Mutable Matter turns 10!

Apologies for the long radio silence, but a lot has been happening behind the scenes. First of all: Mutable Matter is ten years old today! I started this blog on 24 September 2007 as part of my Open University PhD research and because I wanted to communicate with OU students and people beyond academia. I also wanted to experiment with writing and communication styles, and to show how our imagination of matter manifests in different spaces. Initially, the blog focused more on the material processes at ‘invisible’ scales such as the atomic and molecular scale, and how these affect the geographical imagination. Since then, the blog has kept morphing and moving across a diversity of on- and offline spaces, and has never been short of providing me with surprising encounters. An enormous thank you is due to all my readers and subscribers. Thank you also for all the feedback over the last ten years.

What is happening at the moment?

From January 2018, I will be starting a lectureship at the University of Leicester, in the School of Geography, Geology and the Environment. The post has a focus on the geohumanities, and am looking forward to some exciting teaching, research and other creative experiments with colleagues from different disciplines. I am also working on two books, one on materialism and and another one on Mutable Matter. I am also in the process of assembling a printed zine that is based around both publications and tries to make the work that I do accessible to a wider audience. Some exciting events are also coming up: the Mutable Matter/Warwick Social Theory Centre workshop Cosmos & Crisis: Interdisciplinary Conversations (funded by a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grant) is happening this coming Wednesday and Thursday. It focuses on challenges to the Western worldview from different viewpoints. I have also been invited to present at two other events: the second part of the Political Geology workshop at Cambridge University on 17 November 2017, and at a workshop on experimentation at Oxford on 8 January 2018. And of course, there is Curved Radio, to which I keep contributing (many thanks to Gayle Austin for having me!).

Thank you again for staying tuned – here is to future blog mutations! I am going to eat some cake now… (not the one pictured above)


Imagining “World Music”

My spot on last week’s Curved Radio programme was on ‘world music’. Since the topic overlaps with my research, I thought I’d post a short summary. Basically, I played three tracks by French bands that are classified as ‘world music’ and have quite different relations with the ‘world making’ of ‘world music’.

‘World music’ has been a controversial term since its conception. Mainly used as a Western marketing term for non-Western ‘traditional’ music in the 80s, it has expanded to included almost anything that isn’t anglophone Western pop music (which, could be argued, isn’t just ‘Western’ in the first place). As South African trumpet player and composer Hugh Masekela, interviewed by Anya Wassenberg for the Huffington Post, describes it: “At one point, the term ‘world music’ was coined,” he remarked dryly. “I woke up one day and people told me I was playing world music.”

Many have argued that it is practically meaningless, other than as a commercial, quasi-colonial construct. In a discussion on Reddit, contributor Scaredoftriangles comments: “World music has always been such a derogatory term to me…pan pipes, chimes, old men in non-ironic wolf shirts selling dreamcatchers.” Indeed, this sight can be experienced at many ‘world music’ events, and even bigger festivals such as Peter Gabriel et al’s Womad. One of the more famous rants against ‘world music’ is David Byrne‘s 1999 New York Times Commentary: ‘I Hate World Music’. In this article, he criticises both its absurdity as a category and its exoticisation. This exoticisation works down to the shape of award figurines given out for ‘world music’. For Wassenberg, the term ‘world music serves to ‘ghettoiz[e] great music’.

At the same time, there have been many defences of ‘world music’, even from people who are uncomfortable with the term. There appear to be two broad directions: the ‘conservation’ and the ‘decolonisation’. The ‘conservationists’ believe that ‘world music’ contributes to ‘discovering’, supporting and thus preserving types of music that would otherwise have gone out of fashion and thus cultural practice. From ‘ethnological’ recordings to Buena Vista Social Club, there is a huge spectrum of attempts to create ‘revivals’, some more successful than others. Advocates of this practice argue that the commercial appropriation, insufficient contextualisation and frequent dependence on Western valudation outweighs the benefits to the culture in question.

The ‘decolonial‘ direction is characterised by the impulse to use Western/non-Western cultural exchange to dislocate the West as a centre. This is also the direction that Curved Radio tries to follow. This direction more or less comfortably unites, for instance, people who have found their world expanded through hearing music from other places, and people who are struggling against losing further ground in the struggle over cultural hierarchies. Here, the entanglement of economic and cultural power are hotly debated, and the various means that could work toward subverting the worlds sonic hierarchies and towards creating a different one. Particularly here, the terms of presenting music from other cultures are constantly negotiated, although this impulse can also sometimes be found with the ‘conservationists’. I tried to illustrate some of these issues through three band that I encountered in France around the same time in the early 2000s: Edgar de L’est, Monkomarok and Lo’Jo.

