Matter Dialogues


"... we once more find this dialogue with the materials and means of execution [...]

The  essential problem for the philosophy of art is to know whether the artist regards them as interlocutors or not."

Claude Lévi-Stauss, The Savage Mind, p. 29

My enthusiasm for Lévi-Strauss' concept of bricolage can be questioned in the light of the abundancy of discourses emphasizing the agency of our physical environment.


For instance, Actor–Network Theory (ANT) has offered an influential current of thought dispelling traditional subject-object divisions in favor of a relational approach emphasizing networks that comprise human and non-human agents or actors. Stemming from science and technology studies and widely applied in social theory, ANT has given rise to operational discourses and concepts for art. For example, Bruno Latour's "quasi-object" arises from an insightful analysis of hybridity and liminal, multidimensional and networked nature of our material and psychological environment. (Latour 2012). However, as Jaakko Leskinen points out in his account of ANT, the theory's focus is on relational materialism, or, following John Law, theory about agency, knowledge and machines (Leskinen 2000; 184). The theory's fundamental methodological orientation is empirical. As much as I find myself intellectually stimulated by the conceptual structures produced by ANT, and charmed by the masterfully baroque discourse of Latour, I do not find in it much resonance with the world I experience as an artist. ANT remains too system-oriented, analytical, distanciated from the artistic action itself to be operational in my own context of artistic research and the corresponding discourse I wish to weave.


Phenomenological enquiry has been seminal in mending Western thought's connection to the world. The insight of our perceptual entanglement and engagement in our surroundings connect directly with vast areas of artistic practice, as manifested for instance in Maurice Merleau-Ponty's (1964) pioneering work on Cézanne in "L'oeil et l'esprit" (Eng: Eye and mind). It might be safely asserted that phenomenology has had an influence on the civilizational level, providing the undercurrent force fuelling the emergence of theories of embodiment, post-humanism, and material culture. Its influence on the development of artistic research discourse is colossal, to the extent that I relate to it as a meta-theory; omnipresent, internalised by myself and by the artistic research community to such extent that for me it escapes mobilisation as a theoretical tool.


A third line of thought emphasizing materiality that I wish to bring into the discussion points to the more recent attempts to think culture within the Anthropocene. In this strand, Anna Tsing's hybrid, lively and seemingly incoherent networks presented in her book "The mushroom at the end of the world" constitute an inspiring account where the material entanglement is lived through in a profoundly human and sensitive manner (Tsing 2015). Equally captivating is Timothy Morton's descent into a deep ecological consciousness in a virtuosic language that blows up established disciplinary categories and enables new associations and connections to joyfully emerge. Both theorists share the common project of abolishing the Man – Nature divide: "The time has come for telling true stories without civilizational first principles. Without Man and Nature, all creatures can come back to life, and men and women can express themselves without the strictures of parochially imagined rationality". (Tsing 2015; VII). Both Tsing and Morton have been able to forge a discourse that is operational within the complexity and multidimensionality of the current cultural and artistic environment. Beyond horizontal transdisciplinarity, their approach also covers a vertical axis from the individual (or interior) to the collective, bridging vastly heterogeneous entities, events and spaces into a coherent discourse. This exposition's discussion section weaves Tsing's and Morton's approaches into the fabric of bricolage.


So, in regard to the influential lines of thought involving materiality, why would one invoke "bricolage" – a half a century old concept of structural anthropology, which has been famously deconstructed by Derrida (1978) or proposed for universality by Christopher Johnson (2012)?


My personal response stems from a paradox built into Lévi-Straussian bricolage: through a seemingly alchemical process, the thoroughly rational project of analysing mythical thought via the analogy of the bricoleur, Lévi-Strauss manages to touch and express an ineffable, enchanted quality that is at work in artistic practice. Through structure, bricolage captures magic2. Since I came across the rather short passage (16 pages) concerning bricolage a few decades ago, it has continuously haunted me as a background to my artistic practice. It is not an à priori, nor à posteriori, theorization of a practice – it is the conceptual parallel to what I ineffably experience.


