In June 2018, artist Rose Salane acquired a collection, or “lot,” of 94 lost rings from an online auction hosted by the Asset Recovery Division of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Each of these rings was assigned a number along with a material description in case their owner returned to claim their lost property. Objects that go unclaimed after a year are eventually made available to the public to purchase.
Over five million people use the subway system daily in New York City. For Salane, the everyday objects that commuters carry with them (jewelry, bags, and other accessories) are a window into otherwise anonymous lives: “Each individual bears personal items that externally speak to their histories.” When lost, these individual markers of experience move into a radically different context, becoming part of an accidental archive.
Around the time that she had discovered the rings, Salane came across a newspaper clipping with an aerial photo of a dense and anonymous crowd of people trying to leave Manhattan through the Port Authority Bus Terminal during the Northeast blackout of 2003. This particular era of the city’s history has long been a fixture in the work of Salane, a lifelong New Yorker based in Queens. “We’ve seen the city change a lot, particularly during the early 2000s: that post-9/11, pre-Web 2.0 global moment of economic and technological change. I grew up in the wake of that historical moment, and preserving that era is something I’ve wanted to do through my work, both for myself and for people that are younger.” Something registered between this photograph and the image accompanying the listing for the rings — an overhead view of the collection on a white tabletop. In conversation with the image of the blackout, Salane began to imagine the rings as guiding lights.
Curious about the rings’ former owners, Salane embarked on a project to examine her newly-acquired collection. A jeweler, a biologist, and a psychic assisted in the material, genealogical, and spiritual evaluation of her findings. This year-long process — documented in great detail by the artist — generated a wealth of content and collaboration across different disciplines that might not otherwise come in contact with each other, all working to answer the same questions: Where did these rings come from, who did they belong to, and what do they mean? “Presented with this assortment of collected insights,” Salane notes, “we are asked to consider parallel notions of value and truth.” Following the exhibition of the project, aptly titled 94 Rings, at Art Basel in June 2019, Salane sat down with Urban Omnibus to tell the story of her elaborate and unconventional investigation. – JM
These particular rings were found both by MTA employees and commuters throughout 2016. For an institution such as the MTA to inadvertently collect commuters’ belongings, and later auction these off as lost property, reveals an understated mechanism at play which can provide insight into overlapping systems of value.
The definition of “asset recovery” is a pursuit to maximize the value of neglected or end-of-life assets through effective reuse or divestment. When the item is liquidated, and its inherent value is distilled, what remains in and for the object itself? Asset recovery involves objects passing from one system of value into another. Take the rings: The original owner cannot be located, their personal value is erased, so where could these objects go, and what form of valuation do they graduate into?
For about five months I took courses and worked in a lab called Genspace to learn first-hand the process of mitochondrial DNA testing, which provides information about direct matrilineal ancestry. It’s an incredible space where I was able to both use the lab as a studio and work with a biologist. Since the rings were not cleaned before I purchased them, and still had small bits of organic debris in the detailing, I initially thought I would be able to extract more information by using a sonicator to clean them, then centrifuging the water to isolate the debris. I quickly learned otherwise — we were able to obtain a clear DNA sample from just one of the rings.
DNA testing is very sensitive — and when you swab an object, you risk erasing organic information. But after the first month and a half, I was able to do almost everything alone with the aid of my notebooks. Though we didn’t get the results we hoped for, I was still able to see the cells, which is the most difficult part of this process.
Mitochondrial DNA extraction and analysis is incredibly laborious, but I thought it was important to engage with that labor — to embody the idea of constantly trying to find (if never receiving) information of value. Maybe labor is another measure of value in this project: What perhaps constitutes the greatest value. Is it more valuable that I got clear DNA results, or that I actually learned how to extract DNA?
Ascertaining the material value of the rings involved a bit of traveling around the city. I first sat with a professional jeweler (a friend’s father) and went over the entire lot, so that I would know which ones to inquire about further. It was very helpful, since meeting with an appraiser is very costly. If I had conducted this initial overview in the Diamond District, it would have been a very significant charge. Several of the rings had inscriptions of some kind, which I looked up online in hopes that these personalized elements would provide a lead that could help me locate the owners. One such ring appeared to be worth $300. In the end, maybe five or six other things had a substantial dollar value — meaning they were worth something in the range of $50 to $100.
Finding an intuitive reader was tricky at first, and I spent a while looking for someone who would be willing to interpret the past life of objects. Many psychics prefer to read people. I found a reader who was willing to meet several times to work with the rings. We did readings for at least 30 of the rings, and each reading would take around ten minutes, meeting for an hour for each session. We could only do an hour at a time because of all the mental energy that goes into reading.
Taking an isolated hour within the day to talk about a missing object became a deep part of the investigation, and in some ways this was just as focused and laborious a process as extracting DNA. The reader has to sit with these rings and try to spiritually connect with them. Sometimes there was no reading at all. But it felt important to take moments to meditate with these objects. It was a different way of understanding, and almost recreating, the emotional value of each ring.
Ring #13: “I feel like this lady knew she lost this ring, there wasn’t a big gap knowing she lost the ring. The person took it as a bad sign they lost the ring. They were really shook up by it. They were looking and looking and they just couldn’t find it. The person was very self-critical and they can’t accept mistakes. This one lost the ring in November or October when it was starting to get cold.” Ring #45: “This ring belonged to a male that was in good shape, I see him carrying a radio player around with them. They are looking forward to being in a relationship with someone culturally different than them. They appreciate the different cooking styles in cultures, for some reason I am seeing Latin with Asian cooking. When this person lost the ring, they were concerned with parking their car. Generally, this person is in a romantic relationship often and is not threatened by others.” Ring #74: “I am going to put this one down because I am not getting anything strong enough from that.”
I was told that one of the ring’s owners was not alive anymore. A lot of the findings had to do with anxieties from the people that previously owned these rings — what they were thinking at the time of losing the ring, if they were worried about the ring being gone, family issues. The reader would occasionally be able to describe their personalities. Those, of course, varied from ring to ring.
A framed exhibition of the project at Art Basel presented the rings as a kind of archive, listing the three approximations of value, mapped in a way so the viewer could easily compare one ring to another. At first, I wanted to organize the rings as shown in the photograph where I had first encountered them — in a group, sitting on a table. But, I realized it was important to break down the information for each ring individually.
In my previous work, I’ve focused on exploring collections that offer new insights into seemingly “understood” historical events or processes. I am not so much interested in a pre-packaged or organized archive, but rather how and why an individual relates to certain materials and not others: the connections and affective experiences associated with different objects. Through such objects, larger political and historical circumstances manifest on a personal level, and become retrievable through recollection. 94 Rings, however, was more concerned with the latent individual histories that objects have but may easily remain concealed — unless investigated.