Edgar de L’est (Isabelle Becker and Edgar Daguier), as the name already implies (a world play on ‘at Gare de L’Est’), hav a very tongue-in-cheek take on ‘world music’. If I remember correctly, I read in an interview that were founded on the idea to sonically imagine other places through music. To me, their chanson, folk and jazz inflected music reflects the German term Fernweh – a longing to be in a far-away place. With titles such as ‘Mon Cowboy’, ‘L’Orient’, ‘Slavinka’, they could easily be accused of exoticisation. At the same time, their music feels both innocent (like a child discovering the world, not being able to go anywhere and contextualise yet) and knowing (playing with Western/non-Western clichés through ‘trashy’ renditions). It is an approach that we have attempted with a song in my own band, now, where we took a ridiculous commercial jingle for Asian food and deconstructed it in a song called ‘Ethnik Snack‘. In the song ‘L’Orient’, Edgar de L’Est use a different method of subversion: they go through every imaginable orientalisation, but also give a look behind the scenes where the lonely, miserable narrator sits drunk in a bed in Paris, a city and sound fraught with its own struggle against commercial caricature. It’s about exoticisation as both a form of sad escapism and as an inevitable perpetuation of that which one is trying to escape from. (I did actually play ‘Slavinka’ on the programme, but now I think the ‘L’Orient’ song illustrates their method best – plus there is a video online!)

The second track that I played was from Toulousian experimental ‘world’ band Monkomarok (Alima Hamel, Laurent Rochelle, Sylvain Fournier, Loic Schild) – who were active from 2000-2008. Their first album blew my mind with its range of influences and its trippy sound. I still love how they worked with tension and energy, it felt like they were using acoustic music (although they sometimes also use synthesisers) to produce an electric surge. The sleeve notes to this 2002 album, entitled ‘Au plafond’, talk about the profundity of their own musical encounters and about creating an imaginary place within them. This is also reflected in the many thankyous to people they count as influences, supporters and collaborators. Their use of vocals is particularly interesting, with Alima Hamel (who is also a poet) singing in languages such as Algerian Arabic, French and German but also experimenting with sound textures. On ‘Au plafond’, she is doing a lot of impressive percussive work with her voice, as well ‘controlled chaos’ vocalisations which make her sound like a human randomizer. For me, this ‘what on Earth is this??’ reaction that the band often elicits, paired with their definite Western and non-Western influences, is an interesting musical provocation – to the imagined commercial ‘world music’ utopia but also to many music genres that appear to have ossified into particular forms such as ‘dance music’ or ‘jazz’. While I played the hypnotic ‘dance’ track ‘Le Sueur’ (Sweat), there is no online recording, so here, instead, is a rare live recording of ‘Au Plafond”s opening refusal, ‘Non Merci’.

The lyrics of this song are remarkable, too, especially through the play on the double meaning of the French word for ‘everyone’: ‘tout le monde’. For the current world to work, everyone is supposed to hide their anger – the machine must run smoothly – but she is celebrating refusal.

Je suis toujours en colère
Ca ne se voit pas
C’est parce que je m’applique
Je fais comme tout le monde
Je trompe mon monde
Je fais semblant

Ani kolwun mkelba
Ndil kime koul ness
Nralat lribed
Ndil bel reni

Ma colère?
Je l’ai soingneusement cousu contre mon sein
Les mains plenes contre mon coeur
Qu’est ce que je deviendrai sans ma colère?
Un pantin raide couleur glaise.
Une machine à fabriquer des ronds.
Une chose parfaite qui ne dit jamais non.
Un indigne mouton borgne sans rêves.
Non merci, sans façon…
Je fais l’apologie du refus.
Je fais l’éloge du pas d’accord
Aini mra ou nogrod wefka
Aini mra ou nogrod wefka

The final track of the show was from Lo’Jo, who are much more well-known in the offical ‘world music’ circuit due to their participation in WOMAD and collaborations with groups such as Tinariwen and Gangbe Brass Band. They initially started out in the early 1980s as a duo or trio (Denis Péan, Richard Bourreau), which seemed to grow into a community that combined music with street theatre, acrobatics, dance, film. The group did not become a more fixed formation and did not record albums until the mid-1990s. The sound of Lo’Jo is frequently described as ‘Gypsy’, tribal, nomadic (initially they were even called Lo’Jo Triban) or even shamanic, as they combine folk music from North and West Africa, Eastern and Western Europe and the Caribbean. I have also seen the term ‘global fusion’ applied to them, and one album review (for ‘Au Cabaret Sauvage’, 2002) reads “Tom Waits meets the Touaregs. Very tasty.”

