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The social life of objects

In the German-French project Behavioral Matter, specialists from the fields of art, science and design are researching the materials of the future.

In Western societies, a material has so far mostly been imagined as something passive that is formed into a usable object by expert hands and then made available to man as an object of utility. A not inconsiderable part of human inventions testifies to the technical ideal of durability - such as the railway or the car, which defy the sun, storm and rain. But what if durable objects have done their duty and are to be discarded? The fact that certain types of product design have a negative effect can be guessed at not least from the mountains of barely degradable plastic waste that piles up on landfills in the poorer regions of the world, form islands in the oceans and return to the food chain as microplastics.

Patricia Ribault and her colleagues in the Behavioral Matter research network are working on more sustainable future concepts in production. The project is affiliated to the Material Form Function project, part of the Matters of Activity cluster of excellence, and cooperates with three French partner institutions, including the École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs (EnsAD Paris).

Toaster Experiment
Foto: Foto:  Olivain Porry  (EnsadLab / Reflective Interaction), 
Toasters, event “Nous ne sommes pas le nombre que nous
croyons être”, La Cité internationale des Arts, Paris, 2018

What is usually perceived as disruptive in production and is therefore usually specifically suppressed - wood swells when wet, iron deforms when hot - is something that the research network sees as potential. The variability of the material is to be used to come up with designs for soft, adaptable and degradable materials. Behavioral Matter has devoted a series of workshops, conferences and innovative discussion formats in France and Germany to answering the question of the technical and social consequences of a design approach that replaces passive objects with objects with a life of their own.

In a video clip on the homepage of the cooperation partner EnsADLab, the vision of an animated world of objects comes to an impressive picture: Here, robotized toasters rear up like horses, speeding with a loud bang back to the tabletop on which the artist Olivain Porry draped them. These surges are triggered by changes in the ambient temperature. When these movements take place cannot be foreseen by those present, their gaze repeatedly dashes across to the table on which the strangely agile devices are up to their nasty tasks. These short scenes clearly reveal the potential of "living" objects to change our view of objects and with it our world relationship. Stubborn toasters as a foretaste of utensils equipped with competences and personal impulses - doesn't this vision of the future also have something uncanny about it?

Patricia Ribault
Prof. Dr. Patricia Ribault
Foto: Michelle Mantel

Patricia Ribault laughs and smiles, lets herself fall back into her office chair and counters that it is precisely this potential that makes research in the cluster so exciting. The scientist is a junior professor of history and theory of design and one of the coordinators of Behavioral Matter. "What drives us, among other things, is the question of whether or not and how an object can become a subject," explains the researcher. Based on the concept of behavior, her goal is to fundamentally question the idea of a world divided into animate and inanimate objects. "Instead of understanding matter as something that is passively shaped by humans and equipped with functions, we understand it as a partner capable of action and adaptation. Our aim is to take a new perspective and to use it to arrive at new forms of thinking and design."

It is precisely such new forms that researchers have recently tested in an elaborately designed workshop: In the Centre Georges Pompidou, Patricia Ribault and her colleagues welcomed participants from all over the world and set up workstations in the vestibule of the Paris Art and Culture Centre, where twelve small groups worked, thought and experimented for three days. Here, artists and designers met students and researchers from the natural sciences, engineering and the humanities, experimented with slime mold or printed novel rice varieties on 3D printers. An Internet of animals and the question of whether it is possible for humans to perceive the emotions of plants were also discussed. The interdisciplinary questions and findings were accompanied and broadcast live by a mobile radio programme specially set up for this purpose. "The over ninety participants from twenty-one institutions were joined by all the visitors to the Centre Georges Pompidou who gathered around us and bombarded us with questions. In some moments we had to interrupt our work in order to be able to take this immense resonance into account," said the scientist.

Overcoming disciplinary boundaries and thus reaching new perspectives is also the goal of another format that Behavioral Matter will use next year in the Animal Anatomical Theatre in Berlin. In Dissect, experts from different disciplines gather around a round table, discuss open-ended and in front of an audience. However, it is not corpses or animal carcasses that are dissected here, but contemporary works of art based on the designs of the award-winning London ecoLogicStudio for Environmental Design. "We put these objects up for discussion and combine the professional exchange of ideas with the theatrical performance practices. The series is based on a format idea of our colleagues Samuel Bianchini and Emanuele Quinz".

"With Behavioral Matter, we are looking for forward-looking design processes and new forms of interaction between different species - whether artificial or natural," sums up Patricia Ribault, adding that nature is one of the most important sources of information. "In perspective, we want to create life-like and hybrid systems that are sustainable and not or only to a small extent dependent on targeted energy supply. The focus is on the process of design itself. "How do we give form and how does our approach translate into the objects we create? The aim is to fundamentally change the logic of industrial and design processes, says the researcher. "The materials of the future will not be solid and rigid, but flexible, soft, multifunctional and adaptable. Just like life itself.

Author: Nora Lessing

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