Episode 35 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with artists, musician, designer, and educator Matt Nish-Lapidus. After many years as an interaction designer, Matt has recently returned to his roots as a new media artist. In this conversation, we discuss the role of art in our evolving technological and cultural environments.
Inevitably, the subject of the coronavirus crisis came up. What does it mean to create and experience art in this situation? Matt provided an insightful answer:
In the fifties – it might have even been in the sixties, don’t quote me on the date – a German philosopher and media theoretician, Theodore Adorno, wrote an essay in which he asked, how do you make art after Auschwitz? Like, what is the role of art in a world where something as horrible as the Holocaust could happen? And how do you as an artist deal with that, and still see beauty and joy and the sublime and all these different things, when our understanding of what’s possible in the world is so fundamentally changed and so terrifying.
And I think there are a number of similar questions that we can be asking ourselves right now. Before this outbreak, the big question on a lot of people’s minds was a similar one, which is how do you make art in the Anthropocene? If we’re witnessing a period of massive global scale change and devastation like this slow train wreck, what is the role of art and how do you continue to make art in the face of such a massive and often depressing and serious thing? And I think like the pandemic that we’re currently trying to figure out raises a similar kind of question again, what is the point of art and how do you make it and what do you make it about when our understanding of what’s possible in the world has fundamentally changed?
When there’s a new thing, a new object exists that didn’t really exist before. There’s a school of philosophy called New Materialism and a kind of well-known New Materialist, Jane Bennett, talks about these things as what she calls assemblages. And an assemblage is like a network of heterogeneous actors that all have different kinds of agency. And, looking at the pandemic through the lens of Bennett’s idea of an assemblage, you can start to see the agency of the virus as a political actor, as an economic actor, as a social and cultural actor. And for me anyway, that’s where as an artist, my interest in it lies, and where I think I can kind of grapple with our current situation is not saying, “Okay, well what do we do when we’re all locked in our homes,” but saying, “What are the fundamental changes in the world that we can observe? What are the things we want to try to say or express about them or understand through making things?” And then, “What kinds of things can I make that help with that understanding or are cathartic or express an affect or give people something that I think they want or need given the kind of drastic changes that this is affecting on all of our systems?”
I greatly enjoyed our conversation. I hope you find value in it, too.