This is a reading library of just a few of the texts that have influenced my research, the way I interact with materials physically and the way I think about art production. Some are entire books, others are 30 min reads. I’ve tried to share actual links to texts where possible.
Recently, the art world has become immersed in different ideas about ‘material agency’ and ‘object oriented’ thinking. Both of these terms relate to a new model of thinking about the material environment in which we as humans are less in control of it and more subject to influence by the objects and materials that we come into contact with.
I try to approach them from the perspective of an art maker – someone who is directly engaged in messy material interaction. Whilst the ideas here are useful, I think artists have specific knowledge which allows us to intervene and contribute to these ideas, rather than follow their lead. We are equipped with insights into how material works physically as well as unpacking it conceptually. My research suggests ways in which we could achieve this.
I’ve included these texts because they inform my thinking, but they are only a part of my research. A lot of them are by white people and a lot of them are by men: the view of society that is presented here needs more critiquing and unpacking. They are starting points, not endpoints.
Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: a Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
Jane is EVERYWHERE right now. She is the most extreme version of what material agency could look like, and gets the closest to comparing it to human will (which would mean humans and material objects are capable of carrying out similar actions and responses). She also emphasises WHY material agency could be so socially important: if we become more attuned to the effects of material we cannot control, we may be more likely to be environmentally conscious and live more sustainable lives.
Gell, Alfred. Art and Agency: an Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.
Gell was one of the early object-oriented thinkers and his approach comes directly from examining art works. He says that art works and art production are not separate from everyday life but are both produced by and producers of social behaviour. He writes quite nicely about his car as an example of this, but he descends slowly into a mass of formulas and he died before he finished this book so it gets a bit confusing towards the end.
Harman, Graham. Object Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2018.
This is the one that the art world seems to have picked up and run with. Whilst it does have some useful ideas, it’s troubling that a white guy has so much to say about objectification without really thinking about any other demographics. Take all of this with a serious pinch of salt. Or don’t read it at all.
Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: an introduction to actor-network-theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Here’s your go-to place for where it all kicked off. Latour pulls together all the strands of Actor Network Theory (another term relating to agentic objects), which had been brewing since the mid-80s, and puts them all in one place.
Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2008.
Lots of nice ways of thinking about production and making and how it is so connected to human behaviour throughout history.
Shannon, Joshua. The Disappearance of Objects: New York and the Rise of the Postmodern City. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
Following on from Gell, Shannon thinks about how the materials which end up in art works tell us so much about the socioeconomic conditions from which they came. He uses 1960s New York as a case study, looking at Rauschenberg, Oldenburg, Judd and Johns. A bit limited as it only offers a white male experience of the material world but it’s a useful tool to expand upon.
Bataille, Georges. ‘Formless’, Documents, no.7 (1929), in Bataille, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, edited by Allan Stoekl, 31. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Batallie thinks all material is great without having to be made into something. He sees art as material idealism and calls material hierarchies and their pretensions into question. A refreshing alternative to High Modernists critics who distanced art from mucky material. He loves dust and spit. 30 sec read.
Behar, Katherine. ‘An Introduction to OOF’ in Object Oriented Feminism, edited by Katherine Behar. London: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
This whole book is a wonderful look at object-oriented thinking from wider demographics other than a white male one. It calls out the problems of objectifying bodies (as this has always been used as a tool of oppression) whilst still using material agency as a way of thinking about and critiquing social structures. If you’re sick of Harman and the triple-O bros, go here.
Coole, Diana and Samantha Frost. ‘Introducing the New Materialisms’ in New Materialisms: ontology, agency and politics, edited by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, 1-43. London: Duke University Press, 2008.
More of a rational, scientific approach than Jane Bennett’s vibrant matter. Coole and Frost lay a very good argument as to why material agency is such a vital part of looking at the world from a feminist perspective.
Lange-Berndt, Petra. ‘How to be Complicit With Materials’ in Materiality, edited by Petra Lange-Berndt, 12-20. London: Whitechapel Gallery, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. 2015.
This is the intro chapter to the Whitechapel book on Materiality which came out in 2015 and seems to have triggered the uptake of material agency in the art world. It’s a good starting point.
Lehmann, Ann-Sophie, ‘How Materials Make Meaning’ in Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art 2012: Meaning in Materials, edited by Lehman, Ann-Sophie, Frits Scholten, H. Perry Chapman, 7-27. Brill, Leiden: Foundation for Dutch Art Historical Publications. 2012.
Prof. Lehmann writes extensively on material meaning throughout art history and the intersection between written language and physical material is given more thought here that it is in any of the more philosophical texts. It resonated with me the most as a maker.
Mauzerall, Hope. ‘What’s the Matter With Matter? Problems in the Criticism of Greenberg, Fried and Krauss’ in Art Criticism, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1998, 81-96.
A look at the systemic lack of material discussion in art criticism and why this is detrimental.