By Julia Buntaine
Editor in Chief
“Being Material,” held on April 21st and 22nd, was a two-day symposium hosted by MIT’s Center for Art, Science & Technology. Focusing on the emergence of new materials, persistence of old materials, and discoveries about existing materials in this digital age, “Being Material” brought together artists, designers, technologists, scientists, historians, curators, critics, and theorists to discuss materials through the lens of the programmable, the wearable, the livable, the invisible, and the audible.
“Programmable” featured talks by Benjamin Bratton, Ben Fry & Casey Reas, Nadya Peek, and Manu Prakash. Perhaps best known for his “Foldscope,” Prakesh remarked during his talk that “the ultimate programmable matter is life,” discussing how we can harness the natural forces of life for our own material means. Fry and Reas, co-creators of the software program for artists, Processing, discussed how their digital platform has led to material manifestations of coding; the implementation of precision agriculture, for example.
“Wearable” included talks by Christina Agapakis & Lucy McRae, Natasha Schull, and Michelle Finamore & Hussein Chalayan. Chalayan’s pioneering work in moveable, technology-based fashion is unparalleled; calling himself a “narrative designer” Chalayan creates stories with fashion about subjects like immigration or weather patterns. Seamlessly integrating technology with wearable materials, Chalayan's works move around, with, and in response to the wearer.
“Livable” included talks by Bettina Stoetzer, Tal Danino, Bill Maurer, and Claire Pentecost. Danino treats biology as a living material, and works to reprogram bacterial behaviors as a means to detect cancer. Collaborating with bacteria, Danino also explores the world of biology through visual art in works such as “Microuniverse” on display during the symposium.
“Invisible” featured talks by George Barbastathis, Michelle Murphey, Trevor Paglen, and Lisa Parks. The moderator, Sandy Alexandre, began by updating the cliche “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” to “The visible is in the eye of the beholder,” emphasizing that what we see and attend to in our visual field depends on what we deem worthy of notice, consciously or unconsciously, which is usually dependent on our own personal perspectives and contexts. Such an idea has a wide variety of social, racial, economic, artistic, scientific, technological, and material ramifications, to say the least.
The last session of “Being Material” brought us performances by Grace Leslie and Maya Beiser. Leslie’s Vessels interweaves flute and brain wave-generated sound as a form of biofeedback art. Beiser’s cello performance explores the numbers of music, and using snippets of real-time recordings from the live performance, Beiser layered her live music over the recorded, creating a rich intensity of sound. Both Leslie and Beiser use technology to become a more-than-one-woman-band in sound, while remaining solo artists.
So, what does being material mean in this 21st century? Two days at CAST showed it can mean a lot of things. Biology as a material was a recurring, and strong theme, as the potentials in art and science for programmable biology have only begun to be realized. It was also clear that despite our place in this “digital age,” materials are as dominant as ever. In fact, as Skylar Tibbits, one of the symposium’s conveners and founder of MIT’s Self Assembly Lab noted, the digital lens is giving us new ways to see and use old materials, giving shape to what was once invisible or unknowable. So be it through new materials in synthetic biology, or new technology which shows us something new about the oldest materials, the digital age has only made the material world a more interesting place.