Torso of a High General, 4th century BC. Meta-greywacke. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, Gift of Henry Walters, by exchange, Asher B. Edelman Gift, Judith and Russell Carson Gift, Ernest L. Folk III Bequest, Ludlow Bull Fund, and funds from various donors, 1996.

This event is part of “Conserving Active Matter: A Cultures of Conservation Research Project,” a collaboration between Bard Graduate Center, the Humboldt University (Berlin), and the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam), generously supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This initiative aims to bring new developments in materials science and new ways of thinking about matter to create new ways of thinking about the future of conservation. The project is articulated through semester-themed explorations along four axes: Indigenous ontologies (spring 2018), history (fall 2018), materials science (spring 2019), and philosophy (fall 2019).

In some circumstances, humans are perplexed by the instability of matter, but in others they embrace it with a recognition that instability brings about welcome as well as unwelcome aesthetic phenomena that are otherwise unattainable. This symposium focuses on how humans have accepted and exploited inherent instability, which is a property of all materials, in the face of the tension that so frequently arises between acceptance of mutability and attempts to arrest it.

Most will find it uncontroversial and philosophically uninteresting that all matter is unstable to some degree. However, there are many questions that we must ask about how precisely to understand this instability. Are there important conceptual distinctions to make between different kinds of instability? What is the relationship between instability and activity (here thinking of the title of our overarching collaboration, Conserving Active Matter). To what is activity opposed: passivity? inertness? stability? permanence? What are the significant varieties of matter’s instability and activity—for instance, growth, decay, degradation, and disintegration—and how do we distinguish them from one another? What role do matter’s other properties play in making these determinations? A second and related set of questions that will interest us in the symposium pertains to how we value or disvalue matter’s instability and impermanence. When is matter’s instability something to avoid, prevent, arrest (or attempt to avoid, prevent, or arrest), and when is it something to embrace, celebrate, appreciate, exploit, or facilitate? When does matter’s instability make a positive contribution to our experience of it, and what is the nature of this positive contribution (for example, aesthetic? practical? ethical?)? What values guide us, or should guide us, in answering these questions?

This symposium explores these philosophical issues in an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural manner under four headings: Worlds in Ruins; Wabi-Sabi, Kintsugi, and the Joys of Deformation and Rupture; Puzzles in Modern and Contemporary Art and Material Culture; and Growth in Decay: The Pleasures of Fungi and Bacteria. Each of these four topics highlights the underlying tension between the results of human action—making things, using them, and attempts to preserve them—and phenomena beyond human control, such as decay, degradation, and the actions of non-human living things. Can a consideration of these topics open ways to reconceive or rebut the inherited division between the artificial (the human-made) and the natural, and all that follows from it in the Aristotelian tradition of Western thought? Join us for a day of intense discussion of the aesthetic qualities deriving from the instability of materials, and the puzzles they prompt, addressed by scholars prominent in philosophy, conservation, and art and architectural history.

Organized by Ivan Gaskell, Bard Graduate Center, and A.W. Eaton, University of Illinois at Chicago. Speakers include Carolyn Korsmeyer, University at Buffalo; Elisabeth Schellekens, University of Uppsala; Yuriko Saito, Rhode Island School of Design; Rumiko Handa, University of Nebraska; Francesca Esmay, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Jeffrey Weiss, Independent Critic and Curator; Sherri Irvin, University of Oklahoma; Erich Hatala Matthes, Wellesley College; Alva Noë, University of California, Berkeley.

Please check back soon for a detailed schedule.

This event is part of our Cultures of Conservation initiative, supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.