What is digital materiality?

Post by Pamela Grombacher.

“Digital materiality” is an oxymoron. Comprised of electrical signals and code, the digital has no physical matter. It cannot be seen, it cannot be touched. It has no weight, no shape, no form. It is by definition immaterial. So what is “digital materiality”?

Paul M. Leonardi explores this question through the lens of organizational studies in a paper called “Digital Materiality: How artifacts without matter, matter.” He suggests that  organizational studies has experienced its own material turn in recent years, as scholars have increasingly shifted focus from the intangible concepts underlying institutions (like norms and routines) to tangible objects that mediate daily life in places of work (like desks and staplers). But there is often logical and lexical slippage when theorizing digital technologies (or to use Leonardi’s preferred term, “digital artifacts”), as scholars tend to do so in physical terms. To illustrate, he cites numerous studies in which the authors describe algorithms as “material properties”, “materials aspects”, or “material features” of software that give them structure and define their use. For example, search engines, embedded menus, and help-desk queuing software give shape to technologies, guiding and regulating user experiences in specific ways. This discourse likens digital artifacts to tangible tools of productivity in a way that suggests literal physicality and frames data as matter. Leonardi rejects this as illogical:

“[D]ata and electricity are not objects. They are ‘stuff’ without a tangible character. You can’t touch data. You can touch the paper (an object) upon which data is written; you can touch the screen (an object) upon which data is displayed; but you can’t touch the data itself.”

Strictly speaking, I agree; there is no innate digital materiality, in a literal sense.* But Leonardi is perhaps limited by his focus on data that is produced, transferred, and consumed in an office. The process he describes is one of inscription - data manifests when displayed on an interface or printed onto a physical surface, transforming into visible and usable information as it moves from the immaterial realm of the digital to the physical world of the work place. This is the unidirectional use of functional data. But there are other ways of manifesting data that fall outside of Leonardi’s paradigm; ways that, I believe, challenge his understanding of data as purely immaterial.

Take, for example, the work of Emilie Carlsen. For her MFA thesis project, Digital Realism, Carlsen tested new ways in which digital processes and aesthetics could be used in textile design:

“My graduation project is a collection of visual investigations of the potentials in the coalescence of the digital and physical. Using both analogue and digital editing in my studies, I wish to contribute with new understandings of soft materials and their poetic potentials, by creating a meeting between the untouchable virtual data and the tactile fabric.”

(Danish text available here)

Carlsen uses “digital waste” (visual scraps from her own design practice and from miscellaneous web-based images) as the basis for her designs, compiling and editing them in Photoshop to produce hyper-controlled imagery. She then investigates what happens to this imagery when it is printed on different fabrics, testing how different textures, thread counts, and other material properties affect the clarity, colour quality, and overall aesthetic of the digital image. Carlsen often uses these discoveries to guide further digital manipulations of the image. Sometimes she scans images of these printed textiles to create new digital data:

Emilie Carlsen,  The Silent Witness  (detail), 2106. Print on paper.

Emilie Carlsen, The Silent Witness (detail), 2106. Print on paper.

And other times she emulates digital edits using analogue processes - for example using chemicals to create transparency or to bleach colours:

Emilie Carlsen,  Digital Realism - Pink  (detail), 2015. Digital print and analog printing on viscose silk in steel frame.

Emilie Carlsen, Digital Realism - Pink (detail), 2015. Digital print and analog printing on viscose silk in steel frame.

Emilie Carlsen,  Digital Realism - Green  (detail), 2015. Digital and analog printing on silk satin in steel frame.

Emilie Carlsen, Digital Realism - Green (detail), 2015. Digital and analog printing on silk satin in steel frame.

Carlsen defies Leonardi’s paradigm. Her textiles are not the simple inscription of data, but are instead the product of a mutually constitutive exchange between data and fabric. She materializes data as textiles, and then digitizes these textiles to create new data, blending digital and analogue processes in a back-and-forth that blurs the material and the immaterial realms.

Doesn’t this trouble the idea that the digital is immaterial? When textile artworks are this intertwined with digital processes, isn’t it possible to conceive that data is as inherent to their form as are their material fibres? Aren’t these works, in a way, suffused with code? And if so, doesn’t this challenge not only the innate immateriality of the digital, but also the pure physicality of matter?

See more of Emilie Carlsen's textile designs at

*Here using “material” to refer to actual physical substance. Leonardi goes on to argue that one can describe digital artifacts as “material” when using the adjective as a synonym for either “significant” (as in “material evidence”) or “instantiative” (as in, capable of realizing or materializing concepts or ideas).

