Being Material


Friday, April 21, 2017

11:00am: Registration open
12:00-1:00pm: Welcome and “Been Digital” by Nicholas Negroponte
1:00-3:00pm: Programmable
3:00-4:00pm: Coffee Break & Demos
3:30-4:00pm: Audible performance by Grace Leslie
4:00-6:00pm: Wearable
6:15-6:45pm: Audible, a performance by Maya Beiser
6:30-7:30pm: Reception and Demos

Saturday, April 22, 2017

8:30am: Registration open
9:00-10:30am: Livable
10:30-11:00am: Coffee Break
11:00am-1:00pm: Invisible
1:00-1:30pm: Closing Discussion and Q&A
2:00pm: March for Science on Boston Common


On Saturday, April 22, the symposium concluded in the early afternoon, when—just two subway stops away—there was a March for Science on the Boston Common, in synchrony with a March on Washington DC and with 320 satellite marches around the world. If being material is being scientific, artistic, and humanistic—that is, being things that MIT is good at—it also means, 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. Symposium attendees were invited join in, witness, or even critique the March, and many headed over to the Common to experiment with BEING MATERIAL, BEING VISIBLE, and BEING AUDIBLE in alliance with science.

Friday, April 21, 2017  /  1:00 – 3:00pm

To program something is to impart a set of executable instructions into a medium to perform that process. From Ada Lovelace’s first hand-written program to today’s algorithmically animated robots, clothing, and living material, programmability has expanded its purview to embrace everything from the digital to the physical, from the synthetic to the biological, and from the scientific to the artistic. How have ideas about creativity, craft, and matter transformed in the process? What novel science and art emerges when material becomes programmable?


Kevin Slavin, Assistant Professor, Media Arts and Sciences and the Benesse Career Development Professor of Media Arts and Sciences


Benjamin Bratton, Professor, Visual Arts and Director of the Center for Design and Geopolitics, University of California, San Diego. Bratton is an architect and design theorist best known for his theories on global computation and algorithmic governance.
Ben Fry, Programming Language Designer. Fry is an expert in data visualization and information design. He is a co-developer of Processing with Case Reas.
Nadya Peek, Research Assistant, Center for Bits and Atoms, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Peek is a researcher best known for her work on machines that make machines and object-oriented hardware.
Manu Prakash, Assistant Professor, Bioengineering, Stanford University. Prakash is a scientist and physicist working at the intersection of physical biology and computing. Manu also developed the Foldscope, a dollar microscope, and is a pioneer of the frugal science movement.
Casey Reas, Professor, University of California, Los Angeles. Reas is a computational artist and co-developer of Processing, a programming language geared towards the visual arts.


Image: Casey Reas, Process Compendium 2004-2010. 

Friday, April 21, 2017  /  4:00-6:00pm

The integration of the human body and clothing with technology has propelled art, computationally enhanced fashion design, and materials science far beyond visions of the cyborg proposed in the 1960s.  This session explores the multiplicity of these developments, from the emergence of conceptual fashion design and wearable computing in the 1990s to current experiments with electronic and reactive textiles and portable sensing systems that provide data feedback to monitor health or enhance physical performance. It asks what it means today to be “human, not so human.”


Azra Aksamija, Associate Professor, Program in Art, Culture and Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Akšamija’s multi-disciplinary practice includes “wearable mosques” that explore the representation of Islam in the West, spatial mediation of identity politics and cultural transfers through art and architecture.


Christina Agapakis, Creative Director, Ginkgo Bioworks. Agapakis is a biologist, artist, writer and creative director at Ginkgo Bioworks, an organism design company that is bringing biology to industrial engineering.  She explores the aesthetics of biotechnology and has made cheese from the artist Olafur Eliasson’s tears.
Hussein Chalayan, Fashion Designer. For more than twenty years, Hussein Chalayan has used clothing as platform to display materials that change state and transform themselves. His work is characterized by an adventurous, bold incorporation of technology and an ability to address conceptual issues—such as disembodiment, metamorphosis, mobility and forced migration— through fashion. Chalayan’s experimental practice has turned the runway show into a sophisticated, multi-media form of performance art.
Michelle Finamore, Penny Vinik Curator of Fashion Arts, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where she recently curated the #techstyle exhibit. She is the author of Hollywood Before Glamour:  Fashion in American Silent Film.
Lucy McRae, sci-fi artist, film director and self proclaimed body architect. In films, music videos and installations, she places the human body in complex, futuristic scenarios and designs prosthetic extensions that confound the boundaries between the natural and the artificial.
Natasha Schüll, Associate Professor , Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University. Her next book, KEEPING TRACK: Sensor Technology, Self-Regulation, and the Data-Driven Life, which will appear in 2017, concerns the rise of digital self-tracking technologies and the new modes of introspection and self-governance they engender.



Image: Hussein Chalayan, Autumn/Winter 2007.

Friday, April 21, 2017 / 3:30-4:00pm, Grace Leslie / 6:15-6:45pm, Maya Beiser

Human music making is a strange intervention into materiality. Blowing into metal, scraping on strings, generating invisible variations in air pressure that waft into people’s ears: it’s odd behavior, this end-in-itself patterning of soundwaves. Ironically, in the discipline itself, ‘materials’ generally refers to ideas and the way the mind organizes them: melodies, rhythms, processes, structure, i.e. everything other than physical beings, objects or forces.

Grace Leslie & Maya Beiser, in very different but connected ways, merge this immaterial notion back into real-time, real-world ‘stuff. In Vessels, Leslie generates sounds via two simultaneous pathways: her ute (mind-to-digits) and her own brainwaves, which trigger electronic sounds (mind-to-digital).

