Objects that matter


by Pilvi Porkola


In everyday life, we are surrounded by innumerable material objects. In the context of new materialism, matter is understood not as passive or stable, but as dynamic and as a process. The objects of everyday life are not stable, but they perform and they make us perform. When one thinks, for example, of doing laundry at home, the drying laundry is "embedded in the routines, rhythms and routes through which people move and make their homes", as Sarah Pink and Kerstin L. Mackley (2015) have noted.1

This project, A Study on Objects, started out of my interest in the objects I have around me. I use these objects in everyday life and when making performances, but I hardly ever think about their materiality or the processes around them. My idea here is to give space and attention to the objects I have around me and see whether that demonstrates how relationships between humans and objects emerge in everyday life. This is an ongoing experiment, and I am still watching to see what kinds of forms it takes.

In addition to working with these videos, I have been thinking about examples of performance art in the context of new materialism.



The background of my thinking here is in feminist materialism and the understanding of how a subject is already a part of the substances, systems, and becomings of the world.2 Rachel Tillman (2015) writes about feminist materialism and epistemology, highlighting the dynamic relation between mind and matter (including will, intention, intellect, and social and cultural forces) and underlining how these interact in important and dynamic ways. Tillman follows Karen Barad’s idea of agential realism and intra-action, saying, “Interactive matter is not and cannot be inert and passive. Instead, matter is dynamic and has its own kind of agency. Agency, in the most general sense, implies an ability to cause some kind of change.”3

This is not only a question of ontology, but also a question of responsibility and ethics. According to Tillman4, we are always engaged in a mutually performative relationship of responsibility with the world. All our interactions with matter are ethically charged because of this. We do not choose to take on this responsibility, but it is incarnate in all relationships between humans and material objects. Her conclusion here is that “we are not outside observers, nor the only intentional agents in the world, but we are always interactively responsible for co-creating what is.”5

When contemplating the relationship between objects and humans, as well as the agency of ‘stuff’, Stacey Alaimo suggests that humans cannot be separated from all the other stuff in the world. She suggests that “Thinking as the stuff of the world entails grappling with the strange agencies of ordinary objects that are already part of ourselves, as well as considering what it means for other creatures to contend with the environments they now inhabit.”6 She is also very critical of object-orientated ontology (ooo) and flat ontology – the equality of all objects – “which erases all distinctions between consumer products and living creatures”7. Instead, she demands a practice of thinking that interweaves ontology, epistemology, scientific disclosures, political perspectives, posthuman ethics, and environmental activism. She summarizes her thoughts with an idea from Karen Barad: “A posthumanist new materialism, emerging from feminist body politics and environmental activism, may wish to begin with Barad’s contention that 'there is no ‘I’ separate from the intra-active becoming of the world'”8.


There is a special kind of relationship between matter and art. Barbara Bolt argues: “Art is material practice and that materiality of matter lies at the core of creative practice.”9 She writes that dance, theatre, and fashion as embodied practices engage the matter of bodies. In music, the material bodies of composers, musicians, and singers co-collaborate with instruments and other technologies in spaces that allow music to emerge. Moreover, she mentions visual artists who engage all manner of material processes in making and assembling art. “The material facts of artistic practices seem so self-evident and integral to our understanding of our art it may seem unremarkable to frame them in terms of material turn,”10 she writes.

Bolt does not mention performance artists – or perhaps she includes them in the category of visual artists – but I think performance artists have a unique relationship with matter. Firstly, performance art is known as embodied practice, a matter of body. Secondly, performance art quite often involves a special kind of relationship with things. 

It is not only about the things artists use, but performance art is also largely concerned with creating relationships with objects or showing something about the ways in which we relate to objects. These relationships can be conceptual or corporeal, and quite often they are both. If I think of classic performance art pieces like Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) or Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 with 72 objects (1974), they both work with objects and show something about the relationships between humans and objects, not to mention that they both contain a bodily aspect.

