Material Others and Other Materialities Symposium

Material Others and Other Materialities Symposium


Based on: vilem-flusser-vampyroteuthis-infernalis-3

Organised by the Informed Matters Research Community, University of the Arts London

Venue and Date: Friday 30 September 2016, 12:45pm-6.00pm

Iklectik Art Lab 20 Carlisle Lane London SE1 7LG

Summary In their short philosophical fable ‘Vampyroteuthis Infernalis’, Vilem Flusser and Louis Bec compare

human existence to that of a deep-sea squid, the Vampyroteuthis Infernalis. In the process they raise

questions about the relation of cognition, culture and sociality to corporeal anatomy and environment. Flusser

and Bec’s ruminations form the background context and connecting thread for this symposium, which aims to

bring together 10 papers to explore questions of materiality and otherness specifically, in relation to art and

design and media. All presentations take a point of departure from Flusser and Bec’s text to discuss an

artefact in relation to the symposium’s themes.


12:45-13:00 Registration followed by Introduction

13:00-14:20 Panel 1. Phenomenological Materialities

The Immateriality of Titian’s Pesaro Altarpiece | Ken Wilder, Chelsea College of Arts

Circle or Oval?: Concepts, Non-identity and the Lifeworld | Johanna Bolton, Royal College of Art

Things that Happen Again: Roni Horn and the Phenomenology of the Other | Andrew Chesher, Chelsea

College of Arts

Chair: Dan Smith; Discussant: Allan Parsons

14:20-14:40 Tea Break

14:40-16:00 Panel 2. My Body and the Body: The Other and the Alien

My Neighbour, That Thing | Werner Prall, Middlesex University

The Corporeal Witness in Katie Green’s Lighter than my Shadow | Dan Smith, Chelsea College of Arts

Fishing for Zebedee | Mark Ingham, London College of Communication

Chair: Amanda Windle; Discussant: Maria Walsh

16:00-16:30 Wine

16:30-17:30 Panel 3. Digital Materialities

Emergent Materiality: The Self and the Other in Material Dialogues | Virna Koutla, Royal College of Art

Robotum Anthromorphum: of Virtual Assistants and their Networked Materialities | Michel Erler, London

College of Communication

Chair: Allan Parsons; Discussant: Amanda Windle

17:30-18:00 Discussant roundtable



Panel 1. Phenomenological Materialities

The Immateriality of Titian’s Pesaro Altarpiece | Ken Wilder

With the symbolic immateriality of artificial intelligence, Flusser and Bec argue that ‘[h]uman selfactualization

is no longer the struggle against the insidious resistance of inert objects’. Yet this

negates the fact that objects – as information carriers – have always concealed as much as they

have revealed. Drawing upon Michael Baxandall’s Patterns of Intention, I will argue that the

historically embodied viewer is forced to employ acts of ideation that are as much prompted by

what the object negates (immaterial information) as what it explicitly reveals through its

engagement of a medium. The paper applies this to a Titian’s immensely complex Pesaro

Altarpiece (1519-26), an object that, in blurring the boundaries between architecture and

painting, is at the cusp of the work as self-contained entity while still very much addressing the

spectator’s point of entry. Here, information is both embedded within the painting’s objectness

and materiality, while simultaneously engaging symbolically our very conditions of access.

Ken Wilder is a Reader in Spatial Design at Chelsea College of Arts, UAL

Circle or Oval?: Concepts, Non-identity and the Lifeworld | Johanna Bolton

At the starting point, when investigating matter, one has the (subjective) power to choose which

concepts and definitions to use. But once a concept is formed, we also seem to become

restricted by it. Flusser and Bec suggest that we can no longer discern phenomena that we have

no concept for and our models then obscure reality.

Edmund Husserl, in the critique of the Western scientific tradition he presented in his Crisis of the

European Sciences, pointed out how the gap between idealised geometric shapes and the

experienced Lifeworld creates a situation where mathematical models become autonomous

constructs divorced from the real and perceived reality.

In this paper I explore how changing the concept, using it as a form of viewpoint, allows one to

move around an object looking at it from different angles. The aim of such a process would be to

glimpse other, formerly hidden aspects. The ‘other’ here is something akin to the ‘Nonidentity’

Adorno writes of, the part of any object that “eludes capture by the concept.”

The object my discussion is based around is an elastic band, an object which is roughly and

variably round without ever being perfectly circular. If the definition of a circle is an idealised

construct that does not exist in the material world, then the maybe round shapes formed by

elastic bands should all be described as oval. However, in actual everyday language, we all

apply different concepts of what counts as a circle or an oval. My discussion of the elastic band’s

roundness is motivated by the desire to investigate this particular uncertain state by creating a

new (subjective) definition of circle- or oval-ness based on Lifeworld experience.

