Feeling Material

Benjamin Woods
Research paper presented in the panel The “New Materialism” in and through Sculpture and Spatial Practice at the AAANZ annual conference 2013 ‘inter-discipline’ convened by Professor Barbara Bolt.
Panel: Bianca Hester, Sarah crowEST, Benjamin Woods, Laura Woodward.
*This paper was also presented on a reading list for Helen Grogan’s SPECIFIC IN-BETWEEN (Part 2) held at ACCA in 2014.

In this paper I unpack the term ‘feeling material’—a term I am using to investigate some of the processes that can connect the activity of a sculptural and spatial practice to the “new materialism” as it is articulated in and through the arts. Initially, I want to define ‘feeling material’ as a mixture of corporeal materiality, and in particular to the plastic arts—the way materials are touched in processes of making, improvising movement, installing projects—in the various ways practitioners participate (and feel consequential) in the forces of the work of art. This corporeal dimension can be said to be constituted by and dispersed amongst feeling material, conjuring notions of body-self-world relations such as flesh of the world (Maurice Merleau-Ponty).1 This feeling material is agential/active matter, ‘matter [...] as process’ (Judith Butler),2 as a vital congealing of agency or ‘condensation of sensation’ (Karen Barad).3 In other words, as mattering, ‘where matter is understood as always already the site of its own animation’ (Andrew Benjamin).4

In this paper I argue that feeling material articulates a way in which art engages and engenders the entanglement of its material and discursive dimensions—the fusing of mattering and meaning in the work of art. In their book New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies, Iris van der Tuin and Rick Dolphijn suggest that the matter/meaning weld maneuvers Western post-Kantian articulations of the discursive as a linguistic discourse (where we might sit around and talk about the messages of an artwork with the material as a mere substrate for this discussion) towards a material discourse, argued as the “new materialism,” where sitting and talking becomes mixed into the material-sensorial activity of the work, making discourse functions with a performative rather than representational relation in art practice and theory.5 In this way the material/social formations that openly determine what is possible also openly cordon off what is impossible.

I’m going to test the capacities of sculptural and spatial modes of production to (re)articulate such a shift in practice and thinking. To do so I will link mattering to notions of sensation, orientation, and infinity, by charting a series of encounters with my action improvisation artwork Processual Rhythms (The Substation, Newport 2012), and the elaborations of feeling material it has generated in the course of writing this paper.

The work in Processual Rhythms involved material experimentation across a combination of processes, including: action improvisation, object and instrument making, arranging and installation, and picturing and participation. Each of these processes act on the other, generating an open and nonlinear set of relations and intensities. Each iteration of this set of intensities is unfolded freshly in the particular circumstances of new encounters with audience and action improvisations. New connections are made between, amongst, and within these intensities, some fizzle away and others thrive, becoming and differing. 

Figure 1: Installation detail, Processual Rhythms, 2012.

Figure 2: Installation detail, Processual Rhythms, audience action by Megan Dennis, 2012.

If I follow one flow of actions seen in figure 1: an action improvisation by Megan Dennis—where Dennis touched the orange sculpture, producing a shaking blurring of the orange line (figure 2), which in the everyday generated a connection to wind, felt differently as a percussive touching of surfaces, unfolding the possibility for a sculpture on the roof of the Substation building (figure 3). Although appearing as a linear progression in this writing, these intensities are merely slight openings onto the many, many parts of a practice expressed at any one time—they are presented as a sequence to give threads or a sense of continuity to a process that often cuts, weaves, jumps and concentrates a vast array of encounters and productions that are determined not to be contained or controlled in full.

Figure 3: Installation detail, Processual Rhythms, rooftop gold ribbon, 2012.

Occassionally these observations jump across artworks and emerge with latent effects. One such instance was the observation that the installed detritus and sculptural works of Processual Rhythms produced the movement of tippy toe walking, which later provided a way of installing and apprehending a different project at KINGS Artist Run Initiative called Goop, turn, sponge, cut, stretch, berry, rain, 2013. Even mopping during de-install becomes an opportunity to generate studio/home work like this sponge on my kitchen bench. In this mode of production, infinite strands of activity can be synthesised to meet the improvised situation of a new artwork—becoming a kind of repertoire for action. Openness entails that only some actions can come to matter at once with limits that can cut across the temporal, spatial, institutional, personal, political, ethical etc. all at once.

