The fat made us do it: Understanding events that entangle people and vibrant matter

Thompson, Michael. 2023. The fat made us do it: Understanding events that entangle people and vibrant matter. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

This research examines a design-art practice consisting of a programme of interdisciplinary, participatory events. The events employ building an island of fat - the Fatberg - as a form of conceptual-analytical inquiry into relations with a socio-cultural, biological substance. What is striking about the practice is that fat functions not only as subject and construction material but is given an elevated status, what I call synthetic agency whose expressions purportedly direct proceedings. The result is a practice that follows and inherent logic for engaging with vibrant matter (to use Bennett's phrase) that encourages unpredictability. Identifying and critiquing the features and methods that compose Fatberg activities, the research examines the role of material as a participant and collaborator within participatory events.

An introductory discourse analysis reveals three features that shape the research enquiry: a dialogic space for fat, fat as a construction material, and fat as an agent. Each represents a distinct motivation for practice, affecting the relations between designer-artist, participants, and material. They also motivate various methods, theories, and practices drawn from art, design, literature, and philosophy that help situate and interpret the practice. Huizinga's theory on the function of play in human culture offers a starting point to establish the basis of creative experimentation. I consider the ecology of play, identifying the characteristics and dimensions that define play as an activity distinct from ordinary life. From there, a path is traced to artist Allan Kaprow's improvised happenings, which expand upon Huizinga's conceptualisation of play to shape a methodology for creative practice. I then look to artist Joseph Beuys's expanded notions of art and material, which positions artistic production as the trigger for social, political, and environmental change, to examine play's transgressive potential. Examining this body of knowledge, I compile a working vocabulary supporting narrative and analytical accounts of practice.

The practice-based component of the research centres on a triptych of events performed in summer 2017 and elaborates upon the three practice features to examine their practical effects on people and material. I argue that while Fatberg events appear susceptible to and arguably encourage chance disturbances and divergences, this essential to nurturing mindful engagements with vibrant material.

The primary contribution of the research is that it advances a holistic notion of participation that grapples with the real and imagined agency and contributions of material. Consequently, the thesis submits evidence of a learning process comprising practical resources and empirical accounts that helped navigate and comprehend the multifaceted, unpredictable goings-on in events centred on playful engagements with vibrant matter.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):


design-art, interdisciplinarity, participation, participatory events, play, vibrant matter.

Departments, Centres and Research Units:



31 January 2023

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

13 Feb 2023 11:51

Last Modified:

13 Feb 2023 13:54


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