In her video Semiotics of the Kitchen, Martha Rosler presents kitchen objects by naming them very clearly: “A is for apron”. The setting is familiar from TV cooking shows, but Rosler’s semi-aggressive mimicry related to objects does not lead the viewer to think about a kitchen full of delicious smells. At the latest by the time when Rosler is making a Zorro gesture with raised knives, it’s clear that the semiotics of the kitchen have nothing to do with cooking.11 Rosler herself has said of this work: "I was concerned with something like the notion of 'language speaking the subject,' and with the transformation of the woman herself into a sign in a system of signs that represent a system of food production, a system of harnessed subjectivity."12 Through the material objects, Rosler criticizes the place that is given to women. The kitchen objects are part of a subjectivity process that is not only semiotic but also a material convention.

Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 was a very different kind of performance, but it also demonstrates something very significant about our relationship with objects. In her performance, Abramovic stood still while the audience was invited to do whatever they wished to her using one of the 72 objects she had placed on a table. The objects included a rose, a feather, perfume, honey, bread, grapes, wine, scissors, a scalpel, nails, a metal bar, and a gun loaded with one bullet. Abramovic herself has described her experience this way: “I felt really violated: they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere. After exactly 6 hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking toward the audience. Everyone ran away, to escape an actual confrontation.”13

We can analyze Abramovic's performance not only as an interaction between the artist and the audience, but also as an experiment of intra-action between humans and objects. On the one hand, there was the audience and their interaction with the objects that were available, their opportunity to use those objects. On the other hand, we can think of how the objects were related to the artist’s body (and how she felt about it). Of course, one can also ask what it means that the artist herself chose such objects to be used on her: what actions do these objects carry in themselves, what actions do they suggest, how do they perform, and what is the potentiality of matter?

However, materialistic approaches in performance art vary widely. As a more recent example, I would like to mention Tero Nauha’s performance Tell me about your machines (2012), in which he asked the audience to talk about their relationships with the machines that they use in their daily lives. Nauha describes the performance setting as follows: “There was a lot of black electric cables and wire on the floor, which created a kind of ‘nest’ or ‘network’ between the audience and myself. At the beginning of the performance I asked three or five people from the audience to become participants in the performance. They were asked to sit on the chairs reserved for them, which were closer to mine. These participants heard my voice through headphones, while the rest of the audience heard it normally without amplification. The participants were asked questions about the machines and devices they had.”14 The questions asked included, for example, how people used their machines or whether their machines used them. Who has control? Do the machines have their own individuality?

At the end of the discussion part, Nauha asked the audience to project or imagine their machines on the empty wall. Then he went to stand in the front of the wall telling the audience that he was the machine now and the audience could direct him as they wished. Members of the audience could tell Nauha how to move, what sounds to make, and so on. “The machines” were embodied and performed.

The performance was a part of Nauha’s doctoral dissertation, Schitzoproduction: Artistic research and performance in the context of immanent capitalism (2016), in which he asks what kind of role technological devices have in our everyday lives and how their role is related to the production of subjectivity. Following Gilbert Simondon’s thinking, Nauha states that our relationship to objects, here to machines and devices, is “an affective process, within a milieu – a system of objects and beings, where, in Gilbert Simondon’s terms, the question is not of ontology, but ontogenesis – a process of becoming in and through relationality.”15 So, matter is not only matter, but part of the system(s) of how we define ourselves.

In her performance Alphabets of Performance Art (2012), Leena Kela presents 26 objects and materials that are typically used by performance artists. The objects are titled from A to Z (‘a for an apple’, ‘b for a balloon’, ‘c for cardboard’ etc.) and each one includes an action with the object. The apple is for throwing on the floor, balloons are used here for floating in the air above a vacuum cleaner, and on the cardboard, Kela writes, “This is too noisy” as a comment to the vacuum cleaner that is still on. Kela’s performance can be seen as an introduction to the world of performance art, underlining the aspect of everyday life and its object-oriented nature. Kela comments on the genre of performance art with a touch of irony, but in a hearty manner, fully conscious of the conventions of the genre and the repetitive forms that it takes. Her performing attitude is far from Rosler’s aggressiveness, but rather playful and ‘educational’.


