Dark Matter Playgroup is a micro-residency that began in January 2021 with six artists and three artist mentors. Andy Berg, GHY Cheung, Bicky Marquez, Chrissy Poitras, Noah Scheinman and Kyle Topping were introduced to and invited to connect with mentors Elvira Hufschmid, Neven Lochhead and Jol Thoms. Dark Matter Playgroup was devised to support adaptive forms of collectivity and artmaking under the conditions of a global pandemic. Coinciding with Drift: Art and Dark Matter, the micro-residency takes up a conceptual notion of dark matter as an invisible and undetectable “mattering” that might pull together Playgroup participants. In other words, the participants are not beholden to dark matter as a scientific concept; rather, it is taken up as a poetic framework for the micro-residency.
The adoption of the term “playgroup” was inspired by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, who writes in The Mushroom at the End of the World:
Anyone who cares about ideas is forced, then, to create scenes that exceed or escape “professionalization,” that is, the surveillance techniques of privatization. This means designing research that requires playgroups and collaborative clusters: not congeries of individuals calculating costs and benefits, but rather scholarship that emerges through its collaborations. (p. 285)
This focus on co-creation, sharing, and setting aside individual or institutional hierarchies seems especially relevant in a pandemic year when we have been jolted out of routines and habits. Dark Matter Playgroup invites both the participating artists and mentors to unsettle themselves from fixed modalities and embrace ambulatory, flexible and pivoting methodologies.
Bicky Marquez, Bodily spots notes, 2021, graphite pencil on paper. Created for a Dark Matter Playgroup workshop with Elvira Hufschmid.
Andy Berg, improvisational exercise from Elvira Hufschmid’s workshop for Dark Matter playgroup, 2021, photo of performative paper sculpture.
Mentors designed workshops based on their own skills and interests for the artists-in-residence. Playgroup participants also met and self-organized outside of formal programming.
The series of workshops began with artist Jol Thoms, Agnes’s Stonecroft Artist-in-Residence and participant in Drift: Art and Dark Matter. Thoms’s first workshop (24 January) introduced Playgroup participants to Thoms’s practice, methodologies and research interests. The goal was to prepare the group for the methods of doing research with/approaching a non-local site, and asking: How can a sensitive approach to complex “holographic” sites open us towards the more-than-non-human? Can the powerful histories and practices of science and technology, and of art and exhibition, be resuscitated as allies in critical environmental and decolonial thought?
Thoms’s second workshop (31 January) proposed that the group discuss and develop a theoretical graphic novel as a para-fictional sixth dimensional object that attends to the site of Earth’s sixth largest meteor impact, the Manicouagan Reservoir in Quebec. The Manicouagan Reservoir is a site of overlapping stories, realities, cultures, biologies, geologies, industries, etc. Thoms asked the artists-in-residence to find and select a non-human agent that resides at this site to be their non-human collaborator and guide their research into the agent’s life and world using interdisciplinary and artistic methods. The group then met to share their stories and images, their initial research, and to cross- pollinate these stories with an emphasis on ethics and an expanded sense of landscape.
Elvira Hufschmid, an artist who’d previously designed a trans-disciplinary program for Drift: Art and Dark Matter, led the next Dark Matter Playgroup workshop, entitled “Aesthetic Transformation as Emergence Strategy.” It introduced the group to the transdisciplinary practice of Aesthetic Transformation, which is a form collective artmaking that embraces processes of mutual inspiration and influence within the arts and other fields of cultural and scientific knowledge production. It assumes that every creative work operates in a system of relationships to other fields, disciplines and to what others already have created. Like an exquisite corpse game, Aesthetic Transformation is a collaboration that utilizes the inspirational momentum of a predecessor within a chain of art production, resulting in a set of interdependent works. Elvira asked the Playgroup artists to visit the Drift: Art and Dark Matter exhibition and choose one of the artworks to respond to in a medium of their choice. Each response was then taken up by the group in the process of Aesthetic Transformation.
Lastly, Neven Lochhead has designed an extended and ongoing, informal learning experiment for Dark Matter Playgroup titled Fabricating Vibe: A Paragogic Learning Experiment that began on 14 March. Lochhead’s contribution as a mentor to the program has taken shape as a modular, assignment-driven, peer-to-peer learning habitat—a heavily modified remix of an open educational resource (OER) designed by Neil Mulholland at Edinburgh College of Art called Contemporary Art and Open Learning. The aim is to, as a group, develop and sustain an orbital, self-adjusting organizational rhythm through which Playgroup artists, mentors and curators can play with strategies for their own artistic learning (learning itself becomes an artistic material for the group to play way with, sculpt and transform). Lochhead proposed a series of asynchronous, team, and spatial assignments that will depart from the seminar-style Zoom habitats we so frequently occupy in the pandemic, and instead will test-drive improvisational, artist-initiated, spatially driven strategies such as shared PDF-thickening, dispersed walkie-talkie group meanderings, speculative furniture-rearranging, study-buddy score writings, etc. There is currently no end-date in place for this learning experiment.
Inspired by the various workshops designed by Jol Thoms, Elvira Hufschmid and Neven Lochhead, a public program launched on 22 June offers members of the public a series of self-directed activities to complete from home. These “Thought Provoking Care Packages” will include art supplies, written materials, curated assignments, etc. to encourage creative exploration at-a-distance.