Thoughts on a Digital Materiality - Guest Post by Alysha Creighton

Exhibiting The Touch (2011) makes me reflect on the evolution of my video practice since I began to work in the medium seven years ago. I’ve been considering how my relationship to digital video has shifted during this time, from my initial discomfort to a playful exploration of the materiality, presence and experiential nature of digital video.

As an artist who was trained primarily in traditional media of drawing and painting the shift to video was disconcerting. I had studied dance before beginning my art training and had always framed my drawing practice in terms of physicality, embodiment and materiality.

It was my interest in physicality and materiality that made me ambivalent about video. I sensed that video had the capacity to create a powerful experience for the viewer but was repelled by the seeming immateriality and daunted by the many sedentary hours I knew I would need to spend in front of the computer.  My early video works interrogated video as a medium in much the same way as some of the early video art experiments of the sixties and seventies, exploring the interactions between the digital and material. Is there a materiality of the digital?

My entire practice since has been occupied with the tension between the digital and the material. Making physical the digital, making digital the material and navigating the space between. I consider the intimacy and physicality with which we interact with digital displays which furnish our lives, cradling them close, tucking them in next to us as we drift off to sleep.

I met, Stephanie Imbeau, the woman featured in The Touch, while on a residency in New York. Also an artist, Stephanie and I became friends while I spent nearly thirty hours drawing directly onto her body and face. The video somehow contains the intensity of those hours spent together through boredom, laughter, pain, conversation, silence, discomfort, creating a portrait that is at once tender and unsettling.

This work was pivotal in forming the way I think about video. The ability to trigger a physical, visceral, tactile experience for the viewer dissolved many of the assumed binaries that had guided my thinking about digital media previously.

See more of Alysha's work at

Close-up: The Tactile

Med udstillingen The Tactile sætter vi stor fokus på taktile materialer, og i denne fotoreportage fra udstillingen, går vi helt tæt på og viser materialernes haptiske og sanselige kvaliteter i en række close-up billeder.

Udstillingen vises i foyeren i Godsbanen, Aarhus, indtil d.19. februar, hvor du selv kan undersøge og nærstudere værkernes taktilitet.

With the exhibition The Tactile, we put great emphasis on tactile materials. In this photo reportage from the show, we zoom in on the materials’ haptic and sensual qualities in a series of close-up images.

The exhibition will be on display in the foyer at Godsbanen, Aarhus, until February 19th, where you can explore and examine all the works and their tactility.


Nok se, men ikke røre! Om taktil kunst, synet og de andre sanser

close-up: Mariko Wada  State of Mind, Hope , stentøj, 2014 (Foto: Minik Busk Langkjær)

close-up: Mariko Wada State of Mind, Hope, stentøj, 2014 (Foto: Minik Busk Langkjær)

Om udstillingen "The Tactile" i Godsbanens foyer, Aarhus.
Af: Nana Bendix Hansen

Det er efterhånden lidt en kliche at starte med et ordbogsopslag, men når jeg nu gør det alligevel, er det fordi ordet og dets betydning er ganske relevant for denne tekst og udstillingen den relaterer sig til. Så her kommer det: Slår man ordet ”taktil” op i Gyldendals Røde Fremmedordbog, får man følgende forklaring:

Taktil (lat. ’tactilis, af ’tactus pp af ’tangere røre) vedr. Berøring, føle-; som kan føles; håndgribelig

Udstillingen The Tactile har, set i lyset af dette ordbogsopslag, måske en lidt paradoksal titel, for her må du ikke røre – nok se, men ikke røre! Sådan som det ofte forholder sig med kunstudstillinger. Jeg vil dog, som en af kuratorerne bag udstillingen, argumentere for, at titlen er yderst velvalgt på trods af, at man som publikum skal holde fingrene for sig selv og må ”nøjes” med at opleve udstillingen visuelt.

Når vi nu har slået fast, at det taktile har at gøre med noget, som kan føles, berøring og at røre, ligger det lige for, at knytte det til vores (traditionelle) 5 sanser, og helt specifikt til følesansen. Og netop heri ligger det paradoksale ved kun at vise taktil kunst. Men spørgsmålet er, om vi ikke kan få en taktil oplevelse udelukkende ved at se? Som det måske kan fornemmes, mener jeg bestemt, at man kan netop dette.

