that decision.
Does documenting purchases ever start to feel… well… obsessive? List some of your favorite obsessions.
1) When I eat food I always make sure my portions remain equal throughout the meal. I like for my piles to remain consistent in girth. 2) I always carry a one-inch pin that my husband gave me when we went out for drinks on the night we started to date. It is falling apart and I am trying to figure out what to do about this (seal it in amber? surgically implant it into my body?). It is essential to me during stressful events. And to address the first part of your question: I can’t imagine making work not about personal consumerism. It is such a broad topic, and I have created these rules for myself that are actually pretty freeing. I allow myself to work in any medium that makes sense to the concept, and I really like working that way. I like having a schedule and, again, creating rules for myself help me keep on track with art making. As long as I keep making, I feel fine.
Jim Coudal bought one of your first hand-drawn credit card statements. Have Obsessive Consumption sales helped pay down your credit cards?
I would love for this answer to be that I have drawn my way out of debt, but oh, how that isn’t so. My debt has gone down, some of it due to my artwork, but because this whole process is so cyclical, I end up spending money on my artwork too (travel, supplies, postage etc).
Do we define ourselves by what we buy? And if so, is your chronicle of purchases a self-portrait?
The superficial answer would be yes, but really, we all buy dumb, boring stuff. We are all really alike in that way. I have had many people tell me that my zines reflect what they buy as well… people have a tendency to see themselves in a lot of my purchases and I like that. A lot of my purchases are not that revealing about my personality. I have been making work about my stuff for years, but I have never, ever, ever made or wrote anything that reveals very much about my personality. People can certainly draw conclusions about my personality through looking at my stuff, of course. They usually are right.
Sounds like you’ve set some boundaries about your privacy.
I have been fortunate and have never had any problems with anyone. Knock on wood. Also, it isn’t because I have been super secretive… it is really because consumerism is kind of boring. Well, at least mine is. I try it keep it about the object. Sometimes I creep in, but really people relate to their experiences with a certain item that I have drawn.
I see. So it’s more about the object as an item the average person might purchase. What will you do with your forthcoming Economic Stimulus Payment? Will you be stimulating the economy?
Oh man, what a joke. My economic stimulus payment (and my husband’s too) will be going to pay down a credit card. This is the same credit card that we used to pay our taxes with this year. So…there you go. Sigh.
The ironic recursiveness! Which recent purchases do you feel most / least guilty about?
I bought a pair of black flats from endless.com for 79 bucks. They stayed in the box for a few days and then I only wore them inside in case I decided to send them back. I didn’t send them back, but I totally did not need to buy them.
Oh the burn of consumer guilt. What typeface best describes how you feel this week?
Right now, lots of Gotham Rounded. Okay, I take that back, Lubalin Graph. I have a weakness for a sweet slab serif.
If you could have one of the following:
a) a magic credit card that would lower your APR
every time you did something nice for someone
b) an edible scarf (that grows a few inches every day)
c) the ability to speak to squirrels (and have them do your bidding)
d) an ATM machine in your front hall, stocked every morning by Pee Wee Herman
e) the ability to blow steam out of your nose at will
a) I would choose this one. I would like to think that I do nice things for people a lot (I am a teacher, for crying out loud!) and my credit cards need all the lowering of their APRs that they can get. The idea of an army of squirrels is pretty tempting, however. I can’t believe I am passing up the chance to see Pee Wee Herman everyday. See what happens when you get in debt? You pass up the hypothetical chance of seeing Pee Wee Herman everyday so you can lower your APRs. Totally stupid.
In other news, the market for handmade stuff is a-boomin’.
Yep! I think handmade (and hand drawn type) is just part of a response to the prior years where everything was so glossy and tech and dot com. A lot of the people who work this way aren’t rejecting tech (in fact, we über embrace it), but there is a craving to see the hand in work. The push and pull of the machine vs. handmade is a fight that has happened repeatedly over the course of history. I am just happy to be on the side of the handmade right now because I effing love it. I know that the backlash will happen soon (if it isn’t happening already). Then, I will be screwed.
But by then, I’m sure you’ll just be able to jack into the matrix while your robot minions do your work for you, right?
Maybe I will have my army of squirrels do it.
Of course! Okay. Zines. You teach kids how to make ‘em.
Going to schools and talking about Obsessive Consumption and The Public Design Center and then having a day reserved for making zines is such a great fit for me. I take the Public Design Zine Library with me and share them with the students. I bring a ton of supplies with me, and we just start making pages. It is great to do with with graphic design students especially because a lot of the times they are held to pretty specific requirements with assignments (which is great, by they way…I am not bagging on rules). I give them a day where they can make whatever they want. It freaks some of them out, but the majority love it.
Where do you see zines and self-publishing going?
A few years ago some people were worried that blogs were going to kill zines and I am thinking that right now the opposite is happening. A blog will never replace the tangibility that a zine or a handmade book has. Most of the zines that I see kids making in my workshops are their first zines…so they are just starting to explore the medium. I hope that when kids attend my workshop, they walk away wanting to make a zine again.
You and your husband have started The Public Design Center.
The Public Design Center is a design resource center. We give workshops to anyone who is interested in areas of web and print. The workshops range from screenprinting to CSS to zine-making to how to purchase a domain name. We also have a several libraries (zines, design books, materials) that anyone can access.
And there’s a center within a center, the Center for Vernacular Typography. Kind of like Russian dolls.
I always loved handmade letterforms, but it wasn’t until we moved to Mississippi four years ago that I started taking pictures of type and using the forms in my work. I made a massive switch from mainly photography to mainly drawing in 2005… shortly after we moved here. One of the reasons that this happened was because I was surrounded by so much fantastic vernacular type and I just had to somehow incorporate that in my work.
Anything in the pipeline?
We are moving to Portland, Oregon at the end of this summer. I will be an assistant professor of graphic design at Portland State University and we are moving the Public Design Center with us. We are in the stages of figuring out how the PDC is going to function in Portland. Obsessive Consumption wise: I am pretty sure I want to draw all of clothing that I want to get rid of in my closet right now and then have a yard sale / show where if you buy an article of clothing you get the drawing for free… or vice/versa.
What’s inspired you lately? What excites you in the morning?
Hammering through my to-do list! Getting shit done! Cheddar goldfish crackers in tomato soup! Iced Coffee! Super Black Ink Pens! Objects organized by color! Sharpening pencils! Good Mail! Compressed Air! ¤