Introducing: Material Exchange

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #2 in February 2006]

Greetings from Material Exchange, a recent addition to Chicago’s healthy crop of art collectives. We think a good way to introduce ourselves to you is to describe our current project in the hopes that it will outline our practice obliquely but satisfactorily, and that we may find possible participants. We are a project-based group and devote ourselves to specific tasks, with a somewhat clear objective. In that sense, we are a structural hybrid between art and social and environmental activism, specifically interested in alternative economies and modes of exchange. An economy outlines or describes the exchange of values. We seek out imbalances in economic structures and implement humble correctives.

We became a group out of having worked with the Austrian group Wochenklausur in residence at the University of Chicago, sponsored by the Smart Museum for the show Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art. The project consisted of a three-legged process that took waste materials from cultural institutions such as theatres and museums. With the help of student volunteers and the Resource Center, furniture was made out of the waste which was then donated to Deborah’s Place, a women’s shelter on the near north side. Material Exchange broadens Wochenklausur’s parameters and carries the project on in spirit.

Current Project: Playhouse

We are currently building children’s playhouses out of waste materials kindly donated by The Renaissance Center on the campus of the University of Chicago. We were thinking about what could be done with small pieces of drywall and short 2x4s, a ubiquitous waste product, and we arrived at small and short walls. This is an interesting way to address a whole series of imbalances that revolve around the House.

Though we seek to remain responsive and open to change, our mission is to:

  1. redirect/reactivate waste
  2. meet requests for material donations by local charitable organizations with well-designed products
  3. leverage cultural capital against persistent social ills
  4. strengthen local communities through  creative endeavors
  5. investigate aesthetic and economic relationships to waste and surplus, and the ways in which value is attached to objects

We do this by:

  1. working with schools to establish curricula that take existing needs and available waste materials as the motivating design challenge. The Harrington College of Design, the Illinois Institute of Technology, and the University of Chicago are each collaborating with us to various degrees.
  2. creating art objects, furniture, and architectural fittings out of waste to be presented as nominees for aesthetic contemplation, and/or donated to charitable organizations
  3. facilitating alternative modes of exchange

Waste/Surplus Imbalance

Drywall is an inexpensive construction material used in houses of all socioeconomic classes and is a ubiquitous waste material. It is an unlikely candidate for its current use being that it is a substance like chalk that has been pressed flat between two big pieces of paper, soft enough to cut with a blade, but hard enough to withstand the wear and tear of daily domestic life. Approximately 30 million tons are produced every year, and three to five percent of that (or approximately 100,000 tons) are land-filled every year in the US even though the technology exists to reuse it. It could be used to make new drywall, as manufacturers in Maine, Denmark and Vancouver have successfully shown. It is also possible to compost drywall in small amounts, though this depends on whether or not you find the toxicity of the glue used to adhere the paper to the gypsum a problem; gypsum is used as an agricultural fertilizer.

Actual vs. Perceived Value Imbalance

Though it can be said to be one of the big three (food, clothing, and shelter), a house’s function as a shelter often pales in comparison to its immaterial functions—socialization, the spatial possibility for memory, comfort, sustenance, class stratification, a surrogate for worldly order, etc.

Ontological Imbalance

An image can both refer to something that already exists, and shape future realities. It both drives and is driven, is generative and derivative. A house is a poignant and loaded image in this regard, standing proudly and beautifully indifferent to the violent history of settlement, social stratification, and the rejection of the earth as a home. The global population of homeless people continues to grow, a trend which reflects what the architect and designer Tony Fry describes as an ontological position of exile in relation to the earth. If nomads once considered the entire earth their Home, permanent dwellings are surrogate homes that arose to create spaces of order and safety amidst the uncertainty of the world. But by extracting material from the earth and refashioning it into objects of consumption, humanity proposes an alternate set of values and relationships as equivalent or superior to what is already there. The world we design becomes our home, alternately solipsistic and a utopic. In either case, exile from the earth becomes the predominant physical and psychological point of departure. The home then takes on mythic stature as a point of origin and return, symbolic of knowledge, identity, comfort, stability, etc., and protected at all costs.


We intend for the playhouses to pass through a series of worlds and identities, collecting imaginative capital to reflect upon the nature of home. We plan to distribute these houses to friends, willing participants and children’s shelters for them to play in, decorate, alter….As exhibition opportunities arise, we will recollect the houses (and replace them) and exhibit them as widely as possible in various configurations and under multiple exhibition parameters. As the playhouses move between the art world and the daily life of people from different socioeconomic classes, the process will track their gain and loss of value and status as artifacts, art objects, and imaginative shelters.

Please contact us to get involved with this project or to suggest or participate in future ones. We are particularly seeking interested engineers, economists, and social service workers and administrators.

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