Leisure Airing (Dirty Laundry), 2019.
Photo : courtesy of the artists

A Many-Handed Practice

Andrea Williamson
Conflict, interruption, and things getting in the way are everyday instances of consciously encountering objects or materials as agential entities — things with their own agendas. At the time of this writing, a forest fire is growing and being attacked by aerial firefighters over the hill outside my window. Would I have thought of fire, pine trees, forest animals, and other things in this moment if the fire had not asserted its potential threat over me? Speculative realists such as Levi Bryant argue that objects must be thought to exist unto themselves — withdrawn beyond our or any other relation to them — if they are to have their own sovereignty as democratic players in our world. Bryant laments that objects are dissolved in an acid bath of signification, or of human interpretation, and not allowed their own ontology beyond knowing. A biosemiotic understanding, by contrast, acknowledges that all of nature (including living and nonliving objects) communicates by sign-making, creative interpretation, and play.

Leisure, a collaboration between artists Meredith Carruthers and Susannah Wesley, works toward a participatory democracy of objects and others. The artist duo’s cosmopolitics — Isabelle Stengers’ term for the collective worldmaking of human and nonhuman actors — emerges from responsiveness and responsibility (response-ability) to environments and their stories. In this essay, I interpret Leisure’s work and practice through a biosemiotic lens to call upon their example of responding to things — not just things that get in the way, but also those that assert their presence when we actively reach out and look for them.

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This article also appears in the issue 101 - New Materialisms

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