Matter, Material, Immaterial: Art, Philosophy and Curating Thirty Years After Lyotard, by Robin Mackay

From Post-Kantian Thought and the Production of Subjectivity in Contemporary Art

In this lecture presented at the “Speculations on Anonymous Materials” symposium held at the Fridericianum, Robert Mackay interrogates the exhibition Les Immatériaux, curated by Jean François Lyotard at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1985. By doing so, Mackay explores the importance of understanding the philosophical, political, ethical, and aesthetic import of “immaterials” in the construction and presentation of art as well as in all realms of contemporary life.

Mackay begins his lecture by explaining, through examples from neurophysiology and modern industrial manufacturing techniques for complex materials, how our experience of materials is and always was mediated by abstractions; those immaterial abstractions themselves can therefore be considered as material per se. By discussing examples of “high-throughput computational design” in materials science, Mackay describes how “raw” material is transformed into technology, changing the status of material from “an obstinate opaque natural ‘stuff’ that in the context of human projects appeals to us to be formed for a project at hand” into “coded structures which are already the product of an immaterial manipulation and production”—even before they enter manufacturing processes as “raw materials.” Equally, he explains, in neurophysiological research the human brain also appears as coded structured matter, where we can no longer posit the mechanics of the human mind as independent from the material stimuli in the world “out there,” which might deliver “experiences” and “meanings” for the mind (i.e., the subject) who perceives them. Instead, the human brain (with its “interior” ecology of physiologico-psychological functions) and its capacity for consciousness is regarded as a part of the complex material ecology of a total continuum with matter, previously regarded as distinct from the perceiving subject’s consciousness.

After outlining Lyotard’s observations on scientific and technological developments in the 1980s, Mackay proposes that Les Immatériaux was an exhibition that can be characterized as both a spectacular extravaganza of modern technologically enhanced communication as well as an acute and perturbing subversion of communication per se, making it a powerful challenge to what it means (and whether it is possible) to do exhibition-making, then and now, in a way that would be stably perceptible or practicably sensible. Mackay also shows that Lyotard’s exhibition was a powerful and agitating critique of the social and political conditions of France and the rest of the rapidly changing industrially and technologically advanced capitalist societies across the globe, as much as it was a critique of the more local concerns with the redevelopment of the Beaubourg and Marais regions of Paris at the time, under the conditions of burgeoning neoliberal governmental politico-economic policies. As such, investigations of Les Immatériaux present an “untimely” inspiration for rethinking the interaction between and roles of art, curatorship, and philosophy and their efficacy or import beyond their (still) apparent disciplinary remits and the (still) upheld dyad of meanings and materials.

Robin Mackay is a philosopher, curator, and publisher based in Cornwall in the UK. He is the founder and Director of Urbanomic Press.

The “Speculations on Anonymous Materials” symposium included presentations by Maurizio Ferraris, Markus Gabriel, Iain Hamilton Grant, Robin Mackay, and Reza Negarestani, and accompanied the exhibition of the same name, curated by Armen Avanessian, Tom Lamberty, Susanne Pfeffer, and Nina Tabassomi, held at the Fridericianum in Kassel, Germany, September 29, 2013–January 26, 2014.

March 2, 2015


Curated by

Matthew Poole