Making Material Culture

by Alan Blackwell and Simon Biggs, 2008

Originally published in a special issue of Leonardo on the ACE/AHRC Arts and Science Research Fellowships, volume 39, number 5, 2006

The title of this paper, 'Making Material Culture', is to be read in several different ways. The original motivation for collaboration between the authors was an interest in the way that new technologies develop, and are eventually transformed to become part of our material culture, through processes of design. The Crucible network for research in interdisciplinary design was one of the instigators of a series of New Technology Arts Fellowships, intended to explore novel approaches to this question. That programme led us to the second reading of the title, as we engaged with researchers in material science, and immersed ourselves in their culture of making new materials. The outcome of that collaboration extended beyond the conventional boundaries of scientific enquiry, toward the third reading - making new cultural material - in the form of physical artworks. Finally we consider our overall objective as a new kind of social 'material', aiming to create new cultures of technological collaboration and artistic production. The major sections of the paper are organised in order of these different readings.

The work that we describe took place when Simon Biggs worked as an artist fellow at Cambridge University over two phased periods of collaboration. The goal of the first was to explore, over several months, the range of research activity undertaken within this leading centre of international research. This phase occurred under the umbrella of the New Technology Arts Fellowship programme In Cambridge (hosted by Crucible, the Junction, and Kettle's Yard gallery). This was followed by a longer (almost two year) period during which the group of researchers that had coalesced during the first phase undertook a defined research programme focused on the development of novel materials that have the capacity to move between physical states recorded within the microstructure of the material itself ("shape memory" materials).

1. The culture of making materials
The material on which we concentrated was a class of liquid crystalline elastomer (LCE). These are polymer based materials which, like liquid crystal displays, have a molecular structure that changes when energy is applied. However, whereas an LCD changes its visual appearance when the molecules change shape (by polarising the light passing through the material), an LCE is able to change its shape by releasing the molecular bonds between stretched polymer chains. If embedded in a silicon sheet that has been stretched when it was cured, the sheet will contract in the stretch direction when those bonds are released. As with LCDs, the material returns to its original state when the stimulating energy is removed, so an LCE can exhibit repeated cycles of physical behaviour. LCEs do not yet have any commercial applications, but this factor was a stimulant for us rather than a restriction.

Biggs's artistic work, over a period in excess of twenty years, has largely been concerned with the development and application of digital technologies in interactive environments and other interactive artefacts (such as adaptive software, self-authoring texts, etc). His interest, as developed through that body of work, is in the way that artworks which are apparently able to author or manifest themselves result in a mutual shift in the perceived roles of author and reader, and thus a problematisation of the sense of self - this is an ontological inquiry. The attraction of working with LCEs was the opportunity they allow for manifesting interactive artworks not in the "virtual" or intangible media of the digital and electronically visualised but rather in the very tangible and material media of the physical structure of things around us. The long term objective of this research was to develop interactive materials for application in the built environment, creating structures and surfaces that disturb our assumptions about the material world we inhabit. As with Biggs's digital technology works, his concern continues to be ontological, but this project required us also to engage with material research concerns. We did not set out to work with LCEs at the outset of the project, but identified them during the first phase of the project through a process of conversation and negotiation with mechanical engineers and material scientists.

A key attraction in undertaking the fellowship was seeking to work as a group of practitioners and researchers through methods not usually associated with how art is determined and made. Once again, the objective is to question where a creative work comes from, how it can come into being, how it might be consumed and what value it might thus contain (for the authors and for others). We found ourselves working together in a chemical wet lab, among fume cupboards, centrifuges and ovens, becoming members of a physical culture that was completely foreign to both of us. In a sense this collaborative experience and process was itself the "work" and any further outcome, whether artefact or research output, icing on the cake.

2. The making of cultural material
Artists have always been quick to adopt, appropriate and subvert new technologies, from power tools, spray cans, photography and electric light to the contemporary media of video and interactive digital systems. However the reality of contemporary technology research is that it has been largely shaped by the public funding imperatives of military and industrial use. Eisenhower's postulate of a "Military-Industrial Complex" has indeed become established as the primary domain of political and economic power (Eisenhower 1960). When artists engage with such research contexts they must situate themselves in relation to a predominant culture of interdisciplinary laboratories, often becoming either a specialist user/client or a "creative" contributor to an otherwise "technical" team. A paradigmatic example of art/technology collaborative research is the Creativity and Cognition Research Studios (Candy & Edmonds 2002) managed by Candy and Edmonds at Loughborough University, a University that also hosted the first research centre dedicated to interaction between people and computers (Grudin, in press). The collaborative model of such enterprises is to apply the technical resources of new digital technologies to human ends, providing both equipment and expert technical assistance to the artists wishing to work with cutting edge technologies emerging from technically oriented research programmes elsewhere.

