Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


New (Normal) Materialist Decay: a series of conversations on the new IAS theme of Growth

9 August 2020

New (Normal) Materialist Decay will showcase a series of discussions under a new materialist approach to the built environment — The last session (day 5) has been indefinitely postponed.

new normal decay

Join these events here.

Decaying matter is an essential component of our built environment. From compost in our gardens, to lichen and fungi in our brick and stone walls and tile roofs, to bacteria on our skin, our environment grows thanks to and along with non-human decay. However, we neglect these non-human agents and, now more than ever, we fear them as they also include viruses and the surfaces where viruses inhabit. We wash our hands with antibacterial soaps, interact with the world through gloves, masks, scrubs, glasses and screens. We now sterilise our built environment more than ever, thus polluting it with toxic antibacterial matter. To ignore decaying matter and the waste of our new material mediations (as well as their destinies and trajectories) also means to neglect the human workforce that physically deals with decay and the organisms that support it.

New (Normal) Materialist Decay will showcase a series of conversations under a new materialist approach to the built environment. For this revised series, we want to question how the new normal challenges previous revolutionary approaches to decaying matter (compost, soil, bodies, food, weeds…) and question if it is still possible to shift thinking about them. Before COVID-19, one could have imagined a poetics of waste co-existing with the repurposing of waste so that it comes to signify as non-waste. But what can we do now?

This series of panel debates and conversations will involve academics, artists, gardeners, botanists, chemists and landscape architects. These conversations and their outcomes will be free and open to everyone. This series is partly funded by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and supported by UCL Urban Laboratory and the Institute of Advanced Studies at UCL as part of their collaboration on the research theme of Waste. This series is part of a bigger project conceived by Sabina Andron (UCL, Ravensbourne) and Albert Brenchat (UCL, BBK, AA)

We propose 5 sessions:

Day 1. Wed 7 Oct, 5pm (BST). The Dissimilar Architecture and Politics of Rot - from Positivist Ecology to Intersectional Theory

Day 2. Wed 4 Nov, 5pm (BST). The Aesthetics and Care of the Soil in the Urban Environment

Day 3. Wed 13 Jan, 5pm (UK Time) — Skin Hungry? Aesthetic approximations to the critters of touch

Day 4. Wed 3 Feb, 9pm (UK Time) — Key Work and the Anxiety of Public Space

Day 5. Death, becoming, decay — The last session (day 5)  has been indefinitely postponed

    Day 4: Wed 3 Feb, 9pm (UK Time) — Key Work and the Anxiety of Public Space

    In the time of coronavirus, public lavatories closed for several weeks. These are, generally, small spaces where distancing others is difficult, and where bodily fluids and particles in suspension increase the risk of viral infection. Newspapers from The Guardian to The Telegraph would report during May and June 2020 that public lavatories were ‘a cause of anxiety, distress and frustration’, especially amongst the elder. Citizens would find relief in parks’ peripheral masses of bushes and trees.  

    In 1992, artist and architect Katerine Shonfield (along with Frank O’Sullivan) covered the glazed tiles of some run down public lavatories with goose feathers. This artwork, called Dirt is Matter Out of Place, aimed to create a porous surface that trapped germs and dirt in it, related sexual practices and criminal behaviour to dirt, and presented spatial forms associated with dirt.  

    But something was missing in Shonfield’s critique and that the coronavirus crisis has brought to light: the labour of those workers that take care of public spaces, usually Latinxs or of African descent who speak languages other than North European Languages. In the time of coronavirus, some workers including nurses, doctors and couriers acquired the new social category of ‘key workers’. However, cleaners are still fighting for full recognition in this category. The current pandemic has proven, as the media and unions have been denouncing, that some key workers endure degrading working conditions.  

    The panel will present union-engaged positions on the intersection of labour, race and dirt in response to key workers’ role in dealing with viral spaces and a response from an academic from the Arts and Humanities. with Hélène Frichot (Melbourne), Cecilia Vallejos (artist), Lotika Singha (Wolverhampton), Matthijs De Bruijne (artist) and Nicola Baldwin (IAS). Chaired by Albert Brenchat-Aguilar (Birkbeck/Architectural Association)


