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Penelope Umbrico, Images from Office Liquidation Websites in 2008

Q&A featuring Penelope Umbrico

Apr 13, 2020 - Gita Cooper-van Ingen

It’s a great honour to work with you on our upcoming issue #13; we’re currently in the middle of the open call, for which you’ve requested to see images of surplus. Can you tell us a little bit about the ‘surplus’ theme and its starting point in your own practice? 


In some ways, everything I do in my practice is responding to various types of surplus management. I just counted 392,840 image files on my hard drive, most of which are redundancies (which I’m not doing a great job of managing). Most of these files are images of things waiting to be sold on eBay, Craigslist, or Gumtree. Really, anything for sale on these consumer-to-consumer websites could be considered surplus. According to eBay, at this moment (April, 2020) there are 1.4 billion listings for things for sale on its site. That’s 1.4 billion objects in the world waiting to be useful.


I started to think about surplus during the 2008 global financial crisis when I noticed a lot of office liquidation warehouses selling used office desks on eBay as offices were going out of business. I was thinking about the idea of the desk as the definitive sign of modernist clean-ness, order, and productivity. And the mere fact that these desks, empty, dusty, and cumbersome, were out of commission and being sold revealed how deflated that promise had become.


Penelope Umbrico, Out of Order: Used Office Desks for Sale / eBay, 2009, risograph prints, variable sizes

What are you hoping for in the submissions you receive for issue 13, is there anything you’re anticipating? 


I’m really looking forward to being surprised. Well, ok, when I think of surplus I think of certain things (extra stuff we don’t know what to do with; stuff we hold onto but don’t really need; offices with mountains of paper; warehouses stuffed with boxes of who-knows-what) but I am really hoping to discover other forms of surplus, and other ways of seeing and thinking about it. I wonder what surplus looks like in other parts of the world;  what politics or a pandemic does to our systems of distribution. I’m curious, in our current situation of shutdowns and quarantines, if and how people are thinking about surplus differently? I mean, we don’t have enough surplus of some things, and there are surpluses that didn’t exist two months ago: toilet paper, which no one can seem to get for their home, is actually in surplus in the form of those huge industrial rolls that office buildings, now closed, use. Grocery stores run out of vegetables, but all the restaurant food vendors have some form of surplus because restaurants are closed.



Penelope Umbrico, Used CRT Monitors, Lot / eBay, 2008

Can you give us some background on your larger project Out of Order?


I think of the objects for sale on eBay as the aftermath and by-product of a dis-ordered Modernism. If we think of the present-day 1.4 billion items for sale on eBay as surplus, then this is a dystopic realization of a modernist ideal of free market optimism. This is order, out of order. I focus on this idea in various ways, for example, the images I work with are of objects that derive from (come out of) modernist ideals and mass production (used office desks and office plants, entire lots of CRT computer monitors, broken LCD TVs sold for parts, used electrical cords, collections of remote controls), and often I use images and objects that point to the condition of being “out of order” (broken). I also make sculptures and installations that disassemble the order of things, and the books I’ve made on this subject are unbound, always on the verge of falling out of order.


Tell us about your use of materials, especially in relation to digital photography


A lot of the subjects I work with, especially those that I search for online, start out as physical material objects in the world, and, by virtue of their being sold, have become obsolete, or at least not useful – they take up room – having been replaced by newer, thinner, sleeker, faster models. 


I like the almost ontological shift of those objects from singular stubborn material matter, to the ever-present, unassignable, mutable, digital image (code) that represents them on the web. And I am fascinated by the management of this sort of material, how various markets dictate how we deal with it. Some of us remember those old TV repair shops that don’t exist anymore, with stacks upon stacks of CRT TVs. First they disappeared because it wasn’t cost-effective to fix the CRT, then because no one wanted a CRT they ended up on sidewalks, and now, because they are classified as hazardous, they’re nearly impossible to get rid of… And until recently you could still find broken LCD TVs for sale on eBay for parts. Now even the parts are more expensive than just buying a new LCD TV. So where does a surplus of TV parts go? What happens to all those “rush-to-market” designs that only work with technology we now no longer have…  most of us think we have a sense of how things are stored, kept, or recycled… but do we really? I hope to get some photographs submitted for this open call from people who actually work with this stuff, recycling, storing… or… whatever.


