Leila Kinney Discusses “Being Material”

MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte predicted in 1995 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, synthetic biology, 3D/4D printing and wearable technologies capture the attention of engineers, scientists and artists.

“Being Material,” CAST’s second symposium, 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.

-“Being Material” Conveners


Leila Kinney is the Executive Director of Arts Initiatives and of the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST). In this interview, she sheds light on how the “Being Material” symposium was conceived and organized and how the event addresses newly defined and evolving areas of materials research. As the chair of the WEARABLE session, she also gives a preview of the speakers’ research and artistic practices in fashion and wearable technologies.


A Conversation with Leila Kinney


You are one of the symposium conveners and also the Executive Director of CAST. How does “Being Material,” CAST’s second symposium, reflect the Center’s mandate?

CAST symposia are an important part of our effort to foster creative, intellectual and practical exchanges among the arts, sciences and all kinds of technological innovation at MIT. We look for areas of deep, longstanding or rapidly advancing research at MIT—cognitive and neurosciences for the first symposium and materials science and engineering for this one—and then bring together artists, scientists, engineers and scholars from a wide range of humanities disciplines to drill down into areas of common concern.

It’s important that artists, designers and musicians are in the middle of the action. It’s important that we have such a wide array of humanists joining the conversation—anthropologists, art historians, media studies scholars, philosophers and social scientists, for example. Multiple perspectives are crucial for challenging conventional thinking and for cultivating cross-disciplinary research.


How did the theme for the symposium emerge? What influenced your decision to focus the symposium on research at the nexus of the arts, design and materials science?

There were several sources of inspiration, plus a fabulous group of co-curators (Stefan Helmreich, Skylar Tibbits, Rebecca Uchill and Evan Ziporyn), who worked together to come up with the five thematic clusters, Programmable, Wearable, Livable, Invisible and Audible. “Being Material” expands upon the “Active Matter Summit” that CAST organized with Skylar, who founded and co-directs the Self-Assembly Lab housed in the International Design Center at MIT. In Spring 2015, Skylar taught a studio that explored the powerful new possibilities for design and fabrication created by programmable, responsive and self-organizing materials. He also convened a research summit on the topic, which was designed to showcase unpublished work underway in architecture, biology, design, engineering, media and robotics labs at MIT and beyond.  

The “Active Matter Summit” was a preliminary mapping of a field, which we wanted to revisit using the broad conceptual, critical and historical framework of CAST’s 2014 symposium,“Seeing, Sounding, Sensing.” That event used a radically interdisciplinary format to explore visual, aural and sensory-motor faculties, which became the kernel of an equally adventurous book, Experience: Culture, Cognition and the Common Sense, published last Fall.  

As we began to explore this unprecedented ability to program materials, we thought about the interest in new approaches to materialism in the humanities, the emergence of wearable computing in the 1990s and recent developments in biotechnology that allow researchers to design with the units of life. These developments have significantly altered the properties of materiality and human capacities to see, touch and feel the physical world. In this way “S3”( as we nicknamed the 2014 symposium) informed and opened a path towards “Being Material.” And, not surprisingly, we found a touchstone in Nicholas Negroponte’s pathbreaking 1995 book, Being Digital, which helped us to assess the evolving relationship between the digital and material worlds, or “bits and atoms,” as he would say.  We are thrilled that he has agreed to offer opening remarks for the symposium.  


What topics will be addressed in the WEARABLE session, which you are chairing? Who are some of the participants that you’ve invited? Could you highlight some of their work or discuss how it fits within this symposium?

This session will explore the wearable tech industry and the increasing use of sensing and self-monitoring devices to calibrate mood, health, or athletic performance, against a backdrop of powerful artistic statements about the body and significant research underway at MIT and elsewhere on reactive and smart textiles.

