Hybrid Materialities and Liminal Performances

Vinamould (11)

Recently I have been thinking about hybrid states and how the political narratives of objects can shift with their materiality. I had been re-imagining the scenario I spoke about a couple of weeks ago in which I was involved in a mugging incident in Croydon, and had created a Rivescript chat bot to re-enact this scenario in different guises:


Recently however, I have also been considering how the network of objects which had been involved in that transaction (the phone, the pavement, the cash machine, the station barriers, the cash…) that day can also be made accountable for the events, and how they might have perceived the same scenario. How may a performer portray these objects to simulate strange human-object hybrid states? A surreal re-enactment in which all are involved in a ‘questioning’ or court hearing of sorts focused on the incidents, a literal reading of the ‘parliament of things’ as discussed by Bruno Latour. This is a trajectory I hope to return to in some form. Thinking more about the human performance and interpretation of objects in this way, I also began toying with ‘hybrid’ states and their application through materials, object and performance.

I have been working with Vinamold – a hot melt vinyl material for mould-making and casting.

It is a recyclable material which can be used repeatedly by reheating once the mould has has surpassed its use, and the fine detail it replicates is extremely defined.

It is an unusual material to work with. It has the texture of flesh and cuts the same way. It melts quickly in a frying pan to a deep red liquid and flexes to release itself from the objects it casts. It lives in an eerie liminal state as it hardens, moving from this moulten, viscous object back into its rubber-like form. The objects it engulfs harness these same qualities in mould form. These tests with a spray bottle cap capture all the qualities of an industrialised plastic form rendered in an amorphous and alien-esque material. A state of non-belonging to either world.

Back in April, I conducted a project exploring the subversion of gendered objects through material. This extended investigations into the ‘Technophallus’ – the merging of male virility designed into electrical objects. I focused on power tools as a central area for this understanding of culturally designed ‘maleness’ through objects.

Using materials like silicone rubber, wax and sand, these objects were intended to breed uncomfortable new understandings of this ‘industrial design language’ of power tools when presented to working people who use them daily. These discussions took place in the Trades Hall working men’s club in Harrogate, and generated a number of interesting debates around the role of design in defining the nature of work and male/female culture.

Once again, I am fascinated by the in-between state that a material like the silicone rubber or Vinamold is able to generate, especially when blended with component objects to create otherly collections and uncanny combinations. Through this experimentation, I have been considering its design implications through a lense of vital materiality, as outlined by theorists like Jane Bennett, and in relation to practices explored by performance researchers such as Baz Kershaw.

Kershaw’s 2005 project ‘Being In-between’ became of particular interest to me. A collaboration at Bristol Zoological Gardens with Movement Director Sandra Reeve, the project was described as “enhanc[ing] public perception of the dynamics and interdependence between primates, plants and humans…”¹. Two performers used the Gardens as a stage to enact human-animal encounters with the visitors and the other animals, attempting to bridge the gap between these organisms and create new understandings of the zoo environments.

Images: Copyright Drew Yapp, from Reeve, S. ‘Being in Between’ (2005), Co-Directed by Baz Kershaw, from ‘Move into life with Sandra Reeve’ https://www.moveintolife.com/being-in-between.html

The advertising poster for the project introduces a beautiful statement:

“Two trans-humans, not quite sure of who or what they might be…”²

This, I think, frames a vitally important process for exploring new human understandings to design for. Through a combination of performative encounters and material manipulations, we can begin to open up new terrains in these ‘trans’ states. The beauty of a performance like ‘Being In-between’ is in the naivety the performers adopt, utilising understandings of movement and public interaction, they sense and explore through a primal perception of the world, as if discovering it anew. With the uncertainties of an animal plunged into an alien landscape, explorations of these liminal states can take place. The performer becomes, very literally, the in-between of multiple worlds, translating between a range of materials and organisms within the space.

I briefly played with this notion while out walking by the river near home:

Thinking about the performance of the object and my intervention in the space, I tried to place myself in a number of different perspectives to become an ‘other’ in those environments. Trying to live like a wall might suggests a hyrbid state. A becoming that cannot be achieved except through the endurance of the performer in the moment and the belief created in the audience, if there need be an audience…

In the same way that the Vinamold is able to create hybridised altered states of otherwise familiar objects, these games in the landscape move somewhere to other kinds of hybrid state between object-organism. Strange fictions can begin to take place as we explore the material potential of these malleable states. When manipulating this material in the kitchen, I was reminded of ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ (1896) by H.G.Wells. Wells’ novel, aside from being a warning to his contemporaries delving into the depths of geneological exploration, is filled with references to the uncanny and the liminal in horrific guises. Just as Moreau’s attempts to isolate the gene that separates human from animal leads to hideous mutations in his subjects, I too have been isolating and combining objects into unusual hybrid states through these casting materials. Taking found objects and applying them to the strange, organic-like qualities of the Vinamold until they too are ‘unsure of who or what they might be’. What stories may they have to tell of these ventures? What voices might their new materials speak of their uses and of their users in past lives? What political understandings do they generate in these new states?

Jane Bennett has an expressed interest in “found objects [which] can become vibrant things with a certain effectivity of their own.”³ noting how artistic practice is adept at signifying and translating the relationships between objects. There is a process of mediation at work, once again the ‘in-between’ state bridging the alien-ness between things and intervening through fluid material states. Nothing is fixed. Nothing, perhaps, should ‘belong’ anywhere.

¹Reeve, S. ‘Being in Between’ (2005), Co-Directed by Baz Kershaw, from ‘Move into life with Sandra Reeve’, https://www.moveintolife.com/being-in-between.html

²Reeve, S. ‘Being in Between’ (2005), Co-Directed by Baz Kershaw, from ‘Move into life with Sandra Reeve’, https://www.moveintolife.com/being-in-between.html

³Bennett, J. from Shana MacDonald, ‘The city (as) place: Performative remappings of urban space through artistic research’ in ‘Performance as Research: Knowledge, Methods, Impact’ [ed. Arlander, A; Barton, B; Dreyer-Lude, M; Spatz, B.] (2018) Routledge: New York, pp. 278

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s