Research Talk by John D. Freyer & Johan Lindquist

Opening the Flatpack: Ethnography, Art, and the Billy Bookcase


Date and Time: Wednesday, 17 April, 3:00 PM

Venue: CNM Meeting room, AS6, #03-33, 11 Computing Drive, S117416, FASS, NUS

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About the talk

This presentation will discuss an ongoing research/art project that explores the cultural significance of a specific object, namely IKEA’s Billy Bookcase. IKEA: a brand synonymous with affordability, mobility and functionality, introduced the Billy Bookcase – the quintessential item of flatpack furniture – in 1978, and has sold more than 35 million units worldwide since.

In his book The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900, David Edgerton argues against our attraction to novelty and “high-tech” in innovation and design. Instead, we should direct our sights towards what Edgerton terms the “invisible world of technologies” that people actually use, many of which have served the poor and middle class more than the wealthy. The condom and the sewing machine, corrugated metal and flat-pack furniture. Forget bioscience and nanotech, writes Edgerton, “Think of cheap PCs, mobile phones and IKEA furniture. Mass production is now so common it is invisible.” IKEA directly and indirectly employs more than a million people selling wooden furniture. This global triumph of “old” technology yields a compelling yet unexplored picture of the substantive relationship between human beings and their tools, technologies, and culture.

Co-organized by artist and author John D. Freyer (Virginia Commonwealth University) and anthropologist Johan Lindquist (ARI and Stockholm University), Opening the Flatpack aims to investigate and develop methods for approaching the Billy Bookcase; an object that is pervasive in everyday life but rarely taken seriously as a site of conceptual concern. Following Edgerton’s lead, and using multimedia and interdisciplinary approaches drawn from the disciplines of art, anthropology and economics, Opening the Flatpack explores the global reach of IKEA through the lens of this humble domestic object: the top-selling bookcase in the world.


About the speakers

John D. Freyer is an interdisciplinary artist whose projects include his internationally renowned Internet project and book All My Life for Sale, his national PBS program Second Hand Stories and his readymade projects and Big Boy.  His work has been reviewed in The New Yorker, The Sunday London Times, Art Forum, Print Magazine and NBC’s The Today Show.  In 2011 Freyer completed a Fulbright Fellowship in Stockholm, Sweden.  He is currently an Artist in Residence at Light Work in Syracuse NY and will join the faculty in the Department of Photography & Film in Cross-Disciplinary Media at Virginia Commonwealth University in Fall 2013.

Johan Lindquist is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute at NUS and Associate Professor of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University in Sweden. He is the author of The Anxieties of Mobility: Development and Migration in the Indonesian Borderlands (University of Hawai’i Press, 2009) and his documentary film B.A.T.A.M. is available from Documentary Educational Resources. His current research is focused on transnational migration from Indonesia, and in particular the brokering of migrant labor in this process.

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