By emerging in terms of its shifting limits, an open, turning array of intensities becomes the ‘mode of differentiation’ in my practice. In the paper Figuring Materiality (2011), the artist Terri Bird argues that the ‘work of the work of art is its mode of differentiation [...] the style of its cut that negotiates the relations of inside and outside operating in any particular artwork.’ This cut, Bird continues, accounts for the way in which the ‘limits of any differentiation or demarcation are only ever partial, and the incorporation of forces of an outside in excess of what is knowable is inevitably incomplete.’6 The limits of the demarcation of my work Processual Rhythms are very fluid and often appear unaccountable, but they are constituted and generated by its particular bits and pieces changing through time—resisting mastery or single-minded intent. Any particular encounter remains open to rearrangement, specific circumstances, i.e. its indeterminacy and internal/external differentiation is a feedback loop: as a friend wearing a butterfly print jumper stands alongside stickers on a wall. Or the air rushes in, combing lengths of hanging gold foil.

These little and many intensities enter and come to constitute the mix of the practice: where times, spaces, projects, actions, meetings, and human/nonhuman phenomena are entangled together, generating a sculptural activity that simultaneously ‘enables and constrains what can and cannot be done or said.’7 This could move discussion beyond a masterful artistic model, whereby the artist or participant looks in on the action and virtuously dictates or deciphers the direction and activity of the work from the “outside,” as though such an outside were always possible for an artist and even for audience.

In har paper The Athleticism of Imaging: Figuring a Materialist Performativity, Barbara Bolt invokes the Deleuzian and Guattarian materialist ontology of art where material forces create the aesthetic plane of composition: this composition constitutes ‘the productive synthesis of forces constructed as a block of sensation.’8 Bolt creates a series of movements that figure art as a productive, expansive force, arguing that the unwieldy process of picturing in which images emerge, insinuates an audience’s involvement within ‘the teeming life of the work.’9 In this performative account, artists and audiences can participate in the works’ becoming, and in the process, the work gets into “us,” affects our becoming and our encounters with pictures, objects, bodies, other people, and other worldly phenomena. How they affect audiences, or rather, how articulations of these affects shape themselves, is of utmost importance to new materialist accounts of bodies, because of the way such a shift repositions bodies as material-discursive phenomena – producing and produced by the indistinguishable effects of the social-material and the nature-culture hyphenations.10

When this is applied to the sculptural and spatial work I’ve been discussing, an audience might notice themselves in highly emergent situations. As the Scottish artist Karla Black says ‘the thing about sculpture is that it is completely [...] in the world, it absorbs you into the materials and into yourself in the physical world. You know that that is not solid and that you can touch and you can move around, and I feel like that sort of openness does something to your body and it does something to your brain.’11 For me, this something that Black registers is the way in which sculpture and spatial practice can intensify the pervasiveness, the saturation, of feeling material. As Bolt says, when we get ‘built into the work,’ our entanglements within the dynamic activities of mattering are intensified, and we might begin to feel consequential.12 When the work disperses being across time, I get dispersed with it.

Because of this I wish to highlight and rearticulate the possibility that feeling material, with its multiple associations, can help move beyond a separation between human and nonhuman dimensions, i.e. moving beyond the literal association of only the hand or skin to feeling and the connection of consequence to preconceived sequences/causes and entrenched/dominant systems. For this I want to expand on how ‘the productive synthesis of forces [that] constructs a block of sensation’ operates in sculptural practice, where the demarcation of the work is compelled to open all-around.13 What happens to this ‘block of sensation’ and what happens to “us,” when sculpture becomes an act that is intensively generated by the indeterminate activity of matter?

