The Stray Shopping Cart Project
At some point in 1999 it struck me that there was an interesting art project to be done about the stray shopping carts I was seeing around my city. I knew from the beginning that if I were to just take pictures of carts in the urban environment, the work would read as fairly conventional social documentary photography, (a genre I am not terribly fond of). I thought that to get beyond those conventions I would need to approach the stray shopping cart phenomenon from a different angle. I decided to try to define the different states in which a stray cart could be. This led to a rudimentary system of classification that described what I then saw as the basic thirteen types. My approach was to observe the stray cart in the way that a naturalist might observe an animal. I never posed or repositioned or interfered with stray carts. I thought of the human actors as unseen natural forces (people almost never appear directly in any of the project photographs). I wrote the text from the point of view of someone who took the taxonomic investigation of stray shopping carts extremely seriously. That character (the fictional Julian Montague) became more important as the project proceeded, and the conceptual space of the work became strictly defined.
As the project moved forward and I was given opportunities to show it, I was continually refining the system based on new observations. Over the active years of the project I documented and categorized thousands of stray shopping carts in the United States and abroad. The system evolved to include thirty-three types that can be used singly or in combination to describe and thereby “identify” any found cart.
Although it was not clear to me in the early stages, I soon realized that the project was exploration of the ways in which language and scientific systems of classification shape our perception of both the natural and man made worlds. By establishing an authoritative voice that names the unnamed and articulates (in absurd detail) the workings of a mundane phenomenon, the project can manipulate the viewer’s perception of stray shopping carts by developing a sensitivity to them.
The project has been exhibited in a number of different ways. The first presentation of the System as a set of prints in a gallery space was in 2002. At the time this consisted of non-archival inkjet prints pinned to the gallery walls with t-pins. Each Type in the System was a separate print with further examples of each Type taking the form of smaller prints connected by lines of association. Other sections included Selected Specimens and Site Studies. While this was not the best way to make a lasting body of work, the method was within my means at the time and it was flexible enough that it could fill different types of gallery spaces.
In late 2004 I began enlarging specimen images to 25"x31" and having them printed as light jet prints (The prints are face mounted to Plexiglas and backed with sintra.). Each image has the Type designation icons and a note about its situation in the lower left hand corner of the piece. I reconfigured all of the System information to fit on one 35"x40" chart (see System Chart).
My September 2006 solo show at Black and White gallery was the first time I made use of vinyl lettering and graphic tape to connect the language of the project to the individual pieces. I repeated this approach on a smaller scale at the Margulies collection in December 2006, and at several other venues since then.
My only foray into outdoor sculpture with this project took place at Socrates Sculpture Park in the Spring of 2008. It was also a departure from my normal practice in that I was staging stray cart situations instead of documenting them in the real world. More here.
Elements of the the Stray Shopping Cart Project have appeared in print in a number of different ways. I make a distinction between pieces that are in the conceptual "voice" of the project and those that are about the project, exhibition catalogs, etc. My book, The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification, represents the most complete conceptual manifestation of the project. It also has the distinction of winning the Diagram/Booksellers Prize for the oddest Title of the Year 2006.
I'm not currently making new work for this project. However, I recently collaborated with Jordan Tannahill of Suburban Beast in Toronto to develop a slide lecture/performance piece of the Stray Shopping Cart Project. I did one performance at the Drake Hotel, in May of 2010. We'll see where it goes from here.