Fossils of Affect: Art and Materiality in the Anthropocene

The following was presented at ‘Performing Situated Knowledges: Space, Time and Vulnerability’ the 7th Annual Conference on New Materialisms in Warsaw, September 21st to 23rd 2016.


The aim of this paper is to present two forms of practice. Firstly, writing practices that aim to give words to thinking about the materiality of art as a means to theorising affect in the context of the anthropocene. This draws on the philosophy on Manuel DeLanda, his concepts of non-organic life and affect, a remaking of his ‘intensive thinking’ which draws on non-equilibrium thermodynamics.

The second element is the presentation of material art practices, which involve both ‘Sites’ and ‘Artefacts’. In the first instance, Sites refers to locations, to which I have made numerous visits, these locations and journeys are the initial materials for thinking about arts relation with the anthropocene, affect and temporality. In response to these sites, I have produced Artefacts, in the form of photographs, paintings and sculptures that are the fossils of affect.

It incorporates some previous writing and citations but also new material works. This paper is an attempt to synthesize recent writing practice and new material practice.

The relation between bone and rock, internal and external structures, organic and inorganic materials in Manuel DeLanda’s ontology is a key starting point my thinking around the issues of materiality, art and the anthropocene. Mineralization, the process of converting organic matter into a mineral or inorganic material, becomes a concept for thinking these transformative co-existences. If the production of bone and as DeLanda expands the term, in the production of an urban exoskeleton in the form of stone enclosures and monuments, it seems apt to propose that artefacts generally come about through a kind of mineralization in an expanded sense. Just like bone and urban enclosure, the mineralization of the artwork is a process where materialities reveal their transient intensivities.

In the present time, the anthropocene, humankind is becoming-geological on an expansive scale. Along with radionuclides, materials such as carbon, concrete and aluminium particles, plastics, increasing nitrogen and phosphate from sysnthetic fertiliser and domestic chicken bones have become the trace materials of a process of global mineralization. Human capacities for mineralising spread into the sediment of the earth. The anthropocene ia an assemblage of scaled transformations from micro trace elements, to visible material fragmentations to concepts that permeate and destabilize our modes of thought.

One of these de-stabilizations of relevance to my practices is the distinction between the organic and non-organic or inorganic and how we might contextualize DeLanda’s, Deleuzian inspired geo-philosophical idea of ‘non-organic life’. A theoretical extension of this is with Elizabeth Povinelli’s ‘geontology’ in which she refers to a ‘Carbon Imaginary’ – where this distinction of ‘life’ and ‘nonlife’ is troubled. The problem of ‘being’ is defined as ‘life-being’. Difference based on the metabolic processes of birth, growth/reproduction and death isolate ontology as a biontology with preference for life being. Povinelli gives insights into the reality that there is no more a bios and a geos any more than there is life and non life.


In the context of anthropocene as artefact and arts relation with materiality is the continuous transformation mineralization or fossilisation of affect. A kind of capturing of evaporating intensive processes. It is not just life that is animated carbon but also the dominant materials of the contemporary world are extracted from fossil fuels and petro-chemical derivatives. From pigments to plastics, concrete and technology, the materialities of art are a re-mineralisng to represent, capture, access and store the various modes of affect to which the human condition is linked and exposed.

In the DeLandian reading, affects are not just material bodily responses to a sensible and perceptible world but are intensive indeterminate events that animate matter itself. Such a definition of affect draws on the study of complexity, specifically through non equilibrium thermodynamics and what DeLanda terms intensive thinking. Intensive thinking is the study of materials or systems that are far from equilibrium with self-organising dynamics typically governed by singularities such as attractors and bifurcations. Materials far from equilibrium are characterised by differential relations and coupled rates of change in rapidity and slowness being cancelled over time. Intensive physical properties such as temperature or pressure, produce extensive physical properties such as length, area, volume or entropy. The material world emerges from morphogenetic processes structured by a realm of virtual multiplicities defined by ‘zones of indiscernibility’. It is, I am proposing, in these zones that affects emerge and disappear, leaving a residue of their intensity in the material form.

