In our Media + Materiality seminar this semester we started off by learning about our foil: theories of immateriality. We looked at work from physics, mathematics and economics to architecture, art history and media studies. We then looked at theories addressing the persistence of materiality despite predictions of its demise; we read some Bill Brown, Katherine Hayles, Vilém Flusser, and Rosalind Krauss. After that, we spent a few weeks exploring various theories of, and approaches to studying, materiality, including material culture studies, the social lives of things, “thing theory,” actor-network theory, object-oriented philosophy, Bennett’s “vibrant matter,” infrastructure studies, and media archaeology.
Because the students’ task for the semester was to design exhibitions of media objects or systems, we took some time early in the semester to read about the distinctive challenges of on-site and online exhibition design, and to meet with experts in the field: my colleague and Whitney curator Christiane Paul, and Tim Ventimiglia, Sr. Associate at exhibition design firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates. In late March, we used Thomas Edison’s various material practices and developments — and their exhibition — as a case study, and we took a field trip to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park. We also set aside a few weeks for “plug-in” lessons that we designed on the fly, to respond to students’ interests: at their request, we dedicated one lesson to handwriting, another to evolving material forms of the book, and a third week to the Internet of Things. As the semester drew to a close, we set aside two weeks to focus on students’ projects: we held a pecha kucha, where students presented their works-in-progress, one week, and a tech lab the other. And our final two weeks were dedicated to presentations of final projects, which I’ll summarize here in no particular order:
O.a-M.’s “Media + Chemical Basis” examines the chemistry — all the way down to the the Carbon and Silicon and Iron atoms — that comprise our most commonly used media, both analog and digital.
A.B. wonders what we might learn by studying the objects on people’s desktops, both physical and virtual.
A.S., an accomplished digital strategist, explores historical transformations in the materiality of money. Her exhibited objects all live on Pinterest, while the substantive discussion resides on the exhibition blog.
J.L., a professional journalist in Colombia, created the “The Material Journalist,” which examines how changes in journalists’ reporting tools and the material forms of their news outlets have altered the ways news is reported, produced, and disseminated.
A.K.’s “Thing Power of the Pawned Object” explores the material culture of five New York-based pawnshops through the words of their brokers and the biographies of objects in their inventories.
D.L. studies how downtown New York of the 80s gave rise to materially-specific filmmaking practices — specifically No Wave Cinema (password: “nowavelong”).
J.R. invited contributors to submit meaningful objects and “discuss their provenance and significance.” She hopes that by “unpacking the complex social relationships between objects, their possessors, and the circumstances of their possession,” “This Old Thing” will “reveal something about the intersections of materiality, embodiment, memory and self-identity across space and time.”
J.S., in “Reading Words, Screening Text,” looks at the changing forms of books and reading, and the politics of digitization.
M.F.’s “Restart Slideshow” follows the “Birth, Life, Death, Autopsy, and Afterlife of the slide projector.”
In “Nomad of Noise,” A.V. examines the material bases of “glitch,” offers a typology of glitch aesthetics, and identifies a few of “glitch’s” historical precedents.
In “Weave as Metaphor,” V.P. explores parallels between tactile, textural forms of communication — weaving, quilts, quipu, etc. — and computer code.
M.O. created “Digital Shot Celluloid Thought” to examine the relationships between digital and celluloid technology in filmmaking.
T.G.’s “GeoType” maps connections between typography and place.
E.K.’s “Blue Filtered Light” offers nine channels that examine the television as an object; various channels look at the history of tv, static, digital distortion, test patterns, etc.
A.M.’s “Afterlife” looks at e-waste and the afterlife of our technological gadgets.
L.S. created an “anti-archive” to “materially document the contradictions and hypocrisies of Big Government’s take on the OWS Movement.”
And L.G. created “Some Direxion,” a digital zine that explores the cut-and-paste aesthetic of punk zines and magazines.