Material Material, by Doug Johnston & Debbie Carlos


The practice of two artists collaborating by mail is nothing new; after all, that’s how Peter Shire communicated ideas to his Memphis colleagues back in 1980s Milan and how Alex Segreti and Kelly Rakowski of New Friends got their start (with the former in Philly and the latter in New York.) But what happens when you elevate that practice to something more like a parlor game? We here at Sight Unseen had been wondering that ourselves, which is why we were especially tickled when we found out that Debbie Carlos and Doug Johnston — two of our favorites — had recently happened upon the exact same idea. The Michigan-based photographer and the Brooklyn-based designer spent the summer creating a series of objects under the name “Material Material,” for which they shipped each other the raw materials from which they could fashion several objects. The results were recently shown at the San Francisco shop Little Paper Planes. We asked Johnston and Carlos to take us through the project from start to finish.

“Given the fact that we work in quite different mediums and live in different states, the process of developing a collaboration was an interesting challenge. Eventually the idea of a game arose, where we would email each other assignments with some basic rules as a way to deal with the distance and to keep the tone playful and open. Based on something Doug had said in an interview, Debbie thought that the work could arise based on raw materials we would send each other. By utilizing digitally based collaborative features such as email, texts, and Google, we were able to work together over great distances while also mailing each other physical materials.”

“Sending one material per month for three months over the summer, we set out to make anything we wanted, applying the one rule that we should try to avoid combining the materials with more than two other materials. Debbie sent Doug: metal tubes and bits; a packet of mixed seeds; pure beeswax. Doug sent Debbie: a sheet of rubber; concrete mix; a bundle of wood dowels.”

metal pieces

“The surprise of opening the package of unknown materials each month was like getting a weird birthday gift — joy, confusion, fear. Likewise, there was an excitement about how the other would respond to and interpret the weird gift.”

“The task of transforming these materials into useful and/or aesthetic objects is an innate and strong inclination, not only for artists, and designers, but for everyone. In a way that is perhaps parallel to the formation of language or music, raw materials take on meaning and communicate ideas even when the simplest of processes, manipulations, or alterations are performed on them. You feel as though you are simply helping the materials to become something rather than making something with them. Repeated practice allows a vocabulary and a unique voice to develop, but there seem to be inherent tendencies by each person; possibly coming from their personality and own interpretation of the world around them.”beeswax

“We had a lot of time to think or interact with the materials in our own spaces, independently, but in a different way that what we’re probably used to. It was a nice balance between a new set of challenges and variables in our work, but we still had our familiar surroundings, and could work at our own pace. It is so easy to be pigeonholed for doing one thing, and then to continue doing that to death. With this project, we pushed each other and ourselves to think and work outside of our comfort zone, and thereby discovering new interests, skills, and vocabularies that we plan to develop further. We may have also uncovered some modern form of primal communication and exchange; a language that involves shipping and making instead of typing and clicking.”rubbersheeting
“Debbie worked more in iteration, making many different pieces with the same material. Doug did a lot of planning and tinkering, then produced just a few pieces with each material. Neither of us really had any solid plans for the objects after the exhibition. The objects were really a result of the exercise so any life they have beyond what we gained from them personally is kind of a bonus. The pieces are available for purchase for a limited time through LPP and it is exciting to think that they might find new homes. We both had a lot of fun working on the pieces and each found new interests that might not have come about otherwise. Debbie seemed to really enjoy working with the concrete mix and Doug loved making the beeswax pieces; we both expressed our interest in continuing explorations into those materials after the exhibition.”_MG_4684

Planter With Stake: “I had read an article about reusing and regrowing kitchen scraps and thought it would be fun to create vessels specific to regrowing certain vegetables. These planters are for potatoes, and knowing that they vine, I included a stake using a 12″ dowel, simply letting it set in the concrete beside the well the potatoes would sit in.” — Debbie


Stools: “I had actually been trying to make a planter with deep and narrow wells for regrowing scallions. I was using dowels to shape the wells the scallions would sit in but realized it was impossible to pull them out of the concrete once it had set. I turned the whole thing over and found that I had a stool instead.” — Debbie_MG_4725

Dowel Wind Chimes: “I really loved the sound the dowels made when they hit each other so I thought it would be cool to create some sort musical instrument or wind chime. I also had a lot of extra dowels sitting in my studio and thought it was a great way of using most of them up. I also used some cotton sash cord which I thought was a nice shout out to Doug’s work.” — Debbie_MG_4683 _MG_4674

Concrete Moon Nesting Bowls & Food Platters: “I had this idea of creating weird food platters that had these indentations for specific kinds of foods. I tried to make a few that would hold an orange or bananas and ones that held small circular foods (cheese balls, cherry tomatoes, etc). When I sent Doug pictures of the latter, he commented how they looked like the moon so I kind of just went crazy with that. I couldn’t not see moons in them after that.” — Debbie_MG_4722

Rubber Hanging Planter: “I had a hard time figuring out what to make with the rubber sheet that Doug had sent. It’s sort of a weird, pliable, but uncooperative floppy material. The size of the sheets were not so big that I felt like I could do a lot with it and it was almost impossible to cut it easily or in a clean way. I decided to think of it as kind of a folding game to see what I could get if I folded it in certain ways and keeping that shape by cutting a few holes and weaving some string through. The hanging planter is the most simple example of that.” — Debbie_MG_4632

Metal Trees: “I found that the various diameters of the copper tubes could nest together very tightly to create a singe rigid bar without any glue (after several failed attempts at soldering them together). The tubes were bent at the ends to lock them into place and create a small sculptural piece.” — Doug _MG_4663

Coiled Beeswax Candle: “I looked into candle-making and learned that the rope I typically use for my baskets and bags would be suitable as a wick with beeswax. Since I’ve been preoccupied with making coiled objects I attempted to create a circular candle with a coiled wick. This was the result.” — Doug