transplantation and art. Art materiality, representation and ethics RAI confernce British Museum and SOAS
My art practice questions the transformations that learning and matter bring into being, and the potentials for the force of things - the force of art. I am preoccupied by the material event, the disturbances and ruptures that transformative pedagogy can trigger when materials are the drivers between a human and non-human intra action.
I work collaboratively, make objects to question vital materiality, reciprocity, affordance and embodied encounters. Everything I make is informed by another, made in response, handled, held, enacted and relational. I see myself as a conduit, the objects I make as catalysts and the practice as a set of events.
As I move through notions of pedagogy, art and matter they become intersubjective, woven knotted and enmeshed. I describe this materially as the action of imploding, pushing, mixing, merging, weaving as we are placed within, rather than outside of a process of transformation. The intention is to make the material experience, emotional experience and pedagogical experience matter - or that the disruptions of matter become visible and valuable and vital. What are the materials of these experiences and what is the matter of transformation.?
The use of the transplant as a profound example of change and exchange provides an analogy for the relationships between matter, function and reciprocity. This very direct embodied encounter located and defined by the corporeal body is inherently complex, but it is my intention to reconfigure the medical event towards the intermingling subjectivities of object exchanges, and ultimately towards pedagogical transformation. This language, these metaphors have become fundamental in informing my research.
In the summer of 2015 my father donated one of his kidneys to my mother. It was a multi - layered exchange and entanglement of love, intention, thought and physicality. However, the relevance of this narrative is not just the relationship I have to the story, but an opportunity to see the transplant more objectively, in a way that concentrates on the human and non-human event in order to understand the objects involved in the process and their transformative state.
How can we experience the co constructed interplay between bodies as both objects, subjects? Can we see this way of considering the object and our changing perception of it as a route towards wider aspects of transformative events? Can we make meaning through these bodily reordering’s, these exchanges, these gifts?
The kidney (object –organ) that was once my father’s still lives in the same house as him, still has the same function, is the same size, and presumably still looks the same but it is now a few meters away from him, just located within another body. Neither recipient or donor have ever seen the uprooted organ, but it is fundamentally present, has a shared ownership and a double responsibility. For a period of time this object (organ) took centre stage, everything orientated around this ‘thing’ and this attention meant that it was perceived as a larger and more exaggerated version of itself. It was imagined within my father, outside of my father, inside my mother, in between both bodies, accepted, rejected and most importantly as itself and imagined in our thinking. The number of kidneys that I list here becomes multiple and through the perception of its identity, matter, potentiality and our imaginings we can move from the 1 original kidney to 8 virtual versions of itself.
It may seem that the organ (object) kidney itself has developed beyond its function and has a new greater identity through the attention on it. It could be suggested that its agential status affords more both physically and emotionally and therefore the kidney holds more agency. However, Theorist Karen Barad argues that agency is seen ‘as an enactment’ and not ‘the property of persons or things’. (Barad, 2013, p.55). Therefore, the agency could be seen to be located in the event of the transplant itself and the conceptual space between the bodies where the organ (object) is newly perceived.
The physical cut that took place to enable the object (organ) to be perceived with more worth and status was accompanied with an emotional and conceptual rupture – a rupture that is described by Alain Badiou as ‘a radical disruption that leads to a subsequent truth procedure. This reconfigures our existing knowledge frameworks’. (Badiou, 2005, p. 33). The altered perception of the kidney (object) is both for donor and recipient as the objects reordering re contextualises its position, its idea. It is greater than the sum of its parts, more than its matter, more than its function. It is imagined, removed, held, plumbed in, felt and remembered.
Can this transformation be reinterpreted as a way of making new meaning and a metaphor of inter –subjective transformation? The object holds both a memory of an original function - for it to function in the same way elsewhere, but this function is now measured in a more activated and tangible mode. It is visualised in a way that was silent before and as an object is more materially present and we are more materially aware. This correlates with Karin Knorr Certina’s questioning of the epistemic object. She discusses how knowledgeable objects are ‘always in the process of being materially defined, they continually acquire new properties and change the ones they have. But this also means that objects of knowledge can never be fully attained, that they are, if you wish, never quite themselves.’ ( Knorr, Cetina, 2000, p.8)
The reordering of materials of stuff, of matter within art practice is understood and embedded into the very nature of making – we shift the everyday towards other, things may be never quite themselves. We defamilarise, we are presented with alternatives, the re – ordered thinking of art. We concentrate, look carefully, think thoughtfully and wonder how we may interact, understand or articulate as the material disturbs the status quo. We are at sea and search for resting places of understanding or familiarity, or recognition of an
experiential match. The relocation or introduction of material or of objects from a place of understanding causes ripples, disruptions to our knowns and as the invisible becomes visible through attention. Or as Alan Kaprow suggests that ‘attention alters what is attended’ (
In a statement from my parent’s surgeon that he was merely ‘a plumber’, the extraordinary and the impossibility of exchange became materially evened out - made ordinary. When I received a text from my friend 12 weeks ago whose husband had just donated his kidney to their daughter, it read ‘the kidney is in the cab’. The unfamiliar then becomes familiar as bodies are plumbed, objects re ordered, matter lifted and repositioned. Matter simultaneously matters and sits amongst us.