Penelope Umbrico, Sideways TVs, Image Collection (Craigslist), 2010

Were you always interested in collecting and collections? 


Collecting, and working with collections, has always been a means to an end for me. I’ve always been interested in how identity and desire are constructed through the image, and the best way to study this is by looking at the images we collectively produce and consume. Those images that one finds repeated over and over register patterns of identification and desire… so a collection of images culled from the web can tell you a lot about who we are, collectively.


I often focus on sites of exchange like eBay, Craigslist, Flickr. Here the images and the subjects/objects they depict carries a currency, the value of which is always in question to me. I am especially interested in the utilitarian images of used mass-produced objects for sale on consumer-to-consumer sites. A by-product of unchecked hyper-consumerism, they register the disparity between optimistic Modernist industry (the promise of efficiency, productivity, mass-production, availability of everything, anytime) and its dystopic result (technological breakdown, ecological disaster).




Penelope Umbrico, Universal Remotes, Image Collection (eBay), 2011

But most fascinating about these pictures (of which there are billions) is that while they betray the failure of the objects they represent, they inadvertently reveal the personal, the subjective, and often the very private, within the same frame. So, here is where one can find the individual and the subjective – in the throw-away pictures of failed objects people don’t want. I find a kind of humanity in these images that is lacking in the more consciously aware photographs one finds on image-sharing platforms like Instagram.


On these consumer-to-consumer sites I can always count on being surprised or discovering something… something that I question, that I can’t really figure out, such as why are all these desks being sold right now? Or what’s the deal with all these people selling 10, 20, 50, old used remote controls? Is it really worth it to sell them?… who buys that many remote controls? Why? Sometimes I come upon something that simply, by the fact that I can find many images of it, is enough for me to call it a piece.


Usually, I need to work with a set of images for a while before I realize why it resonates with me. The subjects I work with, the images I find, have to be interesting enough to hold my attention for a long time… to collect as much as I can in order to see what’s going on…  to discover something, to pull out threads of meaning that reverberate multiple ways. I repurpose and re-cast these images. I put them to work to question what they mean, why they are shared, where the investment is, and what this points to. You can make a collection of anything, but not everything has the potential to point to multi-layered meanings that transcend the thing you’ve collected.


Penelope Umbrico, TVs from Craigslist, 2008 - ongoing

In what ways does the notion of ‘collective making’ influence your practice?

I would say in many ways my work is subject to, and studies, collective making more than it is influenced by it. For example, I am dependent on people tagging their images in order to find them. And in this way, tagging is both inherently collaborative, and also a way for me to understand what the collective (i,e., more than one person) is thinking, doing, creating. 


And for another, as technologies change, so does collective making and therefore the images I find. Now that cameras have facial recognition it’s impossible for me to continue the project Sunset Portraits from Sunset Pictures on Flickr because I can no longer find the underexposed silhouetted figures where the camera automatically exposed for the sun. On the other hand, as smartphone cameras get better, the images in my project TVs from Craigslist are becoming more and more detailed – what looks like the same size thumbnail on the CL platform is in fact twice or three times larger than it was when I started this project.

Penelope Umbrico, Sunset Portraits from 8,462,359 Sunset Pictures on Flickr on 12/21/10, 2006- ongoing

Tell us about how you differentiate between different bodies of work and how your projects develop, expand, overlap?


Though different bodies of work may look formally different, there is a strong through-line for me, which has grown out of ideas around the erasure of subjectivity and choice within the context of mass media, consumerism and big data. Perhaps growing up in Canada and reading Marshall McLuhan has something to do with it. The screen, how we ingest media, is a large part of this and the work manifests differently based on what sources I’m using and what histories/contexts come along with those sources. Suns from Sunsets from Flickr and Everyone’s Moons Any License both come out of issues around photographic authorship and sovereignty. They are in conversation with TVs from Craigslist because, though the Flickr photographs are taken with the intention of authoring and personal individual experience, these images are almost all exactly the same, and while the images on Craigslist are purely utilitarian, throw-away images taken with the aim to sell an object, these images actually tell us something about the person taking the picture. In both cases the value of the photograph is at play – its own value and the value of the thing it depicts – specifically because both are being shared and consumed… on screens.


