Art, Matter and Making


Noriko Suzuki-Bosco

07 March 2016

The reading material selected for this PIRG session, ‘New Bachelards?: Reveries, Elements and Twenty-First Century Materialism’ by James L. Smith, looked to understand some of the cross resonance between the philosophy of Gaston Bachelard and the materialism of the twenty-first century. Smith brought together Bachelard’s philosophy on the interpretation of elements, the poetics of reverie and material imagination with Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things by Jane Bennett (2010) and Elemental Philosophy: Earth, Air, Fire and Water as Elemental Ideas by David Macauley (2010). The investigation into a new Bachelard emerging from the synthesis of ideas that engaged with a more ‘diffuse, more complex, network of images, an ecological awareness and an ethic of conservation’ (Smith 2012, 165) provided an engaging backdrop for our discussions around material, making and thinking.

According to the emerging trend of new materialists thought, matter is no longer considered to be inert but to hold transformative qualities to be ‘agentive, indeterminate, constantly forming and reforming in unexpected ways.’ (Hickey-Moody and Page 2016, 2). Bennett’s theory of ‘vibrant materialism’ also reinforces the idea that matter as ‘passive stuff, as raw, brute or inert’ is no longer applicable but instead ‘an ability to feel the vitality of the object, be it with the reason or the body, gives the option of a political engagement with the world that avoids deadening or flattening objects or reducing nature to utility.’ (Smith 2012, 158)

The power of matter to exert influence over the human subject makes us reconsider the agential properties of elements. Bennett argues for a world of ‘intimate liveliness and distributed agency’ where human interaction with matter that has ‘affect, bahaviour, vitality and agency’ questions the human-centric theories of action (ibid, 158). In a world such as this, agency is not solely the province of humans but as something that emerge through the configuration of human and non-human forces.

Theoretical physicist and professor of feminist studies Karan Barad’s theory of ‘agential realism’ also echoes the idea of distributed agency. According to Barad, ‘agency is about possibilities for worldly re-configurings’. Agency, therefore, ‘is not something possessed by humans or non-humans but is an ‘enactment’’ (Dolphijn and van der Tuin 2012, 56). Agency, for Barad, is something that emerges through the process of ‘intra-acting’, a term introduced by Barad to conceptualize the action between matters and to propose a new way of thinking causality.

The ‘object-oriented’ philosophy, where matter has power to hold and shape how humans perceive and interact with the world provided context for lively discussion to take place and during the session, we touched on other areas of theory such as Deleuze and Guttari’s idea of ‘whatness and thingness’ (‘A Thousand Plateaus’), the affect theory, Merleau-Ponty’s theory of affordance, Heidegger’s notion of ‘handling’ and ‘understanding’ (‘The Questions Concerning Technology’) as well as feminist theories, namely that of Julia Kristeva and Elizabeth Grosz (‘Volatile Bodies’). Furthermore, contemporary geographical studies were mentioned as reference points to reflect on how our environmental perceptions (how we connected with the world of material stuff) may also be affected by the ways we interact with the material matters of the world.

The discussion developed into thoughts around embodied learning through material pedagogy and ‘material thinking’ (to borrow Paul Carter’s term). According to Hickey-Moody and Page, material pedagogy and materials thinking do not look at learning as a passive process of simply acquiring information but instead conceives learning to be a ‘relational process where theory is entangled with everyday practice’ (Hickey-Moody and Page 2016, 13). Learning through material thinking points to a process of ‘becoming’ through the relational interaction of body and matter, which is different from understanding using cognitive faculties.

As research artists, the idea that materials are not just passive objects to be used instrumentally by artists, but rather the materials and processes of production have their own intelligence that come into play to interact with the artists’ creativity, resonated with all of us and the session concluded with a small collaged postcard-art making workshop in an attempt to ‘join the hand, mind and eye’ (Carter 2004, xiii).

Whilst choosing the materials for the collage, everyone was asked to be conscious about the way they chose the images and handled the materials. We spent around twenty minutes to create the small artworks which was followed by a presentation of the works around the table and a short discussion. The presentation revealed interesting insights into how the artist’s mind worked during the process of making. Intuition seemed to be backed up with certain habitual characteristics for choosing colours and textures of the materials as well as how they were physically handled.

Studies around new materialism and material thinking offer rich grounds to think about our relationship with the material world around us. As we learn more about the world that surrounds us, we proceed to learn how to better correspond with it. As Tim Ingold emphasizes, ‘the mind is very much connected with the body where the thinking corresponds to what is happening to the material.’ (Ingold 2013, 7). The potentials of relational interaction between human and non-human matter that new materialists draw out are exciting perspective to broaden and transform our sense of Being in the world.

References (including materials mentioned during the meeting)

Barad, K. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

Berberich, C., Campbell, N. and Hudson, R. (eds), Affective Landscapes in Literature, Art and Everyday Life: Memory, Place and the Senses, Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015.

Best, S. Visualizing Feeling: Affect and the Feminine Avant-garde, London: I.B. Tauris, 2011.

Carter, P. Material Thinking: The Theory and Practice of Creative Research, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2004.

Crouch, D. Flirting with Space: Journeys with Creativity, Burlington: Ashgate, 2010.

Deleuze, G. and Guttari, F. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, London: Althorne Press, 1988.

Dolphijn, R. and van der Tuin, I. New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies, Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2012.

Gauntlett, D. Making is Connecting: The Social Meaning of Creativity from DIY and Knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011.

Grosz, E. Volatile Bodies, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Hawkins, H. For Creative Geographies: Geography, Visual Arts and the Making of Worlds, London: Routledge, 2014.

Hawkins, H. Geographical Aesthetics: Imagining Space, Staging Encounters, London: Routledge, 2015.

Heidegger, M. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, London: Harper and Row, 1977.

Hickey-Moody, A. and Page, T. Arts, Pedagogy and Cultural Resistance: New Materialism, 2016.

Ingold, T. Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture, 2013.

Macleod, K. and Holdridge, L. ‘The Enactment of Thinking: The Creative Practice Ph.D’ in Journal of Visual Art Practice vol. 4 no. 2 and 3, 2005.

Preston, J. Performing Matter: Interior Surface and Feminist Actions, Baunach, Germany: Spurbuch Verlag, 2014.

Smith, J. ‘New Bachelards?: Reveries, Elements and Twenty-First Century Materialism’ in Altre Modernità (Other Modernities), Numero Speciale Bachelard e la Plasticità della Materia, 2012, pp.156-167.