Johanna Bolton is a Associate Lecturer at the Royal College of Art

Things that Happen Again: Roni Horn and the Phenomenology of the Other | Andrew Chesher

Flusser and Bec’s exploration of otherness in Vampyroteuthis Infernalis owes a not inconsiderable

debt to the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. Having established in his Cartesian Meditations

the primacy of the ego’s ‘sphere of ownness’, Husserl includes within it the other as merely

intended. For Husserl, despite recognising that the otherness of the other should not by rights

originate in the subject, the appearance of the other as other depends on this sense constituted

by the ego, just as the vampyroteuthic other is said to exist ‘only in relation to me’ (Flusser & Bec

2012, 38). On the other hand, Husserl also posits my flesh, my lived body, as coextensive with the

proper sphere of my ego. However, although only I experience my body immediately as my flesh,

it is inherently reversible: what is flesh for me at one moment can become mere body at another.

In other words, the flesh and hence the ego’s proper sphere cannot ultimately be closed off, as

Husserl wished, but is rather continuous with the field of what is apparently outside and other.

Where Flusser and Bec transcend the limitations of the Husserlian foundation is by going on to

dwell in their text on the ramifications of this flesh/body pivot, which challenges any such

seclusion of the ego from the world and the other.

This paper will return to the Husserlian account of the other and explore it in relation to Roni

Horn’s sculpture ‘Things That Happen Again: For Two Rooms’ (1986). What could be identified as


more or less explicit posthuman and materialist themes thread through the exploration of animal

and physical forms in Horn’s work. Beyond these themes, however, Horn also often explores

identity and difference in an almost phenomenological manner. ‘Things That Happen Again’ is a

case in point. The sculpture consists of two truncated cones of milled metal to be located in

different rooms within an exhibition. In making us aware that we see the one cone in relation to

our memory or anticipation of the other, the work focuses us on the fact that that every ‘here’

implies a ‘there’ or an ‘elsewhere’, and that implicit within the perception of any present object is a

sense itself not present. So, Horn’s sculpture, I will argue, returns us to the theme of the flesh and

its reversibility, which communicates with the more explicit imagery and tropes within the larger

ambit of her practice.

Andrew Chesher is Year 1 Leader, BA Fine Art at Chelsea College of Arts, UAL

Panel 2. My Body and the Body: the Other and the Alien

My Neighbour, That Thing | Werner Prall

Freud was famously critical of the biblical command ‘love thy neighbour as you love thyself’, a

central pillar of Judeo-Christian ethics. Undermining this injunction from various angles he

concludes, with Hobbes, homo homini lupus. Our neighbour does not reliably comply with our

wishes for harmonious exchanges conducted in the spirit of the mirror image. The danger is

always that we might fall prey to the excessive desires of our fellow human being. But if our

neighbour’s jouissance constitutes a threat for us, we must not forget that we are our neighbour’s

neighbour. When Freud first tackled the problem of the other person he did so in terms of the

Nebenmensch (the proximate human-being) as Ding (thing). It is the incommensurability of this

thingness of the other which for Lacan places the neighbour – always potentially at least – in the

register of the Real; and an encounter with the Real threatens us with trauma. Flusser’s work

bears witness to his attempts to recognise himself in that which appears to lie furthest from the

human, ‘monsters who dream of Nothing in their own interiority.’ Another glimpse across this

abyss is afforded us by the 1926 expressionist silent film ‘The Student of Prague’, a still from

which constitutes the visual object for this exploration.

Werner Prall is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Psychoanalysis, Middlesex University

The Corporeal Witness in Katie Green’s Lighter than my Shadow | Dan Smith

Katie Green’s Lighter Than My Shadow (2013), a 500 page graphic autobiography, offers an

account of anorexia that indirectly evokes the zombie as a model for alienation, suffering,

recovery and witnessing. The figure of the zombie evoked here is not a monster in the

conventional sense, but a corporeal protagonist pushed to the limits of cognition, an embodied

subject that can no longer make claims to agency or representation. Green makes use of her

medium to allow us to see how, as a girl with an eating disorder, she saw herself. The narrative

images also allow us to see what young Katie cannot. As her weight loss accelerates, the

narrative reveals how close the author/protagonist came to a barely human condition, the body as

closer to death than life. This is the zombie as a physical and psychic condition of bodily

emaciation and the loss of agency, not as a trope of horror genres, but as a transformation of the

human body, brought about through distorted relations between cognition and corporeal

anatomy. The concepts of distorting mirrors and hierarchies of disgust that Flusser playfully

employs find disturbing correlations in Green’s narrative.