Penelope Umbrico, Monument (News), 2018, installation at BRIC Arts Media, Brooklyn, NY

In what ways is your curiosity informed by ecological concerns and what, if any, concerns does your work address in relation to raising material awareness? 


I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of the black box – a device that contains information or technology that’s off limits to its users. My most recent work takes those technologies and attempts to make their materiality accessible, including what happens to these materials when we no longer want them. A recent exhibition turned the space into a temporary e-waste in-take center to emphasize the monumental presence of electronic devices in our lives and the weight of their afterlife. There’s something like 50 million tons of e-waste created every year – that is monumental – and only something like 10% of it gets recycled. We all know that some things get recycled, but we never actually see the breakdown, so the exhibition invited people to bring in their unwanted electronic screen-based devices – smartphones, iPods, Kindles, and the like – and disassemble them on site. 

Penelope Umbrico, Livestream of Knolling Table, YouTube Screenshot, Bric Media Arts, 2018

We set it up so that they could take them apart and arrange the pieces for a photograph – a portrait of the insides of their device. The exhibition was a temporary e-waste collection center, but one for individual and collaborative acts of upcycling.

Penelope Umbrico, Monument (Knolling Table Arrangements), BRIC Media Arts, NYC, 2018

What project or event fundamentally deepened or shifted your approach towards making books and what is their importance in your practice? 


Most of my work is installational so the only way a book makes sense for it is to treat the book as a site of installation. Working with the eBay images of used office desks in 2008 and thinking about modernist efficiency, productivity and elegance, was the first time I really wanted to make a book. The book is a perfect modular object – in its form and how it orders information – and in this way it was an ideal container for thinking about modernism. It was exciting to think of the form of the desks – with their dusty, awkward cumbersomeness barely fitting into the rectangular offices they were pictured in, nor fitting their rectangular photographic frames pictured on eBay – as trying to occupy the rectangular modularity of book pages.  A couple of years later, I published an actual book Out of Order: Used Office Desks and Used Office Plants for Sale with RVB Books, Paris. It included repurposed (surplus) pages of the zine that I had kept for this purpose.



The first book I made with those images was actually a sort of zine I self-published with a grant from NYFA. I created B+W versions of the images so that the convergence of the flatness of the desks’ surfaces with the images’ picture plane invoked the graphic form of modernist geometric abstraction. I printed it at a local small newspaper press, and had them set the ink density at 150% so it was messy, and the ink never really dried. When you touch the book the ink comes off on your hands and you leave fingerprints on the images of desks.


Penelope Umbrico, Out of Order: Used Office Desks for Sale, self published, 2008
Penelope Umbrico, Out of Order: Used Office Desks for Sale / eBay, 2010, unassembled book pages, off-set prints on newsprint
Penelope Umbrico, Out of Order: Used Office Desks for Sale / eBay, 2010, un-cut signatures, off-set

How you might apply these ideas to the new issue? 


Well, first, we are hoping to print the entire issue on surplus paper (un-used bulk paper left over from previous printing jobs) so that every issue might be a little different.

And I’m very excited to treat the pages of this issue as an architecture in which we can install images of surplus. I am hoping that some of the images will have strong vertical structures on the sides (like doors, columns, boxes, ladders, lumber, pipes, walls…) in order to create a compositional separation between various spaces presented in the images while still maintaining a continuous flow between them. I want the issue to be like a puzzle where various images of spaces will fit together to create a new space. It won’t be bound so you’ll be able to play with it, curate new spaces by rearranging the page order. I love the idea that single individual images from local places all over the world will come together to create collective global variable spaces.

To submit to issue 13, click here!