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What Matter Does!

Blogpost by Hanna Schraffenberger on the DEAF2012 theme.

I almost stopped a train once. But I didn’t because the emergency handle was placed out of reach. Luckily, the train was not about to hit another train nor did I want to prevent any other kind of accident. The only reason why I wanted to pull the brake was the design of the emergency handle. I was just a kid back then - I didn’t even know that the handle had the power to stop an enormous train moving at full speed. To me, the handle had another power: it had an attractive force; it conveyed that it had to be pulled and it invited me to do so.

Reading about DEAF's topic ‘the power of things’ I was reminded of this particular event. With this year’s program, DEAF takes the idea that there is a force within nonliving objects one step further. The theme expresses the notion of vitality of nonliving matter – the idea, that matter, material and objects have intrinsic powers, which contribute to the course of worldly events. Metaphorically speaking, it refers to the idea that even a nonliving butterfly might cause a hurricane at the other end of the world.

With the festival program, DEAF sets out to explore what matter does and how (nonliving) things act. The topics of material, matter, inherent processes and intrinsic forces come back in debates, workshops and meet the scene events. However, what intrigues me the most is the main exhibition. I wonder how the power of things relates to art.

There’s no doubt that art has powers. The fact that so many of us visit exhibitions, performances and concerts is proof enough that art attracts us. The need for signs telling us not to touch the art implies that we would like to do so. More than that, art is famous for having evocative virtues, for touching us and affecting us emotionally. But what about intrinsic vital processes? Looking at the program, one thing catches my eye: many of the featured pieces are characterized by some sort of inherent flow, movement, interaction or life-like process which causes the art works to evolve, unfold, behave, or simply change over time. I won’t be surprised, if they even seem alive.

One such work is Roman Kirschner’s Maelström. The continuous drawing in a liquid medium is concerned with the relationship between information and material.  The piece relates to how, on a very (!) small scale, information is continuously transferred into materials and then, quickly, disappears again. The result is a dark line, which seemingly self-motivated travels through a mixture of water and glycerol. Slowly, the line transforms into shapes, dissolves and rearranges itself, like a dynamic painting that paints itself.

Continuous transformations are also found in Sandbox by Driessens & Verstappen. From what I have heard so far, I expect a windy small-scale dessert in a big-sized box. Further, constant flux is dominant in Olafur Eliasson’s Notion Motion. In contrast to Maelström and Sandbox, the stream of motion of this installation is influenced by the presence of the audience… and as the visitor becomes part of the work, the piece becomes vital – and alive.

One of the artists who represent the topic of vitality in the nonliving the most, is Philip Beesley. In his work, Beesley combines artificial intelligence, synthetic biology and interactive technology. One result is Protocell Field: an interactive environment that moves around its audience and seems to breathe, feel and care.

With DEAF one day ahead, it is not determined yet how the power of things will unfold. Art works might appeal to us just like emergency handles. Who knows, maybe the artist will allow us to pull.

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