What drew me to them were their epic, ecstatic sound, that is produced by a super-tight arrangement of string instruments (khora, violin, bass), percussion and vocal harmonies (amazing singers Yamina and Nadia Nid el Mourid, supported by Kham Meslien and Baptiste Brondy on bass and drums). John Lusk from the BBC argues that despite their many influences, they have a distinctive local sound: “As the barriers around ‘fortress Europe’ get ever higher, Lo’Jo’s open-minded and outward-looking approach to music seems to make them more and more identifiably French.” Lusk is quick to point out that around 56% of the French population identify as being of ‘foreign’ background, and that the band’s local support and ties very much contribute to the development of their sound:

“The group’s core still live and work collectively in a farmhouse given them by the mayor of Angers in return for providing local children with musical education. Another municipally inspired boost for the unlikely idealists came with twinning of their hometown with the Malian capital of Bamako.”

In many ways, Lo’Jo personify the utopian and problematic tropes of works music, and I cannot help thinking about them when listening to their undoubtedly beautiful music. The band describe themselves as ‘plantetary troubadours’ who maintain an ‘anarchic garden’ of ‘world rhythms and universal harmonies’, which may raise alarm bells with cultural and especially decolonial critics. At the same time, Lo’Jo emphasise and try to practice cultural exchange on equal terms. In and outside their music campaign for a multicultural French national ideintity (e.g. their song “La Marseillaise en Creole“), and in an interview in the New York Times, where Denis Péan explains: “The name Lojo means nothing. It is just a sound. Basically, Lojo is a school. Everybody learns. Everybody teaches.” For me, the sound and journey(s) of Lo’Jo exemplify that, especially for white ‘Westerners’, different forms of cultural exchange need to be attempted despite the many problems on the way. We all shape world music and the economy and relations it is embedded in, and music is a place as good as any other to start experimenting.

RGS-IBG 2017 RACE Working Group Call for Sessions

The Race, Culture and Equality (RACE) Working Group would like to invite proposals for sessions to be sponsored by RACE at the RGS-IBG annual conference 2017 titled ‘Decolonizing geographical knowledges: opening up geography to the world’. A key objective of the RACE Working Group of the RGS-IBG is to promote scholarship on topics of racial inequality, colonization, decolonization and whiteness, and to encourage dialogue on race that advances academic knowledge and progressive practices. The RACE Working Group therefore welcomes proposals on these topics more generally, but we strongly encourage proposals that critically and creatively engage with these topics in relation to the conference theme specifically, for example; by exploring the limitations, contradictions and injustices of organising a conference on the topic of decolonization in western neoliberal academic settings; and/or by examining the contemporary co-option of decolonial thinking in a range of settings. We are also interested in sponsoring sessions and activities by activists and scholar-activists, as well as artists and scholar-artists, that propose and explore practical initiatives for dismantling colonial processes within the discipline, within the university system, and within the RGS-IBG.

Please email proposals to by 22 January 2017. Submissions should include a title, an abstract (max 250 words), the format of the session or activity, the number of timeslots requested (if applicable), and name(s) and affiliation(s) of the organizers. The guidelines for organising sessions can be found here We will endeavor to respond to organizers by the end of January 2017.

  1. For more on decolonization, please see Tuck, E. and Yang, K. W. (2012) Decolonization is not a metaphor, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), p. 1-40.

RACE Awards & Teaching Workshop now open for registration

Image: Ellen Gallagher IGBT (2008)

Two exciting things are happening at the RACE (Race, Culture & Equality) Working group.

1) Two of our members, Margaret Byron (our chair) and Parvati Raghuram (committee member) are receiving awards from the RGS-IBG on 6 June. Margaret is receiving the Taylor & Francis Award for the promotion of diversity in the teaching of human geography, and Parvati is receiving the Murchinson Award for furthering geographical understandings of mobility.

2) Our RACE teaching workshop has been confirmed by the RGS-IBG conference organisers. It will take place on the Tuesday of the conference and will be free to attend (no conference registration needed!). The workshop is divided into two themes: Race in the Curriculum and Challenging Exclusionary Spaces. We hope to see you there! You can register for the workshop on our Eventbrite page.

Notes on GIS & methods

Image: The best part of GIS – flying through 3D models in ArcScene… (there is an actual bird cursor!)

