Vibrant Practices: Material Agency and Performative Ontologies

University of Leeds, 16–17 April 2021.

The call for papers is here (PDF), please share widely across disciplines.

Deadline for submissions is Dec. 1st 2020, see call below for details.

Keywords: contingency, materiality, agency, performative ontology, sound, music, responsiveness, intra-action

The Garden of Forking Paths (GFP) project approaches musical composition through a framework of contingent materiality, material agency, listening, and responsiveness. Going further than appending these elements to existing compositional approaches, it situates both (1) players’ responsiveness to contingency, and (2) the material agency of instruments, as the conditions for sound-making and composition; music is emergent from the ‘intra-action’ (Barad) between player and instrument.

In this symposium we would like to facilitate discussion and reflection between a diverse array of practitioners and researchers (not only Music) who work with responsiveness to material contingency and agency. In the language of Andrew Pickering, practices that negotiate a ‘dance of agency’ between humans and the more-than-human. We are keen not to emphasise particular practices or disciplines, but rather discuss how dances of agency are diversely engaged and negotiated, and the nature of what they give rise to.

The GFP project, for example, adopts compositional strategies for the clarinet where performances unfold as a ‘dance of agency’ across a performer-instrument apparatus, through recursive open-form works where decisions in-the-moment can be the responsibility of the human OR the instrument. Following Pickering, the project is based on a performative ontology of ‘revealing rather than enframing’. For example, in GFP there are no fixed musical pitches in advance of performance, pitches are an emergent phenomena from the exploratory intra-action of the material configuration of the clarinet (what holes are open and closed, what reed strength etc.) and the performer’s techniques (breath pressures, mouth shapes etc.), as afforded through listening and responsiveness.

This symposium is interested in hearing from researchers and practitioners who similarly engage with contingency and agency as a way of ‘revealing […,] being open to what the world has to offer us instead of always trying to bend it to our will’ (Pickering). We are interested in projects that propose performative models of engagement to foreground the formative struggles between people and things, and that engage conditions of decenteredness; where ‘the non-human world enters constitutively into the becoming of the human world and vice versa’. We see these dances as processes of collaboration (Tsing) through which agency emerges, as well as alternate ways of knowing and being. The symposium will explore how these insights may provide means of ‘going on in the world at the ground level’ (Pickering), ‘staying with the trouble’ (Haraway), or ‘becoming earthly’ (Latour).

‘The symposium will maximise opportunities for conversation and discussion: papers will be short, grouped in themed discussion sessions, and circulated in advance. Performances and workshops will be scheduled as precursors for discussion sessions. We invite proposals for any of the following categories:

  • Workshop with participants
  • Demonstration/performance
  • Short paper (10 mins) submitted in advance. This can be a written paper, annotated documentation, video presentation, or any format in which you can evidence and support a point/argument/perspective.
  • Topic or provocation for discussion.

Please send an up-to 1-page abstract/submission (please specify category as above, and include indicative references) to Dr Alex De Little <>