28 Nov 2015

Material, Experience, and the Mobile

First workshop of the research initiative “Connecting Materialities / Material Connectivities”

Martin Saxer and Philipp Schorch


This is the first of a series of three workshops under the title Connecting Materialities / Material Connectivities at LMU Munich.

The aim of this initial workshop is to take stock of experiences with, stories of, and reflections on things that move and thereby connect or, the other way round, connections made through things. The method and mode employed toward this end is decisively simple: each participant prepares three or four little interventions – anecdotes of things experienced, conceptual insights, questions, puzzles. Each of these interventions is represented by a material thing – an object, a printed photograph, a letter, etc. – brought to the workshop. These materials will then be laid out and discussed. In other words: we are putting things on the table – metaphorically as well as physically – in order to create an assemblage of materials, field experiences, concepts, theories, and histories.

This assemblage (or better: this layout) – documented in a time-lapse video of the table full of things and ideas – serves as a collective basis for the further process of thinking through connectivity and materiality.

Matrioshka with unknown travel biogaphy, bought on a flea market in Munich. © 2015 Martin Saxer.


This event is convened by Martin Saxer and Philipp Schorch. The following participants are taking part:

  • Prof. Eveline Dürr (LMU)
  • Dr Radhika Gupta (Georg August University Göttingen)
  • Prof. Gabriele Herzog-Schröder (LMU)
  • Prof. Natalie Göltenboth (LMU)
  • Marc Higgin (University of Aberdeen)
  • Carolin Maertens (LMU)
  • Riccarda Meyer (LMU)
  • Dr Juliane Müller (LMU)
  • Lisa Rail (LMU)
  • Dr Alessandro Rippa (LMU)
  • Anna-Maria Walter (LMU)

Workshop Summary

The workshop was structured in four sessions. What follows is a brief summary of threads of thought developed collaboratively.

Session One

We started off in a quite conventional way. Three Barbie-Orishas, a fridge magnet displaying Rio’s favelas as style, and a traditional Hunza Wallet made in China, and two wooden Moai figurines from Rapanui/Easter Island (which we all know despite having been there) led us to the simple acknowledgement that things that travel have meaning attached to them. They “materialize concepts”, or in other words: they represent, somewhat stubbornly, despite all our reservations against concepts of representation. Then, a Russian Doll bought on a flee market in Munich, familiar to each and everybody but strangely devoid of “culture” and “Russianness” brought us to the particular kind of experience some things afford. In the case of the Russian Doll, taking it apart, putting it together, the smell of the wood, etc. In the case of two matracas (rattles) from Bolivia, one in the form of a miniature washing machine, they represent, yet their sound and their use in communal rituals is what makes them also “doing”. Engagement (pragmatism, experience) and meaning aggregate in things, so to say. We noted that this aggregation of meaning and engagement is sometimes more stable or “sticky” and sometimes more “slippery”, whereby stickiness is often an earmark of exoticism, while “slippery” aggregations of meaning and engagement are present in things like the Barbie-Orishas.

Session Two

The second session began with the story of a Bolivian trader in a free trade zone in Chile buying game consoles and looking for intact cardboard boxes that still feature the full address of the producer in Taiwan. He succeeds, flies to Taiwan and starts building his business network. A photo of two containers in the highlands of Kyrgyzstan took this lead and triggered a reflection on packaging. Many things that move do so in association with some form of container; oftentimes, packaging makes a thing a commodity and unpacking turns it again into a singularity. We noted that such associations of things as “vessel” and “payload” are frequently involved in bringing them from a to b as well as in the practices of attaching meaning to them. The Barbies are only Orishas once they are filled and consecrated, for example. Rather than “materializing concepts”, as we somehow reluctantly put it in the first session, they can be mobilised or activated as vessels or payloads in a particular practice of exchange. The result of this mobilisation are traces in time and space (consider the scars on a body or in a landscape). In brief – and the other way round – we realised that “traces” are often the result of a process of engaging (mobilising, activating) things as vessels or payloads.

Session Three

The third session set out with a not things that create a particular social aesthetics or atmosphere: an image of a kindergarten in Tajikistan and a Chinese red scarf made us reflect on the potency of things to afford a particular environment that shapes experience (the same children song with which the day started in the GDR as well as in Tajikistan, for example). Signboards and posters of Khomenei in Kargil, and an assortment of things found in a coat pocket after days in a forest kindergarten in Munich led us to the question how to think about the ways in which things are mobilized to create such environments. Is it ideology (or, in the case of the forest kindergarten: ideological non-ideology) that leads human actors to use things to create particular social aesthetics or atmospheres? Or, in other words, is it human expertise invested in the selection and use of things that render ideology into palpable experience? We found that the notion of curation could be very helpful here – not understood as expertise of museum curators, but in its original meaning of curare: to heal. Curation as a way of attending to a material environment with particular (often ideologically driven) intentions let us think about ideology and experience in new ways. The Chinese Party State, for example, turns ideology (development, patriotism, etc.) into experience by curating environments such as the socialist new villages popping up all over rural China today.

Session Four

A travelling diary that circulates between a group of friends led us to the question of “method” in a wider sense: not research method in a particular discipline, but ways of activating, engaging or mobilizing materials for experience. Or in other words, the question at stake is how mobile (mobilised) materials are becoming archive. Eric Mueggler’s book The Paper Road and the videos of the Kyrgyz artist Shaarbek Amankul tied into precisely this question. “Wrapping the earth in paper” made the botanists and herbarium species travel in Mueggler’s case; making videos on Kyrgyz shamans (including his own aunt) was also what made the artist travel around the world. An image of poppy fields in the Golden Triangle and the story of a new museum there to commemorate and “mobilise” the memory of the now absent opium for tourist consumption made us reflect on archives as traces of mobilizing or curating materials, experience and memory. Fox shit found in Munich next to Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think led us to the notion of languages (in a broad sense, for the lack of a better word) as means of this gesture of archiving, collecting, marking, or curating.

Highland Asia Research Group
LMU, Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oettingenstr. 67
80538 Munich, Germany
martin.saxer@lmu.de | +49 89 2180 9639

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