“Write a few words … about how this has made you feel”
This prompt from Roger Kneebone followed his invitation to handle an array of metal surgical tools neatly distributed across a large tabletop at the Institute of Making.
‘Feel’, not ‘think’. With the task confirmed, I set to describe what I felt handling the objects.
First attempt was a list of adjectives: pointy, prickly, precise.. Not quite feelings.
‘Cold’, I thought, would’ve worked. But, although they looked like they should have done, the instruments didn’t feel particularly cold to me.
I thought about the device that struck me most: something resembling a pair of scissors, but with flat ends to grip rather than cut. It had three notches at the finger end, three settings, barely a millimetre apart, at which it could be locked. I loved the accuracy this enabled.
‘Love’ is an emotion, but one I tend to feel whenever I give proper attention to an artefact.
What would I feel using this device, deploying its elegant processes of operation?
Armed, equipped, more capable. I felt that it gave me more reach.
Next, we were invited by Matt Sanderson to handle a different selection of metallic artefacts. Rather than a shared function or context of use, what seemed to unite these was that they were crafted, made things rather than things with which to make or do. But that is what I thought, not felt.
Adjectives again: delicate, intricate, crafted.
I chose to focus once more on a particular object, a tree-like weave of thin metal wires. I then honed in on the emotions: appreciative, admiring, grateful; but also inspired and instructed. I felt I was taught something.
I wasn’t sure the words I had jotted down were accurate. They felt a bit too thought-through, processed emotions, analysis translated into feelings. This concern didn’t last long: once we had returned to our seats, Roger asked us to speak out the words we had noted down which, after a tentative start, had us throw out words so that they echoed, different voices from different places, like a vocal performance of the object’s emotional resonance and with the same directness as an emotional response. It was great: an enveloping sense of the feelings that the objects could afford.
The emotional resonance of the two sets of objects was clearly different. What was each informed by?
Roger showed videos of surgical operations and discussed the particular intersection of tools, hands and patients that it involves. He pointed out the handy knowledge that they require and the way in which it defies description: “… and you feel the … hum.”.
To explore the emotional charge of this highly choreographed ballet of hands, tools and bodies, he finally performed an operation using props and enrolling two participants. What kinds of emotion do varying perspectives, say a patient’s vs. a surgeon’s, offer?
Matt then demonstrated the transformability of materials through an overview of some of his artworks. He compared the responses that different materials inspired. Copper wires, for instance, give the sense that “it’s just spaghetti and I can make anything with it”. The wonderful pieces were reactions to each material’s affordance, but also a search for the kind of movement it entailed and for ways of expressing that movement. He described it as a ‘descent into matter’, a great way to capture the immersion that informs both his practical and emotional engagement with particular materials: a productive attentiveness. Matt’s invitation to manipulate wires allowed us to then explore this materially for ourselves; and his kinetic pieces spoke of the magic in achieving precise motion and form from discarded bits of stuff.
This very inspiring workshop put forward conditions that felt necessary for an exploration of the emotional history of objects:
– It is more feasible when concerned with one particular object at a time
– It is unlocked by collaborative, participatory sharing of personal experiences/responses
– It is located somewhere at the interface between what a particular material affords and what a particular person desires or what a particular context requires