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The Vibrancy Effect An Anti-Disciplinary Expert Meeting

Introduction to The Vibrancy Effect ebook, by Chris Salter.

As techno-science increasingly reaches into every aspect of life, formerly fast held distinctions between the inert and the active, the human and non-human and life and matter are cracking. From biotechnical engineering and shifting flows of migration to the cataclysmic imminence of climate change, our very notions of what and how we consider life are under fire. Clearly, in ecological terms there are serious ethical and political stakes around a deep understanding of what sociologist of science Andrew Pickering has called “material agency”–the ways in which the material world does things to itself and to us.

Partially due to these questions, there has been a marked shift in the discourses and practices of the humanities, social sciences and art away from the hype of the digital and the simulated that marked the 1990s and towards issues of embodiment, experience and materiality. “Matter matters,” writes feminist science studies scholar Karen Barad. As Diana Coole and Samantha Frost in their edited volume New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics argue, this new (or renewed) interest in a vibrant materiality is forcefully driven by the emergence of critical political and ethical concerns bringing the aesthetic-ethical-political efficacy of these issues to appear more urgent than ever.

But this “new materialism,” as the movement has been dubbed, is not only interested in human practices and experiences. Art, design and architecture, not to mention philosophy, political science, cultural and science studies, anthropology and sociology, among others, have increasingly shifted their attention to the acts, the “performances” of materials, objects, substances and processes beyond human life. At the same time, while these discussions have mainly taken place in the social sciences and humanities and principally, in written form, artists working with new biological, computational and material stuff have been exploring in practice how matter expresses itself to an observer/spectator-what matter and materials actually do, rather than what they are. Here, artistic practice can contribute to these discussions and demonstrate ethico-aesthetic-political repercussions in a powerful and experiential way that is different from written forms of knowing. Up until now, these worlds have remained oddly enough, shockingly separated from each other.

The theater director Peter Sellars says that art is there to do what other practices and disciplines do not want to talk about or have difficulty confronting–that is, our human perception and experience coming into collision with systems larger than any of us. What then are the ways we work with this vibrancy effect/affect – in materials ranging from sensors, tissue, physico-chemical, acoustic and computational processes and, last but certainly not least, language itself? How can we think and describe materiality from a dynamical point of view, rather than a static object which is imbued with an aliveness from outside of it and how do we experiment with different forms of materialization?

Given the understanding that a serious discussion around this issue of matter mattering can only take place if the sciences, humanities, social sciences and the arts are at the same table, “The Vibrancy Effect” was a closed expert meeting held at V2_ in April 2011 that sought to bring together a select group of natural and social scientists, humanists, and artists working in different disciplines but united in their underlying urge to explore the aesthetic-political-technical-ethical effects of “vibrant matter.” The term “vibrancy effect” is a cross between the domains of matter and experience; between political theorist Jane Bennet’s notion of vibrant materiality and psychologist Daniel Stern’s concept of the “vitality affect” in the human in which he states, “Infants take sensations, perceptions, actions, cognitions, internal states of motivation, and states of consciousness, and experience them directly in terms of intensities, shapes, temporal patterns, vitality affects, categorical affects, and hedonic tones…they often take the form of a “rush.” They are about a way of feeling, not a specific content of feeling” (Stern 1998, 67).

The one and a half day expert meeting that took place in April 2011 aimed in the best way to be what Pickering calls “anti-disciplinary,” in that the practices of the participants themselves already defied convenient categories of art, natural and social science. Furthermore, the meeting provided a context for an intensive, closed session of presentations, discussion and arguments without the immediate pressure of public presentation like traditional conference or exhibition settings.

The meeting explicitly sought to address both epistemological (ways of forming knowledge) and ontological (ways of being and acting) divides: the intellectual gap between different disciplinary understandings of such vibrant matter or non-human/material agency and the theory/practice split between humanities, science and social science scholars and artists in conceptualizing and then working with such materials. The participants came from a diverse range of practices: biology, science studies, sociology, architecture, theater/performance studies, physics, computer music, biological art, philosophy and neuroscience. Our aim was to create a safe haven within the “third space” setting of V2_—a site that was neither gallery, theater nor university or conference venue—where scholars, scientists and artists could mutually benefit from influence and confrontation with each others ideas but who normally do not have the opportunity to meet due to disciplinary barriers (i.e., conference settings are usually sliced up between academics (i.e., theorists) and “artist talks”).