    • Hélène Frichot is an architectural theorist and philosopher, writer and critic. She is Professor of Architecture and Philosophy, and Director of the Bachelor of Design, Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, University of Melbourne, Australia. She is the writer of  Creative Ecologies: Theorizing the Practice of Architecture (Bloomsbury 2018), How to Make Yourself a Feminist Design Power Tool (AADR 2016), and Dirty Theory: Troubling Architecture (AADR 2019) amongst others. She is on the steering group of the AHRA (Architectural Humanities Research Association) based in the UK. Please find more about her work here.
    • Cecilia Vallejos is a theatre director who has oriented her practice toward dramaturgies of texts based on testimonial narratives. From 2003 to 2014, she produced a versatile way of working based on statements, biographical accounts and recollections of stories. In the year 2011, she started collaborating with domestic workers and artists of the Dutch Union of Cleaners in producing joint projects, in particular videos and publications as part of the group’s ongoing struggle for legalisation of their labour. Please find more about her work here.
    • Matthijs De Bruijne’s work explores the relations between economy, culture and social life in order to achieve critical collective consciousness. During the last years it has taken the form of collaboration with trade unions and other labour organizations. You can find his work for ‘cartoneros’ in Buenos Aires at www.liquidacion.org, his collaboration with local activists and independent labour organisations in China at www.1000dreams.org, and with the Dutch Union of Cleaners FNV in The Trash Museum.
    • Lotika Singha received her doctorate in women’s studies from the University of York. Her research interests centre on social inequalities in everyday life and cross-cultural theories across various population groups. She is the author of Work, Labour and Cleaning: The Social Contexts of Outsourcing Housework published by Bristol UP in 2019.
    • Nicola Baldwin is a writer for performance and currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the IAS, UCL. Her projects include: Nosocomial, a science fiction drama based on workshops with Healthcare Scientists, which won 2019 CSO ‘Partnering Citizens’ Award of NHS England; We The Young Strong about far right radicalisation of young women in 1930s; Wasteland, developed as inaugural UCL Creative Fellow; Woman From Mars, as recipient of 2019-2020 MGC futures bursary; and Camberwell Green for BBC Radio 4. Please find more about her work here.

    Day 3: Wed 13 Jan, 5pm (UK Time) — Skin Hungry? Aesthetic approximations to the critters of touch

    Look closely but don’t touch. While over-exposed to the fictional and fixed aesthetics of SARS-CoV-2, we are all suffering, in different degrees, of what is being called in the mass media as ‘skin hunger’: a desire for human touch that is being explained as a biological need. Haptic communication has been reported to affect infants’ wellbeing, adolescents’ behaviour, stress, and even immunity, pain and attention. Few months through the coronavirus pandemic have been enough to publish papers assessing the current situation of touch deprived peoples. This panel aims to think through the current touch deprivation in terms of appreciations and affections with the bacteria of the skin. Taking into account the agency of touching as a privilege in the present times (imposed on some and prohibited to others) we wonder: What can we build from current aesthetic-agentic relations with our skin bacteria? Or in other words, what can we take from looking closely at the bacteria of our skin in the current coronavirus pandemic from an artistic lens?

    This panel presents the work of three artists approaching the aesthetics and ecology of bacteria in the skin and responses from two academics from the arts and humanities. With Marina Warner (BBK), Anne Anlin Cheng (Princeton), Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin (artist), Sonja Bäumel (artist) and Mellissa Fisher (artist). Chaired by Albert Brenchat-Aguilar (Birkbeck/Architectural Association)


