SHIVERING:  THE SYMPOSIUM - Manitoba - May 9-10, 2014







SHIVERING was a three year, multi-disciplinary SSHRC funded investigation into the social role of objects, particularly art objects, examined through the faceted lenses of art research, digital and multimedia art practice, and contemporary anthropological theory. The principal investigator, Catherine Richards, is Professor of Art at the University of Ottawa. Dr. Maria Lantin, co-investigator, is Director of Research at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design.  Dr. Maureen Matthews, the project’s cultural anthropologist is Curator of Ethnology at the Manitoba Museum.


In the course of this project, the three of us have been meeting and talking about the idea of the social agency of objects and its consequences for art and curatorial practice.  We started with the British anthropologist, Alfred Gell, who more directly than anyone else, connected ideas about art and the apparent animacy and social agency of objects.  In his book, Art and Agency (1998), he tried to find a way, outside the Western definition of art and western aesthetic conversations, to explain objects which act like art in other cultures - including cultures which famously have no word for "art".  He argued that it ought to be possible to talk about the social power of art objects without the vocabularies and conceptual limitations of aesthetics, commoditization and colonialist connoisseurship.  He argued instead that we look simply and carefully at the role of objects which act in people’s lives and become aware of what they are doing.

Gell’s work was at the forefront of a burgeoning anthropological investigation of the social life of things, (Appadurai 1986), Thomas (1991), the consequences of materiality (Miller 2005; Tilley 2004), the nature of personhood (Strathern (2005), the role of the senses by Howes (2003), Edwards, Gosden and Phillips (2006), and the development of Actor Network Theory by Bruno Latour (1993). While Gell is very well known in the UK, where he taught at Cambridge University, these ideas have not been widely applied in North America.

Looking at art from the perspective of social agency appeals to anthropologists who work within communities where ceremonial objects may be grammatically animate and are often treated as categorical persons.  It facilitates accurate and sympathetic treatment in such cultural environments.  It also appeals to anthropologists because it offers an equally useful perspective on the Western/European practices including the tendency to personify objects and to speak about objects as doing things or making something happen.  Art galleries across the western world are dedicated to the premise that objects in and of themselves, communicate powerful ideas and transcend temporal constraints.  The conviction that historical and ethnographic objects have the power to teach history and educate people across cultural boundaries is at the heart of Western museological display and collecting practice.

This vocabulary of the animate objects has entered the world of computing, a world where concepts of personhood and objectness are morphing and mutating.  There has been a shift in computing science toward object-oriented computing and the “Internet of Things.” Especially in complex game programming and simulation, programmers are creating defined agents which perform complex and evolving roles within programs in a relational field which is itself evolving.  Interesting questions emerge with respect to the ways in which our understanding of objects and agents shapes their digital representations and even more interesting ones when networks become agents, dynamically creating their own roles based on aggregate patterns of action.  

Computational possibilities are also transforming contemporary concepts of personhood.  In artificial intelligence and robotics, the relevance of the substrate, the body, is increasingly being questioned because of the possibility of “backing ourselves up” to be restored to life at some time in the future (Kurtzwell).  The Turing Test has new relevance in the context of the “living algorithm” where agency is relational and does not depend on any overt self-awareness.

Programmers conventionally incorporate a sense of working with a living system or a responsive entity when they tackle the process of “debugging” a program.  In this sense there is a parallel with art practice where the conversation presumes a sense of a whole interactive entity and requires being mindful of the full set of interactions.  Similarly, artists anticipate that their art works/objects 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.  In ‘crits’, where students are struggling and teachers are trying to explain deficiencies in process and outcome, the assumption of animacy is overt.  Expressions such as ‘having a dialogue’ with an art objects presumes a conversation. We ask, ‘Are we listening to the work? What is it saying? Where do we go next? What works?’ 

Artists retain the metaphor for finished art work.  We expect our art go out into the world, or at least into the world of art, gathering attention and social power. The stories of successful works take on the character of biographies, full of name dropping about famous owners and heroic stories of their roles in shaping or inspiring events. Once they become gallery-ized, museum-ized and media-ized they can have strange after-lives as mugs, posters, art books, screen savers and global commercials, making things happen in an entirely new arena. 

