Actions of Matter

In 1968 when Lucy Lippard gathered the collective conceptual practices of the time and packaged them up as “dematerialized” I was six. In a way I have always been dematerialized, or at least I can never remember a time when art was not.

So now as an artist practising in an era of the “internet of things”, where online services and digital fabrication have blurred the boundaries between the material and the immaterial, what constitutes materiality?

In this paper I want to examine parallels in the constructs of materiality within my own hybrid digital/sculptural practice and that of 1960s conceptual art practices – in particular Robert Morris’ performance work Site,1964 and Alan Kaprow’s Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts, 1959, in order to develop an understanding of how we might go about engaging the digital as a material in a manner consistent with other material sculptural practices.


These two works from the 1950/1960s serve as examples[1] of a period in which new methods of interrogating materiality were being explored, and present a method from which we might go about approaching “the digital” in order to develop a practical understanding of digital materiality.




“These are forms of behaviour aimed at testing the limits of possibilities involved in that particular interaction between one’s actions and the materials of the environment.” Morris, R. (1970)

As artists associated with Lippard’s dematerialised “ultra-conceptual practices” (Lippard, 1973), both Morris and Kaprow were instrumental in our contemporary understanding of materiality. As Jacob Lillemose explains, Lippard’s dematerialisation of art as an object is not an argument for the disappearance of materiality but a rethinking of materiality in conceptual terms (Lillemose, 2008).

“…instead of understanding dematerialization as a negation or dismissal of materiality as such, it can be comprehended as an extensive and fundamental rethinking of the multiplicity of materiality beyond its connection to the entity of the object.” (Lillemose, 2008.)

This non-corporeal attitude to materiality establishes an argument where immateriality becomes a new material condition (Lillemose, 2008). With materiality defined as being immaterial, we can conceive of “the digital” as possessing materiality once we accept “the digital” as a structural method rather than a technological function.

“…dematerialization designates a conceptual approach to materiality whereas immateriality designates the new material condition – or just a new material” (Lillemose, 2008).

So what is this digital thing?

As loosely used terminology, digital is used largely as a qualifier of an object – for example digital-media, digital-network, digital-camera… Thus digital media is distinct from “the digital” in the sense that it is an artefact of that which is digital. The digital is really the underlying structural methodthat results in the production of what we call digital media.

In this argument I am extending Lewis’ widely accepted definition of “the digital” as being a discrete representation in opposition to the analogue, which he describes as a continuous representation (Lewis 1971). While the differentiation between discrete and continuous modes provides a sound definition of “the digital”, I reject the necessity of any representational modality as mediation through representational systems unnecessarily distances us from a subject.

While digital media operates from an imposed modality that is in representational deference to analogue materiality, the digital’s materiality should not be bound by representation any more than analogue material. Rather “the digital”, as proposed by Barbara Bolt in her counter-representation reading of Heidegger, should be located in a dynamic non-representational space directly between artist and material, thus eliminating the necessity of any representational mediation by digital media.

“According to such a counter-representational understanding of art, the work of art is no longer an object for a subject; the relationship between artist, objects, materials and processes is no longer one of mastery and all elements are co-responsible for the emergence of art” (Bolt, 2004).

It is precisely this co-dependent dynamic between human and non-human actants that Leonardi clarifies in regard to digital-media. Arguing for a definition of materiality that is inclusive of instantiations of non-corporeal agents, Leonardi stresses the affordance of materials rather than their physical properties, stating that it is in the interaction between artefacts and humans that the materiality is constituted (Leonardi, 2010).

“These alternative, relational definitions move materiality ‘out of the artefact’ and into the space of the interactions between people and artefacts. No matter whether those artefacts are physical or digital, their materiality is determined to a substantial degree by when, how and why they are used. These definitions imply that materiality is not a property of artefacts but a product of the relationships between artefacts and the people who produce and consume them” (Leonardi, 2010).

