Adventures of a Genre

Artwork: The life cycle of a grain of sand is imagined by Tyler Coburn, as new technology is manufactured, consumed and disposed of at an ever-faster rate

As part of the digital activation of our fig-2 exhibition, New York based artist and writer Tyler Coburn approaches the landscape through its motors of production and transformation. He presents a text that takes on the history of the 18th century ‘it-narrative’, in which commodities and currencies narrated their own circulation within a then-emerging global economy. In Coburn's piece, this curious narrative is brought back into use, mirroring its circulations through the recycling of the genre itself for contemporary use .

The entwined threads of the global manufacturing economy are tracked through the layered journeys of an array of objects. Materials morph and move, traversing oceans and factory floors. From a grain of sand to a CRT monitor, the commercial possibilities of glass diffract through windows, screens and scholar stones. A technological beachscape is conjured, littered with waste and gleaming futures. Here, nature and artifice collide, as human hands and automated machines guide the earth’s materials into newly man-made stones. The sand grain is moulded and re-moulded, transfigured by the tide of networked consumption. The English and Chinese versions of Coburn’s narrative run in tandem, enacting in language the international recycling processes of his materials in motion.


Adventures of a Genre by Tyler Coburn

In the heyday of print publishing, I played ventriloquist for the marketplace, endowing goose-quills, coins,waistcoats and snuff boxes with the ability to narrate their lives. My commodities were the protagonists of an emerging global economy and breathlessly traveled from exotic origins to shopfront windows, from far colonial reaches to domestic quarters. They rode the wake of British conquest with marvelous aplomb, more than justifying the means of their arriving. For how else could the earth's riches be made available to its greatest public?

My object narrators were beloved by readers and owners alike, whose affections they solicited on the page and the shelf. Emblems of a nascent consumer class, they transformed public sentiment so profoundly that one generation's vices were another's keepsakes. Luxury became the wellspring of the finer feelings.

Where the consumer ends and her alienable property begins, as a commodity grows possessively individual: on such topics my protagonists meditated, elaborating codes of conduct and terms of use. Theirs were morals that found highest form in consumption, whereby citizens could learn the freedoms to be gained through choice – of the responsibility they have to their possessions. If a guinea wants to walk, let it walk. And if a shilling is made to ramble, do not deny its fate. Our coins circulate to sustain the world to which we have grown accustomed, even if they may be rubbed clean of their very identity in the process.


Our coins circulate to sustain the world to which we have grown accustomed, even if they may be rubbed clean of their very identity in the process.


During these prolific years, I created a Parliament of Objects, where the Bank of England and the stomach could speak, to varying elicitations of disgust, about the nature of their holdings. I have given an atom sentient life and seen my pen fall under its influence, plotting a journey from imperial Japan in a grain of rice until, some thousand twists later, it found refuge in a duck, then a gentleman. Mixing with that gentleman’s circulating juices, my protagonist finally fixed in the principal part of that animalcule, which, in process of time, expanded into a new host. From a crevice in the pericranium, my atom tenders this story.

Yet for all my craft and imagination, I am less remembered than reviled: as a booster for consumerism, an apologist for Empire. Critics named me the hack of the walk, exploiting market logics in place of rigorous writing, preferring voguish narrative idioms to most anything else. Like the automatons of the age, my speaking objects were derided as passing fads and false conceits: momentarily amusing and momentarily uncanny.

Objects possessing intentions were once sued, tried, convicted, exiled and executed. A sculpture could be liable for laceration. I suffered none of these punishments; I was just forgotten.

In the centuries since my passing, I became a most compelling name for that enigma that can only be encircled. As a shilling sheared, cut and clipped ceases to be an object proper, so too have I gained the specific unspecificity of the thing. No longer a name, an identity, a gestalt, I am matter out of place, the sardine can that looks back, the blackening ink blot, the mute idol who speaks. This is not to say that my vagueness, my excess foreclose future specification; I may be a narrative premise consigned to the scrap yard, but I can also be recycled and reclaimed.


I may be a narrative premise consigned to the scrap yard, but I can also be recycled and reclaimed.


在印刷業全盛時期,我在江湖上以腹語術師的能力為各種物件,像是鵝毛筆、 西裝背心、鼻煙壺等,述說它們的生命歷程。我的主人翁是新興全球經濟中穿梭 於各種充滿異國情調之處與商店櫥窗內的商品。大不列顛英勇沈著的征戰輕鬆地 合理化了它們的出現,不然世界上最有錢的人要如何向最偉大的公眾現身呢?

