Physics and Metaphysics: Materials Scientists, Conservators, and Philosophers in Dialogue

posted on 04 Dec 2017 16:43 by swang
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To open the Active Matter Symposium, we heard from Admir Masic (MIT), Glenn Wharton (NYU) and Justin Broackes (Brown). You can watch the presentations here (link).

Admir Masic is a materials scientist and engineer working at the cutting edge of biomimetic technology. He presented some of his work examining natural materials across macro to nano scales. By understanding the underlying structures and affordances of natural materials, engineers can mimic these properties for tailored high-performance applications, e.g. in the manufacturing and medical fields. At the same time, this research informs the conservation and preservation field, improving our ability to care for historic materials as well as these newer developments. Admir described some of his research investigating the reaction of collagen to relative humidity, which directly relates to degradation phenomena observed in archaeological and historic parchment, and guides preventive conservation measures. Like materials scientists, conservators have a deep fascination with understanding the material world at the chemical/physical scale and seeing how material form and substance dictate function and ageing properties.

Glenn Wharton is a conservator and professor of Museum Studies at NYU. He has worked broadly in the field of conservation: on archaeological sites, in time-based-media, and more recently, working with artists on issues in the conservation of contemporary art. Glenn began by raising the point that “active matter” is not a term with a clear or fixed meaning in conservation, and so described several instances where conservators’ language and practice relate most closely to the concept as defined by other parties, of systems out of equilibrium. He cited case studies of “inherent vice”: self-destructing cellulose nitrate or acetate sculptures, well known in conservation as prime examples of “artists’ intent” foiled by the unavoidable consequences of material ageing. Along with their pure shock value, these cases bring up an important debate in conservation between the (here, irreconcilable) values of preserving original materials or the work’s original conception.

Second, examining time-based media conservation, Glenn highlighted the need for careful documentation of both the works’ materials and meanings. Like the philosophers who spoke later during the symposium, the practice of conservation here hinges on defining the necessary and sufficient qualities of the works, and understanding the properties from which they derive their identity. “Preservation through change” has become the mantra of time-based media conservators, as they face the challenge of determining how to maintain the ‘identity’ of works while negotiating changes forced by technological obsolescence. The refocusing of the language of conservation away from the term “authenticity” to “identity” deserves further scrutiny, just the sort of work BGC hopes to promote by bringing philosophers to the table.


Naum Gabo, Construction in Space ‘Two Cones’ 1968 © Nina Williams
"Tate Sculpture Replica Project," Jackie Heuman and Lyndsey Morgan. 2007. Tate Papers no.8 (part of a collection of papers for Inherent Vice: The Replica and its Implications in Modern Sculpture Workshop, held at Tate Modern, 18–19 October 2007, and supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.)

Justin Broackes is a philosophy professor at Brown, with a particular interest in the historic reception of Aristotelian ideas in the 17th-18th centuries, and matters of “substance,” color, and color-perception. Justin’s discussion focused on issues of change and identity: how have philosophers understood activity and transformation as they relate to matter’s persistence and identity?

Among the philosophical paradoxes Justin described, one is a favorite among conservators: the Ship of Theseus. If all of the timbers of a ship are replaced over a period of time, does the ship still retain its identity? If it’s never a wholesale rebuilding, but a little repair here and there until all of the original timbers have been replaced, can it be said to be the same? Understanding how identity is conserved despite change has been a fixation throughout time.

While coming from diverse perspectives, all three of the presentations raised questions about scale, space, and the mediation of time on materials. Going forward, we (conservators) need to engage more with metaphysics along with physics.

Jessica Walthew