With materiality liberated from both representation (Bolt, 2004) and corporeality (Lillemose, 2008 and Leonardi, 2010), the argument for a materiality of intent within process returns us to the work of Lippard’s “ultra-conceptual” artist of the 1960s. Although predating Lippard’s seminal text on dematerialisation, aspects of Morris’ performance works of the 1960s taken in the context of his subsequent sculptural practice articulate this approach to materiality.

Site, originally performed by Morris and Carolee Schneemann in 1964, starts and finishes with Morris standing in front of a small white rectangular block of similar proportions to a large cuboid in the centre of the space. During the course of the performance Morris removes panels form the larger box revealing a reclining nude figure posed as Olympia (Édouard Manet, 1863). The noise of a jack-hammer is also heard throughout the performance.

morri_site_dWhat is of interest here is not the narratives of the work but the interactions between Morris and the plywood. Morris is seen to manoeuvre the plywood slowly and deliberately though a series of actions: lifting, rolling, flipping… The artist is seen to be intently focused on the task at hand which, given the size and weight of the sheet, would have required some concentration and physical exertion.

While each action is short and relatively unimpressive, breaking it down in individual frames shows how a material dynamic is formed between the body and the plywood sheet.

Morris_RollAs Morris moves the board from one side of his body to the other by rolling it over his back, the board becomes both subject and object. By the same token, the artist’s body is doubled as if performing some unbounded cartwheel. In the tension of the space between the two neither are dominant – each yields to and demands of the other in the same way to constitute the materiality of the work.

Somewhat later in the Phenomenology of Making, (1970) Morris writes of this idea of finding form in the activity of making by testing the limits of a material against the body (Morris, 1970). Clearly, when Morris speaks here of interacting with a “material in relation to (rather than in control of)” it, he is expressing the idea of co-constituted materiality that is seen in Site (Morris, 1970).

Øform (2011) makes similar claims to a shared agency through the use of a haptic modelling system in which the performative actions of the artist constitute a materiality in a network with digital-media. To be clear, I am not suggesting that this work engages digital materiality. Rather it is seen as indicative of a means of engaging with a non-corporeal material agent that might subsequently be applied to materialising “the digital”.

FORMØSMLØform uses Microsoft Kinect to track the spatial coordinates of the artist’s hands in order to generate 3D forms within CAD software. What is of interest to me here is not so much the resultant forms but the structural method through which they are achieved, that forces the body into a shared agency with the digital-media.

Through algorithmic analysis of the gestures, the artist’s body becomes spatially disassociated from the virtual form, and the artist must defer his movements to the virtual content. Action becomes dissociated from outcome as anatomical norms of spatial organisation are redefined by the system.

As with Morris, the artist is intensely focused on the material subject that in return instructs the movement of the body. The agency here is identical to the co-constituted materiality identified in Site – in the exchange between action and material neither are dominant. Each yields and demands of the other in the same way to constitute the materiality of the work. (The software yields intent to the artist as the artist surrenders bodily action to the software.) It is in this engagement that the materiality of the work is contrived.

handgestISEA In a contemporary context any argument for shared agency is of course reliant on Latour’s Actor Network Theory.  While Latour’s principle of irreduction supports an autonomous reading of “the digital”, his insistence on the equality of agents in a network fails to acknowledge the instigative and intentional role of the artist in the work.



article00Addressing this problem, Kirchhoff offers an interpretation of ANT that supports a shared agency of materiality that privileges embodied experience. For Kirchhoff, “material entities do not have agency as an intrinsic quality by virtue of their materiality” (Kirchhoff, 2009). Like Leonardi, Kirchhoff’s materiality exists only “if the concept of ‘material agency’ is a relational and asymmetrical quality… that emerges in the ‘symbiotic interplay’ between human embodiment and material properties…” (Kirchhoff, 2009).

If the staged performativity of Site engaged the body of the performer/artist in an inter-subjective dialogue with the plywood, then Allan Kaprow’s Happenings extends this further by actively drawing the audience into the network of the piece.

Despite preceding Site by several years Kaprow’s early Happenings of the late 1950s were more “radical” in their disregard for performative conventions and less committed to formalised subject – object relations (Kelley, J. 2004).