As differences are erased the material moves ever closer to equilibrium, producing entropy along the way. In a closed system that has a finite energy source, entropy increases to the point of equilibrium, while in an open system entropy can be offset maintaining internal structure, externalizing entropy. Pioneers Erwin Schrodinger and Ilya Prigogine began to reveal the nature of such far from equilibrium complexity as the intensive forces driving both living and non-living systems. More recently the MIT biochemist and physicist Jeremy England has proposed that the underlining physics of such systems is the ‘dissipation driven adaptation of matter’. The more energy dissipated, the more entropy produced, the more possibilities for transformation.

Beyond philosophical and scientific discourse, the concept of affect drawn from intensive thinking and dissipation driven adaptation of matter, forms parallels in art practices with the writing and practice of Robert Smithson. Smithson’s practice as a pioneer of Land Art placed considerable emphasis on the concept of entropy. Smithson develops the characterisation of entropy as innovation, where the structure and meaning slowly and inevitably collapse leading to creative and innovative change. Robert Smithson, proposes that ‘the entropic state is the state of artistic experience itself’, a material or affective entropy is embedded in artworks, in their processes of production, circulation and reception.


I want now turn to material practices. How these theories and written material are transformed into material things. Between the theory and the material things there is an interlocutor, specifically a site a place, a location to which I am connected, usually these sites come out investigations with my local environment, through a psycho-geographical drifting. Captured in embodied memory.




The site I want to take about briefly is a disused Fertilizer producing facility in Cork Harbour in Ireland. I grew up close to the location of the factory and have memories of it when it was still operating. My father worked at another site close by, a steel works, which has its own unique history and a site. Something I want to explore further is autobiographical psycho-geography. But for now I’ll give an account of this site through a recollection my drifting.




Hundreds of millions years ago at the end of the precambrian period the Irish landmass was not yet formed, it would be comprised of two separate drifting masses. What was then part of the Laurensian supercontinent that now forms the north american landmass and Avalonian drifting microcontinent, both then in the southern hemisphere. About 375 million years ago fragments of the Avalonian continent collided with Laurasia during a mountain building event known as the Acadian Orogeny, forming an island of foreign rocks which continued drifting northward, for a time submerged in the warm calcium rich sea. When it emerged, out of the rock grew tropical forests and swamps. Later still in the carboniferous period these organic materials turned back into rock. The coal and sandstone formed would be weathered by erosion in a desert climate as the drift continued.

The land on which I walked, part of the Avalonian landmass and formerly part of the continent Gondwana, consists of eroded and layered alluvial sediments and conglomerates of sandstone and shale. As the landmass drifted northward and the climate changed, glaciers grew, where their meltwater trickled, where they carved the land and left the architectonic islands and coastlines visible today. Those processes can be theorised but the drifting materialities only imagined.

At the mouth of Cork harbour, there are various industrial remains, a shipyard where defunct cranes reach, islands inhabited by navy barracks, by heaped contaminated earth from the dismantled steel works, a prison now tourist destination and heritage site. Further back stream a now defunct fertiliser factory sits in waiting for decay and dismantling.




As I drift in along the stony shoreline that leads to the entry point, making sure to move as if invisible the grey soil turns to concrete slabs where only once species of weed can flourish. It has forced its root into a stem, to rupture the concrete and expand its territorial monoculture. These concrete weeds seem at ease in this strange hybrid landscape.



Mirroring the trees and weeds that frame and penetrate the space, man-made structures that were contracted to control the environment have now themselves become an uncanny reflection of the patterns that only natural growth can create. Two rectangular concrete pillars with steel apparatus jutting out on either side form a bifurcating branching structure. The concrete structures share the same systems of meaning with the organic matter that overhauls, evicts and consumes it. Rusted metal scabs dangle from the concrete shrines like broken branches. They squeak and scrape the air as the winds begin to signal an approaching storm.




