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Material Ecology: Neri Oxman At The Museum Of Modern Art

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New York’s Museum of Modern Art is currently exhibiting Material Ecology, a tantalizing sample of the truly astounding and path-breaking work of Neri Oxman and her team, Mediated Matter group, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Oxman is an American-Israeli architect and designer – yet these designations conspicuously fail to capture the utterly novel field in which Oxman’s work is exploring, defining, and re-defining. Every item in the show may be viewed as a “demonstration of new materials and new processes, like a door into a new way of designing and making.” Her interdisciplinary work bridges engineering, biology, and computer science – while addressing itself to both timely and timeless epistemological and ethical issues.

Oxman’s epistemic interventions testify to, welcome, and embrace a new concept of what knowledge is and how it emerges: “Knowledge can no longer be ascribed to, or produced within disciplinary boundaries, but is entirely entangled.” In other words, Oxman’s work – both theoretically and materially – lies at the very forefront of human understanding: Oxman and her team are inventing not only new kinds of objects, and the technologies which makes such objects possible – they are inventing a new, holistic field altogether, re-making the very boundaries of human disciplines. In the process, they are creating new, interdependent modes of knowledge; new forms of experience, and new ways of living or being in the world.

Neri Oxman and her team at MIT refer to the field which they have created as Material Ecology: an “emerging field in design denoting informed relations between products, buildings, systems, and their environment.” Hence, Oxman’s push towards “universal synthesis” – material ecology’s integrating, harmonizing, and tapping into multiple disciplines in its approach to design – remains conscious of the ethical entanglement with our environment. Their work consistently emphasizes “environmentally informed digital design and fabrication.”  These often visually stunning designs can take the form of extrusions – materials that have been thrust out by an animal or machine; or intrusions – 3D-printed objects engineered to be infused with organic material, such as melanin or bacteria.

Oxman’s posits a nevalogue – a kind of moral shorthand that clarifies the ethical commitments of Material Ecology. A few of these principles are of special significance. For the practicing material ecologist, the client is always first and foremost nature itself: “The natural environment at large constitutes the ‘client’ for every commissioned project, as well as its ‘site’ and material source.” We can and must take Oxman at her word here: in a certain sense, her designs are meant to let nature realize its own inherent telos, its own intrinsic ends, and its own interests.

Consider, for example, the Silk Pavilion – on display at the exhibition – that employed 17,000 silkworms in its fabrication, a thoroughly astonishing example of inter-species collaboration. Oxman positively envisions the partnership with other species as part of the repertoire of sustainable construction methods as we enter a new era of ecologically conscious architecture and design. Silk Pavilion is remarkable both because Oxman and her team were able to modify the worms’ spinning patterns so that they spun in sheets rather than cocoons, and because they did not utilize the traditional method of boiling the larvae alive in their cocoon to extract the silk thread. Rather, their process allowed the silkworms to pass through the entire cycle of metamorphoses and live out their lives unharmed.

Many of the “demos” on display in this show are full of weird and wonderful beauty. But what is most striking is that they represent a vision of the future, novel ways of designing our environments.  At the same time, this radically new material ecology is anchored throughout by an ethical awareness – inseparable from an ethic of interanimality and interspecies cooperation. Oxman and her team are collaborating with living nature, the living material world, in the creation of what are ultimately new, transcendentally beautiful, and environmentally sustainable structures with the potential for large-scale applications. Their work also presents us with the fruits of a holistic conception of the organism as inherently expressive, valuable, and tending towards creative and ontological expansion.

Another principle of Material Ecology is that it prioritizes integration over segregation. Consider the traditional facade of a building: it is constructed out of discrete parts each of which serves a distinct function. Hard, rigid materials make for the exterior shielding or shell; while supple and yielding materials serve for comfort and insulation; and, finally, translucent materials allow the structure to communicate with the environment. Human skin, by contrast, utilizes generally the same material constituents over the entire body: smaller pores and thicker skin act as a barrier; larger pores and thinner skin for filtering, such as on the face. Distinct functions, in other words, are integrated rather than segregated, unified into “a single material system that can at any point respond and adapt to its environment.”

This ideal façade – able to modify itself in response to changes in the environment – is the motivation behind the “Totems” installation which utilizes melanin (the compound in skin pigmentation). Oxman envisions melanin’s use in architecture to produce optical variations in a building’s façade, depending on the time of day or season. The Totems demo, produced by injecting liquid melanin into a 3D-printed transparent block to manifest flesh-colored curls and plumes, is like so much in the exhibition, captivating, wonderful, and strange.

