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UCL Material Properties Forum, London

Above: Material Properties Forum

The Slade School of Fine Art in Woburn Square, Central London, recently hosted a multidisciplinary event on Material Properties. In a packed schedule, 18 researchers from a wide range of subjects based at University College London (UCL) (Anthropology, Archaeology, History, Science & Technology Studies, History of Art, Architecture, Information Studies, Geography and Fine Art) presented vastly different and often leftfield ways of looking at a diverse mix of human-made and naturally occurring materials.

 

Photo of Camilla Sundwall, credit to Aysar Ghassan Photo of Camilla Sundwall, credit to Aysar Ghassan

 

The forum was organised by Camilla Sundwall, a materials consultant with a background in industrial design. Camilla is also researching materials and design in her PhD studies in Anthropology at UCL. As Anthropologists are interested in finding out how people interact with one another and the world around them, the decision to run an event on Material Properties seemed a logical step. The conference called upon researchers to think about (amongst other things) how materials allow us to push against and alter boundaries between human, non-human and environmental concepts? And how information is embedded in, or extracted from materials?

Highlights included Josephine Mills discussing how tools made of flint (a material made of tiny sea-creatures) shaped our distant ancestors. Joseph Thorogood explored the culturally sensitivity surrounding the poppy – a flower signifying both allied victory in wartime and the UK government’s battle against heroin production in Afghanistan. Nadia El Mrabet and Anaïs Bloch talked about how, in a world obsessed with wireless technology, a hidden complex of cables is still responsible for “connecting the different levels of digital life”.

Linford House aged 20, arrested for burning a Remberance Day poppy in 2012 Linford House aged 20, arrested for burning a Remberance Day poppy in 2012

 

Have you found yourself wondering what it means to be ‘cool’? Sarah Fortais presented on this fascinating topic as part of her PhD studies in Fine Art. Sarah believes coolness really matters in society as it shapes people’s aspirations and actions:

“As a value judgement, ‘cool’ consistently acts as figurehead to the larger vehicle of innovation/creativity and subsequent desirability”.

For Sarah, something is cool because it is undefinable, and once it’s defined it becomes uncool. Sarah also thinks coolness appears to be something quite mystical, for example wearing sunglasses at night hid the jazz legend Miles Davis’ eyes and made him very cool indeed. She uses found objects, chance and playfulness in her research in trying to keep coolness and creativity alive. Through this, Sarah tries to let her subconscious imagination flourish. Sarah says:

“In my past experience with practice-led research, it was impossible to tackle creativity head on, because every time I tried to be conscious of it, I had to stop doing it! It very much seems that this indirect approach is the way forward…”

Sarah Fortais with “Research for a performance/installation studying trend and its relationship to coolness” Sarah Fortais with “Research for a performance/installation studying trend and its relationship to coolness”

 

What do you think of when someone mentions spiders? In a spellbinding talk, Eleanor Morgan, a research fellow at the Slade School of Fine Art, informed the audience about the wonders of spiders’ silk. Spiders can produce seven different types of silk, all for very different purposes (for example for creating nests or cocoons). Although all spiders produce it, all silk used by humans comes from female spiders. If you’ve peered through an old telescope then you’ve probably seen one use for spiders’ silk – up until the 1960s many crosshairs on sights were made of it.

Eleanor informed us that in various parts of the world, people use spiders’ silk in very diverse ways. Tribes on the Pacific island of Malakula create ceremonial garments from it and people in West and Central Africa use it to make musical instruments and to hunt deer with. In 2012, this material made a startling appearance at the Victoria & Albert Museum in the form of a golden cape woven from the silk of a million golden orb spiders.

Golden Cape made from the silk of a million Madagascan Golden Orb spiders Golden Cape made from the silk of a million Madagascan Golden Orb spiders

 

Humans have tried to create synthetic silk, but, in terms of strength and usability, all attempts have so far been unsuccessful. This is because the way the spider spins its silk has not been replicated. Eleanor believes this fact can help researchers re-formulate wider conversations around separation and production in society.

Spider Spinning Machine 2002, 2008. Etching, series of 5, 20cm x 15cm, by Eleanor Morgan Spider Spinning Machine 2002, 2008. Etching, series of 5, 20cm x 15cm, by Eleanor Morgan

 

Throughout the day presenters were invited back so that audience members could ask questions and provide their own opinion on the researcher’s discussion topics. This made for some lively debate.

Round Table Discussion, credit to Penelope Laughton Round Table Discussion, credit to Penelope Laughton

 

In arranging this event, Camilla Sundwall, believes it is important for designers to try to find new perspectives and to think in a multidisciplinary manner:

“Designers are already often working along these lines, as it is essential for a designer to bring together many different areas to achieve a successful outcome. But I also know it is hard to sustain these kinds of cross-disciplinary input when deadlines and budgets are tight. My recommendation would be to make sure to take time to feed the brain with inspirational activities, as in the long run it is crucial for the design process.”

UCL regularly holds themed events in which researchers come together to debate key issues. ‘Redemption’ is the topic for the next forum held Friday 16th May. If the Material Properties symposium was anything to go by, this gathering will surely be full of fascinating people who’ll no doubt inspire the audience to think differently.

© 2013 ARTS THREAD