Matter is a series that explores the shifting relationship between design practice and matter. It brings together designers and other practitioners to imagine non-exploitative and non-human centric forms of engagements with materiality, and inquires what it means to design with social and ecological sensitivity in the age of escalating environmental crisis.
By focusing on the global cartographies of matter, from molecules to rare earth elements, the regulations of hidden material flows, as well as the capacities of matter itself to act, the project looks at how contemporary design practice is embedded and implicated in various techno-political systems. How can designers challenge the market-driven approaches to materials, and promote alternative systems of value and exchange?
Matter vs. Material
Matter precedes and exceeds material. Atoms and particles, rare earth elements and hybrid composites, precious metals and toxic liquids, fossils and minerals, microwaves and vapours, matter is commonly perceived as a passive commodity, a resource, mere stuff that ought to be mobilised and transformed to become material. The self-propelling system of financial capitalism pushes industries and designers to explore the economic potential of materials on ever smaller scales — continuously instrumentalizing more matter through the practices of extraction, mining, manipulation and dispersion. In the meantime, the operation of vast digital platforms and planetary-scale computation, as well as the crucial developments in renewable energy are deeply dependent on the material processes of transformation of matter, metallurgic alchemies and geopolitics of minerals.
When approached through a lense of human productivity, only certain facets of matter are recognised as a valuable part of the market, leaving other aspects such as material waste or toxicity overlooked. In the words of political theorist Jane Bennett in Vibrant Matter: The Political Ecology of Things, ‘materiality can never be thrown ‘away’, for it continues its activities even as a discarded or unwanted commodity.’
Matter as a Subject of Design
Design traditionally serves as a framework to understand material surroundings through the contours of things — or clearly defined objects. Its focus frequently lies within the study of material properties and in the realm of material innovation. But the current state of affairs and escalating environmental crisis calls for different approaches that allow to step back and sideways, and rethink the existing relationship between human and matter. By stressing the difference between matter and material, the conversations invite designers, artists, scholars, scientists, lawyers and other stakeholders to imagine more ethical forms of co-habitation between humans and matter, beyond the premise of novelty and constant economic growth.
The series draws on the exhibition and research project Lithium, the curriculum of Neuhaus, the temporary interdisciplinary academy for more-than-human knowledge that took place at Het Nieuwe Instituut between May—September 2019, and the learning line Meeting Matter. The project also builds upon the long-term research by Het Nieuwe Instituut on the economic, social and cultural implications of materials, such as Wood and Glass. Other related projects include On the Most Powerful Catalyst by research fellow Füsun Türetken; Ore Streams presented by Studio Formafantasma; Mineral, Immutable: To Design a Document by research fellow Christopher Lee.