Rebecca Uchill 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 will explore new and unexpected meetings of the digital and material worlds.

-“Being Material” Conveners


Rebecca Uchill is an art historian and independent curator whose work focuses on the institutional conditions for art production, display and dissemination. At MIT, Uchill is Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow with the Center for Art, Science & Technology, where she is co-chair of “Being Material,” the second CAST symposium. She is also co-editor, with Caroline A. Jones and David Mather, of the first CAST publication, Experience: Culture, Cognition, and the Common Sense (MIT Press, 2016). In addition to working as co-editor and author for the volume, she was the curator of its many multi-sensorial artist entries; an ink infused with synthesized human pheromones made for Carsten Höller’s contribution will be featured in an upcoming issue of the journal Future Anterior focused on “Olfaction and Preservation.” Uchill received her doctorate in art history from MIT’s HTC Program in 2015 for her history of the avant-garde curator Alexander Dorner. She is visiting curator of the exhibition “Futurefarmers: Errata—Brief Interruptions” on view through April 16 at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University.


 A conversation with Rebecca Uchill

The theme “Being Material” is a response to Nicholas Negroponte’s 1995 work Being Digital. How so?

We do cite Negroponte’s book title with the title of this symposium. And in fact, Negroponte himself will open the symposium with a presentation titled “Been Digital.” Being Digital forecasted a culture steeped in the exceptional affordances and constraints of digital production: his book made allusions to constant connectivity, wearable communicative technologies, coded information (from compressed audio files to user-oriented news cycles), and relationships, overall, that would be redefined through globalized media and industrial networks enabled by digital capacities. Many of these same premises are taken up in the Being Material conference, though here we ask: what is particular about the materiality of wearable and programmable tools, musical instruments, or the tangible thing-y substances that comprise the world?

Negroponte’s book describes a movement from actuation and signification occurring on the level of atoms to a domain of meaning created in bits. We’re thinking with him as we return our focus from bits to atoms, in a series of thematic sessions. The PROGRAMMABLE panel, for example, asks: how have the properties of the digital inflected the ways we treat and understand the physical, in actuality and in concept?


What’s in store for attendees of the symposium?

Continuing in the tradition of the last CAST symposium “Seeing/Sounding/Sensing,” this event will bring together thinkers and practitioners from across the humanities, arts and sciences—representing a variety of perspectives and presentation formats. For Saturday, April 22, Stefan Helmreich and I collaboratively organized two panels, on LIVABLE and INVISIBLE materials. These panels will consider environmental resources that shape valuations of life, material assemblages that comprise planetary health, and tangible and intangible entities that may evade or deceive normative optical systems. The speakers will address topics such as configurations of ecopolitics, manipulating cancer cells, engineering “cloaking” technologies, and the relational qualities of evidence.

I am also looking forward to the Friday sessions, and particularly to hearing from some of my MIT colleagues. Nadya Peek, a postdoctoral researcher in the Center for Bits and Atoms, wrote her dissertation on “Making Machines that Make”—with the enticing subtitle “Object-Oriented Hardware Meets Object-Oriented Software.” Azra Aksamija, who teaches in the Art, Culture, and Technology program, is both a historian and fabricator of wearable instruments of culture. We will also see videos, exhibition presentations, and other “demos” throughout the day.


The second day of the symposium coincides with the March for Science and many of the speakers and participants plan to march. Could you comment on the urgency or importance of this event?

We, the symposium co-chairs, collectively decided to reorient our program to acknowledge the March for Science happening on the afternoon of April 22. We expressly described this decision using the construct “being with.” I would say that Being Material is we, as humans, “being with” (Mitsein) the material realm of non-human agents (in the sense of individual units that are bound together), as well as “being with” the sciences that investigate the material world (in the sense of being in solidarity). We intend to conclude the program in time to stand in support of science scholars and advocates across the nation at the Boston March for Science.


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

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.


What are some of the other topics that will be addressed in the Livable session?

Recent scholarship, from biomics to anthropology, continues to expand the definitions of what constitutes a “living” thing and continues to update postulations about how living entities should be addressed by academic inquiry. The LIVABLE session considers the cultural incubation of life across the fields of biological design, networked ecology, environmental remediation, and political economy. The panel brings together Tal Danino, Director of the Synthetic Biological Systems Laboratory at Columbia University, Bill Maurer, Dean of the School of Social Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, Claire Pentecost, Professor of Photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and anthropologist Bettina Stoetzer, of MIT’s Global Studies and Languages. The conversation will assess the notion of LIVABLE material as it has been considered by historical, scientific, and cultural inquiry, revealing how humans make life and how human (and other) life is impacted by material influences.


As one of the editors of Experience: Culture, Cognition and the Common Sense, a book that developed from the last CAST symposium, you are intimately aware of how the conversations generated at these symposia can have continued and far-reaching impact. What are some of your hopes for this cross-disciplinary symposium?

One of the many wonderful things about an interdisciplinary symposium like this one is seeing the very different ways that people tend to present on their home turf. The humanists may be prone to reading papers, the technologists may present demos…. While I personally welcome the potential quirkiness of inviting presentational disparities, we do want the conversations to be cohesive, in productively elaborating matters of mutual concern. We’ve made a real effort to have the presenters be in dialogue prior to the actual event. From my perspective, an ideal outcome would be for people to remain in meaningful conversation with each other long after the symposium concludes—participants and presenters alike.


Register for the symposium or watch the livestream.

Posted on March 23, 2017 by Sharon Lacey