Are you defined by your possessions? It’s an age-old question, but one that continues to take on new meaning in the technological era where physical belongings of the past can now be stored in the digital archives of the future. Instead of CDs, films and books today we have Spotify, Netflix and Kindles. But how might this reflect on the identity-forming nature of possessions?

From the series "All I Own", 2009 by Sannah Kvist

From the series "All I Own", 2009 by Sannah Kvist

Instead of CDs, films and books today we have Spotify, Netflix and Kindles.

It’s certainly harder to showcase your eclectic cultural tastes when your music and film collections only exist in the cloud. And yet, the flipside is surely greater license to covertly indulge in media we wouldn’t want to advertise; it’s believed that ‘50 Shades of Grey’ wouldn’t have been nearly so popular in the days before Kindle.

Videos and CDs aren’t the only casualties. Instead of adorning our walls, photographs gather digital dust in hard drives awaiting the elusive day when we finally remember to get them printed. Of course there is backlash, with people turning back to analogue formats - epitomised by the bearded hipster cradling his vinyl record player.

Bookshelves, 2004 by Nigel Shafran

Bookshelves, 2004 by Nigel Shafran

It’s believed that ‘50 Shades of Grey’ wouldn’t have been nearly so popular in the days before Kindle.

It seems likely that embedded in the human psyche is the desire to hold something tangible in our hands rather than skimming past fleeting digital ephemera. As more and more of our lives are spent perusing a variety of screens, it’s no wonder that the physically touchable are once again gaining a premium status.

Treasures from Two Millennia , 2001 by Florian Slotawa

Treasures from Two Millennia , 2001 by Florian Slotawa

It seems likely that embedded in the human psyche is the desire to hold something tangible in our hands rather than skimming past fleeting digital ephemera.

And yet, we can simultaneously feel weighed down by our possessions - clearly indicated by the slew of recent books hailing from a very specific subgenre of self-help: tidying up. Promoting the age old wisdom that a tidy room reflects a tidy mind, Marie Kondo’s ‘The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up’ became a number one bestseller. The book advises that anything that doesn’t ‘spark joy’ in the owner should be thanked for its service before being swiftly swiped away.

This drive to de-clutter reflects our changing relationship with objects. In the past, possessions were expensive - your financial status was expressed by the objects you owned. Then came the age of mass produced, Made in China products and possessions no longer communicated wealth to the same degree as they did circa 17th Century. Next, the subscription model was born and we swapped ownership for access. Whether it’s Uber, Airbnb, or ByeBuy - the new technology subscription service - the sharing economy - is in full tilt.

From the series "All I Own", 2009 by Sannah Kvist

From the series "All I Own", 2009 by Sannah Kvist

This drive to de-clutter reflects our changing relationship with objects.

It is undeniable that the desire to live sparser, less consumption-driven lives is partly powered by the environmental imperative. Now, more than ever, we’re burdened with the guilt of taking plastic bags in the supermarket, or disposing of the greasy boxes of a takeaway; we are being reminded of the limits to consumption.

Florian Slotawa's installation view at Bonner Kunstverein, 2004

Florian Slotawa's installation view at Bonner Kunstverein, 2004

Worshipping at the altar of capitalism is harder with a green juice and an environmental conscience in hand.

And yet, despite de-cluttering our possessions, we still fundamentally long to ‘possess’, even if what we ‘have’ is a minimalistic lifestyle. The cult of personal improvement has gripped the Western world in the wake of material satiation. Worshipping at the altar of capitalism is harder with a green juice and an environmental conscience in hand. As Sunrun CEO, Lynn Jurich writes in Fast Company, “the new status symbol is not what you own– it’s what you’re smart enough ‘not’ to own.”

Words: Laurie Clarke