Thematically, the expert meeting/workshop explicitly aimed to uncover and trace through concepts and ways of working surrounding these vital materialisms. At the same time, we attempted to develop ways of talking that were rigorous, in depth and did not repeat the superficial lip service normally paid to the collaborative utopias of “art science,” “art and engineering” and “art and research.” While relaxed, engaging and certainly civil, no side found the meeting easy going. For example, the scholars and theorists were, at times, jarringly confronted with “art in the making”: the processes and methods by which artists/designers conceive, design, implement and exhibit new material agencies. Some of the supposedly scientific ideas discussed by the artists caught the trained scientists off guard with one participant commenting on the fact that he had only heard artists talking about biophotons but not physicists. Moreover, strange questions arose such as would an artist working with manipulating physico-chemical phenomena, for example, influence the ways in which a scholar could discuss vibrant agency in terms of temporal process rather than as finished object to be analyzed after the fact?

Simultaneously, the participating artists were challenged with languages, methods and practices that were alien to their sensibilities, both conceptually and in terms of the delivery mechanisms (e.g., the standard academic means of transmitting knowledge through writing or formal conference presentations). At one point, one of the artists in the group threw up her hands in exasperation stating that she was completely overwhelmed by being in a room with so many sociologists—a discipline she had absolutely no knowledge of. Here, questions went the opposite direction: how, for instance, would an understanding of Baruch Spinoza’s concept of ethics as things affecting other things in the world change the way an architect could conceive and construct a building or environment? Could understanding sociological theories of scientific phenomena actually make a difference in the way something could be conceived and exhibited?

The structure of the workshop involved a series of preparatory steps undertaken by all participants. A reader of carefully selected background material was prepared with the expert help of researcher/participant Harry Smoak and the editorial assistance and organization of Michel van Dartel and his V2_ team. One month prior to the meeting, each participant was asked to develop a short position statement from their own field of expertise and to introduce the group to their ideas in a short oral presentation. After an exhausting day of presentations from all of the participants, we opened up the meeting to brainstorming and more unstructured sessions in which the different participants asked questions of each other. Some of these questions were clarification of unknown terms or concepts while others were more philosophically rooted into the nature of specific disciplinary practices. As usual, participants wanted to experience in the flesh the complex and exotic artistic works that were discussed - something that was not possible given the limited time factor of the meeting but that was definitely discussed as a possible format for a similar future gathering.

Given the short amount of time for the workshop, we had three explicit goals. The first broad goal was to examine how new theoretical impulses could feed the discourse on art, science and technology as well as to examine how new artistic impulses and processes can be understood in their “making” (as opposed to being analyzed as finished objects) and could feed new forms of practice. The second goal aimed to forge an intensive dialogue between artists and humanities and social science scholars/writers with the aim of furthering potential collaborative partnerships, something of which has happened with several of the participants in different iterations. Finally, the third and final goal was to aim at a concrete outcome, namely, to produce the publication that you are reading now—one which could outline the results of the workshop in the form of transcriptions, interviews, essays and material examples in an conceptually and visually/aurally engaging and accessible way. Perhaps this ebook that is the labor of so many people could be used for teaching, for inspiring artistic or theoretical ideas or as leverage in developing research funding programs and projects that bring together the arts, sciences and humanities/social sciences in more substantial ways than at present. More generally, there was an understated yet, central goal that tied everything together: namely, to shift the emphasis of research in art and technology towards exploring new collaborative artistic/design projects with new productive linkages between science and technology studies, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, the natural sciences and cultural and media studies.

To conclude, I want to thank all of the participants for their incredible contribution to the workshop as well as V2_ for having the foresight and vision to support such an initiative. The ebook you are now reading is an attempt to capture that intense two days of discussion, argument and dialogue and to hopefully, enable that dialogue to carry on in your own thought and actions.

Read the other texts and watch the video's in the Vibrancy Effect ebook.

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