我的物件敘事者被讀者和主人們喜愛,而這些人對書本和書櫃的愛好其實並 無二致。初期消費主義之象徵與符碼圖像深刻地影響大眾的感受力,而使一代人 的惡習成為下一代人的紀念品。奢侈品成為細膩感知能力的後代子孫。

當消費者告別生命,而她可被離棄的財產又再度成為擁有個體性的商品時: 我的主人翁深究此課題,開始對它們自身不受羈絆的行為準則進行強力表態。它 們最高的道德形式就是消費,而民眾則可從手中的購物選項裡尋找自由,這些選 項同時是他們對於所有物的責任。如果一基尼[1]金幣想起身行走,就得讓它行走。 如果一先令錢幣要去漫遊,就別阻擋它的命運。就算過程裡錢幣不斷地被抹除它 們的身份,它們依舊循環著,好讓我們習以為常的世界得以持續。

在那豐饒的歲月裡,我創造了一個物件國會,其中英國銀行與胃皆會說話, 以對它們囊中物的本質進行表述與辨識厭惡程度。我賦予一粒原子情感豐沛的生 活,並由此見證我的文思如何受其影響。自日本帝國出發的一粒米開始描述,一 路追溯其千萬次的歷險轉折,先後到一隻鴨與一位紳士的身體裡尋求庇護。接著 與他的體液混合,我的主人翁最終滯固在那個微生物的重要部位,而在時序變換 間,擴張成為一位新的世俗物質管理者。從頭骨膜的隙縫間,該原子輕柔地說起 這個故事。

儘管我身懷才氣又極富想像,我承受的辱罵比懷念還多:我被批評為消費主 義的推進器,帝國的辯護士。評論者說我是二流文體,以剝削市場邏輯取代嚴謹 的寫作,我所負的累名包括時髦空洞的形容片語、無恥的仿奧、立即失效的時事 議題等。正如那個年代的自動機器裝置一般,我這些會說話的物件都像是退流行 的錯誤奇想:暫時讓人驚奇也暫時讓人感到詭異。

擁有動機的物件都被訴訟、審判、判決、驅逐與行刑了。一件雕塑可以被破 壞擊碎。我卻沒有遭受任何一種懲罰;我,僅僅是被遺忘了。

其後數百年間,我成為最受人矚目的謎團。當一先令被裁剪鍛鍊而不再是原 本名符其實的物件,我也獲得東西具體的不確定性。不再是一個名字、一種身份、 一種形態,我終於超然這些系統以外;回盼生姿的沙丁魚罐頭、變濃的墨漬、會

In the centuries since my passing, goose-quills and snuffboxes have also lost the gloss of the new, and the coinage that once steadied the materialist’s course now ceases to ground the flows of capital. Who, then, would be the protagonist of the present age? What does she teach? How does she pass? The life of a commodity is ever foreshortening, and yet the onus to consume conjoins the injunction to conserve: we must waste, and waste not we must.


Who, then, would be the protagonist of the present age? What does she teach? How does she pass?


A latter-day protagonist should register the pains of planned obsolescence, birthed neither for breathless travel nor responsible care, but to expend a tidy, stunted life. Wan, impressive and useful, she will be sufficiently memorable to uphold the rightness of possessing, sufficiently forgettable to allow for the continued exercise of that right.

Let’s say she begins as a grain of sand, scooped up and melted out of her mind, then cooled down into glass. You can look through her and into her, or your look may look back. She can cloud or clarify these experiences, without being much of an experience herself.

Her grandfather was a window, and she could have become a window. Her mother was a windshield, and she could have become a windshield. Instead, she became a screen – or screens, for as her material recycles well, she has been turned, time and again, from CRT monitor into CRT monitor: newer and newer, with ceaseless regularity, until a better technology finally came along.

The sand grain now finds herself at an impasse. Nobody wants to melt her back into herself, nor put her parts to other use. In certain countries, the laws are so strict, and the demand so low, that far from getting money for recycling a screen like hers, the owner must pay to have her carted off.


Her grandfather was a window, and she could have become a window. Her mother was a windshield, and she could have become a windshield. Instead, she became a screen


My protagonist can expect a few outcomes. She may languish with her colleagues in a local warehouse, each screen a grain of a technological beachscape now passed. Or her handlers may smuggle her to the dumping grounds of the world, where she can fool an unsuspecting shopper or suffer a protracted end, stripped bare of her metals and other valuable bits.