In this project we specifically rejected the attractions of technological materials that had been developed for other purposes, choosing instead to struggle with a material that had not yet become a technology. The physicists with whom we collaborated (Eugene Terentjev and Ali Tajbachsh) did not primarily provide assistance in creating an art-work, but taught and guided us in the laboratory, just as they would work with one of their research students. Like many research students, we had a vision of a material that would change our own experience of the (architectural, sensorial, bodily) world. Also, like many research students, our actual experience was that we learned laboratory techniques and habits of description that changed both our goals and our ability to imagine them.

3. The material of making new cultures
Academic disciplines originate in personal and social relations, which are digested over time into taxonomies of knowledge (Bowker & Star 1999).

Art-science might be seen as an emetic antidote for this taxonomic digestion of personal relations into academic disciplines (Kim 1990). Where disciplines are incommensurable and immiscible, the art/work may function as a metaphoric boundary object between the taxonomically distinct languages and concepts (Strathern 2004). In parallel with this collaboration, Blackwell was exploring this theme with James Leach, by convening a series of interdisciplinary design workshops (Blackwell 2005) to explore the conditions in which such metaphoric languages of interdisciplinarity are generated and shared.

As the collaborative team worked with the various materials in the laboratory they became a material language that metaphorically reflected our experience of collaboration; a poetic and conceptual re-description (Rorty 1989) in which our own relations could be interpreted in the behaviour of rubbers, plastics and metals. The LCE polymers were fragile and sticky, constantly folding and attaching to themselves while failing to bond or exert influence upon anything else. Our work with engineers (Sergio Pellegrino and Matthew Santer) presented itself as a harder "shape-memory" metal alloy, more robust, but demanding the application of forces that melted our prototypes and compromised the polymer. The polymer itself surprised us in the irresolvable expense of the raw materials and the days of laboratory time required to synthesize even small samples. As we explored these materials, their properties and constraints, we created both prototypes and new social constructs out of layers of hard and soft, expensive and cheap, fierce and fragile matter.

Where our initial intention had been to develop a material for application in architectural environments we found ourselves developing a type of cyborg material; a "golem" evolving, in the laboratory of our collaboration, of its own accord. We had initially thought of the LCE's functioning as both a structural surface and as the "muscular" infrastructure that would control that surface through the action of the internal molecular bonds. Seeking to resolve multiplying technical problems with the structural capacity of the material we developed a hybrid solution where the LCE skin was supported and controlled by a shape memory alloy (NiTinol - Nickel Titanium alloy) skeleton and musculature. The resulting artefact, which had remained unforeseen until quite late in the project, was therefore a small slab of cyborg "meat".

4. The value of making
Evaluating this project requires open attention to both process and outcome. All those involved experienced new ways of working, including the novelty (for hard scientists) of being free to engage in genuinely open-ended research, rather than being constrained by the increasing demand, in peer-reviewed public research, to define the research result before a project has even started. In this project, we had in fact proposed an eventual concrete outcome (a deployment of LCEs on an architectural-scale), but one that turned out to be neither economically nor technically feasible. It was the processes of learning and experimentation toward this unattainable goal that stimulated while also frustrating any instrumental analysis of outcomes. One of the key elements in the project was the inclusion of a self-reflective component in the form of an anthropologist, James Leach, so it might seem likely that evaluation would have followed automatically and been relatively easily completed. However, the discrepancy between the initial proposed outcome and the actual outcome is such that it makes an instrumental evaluation difficult, even were that the intent.

For the artist, the project was successful in that it met the initial stated outcome of creating a working environment and methodology that would function to problematise the making (and thus the valuing) of art. Despite failing to construct technologies suited to architectural scales, a new assembly of elements was realised and this in itself has already been of further value to the artist, both in and of itself and in functioning as the catalyst for the development of a number of new artworks - 'Metropolis', a large scale interactive installation currently in development, and 'IDfone', a recently completed installation and networked artwork currently touring in the UK as part of the Net:Reality exhibition (Net:Reality 2005). A completely unanticipated outcome of the project was the publication of the book 'Autopoeisis: novelty, meaning and value' in which our artist (Biggs) and observer (Leach) collaborated to explore the comparative value of creativity in the creative arts and the social sciences and to extrapolate from this a series of musings regarding the value and role of novelty in a contemporary culture seemingly obsessed with the "new". This book is itself, at an abstract level, both an assessment and product of the fellowship. In this, and many other respects, it is the relationship between our own anticipations and experiences in the course of this project that point to the richest opportunities in future research of this kind.


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