I am interested in these disruptions, ruptures and disturbances that art and art pedagogy can also potentially cause. To transform we must unravel and in this process of unknowns there is an uncomfortable destabilisation that reveals a potential for new ways of making or being. If we can shift assumptions, alter our epistemologies then new interpretations can become useful but more importantly transformative. However, this process of transformation also needs the conceptual rupture I have alluded to as bodies extend prosthetically towards new possibilities.
In the analogy of the transplant this rejection is held at bay by a significant medical support structure. There is an investment in the process that has taken place and in this case because a life depends on it. Whilst I am not saying that the transformative process of art and pedagogy is life - dependent I am offering the possible metaphor. This metaphor values the repositioning of knowledge (through new encounter) to highlight the relevance of the physical and conceptual orientation required when an encounter is material and relational. Dennis Atkinson discusses the force of things and the force of art as a place for ‘invention; and an event of becoming. A virtual/actual creative force of transformation’. (Atkinson, 2017, p.156). In this becoming we are required to share the territory of this stuff, matter, be it art, material or body. To encounter this magnified state and in order to take on the new perceptions in other spaces in our lives, spaces of learning, spaces of art, of new knowledge and new experiences, we need to prevent a rejection, not of an organ, but of new thought. We therefore must negotiate this new thought and make a space for it.
This is a short observation of a group interacting with a set of objects made by myself and Karl Foster (sorhed) and hopes to provide a narrative of the transformation between familiar and unfamiliar states of recognition.
In the gallery when confronted with 20 made and unfamiliar objects, the woman chose one. Holding the object in her hand she looked at it with disgust. It was a cast of a potato, one that had started to grow eyes, sprouts that subtly extended from its form. It was cast in a black resin which had picked up all the details of the potato. It was a potato re represented.
‘I don’t like it, ‘she said. ‘It looks like it comes from a body and I almost can’t touch it’. I tell her that she doesn’t have to have that object to talk about or hold, but she holds tight to it and shakes her head. ‘No this is the object that I want’ she says. I am conscious of the grip of it in her hand as she continues to look intently at it, whilst the others are sitting around the
table and starting to discuss their objects. She interrupts their conversations as though unaware of their experience and focussed on her own. ‘It is like a growth.’ she says, ‘It is disturbing me, it is like a cancer in my hands.’ Seeing and feeling how uncomfortable the potato was making her I reiterate that she can return it and take another object, again she shakes her head. I am very aware of her sitting there looking at the object and I can almost feel her encounter and feel her grip on the form. ‘It is hot in my hands, ’ she says, turning it over and over, finding a place for it to sit in her grasp. She looks at it as though she recognises it and yet is near to rejection. She is on her own in her experience and yet sitting amongst us. It feels like it is becoming part of her grip as though stuck in her hand and onto her palm, or becoming part of her body, adhesively. She shakes her head to herself looking at it. ‘I just feel it is a part of a body and sort of part of mine’. ‘It is just a sort of potato’ says another person next to her.
Near to her as part of the object collection is a turntable and whilst it did not have the capacity to play music it revolved when the arm was lifted. I asked if I could show her something and took the cast potato from her grasp, it was warmed up by her handling and she looked at the absence of it in her hand. On the bottom of the potato was a small hole and I placed the potato onto the turntable letting the small pin in the centre push into the object and anchor it there. As I lifted the arm the turntable began to turn and so did the potato, round and round. The woman watched it for a moment then suddenly raised up her arms into the air, her face changed and she laughed in what seemed like relief and as though something new had been uncovered. ’Oh, I don’t believe it,’ she said, ‘it’s Fred Astaire, my object is Fred Astaire’. I looked at the potato revolving on the turntable and what it had become through her attention, her intra action and her encounter and I understood it as a dancer, removed from its earlier definition and transformed to her new truth.
