The Strange, Mundane and Extraordinary Wonders of Classification

By | September 30, 2014
“Cats and Watermelons,” by Gabriel Orozco. Photo from PBS

“First thoughts about classification inevitably turn to the simultaneously mundane and extraordinary ambition to capture the universe of all that there is and has been” – Roy Boyne
Walking around a new grocery store is always a small adventure for me. Each experience provides an opportunity to explore the community and its eating habits. Aisles of food and other oddities are carefully laid out in endless configurations that both reflect and shape the needs of distinct clientele. What does it mean, for example, that in some stores pinto beans are ubiquitous and in others tucked away in “international aisles?” Why are eggs sometimes grouped with other proteins and sometime in dairy? Why is tofu ever in whatever section it’s in?
This week’s reading on Ordering Media’s “Innumerable Species” encouraged me to think about how classification affects us in ways that are both unthinkably “mundane” and at the same time unbelievably ambitious. That any grocery store must attempt to contain and organize in one (sometimes small) space the universe of food which we deem acceptable to consume, is a remarkable feat. In his talk “Everything is Miscellaneous,” David Weinberger states, “How we organize the world is a deep issue and we’re just never going to agree on it.” This is definitely true, however when one enters a grocery store, for just a moment there is a sense that everything is in its place.  Each item methodically organized and arranged along rows of shelves, conveying both calm and order.
As Levi Strauss notes, “Any classification is superior to chaos,” and in the extremely quotidian exercise of grocery shopping there is something comforting in knowing that every item has been systematically accounted for in different yet familiar ways. Produce, dairy, meat, frozen foods – we can rely on these categories being present in some form in almost every grocery store in the U.S. Perhaps there is some kind of  “deeper psychic pull” biasing me towards “simplistic hierarchical information systems,” as Alex Wright describes in his book, Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages.
Still, that these basic food classifications and clusters have remained largely unchanged across generations and geographies is revealing. In an attempt to combat the depiction of Detroit as one large food desert, photographer Noah Stephens documents people in their local grocery store. The results show many unique individuals with nearly identical fruits – apples bananas, and oranges it seems, have colonized almost every produce aisle. One can only wonder how our discourse around health and nutrition, not too mention commercial farming, have given rise to such a spectacularly homogenous understanding and collection of fruit items.
Many companies, such as Amazon Fresh, Plated and Foodily, are attempting to digitize the grocery shopping experience in radical new ways. Alex Wright notes, “In an era of networked systems, rigid hierarchies are becoming less practical than fluid systems able to adapt to the needs of emergent communities. The industrial virtues of mass appeal are ceding ground to the digital virtues of flexibility and reconfigurability.” Newcomers have recognized the need to change not just the ways people find but also discover foods of interest. By using special suggestion algorithms, tapping into friend’s social feeds, or delivering customized menus with ready-to-cook meals these businesses may subvert the traditional spatial classification systems we’ve become so accustomed to with brick and mortar grocery stores. This shift highlights that like everything else, food too may just become another type of metadata with innumerable descriptors (e.g. popularity, crunchiness, vitamin A-rich, country of origin, GMO-free, etc.) letting us sort, sift, and filter our food options in ways never before imaginable.
While there can be traces of the extraordinary in even the most mundane of classification systems, so too can there be traces of the mundane in the extraordinary.  In his “Sandstars” piece at the Asterisms exhibition at MOMA in 2012 artist Gabriel Orozco collected debris from a protected marine reserve/industrial wasteland in Mexico where whales go to both breed and later return to die. With over 12,000 objects collected from the shores, Orozco arranged these pieces using a variety of schemas including color, shape, size and substance. The resulting constellation and visual coherence of these objects is both beautiful and startling.

The finds are organized into sections by type. There are pieces of weathered wood, from small knots to an industrial-scale beam; dozens of glass bottles of different shapes, sizes and colors; cracked and faded foam buoys; a big rusty mooring buoy encrusted by barnacles; construction worker hard hats; tennis balls; light bulbs, congealed toilet paper rolls and much more” Ken Johnson, Swimming to Shore, New York Times

This dazzling arrangement conveys similar feelings to what Georges Perec describes in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces. He states, “There is something at once uplifting and terrifying about the idea that nothing in the world is so unique that it can’t be entered on a list,” or in this case organized and arranged on a gallery floor. That we as humans can not just gather but also make sense of so many disparate forces is empowering and of course a bit overwhelming. Thus, these seemingly incongruent and banal items remind of us that even amidst the chaotic, random and even harsh nature of existence, we have the uncanny ability to insert order.
In using everyday objects, Orozco’s work also calls into question the sociological and associative classification structures we use when engaging art works. Installations featuring an empty shoebox or used yogurt caps provoke a mix of reactions. When on display at Tate the shoe box was kicked, used as a trash bin and at other times mistaken for trash altogether.  From the incredulous to the inspired, museum patrons must wrestle with personal conceptions of art. As Roy Boyne explains, “The ‘objective world’ is understood from within a particular framework of classifications.” So while art aficionados could confer meaning on this work and even draw associations to other contemporary artists like Duchamp because of existing frameworks, to others it was only recognizable as art because of its placement within the museum walls. Still, to some patrons, it was unmistakably just a shoebox.
Other works of Orozco’s are more playful, feeling at times like the physical manifestation of Perec’s urging to, “Emancipate classification from its functions for social utility, free it for the creation of social wonderment.” For instance, in a series of photos Orozco rearranges items in a grocery story placing a can of cat food atop watermelon. The resulting figure feels a bit eerie, as if these inanimate objects have suddenly become alive. Orozco disrupts these rigid hierarchies, bringing two starkly different objects together to reveal a surprising and humorous connection point. Both objects are green and though they might be located in completely different aisles, we as humans again have the wonderful power to see relationships and linkages everywhere in the world. Extraordinary!

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