I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
Encountering Agnieszka Kurant’s work, I was struck by how palpably her art summons negative space and invokes the negated, omitted, or hidden, which are ultimately defining parts of what we see and experience—be it in the realm of politics, economics, information, or culture.
Although Kurant refers to, and even employs, digital labor and virtual collective intelligence, her chosen mediums are not digital or web-based. She creates sculptures, installations, kinetic objects, audio, film, books, and prints. Describing her work inevitably entails lists as she is invested in a variety of disciplines. Conceptually inhabiting the intersections between art, technology, science, and philosophy, Kurant brings many strategies to her work—from conventional research to sophisticated data analysis, from crowdsourcing to energy transfer, from collaborating to commissioning, to creative inquiry into the interplay of the known and the unknown.
Her interest in “controlled randomness” doesn’t only connect her work to the realm of algorithms but also to former art movements, some of which Kurant explicitly refers to in her work. Duchamp turning art from object into concept, Dada applying formal order to random language, Fluxus with its interactive events and crowd participation, and conceptual art presenting open structures in process—all these approaches likely have a bearing on Kurant’s work. Consequently, Kurant doesn’t consider herself the sole creator of her artwork; she in fact questions the concept of individual genius or the mastermind and considers it a notion to be overcome in favor of collective authorship on a large, even anonymous scale. Her works are mostly collaborative and involve the input of scientists, engineers, and programmers, fellow artists, writers, or actors, as well as unwitting participants.
Perhaps ethically harvested collective intelligence and virtual creativity can eventually lead away from exploitative patterns and competitive individualism (and the ego society). It is worth remembering that the basic concept of all computer technology, the binary system, does not consist of opposition only—yes and no, on and off, zero and one, individual and collective, negative and positive (and so forth) require the other in order to exist, to be perceived and experienced, and ultimately to make a whole.
— Sabine Russ
Sabine Russ You have an obvious interest in patterns—patterns of evolution, economics, labor, culture, dispersion of knowledge—and in the empty or negative space within them, which may represent the unknown, losses, cuts, phantoms, or fictions, all of which are themes in your work.
Agnieszka Kurant Yes, I’m interested in the idea of exformation, which refers to explicitly discarded information—immaterial data that are crucial in shaping contemporary narratives but disappear in the process of compression, editing, or dispersion of memes. The unknown unknowns of knowledge. The notion of negative information is fascinating to me because the field of information is also constituted by what is excluded from it. History and politics are dependent on their cutouts. Science is also dependent on outliers that weren’t granted the status of scientific phenomena and hence were eliminated. Complexity science has coined the term silent hero—referring to someone who is integral to a great invention, for instance, but is never credited.
The art world too is contingent on the millions that never made it—writers with unpublished novels or failed artists with unseen work. These are the people who are buying magazines, museum memberships, attending screenings and exhibition openings. They are essential for the industry to exist. I’m interested in all forms of surplus, in redundant or invisible entities, phantoms haunting capitalist production, and in how their actual value can be measured.
SR As an artist, you are somewhat resisting product although your work results in sculpture and installation. You have said elsewhere that the economy of cyberspace, of ideas, information, and knowledge provides readymade conceptual art, in a sense.
AK Paradoxically, the alleged dematerialization of the art object claimed by conceptual art (which in reality was replaced by even more fetishized certificates of authorship and documentation) has been fully realized in current cognitive capitalism. Contemporary economy and politics are based to a high degree on immaterial, virtual, and phantom products such as patents, copyrights, strategies, debts, air rights, etcetera. Money and labor are becoming increasingly immaterial and invisible.
With my piece Air Rights—a meteorite magically levitating above a pedestal—I refer to the real estate concept of empty space above a property and to the fabrication of value (out of nothing but air) in financial games and gentrification processes. Air rights, evoking the Duchampian idea of selling the air of Paris in a bottle, are a lucrative territory for speculation. Speculation ultimately becomes a mode of production in finance and art.
SR Phantom Library, an ongoing project, consists of blank books, the spines of which show the titles of books that haven’t been written (yet) but were insinuated or described in existing books. There are also your maps of phantom islands, and works concerned with phantom labor and phantom currency. Is there humor in your approach?
AK The phantoms I am talking about can be humorous, light, or poetic but what they are hiding are the horrors of capitalist exploitation and speculation. Our entire economic and political reality is based on phantoms and fictions. What I call “phantom capital” are the invisible entities present in contemporary capitalism. With my work I’m reflecting on the relationship between fiction, magic, economy, and politics.