She may also have the luck of the exception. A company in Taiwan has grown wealthy extracting precious metals from electronic waste; it recently invested some of the profits in methods to process casings and CRT glass. So my protagonist could be ground down to nearly her original scale, though even when cleaned, will remain too toxic to become a plate, a bowl or most any other object.

When no useful options exist, the scraps of outmoded devices can be poured into the molds of art. At the Taiwanese company, abandoned futures take on numerous forms, from bulls and pumpkin patches to flautists and inkstones. The creatures of Chinese mythology even lend credence by proxy. The Jade Emperor once punished Pixiu by sealing its anus; thereafter, its diet was restricted to monies. A hoarder like none other, the creature is the most popular sculpture on offer.

說話的喑啞塑像。這不表明我的含糊或過度已排拒了對未來的規劃;我或許是一 種放逐於垃圾場的敘事假設,但是我依舊可被回收與利用。

在我消失後的數百年裡,鵝毛筆和鼻煙壺都已不再是新鮮的玩意兒,曾經穩 定物質主義程序的鑄幣業不再是現代資本流動的基礎。當下這個時代的說書人又 會是誰呢?他們要教導什麼?他們如何流通?商品的生命週期從未如此縮減過, 而消費義務竟與保存規定相互結合:我們必須浪費,並且我們不得浪費。

我的主人翁將註冊並承受一種計畫性廢棄的痛苦,其出生並不是因為要展開 馬不停歇的旅行或是受到有責任心的關愛,而是去度過微小夭折的生命。她將蒼 白、令人驚艷、有用地足以被記憶,擔負起被擁有的正當性;同時足以被遺忘, 好讓繼起之正當性可再度被行使。

這樣說吧,她原是一介沙粒,從土裡被掘起,整顆心都被燒融了,又再冷卻 成玻璃。你可以看透她、望進她,或你的倒映也將回首凝視你。她可不費周章地 將這些經驗藏起或澄清。

她的祖父曾是一扇窗,而她原本可以成為一扇窗。她母親則是汽車擋風玻璃, 她原本也可以成為擋風玻璃。儘管如此,她卻成為一片螢幕,或由於材料回收得 宜,而成為數片螢幕。她一次又一次地被製作成 CRT 螢幕,在一種穩定的頻率 下變身,一次比一次更加新穎,直到更高端的科技終於來臨。

這粒沙發現她深陷僵局,沒有人要來把她融化成原貌或轉為他用。在某些法 律特別嚴苛且市場需求低的國家,回收像她這樣的螢幕並不符合成本,主人還必 須額外付費請別人載走她。

我故事中的主人翁可預期幾種結果。也許,她就在當地的倉庫裡與同伴們受 苦凋零,每片螢幕曾擁有的美好風光都已煙消雲散。或者,她的經手人把她偷運 到世界某地的垃圾場,她有可能在那裡騙到一位意料之外的買家,也可能得到一 個諸多磨難的結局,讓人搾乾她所剩的金屬和有用的部分。

當然,或許也有例外的好運。一家位於台灣的公司藉由萃取電子垃圾中的貴 金屬致富,最近投資研發起處理電腦外殼和 CRT 玻璃的技術。我的主人翁可以 被碾磨至接近最初的規格,然而就算經過淨化處理,她依舊因為含有過多毒素而 無法成為一只盤子、碗、或是其他物件。

一旦無法成為任何實際有用的品項,陳舊過時的廢料則可以被模鑄成藝術品。 在這家台灣公司裡,被拋棄的未來擁有許多形式:公牛、南瓜、吹笛人、硯台等 造型。中國神話故事裡的角色當然也不能在此缺席;傳說中受玉皇大帝懲罰的貔 貅被封住肛門,僅得以財為食,此獨一無二的聚財寶物成了這裡最受歡迎的雕塑 品。

在一個恰如其所的結局裡,這顆沙粒被塑造成一座觀賞石。這種石頭往往由 於天生的怪奇樣貌、無法被定論的形態光采而備受讚賞喜愛。它們是天然的藝術

When no useful options exist, the scraps of outmoded devices can be poured into the molds of art.


In a fitting conclusion, this company could mold the sand grain into a scholar’s stone. Such rocks are prized for having an inherent awkwardness, an inconclusive glimmer of figuration. They are nature’s artworks: her self-portraits in miniature. Human hands have long helped improve these perfections, imperceptibly assisting the stones’ merits. In my protagonist’s stone, they continue to help by sparing nature from the burdens of facture.

The sand grain here reaches her most artificial state: all human hand feigning natural innovation. Her stone, I am told, resembles a figure practicing tai chi, and so she will move slower than ever before.