Ideen om de 5 sanser stammer fra Aristoteles og er således en særdeles gammel og velcementeret opdeling og forståelse af mennesket og dets sanseapparat. Traditionelt set har mennesket syns-, høre-, smags-, lugte- og følesans: 5 veldefinerede og adskilte sanser, der træder i kraft i perceptionen af omverden og krop. Men det at se noget, kan opleves som en umiddelbar fysisk sensation, en sansning der i bund og grund les, måske i højere grad end, eller i hvert fald samtidig med, at den ses. Den finske arkitekt og teoretiker Juhani Pallasmaa beskriver i bogen Arkitekturen og sanserne, der på originalsprog har den meget sigende titel The Eyes of the Skin – Architecture and the Senses, hvordan alle sanserne er forbundet, og at man derfor kan få en multisensorisk oplevelse, der som udgangspunkt kun er stimuleret visuelt/optisk:

... Øjnene vil gerne samarbejde med de andre sanser. Alle sanserne, inklusive synssansen, kan betragtes som udvidelser af følesansen – som specialiseringer af huden. [...] Selv øjet berører; blikket indebærer en ubevidst berøring, en kropslig mimesis og identifikation [...] Vores øjne berører fjerne overflader, konturer og kanter, og den ubevidste følesans afgør, om oplevelsen er behagelig eller ubehagelig... (Pallasmaa s. 68-69)

Gennem synssansen stimuleres følesansen, eller vores taktile ”hukommelse”, en kropslig erfaring, der sætter os i stand til at forestille os, hvordan et vist materiale vil føles. Så når vi i The Tactile står over for Rieko Hottas monumentale oliemaleri Bodydetention 1, når vi ser Mariko Wadas State of mind: Hope, eller når vi nærstuderer Hanne G.’s Rug On, og med magt skal holde fingrene for os selv, kan det igangsætte en fysisk oplevelse af, hvordan det vil være at lægge hånden på de stikkende og skinnende ’prikker’ af stivnet oliemaling. Vi kan mærke tyngden og krakeleringerne i leret og hvordan ulden, med den tykke størknede maling, føles både ru, skorpet, tør og blød. Sagt på en anden måde, når vi tvinges til at ’nøjes med’ at se på noget, der er udpræget taktilt, kan vi få en kropslig oplevelse, hvor følesansen aktiveres, og vi fornemmer de fysiske sensationer, vi er afholdt fra egentligt at få. Måske, hvis man skal strække den lidt, kan man sige, at man oplever sig selv og sin krop være tilstede, man oplever sig selv som beskuer, som ét objekt over for et andet, en krop mod en anden (kunstværket).

Mit håb med denne udstilling er, at folk vil overgive sig til de sensationer der ligger i at lade synet berøre og undersøge de forskellige overflader og teksturer. Derudover er mit håb at folk bliver bevidste om hvad værkerne gør ved dem, hvordan værkerne opleves og i særdeleshed, hvordan de senere videreformidler denne oplevelse, det er nemlig min overbevisning at den største oplevelse ikke kun ligger i det at se værkerne, men også derigennem at mærke hvordan de føles. 



Brüel, Sven og Niels Åge Madsen: Fremmedordbog, (11. udg., 11. oplag), Gyldendal, 1993 [1960]

Pallasmaa, Juhani: Arkitekturen og sanserne [The Eyes of the Skin – Architecture and the Senses], Arkitektens Forlag, 2014 [2012] 

Velkommen til / Welcome to the Rethinking MATTER blog!

Kuratorer / Curators Pamela Grombacher, Nana Bendix Hansen, and Sasha Rose Richter

Kuratorer / Curators Pamela Grombacher, Nana Bendix Hansen, and Sasha Rose Richter

Welcome! We are the curators of the upcoming exhibition series Rethinking MATTER, opening soon in Godsbanen, the main cultural production center in Aarhus, Denmark. We are very proud and excited to present three exhibitions that explore the material turn in contemporary art and visual culture The Tactile, Digital Materiality, and Biotic Synthetics.

During our time working together at Aarhus Center for Visual Art, we spotted a tendency for artists to play with the boundaries of materiality, and have become fascinated by the ways in which artists play with art materials - what is used, and how.

This blog will complement the exhibition series as a forum for thought and discussion, as a space in which to unpack the ideas underlying the three shows and motivating our collaborative curatorial practice. 

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Velkommen! Vi er kuratorerne bag den kommende udstillingsrække Rethinking MATTER på Godsbanen i Aarhus. Vi er stolte af og glæder os til at præsentere tre udstillinger der undersøger samtidskunstens forhold til materialer og brugen af dem, gennem udstillingerne The TactileDigital Materiality, and Biotic Synthetics.

I den tid vi har arbejdet sammen på Aarhus Billedkunstcenter synes vi at have spottet en tendens i samtidskunsten, hvor kunstnerne tester og udforsker materialets grænser. Denne tendens har fascineret os og dannet grobund for denne udstillingsrække, der inddrager kunstnere som "leger" med kunstens materialer og brugen af dem.

Denne blog vil supplere formidlingen af udstillingsrækken og åbne op for de tematikker der bringes i spil gennem de forskellige udstillinger. Her kan man løbende finde blogindlæg fra os og kunstnerne samt informationer om up-coming events.