“Kaprow had continually questioned the aesthetic conventions of framing the relationship between subject and object, the distinction between artist and audience and…” (Kelley, J. 2004, p. 34).

While in the recent rash of re-enactments of both Morris’ and Kaprow’s works have been re-enacted and videoed, only photographic documentation exists of Kaprow’s original 18 Happenings in Six Parts. As a result, much of our understanding of 18 Happenings is based on Kaprow’s extensive notes, drawings, scores… or descriptions by members of the audience.

Audience members were assigned to one of two rooms within the three-room installation in which the six sequential parts – simultaneous performances that involved eight overlapping sound tracks, ritualised movements, projected slides, spoken text and eccentric props – occurred. With unspontaneous movements lacking in emotion, performers carried out a variety of sustained choreographed tasks including playing musical instruments, striking matches, spray-painting plastic with kitchen cleaner and squeezing juice from oranges. The performance concluded with scrolls of text unfurling from the ceiling and performers walking out in single file (Kelly, 2004).

Kaprow_18H_GRY While such descriptions provide a sense of the experience, what is more important here than the specific actions are the structural implications of the work in regards to the role of the audience.




Kaprow_18H_GRY_InstalDeveloping out of Action Painting, in particular the work of Jackson Pollock (Kaprow, 1958), Kaprow’s Happenings attempted to generate an environment that immersed the viewer inside the work, not just by putting them inside the performative space but by making them active agents in the work through tightly prescribed instructions that – in the case of 18 Happenings, fragmented narrative by breaking the audience up, moving them around and creating ambiguous “free” time within the work (Rodenbeck, 2011).

“Being inside one was like being inside an abstract painting” (Kelley, J. 2004, p. 20).

thumbs_3047-02This score with its sparse instructions is commonly seen as a precursor to later development of interactive art works. Although it is initially hard to see the audience as participants in the manner we accept or even expect today, the invitation to the audience to “consciously insert themselves”[2] (Rosenthal, 2007) into the works undoubtedly informs our understanding of the idea of interaction as a breaking down of the audience and artwork hierarchy. As Noah Wardrip-Frui and many others have observed:

“The ‘Happenings’ are a touchstone for nearly every discussion of new media as it relates to interactivity in art” (Wardrip-Frui, 2003).

More than simply providing a precedent for current approaches to interactivity, these early works also highlight inter-action as a means of separating the digital from representational media. As Soke Dinkal expresses it in direct reference to Kaprow:

“The widespread judgment that interactive intercourse with computer systems prepares the ground for an emancipation from the media context, via the development from ‘passive’ to ‘active’ reception, is being euphorically defended by referring to the participatory art of the sixties” (Dinkal, 1996)

What we have in Happening’s vision of interaction is not simply the prospect of a singularity of subjects that co-constitutes materiality as with Morris, but a further liberation of subjects from representation.

I am not proposing Happenings as a means of accessing the digital but rather suggesting that their strategy of collapsing audience and artist relata, as an extension of the performative engagement with objects found in Morris’ work, suggests the digital might also be realised in a co-constituted materiality between two human agents as much as between human and non-human agents.

The coding of Kaprow’s audience via a score, to carry out a series of scheduled tasks is a strategy repeated in iForm – where participants were given a set of rules to structure their actions within a variable environment.

CHARLTON_JAMES_iform_SMProgrammed to perform a set of functions, ten participants each with iPhones were dropped off in different locations around a circular bus route. At a designated time they opened a GPS App and started feeding geo-spatial data to a server. Their instructions were to remain on the bus until someone else from the group got on. At that point they were to catch the next bus in the opposite direction.  This was to be repeated until all participants reached a designated bus stop. The performance lasted several hours. From the GPS data, a three-dimensional form was derived from the distances between participants rather than geo-spatial location. The resulting form was 3D printed and exhibited. Like Kaprow’s performers and audience, the participants in iForm were carrying out nonmatrixed actions though which they blindly assembled a concrete form.