Material Ecology seeks to produce “smart objects that respond to their environment and function more like bodies than manufactured entities, accommodating multiple functions rather than just one.” The “Armour” demo is a case in point: it is Oxman’s answer to the classic I-beam, a ubiquitous and fundamental component in modern architecture and an unmistakable symbol of the Industrial Revolution. The exhibition offers us only a small-scale prototype, but the idea is clear enough: Oxman’s Armour is effectively a beam designed to function as both skin and structure simultaneously. “Stiff structural components are embedded in a soft skin” – so that the design is capable of carrying vertical, horizontal, and rotational loads, while the beam’s sectional profile and structural thickness can be modified according to the anticipated load.

Material Ecology represents an approach to design that is non-human centered. This principle carries many implications, but it is central for grasping the ethical achievement of Oxman and Mediated Matter. As Oxman observes, “The group considers all living creatures as equals.” The aim is “to shift human-centric design to a design culture focused on conserving, improving, and augmenting the natural environment through novel technological developments.” In short, material ecology breaks decisively with the kind of anthropocentrism which has led to untold environmental devastation and the irretrievable loss of countless species and instead adopts a lateral rather than hierarchical relationship to non-human others.

Oxman’s approach to design is ultimately an embrace of “co-culture over single organism culture.” This fundamental ethical principle requires not only the recognition of biodiversity but underscores our entanglement and the ineliminable inter-dependency among individuals and species. Material Ecology offers us a way into the future that answers some of our deepest needs, and the needs of the countless species with which we share this planet. It posits a way of addressing some of our gravest environmental concerns – and does so by harnessing the creative energy that unites all Life. The mutual, inter-species collaboration which Oxman envisions has the potential to transform the face of our cities and communities and to imbue them with an almost other-worldly yet natural beauty. As we hurtle towards an uncertain future, Oxman’s vision suggests a way of interacting with and reshaping our world that we need now more than ever.

Sam Ben-Meir is a professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York City

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Opinions

Gen. Ndayishimiye, Tshisekedi Agree To Eradicate Insurgents In Region

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The President of Burundi Gen. Evariste Ndayishimiye flew to Kinshasha for political and diplomatic consultations according to his office.

Gen. Ndayishimiye was received by his host President Felix Tshisekedi at Palais de la Nation. The two heads of state had a one-to-one meeting lasting over an hour.

According to a joint statement the Burundian and Congolese heads of state spoke of the need to strengthen peace and security in the sub-region during their talks.

“The two heads of state decided to activate with determination the concerted mechanisms aimed at eradicating the armed groups operating on Congolese territory,” the statement said, while indicating that they are committed to closely monitoring issues relating to security on the borders of the two neighbouring countries.

Gen. Ndayishimiye and Tshisekedi want to strengthen regional and sub-regional organizations for the consolidation of peace, security, stability and sustainable development.

They call on the international community to invest in the peaceful resolution of the security and humanitarian crises in the region and in other conflict zones in Africa.

Apart from the security issue, the two heads of state discussed economic development projects.

They highlighted the construction projects of bridges for vehicles and for pedestrians between the provinces of South Kivu in the DRC and in Cibitoke in Burundi on the Rusizi river, the agricultural exploitation in the Rusizi plain as well as the electrification of the Bujumbura-Uvira-Bukavu-Goma road.

Within the framework of the same visit, the delegations of the two countries signed the agreements and memoranda aiming at “the revival and the consolidation of the cooperation”.

It also covers agreements and memoranda relating to the construction of a Gitega-Uvira-Kindu railway, trade, peacekeeping, defense and security as well as political and diplomatic consultation.

In their meeting, the two heads of state noted a low level of implementation of existing agreements and consequently reframed “the strategy of revitalizing work”.

On regional integration, President Ndayishimiye expressed “unwavering” support for the DRC’s candidacy for membership in the East African Community.

On the other hand, President Tshisekedi reiterates his “unconditional” support for Burundi’s candidacy for the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Note that the visit of Burundian President Evariste Ndayishimiye to the Democratic Republic of Congo began on July 12 and ended on Wednesday July 14, 2021.

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Youths’ Understanding, Participation In DRM Processes Can Create A Sense Of Responsibility

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In my first years as a young law student at the University, despite my constant eagerness to read and thirst for information, I was never interested in the national budget and taxation.

This was largely not my fault because these two concepts are largely packaged as a complex discussion for economists at a high level.

However, towards my last year at the University, I attended an EAC students debate on Tax justice which completely dismantled the complexity surrounding taxation and that was the beginning of my work as a Tax justice champion.

However, this article is not about me; but instead, it is about the majority of the youths who are yet to be part of the important discussions around taxation, national budget and Domestic resource mobilization.

Agenda 2063 of the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) identify young people’s role in Africa as vibrant and crucial. Envisioning a stable and prosperous Africa is the responsibility of young Africans, who account for more than 50% of the current African population.