‘What has happened?’ she said. ‘How can that be, how can I be thinking this, how can it matter so much, why did I feel that so deeply. What on earth happened?’
Whilst the force experienced within art/ art pedagogy is not inflicted on the flesh of body ideas and thoughts can be equally readjusted and re-rooted. As Charles Garoian questions ‘the materiality of the body engages the corporeality of materials, tools and objects through art - making manifold sensations, associations and understandings’ (Garoian,2013, p.124). I would argue that these dislocations from what was once known, become ‘fundamental encounters’ of the physical and the thoughtful body. The analogy of transplantation enables the materials to transform - to be embodied, metaphoric and ultimately question the relationships of bodies that move between states of flesh and thought?
The very nature of materiality is an entanglement. Matter itself is always already open to, or rather entangled with, the "Other." subjects but also objects are permeated through and through with their entangled kin; the other is not just in one's skin, but in one's bones, in one's belly, in one's heart, in one's nucleus, in one's past and future. (Barad, 2007, p. 393)
Atkinson, D. (2017). Art, Disobedience, And ethics, The Adventure of Pedagogy. Education, Psychoanalysis, and Social Transformation. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Atkinson, D. (2011). Art, Equality and Learning, Pedagogies Against the State. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
Badiou, A. (2005b). Being and Event. London: Continuum.
Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway. London: Quantum.
Cetina, Knorr, K, (2000). The Practice Turn in Contemporary theory. Psychology Press,
Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. B. Massumi. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.
Garoian, C, R. (2013). The Prosthetic Pedagogy of Art. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Kaprow. A. (1993). Essays on The Blurring of Art and Life. University of California Press.
The clay is cold and wet and is sticking itself to itself. It is a stubborn lump of matter and happy in its form. I use the spoon from my cutlery drawer and push it into the flesh of the clay and break the clear and smooth surface that formed from the packaging of its bag. I use all my force to start edging the clay upwards and outwards as though taking the largest amount of ice cream that is too frozen in its tub. It is heavy against the spoon and resistant and seems to pull away from my exertion. I want to take a handful and make a handful and can only do this by using my hand to extract the clay from itself. As the clay eases free I push it away and clear from the spoon, as it now clings to that surface, always resistant to my force. However, when in my hands the clay becomes mine and I can manipulate it on my terms, it has left its bulk behind. Or I have taken it from that bulk. It is its own form and not defined by the material that is removed from.
It fits slightly oversized in my hands and I squeeze my grip into the clay. I feel my fingers start to create channels of their own and at that moment the grip is heightened and sticky between the material and my palm. It is adhesive. This is my handful but is also being made for another. I am giving my handful away, making a handful. I am conscious that this action, this first squeeze on the clay is authentic and not prodded and shifted away from the truth of my grip to present itself more perfectly. I notice a strange lump that forms between two of my fingers and want to push it away but I leave it where it is. I feel a handful is something a little more complicated than a grasp.
I pull my finger out and feel like little Jack Horner pulling out a plum. I loosen my fingers from the rest of the clay so that my hand is extracted from the material. It is a simple action but the intention is adding weight as I think of someone else holding my hand. I am thinking of them as I squeeze the clay and think about holding their hand. I think about the transaction of information and sharing ideas and sharing matter. Every time my squeeze is different, not consciously trying to be the same or altered with my action, but my pressure or my fingers always sit differently. This is something and nothing. A gesture, an impression a remnant of my action. It isn’t complete or resolved yet strangely it is not unresolved either.
I place the objects on plates to dry and they start to look like organs, but these handfuls are not manipulated to become a representation of that - however they have come from the gesture of my body and the impact my body makes on the material. At this moment, they extend for me prosthetically not as compensatory but as additive.
My making is still present in the material. My physical making was just a squeeze, my intention is a concentrated squeeze. A squeeze of thoughts and attention. They are materially in-between beginnings and ends. These clay handfuls need to be completed or manipulated by someone else, the manipulation is therefore not the physical change of the material in their hands but the change in perceptions that the handful may allow. small clay organs. The invested clay that was materiality hardened was ready to be re- formed through thought and encounter. However, this object was not operating alone, I was in it, on it and through it, as I handed it over and offered it up. I was also potentially offering up part of my thinking or part of myself