Shades of the immaterial: Different approaches to the ‘non-object’ | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU

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The discourse about immateriality has prevailed during the last decades in diverse theoretical schemes, including art, economy, society and psychology, especially in relation to information technologies. The question of the immaterial is of crucial importance in regard to the presence of the corporeal and technological element in art, therefore, it would be interesting to try to define the term and to see the different approaches to the question of matter in relation to art.

In the texts of art theorists of the past fifty years we find different terms to describe the new conditions prompted by the digitisation of artistic and cultural practice, such as “immateriality”, “dematerialization” and “hypermateriality”. Although “immateriality” is usually favoured, we could still have a look into the discourse about the diminishment of matter, bearing in mind that in neither of the cases the terms need to be taken literally.

When speaking about “immaterial art”, we are using too generic a definition that could be applied to many different artworks; in fact, it is as a general term as speaking about “material art”; there are too many art genres that could fall under the same category. This is why it is more accurate to talk about “immateriality in art”, in order to define how a certain evolution in thought and cultural practice has affected art and its reception. In other words, the discourse about “immateriality” is more aimed at describing the new approach towards the art object (or the non-object) and the new relations it helps to build; as a result of this approach, the focus of attention is shifted from purely visual perception to other senses –like hearing and touching- and different processes –like communication.

In other words, the term “immaterial” should not be taken in a strict sense; those objects do have a material aspect –whether this matter is the computer hardware or the infinitesimally small particles used in electronic systems. So, the question of the immaterial is more related to an evolution, where the artwork is more than an object; it has become a creative process.

This observation became a focal point of analysis in theoretical texts of the late 1960s. Jack Burnham noted that “the cultural obsession with the art object is slowly disappearing […] This shifts from the direct shaping of matter to a concern for organizing quantities of energy and information”.[1] It is an observation based on the evolution of art of this period, which turned towards ephemerality and experience and started to toy with software and systems of information; in this respect his description of a “systems aesthetic”, where art does not reside in material entities, but in the interaction between people and their environment, is in accordance with the main argument about the immaterial presented here.[2]

The idea of “energy” as an inherent element in art is also to be found in John Chandler and Lucy Lippard’s seminal essay “The dematerialization of the art object”,[3] where they noted in regard to the art of their time:

The visual arts at the moment seem to hover at a crossroad that may well turn out to be two roads to one place, though they appear to have come from two sources: art as idea and art as action. In the first case, matter is denied, as sensation has been converted into concept; in the second case, matter has been transformed into energy and time-motion.[4]

In other words, shifting the interest from matter to energy and action, does not imply that materiality disappears altogether; it simply means that the object becomes obsolete. Moreover, when referring to the art of the time, the word “immaterial” is not only linked to the ideas behind the artwork, but also to  the creative process.

The term “dematerialisation” highlights the idea of energy even further, by designating an act, a process of distancing from matter. This distancing can be simply conceptual, meaning that the artwork still has a material substance, which subsides underneath the burden of the idea it represents. On the contrary, immateriality is not used to describe the process, but the condition where matter is almost absent.[5]

Although Chandler and Lippard do not illustrate their theory with artistic examples, in the subsequent edition Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object[6] Lippard presents an overview of fluxus, happenings, video works and conceptual art. In this kind of art the object is disconnected from its material substance, which becomes less important than the concept or the process. This way, it becomes possible to link the artwork to alternative conceptualisations, as Jacob Lillemose observes:

Rather than attempting to sublate or transcend materiality through non-material principles, such as ideology, beauty and sign value, conceptual art emphasises its social, economic and cultural aspects and exposes them to alternative conceptualisations; conceptualisations most often guided by principles and values of heterogeneity, irrationality, openness and destabilisation, and opposed to harmony, control, power and capitalistic exploitation.[7]

So, it is important to keep in mind that the abolition of the limits of the material has opened up new possibilities for the art object, liberating it from the established paths of circulation and projection that are related to the art market and traditional art spaces. Instead, it has created the opportunity of a new way of perception, more polyphonic, where the artist has the freedom to play with ephemerality, fluidity and participation. As a consequence, the entire area of aesthetic awareness is redefined, as John Burnham foresaw in the early 1970s.[8]

So, immateriality is not an alternative word for emptiness; on the contrary, it could even be considered as a new state of matter. For Jean-François Lyotard the immaterial is matter; a matter which is subject to interaction and other conceptual processes. This is suggested in the exhibition Les Immatériaux, the “immaterials”, which he designed in 1985 at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. The exhibition focused on the advent of an art of the immaterial and the changes in the perception of such art by the public[9] -a perception engaging all of the senses. More than a conventional exhibition of art, Les Immatériaux was an event based on philosophical questions, within a theatrical setting. Liberated from the mentality of presenting art works, the exhibition explored new ways of interacting with the public. Rather than providing the viewers with a clear trajectory with a succession of visual artworks, they staged “a labyrinth of questions that elicits a feeling of being lost and an incapacity to exhaust the possibilities for connections and meaning”,[10] where the viewers needed to rely in all of their senses.