Beiser’s rapturous interpretation of Michael Harrison’s Just Ancient Loops is based on a different type of abstraction and digitization, our ongoing fascination with music as number, and again how that manifests in sound and vision, in tuning systems and metric cycles. Harrison composes using an elegantly expanded version of Pythagorean just intonation—alchemical intervallic numerology—layering cello resonances and textures into patterns and grooves. Morrison’s lm juxtaposes deteriorating archival footage, with CGI and visualizations of NASA data.

Performers: Grace Leslie is an electronic musician, music cognition researcher and Visiting Scientist in the MIT Media Lab. She develops and performs with Brain-Body Music Interfaces and conducts neuroscienti c studies of music engagement and sound experience through sound art and interactive music electronics.

Maya Beiser, Maya Beiser, Mellon Distinguished Visiting Artist at MIT CAST, cellist and producer, defies categories while passionately forging a career path through uncharted territories. She has dedicated her work to reinventing solo cello performance in the mainstream classical arena. The Boston Globe declares, “With virtuoso chops, rock-star charisma, and an appetite for pushing her instrument to the edge of avant-garde adventurousness, Maya Beiser is the post-modern diva of the cello,” while Rolling Stone calls her a “cello rock star.”

Beiser’s 2011 TEDtalk has been watched by close to one million people and translated to 32 languages. She has performed her latest critically acclaimed multimedia production, All Vows, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, BAM Next Wave, and London’s Barbican among other major venues. Her latest album, TranceClassical, released July 2016, debuted at No. 1 on the Apple Music classical chart.

Maya Beiser will perform Just Ancient Loops, an “orchestra of cellos” in “just” or “pure” intonation tuning. A collaboration between Beiser, composer Michael Harrison and filmmaker Bill Morrison, the piece gradually builds up to a climax of 22 independent cello parts. The work is comprised of 3 interconnected movements. Section 1 is compiled from deteriorating archival footage. It opens with shots from the observatory at the Vatican and ends with an extended sequence of rare eclipse footage. Section 2 is based on research by Walter Murch, relating orbits to harmonics. Computer generated imagery (CGI) and data from NASA is used to create a harmonic visualization of the four moons of Jupiter. Section 3 is also compiled from deteriorating archival footage. It begins with an evolution sequence, including Adam and Eve, and ends with rare footage from a 1907 French film “Life and Passion of Christ.”

Saturday, April 22, 2017  /  9:00am-10:30pm

“Life” — and livability — is informed by the biotic and the social. Land art of the 1960s and 1970s developed in tandem with new discourses in ecological science and environmental politics. The 1990s saw the rise of “bioart,” as artists worked with bioengineered genes, cells, and organisms as new materials with which to query the possibilities and politics of biotechnology. Exploring questions such as, how does today’s art, science, and economics of the “livable” elaborate these concepts into projects of biological design, networked ecology, and environmental remediation? This session documents and imagines new forms and approaches to “livable material.”

Bettina Stoetzer, Assistant Professor, Global Studies and Languages, MIT. Stoetzer is an anthropologist interested in the intersections of ecology, globalization, and urban life.

Tal Danino, Director, Synthetic Biological Systems Laboratory, Columbia University. Danino is a synthetic biologist engineering some of the smallest forms of life, in the form of “programmable” bacteria.
Bill Maurer, Dean, School of Social Sciences and Professor, University of California, Irvine. Maurer is a cultural anthropologist of law, property, and finance, examining how new kinds of monetary practices (around BitCoin, mobile banking) commoditize unexpected aspects of social, biological, and ecological life.
Claire Pentecost, Professor, Department of Photography, School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Pentecost is an artist who researches the living matters of food, agriculture and bio-engineering; her Soil-erg project of 2012 considered the material of soil as a commodity, proposing a soil-based currency system.



Image: Claire Pentecost, soil-erg, dOCUMENTA(13), 2012. Photo credit: Fabian Fröhlich.

Saturday, April 22, 2017  /  11:00am-1:00pm

Material things bear the traces of their conditions of production and circulation. Sometimes these traces are visible — as carbon footprints or carbon offsets, as contaminated or reclaimed geographies, as toxic waste or as renewable energy. Other times, such signs are invisible, out of everyday view or otherwise occluded. This panel considers today’s shifting lines between the visible and the invisible. Panelists will discuss cloaking, “operational” machine seeing, clandestine or surveillance media, and other technologies that change what it means to see and be material.


Sandy Alexandre, Associate Professor, Literature Department, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Alexandre writes on black American material culture — particularly literature and photographs — examining how histories of black displacement, invisibility, and vulnerability haunt and energize the ways black lives matter now.

George Barbastathis, Professor, Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Barbastathis is a mechanical engineer known for creating an optical invisibility cloak, a calcite crystal system that may make possible hiding objects in plain sight.
Michelle Murphy, Professor, History Department and Women and Gender Studies Institute, University of Toronto. Murphy is a historian of science who studies often invisible infrastructures of environmental toxins, reproductive technologies, and compromised environments.
Trevor Paglen, Artist. Paglen is an artist and geographer who explores and documents invisible infrastructures, ranging from secret corporate and government sites to networks known through technologies of non-human, machine vision.
Lisa Parks, Professor, Comparative Media Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Parks is a media theorist who writes on television, satellites, drones, and infrastructures of surveillance.



Image: Trevor Paglen, “Mid-Atlantic Crossing (MAC) NSA/GCHQ Tapped Undersea Cable Atlantic Ocean”, 2015.