”If a nonmatrixed performer in a Happening does not have to function in an imaginary time and place created primarily in his own mind, if he does not have to respond to often imaginary stimuli in terms of alien and artificial personalities, if he is not expected either to project the subrational and unconscious elements in the character he is playing or to inflect and colour the ideas implicit in his words and actions, what is required of him? Only the execution of a generally simple and undemanding act… The performer merely embodies and makes concrete the idea” (Kirby, 1995).

Conforming to their instructions, iForm participants were isolated from both each other and the software constructing the form. Their structural function within the work is discrete – self-contained and digital in a way that parallels both the compartmentalised structure and likely experience of the audience in 18 Happenings (Kirby,1995).

Broken into parts both temporarily and spatially, the audience experience was likely one of discontinuity in which it was impossible to perceive the whole of the work. Divided as they were across three spaces and distracted by multiple events, it is unlikely that any two people witnessed the same thing.

What I propose is occurring in 18 Happenings, then, is an emergence of a digital structural method that is a function of both a shared agency and fragmented isolation that relocates the individual at the spatiotemporal material centre of the work. What we have is not one continuous material but multiple co-constituted materialities all of which are inter-connected in the relational network of the piece.

While at first this seems contradictory in the sense that I am claiming both a continuous singularity and discrete individuality within the work, this is not at all problematic when we accept this as a state of the work rather than the participants. The work can be split across multiple sites, spaces and times that operate independently and at the same time function as a whole.


What is it then that constitutes materiality in these works, and how might this analysis assist in engaging the digital as a material within sculptural practice?

Materiality has been presented not as a corporeal property of a subject but as a materiality of intent that denies representation and is located within an exchange between co-dependent actants. The digital has been articulated as a structural method that governs relations within a network. Thus any efforts to engage digital materiality within sculptural practice should be focused on identifying operations that, like Morris’ performative actions and Kaprow’s scored events, are historical precedents for methods of interrogating materiality.

That the digital for the moment remains hidden behind representational interfaces points to the need to develop specific actions and processes that operate within that structural method in order to rematerialize the digital within sculptural practice.

[1] These works are both from early formative stages of the artist’s practice and have the advantage of being more conceptually “open works“ (Eco, 1962). Although Morris stopped doing performance works and moved on towards objects-based work, the significance and origins of his interest in process are clearer in Site and Neo Classic. Kapprow’s later happening became somewhat diluted by the influence of more theatric strategies and the role of the audience diminished.

[2] “–invitations to the event said ‘you will become part of the happenings; you will simultaneously experience them’.” (Tate. 2013).



Bolt, B (2004). Art beyond representation. London: I.B. Tauris.

Dinkla, S (2004). From Participation to Interaction: Toward the Origins of Interactive Art. Tauris.

Kaprow, A and Kelley, J (1993). Essays on the blurring of art and life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kaprow, A, Rosen, B, Unterdörfer, M, Meyer-Hermann, E, Rosenthal, S and Lepecki, A (2007). Allan Kaprow. Göttingen: Steidl Hauser & Wirth.

Kelley, J and Kaprow, A (2004). Childsplay. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kirby, M (1995). Happenings. In: Sandford, M eds. (1995). Happenings and other acts. London: Routedge.

Latour, B (1988). The pasteurization of France. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Leonardi, P. (2010). Digital Materiality? How Artefacts without Matter, Matter. First Monday, 15(6).

Lewis, D (1971). Analog and Digital. Nous, Vol 5, No 3 (Sept., 1971), pp. 321-327. Wiley. Retrieved from

Lillemose, J Conceptualising Materiality – art from the dematerialization of the object to the condition of immateriality. Argos festival, October 2005.[O]. Available:

Lippard, L (1968). The dematerialization of the art object. In: Alberro, A eds. (1999). Conceptual art: A Critical Anthology. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Morris, R (1970) “Some Notes on the Phenomenology of Making: The Search for the Motivated,” Artforum VIII no. 8, April 1970, pp. 62–66.

Rodenbeck, Judith F (2011). Radical prototypes : Allan Kaprow and the invention of happenings. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press.

Sandford, M (1995). Happenings and other acts. London: Routledge. (2013). Performance Art 101: The Happening, Allan Kaprow | Tate. [online] Retrieved from: [Accessed: 18 Sep 2013].

