Here are the final slides from my Question of Research presentation, along with the basic script.
I’m going to be exploring the question ‘How can materiality enhance end user/audience experience?’
I began to explore the question, by breaking it down into these four key areas, in order to define them and unpack the key concepts and relationships at play.
As with most words each has several definitions, which offers an interesting insight into how we relate concepts through language. A fertile ground for interpretation.
I was particularly interested in the use of the word enhance. Enhance has both material – to heighten and intensify or increase in value - and immaterial definitions – to exalt in dignity and rank/elevate spiritually.
Already some key dichotomies began to reveal themselves through the etymological roots. Firstly, the physical vs immaterial, related to which is the bodily vs spiritual and emotion vs intellect, and finally active vs passive.
This raised several questions – could materiality make a passive audience, more actively involved? Can materiality elevate the receiver intellectually/spiritually ie are sensory experiences linked to our profound cognitive processes?
My undergrad and masters were in English Literature, and I’ve always had an interest in how texts become books and end up in our hands, and how the reading experience influences our understanding of a text. While it might seem obvious that texts aren’t intangible narratives directly communicated from a writer to reader, but its criminally overlooked field in critical discourse.
I assumed that this avoidance of materiality would be different within the visual arts. My understanding was that all art has physical properties that we encounter through our senses: Predominantly sight, sometimes sound, sometimes touch and maybe even through taste and smell.
With some pieces of art, you experience this explicitly, like a marble statue towering over you, while for others its less apparent, like a digital vector, but generally, we can’t engage with art without using our bodies – although artists can and do emphasise the importance of the physical elements of their art to varying degrees.
My hypothesis was that while a book – the codex form - is a conceptual space that is so ubiquitous it can be looked through, that materiality was so key to art’s existence and its uniqueness it would therefore be celebrated.
Turns out, materiality as a concept is quite hard to research.
While a quick google search will return 100s of results for exhibition titles like Materiality - The Matter of Matter or Paper // Materiality to Meaning, there seems to be very little complementary critical dialogue. One of the only books entirely focused on the topics is the aptly named materiality. In it the editor Petra Lange Berndt directly addresses this dearth in critical interest stating:
“For some, to engage with materials still seems the antithesis of intellectuality, a playground for those not interested in theory.”
The suggestion is that embodied experiences are somehow less important than purely cognitive ones.
I would argue, and I only see this confirmed, that it’s characteristic of a pervasive intellectual snobbery about the material, the bodily – and the verbal resonance of commerciality and superficiality within - that harks back to an entrenched notion that for an idea to be at its most pure, its most complete, it must be intangible and purely cognitive.
What I did manage to find out follows a similar route to the history of the book. In the mid-19th Century, there was a shift in thinking. Traditionally visual art was concerned with creating an illusionistic image or expressing a creative vision. It was the image, rather than the thing itself, that the audience were supposed to pay attention to. As Dorothea Eimert explains:
Traditionally, the material out of which the artwork was made played a subordinate role. Materials were placed in the hierarchical order that was determined by how little they would impinge upon the purity of the artistic premise.
The commitment to mimesis began to falter in part thanks to photography, alongside an increased interest in psychoanalytic theory. Artists began to question the idea of an objective reality and, consequently, the concept of realism itself. In doing so traditional hierarchies for material choices were pulled down, which had interesting repercussions.
Some artists rejected aesthetic sensibilities entirely in favor of a total focus on the materials. The Russian Constructivists for example believed their art should directly reflect and celebrate the industrialized landscape.
Other artists like the abstract expressionists rejected figurative or representational subject matter in order to explore the qualities of traditional artistic media like paint or the conceptual space of the canvas.
While the 1960s and 70s saw the rise of conceptual art, which explicitly rejected formalism and materiality. Conceptual artists chose deliberately ephemeral materials, or purposefully destroyed their work in order to emphasize the idea over the object. To reject the fetishization of the art object.
Another interesting development in early 20th century art was the use of non-traditional media. Picasso’s assemblages and his papier colles marked the beginning of a lasting trend in mixed media art.
This also had another fascinating repercussion. Today, many contemporary artists choose their materials for their symbolic significance – allowing them to take on an important voice within the creative intention.
This sculptural installation by Kara Walker is made almost entirely out of sugar. The centrepiece is a giant sphinx coated in refined white sugar, which is accompanied by smaller sculptures made from a darker molasses.
Both the physical and chemical properties of sugar – its various colours and its melting point, its sand-like ability to be moulded - as well as its symbolic links with slavery, gluttony and consumerism, all work together to inspire and voice the intention of the work. Walker has created a symbiosis between concept and materiality.