    • Dame Marina Warner is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London and a Professorial Research Fellow at SOAS. She is a writer of fiction, criticism and history; her works include novels and short stories as well as studies of art, myths, symbols and fairytales. She is a contributing editor to The London Review of Books, a Fellow of the British Academy, a Quondam Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and, since 2017, President of the Royal Society of Literature. She was made DBE in 2015, and the same year was awarded the Holberg Prize in the Arts and Humanities. in 2017 she was given a British Academy Medal and a World Fantasy Life Time Achievement Award. She is currently patron of the Ted Hughes Society, Bloodaxe Books, Society for Story Telling, Hosking Houses Trust and The Longford Trust. Please find more about her work here.
    • Anne Anlin Cheng is Professor of English and American Studies, and affiliated faculty in the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies and the Committee on Film Studies at Princeton University. She is an interdisciplinary and comparative race scholar who focuses on the uneasy intersection between politics and aesthetics, drawing from literary theory, race and gender studies, film and architectural theory, legal studies, psychoanalysis, and critical food studies. She is the author of The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden GriefSecond Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface; and, most recently, Ornamentalism
    • Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin explores the porousness of bodily boundaries and the ceaseless movement of living processes, like fermentation, echoing the history of colonialism. Shin is interested in the history of conquest and the literal digestion of materials – smells, microbes, and food – as a system of relations that emerges from a complicated history of entanglement. Shin has exhibited internationally and was recently an artist-in-residence at Recess in Brooklyn, a Visiting Artist Fellow at UrbanGlass in Brooklyn, Col(LAB) artist-in-residence at Princeton University in New Jersey, and Wave Hill’s 2020 artist-in-residence for Winter Workspace program. Shin is a 2020 New York Community Trust Van Lier Fellow. Please find more about their work here.
    • Mellissa Fisher is a British artist based in Margate; her work explores the relationships between nature, science and the human body. In 2016 Fisher was commissioned by the BBC to create a large scale microbial sculpture which formed a central theme of the documentary Michael Mosley verses the Superbugs. Throughout the last 8 years, Fisher has explored the microscopic world in nature and cell biology in collaboration with scientist Professor Mark Clements who worked with her on all microbial projects and she continues to work collaboratively with various scientists across the UK and internationally. Please find more about her work here.
    • Sonja Bäumel’s (AT) interest lies in the microbial layer, a second layer that can be found on top of all bodies. Her work has been exhibited internationally. Her Textured Self project is in the permanent collection of the Textielmuseum in Tilburg in the Netherlands. She is co-founder of the Dunbar's Number collective (2011), member of Pavillion35 (2012) collective based in Vienna, and of the WNDRLUST (2013-2018) collective based in Amsterdam. Sonja is heading the Jewellery-Linking Bodies Department at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. Please find more about her work here.

    Day 2: Wed 4 Nov, 5pm (UK Time) — The aesthetics and Care of the Soil in the Urban Environment

    Please listen to a recording of this conversation below. 

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    In the built environment, soil is not only polluted but also privated of water and neglected behind layers of soil subproducts. The urban environment avoids soil as it is dirty, a waste of walkable space, a patch where plants should spring up and do not, or an opportunity to speculate with the value of what can come on top of it. To soil is to stain, physically and morally.

    This panel presents poetic engagements with soil that look beneath the surface: soil as an organism made of decaying and life-giving matter, and as a superorganism containing myriads of organisms. It also aims to politicise new materialist approaches of soil: who works with soil in construction, who lives in brownfields or get beneath the urban surface to live or maintain our infrastructures. It also presents responses from the practices of gardening and ecological sciences.

    Confirmed speakers: Maria Puig de la Bellacasa (Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, University of Warwick), Masha Ru (Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study) Nicole Clouston (York University), Lucia Pietroiusti (Serpentine) and Richard Reynolds (Guerrilla Gardening). Chaired by Albert Brenchat-Aguilar (Birkbeck/Architectural Association)

    • Maria Puig de la Bellacassa works at the crossing of science and technology studies, feminist theory and the environmental humanities. Her most recent book Matters of Care. Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds (Minnesota University Press, 2017) attempts to connect a feminist materialist tradition of critical thinking on care with debates on more than human ontologies and ecological practices. She is currently researching the ongoing formations of novel ecological cultures, looking at how connections between scientific knowing, social and community movements, and art interventions are contributing to transformative ethics, politics and justice in troubled naturecultural worlds. She also looks for interstitial spaces of knowing and doing that disrupt seemingly hegemonic technoscientific regimes – in particular everyday forms of ecological care in minoritarian eco-social movements such as permaculture and material spiritualities.
    • Masha Ru is a creative with the background in science. Masha’s projects combine scientific research with a personal approach and cultural practices. In 2011 Ru obtained a PhD in Mathematics and graduated with honours from Photo Academy Amsterdam. In 2013-2014 they participated in the art-in-residency programme at Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunst in Amsterdam. In 2018 Masha was an artist fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS-KNAW). The work of Masha Ru is supported by Mondriaan Fund.
    • Nicole Clouston is a practice-based researcher who completed her Ph.D. in Visual Art at York University and her MFA at the University of Victoria. In her practice she asks: What happens when we acknowledge, through an embodied experience, our connection to a world teeming with life both around and inside us? Nicole has exhibited across Canada and internationally, most recently in Detroit, Michigan. She was the artist in residence at the Coalesce Bio Art Lab at the University at Buffalo and the artist in residence at Idea Projects: Ontario Science Centre’s Studio Residencies at MOCA.
    • Lucia Pietroiusti is a curator based in London, working across disciplines at the intersection of art and ecology, mostly outside of the exhibition format. She is Curator of General Ecology at Serpentine Galleries. Ongoing projects include The Shape of a Circle in the Mind of a Fish (with Filipa Ramos) and Back to Earth. Pietroiusti was the founder of the General Ecology project and network, and a co-founder of Serpentine Radio. Outside Serpentine, she is the curator of Sun & Sea by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė, the Lithuanian Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale. She is one of the Curators of the 2020-2021 Shanghai Biennale. Publications include More-than-Human (with Andrés Jaque and Marina Otero Verzier), forthcoming in late 2020.
    • Richard Reynolds regularly speaks about guerrilla gardening around the UK and beyond. He speaks from both his experience as a guerrilla gardener but also as a blogger and author on the subject and usually leaves an audience both entertained and inspired (see his blog www.guerrillagardening.org). His action can be found in the urban environment but also at Tate Modern and other unusual spaces for gardening.