Wardrip-Fruin, N and Montfort, N (2003). The NewMediaReader. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.: Routledge.

11 thoughts on “Actions of Matter

  1. neatly organized article! How I feel is 2000 words seems not enough to discuss the complex idea of materiality in relation to digital.

    From how you discuss materiality by drawing the concept of human and nonhuman as a co-dependent relationship, do you see actually sculptural (or traditional art) and digital sculpture can be explained in the same way? Are there any difference between digital and analogue? Or the only differences is the ‘physical properties’ which might not apply in digital case?

    In particular with score/instruction that you have mentioned, this can be interpreted as the concept of ‘computation’ (even it is not done digitally), but can be existed in both analogue and digital world.

    In the later part you mention ‘the digital has been articulated as a structural method that governs relations within a network’, are you referring to the computation then? Suggesting to look into how the work is created (such as CAD software and kinect as you mentioned)?

  2. Thanks for your comments Winnie. Yeah I agree on the 2000 words (which I was way over anyway.) but probably none of us have time to ready through 5000 or so words from everyone. I expect for us all there is so much we have passed over lightly or left out totally. So look forward to discussing more when we meet next week.

    But in response to your comments I first of all would not distinguish between physical sculpture and digital sculpture. In fact the whole motivation for my research is to find a way to treat the digital as simply another sculptural material. So in a way what I am saying about a structural method can be applied to both analogue and digital. It is also further complicated by the conceptual premise for sculptural practice which I am locating the research in which as suggested sees the immaterial as simply an new conceptual material of intent.

    Computation is an interesting one – but what exactly do you mean when you ask that? If you mean computation as a feature of computers then I am less interested in that. I do make illusions to the idea of Kaprows score as a programme and the action of the participants as a programme though. If I am distancing the digital from the technological then I also seek to liberate the computational from the microprocessor.

    In a slightly longer version of this paper I discuss the algorithmic dis-association of the body from itself in a way that decenters the body so that it must defer its spatial norms to the software. But that’s another whole paper about inter-subjective gesture! More next week perhaps!

  3. so the structural method as you highlight is referring to algorithmic analysis that is behind the representation? This method can be used in both digital or analogue artifact.

    Towards the notion of ‘computation’, I meant both manual and computer. Using computational instructions (in digital sense) and score/instruction like in the performing art. Like the example that you have stated – 18 Happenings, it did embedded with instructions. (to me it is a kind of computation – conceptually) As you say, you do make the illusion of that.

    Thinking through the ‘relational network’ is really interesting. But on the other hand, I am wondering how the digital governs relation within a network? Because it seems the digital becomes the focus that control/oversee the network relation.

    yes will listen more concept from your presentation and/or our chat in coming. looking forward to meeting you in person.

  4. Hi again Winnie. Nice point re the digital controlling the network. My response would be that its important that I am dealing with digital materiality rather than digital systems – however I can this clearly becomes clouded when I start to propose digital materiality as a structural method. My line of reasoning has been that materiality is co-constituted and thus digital materiality and the control in the method is shared with a human agent. In the examples i use neither body nor material is in control. Both yield to each other in a con-constituted materiality. Does that make any sense?

  5. hello James,

    Any text about matter in the digital age has my special attention. Thank you for adding to the debate.

    I have some quick remarks about your text. I see some contradicting statements or approaches, and maybe you could clarify them.

    It is a little unclear whether this text discusses your own work. For my remarks I assume Øform is yours.

    You write “the digital”, as proposed by Barbara Bolt in her counter-representation reading of Heidegger, should be located in a dynamic non-representational space directly between artist and material, eliminating the necessity of any representational mediation by digital media.”

    First of all, a question: are you saying the digital should not necessarily be represented through or by digital media?

    Next to this, I wonder about this statement because your work seems explicitly engaged with creating representations of what you describe as this “dynamic non-representational space.”

    Then I have a bigger problem with your use of Barbara Bolt’s: “the relationship between artist, objects, materials and processes is no longer one of mastery and all elements are co-responsible for the emergence of art”

    Statements that present a view of art that is this narrow are extremely limiting. The above quote may refer to some works, but absolutely not to all.

