I have a long-standing interest in how people relate to their environment, especially to processes that cannot be seen or felt, but which still have an impact on our world and our experiences.
During my two previous interactive projects, ‘Mutation’ (2003-4, 2007) and ‘Animal Lab’ (2005-6), I drew attention to the link between the desire for perfection and environmental degradation and the ability or inability to direct processes such as mutation. The idea for ‘Mutation’ came from looking at pallets of apples in a supermarket for too long. These supermarket apples looked the same: shiny, green, no blemishes and, unfortunately, no taste. What led to the ‘design’ of those uniform, aesthetically ‘perfect’ apples? Food security? The fruit industry pursuing consumer ideals? And how was this mass idealisation/uniformity achieved?
During the project, patterns of ready-to-wear white shirts symbolised ‘perfect’ DNA and the desire for perfection. Participants were asked to express their relationship with this perfection – in relation to DNA, the environment or their everyday life – by making the shirt they were given ‘imperfect’ to the degree they were comfortable with. All participants altered their shirts while relating the story behind those modifications. By wearing the shirts, these stories were spread, for instance, through questions from other people about their unusual aesthetics.
In the ‘Animal Lab’, people playfully modified and made up patterns of toy animals with the help of a ‘mobile laboratory’, while engaging in conversation about genetic engineering. The ‘Animal Lab’ experimented with humour – in the first instance by turning the story of genetic engineering somewhat upside down. While most animal or plant modifications are made to benefit humans, the participants were asked to help an endangered animal species survive by arming them against their threat. The participants were offered labcoats and different species to choose from. Again, the project resulted in rich dialogue and objects that could trigger further conversation.
During the ‘Animal Lab’, I started looing at reports from nanotechnology engagments. I found that, quite often, participants in those projects described engineered matter as ‘doing things’. While such statements were usually dismissed as paranoia, fear of the unknown or superstition, I wondered whether people did in fact perceive matter as not just something inert. So I set out to design a project that allowed people to talk about how they imagined matter – in all its ‘incarnations’. What do people think goes on inside and between them and a wall or a table or the air that they breathe? Is the ‘mutable matter’ of new technologies part of a separate world, or is everything potentially mutable? Is the ‘infinitely small’ world of atoms and strange material behaviour removed not only in scale (atoms always seem to be ‘down there’ when people write about them) but from how we perceive our everyday environment? And why are people always kept from exploring this space by deeming it ‘too difficult’ or ‘too boring’? ‘Mutable Matter’ is an attempt at communicating about this space and our relationship(s) with it.