I am sitting on a wooden chair at home, surrounded by things. I have a blouse and trousers on, and I wear glasses. I have a mug of tea on the table next to me; a tablecloth covers the table. There are also other objects on the table: hair grips, notes, an empty plate, a laptop, a mobile phone, and some tissues. Each of these objects suggests some kind of action between them and me. I have interacted with them and I will do so later. Moreover, each of these objects tells something about the society and era I live in. Still, the objects somehow remain almost invisible, and it is hard for me to focus on them and really think of what is going on between them and me and how these relationships emerge.

In my previous article, “Pyykkiä – Näkökulmia uusmaterialismiin ja performanssiin” ("Laundry – Perspectives on new materialism and performance art", only in Finnish), I tried to think about laundry as an object of performance art. The text was based on my performance The Laundry Case (2017), which was designed for the stage and in which I was focusing on the perception of the audience: how to direct the audience to think about material and materiality as having the main role in a genre of art in which we are used to focusing mostly on humans?

In this project, A Study on Objects, I try to concentrate on the objects of daily life on a more personal level. So far, this project has made me think about how much we depend on things and how they influence our affect. When I cannot find my notes, I become irritated, or when the laptop does not work, it makes me frustrated. I feel cold without my clothes and I cannot drink tea without a mug. It is obvious that I can only see well when wearing my glasses. It is easy to agree with Alaimo when she writes about how stuff is already part of us (quoted above) and part of our activities.

My method is quite simple: take some objects, do something with them, film the action, and see what happens. I understand artistic research here as a process in which the practice leads you forward.


The objects I chose here are everyday objects I see daily in my home. The balloons are props I bought for a performance that I never finished. The stone is one that I took some years ago from a construction site close to where I live. The book is a gift from an ex-lover years back. It is also a tool for work, for writing in English. My relationships to the objects vary. I have an inexplicably emotional relationship to the stone, but the balloons are just balloons. The book has a double meaning: on the one hand, it is helpful when dealing with words, and on the other hand, it is a symbol of a world (the English language) that remains unfamiliar to me. I found choosing the objects quite problematic; as I wrote earlier, I think I interact with all things around me. The final decision was therefore made more or less based on intuition.

I certainly had some images in my head before starting to work with these videos, but my idea was not to decide beforehand what would happen, how it would look, or what kinds of meanings it would carry. Neither did I know how these filmed actions would respond to the question of the relationship between humans and everyday things. Moreover, my idea was not to use these short performances as an answer to the question or as evidence for research. Instead, I tried to see whether new perspectives on the topic could emerge out of this kind of practice.

According to Bolt, materializing practice implies a relationship between process and text.16 When I look at the first three videos and try to reflect upon them, it makes me wonder whether I should focus my thoughts more on doing, that is, what I felt when doing the action, or on seeing, namely, what I can see in the videos.

Nevertheless, in this project, materiality consists not only of the matter of my body and the matter of the objects I deal with, but also the materiality of video filming. When I was putting these short performances into practice for the camera, my focus was very much on filming. I find working with videos quite complex: camera technology works on its own terms. I needed to think about a framing the image, the duration of the film, the lighting and image color, and how the performing fits within these given circumstances. I do not know why my camera is making a weird, rasping sound. Later, I wondered whether I should edit it out, but then I decided not to. It seems that this sound, the bug, makes this camera unique.

When I watch the videos, it seems that the idea of weight is emphasized. I am not only holding a stone, but also feeling its weight. Weight is also crucial when I am balancing the book on my head. However, the weight of the dictionary is different from the weight of the stone. Though I am not really looking for interpretations or metaphors, it is clear that the dictionary carries different meanings than the stone. Interaction with the balloon is very different. I can control how I blow a balloon, but not how it “blows back”.

