Expanding Foam: A Pocket Guide

For several years I have collected photos of expanding (builders, or polyurethane) foam. It’s the stuff that comes in tall tins. My preferred variety is Screwfix ‘No Nonsense’ own brand. It is a chemical product created by combining two materials, isocyanate and polyol resin, which react when mixed with each other and expand up to 30-60 times their liquid volume after being sprayed in place. Small amounts of water increases its curing time.

I remembered that when I was first at art school, expanding foam was a favoured medium – for painters and sculptors, designers making chairs, all kinds of objects. I still see it being used in universities, in sculpture exhibitions, and in galleries. In fact, it seems to be going through something of a resurgence. During my time in New York when I made this publication I found it in several art shows.

It also pops up all over the city, and I have used it for lots of mundane jobs myself. As a material it is equal parts dreadful and wonderful; an instant gap filler, with excellent insulation properties. It has a movement and agency of its own, it will take on whatever shape it wishes, only submitting to gravity, you have no real hope of sculpting it when it is wet, it sticks to you like one of Tim Morton’s ‘hyperobjects’. It will normally settle into dripping, globular balls — like The Stuff (1985) — a substance working its way through architecture’s cracks.

In this publication I present some of my favourite encounters with this material and will define whether they are ‘art’ or ‘not-art’, and to think with the agency of the material — if it is used in artworks, where does the artist’s agency end and foam’s begin? Is it the foam that dictates its own form, or the sprayer we should credit. And what about the builders that use it to make a good seal? How might these foamy instances gain art-object status in relation to their surroundings and context?

Copies of the publication can be found at Printed Matter, or from the box under my desk.