    Day 1: Wed 7 Oct, 5pm (BST) — The Dissimilar Architecture and Politics of Rot

    Please listen to a recording of this conversation below. 

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    Dirt and waste have a clear political and spatial place: always excluded, outside the realms of the acceptable, conceivable or representable. As if it were a contagious disease, dealing with waste and being treated as waste seem quite closely connected. Positivist feminist positions have clearly emphasised a different take: decay is about togetherness, making kin, assuming the unavoidable extinction - individual or collective - that critters and us are part of. They ask us to become compostists instead of posthumanists, to make kin with the underworld. But does this interpretation of decay leave difference behind and is it adequate for the current circumstances?

    This introductory panel to New (Normal) Materialist Decay aims to present two current works-in-progress discussing decay from intersectional theory, with a response from ecology. We are delighted to welcome Brigitte Baptiste, Mel Y. Chen and Kyla Wazana Tompkins for this discussion, whose works politicise new materialism from material micro-relations, linguistics and affect, amongst others. We suggest reading the works hyperlinked in their bios. The session will be chaired by Lo Marshall and Albert Brenchat-Aguilar.

    • Brigitte Baptiste is a biologist and PhD Honoris Causa in environmental management from the Instituto Universitario de la Paz, and an expert in environment and biodiversity. She was the Director of the Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute. She holds a degree from the Universidad Javeriana de Colombia and a master’s degree in preservation and tropical development from the University of Florida, as well as having studies on environmental sciences, environmental protection, topical ecology and survey of biodiversity. She is member of the scientific committee for the global programme ‘Ecosystem Change and Society’ and part of the Commission on Ecosystem Management of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. See Brigitte's column for La República where she discusses Covid, the climate and other topics.
    • Mel Y. Chen is Associate Professor of Gender & Women’s Studies at UC Berkeley and Director of the Centre for the Study of Sexual Culture. Mel is also an affiliate of the Centre for Race and Gender, the Institute for Cognitive and Behavioral Science, the Centre for Science, Technology, Medicine, and Society, and the Haas Disability Studies and LGBTQ Citizenship Research Clusters. Their research and teaching interests include queer and gender theory, animal studies, critical race theory and Asian American studies, disability studies, science studies and critical linguistics. Chen published Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Duke University Press, winner of Alan Bray Award from the Modern Language Association’s GL/Q Caucus) in 2012 and is preparing a book on the relationships among the conceptual territories of ‘toxicity’ and ‘intoxication’ and their involvement in histories of the shared interanimation of race and disability. They also co-edit a book series with Jasbir K. Puar on ‘Anima’. See their take on 'Agitation' as it responds to our current circumstances around BLM, disability studies, toxicity and others here.
    • Kyla Wazana Tompkins is an Associate Professor at Pomona College, jointly appointed to the Department of English and the Program in Gender and Women’s Studies where, in 2017, she completed a seven-year stint as chair of the Program in Gender and Women’s Studies. She is a former food writer and restaurant critic. Today, as a scholar of 19th-century US literature with a continuing interest in the relationship between food and culture, she writes about the connections between literature and a wide range of topics: food, eating, sexuality, race, culture, film and dance. Her 2012 book, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the Nineteenth Century, received the 2012 Lora Romero First Book Publication Prize from the American Studies Association and tied for the Best Book in Food Studies Award, presented by the Association for the Study of Food and Society. Her upcoming book, So Moved: Ferment, Jelly, Intoxication, Rot, maps the recategorisation of microbiopolitical life, criminality and the citizenship form across two historical shifts in the United States: the history of Pasteurian science and the failure of Radical Reconstruction that led to the consequent rise of federal Progressivism. See a brief take of hers on New Materialism here.