My protagonist will come to feel like she has lost her anus. A new price has been put on her, and for the first time in her life, it actually stands to appreciate. True, she is merely an offset for environmental guilt, but her owner has saved her from lesser fates, and she must respect him for that. Occasionally, he will glance beyond his new screen and pause to consider her. She will receive his look, play to his interests, arouse pleasure, reflection, or perhaps disgust. Briefly, she will become a subject once more; and before the eyes of my readers, so will I.

品:大自然的微型自畫像。人類的雙手自古以來便致力精化自然的完美境界,也 以渾然天成的手法讓這顆石頭展其所長。在我主人翁化身成的石頭上,人類依舊 兩肋插刀,讓大自然擺脫人類製造垃圾的負擔。

這粒沙在此到達她最為人工的境界,一種人造的仿自然物。有人跟我說,她 這塊石頭長得像是練太極拳的人形,所以她將以比從前都還要緩慢的方式移動。 我的主人翁終將覺得她也失去了她的肛門。新的售價標籤在她身上,而這是 她生命第一次純粹為了被人欣賞而站得筆挺。沒錯,她僅僅是人類對環境污染罪 惡感的轉移,然而她的主人將她從微不足道的命運中解放出來,她必須對他表達 敬意。偶爾,他的視線將越過嶄新螢幕望向她,眼光停在她身上,打量著她。她 將接收他的目光,回敬他的興致,激起愉悅、反思、或者厭惡的情緒。總之,她

呂岱如 譯

譯註 1:1663 至 1813 年間英國發行之金幣單位。



“Adventures of a Shilling,” by Joseph Addison (1710)

Friends of Interpretable Objects, by Miguel Tamen (2004)

Memoirs of a Stomach. Written by Himself, that all who eat may read. With notes critical and explanatory, by a Minister of the Interior., by S. Whiting (1853)

Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, by Mary Douglas (1966) “Speaking Objects: The Circulation of Stories in Eighteenth-Century Prose Fiction,” by

Christopher Flint (1998)
The History and Adventures of an Atom, by T. Smollett (1769)

“Thing Theory,” by Bill Brown (2001)
What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, by W.J.T. Mitchell (2006)

The life and adventures of the old lady of Threadneedle street...written by herself., by William Reid (1832)

The Secret Life of Things: Animals, Objects, and It-Narratives in Eighteenth-Century England, edited by Mark Blackwell (2007)


Tyler Coburn is a New York based writer and artist working with performance, installation, writing and sound to critically engage with trends in computing and manufacturing. 'Adventures of a Genre' is presented as part of the digital POSTmatter x fig-2 exhibition. The exhibition is also on display at ICA Studio, London, until 26th July 2015.


See it my way
Live Writing: In a video game, who is really in control? Lawrence Lek responds to our exhibition, tracing the development of the first person perspective in computer games
The Magic Mountain
Thomas Mann's enduring modernist classic, set in a tuberculosis sanatorium before the First World War. Selected by Libreria for our New Mythologies reading list.
Rachel de Joode's 'Soft Inquiry'
Rachel de Joode takes a naive approach to organic materials in her latest exhibition at Kansas Gallery, flattening them into newly artificial forms
Aude Pariset: Greenhouses
Aude Pariset questions notions of sustainability (ecological, material, cultural, emotional) and the motivational decisions about what should be preserved and what can be wasted in her first UK solo exhibition at Cell Project Space.
Ergonomic Futures
Fiction: Tyler Coburn crafts a tailor-made guide to the human of the future in three short stories
Amy Brener's modern fossils
The artist's iridescent crystal sculptures evoke archeology and technology to question the impermanence and intangibility of the digital world
Can you believe your eyes?
Webchat: Mark Dorf and Hannah Gregory ask just how 'natural' depictions of the natural landscape really are, whether mediated by painting, photography or digital tools
Micro and Macro
Natural and artificial collide in Rachel Pimm's exploration of the visual similarities of plant cells and golf courses, forging a newly hybridised sense of scale
In the Future, They Ate from the Finest Porcelain
Artwork: Myth and history collide in our preview of Larissa Sansour's short film, exploring the politicised archeology of Israel and Palestine's geography
Björn Schülke: Vision Instruments
New York gallery Bitforms presents an exhibition of pseudo-scientific and futuristic sculptures from the german artist Björn Schülke. Building upon his unique blend of utopian and dystopian machine aesthetics, this new series sees Schülke reimagine technological inventions from German sci-fi TV shows of the 1960s.