Material Collective@BABEL 2012

And so we’re back. Adjusting to life after BABEL once again. The first time, in Austin, Material Collective was just being born, just emerging into the world. In Boston, we gathered the hordes to think together about fragmentation and collectivity, time and matter, art and bodies.

Afterwards, we returned to our cities and towns, to our laptops and iPads, to find stories of our encounters. This is just one more note to add to what Jeffrey Cohen, Mary Kate Hurley, Eileen Joy and Steve Mentz have already written so eloquently about. Just another part of the hoard.

The Material Collective sponsored a pair of sessions on the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest bunch of Anglo-Saxon metalwork ever found. We loved that it was something both singular and collective that offered endless possibilities for collective insight. Personally, I also loved that it was found by Terry Herbert, a metal detector enthusiast. Herbert is not a professional archaeologist—just the kind of person to be considered an outsider by most academics. My cup of tea.

And so, our two sessions, Hoarders and Hordes, each served a different purpose. The first allowed us to speak from disciplinary positions and offered a space for those perspectives to dialogue. We were incredibly lucky to have Brian Castriota whose paper “Mediating Meanings: Conservation of the Staffordshire Hoard” allowed us to meet the hoard up close and personal. Brian shared his gorgeous photos, asking us to think about the process, value, and meaning of conservation and cleaning. He set the stage for much of our conversation by considering how the act of removing dirt from the objects would inevitably highlight certain features of the hoard as well as gesturing toward specific users and groups over others. My favorite single word from Brian’s talk: hauntological.

From there, Karen Overbey allowed us to hover at the level of matter, examining “Garnets, Gold, and Dirt” with her usual sophistication and beauty. She surprised us with her comparison to Japanese artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, who she promises to blog about soon. Just when we thought we were able to contain and control the matter of the hoard, Nancy Thompson and Ben Tilghman gave the objects voice. Nancy shared a moving reading of their collaborative paper, “The Hoard Speaks,” which nearly brought me to tears. Our flaneur, Jane Bennett, picked up on the idea that objects experience a history even in the absence of human beings, remarking on the resonant choice of the word “trill” to describe the sound that the gold pieces made as they rattled around in “the bellies of dead beasts.”

Jennifer Borland and Louise Siddons juxtaposed medieval and modern hoards, using a visual narrative of amazing images to evoke the concept of collectivity in a direct, visceral way. Their paper, “From Hoards to the Hoard: Giving Disciplinary Legitimacy to Undisciplined Collecting,” touched on the work of contemporary artists who use collections—and even trash—to comment on the material world. Much of what they had to say reminded me of Vik Muniz’s amazing photography, which I promise to blog about soon.

The first session ended with a fantastic visual response to the hoard, by Graphic Novelist Charles Fetherolf. Fetherolf’s drawings imagined a scenario that could have brought the hoard into being. Depicting a dramatic military confrontation between a dominant, Christian culture on the one hand, and a more ragtag, barbaric one on the other, he gave us a picture of the hoard as a casualty of war. He chose to highlight certain pieces—the processional cross, a handful of loose stones, and the folded cross—that presented the objects as so much physical detritus of a real, human encounter on the Mercian battlefield.

I was particularly heartened by positive responses to our Performative Think-Fest, which was successful in engaging the whole audience rather than limiting the Q&A to a few individuals. We hope to publish the results soon, so I won’t spoil the surprise.

As our horde travelled across the hall, we reconvened for the second session, in which we highlighted collaboration. Each presentation combined disciplinary and personal perspectives, with remarkable results. Jennifer Borland described the successes and challenges of her collaborative work with artist Barbara Robertson, while Diane Marks and Gale Justin shared their experience as long-time collaborators, who have worked across disciplines for more than 30 years. Asa Mittman materialized Patricia McCormack in virtual form, presenting an amazing piece on the cyborg nature of medieval warriors’ gear. Their paper shone with the reflective surfaces of the hoard’s gold, analyzing how the metalwork might have fused with medieval bodies, resulting in superhumanly powerful shining warriors.

Daniel Gurnon, a biochemist, shared his collaboration with our own Anne Harris in their paper, “Stimulacrum: Virtual Stones and Real Desires.” Anne’s text asked us to consider the role of anamorphosis, using Holbein’s Ambassadors as a point of reference, and Dan took us from there into the micro. Explaining that anamorphosis is a tool used in his field to allow scientists to see things that might otherwise be impossible to perceive, he amazed us with his films of expanding and contracting time. His description of working with artists to depict the tiny things that he studies also showed how closely intertwined the making of art can be with other ways of perceiving the physical and visual world.

Carlee Bradbury, Karie Edwards, and Courtney Lee Weida shared their amazing collaborative project Violent Remains. Reconstructing a hoard of tween girl artifacts in Edwards’ basement, they created an installation and a series of photographs in response to the hoard. They also gave a touching reading of the links between medieval warfare and modern bullying.

As we considered the hoard together, human violence kept resurfacing. But our collaborative work was more like the opposite of violence. Our conversations, our cooperation was made most vivid for me when Lowell Duckert described the overall theme of the conference in one word: Romance. Beautiful. Perfect. The comingling, the conflicts, the pleasure, the tension. May our academic love affair remain passionate until we meet again.

Hoard Photos

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5 Responses to “Material Collective@BABEL 2012”

  1. Jennifer Borland September 27, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

    So eloquent, Maggie. Thank you.

  2. Asa Mittman September 27, 2012 at 12:56 pm #

    A beautiful evocation of our lovely sessions. Thanks so much for writing this!

  3. Anne Harris September 27, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

    The liveliness of discussion is palpable in this great post! Dan and I just had lunch and our conversation picked up right where it had left off: turning over words of an increasingly shared vocabulary: anamorphism, metaphor, scale (of space and time) – and today: originality and sincerity. May the hoard continue to be on the move!

  4. Lowell Duckert September 27, 2012 at 4:23 pm #

    May it! And the fact that the romance of the last plenary was felt in such a beautiful, *collective* space. Thanks for this, Maggie.


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