Agile Objects: The Art and Anthropology of Re-materialization
Location Brunei Gallery - B211
Date and Start Time 02 Jun, 2018 at 11:00
Sessions 2


  • Emilie Le Febvre (University of Oxford) email
  • Ros Holmes (University of Oxford) email

Mail All Convenors

Chair Clare Harris (University of Oxford)

Short abstract

This panel examines the practices by which artists and media-makers from non-Western contexts are progressively re-materializing digital content in order to increase the exclusivity, cultural capital, and visibility of their aesthetic and cultural creations.

Long abstract

At a time in which our experience of cultural artefacts is often physically removed by digitization, this panel seeks papers that consider the practices, politics, and affects of re-materializing artworks from diverse geographical perspectives. The process of de- to re-materialization has been referred to by David Joselit as a 'comedy of matter'; a situation in which the most ''immaterial'' of formats—digital information—has paradoxically led to a proliferation of material states. This metastasizing of media formats can in effect render a quantum of data into a printed photograph, a 3-D print or an analogue sculpture, facilitating a variety of practices from bootlegging and creative appropriation to the return of cultural heritage. These processes of re-materialization have subsequently led to the formation of 'agile objects': cultural artefacts whose value may have originally resided in their authentic forms but today are revered for their capacity as digital files to take on several distinct forms simultaneously.

While these practices among artists, media-makers and museums have been the focus of increasing scholarly attention, their theorization and prevalence beyond Western contexts remains largely unexplored. Redressing this imbalance, we premise that art historical and anthropological examinations of re-materialization can provide unique perspectives about the politics of cultural capital from the Near East to East Asia, Australia to Latin America. This multi-disciplinary panel therefore invites papers that consider the transposition of digital content into objects of material, commercial and collectable value, exploring the capacity of these 'agile objects' to shape artistic and museum practices.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Noise: the re-materialization of the digital in Phumzile Khanyile's photographic series Plastic Crowns (2015-2016)

Author: Julie Bonzon (University College London) email

Short abstract

Based on the photographic series Plastic Crowns, this paper will look at the notion of 'noise' as a political and visual strategy to materialize hegemonic norms and reveals the co-construction of womanhood and domestic space in South Africa.

Long abstract

Plastic Crowns, a series of self-portraits by the young Soweto-born photographer Phumzile Khanyile, reveals the co-construction of womanhood and domestic space through re-materializing their photographic representation. Produced between 2015 and 2016 under the umbrella of the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, this photographic series revisits the contents and forms of the family album by incorporating 'grains' and blurring digital imagery.

In Image Matters: Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe (2012), Tina M. Campt analyses family archives through the conceptual frameworks of sound and music. In a critique of the notion of 'transparency', Campt argues that photographs should be 'listened to', instead of simply being looked at, in order to understand their broader cultural meanings, translations and articulations. Incorporating dissonances and reiterations within her visual analysis, Campt not only succeeds in shortcutting the 'self-evident' dimension of analogue photography, but also highlights continuity and breaks within the genre of portraiture, as well as within a broader socio-historical 'harmony'.

This paper will look at the notion of 'noise' as a political and visual strategy to materialize patriarchal norms, revisit familial heritage and colonial memory. Covering the camera's lens with a piece of her grandmother's dress, Khanyile's use of 'grains' and blurs shortcuts the digital focus and mimics analogue photography. As the female body merges within the photographic texture, Plastic Crowns highlights the gendered construction of the domestic space and unveils the 'masquerade' of the feminine throughout South African history.

The implications of re-materialising taonga pūoro (traditional Māori musical instruments)

Author: Jennifer Cattermole (University of Otago) email

Short abstract

For Māori, taonga (treasures) have mauri (life force). So what kinds of value are ascribed to digital models and 3-D print replicas of taonga? What are the ethical implications involved? This paper addresses such questions in relation to taonga pūoro housed at the Otago Museum, New Zealand.

Long abstract

This paper discusses the process and implications of re-materialising museum artefacts. The 'agile objects' that are the focus of this discussion are seven taonga pūoro (traditional musical instruments of Māori, New Zealand's indigenous peoples) held at the Otago Museum, Dunedin, New Zealand, and their 3-D digital models and prints. These taonga (treasures) were CT-scanned, and the scan data used to create 3-D models and prints as part of a project investigating their manufacture, materials and sound.