An articulation of sculpture as an act can be found long ago in Johann Gottfried Herder’s text Plastik (1778 [eng. translation 2002]). In the paper Endless Touching: Herder and sculpture (2011), Andrew Benjamin revisits Herder’s text, saying that according to Herder, ‘sculpture is presented not just in relation to its spatiality but also in regards to its having an active quality; matter as dynamic. Being is acting out and what is acted out is the work’s matter. Matter therefore is activity.’14 Furthermore for Herder, Benjamin says, art and the conditions that it creates and operates within can never be finished, artwork enacts the unending and in the process acts out its ‘being as mattering.’15 Herder identifies the openness of art’s being, the openness of mattering, by using sculpture as a way of maneuvering an engagement with art from sight (visually) focused to a focus on touch, where we can get in touch with the ‘infinite sublime.’ Herder’s definition of sublimity returns to a more traditional notion of ‘that which is already in excess,’16 in a way that joins excess to the limit of what matters, rather than to the transcendental (where getting carried away from the matters at hand, the here and now, favours ideals transcending what is given).17 The infinite sublime, Benjamin says, identifies ‘sculpture as that which does not have a single point of orientation.’18

Figure 4: Installation detail, ... salt left by the waves, chalk drawing action, 2013.

To see this infinite sublime articulated in practice I’m showing you an action from a project (figure 4) that took place at c3 contemporary art space in June 2013, titled salt left by the waves (2013). Different shifts in material arrangements, everyday action improvisations, architectural and contextual conditions, and discussions with visitors and friends came to constitute the progression of the installation and the activities it combined. This installation image expresses one of the ways this installation created a space aiming to engage sculptural participation in the differentiating work of art, trying to physically emphasise an act of opening out all-around, and in the process visibly becoming part of the forces of the work. This floor-based action work marked a dynamic territory on the brick floor. The activity had me at c3 everyday as an attendant, bending to mark a fleck of chalk... on each brick of the floor... turning my body around as I went... steadily opening out my orientation with each step... moving and combing along the space. This work was complex because it combined the act of the marking, the apprehension of the activity by visitors either walking on tip-toes between the marks or scuffing the chalk inflections with their feet, and trying to perceive the slight and many turns in the lines all-at-once. It also produced small chalk pieces with many edges as in figure 5.

Figure 5: Action remnant, ... salt left by the waves, chalk drawing action, 2013.

By encountering this work through a reading of Benjamin’s reworking of Herder, it could be said that the sculptural act ‘locates the infinite as much in the object’s mode of presentation as it does in the condition of a response.’19 This chalk object is presented on my kitchen bench, as the result of material activity over time. It does not represent that activity, but instead expresses freshly as a crystalline block of sensation, strangely reminiscent of a chalky Brancusi. This kind of example of a works expansive abstraction, offers a way towards seeing the fusing of matter’s potentiality to ‘meaning’s lack of finality,’ where the conditions of meaning’s existence are locked to a ‘conception of object defined by the “unending.”’20

In her paper On Touching—The Inhuman that Therefore I am (2012), Karen Barad provides an account of touching that explores the differing infinities of matter through a quantum new materialist framework. In the process she traverses the dynamic where identity, “selves,” and other “entities” are dispersed and diffracted across being and time.21 By arguing that ‘touching, sensing, is what matter does, or rather, what matter is’ and deploying ‘matter [a]s condensations of response-ability,’ Barad makes an attempt ‘at putting “us” more in touch with’ the ‘infinite alterity that lives in, around, and through us’ in mattering.22

Mattering as the condensation of sensation, of touching and response, might help to refresh ‘the productive synthesis of forces constructed as a block of sensation,’ when it comes to sculpture. While the block of sensation is at work for processes of picturing, sculpture’s spatial and temporal expansivenessits turning intensities—demand the responsiveness of a tremendously physical event. In the excess of its demarcation, sculpture radically opens the world of the work onto the happenings of its larger world. An extended participation in the openness of mattering seems to produce practices. I think that such an immersion within the forces of sculptural and spatial practice, brings sculpture in touch with a feeling material, something that could be known as matter feeling in, as and all-around “us.”

What happens when feeling material is seen to be literally become part of the teeming life of expansive and generative sculptural work? By testing this question I have made movements that gesture towards a physical, sculptural articulation of the fusing of matter and meaning—an articulation that sees the orientation (arrangement/movement/meaning) of the work of art produced by the differentiating work of mattering. The little parts of my practice that I have shown throughout this paper have offered a splicing of encounters that be worked endlessly to figure what matters by feeling material; a process that conflates human/nonhuman expressive acts, as physically and discursively fused; partaking in a changing dynamic of events continually rupturing and gluing the circumstances.
1 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, (Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge, 2012), 235.

