Q&A with Kate Bingaman-Burt, Artist and Author Behind ‘Obsessive Consumption’

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Kate Bingaman-Burt, a graphic design professor at Portland State University, spent three years chronicling and drawing at least one of her purchases every day. And the purchases tended to be everyday expenditures: a pen, a cup of coffee, headphones, a haircut. Why did she do this? And what did she learn about herself, her shopping tendencies, and consumption in general?

That’s what I wanted to find out. The author and illustrator of the recently released Obsessive Consumption: What Did You Buy Today answers my questions below.

Where did the idea for this project come from? Why did you begin doing it?

I started this project as a break from another project where I was drawing all of my credit card statements by hand. The credit card project was not fun, but that also was NOT the point. Making work about consumption and personal consumption especially is a big theme throughout my work: drawing the mundane items that we all purchase everyday just seemed like a natural next step. I also felt uncomfortable drawing objects, and drawing an object every day was the perfect way to get more comfortable with drawing. I started making work about personal consumerism around 2002 when I started photo documenting all of my purchases and then I created a brand called Obsessive Consumption to serve as the umbrella for all of my consumption projects to fall under.

Prior to my work about consumption, I worked as a designer in the home gift industry (candles, fancy foods, potpourri etc). Attending trade shows was a regular event for me, and I was really engaged by watching what people would buy or not buy, so I started thinking about my own purchasing patterns and impulses and the storytelling that people engage in over objects.

Obsessive Consumption has gone through many phases (photo documentation, installations, credit card and receipt drawings, sewing and lots and lots of object drawing), but it has always been about everyday objects and investigating why we buy what we buy, and what it says about us.

What kind of consumer are you? Do you carefully consider your purchases? Do you love to shop or what?

I love to shop. I hate to shop. Emotions connected to purchasing runs rampant in my work. I am really aware of objects and prices and of what I spend and of what I save. I see everyday items in a different light as well since so many of my drawings are of simple things, but to me they become a bit more special because of the story behind the object.

I overanalyze everything I purchase (and everything I DON’T purchase, along with consumerism, advertising, marketing and branding in general), but I kind of have to through this twisted set of rules that I have set up for myself over the past few years.

Guilt is a huge theme in my work, and so is silliness. Silliness and guilt. I realize the ridiculousness of a lot of what I do, but I embrace it. Again, guilt is a big theme, but I feel better when I make stuff with my hands and share it with people.

What is it about mundane, ordinary purchases that you find so interesting, visually or otherwise?

I have always had a fascination with utilitarian objects. The simplicity of a cup or the beauty of a receipt… these utilitarian objects are also used by a wide variety of different people, and I am interested in the unique experiences that the individual might bring to this mass-produced or simple object.

When you look at all of the things you’ve bought, are there things that surprise you, or that you had forgotten you’d bought?

These drawings act as a visual reminder of an experience that I might have forgotten if I hadn’t documented it. Usually, when I look at a drawing I am reminded of the person that I was with when I purchased it or something that I was thinking about that happens to be unrelated to the object. Sometimes I fear that I won’t remember it if I don’t draw it or take a picture of it. I don’t want to lose these experiences, conversations or memories. Perhaps I am really collecting these items instead of my purchases. Or I am using the purchases as a conduit for these experiences.

Are there things you bought and later regretted? If so, what?

Mostly fines (parking tickets! library fines! late fees!). I overanalyze purchases so they are usually pretty intentional at this point.

In the course of documenting your purchases, what did you learn about yourself, and about consumers and the how and why be buy stuff in general?

Even though my work starts with my own purchases, I feel that I have learned a lot more about other people and their purchases and stories. I buy a lot of what you buy: shoes, gum, coffee, tape … nothing too exciting, but conversations start with others over the shared purchase experience. I am learning new things everyday about others and their buying habits along with my own and the personal story that might be revealed from a mundane item. It is about visual storytelling through a simple system of rules focused around routines that we participate in everyday.

I have also learned that I love to draw. I get lost in lines, marks and patterns of these objects and look forward to my drawing time everyday.