When Objects Have Agency. Human hearts are a living object 'gift of life'; and a technological one.Successful transplanted patients give 'token objects'; to the cardiologist who cannot part with them. Here the role of objects is dramatically manifested as they intervene in life processes, inter-relations and the limits of being human.

In stereo, (an illusion) these objects live a kind of half-life, apparently material yet active in unexpected ways and operating out of reach.


  • Collaboration with the Medical Research Team University Health Network (UHN),

Cardiac Transplant Unit, Toronto General Hospital

  • Catherine Richards' .IMG Research / Creation  Lab

University of Ottawa

  • Transitio_MX 05 - September 21-29, 2013, Mexico City

Biomediciones Festival of New Media Art and Video 

  • Exhibition: Still Lives 1 & 2 - September 21-29, 2013

Laboratorio Arte Alameda, Mexico City, Mexico

  • Exhibition: Shivering Symposium, May 9-10, 2014

Winnipeg, Manitoba

  • UAAC-AAUC Conference 2014 Congrès - October 28, 2014


  • Exhibition: I'm Afraid to Ask - October 24 - November 7, 2014 

Open Gallery, OCAD, Toronto 


Collaboration with the Medical Research Team University Health Network (UHN),
Cardiac Transplant Unit, Toronto General Hospital

UHN’s Cardiac Transplant Research Program

... Unusual emotional and psychological responses to the life-transforming procedure can produce real distress for some heart transplant recipients, a fascinating new study of a Toronto hospital’s patients suggests. Video interviews with 25 recipients found many had questions about their identity after receiving another person’s heart, felt an intruder had found its way inside them, or experienced an intense, emotional bond with the donor whose death meant they could continue living.
One 50-something woman even said she stopped wanting to have sex with her husband after concluding — despite anonymity rules — her donor had been a man.
“For a while, I felt as if there was an alien in my body … a foreign identity,” another recipient told researchers from the University Health Network (UHN), according to a just-published paper in the journal Health.

The project itself had unusual origins, stretching the usual, evidence-rooted boundaries of health care and shedding new light on a remarkable treatment the world now largely takes for granted. Dr. Heather Ross, the cardiologist who heads the UHN’s cardiac transplant program, said her view of the treatment changed when she began exploring philosophy. The transplant world typically has viewed the procedure in “Cartesian” terms, as a bio-mechanical exchange of spare parts, she notes. The ideas of phenomenology she examined, however, pointed to body and consciousness being closely linked and suggested “we are in a never-ending process of becoming,” said Dr. Ross, who has been working with British philosopher Margrit Shildrick and others.

National Post December 12, 2014 

This project was inter-linked with the Hybrid Bodies project.


More information about this project can be found at the following web site:

Dr Heather Ross

Director of Cardiac Transplant
Toronto General Hospital
Toronto, Canada

Dr. Margrit Shildrick

Professor of Gender and Knowledge Production at Linköping University
Adjunct Professor of Critical Disability Studies at York University, Toronto.

Patricia McKeever

Senior Scientist
Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital 

Susan Abbey

Director, Medical Psychiatry
University Health Network, Toronto, Canada

Jennifer M. Poole

Associate Professor & Academic Co-ordinator, Continuing Education (Social Work)
Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada

Tokens of gratitude are given repeatedly to the cardiologist, Dr. Ross. by successful heart transplant patients.  They appear to be inconsequential but they bridge the unfathomable: my new heart was never ‘dead’ but was alive/dead; if my immune system defends me, the intruder heart dies and so will I.These objects take on a life of their own and live in Dr. Ross’s office. She cannot part with them,

  Toronto General Hospital

Toronto General Hospital

 Dr. Ross' Office

Dr. Ross' Office

Catherine Richards' .IMG Research / Creation  Lab, University of Ottawa

 Catherine Richards

Catherine Richards

 .IMG Lab

.IMG Lab

  Sabrina Chamberland and Marla McDougall

Sabrina Chamberland and Marla McDougall

  Catherine Richards

Catherine Richards

  Catherine Richards

Catherine Richards

  Lawrence Cooke

Lawrence Cooke

Transitio_MX 05 - September 21-29, 2013
Biomediciones Festival of New Media Art and Video  

MX Bug pulgon_transitio green.png

The International Festival of New Media Art and Video Transitio_MX is the most important platform in Mexico for the expression and analysis of contemporary practices in artistic creation in electronic media and digital culture. It is a biennial festival that comprises three main activities: a symposium, an exhibition and a contest.

