Posted on 2017/11/01 by

The Lives of Boxes: Labels, Invoices, and Institutions in/on the ABRA Box

In his analysis of video games on display in museums, Raiford Guins highlights the usefulness of taking labels into account when he takes an interest in the Plaintiff’s Exhibit stickers/labels on the back of the original Brown Box prototype in the National Museum of American History, noting that the museum’s choice to hide the stickers from view conceals an important aspect of the device’s legacy: legal disputes in the game industry (72-73). When we ignore such labels, we ignore entire facets of history—perhaps even entire lives, if video games can have multiple lives and “afterlives” in museums, as Guins suggests (36).

Drawing inspiration from Guins, I want to examine how a shipping label and an invoice can help illuminate the lives of a particular box from the Residual Media Depot. (After all, if video games can have multiple lives, so can the boxes they come/are stored in.) I call it the ABRA box, for its white and blue ABRA packing tape, and as it originally contained items shipped from the ABRA Montreal electronics store to Darren Wershler for the RMD. This box has had at least two lives that we can identify (in addition to the untold lives it might have led before leaving the ABRA store): 1) as a means of transport for products shipped to Wershler, and 2) as a storage space for items in the collection. The box’s Purolator shipping label and attached ABRA invoice testify to those lives.

One side of the ABRA box with the invoice enclosed in an attached pocket (left); another side of the box, featuring the Purolator shipping label (right)

We can consider the label and invoice more recent versions of the kinds of nineteenth-century American “documents” that Lisa Gitelman discusses: understudied documents like tickets and menus that emerge from nineteenth-century commercial printing, “that were merely printed, not edited or published . . . [that didn’t] have readers or create readerships, nor did they have authors or entail authorial rights”; not “produced in the interests of cultural memory” but rather as “instruments of corporate speech proper to the conduct of business of every sort, as well as to the operations of institutions” (11-12). Similarly, the Purolator label and invoice lack conventional practices of editing, publishing, and creation of readerships or authors, in addition to being instruments of institutions and the transactions between them, in this case the electronics company and the university.

The invoice tells us that the objects originally sold to Wershler and shipped in the box were USB powered speakers, arcade joysticks and encoder parts, and a wireless entertainment keyboard. I’m not entirely sure what all those are, but I know what they aren’t (also confirmed by Wershler): the objects currently in the box (an Xbox 360 with accompanying controllers/cables/AC adapter). Not only did the box transform from transport vehicle to storage container, its contents changed as well. This is not the same box that was shipped to Wershler on May 5, 2017 (as the Purolator label states). It has a new life. (The repetition of Wershler’s and Concordia’s names here reveals an interesting anxiety about such identity-shifting. Not only do the “ship to” categories on both the invoice and Purolator label specify Wershler and Concordia, someone also wrote those names yet again in bigger letters in black marker on the box. This may be good shipping practice meant to ensure correct delivery, but it also points to the dangers that this transition presents to the box: the risk of being lost or misdirected, of ending up in the wrong new life.)   

The ABRA invoice (left); the shipping label up close (centre); “D. Wershler” written in marker on the box (right)

If one of the aims of the RMD is to interrogate the power dynamics of collecting and its objects—to examine “not just how technologies were used . . . but who determined how they were used, who used them, and who determined what the significance of that use was for various kinds of communities, and for culture at large” (Wershler, “What’s in a Name?”)—documents like shipping labels and invoices are especially important to consider for what they tell us not just about the lives of boxes and their contents but also about the institutional frameworks/relationships that shape those lives. As Gitelman states, “Documents are integral to the ways people think as well as to the social order that they inhabit” and “can never be disentangled from power” (5).

The ABRA box’s invoice and shipping label remind us that the ABRA speakers, joysticks, etc. didn’t end up in the RMD just because they’re useful for studying game history—it was also a matter of someone having $309.45 to spend and choosing to spend it on them, of someone being hired by Purolator, of someone filling in the fields on the shipment form according to the corporation’s rules. [1] All this to say that when we examine an item in a collection, we shouldn’t forget the box it came in, who packed it, who brought it, and the many lives it may have had and will go on to have.

[1] Gitelman presents an interesting analysis of “fillable” documents specifically in Chapter 1 of Paper Knowledge, which I don’t have space to engage with here, but which certainly merits attention in a more in-depth discussion of labels/invoices.

Works Cited

Gitelman, Lisa. Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents. Duke University Press, 2014.

Guins, Raiford. “Museified.” Game After: A Cultural Study of Video Game Afterlife. MIT Press, 2014, pp. 31-73.

Wershler, Darren. Personal interview. 24 Oct. 2017.

– – -. “What’s in a Name?” Residual Media Depot, 21 July 2016, http://residualmedia.net/whats-in-a-name/. Accessed 31 Oct. 2017.

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