Suspension–Machines: A Project in Suspension

Shortlisted for Kontempora’s ‘RESET’ Residency (Sofia, Bulgaria), this proposed project will hopefully feature as part of the ‘Paradigm Shifts’ programme at (Graz, Austria) depending on how the pandemic situation unfolds. For now, it’s a project in suspension, which I suspend here as a hovering invitation to potential partners (fellow creatives, researchers, cultural or scientific organisations). If you are interested in collaborating on this theme, do get in touch.

Suspension-Machines, speculative video statement, Lucy Sabin 2021.

Summary of Proposed Project

Suspension denotes a liminal state between up and down, before and after. As such, it represents a moment of murky, cloudy ambiguity that supposedly connects cause with effect. As a theme, suspension speaks to concerns about life today, from COVID-19 to environmental toxicology to sociopolitical unrest. This trans-disciplinary project would take suspension itself as a methodological prompt for innovating kinetic installations that potentiate a substance to be held in another. These ‘suspension-machines’ would be intimately captured and suspended in time using film, photography and installation. Ensuing discussions and interactions with the art–science community would explore the affordances of suspension–machines as a new form of scenography for attuning to uncertainty and ambiguity on extrapolated scales.

The Topic

Suspension, which literally means ‘to hang from below’, is an ongoing moment in which possibilities open up(wards). A mystery is announced right before the end credits, an infectious agent becomes airborne in a droplet of mucus, a dust particle is stirred up by the wind and the earth is no longer the ground. What will happen next? How long until we get our answers? We just do not know. We must wait until the next episode, until data is available, until the simulation ends. In the meantime, to understand the conditions of suspension, we need to suspend judgement or disbelief about any desired or feared outcomes and attend instead to fluctuations of material spacetime coordinates.

The Aims

I am proposing suspension–machines as potential ‘empathy devices’, capable of tooling our sensibilities so that we can refractively ‘feel’ (pathos) ‘in/to’ (em) liminal states such as the latency between emission and exposure, cause and effect, question and answer. In other words, the conceptual and affective experience of uncertainty can be identified with the concrete experience of suspension that our bodies have known since amniotic fluid buoyed us. It may sound like an imaginative leap to connect a material process with notions of empathy. But that is exactly what empathy is – a leap of the imagination.  

I am keen to respond to laboratory enactments of various material processes of suspension, and engage with these processes artistically, to mobilise new forms of empathy with life and non-life in our era of ubiquitous pollution, bearing in mind:  

  • deep-sea mining and oil spills that contaminate oceans 
  • microplastics or microbeads that are consumed and discarded to be consumed again in seafood (or inhaled via the sea breeze)
  • combustion particles and desert sand crossing continents  
  • the dynamics of droplets emitted by a single cough 
  • the experience of navigating and feeling into these uncertainties, of being held in suspense by an unfinished

The Method

First, I would be responding to a lab-based ethnography by anthropologists Timothy Choy and Jerry Zee (2015). In their article, ‘Condition–Suspension’, they describe a ‘suspension–machine’ as a ‘material enactment in miniature’ wherein substances are potentiated to shift state and be held in another, resulting in a unique ‘microtopography’. One example is sand in a wind tunnel. The aim with my invented suspension–machines would be to achieve a circular system with familiar materials and equipment to reflect that energy and matter around us are constantly transformed yet never lost. 

Fuel could be combusted, the ash then suspended in liquid, the liquid frozen, melted, evaporated, the sediment blown. These are merely examples. The final design of such destructive yet creative experiments would inevitably be shaped by my research with a cultural or scientific partner.

Second, my documentation of the suspension–machines would be inspired by early process art, specifically Marcel Duchamp’s 3 stoppages étalon (1913-14) and Réseaux des stoppages (1914). Duchamp’s stoppages become object performances or forensic artefacts; the artist traces the microtopography of one-metre lengths of string, repeatedly dropped as evidence of his hasard. Initial ideas for my own stoppages include framing the material processes through digital filmmaking and close-up photography. These mediums are, in themselves, acts of suspension. For instance, film footage of the suspension–machines could be broken up into frame stills that chart arbitrary points in time, aesthetically differentiated by fluctuations in the contents’ volume or density, relative location and differential capacity to scatter light. At present, I am imagining a utilitarian scenography of remnants from the material experiments backgrounded by a sequence of photographed moments.

suspended project

in floating fragmented forms

waiting to settle