Published in Writing and Concepts, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne, 2019, p.p 96-101.
This essay has been adapted from a talk as part of the Writing and Concepts series, at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art on Thursday 24 August, 2017.
The aim of our presentation at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in 2017, was to explore three directions or trajectories stemming from the idea of work or working. These directions were both orientated by, and reflected on how we work together as a collaborative group, the artwork we’ve produced, and what we endeavour to mobilise through this work. In this essay we will focus on the latter–what is mobilised through the practice.
We have approached this mobilisation from the perspective of our interest in sculpture as an experiment with material-force relations. This interest led us to Museums Victoria, back in 2011, in order to make a mould of a Henbury iron meteorite. In the process of moulding the meteorite we came to understand how its surface registers the events of its formation: its splitting from a larger iron mass, the intensity of collisions with other asteroids, and the vortices of hot gases causing the ablation of its surface as it fell through the earth’s atmosphere. The meteorite highlights the temporal dimensions of matter, as a duration that exceeds easy comprehension, and a conceptualization of spatiality beyond anthropomorphic preoccupations.
It is not only the wealth of specimens in the museum's archive that has drawn us back there on several occasions, but also the generosity of the museum staff. It is their knowledge of the narratives around the collection of particular specimens, alongside their historic and scientific significance, that has enabled us to connect material forms to specific social, economic and political formations. It is the convergence of these dimensions in each specimen, the connections they make apparent across vast periods of time, which intersect with specific places and the lives of individuals. It is these intersections that we have sort to mobilise through an expanded understanding of the composition of material-force relations.
To explore this expanded sense of the assemblage of materials and forces this essay draws on an understanding of formation, as a continuous process of modulation, developed by Gilbert Simondon . In particular we focus on Simondon’s examination of individuation, a key concept in his understanding of the dynamic movement of forces and materials as a process of emergence or becoming. Through this understanding Simondon replaces the notion of form and formation with the concept of continual modulation, allowing us to think about individuation as a process of becoming rather than an operation that imposes form on matter. The problematic tensions, from which Simondon’s understanding of formation arises, highlights the precarity of both the geological and social assemblages they give rise to. Neither stable nor unstable, the endlessly mobile potential of these assemblages are in a process of continuous modulation. This mobility has informed our practice and approach to the production of work across a range of activities including; sculpture, engaging with institutions, fieldwork, publications and the collaboration itself.
Through an extended investigation of the Museums Victoria geosciences collection, we came to appreciate the complex foldings between the temporality of geological formations and human scaled time. It is the collision of these processes that informs the social and political forces that shape territories and stories across the continent. Our notion of the archive may be understood broadly as the collection or capturing of fragments, material and otherwise, that extends from museum collections and libraries, to geological formations and even the memories that form our own personal and social histories. We apply a similar relationship or regime to each of these; to a rock, a collection, a person.
These archives are not static, rather they are a mechanism through which events of the past collide in the present; past events remain generative as they meet new presents. While the archives hold traces of the geological or social forces that shape their initial categorisation or organisation, they also have the capacity to live on in the absence of these original intentions. Working with these archives has allowed us to explore a potential other than what is already inscribed within them. In mobilizing fragments of the archive we seek to unleash its feverish, generative power .
Working in the geosciences collection at Museums Victoria we developed a process for diagramming this expanded notion of the archive. Through prolonged conversations with museum staff we explored the multiple narratives that augment the specimens in the museum collection. Narratives ranging in scale and type from the geological processes that formed the east coast of Australia, to brick making and the emergence of the labour movement in Brunswick.
We followed threads from this initial work at Museums Victoria out into the field, to sites of geological and social significance, themselves material archives. For example, we travelled to the Cape Liptrap formation on the Gippsland coast where the exposed rock face reveals sedimentary deposits from 400 million years ago, to the Yallourn open cut coal mine and the associated Brown Coal Museum in the Latrobe Valley, and to the Les Barnes Local History Room at the Brunswick library.