We start with Hussein Chalayan, a fashion designer who has been mobilizing technology in his work for more than twenty years, not simply for the sake of experimentation or materials innovation, although there is plenty of that, but to make a series of propositions about how the clothed body can be presented in space. His conceptually groundbreaking runway shows have captured conditions such as speed, disembodiment, or forced migration and propose more expansive forms of self-representation. The conversation between Chalayan and Michelle Finamore, curator of the recent “#techstyle” exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, will offer an overview of his pioneering career in the fashion industry and his inventive use of textiles that change state and transform themselves.

At a different end of the creative spectrum from fashion design, Lucy McRae—who describes herself as a “sci-fi artist” or “body architect”—imagines the body in extreme conditions. She fabricates installations and scenographies that posit ways to survive, for example, in outer space. She experiments on and with the skin, as in the ingestible perfume that she developed with a synthetic biologist, which erupts on the surface of the body and “sweats” a fragrance. Her prosthetic extensions of the body seem to elide human, reptilian and other-worldly creatures. Lucy will discuss her work in dialogue with Christina Agapakis, a biological engineer and frequent collaborator with artists in what has been called a practice of “synthetic aesthetics.” They are each interested in artificial life forms and want to push the conception of wearables into feminist territory, asking questions about the future of reproduction and sexuality, such as whether the uterus will be conceived in future as an “on-board 3D printer.”

Natasha Schüll’s presentation will provide a critical and historical framework for understanding the rise of digital self-tracking technologies and the new modes of introspection and self-governance they engender. She has delved deeply into this phenomenon by interviewing enthusiasts in the Quantified Self (QS) community and the ramifications of “digital mirrors” of the self for privacy, personal identity and self-awareness.  

MIT artist and architectural historian Azra Akšamija will moderate the session. Wearables are a component of Azra’s own artistic practice, which treats clothing as a form of of social sculpture that can convey mutable and multi-cultural identities. Her “portable mosques,” for example, deploy wearables as an architectural support for contingent communities, such as refugees. She will invite the panelists and the audience to probe the ethical and social dimensions of these overlapping but very different takes on the conceptual and creative space of “wearables.”


Several of the sessions are anchored in MIT history and research. What are some of the MIT precedents for wearable technologies, or textile innovation, that may shed light on current work in this area?

There are many, and I expect both Natasha Schüll and Azra Akšamija to bring some of these precedents into play. Some of us remember Stephen Mann (now Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto) walking around MIT in the 1990s with a portable camera strapped to headgear that transmitted roving images to the web, in a sort of oversized preconfiguration of google glasses. Thinking back on that era, what is most striking is how an overarching concern with surveillance (external, a “Big Brother” syndrome), has been superseded by internalized, self-surveillance today. (For a tech-focused take on the history of wearable computing, from 1268 to 1997, see the timeline posted here.)  

Meejin Yoon’s 2001 “Defensible Dress”—inspired by the blowfish and porcupine—is an example of shifting conceptions of personal space and of wide-ranging exploration of biomimetic design at MIT, which has inspired everything from body armour for the military to Neri Oxman’s extensive “material ecology” research and uncategorizable artistic practice. Tod Machover’s Opera of the Future group has created wearable electronic devices to enhance musical performance for some time. The “Seamless:  Computational Couture” fashion shows curated annually for several years by Media Lab grad students and the Boston Museum of Science are one manifestation of an ongoing interest among emerging designers and researchers in smart textiles and technologically-enhanced fashion design. Some of this work will be represented in demos and videos that will be presented in between sessions at the “Being Material” conference.  

What would be one satisfying outcome of the symposium for you personally?

We have made an effort in this symposium to include multiple kinds of presentations and formats; in addition to formal talks, we have incorporated video, dialogues, demos and musical performances. We have chosen session titles that permit an expansive approach to the topics but also create a perimeter that will help make sense of them when addressed from different perspectives. We have tried to stimulate interaction among panelists in advance in a way that will make their contributions more intelligible and valuable for all attendees and audiences. I’m curious to see how these various modes of expression play out, and I hope that we can offer a little surprise, some provocation and lot of inspiration for creative work and research in future.  


Posted on April 11, 2017 by Sharon Lacey