“Less a juncture to control than an adventure to be had” – Working with Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin (2005)

Image: “Abyss” by Alpha Coders

While working on my section for the forthcoming Routledge International Handbook of Interdisciplinary Methods, I stumbled upon an old essay on researching with Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin. It is one of three essays that I wrote in 2005/2006 for the social theory module of my MSc in Human Geography Research Methods at the Open University. I had stopped being a Fashion student in 2003 and had worked on my own for two years to develop a theoretical project. At the same time, I was negotiating the future of my art practice and how it might sit within an academic framework as a “method”. The MSc, and especially this module, gave me the opportunity to explore a lot of different theories and experiment with my writing. There are quite a few essays and working papers that I have never published, but am thinking of re-editing for teaching use. When I ran the Theory Surgery at the British Library café, the Serres/Bakhtin essay often came in handy as an example, and I was planning on publishing it, however I gradually became unsure about it, because I felt I had moved on in theoretical and stylistic terms. Looking at it now, I think it already shows some of my current themes, although I would probably turn to different philosophers now for the same questions due to the growing influence of feminist/queer/postcolonial critique on my work. Despite this shortcoming, I feel that it still offers some useful prompts, which is why I have decided to upload it after 12 years on my hard drive. Here, then, is some vintage Mutable Matter – even including adorable references to Open University ‘audio-cassettes’!

Less a juncture to control than an adventure to be had –
Working with Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin (pdf)


What is it like to work with the ideas of Michel Serres and Mikhail Bakhtin as a researcher, especially as an early career researcher? How might their ideas and experiments affect you at various stages of your research, from asking questions to writing for particular audiences? In this essay, I  focus on themes in their work that resonate with my own project, which considers the relation between the human and nonhuman in method, and also incorporates sensory methods. The themes of communication, invention and responsibility are discussed through Serres’ and Bakhtin’s non-linear philosophies, represented through the gods Hermes and Janus respectively. After some more project focused discussions, I end on a set of general observations on the relationship between theory and method or ‘practice’.

Challenging Substance at ‘Radical Nature’

Image: Tomás Saraceno, Flying Garden. Source: Liverpool Biennial

Today (or rather yesterday, I should say!) , I treated myself to some inspiration from the outside world, away from my thesis. The events I had chose for this occasion were a talk on ‘Aquatecture’ and the ‘Radical Nature’ exhibition, both at the Barbican. Both events offered very interesting takes on ‘substances’. At the center of many of the works was architecture and its perception as clunky and inert. By showing that architecture could be nomadic, invisible, boundary-defying – or that invisble things have, in fact, substance, too, this notion was challenged.

In the ‘Aquatecture’ talk, for instance, architect Frank Gutzeit talked about a way of building structures in the ocean out of something called ‘biorock’. Biorock uses electricity to make limestone grow on steel structures which then attracts reefless corals and other flora and fauna. So rather than dumping a ready-made rock into the water and fearing its erosion, the alternative process makes use of the composition and other properties of sea water in order to generate material from it rather than losing material to it.

The Open_Sailing project introduced the idea of a nomadic, self-sustaining international ocean station. Their fascinating project summary can be found here.

The exhibition to which the talks were conneced featured many familiar artists, architects and other inventive figures, amongst these some I had not heard of before. Philippe Rahm, for instance, who presented his ‘Pulmonary Space’. The work is particularly fascinating for me, because it explicitly deals with materiality and immateriality. Arguing against aspects of the philosophy of Hegel, Pulmonary Space intends to visualise what is often perceived as ‘immaterial’ such as air and sound. By having musicians ‘build’ cloth formations through the use of their wind instruments, Rahm draws attention to the substance as well as the space-making of air and sound. If I can read my hastily scribbled notes correctly, some of the blurb on the wall read:

‘Sound and voice are not abstract or dematerialised, even though they are invisible, they are no more transcendent than a stone or soil, and they most certainly do possess a physical, chemical and biological dimension.’

(Somewhere there is some punctuation missing I feel…) Waves possess architectual form, the materiality of air is used by organisms such as viruses. Rahm seems to work on this theme in several other works, for instance, Paradise Now! which creates spaces through smell. Molly Wright Steenson has written an interesting post on her blog on Rahm’s ‘invisible environment’ and the ‘new geography’ he envisions. I’d like to look into this a little more in the future!

Tomás Saraceno had devised another air-inspired concept, that of the ‘flying garden’ – part of his ‘Air-Port-City’ series. Again, a nomadic structure, this time its structure and inhabitants designed to be ‘air-sufficient’. Whereas Buckminster Fuller’s design focused on the perfection of the triangle, Saraceno has formed an almost spiritual bond with the ‘bubble’. A more in-depth explanation of the project can be downloaded here (PDF).

