The Materiality of Nothing

This was an interdisciplinary symposium, held at Lancaster University, UK, about the immaterial/intangible, which aimed to bring together people with different perspectives to negotiate the imperceptible.

The seminar was introduced by Dr Sarah Casey – Lecturer in the Lancaster (University) Institute for the Contemporary Arts but also an artist who explores the limits of visibility and material existence.


Sarah Casey Murmur #3 – 

Sarah asked us why we should consider the materiality of nothing, answering her own question by saying that ‘no’ thing implies the lack of ‘some’ thing and suggested that we tend to step around the intangible rather than try and deal with it directly, as exemplified by the Romans who didn’t have a zero in their numerals.

But as Sarah told us invisibility and immateriality are different. On reflection I would have liked a bit more discussion about this. On her website she asks  “at what point does visibility disappear and drawing become immaterial?”

In her introduction Sarah asked us to consider how we create something out of nothing and used erased drawings as an example of work that focuses on space and absence. With just a little research I can see that this topic has exercised a number of artists. For example Robert Rauschenberg explored the extent to which art could be created by removing marks rather than making them (see Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953) and a number of other artists have explored invisibility and aesthetic absence. Interestingly, during the day, as we listened to presentations I sat next to artist Gerry Davies who was almost continuously drawing in a small notebook. I was intrigued by how he used the rubber on the end of his pencil as much as the graphite, creating and removing marks in equal measure.

Sarah suggested that we need absence and space for imagination, interpretation and reflection. I found just this 10 minute introduction to the day fascinating and am grateful that Sarah and Lancaster University opened this seminar to the public.

There were many stimulating ideas to come out of the day, which I hope to find time to record in at least one future blog post. Although my understanding of much of what was talked about is very limited, I am intrigued by all the ways in which we can align ideas such as invisibility, absence, silence, immaterial, emptiness, speculative, contingency, indeterminacy, invisibility and nothing, to teaching and learning, particularly teaching and learning in the online environment where it is so easy to be invisible to each other. This has often been seen as a negative aspect of online learning, but maybe this is a short-sighted view.

For those who are interested in the programme for the day – here it is.

The Materiality of Nothing Programme 14th July

Drawing to think

I will start by saying that I do not draw to think, even though I do occasionally draw. I write to think, which is why I am writing this post. Let me explain.

Next week I will attend a one day symposium at Lancaster University on ‘The Materiality of Nothing’

The purpose of the symposium is ‘to extend conversations initiated by the AHRC funded ‘Dark Matters’ project which considered the provocations around Thresholds of Imperceptibility’ I attended the Dark Matters workshop at the end of last year and wrote a couple of posts about it.

For the symposium next week, the invitation from Sarah Casey included the following text:

The Materiality of Nothing is a one day symposium at Lancaster University bringing together practice and perspectives on negotiating the absent, unseen and unknown across art, science and social science. Across the arts and sciences that we call ‘zero’, ‘absence’ or ‘nothing’ remains a potent and powerful entity shaping the way we make sense of the world. It is staggering to reflect that 95% of our universe is invisible to human sensing; the provocation of the unknown and unseen is arguably at the core of creative thinking in the arts and sciences.

This event brings together a range perspectives on materialising the absent, unseen and unknown to reflect on the following questions:

  • How can ‘nothing’ be embodied?
  • How does it feel to encounter the immaterial and how might we negotiate it?
  • How might mathematics – as a speculative ‘messenger’ to and from the unsensed – be understood as a medium for generating touch and relationship (or not)?
  • How might absence, uncertainty be used as provocations and tool for creative thinking?
  • What can this offer in terms of understanding relationship and non-relationship, affect and non affect?

For me this resonates with my interest in Absent Presence and also in what Peter Shukie has called the ‘voice of the voiceless’. In other words, how can we give voice to the voiceless and how we can become more aware of the influences of what is not in plain sight?

A final paragraph in Sarah’s invitation asks us to ….

…. bring along a drawing , notebook or object that could be described as something you think with. The principal editor of Drawing Research Theory Practice Journal  published by Intellect has been in touch and is keen to link up this aspect of the symposium with the journal.

Hence the title of this post.

This invitation has highlighted for me that I do not draw to think, although I am interested enough in drawing to know that many people use drawing to think. Here are a few people that come to mind.