A great part of the exhibition was dedicated to new technologies, highlighting the plasticity of art based on computer and the new technologies of information and communication. According to Lyotard, immateriality is connected to energy –reminding us of Chandler and Lippard’s observation that “matter has been transformed into energy”. For Lyotard, however, this is not a new evolution in art and thought; energy within matter was a pre-existing condition in objects:

“all of the progress that has been accomplished in the sciences, and perhaps in the arts as well, is strictly connected to an ever closer knowledge of what we generally call objects (Which can also be a question of objects of thought). And so analysis decomposes these objects and makes us perceive that, finally, there can only be considered to be objects at the level of a human point of view; at their constitution or structural level, they are only a question of complex agglomerates of tiny packets of energy, or of particles that can’t possibly be grasped as such. Finally, there’s no such thing as matter, and the only thing that exists is energy; we no longer have any such thing as materials, in the old sense of the word that implied an object that offered resistance to any kind of project that attempted to alienate it from its primary finalities”.[11]

So, Lyotard, through the exhibition Les Immatériaux and the theoretical texts that accompany it, tries to underline the fact that this newly discovered “immateriality”, linked primarily to new technologies, is actually a new approach to already existing structures. The presence of the object is irrelevant in this matter, since, whether it exists or not, it is not viewed as an unchanging and stable structure, but rather as a changing dynamic.

From this point of view, there is a relevance of the “immaterials” to Bernard Stiegler’s “hypermaterial”, since we are still within the frame of designating a field where matter –whether perceptible or imperceptible to the human senses- is seen as an ensemble of information, interaction and perception.

However, Stiegler seems to perceive the term of “immateriality” too literally, when stating that “[The immaterial] does not exist. It is an easy word […] that describes in fact evanescent states of matter which remain, nonetheless, states of matter.” For him, hypermatter is a more accurate term when it comes to defining

…a complex of energy and information where it is no longer possible to distinguish its matter from its form […] a process where information –which is presented as form- is in reality a sequence of states of matter produced by materials and apparatuses, by techno-logical devices in which the separation of form and matter is totally devoid of meaning.

For Stiegler the term “dematerialization” is equally inaccurate, because he believes that what we actually have is a “hypermaterialization” of everyday reality, where everything can be transformed into information through material appliances, and subsequently be subjected to endless transformation to their very detail. Hypermateriality is a reality where everything can be turned into digital information; for example, our voice, the air that oscillates within the body, passes through the larynx, and reaches the air through waves, is captured in a voice recorder and transformed into a binary code, a succession of 0 and 1, as digital information. It is a process that could be named “dematerialization” and a result that could be described as “immaterial” by other theorists. For Stiegler, however, as long as matter exists, we are within the realm of the hypermaterial.

As a conclusion, there have been a lot of terms proposed in order to describe this state of minimal matter with a maximized load of information; the condition where matter is seen as something fluid and prone to constant change. The differences between terms such as “dematerialization”, “immateriality” and “hypermateriality” are almost insignificant; however, in regard to the use of new technologies the term “immateriality” has prevailed, since it describes a condition –and not a process, as dematerialization- and moreover it includes not only the problematic about digital art –like hypermateriality- but also the subject of the ideas behind artistic phenomena, regardless of the presence of the object. In this sense, it can describe more accurately the complex changes in the experience of the art work, relevant to corporeity and technology.

To sum up, the term “immaterial” is used to define the realm of the physically imperceptible; it can either be used to describe elements that need to go through different processes in order to be perceived or to shift the focus from the object to the process of creation and the ideas behind it.


[1] Burnham, Jack (1968), Beyond Modern Sculpture: The effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of this Century, New York: George Braziller, p.369.

[2] See Burnham, Jack (1968), ‘Systems aesthetics’, Artforum, vol.7, n.1, September, pp.30-35.

[3] Lippard, Lucy (1968) and Chandler, John, ‘The Dematerialization of Art’, Art International, February, pp.31–6.

[4] Lippard, Lucy (1973), Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, New York: Praeger, p.43.

[5] Lillemose, Jacob (2006), “Conceptual Transformations of Art: From Dematerialization of the Object to Immateriality in Networks”, in Krysa, Joasia (ed.), Curating Immateriality: the Work of the Curator in the Age of Network Systems, New York: Autonomedia, p.128.

[6] Lippard 1973.

[7] Lillemose, p.121

[8] Burnham, Jack (1970), ‘Notes on Art and Information Processing’, in Software – Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art, New York: Jewish Museum, p.10-14.

[9] Tron, Colette (2010), “Des ‘Immatériaux’ à l’ ‘hypermateriel’”, Réel-Virtuel, n°1, “Textures du numérique”, February 2010. Accessed: February 2012.
http://reelvirtuel.univ-paris1.fr/index.php?/revue-en-ligne/c-tron/

[10] Satter, Todd Jerome (2011), “The Black Box in the White Cube: Lyotard’s Les Immatériaux as Machinic Theater”, September 6. Accessed: February 2012. http://www.anyspacewhatever.com/the-black-box-in-the-white-cube-lyotards-les-immateriaux-as-machinic-theater

[11] Blistène, Bernard (1990), “A Conversation with Jean- François Lyotard”, in Politi, Giancarlo and Kontova, Helena (eds.), Flash Art: Two Decades of History, ed. Giancarlo Politi and Helena Kontova, Cambridge, Massachusetts, pp.129-131.