Curating Proteins and Fibers

Pop-up exhibition hosted by the “Fibers of Existence” workshop, July 2023. Photograph by Lisa Onaga, Jul 3, 2023.

"Fibers of Existence" Workshop Round-up
How might an approach to fibers as forms—encompassing shapes, sequences, habits, and histories—rather than simply materials drawn from plant, animal, or mineral sources, alter our historical analyses?

From July 3–5 the Proteins and Fibers group hosted the “Fibers of Existence—Disordering Animals” workshop to explore this quetsion from various disciplinary perspectives. Participants of the workshop ranged from historians and anthropologists of science and technology, scholars of sexuality, women and gender studies, to archeologists, biologists, material scientists, and museum conservators.

The workshop featured both individual and group presentations, with the latter comprising scholars from both the sciences and humanities. Over the course of our three-day collaborative inquiry, participants considered the many curious and unsuspecting forms fibers can take as normal and deviant matter reorganized by the state; shimmering substrates transmitting the spiritual; binding agents (or agencies?); proxies for past climate and migration patterns; biomolecular tracers for and of degenerative disease; and objects whose nano-, micro-, and macro-scale properties can predict the graceful failure of infrastructures.

Throughout the workshop, participants engaged in a pop-up exhibition activity that began by asking everyone to place one or more fiber objects brought from home on a display table outside the conference room. Interdisciplinary pairs then grouped off with an object they neither brought in nor had any prior knowledge and hazarded a guess as to what the object was, along its age, location, and what made it fibrous. Loosely modeled on the Brownian method of extracting “mind from matter” through close object analysis, participants were prompted to examine their objects not for patterns of “culture,” but as cultural objects patterned (or informed) by fibers. The work of guessing the object’s provenance was also left deliberately open-ended. Indeed, provenance—the origin and/or the chronology of ownership, custody, or location of an object—was pointed out as something of a misnomer since an object’s age and location depend entirely on how one understands its life history. Thus, participants were encouraged to think of their objects’ ages and locations as something potentially distinct from their origins: as objects in use, storage, or destined for disposal at different times and places in its history. More speculative guesses verging on mystical and sci-fi were also encouraged. 

Definite themes emerged on the first day of our workshop that implicitly and explicitly structured our discussion in the following days. The physical forms of fibers—in and as amalgamated cultural objects, deteriorated matter, and indirect residues—to a large degree determine how we leverage them as forms of historical and scientific evidence. As the workshop’s conversations revealed, absences in the fiber record are what tend to elicit the more imaginative and interdisciplinary techniques for reconstructing their pasts.

Erin Freedman

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