    It seems that you also have mixed feelings about this ‘co-responsibility’, when you write “While Latour’s principle of irreduction supports an autonomous reading of “the digital”, his insistence on the equality of agents in a network fails to acknowledge the instigative and intentional role of the artist in the work.”

    It might be good to explore the ‘instigative and intentional role of the artist’ more.



  6. Hi Josephine
    Yes absolutely, I reject the representational function of digital-media as providing access to the digital. But let me clarify the position in the two works of mine referred to ØForm and iForm. (Sorry if that wasn’t clear – thinking in the latest version of this I have made that clearer.)

    And yes I totally agree with you about the failure of those two works to avoid representation. The two works of mine are from 2010 and 2011 and well before I was focusing specifically on these ideas. In fact I expect you can see that they very much lead to raising the issues I am trying to address.

    When I start discussing ØForm I say – “I am not suggesting this work engages digital materiality”. The same goes for iForm that even more clearly becomes representational.

    Fair point about Bolt and the quote that appears to apply a position universally. Certainly I would agree with you about the limited nature of such claims. To be fair to her you have omitted the start of that quote which reads “According to such a counter representational reading …” Still I tend to agree with you its dangerous to extrapolate particulars to a general principle.

    Can you clarify what you mean when you question co-responsibility? Do you mean -how can something have co-responsibility if it is subject to the intentional autonomy of the artist as human agent? If so I can see that might be contradictory – and maybe need to rethink the use of co-responsibility.

    Thanks for taking a thorough look at that – appreciate your comments.

    1. hi James,

      My question is not whether something or someone can have co-responsibility. What I would like to know is whether I understand correctly from your text that you do NOT feel this co-responsibility means all actors/actants have an equal share in that responsibility. From your reference to Latour it seems the artist as instigator would have a larger share than other elements, machinic or human.



  7. Thanks for clarify that. Yes that’s the point I have come to through Kirchhoff, after battling with intentionality in Latour. I just can’t see away that co-constituted events can be symmetrical given the instigative role of the artist. If you can shed light on that please do as it would make my life much simpler! Look forward to discussing this with you next week. James

  8. Hi James, I was just thinking along the same lines as Winnie when I read your piece (your focus on ‘digital materiality’ also puzzled me)). In the passage where you talk about your own work I was wondering what materiality you were engaging with? You also shift your language and talk about the relation between bodily action and ‘software’ instead of ‘the digital’. To me, your work seems clearer if you are addressing a shared agency with software/computation/interfaces than the digital. But perhaps we can talk more about this tomorrow at your presentation :-)

  9. Hi Christian. Thanks for your comment and yes let’s discuss this further tomorrow. The thing I would emphasise is that I am using these two past work of mine as ways of trying to identify strategies for the current research. The objective of these works that are now 3 years old was never focused on addressing the digital. (They sit well out side of my PhD which I am just starting). So yes I agree that they grapple with representational constructs that I am trying to avoid now. I am simply trying to use them like Morris and Kaprows works , to try and understand how I might go about establishing a digital method (s) that’s not bound by representation. So when I talk about “an intentional arc that binds the body to the software” that’s exactly what I mean in the case of oForm as I am analysing what I think is happening not what I want to achieve. In fact I at at pains to make this clear earlier when I say “I am not suggesting that this work engages with digital materiality”. Perhaps I need to make this clear later on as well. So thanks for the feedback. It’s good to be engaging in this way before we meet and hope that the conversation can dig deeper tomorrow. Hopefully I will get over a cold I am struggling with before then!

  10. hi James. Welcome to Aarhus. In advance of tomorrow, just ever so briefly and so I don’t forget, I’d like to ask about the kinds of materialities that underpin your investigation into digital materialities – these need a close definition of course in any longer articulation (as we have previously discussed) eg. as in the case of the materialisms of dematerialization and immaterialism. I’d also like to hear more detail about the relation between instructions/happenings and code/actions as this seems key to the historical parallels you are exploring and how the body is implicated.

Comments are closed.