Glenn Adamson on “Material Intelligence” and Why It Matters
The first attempts to create language around matter—at least in the tradition of European philosophy—began with an observation of the materials that make up trees. With no precedent to describe matter in general, the fourth century B.C. Greek philosopher Aristotle adapted the ancient Greek word for “wood” to develop the concept of “hyle,” or that which receives form or definiteness. The notion of hyle proposes the idea of a universal basic substance from which the entire physical world is made and would come to align with modern scientific ideas about matter and atomic structures.
The ever-changing relationship between humans and our physical surroundings is the focal point of Material Intelligence, a new online quarterly journal published by the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee and co-edited by New York-based curator, writer, and historian Glenn Adamson and writer and maker Carolyn Herrera-Perez. Each issue covers a single commonplace material from a multifaceted lens, drawing upon the knowledge and perspectives of contributors from an evolving scope of disciplines spanning art, craft, industry, literature, science, and technology. The name of the publication, and the impetus behind it, derives from an inherent human quality that Adamson has investigated across his recent work. In his 2018 book Fewer, Better Things, he defines material intelligence as “a deep understanding of the material world around us, an ability to read that material environment, and the know-how required to give it new form.”
Also in the book, Adamson describes how the digital age’s promise of connection has left us even more isolated than generations before us, both from the natural and built environments that surround us—and from each other. Because of this, he says, “even as our literacy in other areas (like visual codes and interactive technology) has increased, our collective material intelligence has steadily plummeted.” Material Intelligence—the digital publication—convenes seemingly disparate points of view around a universal material as a means to create a common throughline, reconnecting us in a landscape of making and consuming that has become increasingly atomized.
Alongside the publication, whose upcoming issues will provide in-depth explorations of Rubber, Copper, Obsidian, Nylon, Leather, and Terracotta, will be a writing workshop that pairs emerging curators, critics, and historians with established writers from a range of fields to support participants in developing their own writing practices. Material Intelligence will also take shape as an annual online symposium that brings together individual specialists and research groups who work on materiality from various fields of expertise. The inaugural event will take place this November in partnership with the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
We recently spoke with Adamson to learn more about his vision for Material Intelligence, what he sees as the current fractured state of material expertise, and the socioeconomic implications of “making.”
To what degree do you feel that material intelligence is intuitive?
Look at a child. The way that kids will go toward material and immediately engage with it, whether they’re making art or playing around in a sandbox. It’s pretty clear that there’s a very strong human impetus to shape the world around us materially, and that there’s also a lot of curiosity bound up with that. I would probably align with psychologists and others who would argue that that’s a natural tendency that humans have that actually has to be knocked out of us. A lot of the ways that we tend to educate and acculturate people have that effect. The most obvious thing is that vocational education has a lower status than so-called “academic” education, and that we have a class-based—and to some extent, even a racially-based—set of hierarchies enforced there. People are literally wrested away from the domain of material engagement into more the kind of thing I do, actually, which is words and language. And those are considered to be—still, amazingly—higher pathways of intellectual inquiry than direct engagement with materiality. Despite many attempts to undo that situation, I think it’s still the case.
What’s the story of Material Intelligence, the publication, and how it relates to your broader exploration of that “material intelligence” concept?
When I was writing Fewer, Better Things, I considered Material Intelligence as the title for the book at one point. It’s really a key concept for that book: that shared material intelligence can also be a means of social cohesion. If you have more of an understanding of how the world around you is made and how it got to be the way it is, then that has this kind of even political dimension to it, because it necessarily leads you to be curious about the people that made those things and perhaps the environmental impact of the choices you might make. If we were to all collectively promote material intelligence, it would be a way to achieve a kind of social awareness as well as a technical awareness.
The journal has a bit of a narrower application. It’s also about connecting different fields of expertise. I also had this idea when I was writing Fewer, Better Things: that a lot of people will say that our material intelligence as a culture used to be so much higher, and that people used to know how to do many, many more things. Everything wasn’t taken care of for them. And that’s true. But there’s also a sense in which our material intelligence as a culture has never been higher. Look around you at the buildings, the technology, the urban landscape we have, and you can see the incredible proficiency we have in manipulating materiality. It occurred to me that the issue was really more one of specialism than it was an overall sense of loss. In other words, we have plenty of material intelligence; it’s just that we’re not sharing it with one another very effectively. That kind of knowledge is behind these firewalls of disciplinary expertise.
