Piles and holes

The following text is a transcript of Dr Mike Brookes’ invited intervention into the ‘What is material thinking?’ seminar series 30/03/2022

I want to talk a little bit about some of the work that artist Rosa Casado and I have been developing – and how those developments have become increasingly tied to direct engagements of the stuff and material, of the things and places, that we have found ourselves working with – in aspects of the most recent phases of our ongoing (now twenty-year) collaboration together.

Our work has always paid particular attention to performance as a place and social space – and to the situations that emerge from the actions and material practices carried out in our execution of the acts and events that result from it… And this approach has increasingly implied considerations of the work as ‘situation’ – as emerging through the collective presence, behaviours and interactions of its constituents… Understanding ‘collective’ as an ecology of multiple natures and needs.

For us, these projects ‘are’ the constellation of things, behaviours, material and immaterial relationships, scales and temporalities, that emerge and become possible or apparent during their performance… And again, understanding performance in this sense, as a space to make, and an act of embodying, the social – as a socio-spatial configuration where relationships and exchanges can be activated, rehearsed and explored.

Working in this way – from understandings of performance as place, and of the social as rooted in the establishment of interrelations – has led us to develop a number of proposals overtly configured through the activation of connections, and through the act and performance of that connectivity in itself. And in this connecting, we have often tried to highlight the provisional group of agents that participate and together manifest a given work – as well as the perhaps fragile or contested nature of their interdependencies.

We have been thinking for some time about how ‘here’ and ‘now’ are never just ‘here’ and ‘now’ – but are always connected to many other places, and to many other times. And about how – as the things we do, and the ways that we conceive the world, increasingly blur the boundaries between different scales of place – the sense of where we are, and of what is happening ‘here’, also expands… In that it becomes increasingly apparent that what happens in one place is also always part of what happens elsewhere.

This is what Rosa and I have often talked about as performing an ‘expanded sense of place’. And from there, questions arise about who and what is, or is not, ‘here’ and ‘now’ – opening a space for connections with what we do not know, with what we do not see, with those agents and things not apparent… And inviting us to consider where we are, and who ‘we’ are, in an actively expanding way – perhaps approaching an engagement of place as the ever-evolving process of our ‘general [and inexorable and problematic] condition of being together’ (as Massey put it).

The projects that we are currently working on – that we have most recently begun to group together under the (intentionally simplistic) working title of ‘piles and holes’, to highlight their material roots and bias – very much continue these explorations. But attend, above all, to things and situations in which materials from distant and disparate geographies are gathered, are ‘piled’ together… and the corresponding sites and processes of extraction that enable those gatherings. As a working title it provides a shorthand acknowledgement of how, at its simplest, every ‘pile’ of gathered or accumulated matter (whatever its scale or form) inevitably reveals the volume of an equivalent and corresponding ‘hole’ (or collection of smaller holes), of some sort, somewhere else… A simple pairing, that began as a jokey understatement of potentially spiralling complexities, but has already proved itself to be a useful communication tool and anchor point for a number of related threads of thought.

These objects and sites of accumulation, are often ‘geophysically improbable’ places (as recently termed by artist Ryan Dewey) – where ‘out of place’ materials, fluids, residues… are combined, piled up… producing naturally improbable compounds and environments, where broader landscapes of material displacement and interconnectedness become apparent – and non-human entities become entangled with human processes and infrastructures that expand beyond human control.

In our latest large-scale performance project, called ‘The sky was clearer in those days’, for example (which the accompanying video clips are brief extracts of the raw footage from): we dismantle and breakdown a used family car, over a week of public performance episodes, into its separate parts and materials – pulling apart, and spreading out, its steal and aluminium and copper, its rubber and fabrics and glass, its plastic and foams, as we go… As a way to reflect on the scale and reach of human activity, of which the car and its production is part… To perhaps begin to manifest the inherent yet often hidden complexities of things, beyond our immediate recognition and engagements with them, as entities (as Morton articulates it) far ‘less than the [actual] sum of their parts’… Within wider considerations of the atmosphere as the primary shared and connecting medium of our living together – where the residual dusts and traces of our actions accumulate, and are distributed, connecting distant places, and extending the limits and affective reach of what we do… spatially and temporally.

And in another, and our most recent, project – an evolving gallery work we called ‘Divine Matter’ – we focused on a single European colonial period religious painting (a striking depiction of Christian saint Agatha, referencing the story of her torture and martyrdom, produced in Naples around 1650)… But unlike the dismantling process we chose to employ for our explorations of the car… this time we rooted the work in an act of reconstruction… And began with a meticulous recreation of the painting, with a particular focus on the natural material pigments that it brings together, through an attempt to produce as faithful a copy of both the appearance and material construction of the original as possible – allowing us to explore and consider the painting not only as a physical trace of the context it was made ‘in’, but also as a physical combination of fragments of the material world it was made ‘from’.

Unpicking the material, temporal, geographical and social interconnections it embodies as an object – the painting begins to appear as a strange geophysically unlikely place, in which pulverised rocks from the mountains of Afghanistan, and the ground bodies of insects from the tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas, combine with plant extracts from Mediterranean pines… Material uses and combinations which inevitably begin to articulate the extractions, commodifications and trade routes resulting from European colonial expansions of the period.

But, importantly, not proposing a ‘reading’ of these materials – as a ‘geological’ trace record of past practices and hierarchies – but an attempt to touch, and operate within the complexities of, the geographical and social landscapes that these materials and objects are still part of.

At its simplest, through these projects, and through these overtly physical material encounters… we are perhaps looking for ways to open recognisable yet uneasy and naturally messy spaces – that emerge from their circumstantial juxtapositions, from accidental separations, from paradoxical configurations… and that might invite multiple behaviours and understandings… and initiate situations and processes in which multiplicity, complexity and contradictions are revealed rather than resolved or simplified.

I’ll leave it there… Thank you.

News and updates on Brookes and Casado’s collective project work are available via the twitter feed @bits_of_things

Further details of past and ongoing developments of ‘The sky was clearer in those days’ via twitter hashtag #theskywasclearer

Video fragments taken from informal performance footage of Brookes and Casado’s ‘The sky was clearer in those days’, Madrid, 2019 [photographer: Mila Ercoli]

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