At the moment, I mainly teach on the Research Masters at the University of Glasgow, which, of course, also involves teaching methods. I am very involved in debates around methods, both qualitative and quantitative, so I like to think that I’ve got quite a good overview. Last year, however, I was asked by a student how the content of my talk related to GIS. I hesistated for a moment – what did I actually know about GIS apart from having played around with Google Maps and read a few chapters here and there? Last week, I was given the opportunity to undertake five days of intensive GIS training with my colleagues Jane Drummond and Syed Ali Aqdus. The course included a mixture of lectures and practical exercises that, indeed, prompted a lot of interesting questions about geographical methods and the intersections of qualitative and quantitative methods. In addition, Jane gave a lot of mind-boggling examples that she had come across during her long and varied career, from cartography to programming.

Like geography as a whole, GIS has difficulties being recognised as a science of its own rather than just a weird composite. Having had a taste of this branch of geoinformatics, I can see why, as Jane mentioned, engineers and scientists tend to think that it is lacking rigour or a distinctive identity as a science. At the same time, like geography as a whole, its concern with synthesis to interact with the planet (and beyond) actually seems to be what makes it distinctive. These attempts at synthesis can take on some pretty curious forms that also include political decisions on how to map, some of which were relayed to us by Jane. For instance, latitude and longitude are not always fixed – they vary with the shape of the Earth (the Earth is not a perfect sphere). In addition, different countries use different shapes of the Earth for mapping purposes and even entire grid systems (the first thing we learned was how important it is to know what grid you are working in, since there is no universal one). A further level of distortion is added through the many different map projections, which give rise to entertaining cartoons such as this one that hangs in my office corridor:

Image source: XKCD

At the beginning of the course, we were reminded of general mapping history and principles, such as sextant measurements. Geographical measurement is often associated with the military and especially imperialism. As Yves Lacoste put it in 1976: ‘La géographie, ça sert, d’abord, à faire la guerre’ (‘Geography, first of all, serves warfare’). At the same time, geographical measurement can, of course, be used for more beneficial purposes, as many projects show that make democratisation (of GIS and with GIS) a focus of their practice. Here, Jane had an interesting example of an attempt to make mapping more accessible, with the explicit aim to help people without a standard address (about 4 billion people in the world do not have a standard postal address). What3Words‘ ‘mission to address the world’ divides the world into 3×3 square metres, with each square being assigned a three random words from a dictionary. This makes about 57 trillion squares! I found this project thought-provoking, because, on the one hand, it puts in question our ideas of ‘standard’ (who is included/excluded; to what standards should we aspire?), on the other hand, its search for a more democratic standard led it to an unusual solution, compared to the ‘accepted’ solutions we have seen so far. This is also highlighted by the geographer, Robert Barr, who speaks at the end of this video:

3 words to address the world from what3words on Vimeo.

Other examples of useful ‘civilian applications’ included the Glasgow City Council’s facilities locator and LIDAR mapping for biomass monitoring purposes. Especially the data collection examples (‘on foot’, aerial photography, satellite, thermal, laser, sound etc) reminded us of the diversity and messiness of geographical information that all somehow had to be brought into relation. Not only is the data itself problematic – but how do we can we process it all together? How can we ask and solve our questions with the kind of data that we have? And, how often do we not think, as human geographers, about the processing history of a map or of data that we are given?

With my design background, I also found much of the problems encountered in image processing (e.g. through Illustrator and Photoshop) mirrored in GIS. Much of the GIS exercises (primarily conducted in Arc GIS‘s Arc Map and ArcScene), involved data conversions, e.g. from tables to points, layers, features, or from vector to raster. Some conversion even involved surprisingly manual processing, akin to the lasso technique or filters in Photoshop. Jane showed us how badly data can be degraded through processing, but also how such limitations can be taken into account. Particularly drastic examples of error came from a lack of consideration for scaling. In order to make maps more readable in smaller format, landscape features have to be smoothed or simplified, and lines have to be thickened in order to make features legible. This is called ‘generalisation‘, and people are still looking for better methods of performing it. Here, Jane noted how mappers are subjected to increasing and unrealistic pressures over the time frame in which this considerable problem can be solved.

Other points of error-related amusement came from misinterpretation of aerial data, resampling and interpolation hazards, lack of terrain knowledge, confusion of data quality and model quality, and misrecognition of building features by various programmes or processing methods. Many such errors especially came out during the 3D exercises, but also in humorous thought experiments such as a hypothetical search for sea monsters (which initially didn’t take the probability for finding sea monsters into consideration). We were also reminded how more mundane human factors play into the quality and accessibility of geographical data, especially the cost in hiring cartographers or data collectors: how much time and labour can be invested in a mapping project?