That was the other idea that led to the creation of this journal. We’re trying to link up craft-makers, scientists, engineers, historians, designers, and architects all in one place, and using a single material as the premise of each issue as the point of connection, to sit all of these voices alongside one another. So, for example, in the first issue [titled “Oak”], you have furniture maker Hank Gilpin, but you also have boatbuilders [as chronicled by Icelandic journalist Egill Bjarnason]. You have these craft voices, but then you also have something like the article we have on oak barrels used in the whiskey distilling process, which is a much more industry-based form of expertise. Then there’s the article by [poet and performer] Shanekia [McIntosh] about Octavia Butler, which is really coming from the perspective of a literary theorist who’s not really writing about materiality in a direct way at all, but is thinking about the material more on a symbolic register. There’s something about putting all these different ways of approaching the same material next to one another that implies the idea of putting a methodology out into the world.
It’s offering a solution to the disconnect that’s happened with modernization—the “firewalls,” as you've described them.
Disconnect is the perfect word, actually. It’s not that we’re in a state of ignorance; it’s that we’re in a state of disconnection. Which is a big difference. To some extent, that’s also my response to what goes on in the “craft” domain, where people say, “Our problem is that nobody knows how to make anything anymore, and that’s dehumanizing.” It’s kind of like what [British designer and Arts and Crafts movement founding figure] William Morris said a hundred years ago. Which is sort of true, except when it’s not true, and when it’s not true, it's really not true. I know so many people who have such incredible depths of knowledge and expertise in working with specific materials, but they do tend to be siloed, even in the craft field. They’re separated from one another through intellectual property constraints or the cultures of institutional settings that tend to keep people in their own specific channel, laboratory, or research area.
On Ep. 50 of our Time Sensitive podcast, you mention a “hierarchy of senses” in the European cultural lens, wherein touch is considered a “lower” sense because it requires a level of intimacy, while vision is privileged. How does touch—the physical experience of a material—materialize in Material Intelligence?
Each material has an autonomy and a set of qualities that we’re very interested in, and you may find that touch is going to come up a lot just because it’s such a primary way of engagement. In the “Linen” issue, [writer and historian] Jonathan M. Square has a very powerful piece of writing about the really terrible quality of linen garments that enslaved people were forced to wear and what that was actually like. That’s touch as a kind of torture. I certainly didn’t know about that before Jonathan wrote that piece for us, because we think of linen as this great tactile experience, like with linen sheets. But obviously, tactility can also involve discomfort, pain, and irritation.
What’s your process for selecting the materials featured in each publication?
All of the editorial decisions have been intuitive. We’ve been trying to observe a diversity of materials—animal, vegetable, mineral—making sure to cover each of those three big classifications within each year. Similarly, we’re trying to create a balance between what you might call “traditional” or even “archaic” materials like linen and oak and then “modern” materials like rubber or nylon. Some materials are human-made and some are natural, so we’re trying to cover that division.
We are—so far, at least—trying to choose materials that are used for making. These are materials that have a generative set of possibilities and are subject to craft, but also mass production, technology, and engineering. In the “Rubber” issue that’s coming out soon, for example, we have everything from extracting rubber from Brazil and India, and what the effect of that was on the Indigenous populations there, to Chakaia Booker, the contemporary sculptor, who is working with materials that were mass produced, but then have become waste that she then reclaims and works by hand. There’s a very wide spectrum of different types of making processes.
Our contributing editor Carolyn Herrera-Perez has written something for the “Copper” issue about IUDs. I had no idea that copper was an active agent in contraceptives. She did this piece of research about that and what it’s meant as a social phenomenon. To this day, people don’t seem to have any real understanding of why copper has that effect inside the human body, which is kind of mind-blowing. That’s not a story you’d necessarily expect a decorative arts–oriented foundation to be publishing, but I’m really glad that we are. It just shows you that the story of these materials carries on. You can think about coppersmithing in the eighteenth century for dinnerware and candlesticks, but you can also look at it in the context of reproductive rights. I think that’s so fascinating, the way that one material shapeshifts in its relation to human experience.