As we went we constructed our own archive, an array of photographs and texts organised within Evernote and Google Drive. The OSW archive compiled together various sources in a manner that allows a rock to sit next to a conversation or a social movement, bringing these various fragments into relation. Within this stratigraphic assemblage each element has the potential to activate the context or situation within which it is mobilised. This idea of mobilisation, as activating new connections which in turn give rise to new assemblages and formations, can be productively understood through Simondon’s notion of individuation.
Simondon regards form taking as a process or event that places an emphasis on temporal appearance rather than the constitution of an individual or a secondary presentation. He writes, individuations are ‘a resolution springing from a metastable system that is filled with potential’ (7). The encounter between a metastable situation and a singularity, or a constitutive difference, initiates a process of becoming through an exchange of energy or information. From this process emerges a provisional individuation as a solution to a problematic incompatibility.
The nonsubstantial philosophy of individuation developed by Simondon allows Gilles Deleuze to reformulate his understanding of art away from the realm of interpretation to a capturing of forces. This is the trajectory Anne Sauvagnargues charts through Deleuze’s writing, noting, ‘it is no longer a question of signifier or signified, nor form or matter, but forces and materials, in accordance with Simondon’s principle of modulation’ (2013, 39). Modulation reformulates the understanding of moulding, from a form that is imposed onto matter, to one of alteration that takes into account the shifting conversion of energy from one relay to another. This is a process of individuation in which a pre-existing form does not meet previously constituted matter.
As Pascal Chabot notes, Simondon’s approach to individuation, as a problem-solving strategy, emphasises the individuating operation (97). For example, he investigates depth perception in binocular vision as a solution to the problem of the incompatibility of retinal images. The left and the right eye produce asymmetrical images that ‘do not coincide due to the differences in parallaxes’ (Sauvagnargues 2016, 63). The resolution of this incompatibility results in the formation of a new dimension which retains the irreducible disparity of the two images (Sauvagnargues 2016, 64). This solution creates something new by elevating the inherent heterogeneity, rather than overcoming this tension. Simondon borrows the term 'disparation' from the psycho-physiology of perception to describe this individuating operation, and extends it beyond the visual field to a general process of becoming. This approach to problem solving is an important aspect of our working processes in terms of how we work as a collective. One enduring principle we have mostly managed to practice is that we keep working, experimenting etc. until we come up with a solution that we are all happy with. It is rarely the case that we opt to resolve the disparity in our views through a process that synthesises the difference or subsumes the contradiction.
This is also the case in terms of how we work with a disparate range of materials and objects; we seek to maintain the differences between elements, holding them in a productive tension. This productive tension was particularly important in the Converging in time project where our research had collected together a large number of objects and narratives. What Simondon’s understanding of individuation emphasises is that ‘no substance can exist or acquire determinate properties without relations to other substances and to a specific milieu. To exist is to be connected. … a becoming in action’ (Chabot 77). It is these multitudes of connections that we seek to mobilise through our practice.
When working with the geosciences collection at Museums Victoria a number of specimens became key to the Converging in time project. These included a 23 million year old Kauri fossil log excavated from La Trobe Valley open cut coal mines, a sea lily fossil found in the clay pits of West Brunswick, a fragment of greenstone from the Wurrundjerri quarry at Will-im-ee-mooring (Mount William), and saléeite, a secondary uranium mineral from the Ranger Uranium mine in the Northern Territory. Through our discussions with staff, we became aware of how the geological record is entangled with complex social, economic and political forces, and the role these forces played in shaping various territories.
A series of diagrams developed with museum staff unpack the manifold processes, histories and narratives multiplying from each specimen. Through this mobilisation these diagrams became a ‘score’ which informed our excursions into other archives, texts and locations across Victoria, as well as informing a range of sculptural processes that we elaborated in the studio. For example, the sea lily (crinoid) fossil, unearthed in the Hoffman clay pits in West Brunswick in 1903, was the focus of mobilising an understanding of location.
Crinoids are small marine animals that existed in superabundance during the Silurian era 400 million years ago. During this time the eastern coast of Australia was forming through submarine landslides. The sediment that collected at the base of the continental slope buried the crinoid life forms in layers of silt, giving rise to both the clay deposits and the fossil itself.
