Product Placement and Cargo Cults

“…we have radical abundance propped up by massive debt.  Even though consumption is still rampant, we have passed the point of needing to produce more things as a society…Our growing relationship to our objects, or props, is that of a programmer to bits of code.  As programmers we assemble these pieces of code into a context, a language that builds a program to execute a series of actions. Network systems are the infrastructure on which these programs run and interact.  No network is essential, just as no single node is vital – all that matters is movement within the network.  What we are left with is a constant circulation of bits, like the elements and molecules in chemistry that create a living ecosystem – it is in this constant cycle of change that keeps the system vital.” -Robert Sumrell

“We cannot escape our property; we are tied to it forever, as part of its history of circulation.  We have become little more than the context for the things that own us, remaining connected to them as incidental players in the stories they tell while circulating.”

[Photography of self storage facilities courtesy of Lindsay Construction/enterprises]

[The Infrastructural City Blogiscussion: Robert Sumrell’s chapter ” The Story of the Eye: Prop Houses”]

As the final extended essay chapter of the Infrastructural City, Robert Sumrell explores the life, symbolic currency and mobility of material objects via the ‘prop houses‘ in which they are stored.   Sumrell begins in the film prop houses of Hollywood, but then moves on to other physical and conceptual ‘logistics centers for the storage and circulation of objects‘ to provide ‘insight and instruction into how we relate to property and how we use objects to create structure in our own lives.’   These prop houses include residential living space, television and its advertising, and (briefly) self storage facilities.  In essence Sumrell argues that we have all become the prop masters of our own personal prop houses.

In closing contrast to other essays in the Infrastructural City, Sumrell’s chapter more overtly digs into the personal and conceptual networks supporting our contemporary urbanism.  The veiled cynicism of the logic distortions of capitalism are not really veiled in this chapter, and neither are the loose metaphors and proclamations.  We found it to be a fun and cathartic (near) ending to the book.

Robert Sumrell’s essay briefly touches on self storage facilities. But as we find these architectures integral to Sumrell’s object-network arguments, we’ve explored them a bit further, extending his anthropology metaphors and playfully raging with the machine…

Some relevant facts on self storage facilities via the Self Storage Association’s estimates:

  • The self storage industry has been one of the fastest-growing sectors of the United States commercial real estate industry over the last 35 years
  • The average (mean) size of a “primary” self storage facility in the US is approximately 46,200 square feet
  • There are now approximately 50,000 self storage facilities in the United States as of year end 2009.  Worldwide the number only increases to 58,000 (there are more than 3,000 in Canada and more than 1,000 in Australia).
  • Total self storage rentable space in the US is now 2.22 billion square feet , which equals more than 78 square miles of rentable self storage space, under roof – or an area well more than 3 times the size of Manhattan Island (NY).
  • U.S. self storage facilities pay a total of more than $3.0 billion in property taxes to local government  jurisdictions.
  • The distribution of U.S. self storage facilities is as follows:  32% urban, 52% suburban and 16% rural
  • Nearly 1 in 10 US households (HH), or 10% (10.8 million of the 113.3 million US HH in 2007) currently rent a self storage unit; that has increased from 1 in 17 US HHs (6%) in 1995 – or an increase of approximately 65 percent in the last 15 years.
  • There is 7.0 sq.ft. of self storage space for every person in the nation
  • 83.9 percent of all US counties (or 2,634 out of 3,141) have at least one “primary” self storage facility

The architecture of public storage facilities is as pragmatic and minimal as the retail industry’s big boxes, and both are designed to facilitate a similar and limited prescribed program (maximized cubic footage, climate control, ease of access and security).  The linear assembly of roll up doors mimics the retail distribution centers from where most of the objects likely came; only smaller and with a nebulous chain of retail operations, logistical geography, job transfers and other life changes between them.  The resemblance sublimely illustrates a conservation of product volume that is distributed across virtually unlimited user space.  In the consumer-retailer network, more and larger big boxes beget more big boxes.

Most of the time the extensive footprint of the double-entendred ‘self‘-storage facility is uninhabited by the living.  The glorified sheds provide shelter only to inanimate assemblies of stuff and its combined exchange and symbolic value.   And just like Hollywood’s prop houses, there is no prescribed order for how the objects within are arranged or what those objects may be.  Behind each brightly colored roll-up door (typically the only design flair applied to the architecture) is an eclectic and mysterious collection of cargo that has been amassed via unknown histories.

