A study of material agency

Between 2014-2015 I interrogated our relationship with the material world through a series of artistic experiments. Throughout this process I discovered that (i) meaning mutates with matter (ii) there is a subtle but substantial difference between things and objects: things exist in physical space, whereas objects exist in virtual space.

These mediations culminated in the writing of a paper titled, 'Processes of Artefact Creation in the Hybrid-Reality: Engaging with Materials through Material Oxymorons.' in collaboration with Laura Ferrarello to be presented later this year at EKSIG 2015.


Making a candle to read "umwelt", meaning "environment" or "surroundings" in German. In the semiotic theories of Jakob von Uexküll and Thomas A. Sebeok it is the "biological foundations that lie at the very epicenter of the study of both communication and signification in the human [and non-human] animal". Different organisms can have different umwelten, even though they share the same environment.

This task tested theory on hylomorphism and drew on the scholarship of Tim Ingold. A hylomorphic approach is often taken in design, when first of all a blueprint for a new artefact is drawn up and efforts are made to realise it in the physical world. It can be more profitable to instead work primarily with a material's characteristics in anticipation of an emergent form.


Agency is not located in a singular thing, but emerges through the interaction of bodies. e.g. between hand and clay. Bruno Latour speaks of 'hybridity' in relation to this, while Ian Hodder considers 'entanglements' between humans and humans, things and humans, humans and things, and things and things.

This assemblage of parts functions as a whole. The combination of their unique properties results its overall aesthetic. The CRT screen has created a scrolling visual effect because it has a v-hold problem, and the amount of white on the screen (speed of the ray gun) causes the speaker to emit different frequencies.

Human intervention during the display of this assemblage caused it to be altered. Visitors to the exhibition began taking photos on the camera and adding them to the slideshow.


Agency emerges in an assemblage or complex system even when a human is not involved. This "material agency" is often overlooked due to our anthropocentric tendencies. It explains the autonomous behaviour of Hyperobjects as identified by Tim Morton – objects so massively distributed in time and space that they are beyond human comprehension. These include the Internet and global warming.

Throughout its exhibition this assemblage's emergent properties were also revealed: accumulations of dirt inside the pipes and tank, and changing behaviours of the fluid as it transformed in the tank.