The Phantom Capital series started with the Maps of Phantom Islands. I researched nonexistent islands that have appeared on important political and economic world maps throughout the history of cartography. In some cases, these islands were results of mirages; in others, they were inventions, purposefully added by explorers to acquire funding for further colonial expeditions. Many of these territories were sources of real financial transactions and conflicts that almost led to wars.
SR For the second stage of Phantom Library you are commissioning fiction based on imaginary books you found mentioned in other books. How much control do you retain over the outcome?
AK I’m interested in the loss of control over works. I imagined a work that can change its form and status after it is produced and even after it is sold. The Phantom Library installation is an ongoing project based on fictional books that have never physically existed themselves but were mentioned within existing books by authors such as Philip K. Dick, Stanisław Lem, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, among others. I acquired ISBN numbers and barcodes to give these books actual economic identities, and then produced one physical copy of each. With a professional printing process normally used to manufacture thousands of copies, I created a series of “unique multiples.” I imagined that in the very near future—this is already being tested at different engineering labs—there will be mass production of unique objects, each one the result of a negotiation between nano agents, or altered by an algorithm. Phantom Library tries to anticipate these hybrids hovering between mass production and individuality. I invited many writers to write selected phantom books from my library. The finished books will be published and gradually replace the blank volumes.
SR You study phenomena that recur in many different fields and disciplines. How did your cross disciplinary approach evolve?
AK A few years ago I became interested in complex systems—which are at the basis of everything that happens in nature and in society. They are self-organized systems with simple components but complex, unpredictable, and nonlinear overall behavior. Some of these systems evolve as they learn from experience. Examples include social insects like termite and ant colonies, the stock market, the brain, the Internet, political parties, etcetera. Research into these systems occurs in a lot of disciplines— from anthropology, artificial intelligence, artificial life, computer science, economics, evolutionary biology, to earthquake prediction, meteorology, and neuroscience. It turns out that the same patterns and algorithms describing, let’s say, the behavior of particles in a heated gas, could underlie how termites build their mounds, and how a meme or rumor disperses in society. I find that fascinating.
I’ve studied for many years now the emergence of the unknown unknowns in complex systems—outliers or extremely rare events that cannot be anticipated on the basis of statistics or averaged results. We really can’t tell how certain complex systems such as the Internet or a revolutionary movement will behave. They are like living organisms. Patterns arise through interactions and self organization among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit the properties of the larger coherent entity they are part of.
I started analyzing collective intelligence, where large numbers of simple agents cooperate to produce complex behavior: collective insect behavior (“superorganisms”), artificial life, swarm robotics, evolution of memes and social movements, etcetera. All these behaviors can be explained in “evolutionary algorithms.”
SR There’s an algorithm but yet an unpredictable outcome. How does this research carry over into your artwork?
AK I got interested in emergence because it is a form of creation and I decided to use it for my artistic production. Emergence is based on the collaboration, collective efforts, and competition of many individuals as the system grows, but the outcomes are often impossible to anticipate. For me, the underlying question is: How can we perhaps program the iterations of simple locally interacting agents to achieve the global behaviors we want? I started thinking about artworks and exhibitions as living intelligent organisms, as forms of artificial life, or as evolutionary complex systems.
SR But don’t we humans, despite our desire for control and knowledge, subconsciously crave surprise, which ultimately triggers our emotions?
AK I think we oscillate between the need to predict and control the future and the need for risk and surprise. Real functioning artificial intelligence will also be a complex system, just like the brain. A sentient computer capable of passing the Turing test is not going to be produced within tens or perhaps even hundreds of years from now, because even if all computers in the world were connected into one, the amount of neurons interacting in a single human brain would still be way higher. Meanwhile, we can analyze smaller complex systems that behave in similar ways.
SR Tell me about Quasi-Object, an artwork that is not a result of your individual imagination but of collective intelligence, or pooled creativity. It’s a soccer ball that rolls around the space in a seemingly random way but is driven by an “intelligent” entity elsewhere.
AK I’m fascinated by how collective identities operated by a pool of agents are seen as quasi-persons. Hence the title of this work, which also refers to Michel Serres and object-oriented ontology. Nowadays in the US, corporations have the status of humans and corporate personhood allows a company to claim some of the same legal rights as an individual. Quasi-Object was my first attempt to think about these questions of collective identity or collective personality. This animatronic soccer ball moves in different directions, seemingly kicked by invisible players. The players might be the offshore workers of the Amazon Mechanical Turk or networked kids playing soccer on their computers worldwide. I wanted to create an animated object that has its own agency and agenda resulting from the collective intelligence and actions of a community of invisible agents.