Sumrell’s discussion of the networking of contemporary objects includes an entertaining and sardonic reference to classic anthropology lore:  the Cargo Cults of the South West Pacific.  Sumrell argues that unlike the situation for the cults of the Pacific Rim where coveted material cargo stopped arriving after WWII, cargo has never stopped (magically) appearing in the United States from distant, offshore locations.  The stuff is just there on the shelves for the taking.  Given the deeply logistical nature of the nation, such object profusion has inadvertently (or intentionally?) become its own culturally embedded assumption or ideology that is not really seen for the oddity it is by the natives.

Cargo Cults are not limited to the South Pacific, rather that was just the place where new converts were made.  The cults are far more prevalent and as a ready example, self storage facilities harbor their own type via public auctions for the contents of derelict storage units.  These urban rituals (i.e. events) exemplify a contemporary capitalist adaptation of the redistribution mechanisms of the potlatch, and in the process, invert the prescribed architectural program of the storage facility.

[The beginning of the sell-off auction event:  After much anticipation and jousting for position, the roll-up door opens to reveal the unpaid unit’s contents.  Participants are then allowed to only look into the storage unit but not to enter it.  They must assess the worth and desirability of objects from a distance to test their consumer acumen against other players.  (Initially reported by the New York Times)]

Although the cargo cults assembled at these auctions are far more pragmatic and secular in operation (culturally appropriate for western cities) they still exhibit a structured choreography of rules combining elements of risk, luck  gaming, negotiation and a momentary dissolution of everyday social roles.  Typically after the auction, there are less structured ‘swaps’ where participants can trade what they successfully bid on with others if they are less than happy with what the object turned out to be – either from the same auction or from others nearby.  The sterile asphalt spaces between corridors of storage sheds become impromptu selling courtyards or flea markets.  Some people have made a full-time occupation out of these auctions – selling their goods on the next networked layer of personal prop housing: Ebay.  Others participate to supplement income, to furnish their own home at a fraction of retail costs, or just for something to do on a Saturday.

Granted there is a dark side to all of this that feels a bit like rummaging around at an estate sale (and yes, it’s also a rogue interpretation of the potlatch).  There is the unstated element of scavenging or profiteering off of some abstract person’s likely misfortune.  But most importantly, none of this activity was planned into the programming of the relatively inert/stupid architecture.  The auctions present another example of informal and unplanned programs emerging and grafting themselves into existing prescribed structures…something we are always very interested in.  Minimal, or single-function architecture, landscape or infrastructure tends to get hacked into, retrofitted or overcome by its own design omissions and limitations – something we have seen throughout the Infrastructural City reading.   Observing the capitalist vernacular of how these processes emerge and strategically reading and applying the broader economic trends and processes associated with them are requisite elements for a new and provisional operating manual for the city.

6 comments

  1. Superb. Better than what I’m about to post.

    You catch the Times Magazine’s article on the “Self Storage Self” a year or so back?

  2. Thanks Rob – I hadn’t seen this. Nice overlaps, and I like how the piece hints at the infinite ways self storage ( or simply ’empty space’) is used and programmed in ways that confound any broad generalizations:

    “The truth is, there is no typical storage customer. As facilities crowded into the landscape, storage units became incubators for small businesses and artisans; warehouses for pharmaceutical reps, eBay merchants or landscapers. One unit at Statewide functions as a kind of regional distribution center for Little Debbie cakes. I met a few homeless renters, who sometimes choose to pay to put a roof over their possessions instead of their own heads (living in units is not allowed); I met working-class renters using units as closets and safe-deposit boxes while serially couch-surfing or living in multifamily homes. I heard of a martial-arts instructor in Hawaii who trained clients in his unit, and a group of husbands in New England who watch sports in one on weekends. More than one operator told me they have a unit where, every morning, the renter goes in dressed as a man and comes out as a woman.”

  3. namhenderson · ·

    I have always wanted to see a project turn self-storage units into a living site.

    Wonder, if it’s already been done.

    Agree with Rob, very nice..

  4. Thanks Nam. I’ve been curious how many living things are in a functioning self storage facility. They all have rules against it, but beyond the molds, bacteria, bed lice and other small things living amongst all those objects, what else is in there by intention or otherwise? A peculiar, consumer ‘cocooned’ habitat.

  5. This is very interesting indeed.

    Namhenderson,

    I believe that there are entire blogs that deal with self-storage units that double as a living site. They are quite interesting, though I don’t remember where to find them. Maybe a google search will lead you in the right direction.

  6. Wow, nice pictures! Also, I like that you added facts and stats about self-storage, like “The self storage industry has been one of the fastest-growing sectors of the United States commercial real estate industry over the last 35 years.” I rented my first storage unit a year ago and used self-storage in Santa Monica, when I went away for eight months for business.

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