Perspectives to agency of objects at Artefacta 2023 conference

Text by Eerika Koskinen-Koivisto & Anna Kajander

SENSOMEMO researchers Anna Kajander and Eerika Koskinen-Koivisto attended the Third International Artefacta Conference in Turku, Finland on 16–17 February 2023. The theme of the conference was agency of objects, which has become one of the most debated and productive concepts in the study of artefacts and material culture. Agency refers to the capacity of objects to create an action or produce physical, emotional, social, or cultural effects and atmospheres. In discussions around the object-based ontologies, the concept of non-human agency has transformed the ways we can understand and scrutinize the interaction of things, people and their environments.  

In the opening keynote, Professor of Archaeology Bjørnar Olsen (the Arctic University of Norway) asked if things also have theoretical agency. He argued that they do, at least in empirical research where concrete physical sites and/or objects or cultural practices (trans)form theoretical ideas. According to him, theory is and should be vulnerable. When studying materiality, we should look for asymmetries, the controversial and sometimes also negative effects of materiality, and think about the afterlives of things; how they continue to exist after the creators or users are gone.

Another keynote was held by Professor of Ethnology Tine Damsholt (University of Copenhagen) who analyzed the affective agency of material objects during the pandemic everyday life. She saw potential in Jane Bennett’s (2005) theorizations of human-nonhuman assemblages, formations   which have so-called confederate agency. Damsholt demonstrated this by introducing examples of practices of engaging with materiality such as knitting and baking which can affect “moods” and help to cope with liminal state of pandemic, altered temporality and blurred future. It is interesting to see if these engagements have left any permanent changes in the rhythms of our everyday lives.

In the panel sessions, agency was combined with various perspectives to materiality. Our own presentation focused on the concept of autobiographical materiality in the context of home. Material environments and objects play an essential part in life stories, and therefore, we argue, the agency of everyday items at home connects with autobiographical materiality. In the Sensomemo project, we want to find and analyze personal memories connected with meaningful objects and everyday-life materiality and scrutinize the affective and sensory aspects of these memories

In session 11 “Artefacts 1”, Cultural historian Maija Mäkikalli from the University of Turku analyzed how furniture of a Finnish designer Carl-Johan Boman (1883-1969) was observed by critics in exhibitions from 1920s to 50s. The furniture were visual pieces, and played a role in modernizing lifestyles in Finland. Interestingly, Mäkikalli also noted how the contemporary critics found sensual and affective aspects in these pieces of furniture. For example, in women’s magazine Hopeapeili, a well-made sofa/armchair was described as a source of “sensual pleasure”, a piece that “the hand instinctively stokes”. (A comment from the audience noted how such sensory descriptions of things were typical in women’s magazines before the quality of pictures improved in the 60s or 70s.) Agency of the furniture was cultural and social, but also sensory and personal.

Anthropologist Francisco Martinez (Estonian Academy of Arts) gave a presentation in the same panel. He focused on contemporary material culture and the ways people keep “things in the dark”, presenting an ethnography from basements in Eastern Estonia. He argued that basements are not merely passive repositories of objects but also places which are used for managing the overflow of things, and keep things that have potential for “possible futures”. There may be outdated technology, stuff out of fashion, things on stand-by or items that are kept hidden for some reason. Traces of different stages of life may be found from the basements, which are both past, present and future-oriented spatio-temporal places, often packed with both affective and non-affective stuff (see also Martinez, forthcoming).

In session 21 “Making and Crafting”, boatbuilder Fredrik Leijonhuvud (University of Gothenburg) introduced his PhD study about the boat building traditions of Swedish archipelago. As there are no longer living tradition bearers, his material consists of artefacts, the remaining boats and tools, as well as archival materials. In addition, he uses his own knowledge and skills as a craft maker (Leijonhuvud 2022). In his presentation Leijonhuvud applied an ecological approach, the theory of affordances, i.e. what the environment has to offer (Gibson 1979) addressing the craftsperson’s relation to materials and nature, tools and natural resources and reflecting on the possibilities they offer for craft and design.

The Artefacta conference reminded us that the study of material culture is about multidisciplinary discussions. In addition to theoretical approaches such as agency of objects, the practical knowledge such as the skills of craft persons, and the processes of learning by doing add an important layer of knowledge to the study of artefacts.


Ahmed, S. 2014. “Not in the mood” New Formations. A journal of Culture, Theory and Politics 82.

Bennett, J. 2005.“The agency of assemblages and the North American blackout” Public Culture 17:3, 445–465.

Gibson, J. J. 1979. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Leijonhuvud, Fredrik 2022. Interpretation of Boats in a Craft Tradition: How the Craftsperson’s Perspective Can Improve the Interpretations of Artefacts in Research. In Craft Sciences, edited by Groth, C., Westerlund, T., Groth, C. & Almevik, G., 230–246.  Gothenburg: Kriterium.

Löfgren, Orvar 2014. The Black Box of Everyday Life. Entanglements of Stuff, Affects, and Activities. Cultural Analysis 13, 77–98.

Martinez, Francisco forthcoming. Store It in a Cool Place. An Ethnography of Basements in Estonia. Home Cultures.

Mäkikalli, Maija 2021: Laatuhuonekaluja koteihin: Boman, moderni ja suomalaisen huonekalutaiteen murros 1920-luvulta 1950-luvulle. Suomen muinaismuistoyhdistyksen aikakauskirja 125. Helsinki:Suomen muinaismuistoyhdistys.