In order to ensure continuity and also the organic and plural evolution of the festival, a collegial model of running the festival has been established. The Planning and Evaluation Council was founded in 2004, with a group of independent artists, directors, cultural managers and employees of the National Center of the Arts, an institution which, through its Multimedia Center, hosts and organizes the festival. Since its first edition in 2005, the Festival of New Media Art and Video Transitio_MX has opened a reflexive process of managing new media art and video through different approaches (theoretical, critical, practical).

The goal of each edition has been talk about the problems experienced by artistic and technological practices. From the first meeting a festive format had been adopted, thus locating electronic art in a shared, social and open space to be enjoyed by a wider community. 


‘Life’ signifies many things. To begin with, it is a philosophical abstraction referring to our meaningful existence in the world. Yet ‘life’ also refers to biological processes taking place at environmental, social and cellular levels, and to results of technical experiments conducted within the nexus of wet labs and computer labs. Life as such doesn’t therefore exist: it is always mediated by language, culture, technology and biology. 

It is these multiple mediations of life that form the theme of the Festival of New Media Art and Video Transitio_MX 05 BIOMEDIATIONS (Biomediaciones). The term ‘biomediations’ encapsulates life’s own inherent dynamism that unfolds at environmental, social and cellular level. It also captures the creative, dynamic and evolving nature of media. Transitio_MX 05 BIOMEDIATIONS explores this intertwined process, whereby life is always mediated and whereby media themselves are seen as living – i.e. composed of both technological and biological elements, and capable of generating new forms, unprecedented connections and unexpected events. 

Focusing on ‘life’ understood philosophically, biologically and technologically, Transitio_MX05 showcases a wide range of living media that capture life: still and moving image, video and sound art, data visualisation and computer art, installation and performance. It also features bioart, a genre where genes, living tissue, blood, viruses and bacteria constitute the artist’s material. Last but not least, Transitio_MX05 critically engages with philosophies of life, with their accompanying notions of creation, duration, emergence, process and flow. The problem of the mediation of life (and hence also death) in Mexican culture is a particularly important aspect of the festival’s enquiry. 

Uniquely, though, Transitio_MX05 BIOMEDIATIONS is not just about life: it is itself a mediated living event.

Artistic Director: Dr Joanna Zylinska, Goldsmiths, University of London
Mexico City, September 20 – 29, 2013

PANEL:  Posthumanismo y hospitalidad

Activity: Roundtable

Date: September Monday 23 , 12:00 - 14:00 hrs.

Venue: Aula Magna José Vasconcelos - CENART

Description: Who has had the power to define life, in what contexts and what consequences? Traditionally, the human being has been conceived as the privileged source of vital decisions for humans, « semi-humans » and nonhuman. Although anthropocentrism as a Western cultural paradigm has been put in question for more than a century of philosophical reflection, its effects remain embedded in the dominant logic of contemporary capitalism. This roundtable aims to explore alternatives to the anthropocentric given, taking as its starting point the recognition of the constructed character of the human and its constitutive relationship with the nonhuman. It poses the question whether such reflection can lead to the rethinking of «life» in a more pluralistic, open and responsible way. In Dr. José Luis Vera, director of the National School of Anthropology, will share some aspects of his research into the construction of «the human» in the discourse of physical anthropology. The Argentinian artist Mariano Sardón will share a reflection on the technological construction of perception. The artist Catherine Richards will present one of her most recent projects on the transplantation of vital organs and on how such transplants destabilize the symbolic and material boundaries of the human body. Finally, the artist Berenice Olmedo will present her artistic work with the street dogs of Puebla and Cholula as a critical intervention into the anthropocentric discourse of public hygiene.

José Luis Vera
Catherine Helen Richards
Berenice Olmedo Peña

Exhibition: Still Lives 1 & 2 September 21-29, 2013

Laboratorio Arte Alameda, Mexico City, Mexico

  Still Lives II  and  Still Lives I

Still Lives II and Still Lives I

 Still Lives II

Still Lives II

These objects belong to the cardiologist, Dr. Ross. Their inconsequential appearance betrays their power. Successful heart transplant patients come to the clinic year after year to give these to her. They bind her. She cannot part with them:  “Why are you giving this to me”/ “I’m afraid to ask”. When these objects take on a life of their own, the notion of objects with social agency is hard to resist. On the surface they are worthless, but they set out to bridge the unfathomable: losing your heart in order to live with another’s; if your immune system defends you, the intruder heart will die and so will you; your new heart was never ‘dead’ but alive/dead and now continues alive. These objects are highly charged, attempting o bridge life and death and the borders of what we think ourselves to be.




