Collaboratory #5: Conceptual Materialism – a mini-symposium with Faisal Abdu’Allah and Lex Lancaster at the intersection of surface and depth, materiality and conceptualism, queer theory and performance – was a smashing success! Thirty people attended throughout the day, spanning disciplines from English, Theatre, and Art History to Design Studies, Art, and Education, as well as local artists and community members. With a dynamic integration of theory and practice, both workshops got participants thinking, moving, and making together.


Faisal Abdu’Allah’s workshop, “Thinking & Making to Disseminate,” asked participants to draw upon experiential and sensory memories to connect their art-making and scholarly practices with their lived embodiment. Faisal, an artist who works in photography, printmaking, moving images, and performance, opened the workshop with a brief discussion of his practice. He focused in particular upon a 30-foot curved image he had made consisting of a series of portraits, each person’s image followed by the image of the person s/he trusts the most, linked in one connected strip. This aesthetic of interconnectedness and intersubjectivity informed the workshop’s methodology, as we were invited to co-create a space of openness and togetherness. He gave us a series of prompts to generate memories and ideas: your middle name, your favorite color, a scent that you identify with, the last time you laughed uncontrollably, the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, your zodiac sign, the strangest thing a stranger’s ever said to you, what you would save from a fire (excluding people, pets, laptop, and photographs), how you’d like people to remember you, the most famous person you’ve met, your earliest memory, a deceased person you’d like to have dinner with, and what you would do for 48 hours if you could do anything in the world. We were invited to share what we had written with each other, and the richness and resonance of the varied responses was quite moving. Next we each received a large piece of paper and were invited to make an idea-map, a web of associations springing from one of the responses we’d written. Faisal had asked us to send him a song in advance of the workshop, and during the mapping activity he played the songs, triggering different moods and insights. Afterward we marveled at the vast array of approaches – some participants making meticulously detailed charts and others making endlessly branching constellations, some tracking abstract ideas and others grounded in concrete details – and discussed the conceptual significance of the formal qualities such as shape, line, space, and scale. Faisal encouraged us to view the surface of the map as a vessel to access the depth of the memories and experiences informing it, and the creative process of mapping as a way to spark new insights, synapses firing and carving new pathways, generating new forms.

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Lex Lancaster’s workshop, “Living Color,” unfolded queer possibilities for color-as-materiality to act in excess of signification. Lex, an art historian, queer theorist, and curator, invited participants to explore ways in which color might have body and surface material might produce its own depth. Lex had requested that participants read “The Triple Register of Color” by Julia Kristeva in Desire In Language: a Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, and this provided a shared foundation to discuss what Lex calls “the animate and messy medium of living color.” Lex traced the noun color from the old Latin colos, originally “a covering,” akin to the verb celare, “to hide, conceal,” showing how color is identified with both a covering that conceals and a surface that reveals. Situating color at the interface of synthetic surface and substantive core, Lex theorized color as “both a marginal surface and excessive substance that produces its own feelings and sensations, corrupting the boundaries between constructs of inside and outside, subject and object, nature and artifice.” Color’s surface effects link it with formal and aesthetic properties of camp, drag, style, artifice, and excess, resonating with a queer insistence upon disrupting dichotomies of becoming vs. being, fluidity vs. fixity, and parody vs. sincerity. Lex discussed the work of contemporary queer and feminist artists such as Lynda Benglis, who uses materials like polyurethane foam and phosphorescence to destabilize bodily coherence and activate color as vibrant matter with its own agency and affects. Moving from the realm of representation to the realm of action, color takes on a life of its own. Pouring and peeling paint away from the canvas produces a continuous surface with depth – a surface existing not to conceal or reveal what’s hidden “beneath” but to produce its own animacy. With a range of chemical and biological examples from toxic slime to glowing organisms in the ocean, Lex suggested fascinating ways in which color operates as “an unruly medium with body, depth, plasticity, and animation.” And then we dug in and got messy! Following a blacklight demonstration, Lex set up stations with delightfully weird materials: gloopy glop, light tubing, sponges, and plastic dip. Participants moved between stations, exploring and experimenting with the tactile qualities of the various substances, and asking ‘How does it feel?’ ‘What does it want?’ and ‘How does it (mis)behave?’ The gloopy glop was flexible, malleable, and squishy, with a lifelike quality but remaining cold to the touch. Both a liquid and a solid, gloopy glop is perhaps the very embodiment of continuous becoming. The light tubing was slightly warm to the touch but paradoxically seemed to radiate an affective coldness. Neon appears as its own light source, lit from within, suggesting a self-generative quality without need for relationality. The sponges were soft, springy, and porous, living sea creatures transformed into a medium to transmit liquid paint. The plastic dip coats any object in liquid plastic paint which quickly dries. If it drips on the floor, when it dries you can just peel it off. Its strong synthetic/chemical scent contributed to its air of artifice, and its purpose – to become a new surface for any object – belied its own objecthood, sticky matter dripping and clumping in excess of its function. We collaboratively created a temporary sculptural installation with the tiny coated objects, and finally Lex led us in reflecting upon our playful experimentation with the queer capacities of living color.

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