Being Material, Hosted by the MIT Center for Art, Science and Technology

‘Being Material,’ the second MIT Center for Art, Science and Technology Symposium takes place on April 21-22, 2017.The conference is convened by Professor Stefan Helmreich, Anthropology; Leila Kinney, Arts at MIT Executive Director Leila Kinney; Assistant Professor Skylar Tibbits, Architecture; CAST Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer Rebecca Uchill (PhD HTC ‘15), Architecture; and Professor Evan Ziporyn, Music and Theater Arts.

In 1995, MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte predicted that “being digital” would have us entering a realm increasingly unconstrained by the materiality of the world. Two decades later, our everyday lives are indeed ever more suffused by computation and calculation. But unwieldy materiality persists and even reasserts itself. Programmable matter, self-assembling structures, 3D/4D printing, wearable technologies and bio-inspired design today capture the attention of engineers, scientists and artists. “BEING MATERIAL” will showcase recent developments in materials systems and design, placing this work in dialogue with kindred and contrasting philosophy, art practice and critique. Panels on the PROGRAMMABLE, WEARABLE, LIVABLE and INVISIBLE—along with a concert, AUDIBLE—will explore new and unexpected meetings of the digital and material worlds. More information on ‘Being Material’ is available via Arts at MIT. Register here to attend.


Tibbits and Uchill recently spoke with Arts at MIT on the premises of the symposium. Read the full interviews at the link below:

Arts at MIT: To clarify for our audience, could you talk a bit about what is meant by ‘new materialism’?

Rebecca Uchill: One could say that that new materialism draws from Thing Theory, and Actor-Network-Theory, in attending to the agencies, realities and networks of objects, materials, and things outside of legacies of psychoanalysis and structuralism, or other theorizations of the world that understand it as filtered through human subjectivities, languages and habits. Materials may be understood as having their own agencies and influences, and the boundaries between objects and subjects may be understood as blurred given their necessary entanglements. Terms like Object-Oriented-Ontology and Speculative Realism have also emerged to describe these philosophical tendencies, though I believe there are avowed members of every one of these camps who reject being labeled Materialists (New or otherwise!)

New materialist approaches mean slightly different things across disciplines—so this is certainly not one unified theory or position, even within this symposium. One of the interesting parts of organizing a cross-disciplinary program is learning how similar topics and even nomenclatures can be deployed or treated very differently by different scholarly methodologies or disciplinary conventions.

It may seem surprising, at first, that my discipline of art history—the study of human-made culture—has a pervasive interest in theorizations of the non-human. But of course art history has a long and serious tradition of object-based inquiry. And certainly there are contemporary artists who address new materialist issues with compelling curiosity and rigor. Claire Pentecost, for example, has been working on a project that proposes a continuum between the health of soils and the health of human bodies, which she will discuss as part of the LIVABLE panel.

Arts at MIT: How did the theme for “Being Material” emerge? To what degree did it grow out of the “Active Matter Summit”?

Skylar Tibbits: That’s a good question. I see it as a blending of the “Seeing/Sounding/Sensing” and “Active Matter” conferences. At “Active Matter” we had mostly scientists, engineers, some designers and a few artists. Mostly it dealt with the technical fronts of where active matter is emerging, what’s happening in that domain and how people are doing it. “Being Material” places that research in a much broader context.

And it obviously relates to Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital. It’s saying that yes, in some ways Being Digital came true, as was predicted. But it’s very different from what we thought. Digital is material now. It’s not separate from material, as was originally assumed. Everything is digital, but we’re blending the worlds of the digital and the physical. That lines up very well with the work discussed at “Active Matter.” We were looking at how do materials become active? How do they transform themselves in all sorts of ways? How do they assemble? When do they become literally dynamic? And often that means digital.

The “Being Material” conference is still exploring ways in which the digital meets the physical, but from a much broader perspective, not only from the technical, the scientific and the engineering sides, but from a kind of historical, artistic, and philosophic angle as well. So we’re trying to bring many more people to the table to talk about the context in which this emerged and current applications in a variety of disciplines and to broaden the conversation.

Note from the conveners: On Saturday, April 22, the symposium will conclude in the early afternoon, when — just two subway stops away — there will be a March for Science on the Boston Common, in synchrony with a March on Washington DC and with 320 satellite marches around the world. So, if being material is being scientific, artistic, and humanistic—that is, being things that MIT is good at—it will also mean, for some, BEING VISIBLE in support of such alliances, especially as they may be under threat from funding cuts to the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts. If you’d like to join in, witness, or even critique the March, many of us are heading over to the Common to experiment with BEING MATERIAL, BEING VISIBLE, and BEING AUDIBLE in alliance with science.