SR So you outsourced your artwork to these invisible and anonymous others. You also employed termite colonies to make art, supplying them with colorful material to build sculptures for you just as they would normally build mounds for themselves. The work is called A.A.I., for Artificial Artificial Intelligence. The termite mounds seem to be perfect readymades.
AK They are assisted readymades, but assisted in a hybrid way. Termite colonies, which often consist of up to a few million specimen, build mounds resembling monuments of ancient civilizations like pyramids, ziggurats, or temples. I also thought of the analogy to other monuments created by people, like the Bible or the Koran, or myths and sagas, which are all products of collective efforts of entire societies. I decided to apply the same method to my sculptures and I wanted to outsource them not only to another country, but to another species. Termites are among a few species that create complex worker societies with clear class divisions. They have soldiers, farmers (they are farming mushrooms inside their mounds!), foragers, nurses, etcetera. I imagined an entire factory of completely unaware termites.
Many contemporary artists no longer produce their works themselves. For example, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, or Damien Hirst operate factories with numerous workers. Often, art production is being bureaucratized and outsourced, even offshore. So A.A.I. was created by a kind of mild sweatshop—in this case, a colony of oblivious termites.
The entomologists I work with indicate that different colonies of termites develop “dispersed cognition” and have distinguished “personalities” as if they were constituting a single organism or a person. Some colonies are more sluggish, others more dynamic or adventurous. Some entomologists even analyze the physical features of different mounds as if they were separate characters that express a given collective personality. Like some abstract forms of characters in a story. I thought of creating an actual character operated by micro-workers around the world.
SR Traveling in central Australia, I was astonished by the shapes of the termite mounds. Some of them literally looked like kangaroos—as if the termites were camouflaging their structures, or had created them under the influence of the local fauna.
By employing termites, are you drawing attention to human exploitation through outsourced, underpaid, or unrewarded labor?
AK I’m actually referring to yet another ghostly mechanism at play in contemporary capitalism, which is digital labor, or playbour. We are all unwillingly performing it using the Google browser or Facebook, for example. An average user of Facebook brings this corporation around $36 a year through the sale of our personal data to advertising firms that target us back with profiled advertising. I used the termite colonies as critical models of crowdsourcing through playbour and “digital sweatshops.” Untitled, my conveyor belt piece, is also referencing that.
SR It’s half of a conveyer belt jutting from the wall and it is visually completed as a full loop only by a mirror. As it moves, it disappears into the mirror and reappears from its own reflection. As viewers we don’t know what’s behind the mirror/wall. It definitely insinuates invisible labor.
AK It is a work about the feedback loop between production and consumption but also about the exploitation of the social energies in social media. Digital labor is harvested unbeknownst to the workers. We provide it by simply looking at the screen. With increased automation of all labor soon there will be no workers, the products will become immaterial and there will be only circuits of circulating energy. It already started with Bitcoin, which is a currency generated through a computer solving mathematical problems. All it needs is the energy to power the computer, since even the management of the Bitcoin bank is automated.
With Untitled, visitors become part of that feedback loop as their image is reflected in the mirror behind the conveyer belt. I am interested in the relationships between production, authorship, status, value, and circulation of objects.
SR Speaking of authorship, tell me about The End of Signature, an ongoing project that involves crowdsourcing, namely people donating their signatures on sheets of paper through a slot in the wall or otherwise. Via algorithm, one combined signature is produced which, as a neon sculpture on the wall, seems completely neutral, indecipherable, meaningless even. Just a wiggle of a line.
AK Both the termite mounds and The End of Signature evolved from the question: As our civilization develops, could we imagine the end of singular authorship in a few thousand years? What I find incredible is that the last evolutionary change in human civilization emerged only about five thousand years ago. This was around the time when writing was fully developed and when the organization and building of cities started. We are probably undergoing another evolutionary change right now and our species will only realize it in a few thousand years. That’s why I want to work with emergent complex systems—to simulate the emergence of new phenomena or possibly new forms of life.
The End of Signature is about both the obfuscation of individual authorship in our era and the decline of handwriting (and its gradual replacement by keystrokes on technological devices). Together with a computer programmer we developed software that morphs a group of signatures into one collective average signature. For the first installment of the piece in Holland, the signatures of all inhabitants of a public housing project in Utrecht were gathered, scanned, and morphed into one collective signature, which was then executed as a LED neon light sign and installed on the facade of the building.The signature repeatedly unfolds from left to right at the pace of handwriting, as though an invisible hand was signing the wall over and over again.