If the youths are to lead the continent; their voices should be heard and acknowledged, that will prepare the youth to be the custodians of African centered solutions to Africa’s problems.

This makes it crucial to educate youths on key concepts of public finance management which affect the continent most notably; domestic resource mobilization.

Some organisations have been working to educate youth on Domestic Resource Mobilisation but I will use an example of Youth For Tax Justice Network (YTJN) because it is a youth-led network and the first of its kind with presence in more than 7 countries in East and Southern Africa.

YTJN has been promoting youth participation in progressive tax systems and providing a platform for youth to discuss national budgets and domestic resource mobilization among others.

This has been done through students debates, essay competitions, capacity building for specific groups including members of National Youth Councils, youth representatives of political parties and youths from Civil Society Organisations.

Like the activities of YTJN, this article intends to impart a great deal of desire among the youths to learn and participate in DRM processes. The more youths understand and participate in DRM processes, the more they will understand their role in development.

Rwanda has a young population, which has the potential to influence policy change and good governance in the region.

Promotion of youth participation in all spheres of life in society and in decision-making processes at all levels can benefit both young people and the decision-making bodies including the Government.

Moreover, involving young people in decision-making processes strengthens their understanding of issues at stake as well as their sense of responsibility towards being part of the solution.

It is therefore important to engage young people on matters of public finance management with a focus on tax justice, especially as they come into their own as members of society able to participate in communal decision-making processes.

Editor: Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of Taarifa’s.

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On Rwanda-France Relations

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President Kagame and the people of Rwanda have done their part in showing the World (though most of what was already known) that France aided the genocide against the Tutsi by providing military trainings, weapons, financial aid and all forms of assistance, including advocacy to the United Nations, to a genocidal regime just to advance French influence in Rwanda and Africa.

Since 1994, French leaders have denied their country’s role in the genocide and limited it to “assistance-under-ignorance,” arguing that they weren’t informed a genocide was being planned and would be implemented to exterminate the Tutsi.

Many people, in Rwanda and the World, are pleased with President Macron’s decision to acknowledge, though partially, his country’s role in the atrocities that befell the Tutsi.

I, like many others, would want to consider such a move by the French leader a heroic act. However, considering that Macron and France, in general, could be doing this for geopolitical gains, I am yet to have a feel-of-appreciation for Macron.

Aware that France is trying to build a French influence over Uganda and that France’s relations with the Francophone West Africa are already sour as nations held captive to this former colonial master in economic and security affairs have started raising their concerns about the implications of such captivity and most of them have taken a strong stand against it, which is a loss for France, I would like to hold back my praises for President Macron.

I’m also aware that France has, for so long, been responsible for a series of regime changes in numerous nations in the West and Central of Africa, not forgetting its role in what became the fate of Gaddafi and Libya.

So, as France is working hard to strengthen relations with Uganda, Rwanda and other nations, the masses in Francophone West Africa are already standing up against their countries’ financial ties to France, which Dr. Arikana Chihombori calls the “Pact for the Continuation of Colonization.”

A meticulous geopolitical analysis would reveal that France stands to lose a large share of its Francophone West African influence as people raise France’s activities in different countries in the West of Africa. This, and not benevolence, makes Macron act the way he is.

With knowledge of the above, a number of questions come to my mind;

Is France’s Macron remorseful for his country’s role in the genocide? 

Is he personally determined to get things right which his predecessors got wrong?

In my opinion, he is not. Being the progressive he seems to be, and being a true European, appreciating of the place Europeans have in World affairs, he is determined to play his cards right to keep his country’s influence in Africa tact.

But, why should he consider being at good terms with Rwanda if he is interested in other countries? In my opinion, Rwanda serves as the worst example of French activities in Africa as Namibia serves a worst example for German activities in Africa. Geopolitically, improving relations with Rwanda helps France reposition its image in Africa, and Macron’s France, at least, and from the periphery, will be considered a partner that understands peculiar national priorities and interests and seeks respectful and mutual (win-win) relations and not the old France that imposed terms that governments were to follow or be overthrown. 

If France and Macron were really intending to accept their role in the genocide against the Tutsi and be accountable for their role, reparations, extraditing genocide perpetrators who have found a safe haven in France would, inter alia, be on the table. But (as if to justify my suppositions), France is offering to give Rwanda financial aid in hundreds of millions of Euros and rich Frenchmen and women have, already, started receiving special support to help them exploit investment opportunities in Rwanda.

In the short run; therefore, Rwanda is winning as the new relations with Macron help expose, beyond doubt, France’s role in the genocide. On a politico-economic standpoint; however, France is winning bigger.

The author is a political commentator and critic. His views do not reflect those of Taarifa’s editorial line.

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