This geological deposit developed into a small plateau stretching from the Moonee Ponds Creek in the west to the Merri Creek in the east, timbered with eucalypt trees. With poor drainage it was swampy terrain that the Woi wrrung (Wurundjeri) people managed as a source of Murnong (yam daisy). After decades of informal incursions by sealers, Batman’s ‘treaty’ of 1835 marked the beginning of systematic occupation of the region. Melbourne became the location from which much of southern and central Victoria was violently taken from its Aboriginal owners and subsequently colonised and exploited to support the growing city of Melbourne.
The abundant reserves of clay enabled a burgeoning brick industry in Brunswick to respond to the rapid growth of Melbourne in the late 1880’s, making it the brick making capital of Victoria. The demand for a large work force saw the population triple in 10 years. This was followed by a depression that exacerbated social divisions and gave rise to the Brunswick branch of the united labour party in 1897. One such pottery worker, John Curtin, later became the leader of the Labour Party in 1935 and served as the Prime Minister of Australia from 1941 to 1945.
Discovering these layers of history connected to the clay deposits and sea lily specimen transformed our understanding of this very familiar location. Our explorations into the many temporal, social and geological layers of this place–sparked by the sea lily fossil–effectively remapped our knowledge of the area. Through this remapping, existing experiences of place were mobilised into new assemblages opening onto extended temporal and geological durations that collide with material traces.
Similarly the greenstone specimen collected by the Geological Society of Victoria between 1853-68, also mobilises a different understanding of location through a rethinking of historic, social and political dimensions. For thousands of years Wurrundjerri people quarried greenstone (or volcanic diorite) from Wil-im-ee Moor-ing to make axe heads. The quarry was the centre of an expansive trading network of the Kulin nation that extended 700 kilometres into New South Wales, as well as into South Australia. In 1882 and 1884 Wurundjeri elder, William Barak, witnessed the final operations of the quarry, describing aspects of its custodial control to anthropologist, Alfred Howitt. It was not until 23rd October 2012 that, the land title of the Wil-im-ee Moor-ing quarry was handed back to Kulin elders; it is now under the control of the Wurundjeri Tribe Land Cultural Heritage Council.
In order to explore further the greenstone specimen and to understand its cultural significance we invited people who held the appropriate knowledge to speak about this object. This culminated in a bus trip to Wil-im-ee Moor-ing, instigated as a mobile symposium or workshop. This trip involved a number of speakers who gave commentary in transit, including: the director of Bunjilaka, John Patten; curator of Indigenous repatriation project at the Macleay Museum, Matt Poll; geologists from the School of Earth Atmosphere and Environment at Monash University, Julie Boyce and James Driscoll; acting Head of Sciences, Museums Victoria, Dermot Henry; and Emeritus Professor from Monash University and science fiction specialist, Andrew Milner. At the quarry, Wurundjeri Elder Ron Jones welcomed us to Country and gave a tour of the site.
This bus trip mobilised the multiple knowledges activated by the greenstone specimen and responded to their intersection, acknowledging its deep connection to Country and culture. The event expanded the workshopping aspect of our practice, engaging others in an unfolding of the histories through a dialogue that generated multiple threads from various archives. In the process we sort to maintain the tensions between these multiple perspectives remaining open to the modulating relationships they produce.
In considering the different forms of mobility activated through the Converging in time project, we have become acutely aware of the complex layering of timescales and durations evident in materials, museum specimens, social relations and place: constituting a temporal dimension to matter that exceeds easy comprehension. What was initially evident to us while casting the Henbury iron meteorite in 2011, was rediscovered in specimens such as the Sea Lily from the Brunswick clay pits and the greenstone from Wil-em-ee Moor-ing. The constellations of time formed through a mobilization of these specimens–spanning and bringing into relationship geological and social dimensions–begin to show how, as Dipesh Chakrabarty notes, ‘we seldom witness the bigger picture, we only access fragments–small shards of a larger, inaccessible whole, provisionally assembled’.
