pre-occupied / 2020
installation + book series

Pre-Occupied is an installation on pegboards and book series of obituaries examining familial roles. The title comes from society’s preoccupation with death and also serves as commentary on the social reproduction that occurs within the family structure. ‘Pre’ alludes to these roles being determined for us before our births and upheld/passed down through the family that teaches us (i.e. heteronormative patriarchy); ‘Occupy’ alludes to the oppressive value system that determines what is waged work and what is unwaged work (i.e. capitalism).

At the end of our lives, these pre-determined roles and values are encapsulated in a few brief paragraphs in an obituary. Whereas death notices are bare, obituaries offer a narration of a person’s life—sharing with the reader the ways that they have added value to society and the ways society might value them in memoriam. Situated in newspapers, reading obituaries has historically been a ritual carried out in the home. Delivered daily, or on Sundays, reading the newspaper is a nostalgic object of American domestic life. Thumbing through the pages of the obituary section, the reader engages with the pervasiveness of death and the ends of things.

This materialization of life’s end has changed as obituaries have gone online and the newspaper, as a medium, has lost its circulation in domestic spaces—embedding the obituary in technological platforms shifts its relationship to the reader. Still in these online spaces, the obituary retains its distinction from the death notice; the latter is typically written by a family member while the former is often written by a journalist, particularly at the national level.

The hierarchy among newspapers also affects the status of an obituary. Newspapers both create and reflect the public consciousness, even when digitized. The New York Times, the Washington Post, run different stories and have different access than a local, regional paper. They also have a ‘duty’ to ‘uphold’ to ‘the public.’ You have to have made certain contributions in order to be written about in death, for your death to be marked as significant to ‘the public.’

Further, who is written about is highly raced and classed. And those lives that do make it ‘on the page’ are narrativized in highly gendered ways. For instance, searching the archives of ‘Proquest Historical Newspapers’ yields 4,229 results for ‘wife of’ and a mere 314 for ‘husband of.’ Highlighting how language conveys the value systems that underlie obituaries, women in relationships with men are still, in death, far more readily positioned in relation to their husband. Thus, obituaries themselves are heteropatriarchal and capitalist creations that delineate between work, family, and personhood, according to lines of gender. Understanding their structure can reveal the purpose they serve as a technique of social reproduction.

Six obituaries from the aforementioned 4,229 search results were selected for content analysis. Sorting by most recent, the first 40 results ranged from 2019 back to 2012. These are contemporary obituaries. Some were digitized PDFs of the newspaper, retaining its column format, while others were HTML. From these results, six ‘wife of’ obituaries were matched with their husbands, making 12 total for the analysis. Criteria for selection eliminated those whose level of fame might become distracting and raise other questions about fame and belonging to the public consciousness (not within the scope of this study).

Through a content analysis, four main categories were identified: (1) family which is either their familial role, or being filtered through another family member; (2) family members recall, a sub-category under family, where a member is quoted, but the content can vary from family to work; (3) waged work, containing career trajectories, titles, accomplishments and also general commentary or reflection on the company/field and finally; (4) personhood, statements that are more descriptive and were differentiated from unwaged (family) work and waged work.

In rematerializing obituaries in print, they become a platform for analysis. The analyzed content is color-coded, offering visual structure to these values of family, work, and personhood. The ‘thumber’ is confronted with the visuals alongside the narrative. 

Making the reader engage in the act of ‘thumbing through’ not only abstracts the obituary from its original context but resituates the reader as the analyst.

What is valued and what is viewed as essential stems from our economic structure and notions of power—power that perpetuates itself through obituaries. The way we memorialize death is historically linked to the heteropatriarchal family structure under capitalism; phrases like ‘wife of’ and ‘husband of’ denote this legacy. In our pre-occupations with our own mortality we might ask ourselves: what have we contributed to society? and how might we be known in our death? In memoriam, it is not really about having been ‘the wife’ or ‘the husband.’  It is about having been a ‘productive member of society’ within heteropatriarchal capitalism.

The twelve coded obituaries are hung on pegboards as an installation. The pegboard is an organizing system used in both commercial and domestic spaces. It holds tools and orders them in relation to one another—hung on tiny pegs and inserted into equidistant holes. The more the pegboard holds, the more obscured its system becomes. The user only sees the tools and not the ordering system on which they hang, rendering it invisible. Similarly, the obituary, as a tool of heteropatriarchal capitalism, obscures the system on which it hangs. This analysis seeks to make this system visible.

*Selected by committee for Dutch Design Week 2020