A young college graduate had the painfully monotonous job of removing staples from documents and scanning the documents. It’s what he did all day, full time, for a year. It’s the type of demotivating work that might crush one’s spirit except that he found a way to free his mind. It was something so simple yet laced with subtle rebellion of the type that so many of us engage when faced with repetitive, unstimulating tasks. He channelled his angst into an installation art piece, although he wasn’t thinking of it quite in those terms. As he removed each staple from a document, he placed the staples, one by one, into a pile instead of throwing them away. He created something from the endless, mindless work. I see both the weight of oppression and the triumph of liberation when I look at it.
Beautiful, isn’t it?
It became a statement about the resilience of the human spirit in the face of tedious and ceaseless drudgery. At least that’s how I saw it. He was surprised when I asked if I could take a photo of his staple pile. Both he and his mother were surprised when I said that I considered it a piece of art.
His staple pile reminded me that scientists often save scraps of aluminum foil from their lab work. The foil is accumulated square-by-square from the tops of autoclaved glassware and growth media for bacteria and yeast. The collected foil is used to construct a shiny, silver foil ball during their years in that lab. The ball can get so large and heavy that new foil must be pounded on old to make it stick. I’ve seen solid aluminum foil balls that were packed tightly and larger than a grapefruit. The foil ball becomes a symbol of years of faithful lab work, regardless of the outcome of the experiments. When they leave the lab, the foil ball is either saved, passed down to a younger labmate or recycled.
Having a creative side-project can feel liberating in the face of dismal tasks. It’s a statement that a thinking, creative person is doing these tasks, and their mind is still free. You can make my hands do what you say but my mind is my own. To me, this is art.
Another Random Act of Art can be found here.