Part 3, project 3 – contextual focus, relationship with materiality

We’re asked here to think about materiality, a word I’ve only recently come to terms with, and to consider Lange-Berndt’s question about what it means to give agency to material, to follow it and act with it [see reference below].

My initial response is to reject the idea that I give agency to my materials. I choose them after all so I make the first choice as to which class of medium is going to go on stage, as it were. But that isn’t the whole story because I have discovered that, exactly as with writing, while I may have a broad notion of what is about to happen, I really don’t know where it will go until the players – the character, the words, the media – arrive and begin to do what they do. As they speak or behave, shift and blend, where we all go changes with each nuance of luminance or shade in appearance or personality.

I wouldn’t say I follow the process, harnessed helplessly to it like a spare camel in a caravan, but I don’t lead it in the manner of the conductor of an orchestra. Nothing quite waits for me to tell it what to do. This is most obvious where wet media are concerned, especially if it’s quite dilute and on a relatively unabsorbant surface (watercolour on mirror film, for instance); but even words left overnight can look and sound different the next day, leading to edits and changes of expression further up and down the line.

I think maybe my relationship to all of these elements is one of Manager. I have a space to fill with something interesting and in accordance with some kind of brief so I assemble my staff, maybe bring in some outside experts like textured medium or a book on herbs to get descriptive details right, and I decide who goes first.

This doesn’t always work out, and in fact these sudden full stops have parallels in other creative processes. A clear idea, a beautiful one, can stifle everything else so it has to go (‘murder your darlings’); and that first couple of layers may seem right at first but, like very many opening paragraphs, all they do is bore the pants off the rest of the piece so it can’t shine.

This seems to be how my way of working is progressing – I make decisions about some things, then I wait to see what happens and make others in the light of what I see. I used to think writing was just writing and editing was for numpties, but I quickly learned that writing is all about editing, and making art seems little different, albeit you get more of it on the floor and your face. Being ready to scrap a piece after hours of work is, to me, a real step forward. Starting again, ‘editing’ out something that doesn’t work, finding ways round parts that are almost there but not quite – these are all confidences that are growing.

I was very pleased to hear in a podcast (Gladwell, 2016) recently that Cezanne made ‘versions’ of his work rather than sketches. Many he didn’t sign because they weren’t finished. In fact he rarely regarded any as finished, he just set them aside and began another, maybe coming back to them but maybe not. Always a work in progress, a WIP, never done.

This is me, although I think I’m better at knowing when to call it quits which may be a naïve proposition given I’m not Cezanne. But I don’t sketch, I do my working out at scale because it suits me better. And I make versions of things which are documented often in excruciating detail in my logs. My materials don’t lead but they are allowed to go off-piste as long as they let me know where they are.

The second part of this contextual focus requires reading the introductory chapter of Lange-Berndt’s 2015 book on materiality and how to be complicit. This is a philosophy-dense text that is embedded in Marxist political thinking and makes reference to concepts that are quite foreign to me. For instance, the idea put forward by Judith Butler (p15) that material has been ‘coded feminine’ and that this ‘requires an analysis of gender biases’. I am totally at a loss with this although I accept that, where language structures assign gender to all kinds of nouns, this may be a valid issue.

Material complicity appears to mean ‘an analytical tool within art practice, art criticism, and art history’ (Brandman, p15) but this gets me no further in understanding what it actually means or why it should be of concern. Later (p16) Lange-Berndt says that ‘[T]o follow the material means not to discuss aesthetic issues of quality, expressiveness, or symbolic content but to investigate transpersonal societal problems and matters of concern’, which is leagues away from my more mundane appreciation of what I thought was stuff. On p17 she says that ‘phenomenology insists on a macroscopic, anthropomorphic view, while to be complicit with the material means, above all, to acknowledge the non-human’.

I am no closer to understanding this or why it matters.

By p20, Lange-Berndt is talking about ‘dematerialisation’ which she says has been linked to aloofness and self containment, qualities that also describe large numbers of people but who seem not to be part of this equation. Still, having written earlier about ‘making materials laugh’, a section which begins with the distinctly uncomedic statement that, ‘This volume aims to map a critical genealogy of the formation of concepts of materiality, dematerialisation, immateriality, inter- and transmateriality’, (p18) I was somewhat relieved to see on p20 a remark about tickling materials. This, Lange-Brandt says, means to ’embrace the carnevalesque, the popular, the excessive – and if necessary, to embarrass oneself’.

It seems I may have missed the point in my more pragmatic approach to the idea of agency in materials.

Gladwell, M. 2016. Hallelujah. Revisionist History. Podcast. Pushkin. Produced by Panoply Media.

Lange-Berndt, P. 2015. Materiality, Documents of Contemporary Art – how to be complicit. Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press. Pp 12 – 23.

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