You know that old thing in the attic that you just can’t bear to throw away? The one with all the memories and that big red wine stain? ONBETAALBAAR brings these wilting objects together to create a new, fresh object. We met staff writer Mieke Michelle in the collective’s new habitat at Campo Boma to talk about materialism and what it means today. Minimalism dictates we say goodbye to useless stuff, declutter our chaotic lives, not attach ourselves to objects. But who decided that loving objects is evil? ONBETAALBAAR offers an alternative: fuck minimalism, embrace materialism with emotion.

Text by Sofie Steenhaut
Photos by Tiny Geeroms

Why is the story behind an object important for ONBETAALBAAR?
It’s the reason we’re more than yet another project about recycling. ONBETAALBAAR started out as a performance project where the history of a discarded object was documented while the thing itself was transformed into a new piece of design or furniture by woodworkers and crafts(wo)men. From thereon the collective grew organically around a love for rejected objects and beautiful materials, a love we call ‘emotional materialism’. To live by this philosophy means that we acknowledge the history and the soul of an object. We register who donated them, how old they are, where they spent their past life…

Give your treasured trash to us and we’ll give it a new life

Often when we start a project we advertise in local newspapers with an open call to bring in old treasures that you want to get rid of. They can be broken, old, rusty and worn out but they have to hold some emotional value to you. Give your treasured trash to us and we’ll give it a new life. The artists in the workshop transform the objects physically and turn them into new pieces of functional design. Meanwhile, every object gets its own passport: a little book detailing the story of the object in words and pictures. Sometimes parts of the story are also symbolically incorporated into the upcycled object itself.

When you have an overwhelming craving for beauty, you materialise it in your environment

Why does materialism have such a negative connotation today?
Materialism signals an irrational attachment to an object. The generally accepted ideology is that letting go of useless objects will make you happy and centre you, so we should all downsize. But I think it’s beautiful that everyone is capable of forming a bond with an inert object. I believe that, when you have an overwhelming craving for beauty, you materialise it in your environment. This is what our makers are doing when they make beautiful things out of trash.

Listen, if you can be happy without objects, that’s great. Good for you. But I think it’s okay to give in to the fact that beautiful things and stories can make you happy and want to create more beauty to make other people happy in the process.

Do you look at materialism as part of being human?
Yes, even more than being human. I used to have a ferret who constantly stole a wooden egg cup from the table. And no matter what we did, he had to have this egg cup. It was his. I recognised the need to make something your own, a piece of the world that is yours.

On the other hand, ONBETAALBAAR also incorporates a critique of consumption culture.
ONBETAALBAAR encourages people to treat objects with respect instead of consuming them mindlessly. That’s a positive side of emotional materialism; it means that you’ll try to repair things, to keep them as long as you can, to handle them properly. It means you want to grant every object the longest life possible.

Do you have an object you are attached to?
Yes, a lot of them. I even have a tree branch in my bedroom. Just a normal branch from my parents’ garden that I took with me to my first dorm room. I never imagined I’d still have it after more than ten years. I keep it because of the meaning behind it, I don’t even really find it pretty. It’s a piece of home I took with me. I don’t know if it’s guilt, or nostalgia, or an idea of how my life would have been if I’d stayed in the village where I grew up. I know that we’re all supposed to be living completely in the present these days, but this is a tribute to my past and my future.

Onbetaalbaar : Open Atelier #5
9 + 10 June – Campo Boma, Ghent