Dr. Diana Coole looks at dirt a little differently than most. She says it’s something society often neglects but it can be a valuable material. It all depends how one chooses to consider it.
Professor Coole of Birkbeck College, London University, drew a crowd to Trent University’s Bagnani Hall November 17, to deliver the annual Elaine Stavro Distinguished Visiting Scholar lecture in Theory, Politics & Gender.
Her lecture, entitled “Dirt: A New Materialist Approach” looked at dirt as a resource, as an art medium, and more.
In recent years there has been an increased interest in a new materialism, and the thought that this critical thinking should focus on basic matter, like dirt. Dirt has become a topic of interdisciplinary fascination over recent years. Using dirt as an example, Professor Coole was aiming to highlight new themes in the study of materialism, including the nature of material agency and the relationship between the human and the non-human.
In describing an exhibit she witnessed in which a subject rolled through dirt and dust presenting the material as art, she said there is typically a critical dimension to these sorts of artistic performances, even while the artist was making garbage centre stage. It can be something society neglects, she said, but it can be a valuable material.
She has said that a signature claim of the new materialisms is that critical thinking needs to re-orient itself towards matter. Dirt, she says, has itself become a topic of fascination within a diverse but impressive range of disciplines over recent years.
“But what does new materialism bring to theories or practices that engage with this ubiquitous material and inversely, what do its considerations of and encounters with dirt reveal about a distinctively new materialist approach? By exploiting the ambiguous senses dirt carries – as soil and dust; as rubbish and waste; as artistic resource – she says dirt can be viewed in several ways.
On the one hand, she says the circuits and flows of this materiality move through and are reconfigured by bodily, domestic, economic, ecological and geological systems. On the other hand it asks about dirt’s standing as agential, vibrant or vital matter, whereby dirt might be understood as mattering itself.
Her lecture was accompanied by a visual presentation that depicted dirt in piles, in art, as a resource for the poor, and flotsam discarded and washed ashore.
“Rubbish is retrieved from a worthless state to become an integral part of artistic production. So in one sense, rubbish is no longer considered as dirty.”