While there is no immediate use planned for the 3-D digital models, the physical prints are currently being used in the Otago Museum's education activities. Unlike the taonga themselves (which are currently housed in storage rather than on public display, are not permitted to be played, and can only be accessed if a formal request is approved), the prints can be handled without the need for safeguards - even played, providing an opportunity for experiential learning.

The taonga themselves each possess their own mauri (life force or essence); they are living entities. From a Māori standpoint, there are no boundaries between the past and the present, the tangible and the intangible, the physical and the spiritual. In light of these perspectives, how are the 3-D digital and print models of these taonga valued? What are the ethical considerations in play when taonga are de-materialised and re-materialised? What are the attendant risks and opportunities such 'agile objects' present in their various potential future applications? This paper seeks to address such questions.

'The Artist is Absent': Agency and Automation in Contemporary Chinese Art

Author: Ros Holmes (University of Oxford) email

Short abstract

This paper examines the role of re-materialization as artistic practice. Contrasting two works by Huang Yongping and Wang Yuyang, it interrogates how the 'agile objects' produced by these artists reveal an intense negotiation with the role of authorial subjectivity in contemporary Chinese art.

Long abstract

In 1987 Huang Yongping placed 'A Short History of Modern Painting by Herbert Read' and Wang Bomin's 'History of Chinese Painting' in a washing machine for two minutes. The illegible pulp which emerged from this process was presented as a re-materialized artwork, one which commented not only on the manipulation of language and the deconstructive 'washing away' of printed histories of Chinese and Western art but which also, by means of a modern form of labour (the washing machine) sought to eradicate the artist's hand and authorial subjectivity. Nearly three decades later Wang Yuyang converted Karl Marx's 'Capital: Critique of Political Economy' into a binary code that he then re-materialized as a six-metre tall sculpture using 3D modelling and rendering software. Wang claimed that he had enabled the code to entirely determine the material, colour and structure of the sculptural outcome.

Utilizing processes of 'automation' to re-materialize these works, both artists sought to deny their artistic agency despite the indisputable intentionality underpinning the works' production. As such, this paper aims to further explore: What happens to objects when they are de- and re-materialized in this way? What socio-economic, cultural, and inter-subjective processes are at stake in this transposition of canonical texts into works of art and how can these works be 'read'? I argue these questions are central to understanding the practices, politics and affects of re-materializing artworks and the vital role that such 'agile objects' play in reframing China's recent art history.

Re-materializing Digital Collections: An Exhibition of American Colony Photographs and Historical Revisionism in Beersheba, 2011-2013

Author: Emilie Le Febvre (University of Oxford) email

Short abstract

This paper discusses the re-materialization of digitized images from the American Colony's Photography Department and the pursuit of historical capital in southern Israel.

Long abstract

This paper examines the material transposition of recently digitized photographs from the American Colony's Photography Department (1898-1950) and their exhibition (2011-2013) by the Beersheba municipality inside the city's Grand Mosque - a building at the centre of tensions between the region's Bedouin and Jewish residents. A local visual historian curated the exhibition. It depicted the 20th century history of Beersheba through a series of images copied from several archives, including The Matson Photographic Collection held at the Library of Congress. While the venue was controversial, particularly for Bedouin residents, the curator also rewrote the images' original captions and replaced them with descriptions that minimised the city's Islamic and Bedouin histories.

While this case study highlights the commonplace historical revisionisms occurring in the Palestinian-Israeli context, it also demonstrates that practices of re-materialization further enable these re-contextualizations, particularly when historical documents such as archival photographs are copied and disconnected from their original sources. As such, this paper aims to further explore: Why do curators re-materialize digitized archival photographs? Who controls these dislocated images, their exhibition, and the historical information attached to them? I argue these questions are central to understanding the role of re-materialization for creating alternative forms of historical evidence in the Middle East.

The Surrounding Planet Re-Materialized

Author: Darlene Farris-LaBar (East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania) email

Short abstract

Emerging technology brings greater opportunities for artists who are seeking new ways to communicate to larger and diverse audiences. In my work, 3D digital modeling, 3D scanning, 3D printing, augmented/virtual reality technology re-materializes in hope to make aware of the significant plants from around the world.