I think video avoids the materiality of body, transforming performing to representation. At the same time, it has a materiality of its own; the practice of creating images is based on the camera and the technology it includes. As Estelle Barrett has noted, instruments and objects of research are not passive, but emerge as co-producers of the research.17 Indeed, the camera has its own effect on the research and formulates it according to a specific format. I think that in having actions filmed, the actions are not only achieved, but they are also set into a certain kind of format that has its own conventions, they are made to be an image. In her article “Performance for Camera”, Annette Arlander 18 states that with a recorded moving image, the performance is divided into two – first a performance for the camera and then a performance or re-presentation for the viewer. Performing for the camera is very different from performing for a live audience, and viewing a video performance is different from viewing a live one.  When viewing performances that are made for the camera, for example the works of Annette Arlander19 or Paul Harrison with John Wood20, they deal with the essence of video works, they are completed and somehow less dependent on the presence of an audience. Even these works are performances and performative acts; they use the power of the image.


I wondered how to proceed with the project and decided to repeat the actions but change the order of the objects.


Our daily life is based on interaction with objects. Our relationship with objects is a process, an ongoing exchange based on action. Throughout the decades, performance artists have articulated these interactions and shown multiple aspects of them. In their performances, objects are not stable but involved in the meaning-making process. Both feminist new materialism and performance art call for agency and room for objects.

In my ongoing project, Study on Objects, I focus on the relationship between objects and humans in daily life. I started by doing short performances for the camera to see how the relationship could emerge in this kind of framing. At this point, I try to understand the materiality of these objects by filming them. Videos definitely offer another kind of perspective on the topic than performing or writing. After these later videos, I think, there is no need to repeat them once again – to blow a dictionary, comfort the balloon, or hold a stone on my head – but to wait and see what could be the next move.



Alaimo, Stacey. 2014. “Thinking as the Stuff of the World” O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies Issue 1 :: Object/Ecology :: 2014


Arlander, Annette. 2015. "Performances for Camera" Icehole issue 2 http://icehole.fi/issue2/performances-for-camera/ 6.3.2019

Arlander, Annette. 2013. "Wind Rail - Sort of a Beginning / Tuulikaide - eräänlainen alku Ruukku 1 https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/42484/47741 / 1.3.2019

Bolt, Barbara.2013. “Introduction. Toward a ‘New Materialism’ through the Arts.” In Carnal Knowledge: Towards a ‘New Materialism’ through the Arts, Ed. Estelle Barrett & Barbara Bolt, 1-13. London & New York: I.B. Tauris.

Brundson, Charlotte. 2005. "Feminism, postfeminism, Martha, Martha and Nigella." Cinema Journal. University of Texas Press. 44, Number 2, Winter 2005. pp.110-116.

Bucur, Maria. 2018. The Century of Woman. How Women has Transformed the World since 1900.Lanham:  Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

Nauha, Tero. 2016. Schitzoproduction Artistic research and performance in the context of immanent capitalism. Helsinki: Taideyliopisto.

Pink, Sarah ja Kerstin L.  Mackley & Roxana. Morosanu. 2015. “Hanging out at home: Laundry as a thread and texture of everyday life. “ International Journal of Cultural Studies. Vol 18 (2)209-224.

Porkola, Pilvi. 2018. “Pyykkiä – Näkökulmia uusmaterialismiin ja performanssiin”. Ruukku 8, 2018


Rosler, Martha ja Weinstock, Jane. 1981. “Interview with Martha Rosler”. October Vol.17, The New Talkies (Summer, 1981), pp.77-98. The MIT Press.

Tillman, Rachel. 2015.” Toward a New Materialism. Matter as Dynamic”. Minding Nature: Winter 2015, Volume 8, Number 1



Works by artists:

Abramovic, Marina. Rhythm 0 (1974). https://vimeo.com/71952791 20.9.2018

Kela, Leena. The Alphabets of Performance Ar (2012).t. https://vimeo.com/172266264 20.9.2018

Harrison, Paul and John Wood, Studio visit. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eS50mYKCL_M / 1.3.2019

Nauha, Tero. Tell me about your machines (2012). https://vimeo.com/51265199 20.9.2018

Rosler, Martha. The Semiotics of Kitchen (1975). https://vimeo.com/116580896 20.9.2018