Lyotard, Jean-François. “Les Immatériaux.” In Thinking About Exhibitions.
Ed. Greenberg, Ferguson, and Nairne. London: Routledge, 1996.
annotation by Lesley Martin (Theories of Media, Winter 2003)

Jean-François Lyotard’s article, “Les Immatériaux”, is a description and ideological account of a proposed exhibition which was later produced at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1985. Lyotard was the Chief Organizer of the project. As he explains, the exhibit is based on the Cartesian idea of man’s ability to possess and manipulate nature, or materials. The question it intends to raise and explore is how that relationship is affected by the arrival of new technologies, or simply more undefined or ephemeral areas in which man works. He says this is to address our “anxiety about the postmodern condition”. For example, how do we react to the fact that mind and matter are now “cousins” as “immaterials”, as automatons can now carry out mental as well as the usual physical operations, and so man has turned his projects back on himself?

The exhibition was conceived as a philosophical piece meant to encourage free association and independent thought, and so it was made purposefully ambiguous and contradictory. For instance, there was a need for postmodern space-time, so there was no set itinerary for the order in which the sites would be encountered. Also, the eye was no longer the exclusive agent in the experience, with freedom of movement and the use of various soundtracks. Five words were chosen in which to create zones of inquiry and physical arrangement: material (the support of the message), materiel (hardware that moves the message), maternity (the function of the sender), matter (what the message is about), and matrix (the code of the message). One example of a display within the “materiel” sites is that of the Musician Despite Himself. It asks the questions, “How is a musical message set in motion?” and “What law does it obey?”, and includes ten square meters in which microphones, sonars, and computers translate all movement into music, and a read-out of the sound produced by the transmitter circuit and headphones.

This article is related to media theory on two levels. First of all, it discusses some of the technical aspects of exhibition practice. Exhibitions themselves are a medium, and the choice of objects, their arrangement and juxtaposition within the space, the use of explanatory text, etc., all have an effect on the message being sent. Secondly, and most important, is the content of Les Immatériaux itself. The exhibition is directly engaged in the study of media on the basic level of senders, receivers, and codes, and it also takes it as far out as questions like “Who is the author of a culinary message?”. The issue of man’s relationship as an author to the materials of the postmodern world is certainly a provocative one, and the design of Les Immatériaux takes full advantage of it.

The article, following a preliminary document circulated in 1983, was first published in Art & Text, 17 (1985).