Kipple and Anti-kipple

July 9, 2012

D is a fan of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. Let me just say, I haven’t read any of the guy’s work, so my fascination with a term he coined is entirely second hand. (I did look it up in the urban dictionary, just to be sure I was getting the definition right).

Anyway. Dick was famously crazy- or I should probably say mentally ill. Except the term “mentally ill” implies a state of abnormality– something that can be explained and managed by doctors in white jackets. Whereas I get the impression that the guy was crazy in a brightly-colored, eccentric, terribly intelligent and insightful way. I mean, he thought a higher power talked to him through a pink laser beam, but also he came up with…drum roll…kipple.

As I understand it, kipple is manmade stuff that is no longer useful and has thus become clutter. For example, when a person dies, he or she generally leaves behind a lot of kipple- photographs of people no one remembers, scissors too dull to use and too cheap to repair, refrigerator magnets….You get the idea. In my head kipple (which Dick imagined would breed in one’s absence, making one’s apartment a mess) is closely related to the second law of thermodyamics, which states that energy tends to move from order to disorder. This is a layman’s bastardization of a principle best described by complicated math, but there’s a reason why everyone’s heard it: like the idea of kipple, it sticks in one’s brain.

The first time I heard D describe kipple, I had a kind of instinctive, horrifying recognition. There are perfectly logical reasons why kipple is so terrible: a lot of it ends up in landfills, for one. Just like everybody else, I don’t like to think about that stuff, because it’s just too horrible. No matter where you stand on complex environmental issues, buried trash that lasts thousands of years is something we can all see the problem with. Then there’s the wasted effort and resources that go into making the things that get thrown away.

I personally find disorder in my living space upsetting all by itself. I try to bring in only things that are, as William Morris exhorted, either beautiful or useful. But there’s a sheer impossibility of making all the things I want to make, or even properly enjoying all the pretty things I own. What remains is an excess of potential- things I could do or make or look at, but I’m never going to because I don’t have time. All that stuff creates a kind of mental drag. Sometimes I fantasize about living in a tiny room with a bed and one outfit and a comb. The energy I normally use tidying my vast space, thinking about my stuff, arranging and cleaning, would  be freed up for the purely mental bliss of true creativity. Right?

But I can’t resist bringing home more stuff- yarn, fabric, soap-making materials, old industrial spools that look pretty on a shelf. The possibility of a pile of new yarn- it’s not to be missed.  So, like everybody else, I have this constant struggle to let go of the things I don’t need, use the things I already have, keep the whole mess in order.

Probably going to thrift stores just makes it harder. But it gives me a little frisson of pleasure: examining the piles of discarded stuff, recognizing something beautiful or useful, and effectively anti-kipple-izing it by taking it home to be used or transformed or looked at. One of the reasons why I love old quilts is because they seem like the very epitome of de-kipple-ization, especially ones made out of old blankets or scraps or discarded clothes. And the objects made this way- out of whatever was at hand- often seem profoundly more beautiful than things made from materials chosen specifically for the purpose, from all the wide variety of materials available to makers today.

I’ve just come back from Pittsburgh, home of Erika Johnson, artist, maven of the Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse, and de-kipple-izer extraordinaire. When I first met her years ago, she was making tiny notecards and envelopes from old paper she’d pressed with flowers, leaving the imprint of petals. She has always made beautiful, surprising things, largely from completely useless kipple: old books, old clothes, photographs of people no one remembers. Her homes are always beautiful, and are always filled with objects found in yard sales and thrift stores and alleys- including stuff you would expect, like granny-square afghans and menswear quilts, and stuff you would not, like industrial springs and photo transfers made from old negatives. I never get over my amazement at her ability to see the possibilities in any given pile of kipple.

PCCR, the shop she runs, accepts donations of art and craft-related kipple and provides it at affordable prices to people who are looking for that very thing or- and this is important- who are in need of inspiration. Shopping at PCCR is kind of like the experience of being a quiltmaker 200 years ago: there’s a limit on what’s available. You’re forced to look at it closely to see the possibilities. But the close examination is a gift that reveals a whole world of ideas you might never have accessed otherwise.

Of course, the difficulty of running such a operation is the sheer amount of space and effort involved in accepting people’s kipple, sorting through it, presenting it in a way that its possibilities can be seen. But Erika has a strong fascination with the very used nature of the objects. To her their histories convey additional value. A granny afghan is all the better because someone made it. So, for example, she’s particularly fond of half-finished projects. Instead of seeing work that needs to be undone so the materials can be re-used, she sees an object imbued with additional value by the person who started the work.

Here’s the kind of thing I mean:

an unfinished project

This is one of three knitted strips donated to PCCR, all part of an abandoned afghan project. Each one was beautifully knitted in pale yellow wool. Instead of seeing wasted effort to be undone, Erika saw three scarves, with the added awesomeness of human experience.

The fight against kipple is like the fight against evil: doomed to be repeated over and over- but so worth the effort.