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  • Writer's pictureSuzy Costello, workbooks

MFA, March 14-20 2021

Research and discussion on Agency, Making artwork responding to Agency, Critique of artwork responding to Materiality, Discussion with Simon Morris.


Definition of Agency (Cambridge dictionary) -

Shannon's talk on Agency - Shannon presented a slideshow describing Agency within a political framework and the ability of the artist to respond to and affect the important events of our time. It generated much discussion about the importance of the artist's role as a vehicle for those voices under-represented and marginalised within our communities, and the ethics guiding this practice.

Readings -

(a) March, P.L. Playing with clay and the uncertainty of agency. A Material Engagement Theory perspective. Phenom Cogn Sci18, 133–151 (2019). perspective.pdf

Describing that sweet spot in creative making is difficult yet Paul March, a clinical psychologist and clay maker, succinctly articulates it in his essay Playing with clay and the uncertainty of agency (2019). He examines the process of art making through the lens of MET; Material Engagement Theory.

Paul argues against Aristotle's hylomorphic model that has permeated western culture with the notion that separates creation into three parts - form (morphe), matter (hyle), and an "active agent to conceive of an idea and then to impose it on passive matter" (March 134). He asks us to reconsider our role as active agent on passive matter, referencing Barandiaran's dilemma that "the neat agent-environment split (...) is challenged by questions of co-dependence between the two" (March 135).

Instead Paul proposes, "sense and form are re-cursively co-dependent, creating an experience that is unmediated by language", and where the emergence of form is "embedded in the physicality of the artistic practice" (March 134-5). Instead of describing objects as form and shape (noun), Paul asks us to experience them "as a series of gestures and actions" (verb) (March 134). He describes Tim Ingold's idea of a network of action between all things i.e. where there is no form but rather a continuous reforming of things with other things, that are constantly leaking and 'thinging'.

Paul states, "Agency emerges only when these elements come together to form actual networks and becomes distributed symmetrically across those networks" (March 135). That is a big YES from me and correlates with my experiences when engaging with materials. Paul describes this as hylonoetic - the space of human becoming, or metacognition - that he witnesses when sculpting clay;

"the work of sculpting proceeds with a 'feeling of and for clay' which emerges in the activity between my hands. The feelings are simultaneously both conceived and experienced by this manufacturing system. In addition, they are available for examination. I want to call this 'meta-emotion' (having thoughts and feelings about feelings)" (March 136).

During his play with clay, Paul describes how he sits with moments of uncertainty and anxiety as he releases the notion of active agent. As he becomes atuned with the material, and his sense of ego and separateness falls away, he writes about the ability to withstand uncertainty. For me, these moments of uncertainty are a pivotal point in the art making process - a moment of surprise and creativity that emerges between a shared agency. This is the crux of art; a place in my being, devoid of language, yet experienced fully through my senses that are completely attuned to their encounter with other things.

Material Engagement Theory offers us another way to be. MET dethrones the dominance of semiotics and language that threatens our ability the feel. It calls forth a responsiveness that allows us to re-engage with our human-ness.


This is my response to Agency - that which emerges "when elements come together to form actual networks and (agency) becomes distributed symmetrically across those networks" (March 135).

It is inspired by the mark making evident in Recalibrate and is based on the concept of diffraction (the bending of light through an aperture or around an obstacle), an idea often used in Material Engagement Theory to describe creativity in the artmaking process.

I have upended the stick used in the last installation, resting it delicately on one of the pillars that hold up the ceiling and enables the space within the room to exist. The stick's presence, felt on the concrete floor, has been transformed into water ripples emanating from their shared point of contact. Nothing exists in isolation, each thing is connected with other things.

As the ripples meet the pillar, the pillar's agency alters the ripples, causing them to bend and diffract. This diffraction is evident on the other side of the pillar.

The marks are made using white and black pastels to contrast with the mid tone grey of the floor. Even as I drew these circular marks on the floor (guided by pencil marks and measurements using string and ruler) I was affected by the way the uneven surface and cracks in the floor influenced where the pastel would imprint itself. I enjoyed the sensation of drawing circular marks, and noticed how the increasing size of the circles required larger and larger movements involving my whole body.

The physicality of the pillar was always apparent, impeding my movements and interrupting the circularity of the drawing. It puzzled me how water would respond to such an obstacle? I watched the video below to try to understand the physics of waves meeting obstacles which helped, as did the other readings, but when I started to draw the ripples around the pillar it was more of an instinctive response of a liquid matter yielding. As I continued to draw I understood that over time the water would be able to engulf the pillar.

Instinctively I found myself drawing the diffraction ripples in white in contrast to the initial dark ripples resulting from contact between the stick and the floor. These white lines seemed to make the pillar sink into the ground? Once I had drawn those lines, other lines began to appear emanating from around the pillar, which seemed another phase of the ripples. It was hard to know how far to continue the mark making and ripple spreading. Already it seemed to be way beyond the initial energy released in the stick's contact with the floor. I decided to stop just as the waves were forming around the pillar.

