2nd Meeting “Circulations, Interdependencies, Agency: Materials in Action”

Department of Design and Media, University of Applied Sciences and Arts Hannover
October 4–6, 2019

The meeting focuses on local as well as global circulations and exchanges of materials, paying particular attention to the latter’s agency. Rather than existing as pregiven and spatially fixed ready-mades, materials are involved in complex cycles and processes of transformation. They hardly stand still, but move and change on different scales and with various speeds. As materials are mined, produced, transported, processed, commodified and traded, they run through manifold social, technological, ecological, and economic contexts. Consequently, we will discuss how the complexity and diversity of material flows can be systematically taken into account.

However, materials are not put in motion by external processes alone, but are processual in themselves. Therefore, it is necessary to consider their intrinsic dynamics, agency, and efficacy. The productivity and self-activity of materials seems to be of particular interest when it comes to artistic strategies and aesthetic procedures, since they frequently aim at setting free and exploiting the generative potentials of material processes. Therefore, we ask how artistic practices make use of and stage matter in action.

On Friday, October 4, the members of the network will visit the Max-Plank-Insitute for Dynamics and Self-Organization in Göttingen.



Inge Hinterwaldnder: The Bubble as Paintbrush. Chemical Gardens Reinterpreted by Artists

Since the 17th century, chemical gardens have been among the most fascinating show experiments in both alchemy and chemistry. From the early 2000s onwards, they have experienced a revival in scientific research, albeit under new auspices. At about the same time, artists were getting interested in this phenomenon too. While the so-called Chemobrionics with their technical orientation focus on flows as templates for form development, the artists address the simultaneous diversity of temporal dimensions in these physico-chemical processes. The talk discusses the specifics of chemical gardens – such as structural precipitation – in order to develop a different notion of painting. Two concepts are proposed in this context: colour-form as painting material, and colour-embodied visualisation as its mode of depiction. From this perspective, the growth of chemical gardens can be understood as a three-dimensional visualisation of its own material flow.

Benjamin Steininger: Catalysis – a Key Principle of Material Culture in the 20th and 21st Centuries

In the 20th and 21st centuries, chemical science became one of the most important factors in the mobilisation of materials. Fuels, lubricants, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, and ammunition literally drive forth planetary history. For their part, these substances are the effect of an internal molecular mobilisation driven by the chemical reaction mechanism of catalysis. From the turn of the 20th century onwards, catalysis, i.e. the acceleration and control of reactions by special substances not consumed in the overall reaction, has been the most important tool of the chemical industry, and of nitrate- and petro-chemistry in particular. Moreover, catalysis is also a suitable starting point for cultural theory and for the interpretation of central areas of the mobilisation of materials in modern times. It is within this context that dichotomies of nature and technology, of fossil and post-fossil industry, of human and technical agents, of micro- and macro-processes call for critical reconsideration and reinterpretation.

Ina Jessen: Between Materiality and Immateriality. Processes of Change in Art

Chocolate liquefies, it becomes solid and mouldy, dries out and eventually crumbles into dust. Such material-specific developments play a key role in the work of Dieter Roth (1930–1998). In his food objects created for the Schimmelmuseum (Mould Museum, Hamburg, demolished in 2004), processes of material transformation come particularly into focus. The material changes its aggregate condition: it turns from solid to liquid, to dust or even back to liquid again. The use of edible stuff such as sugar and chocolate causes the finiteness of the artworks. These artistically intended processes of decay enable multi-sensual experiences (visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory) that oscillate between disgust and fascination. Decay may lead to glittering crystalline structures as can be observed in the case of Roth’s sugar busts. Moreover, the chocolate figures also attract insects, thus, providing both living space and food source for these creatures: beetles and moths are buzzing around the installation.

Due to the use of decaying materials, chance and time become important factors; as “collaborators” they have their share in the authorship of the work. Hence, forms, functions, and modes of action of artworks that had long been accepted are questioned. As a result, the notion of the “original” undergoes revision, the concept of the everlasting work of art is challenged, and common conservation claims are contradicted. Within the context of Anti-Form or the expanded concept of art, thus, processuality, decay, and decomposition draw traditional patterns of reception into question. Decaying and decomposing artworks address their observers in a multi-sensory way. For example, strong smells and the visual experience of a mouldy art object require new attitudes of reception, and may act as catalysts for the opening up of transitional or extended aesthetics.


Reading material

Materials and Objects

Bennett, Jane: Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things, Durham: Duke University Press, 2010, pp. VII–XIX, 1–24.

Bennett, Jane: „Systems and Things“, in: New Literary History, Vol. 43, No. 2, 2012, pp. 225–233.

Morton, Timothy: „Zero Landscapes in the Time of Hyperobjects“, in: Graz Architectural Magazine, No. 7, 2011, pp. 78–87.

Morton, Timothy: Hyperobjects. Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013, pp. 1–7, 15–17, 19–24.