Another example is the work of the Ghanaian textile artist El Anatsui who is known for his massive wall hangings made from manipulated recycled materials like alcohol bottle caps.
The materials provide a critical commentary on the social ills of alcoholism, alcohol's connection to slavery, and the adverse impact of consumerism and waste. However, by transforming these materials Anatsui achieves a kind of transcendence, making them jewel-like.
So by this point, I had a pretty good understanding of materiality as a concept within visual art - how artists can choose to reveal their work’s materiality, and how they can manipulate or make choices about it to expound a particular message.
But I found that all this was very much focused upon the artist, not the ‘audience/end user’ and I wanted to think more about them.
None of the artwork I researched actually encouraged an embodied experience. They were all still meant to be looked at.
While often this is about conservation, security or hygiene - obviously you can't go around licking a Monet, or scrunching up a Da Vinci just to see what the paper feels like - part of the reason is a millennium strong tradition of ocular centrism. Of overstating the importance of sight. Because there are ways to engage our other senses, without literally damaging the integrity of an artwork.
Tasting or touching aren’t just base sensual activities, they’re directly linked to the way we think. The high emotional value of sensory experience has a substantial influence on our cognitive processes such as perception, attention, memory and reasoning.
Let’s return to the El Anatsui works I showed you before. While these beautiful pieces look very tactile - its self a paradox, I was wondering what they smell of? Do you think its like a metallic tang resonant of blood, or like that sour beer smell you get on a pub floor, or even the sweet cloy of a landfill? Or what do you think they sound like when they're moved. What noise they make if a breeze went through them, would they sound like a rain stick, or maybe more creaky, like trees in the wind? And how would they actually feel? Would they be cold to the touch, smooth or jagged?
And most importantly, what would all this mean to your experience of the pieces? How would it affect the way you remembered them?
At this point I felt a bit stuck. So I went back to the books and looked at more serious research into immersive art like the Tate’s Sensorium exhibition in 2015.
This is when I came across the concept of haptics and haptic reading. We’d touched on haptic knowledge in Mike’s lecture on ways of thinking and knowing and it struck me as really interesting. Haptics is basically the technology of touch, and ironically its garnered lots of interest in the digital age thanks to touch-based tech.
Haptic reading is pretty self-explanatory. It’s about the multi-sensory, manual nature of reading and how the physical act informs our cognitive processing of a books meaning.
While this is all a bit complicated and scientific for me, what is does confirm is that materiality isn't just about making an artistic point, or a gimmicky attempt to attract attention. We really can change the cognitive processes of a viewer by encouraging them to engage in manual interplay with a physical object.
I wanted to explore a genre of art which I thought breaks the mould when it comes to tactile art: artists’ books. A genre which is also one I’m interested in as a creative practitioner.
Although a loose category, I would argue that what distinguishes an artist's book from other visual forms is the necessity for manipulation. In order to reveal itself, an artist's book must be touched, turned, shuffled, twisted and held.
Since their conception in the mid 20th Century, artists' books have acted as a media in which to test the boundaries and definitions of art - in particular how art is displayed and viewed.
An emblem for this idea is Duchamp’s Prière de toucher pictured here, which was the cover for the 1947 Surrealist Exhibition catalogue. Duchamp purchased pre-fabricated foam and rubber breasts, There’s a label that invites readers to 'please touch', a request that becomes a demand as readers are literally forced to fondle the artificial breast when opening the book. Not only is this a typically mischievous inversion of the conventions of the gallery, but it highlights the role of the book form as an eminently touchable object.
Because handling is so key to the artists' book, it makes sense that both their form and content should have equal meaning and importance, and the form should interact with the content.
Artists must make choices over what they put inside (text, images etc) but also tactility (paper type, non-traditional media, size, shape), and mechanics (paper engineering, locks/wrappings, binding or loose sheets, pop ups, pull outs, cut outs etc). All three elements contribute towards the readers' experience and have an equal voice is communicating the artist’s intention; drawing the reader into an ongoing dialogue.
It made sense to start with Dieter Roth’s work.
Kinderbuch is a 28pp spiral bound book, with colourful printed opaque pages and di-cut geometric shapes. The reader is invited to engage in self-directed exploration through a kind of visual playground although choices are restricted to two directions due to the binding. The individual pages do not stand alone as they cut out sections always inform the reader of what is to come and what has gone before, giving a value from one page to the next.
The second work, Bilderbuch, is made up of 20 sheets of unbound, multi-coloured and semi-transparent foil. Each sheet also has various square cut out sections, which can be shuffled and compiled in numerous outcomes. The reader is invited to develop compositions by layering the sheets.