Image: Another way of using GIS to find sea monsters (Source: Mirror)

Another interesting problem was posed through colouring and other aesthetic choices. While there are attempts at standardising colours and symbols for maps, there is still a great degree of liberty that can be taken to make maps look ‘appealing’, as Jane put it. One of the first things we learned in ArcMap, after getting a grip on the basics, was how to change colours and what to consider when changing colours (e.g. what might the colours represent?). For instance, when representing slope, many cartographers use a scale that starts with green and ends with white (green valleys, white mountain tops). The defaults often seemed to follow a completely different logic, leading to some rather displeasing or psychedelic renderings, which in turn led to many GOMA and ‘more-than-50 Shades’ jokes, as well as uncomfortable 90s flashbacks (especially in the distance map department – I wish I’d taken more screenshots now!). When preparing the map for presentation in the layout view, we noticed how much you could potentially direct decision-making not only through data processing, but also through seemingly innocent aesthetic choices. Here Jane had more examples of how she had experienced such situations in real life.

What I appreciated about this course, in relation to my teaching, was that I now feel able to better look for resources, such as examples and reading suggestions, for my students. The problems raised by GIS are not only exclusive to GIS, so it is nice to be able to cross-reference issues. If any readers have any particular suggestions from their teaching or research experience, I would be grateful if you could put them in the comments!

Call for submissions: Everyday racism/sexism/homophobia in Geography


Message from Association of American Geographers president Mona Domosh:

Hi all,

I’m asking for your help (again!) for my next Newsletter column. I want to call attention to the everyday ways that many of us experience sexism/racism/homophobia; the so-called ‘small’ ways that people treat us differently because of our perceived ‘otherness.’ These everyday racisms/sexisms/acts of homophobia (that include comments, looks, actions, etc.) are pervasive, insidious, and damaging, but are often overlooked as ‘official’ forms of discrimination and harassment. To call attention to them, I’m asking for fellow geographers to email brief descriptions (no names please, just what happened) of the incidents that they are experiencing over a three-week timeframe, from April 4-25. My plan for the column is to start with a brief introductory paragraph, and then simply include an annotated and anonymous list of ‘everyday’ isms that geographers have experienced over a set time period.

So, from April 4-25 (including the AAG conference if you are going), please keep track of these everyday incidents, and email a brief description to me at:<>.

With thanks,

Mona Domosh
Professor of Geography
The Joan P. and Edward J. Foley Jr. 1933 Chair
President, Association of American Geographers
Dartmouth College

CFP: Seminar on Caribbean Literature & Space

Image source: Race in the Americas

The announcement below was posted by Patricia Noxolo on the Critical Geography Forum and looks very exciting. My forthcoming article ‘We are the world? Between geopoetics and geopolitics’ discusses some proposals for rethinking human-world relationships from French-Caribbean theory and literature (in comparison with Simone Weil). Having come across authors such as Daniel Maximin, Édouard Glissant, Maryse Condé, and Suzanne and Aimé Césaire quite recently, I was struck by how their work had not been taken up in geography more widely, especially in the discourse around materiality. It is great to see that the seminar is setting out to discuss the spaces and spatial flows of Caribbean literature as well as their conceptual offerings.
Dr Patricia Noxolo, on behalf of the Race in the Americas (RITA) group, seeks papers from postgraduate students and established academics on the theme of Caribbean literature and space.
The seminar will be held on Friday 8th November, in the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield, and attendance will be free of charge.
Submissions on any aspect of the spatialities of Caribbean literature are welcome. These might include:
* The spaces within Caribbean literature (how authors and works describe and theorise space and spatiality, e.g. mythological or fantasy spaces, global space, regional, national, rural or urban spaces, communal spaces, the home or the body as a space);
* The spatial flows of Caribbean literature (how Caribbean literature has been published, distributed and read in different places or along different global routes);
* The ‘spaces’ occupied by Caribbean literature (positions taken by Caribbean literature in different disciplines, and the role it has played in global and local reading cultures)
 DEADLINE FOR ABSTRACTS:  Monday 16th September 2013.  Please send all submissions to
Please note that a limited number of postgraduate travel bursaries will be available to support participation in this event, funded by the Sheffield Institute for International Development (SIID) (  To apply, please send a CV along with your abstract, including a brief outline of your postgraduate research and current institutional affiliation, and an estimated breakdown of your travel costs.
The Race in the Americas (RITA) group is holding a series of four seminars across the UK during the academic year 2013-14 as part of the Regional Seminar Series, which is funded by the Institute for the Study of the Americas (  Full details of the seminar series are available at