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Matter, Material, Materialism
by Thomas Wagner | 12/15/2008

Off balance. The past two decades has witnessed profound change. What is insufficiently described with catchwords such as "globalization", "immaterialness", "virtuality and "mediality" refers to our being linked with objects and embedded in the real. In short, with the end of the age of mechanics and the rise of the digital era, our bond with what is directly tangible is declining. It may well be that the enormous momentum of such change may have just been abruptly halted, for the first time: the (real) rupture, whose outer symbol is the global financial crisis, is as yet barely visible; yet the cracks in the dream house of the imaginary may well reach all the way to the foundations. However, even if we assume that the real and the imaginary, the material and the ideal have been a in a certain - even though hard to determine - balance not just since the invention of electronic media and new financial products, it still makes a difference whether we build upon the solidity of material form or depend on the charm and flexibility of the virtual.

Return of sturdiness. In so far as one can make sweeping statements at all - on the one hand we the virtual, which is hard to grasp, and which appears to feed upon ever larger areas of the archipelago of what is materially available, while on the other we have the material realm of sturdiness and stability. Yet perhaps the development from real to imaginary is not so cogent or even fatal as it might at first glance appear. The material, as something seemingly reliable, has by no means disappeared merely because attention has turned elsewhere for a short time. Indeed, in one way or another it returns strengthened.
One might recognize signs of the return of the material in the fact that in the past few years, innovative, ingenious, and ever more multifunctional materials have been developed - often as the fruits of bionics, gene technology and nanotechnology. From which one could draw the conclusion that our reality, one fundamentally dominated by industry, will no longer be renewed just in terms of processes but now also in terms of materials - although in individual cases one cannot separate one from the other.

New materials. As it is difficult for new materials to prove their worth on their own, design also has to be brought in on the act in parallel - even if for the time being many designers still tend to rub their eyes somewhat in amazement and prefer gazing across to artists and the realm of freedom rather than seizing the opportunity to explore new creative forms through new materials. After all, what use are ingeniously printed foils, easily shaped, dirt-resistant, intelligent textiles, environmentally sound and seductively changing paints, and elastic and durable plastics, if attractive products are not created from them, if the attributes of the materials are not used to design innovative chairs, jackets, cars or displays. After all, there was always a close connection between malleable material and the culture of objects. So rather than the engineer, who has done his job, it is now up to the ingenuity and procedural intelligence of designers to familiarize themselves with the new attributes of materials and in addition to the technical possibilities, fathom out the aesthetic ones they provide as well.

Threatened basics of life. The reason for these changes, which occur totally quietly, may be manifold. They are deep-rooted. The fact is that following the digital revolution a new upheaval is taking shape: that of the material basics of our lives. Be it scarce resources, climate change or energy change, the basis of general well-being appears to be increasingly threatened. We do not yet know what effect this will have on our daily lives. At best we suspect that objects can no longer be viewed in isolation from one another. Whether nuclear physics attempts to find the structural design of matter, whether new, often sustainable and environmentally sound materials are developed or whether - citing philosophical materialism - the question arises as to whether and how the world explains itself, these all appear to be connected and to affect our relationship to the world.
One reason for the fact that at present our relationship to matter, to materials and to ourselves is changing into materialism, could lie in the fact that the relationship between industrial production and ecology is beginning to change. So it is not just the political and climatic foundations of our future existence that are being questioned, but also the material basis of our technical civilization. And this alters our approach to objects and goods in a fundamental way.

Material becomes intelligent. One possible response to this change, the necessity of which can scarcely be doubted any longer, involves switching to the immaterialness of digital media and control, in creating a second, a new material culture. This could be done on the basis of innovative materials and products in which not only the function of the material changes, but sustainable production and environmentally friendly disposal are also considered. While our relationship to raw materials, half-finished products and materials, based on production, consumption and garbage has so far harbored the old suspicion that material is mere matter and thus inferior to the product, this form of hierarchy fails to convince today. Even the added value which can be achieved by means of technically produced materials is not necessarily considered inferior to that promised by intelligent finished products. Today, and this is indeed surprising, intelligence is increasingly already embodied in the material itself. In principle, such informed materials are hybrids. This makes not just the application possibilities more diverse, composed of material and function they can be a lot more than just simply shaped - whereby the status of material within the design and production process basically changes. A material is no longer something to consume, rather it contains - as resource and product - its own added value instead of just being a cheap material base that contributes to the increase in the added value of finished products.

Producing sparingly. Don't be deceived - the return to a way of thinking which focuses on the solidity of the real without giving up the blessings of the immaterial along the way does not mean we are returning to old patterns. The great number of new, intelligent and functional materials developed testifies precisely to this: The return of a respectful and reliable material production beyond nature and on a new level, one which can be referred to as new inasmuch as it does not focus on the consumption of matter. Will our insight into the finiteness of the natural foundations of life lead to a new trust in immanence? Who knows? Either way, intelligent materials will prevail. And we look forward to seeing how old and new, fine and colorful, lasting and easy-care, patterned, tear-resistant and changeable materials from the realm of splendid attributes turn into equally splendid objects.