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Departing from different types of matter, from atoms and particles to rare earth minerals and toxic liquids, the programme situates design in the complex ecology of production chains and consumption modes. Organic and synthetic material cycles, systems of human and non-human labour, and the mechanisms of extraction and disposal, are just some of the aspects this series covers.

By stressing the difference between matter and material, these conversations aim to challenge market-driven logics, promote non-exploitative forms of care and exchange, and foster decolonial approaches to design practice. That is, to design with social and ecological sensitivity in the age of escalating environmental crisis.

Matter vs. Material

Matter precedes and exceeds material. Atoms and particles, rare earth elements and hybrid composites, precious metals and toxic liquids, fossils and minerals, microwaves and vapours, matter is commonly perceived as a passive commodity, a resource, mere stuff that ought to be mobilised and transformed to become material. The self-propelling system of financial capitalism pushes industries and designers to explore the economic potential of materials on ever smaller scales — continuously instrumentalizing more matter through the practices of extraction, mining, manipulation and dispersion. In the meantime, the operation of vast digital platforms and planetary-scale computation is deeply dependent on the material processes of transformation of matter to energy, metallurgic alchemies and geopolitics of minerals.

When approached through a lens of human productivity, only certain facets of matter are recognised as a valuable part of the market, leaving other aspects such as material waste or toxicity overlooked. In the words of political theorist Jane Bennett in Vibrant Matter: The Political Ecology of Things, ‘materiality can never be thrown ‘away’, for it continues its activities even as a discarded or unwanted commodity.’

Matter as a Subject of Design

Design traditionally serves as a framework to understand material surroundings through the contours of things — or clearly defined objects. Its focus often lies within the study of material properties and in the realm of material innovation: always chasing the new. But the current state of affairs and escalating environmental crisis calls for different approaches that allow to step back and sideways, and rethink the existing relationship between human and matter.

Matter invites designers, artists, architects, philosophers, sociologists along with environmental agencies, scientists, lawyers and other stakeholders to take part in a series of public conversations and research activities. From molecular to geopolitical scales, the projects seeks to document design strategies that account for material lifecycles, promote ethical forms of cohabitation between humans and the environment, and introduce alternative forms of value and exchange.

Material Agencies

The series is developed in collaboration with the Neuhaus programme, which transforms Het Nieuwe Instituut into the institute for more-than-human knowledge between May and September 2019. The learning curriculum titled Meeting Matter will engage in various research activities, from workshops to roundtables.

The project also builds upon the long-term research by Het Nieuwe Instituut on the economic, social and cultural implications of materials, such as Series on Materials. Other related projects include On the Most Powerful Catalyst  by fellow Füsun Türetken; Ore Streams by Studio Formafantasma; Mineral, Immutable: To Design a Document by fellow Christopher Lee.

Marina Otero Verzier
Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, Katia Truijen, Marten Kuijpers, Anastasia Kubrak
k.truijen@hetnieuweinstituut.nl
Alex Walker