by Gabriela Acha
Based on the premise that our human existence is dependent on a myriad of microorganisms, on our bodily and cellular reactions, on pitiless cosmic motions, on socioeconomic structures and on the material artefacts populating our environment, philosophers Diana Coole and Samantha Frost ask: “How could we be anything else but materialists?”.1 In other words, how can we exist and be unaware of all these crucial material entanglements? Needless to say that, apart from the cells from which we are composed, and the macrocosmos by which we are surrounded, plenty of automated forces influence our existence by guiding and tracking our everyday activities, very often though the ubiquitous internet.
Those apparently immaterial forces do indeed have a materiality, yet of a different nature than the one we were used to. Out of these facts arise not only the questions of what is material and what is not, but also of what social and political power matter has, and which epistemological approach is appropriate.
Not only has the focus and understanding of the world’s materiality shifted, but also the actual materialities of certain cultural entanglements. How do these evolve, then? In the end, certain cultural acts remain the same. To illustrate this idea, philosopher Robin Mackay describes contemporary materials as coded structures which are already the product of an immaterial manipulation and production, and he points the example of an electronic cigarette. 2 The cultural act which is the habit of holding the cigarette and inhaling the nicotine through the lips into the lungs and exhaling is kept, while the plant burning and its medical consequences are decoupled. Burned plants are replaced by vapour and thus, the material shift permits retention of the cultural habit.
In fact, when consciously thinking of matter, a gap is created from which a set of immaterial elements emerge.3 Language, consciousness, subjectivity, agency, mind, soul, imagination, emotions or values are now inexorably linked as well with the infrastructure of work, and in certain contexts, immaterial labour is predominant. The act of performing work –going to work and spending an amount of time at a workplace– hasn´t changed much, whereas the content of labour has become much more information based and culturally embedded, notwithstanding the limitless labour performed outside the workplace, which is often taken for granted. The indirect relationality between immateial labour and material outcome has erased the usual boundaries which previously defined the limits of work.
This relationality between matter and knowledge is an ongoing question which has also been tackled by Mackay, pointing to Les Immateriaux as an example related to art and culture. The exhibition, curated by Jean François Lyotard and Thierry Chaput in 1985 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, “tried to confront an accelerating cycle in which technological instruments acting beyond the human perceptual spectrum, aimed to decompose the material structure of everyday objects into systems of imperceptible structures, which are then recomposed through the use of automated machine languages into new material organisations.”4
The exhibition was conceived as an unstable set of interactions and materials aiming to become a type of language, rather than a stable substance.5 “Les Immatériaux” illustrated the end of an era, not in an apocalytic way, but rather thinking of sentiment shifts. In Lyotard’s mind, “our intuitive allocation of objects and matter can therefore no longer be trusted and the language arising from our spontaneous interactions with the world can no longer help us to describe the experiences we are confronted with through the immaterial world created around us”.
Les Immateriaux’s vision, presented as a “dramaturgy of information”, explored the arising new sensitivity towards new understandings of five main concepts stemming from the indo-european root MAT (matière, maternité, matrice, matériau et matériel). Each term was meant to propose a question; Where do the proposed messages come from (What is their maternity?); What do they refer to? (Which matter do they refer to?); Through which codes can they be deciphered? (What is their matrix?); On which supports are they written? (What is their material) and how are they conveyed to the receivers? (What is the material/equipement in this dynamic?).6 A unique question unveiling an aspect of its complexity. “The entirety of the exhibition could be thought of as a sign that refers to a missing signified”.7
Those questions are useful tools in order to create a route within the exhibition space, as well as in our minds, to bring awareness towards these new sensitivities. The routes are meant to depart from the body and through them explore language, and in Mackay’s mind, these routes are not meant to explain but rather to make sense of all that is problematic.8 Making sense of things has become a crucial skill in a world in which this illusory immateriality is exponentially multiplying the amount of visual and textual information available.
We are not only witnessing this paradoxal relation between materials, materiality and matter, but we are also part of it, made of it. The paradigm shift is here, but what about the shift of sensibilities that Lyotard was keen on in his exhibition? How can we use the tools we have in our hands in order to structure healthier approaches to the infinite information flow, as well as to work habits? Social, cultural and technological development open more questions than they close, and all in all, perhaps a middle way can be found, in which a more minimalist, focused and qualitative approach can thrive.
1 New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, eds. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010)
2 Extract from Symposium: Speculations on Anonymous Materials, at Friedicianum, 2014
3 New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, eds. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010)
4 Extract from Symposium: Speculations on Anonymous Materials, at Friedicianum, 2014
5 Extract from Symposium: Speculations on Anonymous Materials, at Friedicianum, 2014
6 Les Immatériaux official Press Pack
7 Flash Art, #121, March 1985
8 Extract from Symposium: Speculations on Anonymous Materials, at Friedicianum, 2014
2019 © Material Review and Gabriela Acha