A take on invisibility and chaos appeared in the form of ‘Symbiosishood’ by architects ‘R&Sie(n)’. I first thought the name was a play with the German words for his and her (er und sie), but it turned out that it was a play on the French word for ‘heresy’. That made more sense! The ‘Symbiosishood’ piece was fascinating not only in terms of its location (a minefield between North and South Korea), but also its relation to its plant environment, which continues to proliferate because of the adverse political situation and ‘redefines its own rights in monstrous uncontrolled entropy’ – according to the architects. The building, its design based on a termite mound and its eccentric surface entirely camouflaged with an ‘invasive’ plant species, becomes symbolic of the ‘disease of the location’. The amusing thing is that when you see the blueprints, they contain quite ‘ordinary’ living spaces such as a bookshop or a cafe etc. What a combination! After having a look around their exhibition space, I was not quite sure about their notion of ‘entropy’, especially the ‘entropy’ of ‘non-domesticated nature’. I think Michel Serres, Barbara Adam, Manuel DeLanda and at least some other theorists would have to say something about/against that…

As for the contributors I had heard of, one continues to draw me in, and that is Joseph Beuys. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to watch the 57 minute (!) film that was running in the space dedicated to his work as it was near closing time. I caught a few bits which, strangely, also related to chaos. In Beuys case, chaos was embodies in materials such as grease which is transmuting between a definite and an indefinite state. Grease, wax and honey played a central role in Beuys’ work as ‘energy storers’. What inspires me most about him is his thoughts about process and thinking. As an example, for Beuys, food turns into energy which fuels out thinking. Or: the physical and thought processes that lead to an artwork are the actual artwork, rather than the resulting object. Beuys elevates the creativity of thinking, speaking and writing to the status of art. In fact, ‘everything that people place out there… should exist in the world as a question looking to be augmented, improved, enhanced’ (Beuys in ‘What is Art?’). His ideas about human-evironment relationships are equally interesting, after which our thinking and our conversations are part of ecology, but this connection is invisible to us unless we train ourselves to see it. Interestingly, the eye-opener to this relation, for him, was working with materials and learning about material processes.

Last but not least, I would like to include a video of the famous ‘Blur Building’ by Diller and Scofidio, which is often used as an example of an architectural work that questions the nature of space and spatial boundaries. And it does this in the form of a habitable cloud!

If you like to see more ‘geographical challenges’ such as Agnes Denes’ amazing Wheatfield project, visit the ‘Radical Nature’ exhibition at the London Barbican (until 18 October). Unfortunately, there is not much of the exhibition online. However, they have started to put a few videos up which you can also watch via youtube.

Producing chaos until the cows come home – The mutable matter of ‘The Fountain’

Last night, I felt like watching a film, and the guy from the video rental (who knows me very well) suggested ‘The Fountain’. I had never heard of the film before, and afterwards, I was quite angry with myself that I had not paid attention to the cinema news and thus had missed it on the big screen! Why? Because a lot of the imagery in the film really sucks you in and wants you to immerse yourself in it at a scale as large as possible – maybe even that of a dying star!

After watching the film, I found that a lot of reviewers on the net either totally loved or hated the film. The ‘haters’ thought it was boring, pretentious, repetitive, lacking a story, lacking coherence, lacking conflict (lacking conflict??). The ‘lovers’ praised the cinematography, the acting, the ‘depth’ of Aronofsky’s questions, the boldness of his project and the way it made them think about life and death. As the Amazon reviewer Jeremy Williams ingeniously put it: ‘Aronofsky has created a remarkable thing in my opinion – a life affirming film about mortality.’ To me, the film felt like a future theatre piece based on a classical music piece: the overture introduces the themes, these themes are then explored and interwoven, and finally, they are united once more in an overpowering grand finale. Thankfully, the musical score was not as full-on as in Requiem for a Dream, after which I needed a several years long recovery phase until I could listen to ‘that’ theme again. Although I can understand the viewers who thought the film was too blatant or simplistic in its message, I have to say I really enjoyed watching the film. I am not normally patient with films and have to confess that I often fast forward what I consider ‘unnecessary’ passages, but this film even seduced me into watching the ‘extra features’.

One of the most interesting revelations of these features was the creation of the dying star and the ‘tree of life’ space ship. I love the amount of detail that was put into evoking the main character’s life on this ‘ship’ and his interactions with the tree and his ‘organic’ environment (e.g. the mushroom cultivation scene and the ink making). I take my hat off (I’m actually wearing one!) to the people who thought this up and actually made all these props and made them come alive! The ‘dying star’ cinematography was equally impressive and was extensively written about in Steve Silberman’s article in Wired magazine. I loved his phrase ‘to reinvent space organically’, which referred to the efforts of Peter Parks, a photographer who specialises in artfully enlarging microscopically small things. According to Silberman, ‘Parks can make a dash of curry powder cascading toward the lens look like an onslaught of flaming meteorites’. Parks himself comments: ‘When these images are projected on a big screen, you feel like you’re looking at infinity. That’s because the same forces at work in the water – gravitational effects, settlement, refractive indices – are happening in outer space.’ Create your own cosmic spectacle in a Petri dish – brilliant!

I also love Parks’ comment on CGI: ‘The CGI guys have ultimate control over everything they do. They can repeat shots over and over and get everything to end up exactly where they want it. But they’re forever seeking the ability to randomize, so that they’re not limited by their imaginations. I’m incapable of faithfully repeating anything, but I can go on producing chaos until the cows come home.’ Cows and chaos united in one sentence – fantastic!!
Apparently, doing Petri dish imagery has caught on as an art form. If you fancy a more psychedelic variant, please look here. Otherwise check out ‘The Fountain’ or Peter Parks’ slightly larger dishes. Or go about making your own universe!t