Left: Sourdough starter. Right: Lionel Poilâne of Poilâne Bakery, Paris. Screenshot from Ittai Weinryb’s slides.

The symposium on Nov 28th was divided into four sessions, or working groups, of history, philosophy, Indigenous ontology, and material science, led by an introduction from Peter Miller of the Bard Graduate Center, Peter Fratzl of the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces, Wolfgang Schäffner of Humboldt University, and Nienke Woltman and Abbie Vandivere of Rijksmuseum. Peter Miller began the morning stating that the Active Matter project at BGC aims to ground humanistic research in material science. This symposium would contribute to unlocking the challenges of conservation in a rich conceptual landscape. He also introduced future research plans, an intended exhibition project, and the Active Matter fellowship. Peter Fratzl, from the angle of a scientist, spoke about “Conserved Activity in Materials.” The chemical composition or internal structure of a material determines its movement/change under different conditions, such as folding and unfolding under humidity. Such encoded movement is predictable, which is harvested in engineering. Wolfgang Schäffner, as a cultural historian, argued for “Storing Activity.” He encouraged the storage of active process rather than the materials as a new form of stability. Nienke Woltman introduced the conservation department at Rijksmuseum, and Abbie Vandivere talked about the Netherlands Institute for Conservation Art and Science (NICAS) and the future role of the Active Matter fellow.

Ittai Weinryb from Bard Graduate Center started the session on history with a fascinating account of the starter of Poilâne Bakery, Paris, which is used everyday and must be fed everyday with bacteria to keep it alive. Similarly, conservation is to keep materials alive. Then how can we study active matter that is not empirical, or when the bygone civilization to which it belongs did not leave texts noting their intent for objects? Ann-Sophie Lehmann from University of Groningen, gave a talk on “Aniline and Galalith: Nature-Culture in 19th-Century Materials.” She used the two cases of aniline dyes and galalith to illustrate that materials cannot be held in dualist concepts such as being passive matter in contrast to active thought, or that modernity means disenchantment of materials. Actual materials, artistic practices, cultural semantic charging, and economic interests were interrelated in the 19th century. Spike Bucklow, University of Cambridge, presented on “Painters’ Matter: From Thomas Aquinas to Thomas Browne.” He pointed out the disjunction in academic discussion of the inorganic from the organic, and argued that the inorganic matter is not inanimate, as in the case of flint and the “Dutch pink” used in history. Artists had understood that the materials they used are changeable. They sometimes harvested it, and sometimes just put up with it. (Link to video)

Ivan Gaskell from Bard Graduate Center and A.W. Eaton from University of Illinois at Chicago introduced the philosophy session. Discussing the concept of “active matter,” they argued that there is not a difference in kind but only a difference in degree. All matter is active, but the activity can be hitherto unrecognized. Instability is chronically inevitable, and conservation is an attempt to manage change rather than arrest it. They posed many questions: Why some communities favor stability so much? Why some value the changeable? Why some value both stability and instability on different things or the same thing? Carolyn Korsmeyer from University at Buffalo proposed a way of “Staying in Touch with the Past,” making a case for a traditional view of presentation and conservation. She argued that old things that embody history have inherently “vague” boundaries. For some things, such as architecture, the retention of “original” material is most desirable because replicas, losing the historical context, are inherently different. For things such as flowers and cuisines, the identity of kind is sufficient to count as the same. Sherri Irvin from University of Oklahoma talked about “Welcome and Unwelcome Material Change” from the angle of contemporary art, where artists’ sanction of materials, previously external to the work, becomes internal. When artists welcome change into their work, others (who can be conservators, buyers, collectors) still have resistance because of attachment to conventional understanding of the function of a painting. The morning sessions raised a lot of thought provoking questions which will be explored throughout the project. (Link to video)