We argue that paying attention to the life and agency of art/museum objects creates an opportunity for a theoretically useful critique of material/digital objects in contemporary life and what this means for modernisms and post-modernisms.  Within the paradigm of modernism, an artist’s intentionality is sufficient for a banal object such as a toilet (Duchamp 1917) to be snatched from its utilitarian context and very acceptably repositioned within the art world discourse.  On the other hand, it is rare that an object already powerfully operating in the wider social world would is considered an acceptable locus of artwork.  A religious icon or talisman is often first drained of its intentionality and then discussed only in terms of form and treatment when it is being considered as art.  Objects which become art through cynical devices such as de-contextualization, irony or simply being quoted as a formal silhouette lose the social agency they once had to circulate as art.  However, as artists move toward multi-media practice with work which responds to viewers and as this form of art practice explores the idea of robotic and emotive objects, which take on lives of their own and interrupt the lives of viewers/participants, the notion of objects with social agency is hard to resist, not just in other cultures but in our own. 


On the weekend of May 9-11, 2014 we held a small symposium, an intensive discussion of ideas about objects, art and their role in our world and invited 10 scholars to join us, people who are actively working on issues having to do with the animacy and agency of objects in museums and art galleries and in media and digital art practice. Our principal objective was to have a concentrated discussion of the practical and intellectual consequences which flow from registering and observing the social power of objects in life and what this awareness means for our research, analysis and art practice. 

Participants brought examples of their latest work: writing, thinking or art, to the Manitoba Museum, the home of a large number of socially active other-than-human entities.  We organized our symposium around four core topics which we discussed during the day and informally at dinner as well.

Welcome and introductions

Session 1 – Objects that live

            Maureen Matthews, D. Phil (Oxon), Curator of Ethnology, Manitoba Museum, and Consulting Scholar, American Philosophical Society Centre fort Native American and Indigenous Studies with Elaine Owen, Pauingassi community representative. 

            Ruth Phillips, PhD, Canada Research Chair in Modern Culture, Professor of Art History (Cross-appointed, PhD program in Cultural Mediations, Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art, and Culture), Carleton University.

            Jennifer Kramer, PhD, Associate Professor, Curator Pacific Northwest, Museum of Anthropology, Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies Early Career Scholar and Faculty Associate, University of British Columbia/Museum of Anthropology.

Tea and visit to museum lab

           Wiikaanag, Ritual relatives in the Pauingassi Collection: a group of important ceremonial Ojibwe artefacts, photographed and described in use by American Anthropologist A. I Hallowell between 1930 and 1940, collected in 1970 by Jack Steinbring of the University of Winnipeg and then reconnected to the community via Ojibwe language recordings and photographs from 1992 to the present.  The collection is in the process of being repatriated to a trust on behalf of the community.

 Session  2 - Objects that make things happen

            Maria Lantin, PhD, Director of Research and Director of Intersections Digital Studio, Faculty of Graduate Studies, at Emily Carr University of Art + Design

            Ben Bogart, PhD, Emily Carr University of Art and Design. Ben Bogart is an artist working in installation, audio-visual improvisation and software development. His current work,  “A Machine that Dreams: An Artistic Enquiry of Cognitive Theories of Dreaming and Mental Imagery” deals with computational implementations of embodied creativity, memory and dreaming.“

Session 3 – Objects that make us

            Catherine Richards, Professor of Media Arts and Full Professor, Department of Visual Arts and Research Chair, University of Ottawa.  in Media and the Arts Artists currently working on multidimensional, stereoscopic images of commemorative mnemonic objects.

            Caroline Langill, Associate Professor of Art, Associate Dean, Facilities, Policies and Planning in the Faculty of Art. Ontario College of Art and Design and independent curator.

            France Trepannier, University of Victoria, is a multidisciplinary artist, curator and researcher of Kanien’kéhaka (Mohawk) and Québécois ancestry. France was also the co-founder and Director of the artist-run center Axe Néo-7 in Gatineau, Quebec, co-chair of the Aboriginal Program Council at the Banff Centre and the co-recipient of the 2012 Audain Aboriginal Curatorial Fellowship by the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. France is currently the Vice Chair for the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective.

            Jen Mizuik, director, visual/digital arts at The Banff Centre, Banff Alberta, curator, arts centre manager with a focus on digital media and contemporary arts practice.

Tea and visit to museum lab:

            I’m afraid to ask, new work by Catherine Richards. 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.

 Session 4 – Making things happen: making happening things


Dinner – more discussion.   We are working on a transcript of the conversations.

Manitoba Museum

Manitoba Museum



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