The key aspect in this experience is meaning. The artistic praxis is an enterprise, or a manufacture, for meaning. Not necessarily semantic signification, but the experience of a meaningful existence within and in relation to the world. With the concept of bricolage, Lévi-Strauss captures an essential process of meaning-making:


"Mythical thought, that 'bricoleur', builds up structures by fitting together events, or rather remains of events […] which it never tires of ordering and reordering in its search to find them a meaning. But it also acts as a liberator by its protest against the idea that anything can be meaningless with which science at first resigned itself to a compromise." (Lévi-Strauss 1966; 22).








Claude Lévi-Strauss' (1908-2009) concept of "bricolage" was initiated in the first chapter of his classic work "La pensée sauvage" (1962, Eng: The savage mind). The French term “bricolage” - the skill of using whatever at hand in order to create something new - becomes in Lévi-Strauss' text the “science of the concrete". Bricolage operates with a set of "found objects" by enquiring about their actual and possible relations. A similar process is presented to be a fundamental characteristic of mythological thought, operating in-between percepts and concepts building structures from the "remains of events".

The resulting discussion on art bears the mark of structuralist project which, from the contemporary point of view, can be seen to emanate from a positivist standpoint aiming to understand the world entirely in terms of logical structures. The deconstructivist phase had not yet started, and the structuralist project was a major intellectual current of the time. Interestingly, the phenomenological analysis had already laid its major foundations, and its French emanation in Maurice Merlay Ponty's work was already established ("La phénoménologie de la perception" was published in 1945, and translated to English in 1961). One might argue that Lévi-Strauss' analysis was not informed by a systematic enquiry into the subjectivity of artistic creation.


However, Lévi-Strauss comes to touch upon an essential and intimate aspect of artistic working process that I often observe in contemporay creation (including in my own), namely: the process of working in dialogue with the material at hand. The bricoleur - like the artist - "speaks with things as well as through things", involving his persona and creating a form of self-expression through an open dialogue with the material.


The initial aim, goal or artistic project becomes a mere "excuse" for setting off on a process that will take its own course through the materials, events and situations that happen to present themselves. There is no pre-defiend structure, form or discourse. The essential characteristics of such a practice are openness and the capacity to adapt, combine and reconfigure elements. The practice makes use and amplifies the artistic potency of artefacts, percepts and concepts that become available through the process.


The following pages will illustrate two case studies of artistic process involving the author, which portray strikingly similar characteristics as Lévi-Strauss' bricolage: 1) "Motet" - a sound art installation, and 2) "Tapage Nocturne" - a composition for double bass, video and electronics. A personal reflection on the perspectives presented by bricolage as an artistic methodology is presented.



Material entanglements – why bricolage?

Lévi-Strauss' describes the bricoleur at work: immersed in dialogue with the things he encounters and mending his project in function of the effects of events and things. The established relationship to the environment is dynamic, enactive1.

Lévi-Strauss' theoretical quest was to map the structures and patterns of mythological thought, itself seen as an emanation of the deep psychological workings of the human mind. Universal and strikingly similar across cultures, myths were seen to encapsulate and reflect some general principles of the human unconscious. In "La pensée sauvage", Lévi-Strauss' attempts to elaborate coherent structures between different kinds of human activities activity, especially scientific and mythological thought. In this attempt, a structural similarity – or "family resemblance" – between myth and art is observed:  art proceeds from a set of objects and events (i.e. materials) towards structure. Myth proceeds from unconscious psychological structures by means of which it constructs a set of object and events. Or, at another moment of the text: art is an activity that shares aspects with both scientific and mythological thought.

This exposition relates Claude-Lévi Strauss' concept of bricolage with two examples of the author's artistic praxis, with the aim that the subjective case studies will contribute to highlight a more general methodological standpoint of contemporary artistic creation, namely: the artistic work as a dialogical, enactive process where the discussion with the artistic material takes a guiding role. The proposal intends to resituate a classic concept from structuralist anthropology, which I find strikingly useful for analysing contemporary intermedia artistic processes and works.

1 The term "enaction" was initially proposed by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch in The Embodied Mind (MIT Press, 1991), as theoretical tool for understanding the arising of human cognition. From its initial meaning in the framework of cognitive sciences, enaction has become a general term for dynamic, interactive and autopoïetic processes.

2 In his development on bricolage, Lévi-Strauss expressely points to Marcel Mauss' (1902) theory on magic.