Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) Annual Conference, Agile Objects: The Art and Anthropology of Re-materialization

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On Saturday I attended the Royal Anthropological Institute’s (RAI) Annual Conference, which was held at the British Museum and SOAS and this year addressed the theme of ‘Art, Materiality and Representation‘. Along with Emilie Lefebvre, a post-doctoral researcher in visual anthropology, we convened a panel on ‘Agile Objects: The Art and Anthropology of Re-materialization‘. The aim of the panel was to examine the practices by which artists and media-makers from non-Western contexts are progressively re-materializing digital content in order to increase the exclusivity, cultural capital, and visibility of their aesthetic and cultural creations.

At a time in which our experience of cultural artefacts is often physically removed by digitization, this panel seeks papers that consider the practices, politics, and affects of re-materializing artworks from diverse geographical perspectives. The process of de- to re-materialization has been referred to by David Joselit as a ‘comedy of matter’; a situation in which the most ”immaterial” of formats—digital information—has paradoxically led to a proliferation of material states. This metastasizing of media formats can in effect render a quantum of data into a printed photograph, a 3-D print or an analogue sculpture, facilitating a variety of practices from bootlegging and creative appropriation to the return of cultural heritage. These processes of re-materialization have subsequently led to the formation of ‘agile objects’: cultural artefacts whose value may have originally resided in their authentic forms but today are revered for their capacity as digital files to take on several distinct forms simultaneously.

While these practices among artists, media-makers and museums have been the focus of increasing scholarly attention, their theorization and prevalence beyond Western contexts remains largely unexplored. Redressing this imbalance, we premise that art historical and anthropological examinations of re-materialization can provide unique perspectives about the politics of cultural capital from the Near East to East Asia, Australia to Latin America. This multi-disciplinary panel therefore invites papers that consider the transposition of digital content into objects of material, commercial and collectable value, exploring the capacity of these ‘agile objects’ to shape artistic and museum practices.

Our panel critically addressed re-materialization from an interdisciplinary perspective with papers exploring

* The value ascribe to digital models of Māori taonga

* The material loss and recreation of the Great Auk within the context of the Anthropocene

* The notion of noise and materalization of womanhood in South Africa

* The material configuration of nude bodies in modern Chinese art

* The re-materialization of endangered plants from around the world

With this vast scope, we had a very lively discussion on re-materialization and the capacity of ‘agile objects’ to shape artistic and museum practices in non-Western contexts.

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Jennifer Cattermole from the University of Otago discusses the implications of re-materialising taonga pūoro (traditional Māori musical instruments)

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Artist Darlene Farris-LaBar discussing how emerging technology brings greater opportunities for artists who are seeking new ways to communicate to larger and diverse audiences.

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Di Wang from the University of Oxford discusses the materiality of the body in modern Chinese art and visual culture, 1919-1949.

 

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Arnar Árnason (University of Aberdeen) and Gro Ween (University of Oslo) presented a paper on ‘Species extinction: art, materiality and the representation of material loss in the age of the Anthropocene’

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Some of Darlene Farris Labar’s amazing 3-D printed seed pods