Long abstract

Emerging technology is bringing greater opportunities for artists who are seeking new ways to communicate to larger and diverse audiences. In my work, 3D digital modeling, 3D scanning, 3D printing, and uses of augmented and virtual reality technology are used to re-materialize the actual live plants. Through documentation, archiving and making aware of the significant plants from around the world, I hope to promote the protection of the natural surroundings. As humankind draws toward technology and instant gratification, it pulls away from the natural world, draining resources in the name of “advancement” and resulting in potential devastation in the form of climate change. By creating experiences through new technology, that educates and inspires about these amazing naturally engineered life forms, it is hoped that viewers will ultimately seek to protect the environment.

Going to other portions of the world connects people to landscapes while bringing a new understanding of the planet. Many people however rarely have the opportunity to travel lessoning the chance to have a wider perspective of the natural plant life and its connection to the people that live within that landscape. An engaging and immersive experience to see the beautiful and intriguing forms and colors of flowers (especially the endangered plants) draw attention back to nature. Rematerializing and making plants agile, allow people to travel virtually rather than in person. During a critical point in time, with our planet currently existing in a fragile ecological state, these topics are valuable to the world we all depend upon.

Re-surfacing the nude:   Materiality of the body in modern Chinese art and visual culture, 1919-1949.

Author: Di Wang (University of Oxford ) email

Short abstract

This paper examines how modern Chinese art and visual culture re-materialized European nude images in order to encapsulate the violence that the modern Chinese subject has to undergo whenever their identity and physical integrity is under negotiation, and the agency they therefore develop.

Long abstract

This paper examines the material configuration and surface tension of the nude body images in modern China's art and visual culture from 1919 to 1949. This era witnessed a kind of visual information revolution, marked by aesthetic encounters with globally circulated photographs of European masterpieces of art. The 'agile bodies' became visually-generated tropes of thought entered into a dialogue with the traditionally dominant Chinese literary and verbal metaphors of thought. This paper establishes the figure of the naked body, 'digitally reproduced' and 're-surfaced' from European sources, as the quintessential site of transmission and transmutation that encapsulates the violence that the modern Chinese subject has to undergo and the agency they therefore develop, whenever their identity and physical integrity is under negotiation. It revisits familiar artists such as Li Hua (1907-1994), while excavating a number of less discussed figures such as Wan Laiming(1900-1997), China's first animator. It argues that the material re-configuration of the nude images, evolved from a metonymy of the psychosexual or physically threatened body to that of technologized and Marxist revolutionary body. The naked body eventually became an effective visual-tactile register, the insipient Marxist prototype, a crucial site of thinking, a symbol of potent labor that joined the global imaginary of early twentieth century political ideology, and a precursor of contemporary Chinese re-materialization of Western nude images. Ultimately the figure of nude sheds new light on the development of modern Chinese art, while also contributing a crucial piece to the broader mosaic of modern body images' global history.

Species extinction: art, materiality and the representation of material loss in the age of the Anthropocene

Authors: Arnar Árnason (University of Aberdeen) email
Gro Ween (University of Oslo) email

Short abstract

This paper discusses the art and the materiality of species extinction and species recreation in the age of the Anthropocene.

Long abstract

In the age of the Anthropocene the forever lost have been internalised as part of the human condition, their absence mobilised in many foundational narratives. They appear as art, their lost materiality integral to their representations and the uses these representations are put to. The life and death of the unfortunate great auk reminds us of this. The last great auk died on the Icelandic island Eldey, in 1844. Three locals, employed by a private collector keen to secure an example of a bird on the path to extinction, ended the lives of the last two birds and destroyed their egg. This paper describes a multiplicity of responses to the death of the great auk, its material loss. Through a period of almost two hundred years, the great auk existed as an absence, producing a series of movements and transformations, enacting artistic, economic, political, cultural and scientific value. These transformations have included recreations in art, in museum practices - acquisition, taxidermy, conservation, display - and the reintroduction of the great auk in artistic expressions and scientific practice - renaming of species, placing in order, recreation of genetic material, cloning. In the story of the great auk, scientific and artistic practice as culture of repair in the face of material loss, has been redirected from ordering, conserving and representing as ways of making sense of loss in the Anthropocene, to its possible recreation.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.