2 Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 191.
I use this source for Butler as I have, so far, only read her text through the work of Karen Barad. The main reference to her work that I am particularly interested in is in Barad’s text, chapter five Getting Real section The Materialisation of Bodies.

3 Karen Barad, “On Touching - The Inhuman That Therefore I Am.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 23, no. 3 (2012): 206-223.

4 Andrew Benjamin, “Endless Touching: Herder and Sculpture.” Aisthesis 3, no. 1 (2011): 89.

5 Iris van der Tuin and Rick Dolphijn. New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies, An imprint of MPublishing, University of Michigan Library: Open Humanities Press, 2012, 91-92.

6 Terri Bird, “Figuring Materiality.” Angelaki 16, no. 1 (2011): 12.

7 This is the definition of discourse that Karen Barad elaborates and argues in her Agential Realist account of material entities and their ‘intra-activity.’ Providing an important shift away from a linguistically heavy lens for materialist practices.

8 Barbara Bolt, ‘The Athleticism of Imaging: Figuring a Materialist Performativity.’ On the Verge of Photography; Imaging Beyond Representation, UK, BIAD (2013): 121.
In picturing ‘we are not outside looking at an image but actually become part of the teeming life of the work.’

9 Bolt, Barb: 121.

10 Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, 152-153.

11 Peter Simek and Karla Black, Interview: Scottish Artist Karla Black on Materials, Meaning, and Messy Moments, Dallas Museum of Art, 13/11/2012 http://frontrow.dmagazine.com/2012/11/interview-scottish-artist-karla-black-on-materials-meaning-and-messy-moments/

12 Grubinger, Eva and Jörg Heiser. Sculpture Unlimited, Berlin: Sternberg Press (2011).
According to Eva Grubinger and Jörg Heiser this kind of negotiation has grown to be expected in engagements with artwork. ‘Artists and audiences share in an awareness that a negotiation is taking place, one in which the artwork stands on the continuum between an object with sharply delineated autonomy and an object that is seemingly assimilated into its environment, be it into architecture or social relations.

13 Even historically, sculpture could be considered the one plastic art that is physically open in-the-round to the world. 

14 Andrew Benjamin, “Endless Touching: Herder and Sculpture.” Aisthesis 3, no. 1 (2011): 73-92.

15 Benjamin, “Endless Touching,” 86.

16 Benjamin, “Endless Touching,” 86.

17 I want to quickly note the connection to Terri Bird’s ‘inevitably incomplete mode of differentiation.’

18 Benjamin, “Endless Touching,” 86.

19 Benjamin, “Endless Touching,” 86.

20 Benjamin, “Endless Touching,” 89.

21 Barad, “On Touching,”
Ontological indeterminacy, a radical openness, an infinity of possibilities, is at the core of mattering. How strange that indeterminacy, in its infinite openness, is the condition for the possibility of all structures in their dynamically reconfiguring in/stabilities. Matter in its iterative materialization is a dynamic play of in/determinacy. Matter is never a settled matter. It is always already radically open. Closure cannot be secured when the conditions of im/possibilities and lived indeterminacies are integral, not supplementary, to what matter is.’

22 Barad, “On Touching,” 215.

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

Karen Barad, “On Touching - The Inhuman That Therefore I Am.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 23, no. 3 (2012): 206-223.

Andrew Benjamin, “Endless Touching: Herder and Sculpture.” Aisthesis 3, no. 1 (2011): 73-92.

Terri Bird, “Figuring Materiality.” Angelaki 16, no. 1 (2011):

Peter Simek and Karla Black, Interview: Scottish Artist Karla Black on Materials, Meaning, and Messy Moments, Dallas Museum of Art, 13/11/2012 http://frontrow.dmagazine.com/2012/11/interview-scottish-artist-karla-black-on-materials-meaning-and-messy-moments/.

Barbara Bolt, ‘The Athleticism of Imaging: Figuring a Materialist Performativity.’ On the Verge of Photography; Imaging Beyond Representation, UK, BIAD (2013): 121-140.

Grubinger, Eva and Jörg Heiser. Sculpture Unlimited, Berlin: Sternberg Press (2011).

Iris van der Tuin and Rick Dolphijn. New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies, An imprint of MPublishing, University of Michigan Library: Open Humanities Press, 2012, 91-92.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, (Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge, 2012).