The precarity of these assemblages is consistent with Simondon’s idea of continuous modulation. This shifting field has informed our approach to the production of work, whether that is through sculptural processes, gathering information from the field, engaging with institutions and their archives, collating material for publication or working together. In assembling new material and social relations we have sought to maintain the inherent heterogeneity found within processes of individuation, bringing into focus the illusion of stability at any scale, and the metastable character of each individuation as it confronts the planet’s volatility.
1. Henbury iron meteorite, Museums Victoria collection. Photo OSW.
2. Installation view, Converging in Time, MUMA, 2017. Photo Andrew Curtis.
3. Partially fossilised kauri log (23 million years old) in storage at Museums Victoria. Photo OSW.
4. Brunswick pottery workshop1866, Brunswick public buildings, streets and residencies, c. 1866-67, Pictures Collection, State Library Victoria.
5. Cape Liptrap Formation, Gippsland, 2017. Photo OSW.
6. Aerial photograph, Latrobe Valley featuring Yallourn, Hazlewood and Loy Yang open cut mines, 2017, map data: Google, DigitalGlobe, CNES/Astrium.
7. Brown coal mine and township, aerial view, 1934, J.P. Campbell collection of glass negatives, Pictures Collection, State Library Victoria.
8. Fossilised fern, Museums Victoria collection. Photo OSW
9. Plasticine surface, Big Log Jam, Australian Experimental Art Foundation, 2011. Photo OSW.
10. Partially fossilised kauri log (23 million years old) from Museums Victoria collection, Converging in Time, MUMA, 2017. Photo Andrew Curtis.
11. Sea lily in Australasian Fossils by Frederick Chapman, 1914. Photo Museums Victoria.
12. Greenstone collected at Wil-im-ee Moor-ring, from Museums Victoria collection, Converging in Time, MUMA, 2017. Photo Andrew Curtis.
13. Saléeite from Museums Victoria collection, Converging in Time, MUMA, 2017. Photo Andrew Curtis.
14. Sea lily and associated diagram at Museums Victoria, 2013. Photo OSW.
15. Vitrified brick for chemical works made by Hoffman’s Brickworks from Museums Victoria collection, Converging in Time, MUMA, 2017. Photo Andrew Curtis.
16. Wil-im-ee Moor-ring greenstone quarry, Mt William, Lancefield, 2017. Photo OSW.
 Simondon is mostly known for his writing on the philosophy of technology and science, however he wrote across a wide range of subjects to expound a philosophy of individuation that addresses the blindness of philosophy, as Muriel Combs writes, ‘to the reality of being before all individuation’ (1). Simondon had a significant influence on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who utilised Simondon’s articulation of individuation to rethink the relationship of form and matter, in order to account for the conditions under which something new is produced.
 Claire Colebrook explores the capacity of inscriptions, understood in the broadest sense, that make up any archive to live on in the absence of any original intention. She emphasises the force with which they exceed the limits we wish to place on them, as their anarchic and untamed capacities (103).
Chabot, Pascal (2013), The Philosophy of Simondon, Between Technology and Individuation, translated by Aliza Krefetz and Graeme Kirkpatrick (London: Bloomsbury).
Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2017), ‘The Human and the Geological: On Anthropocene Time’ [public lecture] University of Technology Sydney. 17 August.
Colebrook, Claire (2016), ‘What is the Anthropo-Political?’ in Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols Tom Cohen, Claire Colebrook, J. Hillis Miller (London: Open Humanities Press) pp. 81–125.
Combes, Muriel (2013), Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual, translated Thomas LaMarre (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
Sauvagnargues, Anne (2013), Deleuze and Art, translated by Samantha Bankston (London: Bloomsbury).
Sauvagnargues, Anne (2016), Artmachines: Deleuze, Guattari, Simondon, translated by Suzanne Verderber and Eugene W. Holland (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).
Simondon, Gilbert (2009), ‘The position of the problem of ontogenesis’ translated by Gregory Flanders, Parrhesia 7, pp. 4–16. <http://www.parrhesiajournal.org/parrhesia07/parrhesia07_simondon1.pdf> (last accessed October 25 2017).