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Call for participation: Useless Tools

News · Tools · February 12th, 2009 ·

(Call forwarded from Isabelle Massu)

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Museums narrate the history of man’s evolution through the display of tools (silex, knife, jar, etc.). In contrast, we are looking for useless tools. This call will result in a vitrine of objects titled ‘Object Inutile’ to be displayed at the Musée de Préhistoire in France (late Spring 2009) and the Thompson Gallery at San José State University, U.S.A. (Fall 2009). Along with the objects will be an audio-guide that describes and explains each object in its owners’ words.

This project is one display within a larger exhibition titled ‘Early Man On a Modern Road’ by Dore Bowen and Isabelle Massu. The exhibition is coordinated with the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s publication of the Origin of Species. You can consult our website for more information on the full exhibition at http://www.aux2mondes.org/earlyman

Email us a picture of your useless tool and a description based upon these questions. Send to isa@aux2mondes.org. We will contact you if your object is selected.

  1. What is your useless tool called?
  2. When was it made?
  3. What is it supposed to do?
  4. Why do you think it is useless?
  5. If you like, add a personal story about the object.


1) We are not necessarily looking for tools that don’t work or that time has passed by; we are looking for tools that you find to be useless. Tools suggest that a certain activity has value. When you define a tool as useless you are defining its activity as useless. (A clock, for instance, is for coordinating activities with other human beings. To find a clock unuseful is to find timeliness, precision, and sociability unuseful.) [For a theoretical discussion concerning the phenomenology of useless tools in Fluxus art see the essay “The Function of Dysfunction

2) In addition to value, useless tools are related to consumerism. Over the past half-century machines have been produced to fulfill all sorts of unnecessary functions, or to fulfill necessary functions but without precision. The egg topper scissors is a good example (see image above). This tool was produced to facilitate the breaking of the top of an egg. Most people break the top of an egg with a knife and still do. Why the production of such useless tools? Since most consumers have all the tools necessary to live, capitalism produces weird and sometimes wonderful tools that are, essentially, useless.

3) And finally, tools (and their related values) are associated with class. Presumably, the working class man knows about cars, the middle class woman about specialty cookware, and the upper class businessman about fine watches. In France a signature middle class tool is the pince a sucre, a device to pick up sugar cubes without using the hands. It is essentially unnecessary as a tool (it’s easier to pick up sugar cubes with the hands) but it marks a certain disdain for manual labor and the body, and thus is a symbol of middle class cleanliness and propriety. To find this tool useless means that you find its class values useless. Such a choice acts as commentary and critique on class.

4) How does the idea of useless tools relate to the larger theme of the exhibition—Darwin’s theory of evolution? Related to the idea of unuseful tools is the notion of evolutionary maladaptation. When a behavior is no longer adaptive it is called ‘maladaptive’. Wikipedia notes that maladaptation can “signify an adaptation that, whilst reasonable at the time, has become less and less suitable and more of a problem or hindrance in its own right.” Useless tools can help us to understand maladaptation as they testify to traits or behaviors that we no longer considered valuable. In 1859 Darwin wrote in the Origin of Species, “We see beautiful adaptations everywhere and in every part of the organic world.” In its failure to perform as expected, the useless tool makes awkward maladaptations visible as well.

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