While I was making the marks, I found myself wondering how was agency evident in the work beyond its conceptual basis? The best I can offer is that there was agency in the surface of the concrete which both the pastel and I responded to; the agency of the pillar, walls and space within the room which exerted their presence on me; the agency of circular marks radiating forever outwards; the nature of water to spread, engulf and envelope in an ever changing, constantly moving manner; and my own delight in mark making.

As always, there were moments of confusion encountered during the art making process i.e. how to create larger and larger circles? how does water respond to obstacles? when should I stop following the apparently ceaseless movement of the ripples to spread? Each moment of indecision required a different response, but I have learnt when to push through by trial and error and when to pause and consider. What has surprised me is the enjoyment I feel in working through these moments of uncertainty and the delight in a sense of being that is guided within a framework of responsiveness towards other things.

Links -

This picture shows the diffraction wave pattern as water meets an obstacle. John and I were leaning over a bridge in Upper Hutt and to my surprise, this is what I saw below me. You can see the ripples spreading out along the sides of the concrete block and the beautiful diffraction pattern on the top of the block as the waves interfere with each other. Wow!


These are the responses from the crit to my artwork on materiality:

  • elemental works all together

  • black wood birdlike, delicate

  • incongruous relationship between works, we try to put them together but how do they relate - femiticising/fiminising?

  • relationship between cracked floor, straight lines and rocks - control/nature, organic/manufactured, stifled?

  • we can't affect the work in this space - basement, cold atmosphere

  • relationship to work from Bartley & C - a clear response to the piece

  • boarderless wood - asserting use of actual materials found from the beach, gives objects life - do you want the audience to know their context?

  • what do you want the audience to get from these pieces? relationship between physical materiality and meaning/thought as material comes through the works

  • journey between here and there - does the process charge or diminish power of these objects? what happens to the materials afterwards? these objects have a story

  • process is more important - meaning is imbued during process, do you want to relive your experience at the beach? gallery gives a different sense about the objects - does it change the artist's intention?

  • new materiality - agency of objects, thingness of things., why these objects? this work opens up these conversations

  • objects, journey of objects, their story. The objects carry their experience of being here into the rest of their existence. Disruption of journey from the mountain, erosion, journey put on hold

  • just like water that can turn into 3 forms, stone does too, along its journey the stone changes from rock into rock-forms, stone, pebbles and sand, then rock.

  • These stones have a place, south coast, lower north island

I enjoyed watching people walk around the works to engage with them, at times kneeling to inspect the materials closely.

The discussion of the work was full-bodied and critical. It raised questions about the ethics of bringing natural materials into a gallery setting, how this might interrupt their natural journey, and what happens to the material afterwards. Food for thought.

The number of works presented and their relationship to each other seemed to confuse and unsettle the audience, and made me realise this is something I need to consider more thoughtfully. I had assumed the audience would appreciate the materials were sourced from the seashore around Wellington harbour and, given the assignment was on materiality, this was the discussion of the artwork.

Winona's comment, that the process of making art was the artwork, was very interesting and generated a discussion about whether the work's purpose was to relive my daily walks between the shore and mountains. This was part of my intention, poorly realised because I hadn't completed the black wood sculpture, and it made me understand that I needed to articulate to myself more clearly what the work's intention is.

I did feel that as a group, the critique quickly jumped to meaning and content rather than describing the sensory experiences when encountering the materiality of the artwork. This disappointed me - no one mentioned the weight of the stones and how it affected them and the space, and I was left wondering about the Oscar Wilde quote Sontag used to open her essay Against Interpretation -

"It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible" (Oscar Wilde).


Simon met me in the studio to discuss my work to date as I was uncertain how the works were linked together and how they might propel me into further artmaking. It was so helpful. We discussed the ideas of engaging with material, agency in the face of impermanence, geometric patterns and confidence in engaging and directing audiences during critique to attend to the materiality of the installation.

Simon felt the four works of art (I think he felt the cobalt prints were strong enough to be a separate work) were a good springboard for future art making. This gives me lots of confidence to move forward.

We discussed the dynamics of engaging with materials and spoke of Kate Newby's approach to art making i.e. process and materiality and claiming the space she is operating in (i.e. antagonising buildings). Simon shared his experience of being involved in Kate's recent exhibition YES TOMORROW!, sitting with a piece of cold damp clay draped over his thigh, waiting for it to harden. He enjoyed this unique approach to engaging with others and the discussions generated by sitting together as the clay became cold on his skin and slowly hardened - it was an unusual but direct approach Kate used to engage with time and materiality. We chatted together about our approach to materials and Simon shared his experience of creating ash pigment from the organic materials growing on his site and how as an artist this integrity to place and material is important.

We both have a shared experience of holidaying in Japan and I showed Simon the indigo fabrics I had purchased while in Nozawa. As a colourist, I thought Simon would enjoy the variety of indigo hues, from deepest black to the white of the cotton. These are very old hand dyed and woven fabric pieces from kimono made nearly 100 years ago on small home looms. These looms dictate the narrow width of the fabric, and the pieces are so well made that I could only identify front and back due to the wear patterns on the fabric. We discussed how I had collaged the pieces together and the shibori technique used to join them.



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