Exhibition: Shivering Symposium, May 9-10, 2014

Museum of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba

CBC Radio Interview, May 18, 2014

UAAC-AAUC Conference 2014 Congrès - October 28, 2014


Universities Art Association of Canada/l’association d’art des universités du Canada


Professor Catherine Richards, Visual Arts, University Research Chair , University of Ottawa.
Dr. Maria Lantin, Director of Research , Emily Carr University of Art + Design. 
Dr. Maureen Matthews, Curator of Ethnology, Manitoba Museum.

Session Chair

Dr. Caroline Langill, Associate Dean, Facilities, Policies and Planning in the Faculty of Art, OCAD


Presentation ABSTRACTS


There is a conversation within art practice that presumes artwork as an interactive entity and artists anticipate that their art works/objects will have lives of their own.  One could say this is a primary reason for making art.  Art schools are full of metaphorical talk which instantiates this kind of thinking.  This presentation describes objects that unexpectedly appeared to have their own intentions.  These artworks arose from a collaborative project with the research team at the Cardiac Transplant Program, Toronto General Hospital, and University Health Network. These works were created in the context of human heart transplants as both a living object 'the gift of life' and technological object. It was the successful patients ' gift' objects that began to appear to demonstrate an agency of their own, forcing a powerful reluctant encounter that was decidedly outside of the modernist framework whether it was artwork or the hospital itself. 


I wonder about objects in virtual environments.  They don't age, they bear few life traces. We act upon them with the most functional of gestures.  Yet in the physical world there are some objects that we revere and that act as catalysts of patterned behaviour. We could say they are agents in a dance with the phenomenal world.  A dance that includes repetition, superstition, mimicry, creation, and destruction, memory and patterns.
I wonder how we design for the agency of objects.  How do we encode agency when its enactment is contingent on all the participating actors, and their context? How we do represent agency in virtual objects? How do we design objects to have more potential for agency? How do we detect movement towards an objects that signals an "agency" type of relationship? How do certain types of movements activate a space? Can we give subtle movements to virtual objects to signal an agency type of relationship? How would we expect such objects to move?
I propose a new way to think of virtual environments where we encode agency as an evolved, rehearsed, and enacted dance between objects, animals, and their environment.


Niningishkaa, Anishinaabe perspectives on person-like things.

In Art and Agency (1998), Alfred Gell developed an anthropological theory which skirted Western definitions of art and aesthetics, to explain the social role of objects which act like art in all cultures - including cultures without a concept of “art’.  Gell’s theory neatly parallels Anishinaabe concepts about animate and socially active objects, including very beautiful objects, but no category that approximates “art.” This paper takes a combined Anishinaabe and anthropological perspective to explore what Anishinaabe speakers can tell us about detecting and accounting for the role of animate objects (Hallowell 1960) and what an anthropological attentiveness to the personhood of objects (Strathern 2005, Latour 1993, Jackson 1989) can reveal.  It also considers recent scholarship on Actor Network (Latour 2013), Affect (O’Sullivan 2001) and Thing Theory (Brown 2001, Mitchell 2001, 2005) which, taken together, provide a theoretical and metaphorical triangulation of art and objects that make things happen.

Second, we are hosting a break-out session on Sunday October 26 10:30-12 to complement Saturday's UAAC panel "SHIVERING: Objects, Agency and Art." Here is a brief description/invitation...

Breakout session: Ideas of animacy, agency, materiality & the affective powers of art

Sunday 10:30 to 12:00 

Shared ideas about the relational aspects of art and art about relations with socially active objects.


Catherine's Talk


Exhibition - I'm Afraid to Ask - October 24 - November 7
Open Gallery, OCAD, Toronto

Human hearts are a living object 'gift of life' and a technological one. 
Successful transplanted patients give 'token objects' to the cardiologist who cannot part with them. 
Here the role of objects is dramatically manifested as they intervene in life processes, inter-relations and the limits of being human.

 Catherine Richards

Catherine Richards

 Maureen Matthews

Maureen Matthews