Marc Chagall’s sketchbook

Marc ChagallSource of image

Peter Checkland’s soft systems methodology rich pictures

soft-systems-methodology-for-solving-wicked-problems-5-638Source of image

Nick Sousanis – sketching entropy


Source of image

From the Research Theory Practice Journal website it is clear that the journal is interested in physical drawing as opposed to electronic drawing.

This journal seeks to reestablish the materiality of drawing as a medium at a time when virtual, on-line, and electronic media dominates visuality and communication.

This is interesting when artists such as David Hockney are using iPads for drawing. Hockney is on my mind at the moment as I will be going to see his portraits exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in September.

So knowing that I write to think, rather than draw to think, and knowing that the activity for the symposium next week really wants physical drawings rather than ’electronic’ drawings, I am a bit stumped. But I can only do what I can do, so I am taking along the following two examples of drawing/mapping that I do electronically.

ModPo footprints for paper 041013

This example above is how I think about and reflect on any given learning experience. I use the Footprints of Emergence framework which Roy Williams, Simone Gumtau and I developed for trying to understand learning in open learning environments. This has been published as a research paper.  The ‘footprints’ above reflect my experience in the Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC and were included in a book chapter that we published in 2015.

Williams, R., Mackness, J., & Pauschenwein, J. (2015). Using Visualization to Understand Transformations in Learning and Design in MOOCs. In A. Mesquita & P. Peres (Eds.), Furthering Higher Education Possibilities through Massive Open Online Courses (pp. 193 – 209). IGI Global book series Advances in Higher Education and Professional Development. doi:10.4018/978-1-4666-8279-5

The second example is a mapping exercise

enhanced Keywords screenshot 090716 for Lancaster course

For this I used a mapping tool developed by Matthias Melcher to trace the development of my thinking through my research papers. I blogged about it at the time.

I suspect that neither of these is considered examples of drawing to think, but they’re as close as I can get.

I am very much looking forward to the symposium next Thursday.

Interrogating Thresholds of (Im)perceptibility

In December (2015) I attended a highly stimulating event at Lancaster University (UK) and blogged about it.

Dark Matters – Interrogating thresholds of (Im)perceptibility through Theoretical Cosmology, Fine Art & Anthropology of science

At the event the research team, Rebecca, Sarah & Kostas, had a video running, explaining their project work from their different perspectives, but there wasn’t time during the event to watch it. At the beginning of this month, the team sent all attendees the link to the video.

Dark Matters – Interrogating thresholds of (Im)perceptibility through Theoretical Cosmology, Fine Art & Anthropology of science from Ourus on Vimeo.

This is a wonderful video, both for its content and its images. I can relate closely to it, because I have stood in the exact locations that the presenters were filmed in – but I can also relate to the idea of the imperceptible, the absent present, and what cannot be explained. I think these are very important ideas when thinking about learning and learning spaces.

If you have 25 minutes to spare, I can recommend watching the video.

There is also more information on their project website

Dark Matters: Exploring Thresholds of (Im)perceptibility

Screen Shot 2015-12-15 at 19.46.36

Dark Matters is a 1 year interdisciplinary project funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Science in Culture Innovation Award ’which has been exploring the provocations presented to physics, fine art and social science/philosophy by entities, forces and dimensions that exceed human and technological modes of sensing and comprehension.’

The project team comprises Rebecca Ellis (anthropologist), Sarah Casey (artist) and Kostas Dimopoulos (cosmologist), all based at Lancaster University and supported by an Advisory Group made up of 2 theoretical cosmologists, 2 fine artists and 2 social scientists.

The end of project workshop was held at Lancaster University this week and was open (free) to the public, so I went along, despite the fact that I knew very little about the topic. Surprisingly it was not necessary to have extensive expertise in physics, maths, social sciences or art history to enjoy the day and learn a lot from the wide range of speakers.

Even if you don’t know anything about dark matter (matter that cannot be seen and accounts for most of the matter in the Universe – 95% of the universe is invisible), it doesn’t take too much of a leap of the imagination to realise how significant this must be for thinking about our social and physical relations to the world, and to speculate on what might be the impact of the imperceptible, the unseen. These ideas resonate with my recent thinking about the Absent Presence in online learning, unheard voices and questions about what it is that we don’t/can’t see, how this might influence or affect online learning and learners, and whether or not we can or should try to make the unseen, seen.