Among the ruins of industrial processes that were once worth all the effort, striped, vacant hangers, cosmic alters of concrete, distillation tanks, steel tubes and pipes re-unite with the veins of a reclamation process born underground.

The urea and ammonia that was once produced here for the purposes of regenerating and enhancing the soil, has become a forgotten thought, having long since seeped into the dry earth. The birth and death of this forgotten hinterland is embedded, not just in a geological history but also a human history that both grew and withered with the relentless current of the 20th century. This current grew stronger with the industrialization of the chemical world and the invention of synthetic dye, from guano to the white crystalline solids of ammonium nitrate. Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, two chemists, achieved the goal of synthesizing and mass-producing ammonia in the BASF plant at Oppau by 1911. By sucking nitrogen from the air, the Haber-Bosch process would allow the mass production of synthetic fertilizer to begin. The growth effect that would not be truly felt until after the carnage of two world wars had relented and the population growth caught up in a renewed and unhindered current.



A vast concrete chamber, like a subterranean cave under made from anthropic rock, is being drawn down into the earth by patination, but this patina is also growing up, out and around what has become an ambiguously permanent concrete fossil.



This malodorous hybrid material is formed from the remaining ammonia nitrate, the damp sea air, the decaying concrete, rust and pigeon excrement contributing new sedimentary deposits. These fossils, eroding up and layering down upon this industrial ruin are urolites, fossils created by urinary excretion.

This site is a physical manifestation, both in the mind and in the world, that the presumption of human progress is an ephemeral stream caught in a larger unknowable torrent, a torrent recognisable today through the decay of the organic world into inorganic ruin. These altars and monuments to soil fertility are now material traces of the anthropocene as artefact.



Moving out past the towering tanks and forcing my body through the overgrowth, I move out of the sheltered inter-zone towards the shoreline. The heavy wind disrupts my balance and pushes me out over the pier to confront the racing current. Off the pier and out along the shoreline, the pebbles and slippery rocks have replaced the dead soil and concrete. Amongst the washed up debris, a Ballardian ‘tree of life’ is an attendant to plastics of all varieties. Swept up to the high water mark by the ever-flowing torrent.



— In response to theory and sites…


The objects I make aim to evoke or capture the affects of our ‘becoming-geological’, evoking the dissipative nature of our material world in the form of a fossil conjoined with the past and the possible futures that are yet unmade. Carbon, concrete, plastic, fertiliser and bone deposits in the earth, sea and atmosphere are the material traces of shifting natureculture structures. As sediments of the anthropocene, these materials are enmeshed with the media of art.

My practice involves incorporating the various materials into the processes of painting and sculpture, works I have provisionally entitled ‘Anthropic Rock Artefacts’.  Found materials, sourced from sites are folded into a process in which paintings, (oil pigment, enamel on aluminium) are encased in wet concrete. The chemical process of hydration, as the concrete dries, reacts over the painting surface.



The result of this process produces a painting with a partially erased or ossified surface and a paired concrete sculpture that retains traces of pigment and found materials. The brittle nature of the concrete means that some sculptures are intact while some fragment and break into pieces.



A conceptual frame for thinking these objects is a twofold reading of the term ‘artefact’. The first sense, used in archaeology or anthropology, refers to an object of human making, a transformation of materials that carry cultural significance. The second sense, used in experimental science and data visualisation, refers to an anomaly or error caused by technical or digital apparatus. An error in virtual data is something that obscures data, an error of compression, a visual distortion in a digital image

So we have this idea of a virtual artefact embedded in a Material Artefact.

The materiality of art in the anthropocene is the transformation of matter on a vast scale, where complex entangled agencies do not succumb to conventional legible data but are instead a scattering of mutable traces of affects across space and time.

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