A second public outgrowth of this micro-residency project is Superradiance, a group exhibition featuring new work by Playgroup participants on display 19 June–10 October 2021. Co-curated by Playgroup organizers Sunny Kerr and Michelle Bunton, Superradiance is a refraction of Dark Matter Playgroup’s shared trajectory and combined efforts. It is fitting that the exhibition be titled “superradiance,” a term rooted in dark matter physics that refers to a phenomenon of collectivity and the assemblage of moving energies in coherent excitation. Related to the exhibition, Agnes hosts a “Deep Looking” event on 22 June 2021. This event is an opportunity to deeply observe selected works from Superradiance. Guided by community facilitators, this contemplation practice allows for relaxation and new insights and is part of Agnes’s Wellness Program.
Andy Berg is a Settler whose practice acknowledges the life, history and culture of the land now known as Kingston. Berg cites the influence on her work of numerous enriching encounters, such as teaching arts and crafts at the former prison for women, serving as a community member for the Ontario Provincial Board of Parole, Eastern Region, returning to higher education later in life to complete her BFA at Queen’s University in 2008, working as the Unitarian Community Lay Chaplain, officiating for diverse rites of passage, including some of the first legal same-sex marriages in Kingston, and many more. These encounters assist her with working through the domains of artistic walking, feminism, ecology, Truth and Reconciliation, as well as holistic, often disputed therapeutic disciplines.
GHY Cheung a Hong Kong-born writer and artist whose work centres queer kinships as method, archive and sustenance. Taking an interdisciplinary and collective-minded approach, his practice slips between writing, installation, performance, and community-specific conversation wherein he prioritizes hospitality over authorship. Ongoing preoccupations in his work include: placemaking that engages public spaces in ways not circumscribed by their design; queer histories, longings and futurities; “queer family romance” where family archives and queer histories are brought together to set in motion mutual misreadings with the reparative potential to remake personal lineages.
Elvira Hufschmid is a multimedia artist of German descent and a current Doctoral Research Fellow at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. Her current research focuses on Aesthetic Transformation processes as a methodology for inter – and transdisciplinary collaboration and learning. In her PhD research in the Queen’s University Cultural Studies program she applies an Aesthetic Transformation strategy to investigate narratives of land enclosure as they relate to colonial property regimes of the settler society. As a collaborator in the SSHRC-funded art and science project ‘Leaning Out of Windows – Art and Physics Collaborations through Aesthetic Transformations’ and an affiliated researcher at the Berlin Centre for Advanced Studies in Arts & Sciences (BAS), Berlin University of the Arts, Germany (2017-19) she co-investigates the ways in which metaphor acts as a common code between art and science. Hufschmid holds an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, US, and she taught as a Visiting Artist at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Vancouver, BC, as well as a Guest Professor for ‘Artistic Transformation Processes’ at the Berlin University of the Arts, Germany.
Neven Lochhead is an artist and curator working with video, sound, music, performance and installation. His own artistic work draws from traditions of durational moving image and performance practices, the employment and conventions of text-on-screen in video art and cinema, and compositional strategies of minimal music. From 2017–2019, Lochhead developed his exhibition-making practice as curator of Knot Project Space, a venue in Ottawa he established as part of his role as Director of Programming at SAW Video Media Art Centre. Through this discursively operated space, Lochhead produced exhibitions and performances while working closely with local, national and international artists, as well as a series of lectures, learning contexts, residency platforms and off-site public art projects. Residencies as an artist include the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (2015) the Artist Research Laboratory in Como, Italy (2014). He received an MFA in Art Video from Syracuse University in 2016.
Bicky Marquez is a physicist and painter currently living in Kingston, Ontario. As a physicist, her research is mainly focused on optics/photonics, nonlinear sciences (chaotic, random and complex systems), information theory, artificial intelligence and philosophy of mind. These fields encounter a point of convergence in her work at Queen’s University, where she is building a brain-inspired (neuromorphic) computer with photonic components to accelerate artificial intelligence applications. As an artist, she draws inspiration from her research to create oil paintings that express the impossibility of understanding reality from the reconstructions that our brains make of it. Her artworks incorporate chaotic attractors, complex structures, confusion and neuromorphic stories.
Chrissy Poitras is a painter and printmaker, as well as co-owner of Spark Box Studio, an artist residency, print studio and educational facility in Prince Edward County. She graduated from the Queen’s University Bachelor of Fine Art Studio program and has exhibited her work throughout Canada and the US. Her work often explores accidental marks found in her surroundings. Worn tables, subway walls, studio floors are a few of the surfaces which inspire her work. Additionally, Poitras has been involved in community-based art projects with such groups at Critical Mass and the Department of Illumination. She is highly involved in her artistic community and has built a career that is rooted in creation and public outreach.
Noah Scheinman is a multidisciplinary artist, designer, and filmmaker His project-based practice explores the intersecting histories of environment, technology and culture, combining extensive research and fieldwork with experimental approaches to making. Working between sculpture, installation, and moving image, his recent projects are particularly focused on material and geographic transformations, and how the legacy of industrial modernity continues to shape present and future temporalities.
Jol Thoms is a Canadian-born, European-based artist, author and sound designer. Both his written and moving-image work engage posthumanism, feminist science studies, general ecology and the environmental implications of pervasive technical/sensing devices. In the fields of neutrino and dark matter physics he collaborates with renowned physics institutes around the world. These “laboratory-landscapes” are the focus of his practice led PhD at the University of Westminster. In 2017 Thoms was a fellow of Schloss Solitude and resident artist at the Bosch Campus for Research and Advanced Engineering.
Kyle Topping is a printmaker and co-owner of Spark Box Studio, an artist residency, print studio and educational facility in Prince Edward County. He is a former professor in the Art and Design program at Loyalist College and a graduate of the Bachelor of Fine Art program at Queen’s University. His practice employs nostalgic images from the 50s and 60s, as well as elements of vintage illustrations of scientific studies to create images that illustrate what he terms “fictional science.”