The project team’s questions for the workshop were more challenging.

  • Is there a way to formulate imperceptibility, invisibility, insensibility beyond anthropocentric conceptions of knowledge production?
  • What might be the role of intuition and imagination in accounting for the imperceptible?
  • What are the roles of ‘proxies’ or ‘sentinels’ for approaching the imperceptible and what are their ontological status?
  • How do different scales and locations of imperceptibility challenge human levels of receptivity and responsiveness to current planetary challenges?
  • What does it mean to account for the imperceptible beyond technological limitations?
  • What might be the contribution of the arts in enhancing a critical sensibility to spaces in-between touch-non touch, feeling – unfeeling, knowing – not knowing?

Rebecca Ellis started the day by telling us that the imperceptible is more than invisibility beyond the human mind. The imperceptible might never be detectable, but can be speculated by mathematics. She referred to the work of Karen Barad on entanglement and nothingness and Levi Bryant on Dark Objects.

Kostas Dimopoulos told us about his contribution to the project as a cosmologist and pointed us to his recent article in The Conversation.

Sarah Casey discussed how she had approached the challenge of drawing the unseen, and drawing as a tool of investigation, drawing as bringing an idea into presence, drawing as drawing out and leaving a trace. Her work for the project was exhibited on the walls around us.


The first keynote was delivered by Roberto Trotto (theoretical cosmologist) and bore the title Cosmological Intangibles. Having now looked at his website I know why his keynote was so good. He is used to working with 10 year old children, i.e. avoiding jargon and making complex ideas accessible. He told us that what is visible is a matter of convention, because only a very narrow part of the electro-magnetic spectrum reaches earth. Our experience of the universe is limited by:

  • Scale and distance
  • Wavelength and energy which as humans we cannot see
  • Time delay
  • Intangible messengers

We use visualisation techniques and mathematical models to simulate dark matter, but we have to remember that visualisation is not neutral.

The next keynote was by Martin Kemp, Emeritus Research Professor in the History of Art at Oxford University, whose presentation focussed on Light Beyond Sight. His talk was illustrated with paintings by artists such as Michelangelo, Malevich and Piero della Francesca, which depict spiritual light, shifting sensory perception and the optics of uncertainty. He finished his talk by alerting us to the notion of visual deception, telling us that the eye is a deeply slippery deceptive organ.

We also had a keynote on radical indifference from Nigel Clark. I had difficulty following this talk, but the main question I took away was about whether the Universe is out there doing its own thing and if so will this make us more responsible, more ethical, open, moral human beings. Clark referenced Isabelle Stengers who in her work on cosmopolitics wrote that the earth is indifferent to the questions we ask. He recommended reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Fugitives by Anne Michaels. Also in this session was mentioned the work of the light artist James Turrell. This video was not shown as part of this workshop, but perhaps it is relevant, particularly since Turrell says that light has different behaviours when we’re looking!

Other speakers during the day were all very interesting and all challenged my thinking.

Klaus Mecke and Aura Heydenreich – ELINAS, Erlangen. ‘How is the unknown conceptualised?’

Neal White – Bournemouth University

Jol Thomson, Technische Universität Braunschweig, and Sasha Engelmann, University of Oxford. Their talk was about neutrinos and the Ice Cube Neutrino detector. ‘The limits of our imagination determine what we can and cannot see.’

Fiona Crisp – Northumbria University. ‘How does art purposively engage with other disciplines?’ She talked about productive doubt and negative capability (John Keats)  ‘Meaning is shaped and constructed rather than received and observed.’

Finally, the keynote from Barry Smith explained that the purpose of the projects within the AHRC’s Science in Culture theme was to promote collaborative research between the arts and sciences to speed up innovation and promote new research agendas. He gave us an overview of the other projects that have been funded and pointed out that each project was subject to the 4 Cs of communication, confusion, conflict and collaboration. Interdisciplinary conversations have been challenging not only because dark matter is imperceptible, invisible and intangible, but also because we do not have a cross disciplinary shared language with which to discuss it. There are emotional connections to words in different disciplines. It was suggested that we need an embodied reaction to depict sense of something that is beyond our grasp.

This post has only skimmed the surface of the workshop discussion and conversation. Hopefully more information will be provided on the project website in time.