Dan Smith is a Senior Lecturer at Chelsea College of Arts, UAL

Fishing for Zebedee | Mark Ingham

I am becoming animal, a rocking horse, a ventriloquist’s emu, a felt frog who will never be a

prince. The labyrinth I inhabit has multiple exits but only one entrance. How you come out of my

maze does not depend on how you enter, you will be morphed. Charged by the planes of

immanence your lines of flight will electrify and animate you. Suckling and entangling you

become; bag puss, zippy, muffin the mule, bill and ben, lady penelope, lady lovelace and finally

zebedee, boing! You fight the forces of abstraction to distraction and it is a draw. You perform,

you happen, you dematerialise, you objectify, you are the subject, you are not. You will evolve,

revolve, and dissolve some of those images of thought you have explored by constructing fleeting

imaginary worlds. What will pull you back to the memory of crossing the singular threshold? Will it

be through rosebudishness, madeleineness, or by the encounter with the idea that forces you to

think differently? I will bring a spring, a wooden ball, a moustache, red, blue, yellow and black.

Taking in Vilem Flusser and Louis Bec’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis as a ‘line of flight’ this paper


uses the characters from the Magic Roundabout as luminaires in, ‘The eternal night of the

vampyroteuthis [which] is filled with colours and sounds that are emitted by living beings-an

eternal festival of colours and sounds, a son et lumiere of extraordinary opulence. The ocean floor

is carpeted with red, white, and violet stone; there are dunes of blue and yellow sand, sparkling

with pearls and fragments of molten meteorites. Forests, meadows, and plains of plant-like

animals, beaming with colours, sway in the current with fanned tentacles. Wandering in their

midst are giant iridescent snails, and whirring above them are swarms of crabs, flashing in silver,

red, and yellow. It is a luxuriant garden that the vampyroteuthis can illuminate, on a whim, to enjoy

its desserts in splendour.’ (Flusser & Bec 2000: 35)

Mark Ingham is the Acting Programme Director, Spatial Communication & CTS Coordinator, London

College of Communication, UAL

Panel 3. Digital Materialities

Emergent Materiality: The Self and the Other in Material Dialogues | Virna Koutla

The paper revolves around the notion of matter at the intersection of the physical and the digital

and investigates potential ways through which materiality can be enacted and performed. By

putting forward a speculative approach towards design, the essay explores the use of digital

media for the emergence of matter’s unexpected compositional capacities and focuses on the

degree of affect between subjects and objects as part of the process. As in the case of Flusser’s

and Bec’s vampyroteuthis infernalis fable, the paper provides the groundwork for a material

dialogue between the self and the other and serves as a framework for thinking about the

dialectics of the actual (real), the virtual (also real, but not necessarily actual), and the space of

possibilities that their interaction opens up. In the form of the ‘what if’ scenario of a conversation

with a giant terracotta vase, the paper addresses space as an expanded field of propagation and

effects in which materiality emerges as an assemblage of active forces. In particular, the scenario

proposes ‘Synthetic Materiality’ as a new way of understanding and, further, formulating the

hybrid relations between subjects and objects as well as the environments in which they reside.

Deriving from the greek word synthesis (which means bringing different parts together into a

composite whole), ‘synthetic materiality’ expresses the merging process that gives shape to the

interaction of the hybrid actants and advocates for an understanding of matter as a substance in

flux. If, then, materiality is always becoming, what are our potentialities in the inexhaustible “game

of life”?

Virna Koutla is a Post-graduate Student at the Royal College of Art

Robotum Anthromorphum: of Virtual Assistants and their Networked Materialities | Michel Erler,

London College of Communication

The development and design of artificial intelligence has predominately been an anthropocentric

endeavour. The sophisticated humanoid robot, indistinguishable from us human beings has been

the idealised image for the A.I. community to work towards to for decades. With the rise of

ubiquitous text bots and virtual assistant making use of speech recognition software such as

Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri (the particular ‘object’ discussed in this

paper), our conception of artificial characters changes. As Flusser presumably would have said,

these characters appear and disappear “like ghosts”, and we have not yet fully figured out how to

make sense of them.

The physical bodies of these assistants consist and rely as much on algorithmic processing as they do

on a planetary-scale network consisting of mobile phones, fibre cables, data centres, communication

satellites, etc. How do we as designers deal with their tangible and intangible materiality? How do we as

humans deal with this other, algorithmic form of intelligence? Where do we place them on the range

between animate and inanimate, human and inhuman? How can Flusser’s phenomenological work

provide an intellectual toolbox to address these questions?

Michel Erler is a Graduate of London College of Communications


Allan Parsons is an Associate Lecturer at Central Saint Martins

Maria Walsh is a Reader in Fine Art at Chelsea College of Arts

Amanda Windle is DigiLab Fellow at London College of Communication