The myth of creativity as an individual process and of the artist-author as a solitary genius taking inspiration from their own personality, life, and intellect is still rooted quite deeply in art theory. I believe that the concept of the author is, to a large extent, a construct created to appropriate the labor of the multitude in order to proclaim it as individual artwork. Mechanisms in the art market and cultural industries lead to the exploitation of the general creative intellect. They are based on the fetishization and speculation not only of cultural/artistic objects, but also of seemingly intangible processes and ideas. The very figure of an author represents a mechanism of capture devised to appropriate value produced in a dispersed and networked creative process.
These mechanisms could change over time with the development of Wikipedia and crowdsourcing platforms like the Amazon Mechanical Turk, where thousands of people all over the world perform micro-tasks merging in one single emergent result. So far these platforms are used mostly for commercial and very exploitative purposes, but perhaps in ten to twenty years this could change and open up new ways of producing artistic content.
SR Your own work already makes use of some of these platforms.
AK The evolution of intelligence has always fascinated me. Culture and art seem to have emerged, just like religion, at some point of human evolution. Do they have an expiration date? Will they eventually evolve into another collective adaptation, conditioned by changing environment, climate, and technology?
In my forthcoming commission of The End of Signature for the Guggenheim Museum, a collective signature of the museum’s visitors will be created and represented on the facade of the museum building. Here, I’m reflecting on how city dwellers constantly alter and appropriate the identity of iconic buildings in the collective unconscious through bottom-up processes. Buildings are palimpsests, signed over and over again by the collective of its users.
The project also refers to an idea by Marcel Duchamp, who in 1916 proposed signing New York’s Woolworth Building as one of his readymades. I thought that, although Duchamp anticipated so many things in contemporary art, he never really questioned fetishized individual authorship. Even using pseudonyms, he was still the sole author of his works in a manner typical for modernist author fetishization. I think he would have different ideas about authorship if he witnessed what is happening for instance with Wikipedia.
Another element of this project will be an autopen machine constantly signing the collective signature on blank documents with a stylus connected to a mechanical, robotic arm. The autopen was invented for the automatic signing of large amounts of documents with “authentic” handwritten signatures. I’m fascinated by this concept of the headless, dispersed power.
SR Tell me more about artworks as living organisms.
AK As I said earlier, I realized several works that behave in many ways like living organisms with their own agency and agenda. I am interested in how artworks at some point free themselves from their authors and producers. Artworks without authors have always existed in culture. My work Phantom Estate (2013) about authorless, formless, rumored, or half-made works of conceptual artists (among them Guy de Cointet, Alighiero e Boetti, and Lee Lozano) was exploring this phenomenon. Myths do not have an identified single author. The same goes for urban legends, rumors, and memes. Memes can be simulated by genetic algorithms just like an evolving population of living organisms, or a virus. That’s why I got inspired by the research of Nils Barricelli. He was a genius Princeton mathematician who pioneered alternative theories of evolution and artificial life research and conducted experiments with algorithmic organisms evolving in a numerical universe. He made printouts of these algorithmic organisms, which he generated in the early 1950s with the ENIAC computer. These prints had incredible aesthetic qualities. For Evolutions, a series of lenticular prints, I tried to find a way to visualize the transitional state of such organisms in perpetual evolution.
SR You also directly collaborate with scientists and engineers.
AK Yes. My collaborations with scientists usually start off with an intuition I have about a dialogue with someone. It’s more of a hunch, without fixed ideas about the result. It often happens that I seek out people for one idea but end up collaborating with them on something else. It is a really emergent process.
SR From a conservative perspective one could say you are more of a scientific than an artistic thinker, although both are creative callings.
AK I often think I could have become a scientist instead. The only thing that I would find limiting is the methodology of science—although that is changing these days. Scientists are getting interested in artistic ways of thinking. Even the way funding is granted in science is currently undergoing a transformation. Science got inspired by models of arts funding where grants are awarded not only for clearly defined purposeful research with a foreseen “happy ending,” but for a kind of “conscious erring.”
In reality most discoveries in science happen to some degree by accident. One thing is being researched but instead a more important new discovery is made as a spin-off. That’s the way aspirin and many other drugs got invented. Now science is slowly realizing that this way of working is quite similar to an artist’s approach.
SR Who are some of the scientists you are currently working with?
AK This spring, I’m starting a residency at MIT in Cambridge where I will work with computer scientists, evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, and engineers. I’m also planning to collaborate with the A.I. scientist Luc Steels. I have recently started a dialogue with Alexander Tarakhovsky who has an immunology lab at the Rockefeller University and was an advisor to Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev at the last dOCUMENTA. Together with him and the artist, writer, and programmer John Menick, we are talking about viruses and their behavior in nature, in computer networks, and in society.
SR What is your take on the future of cultural monuments and the physical object in art?
AK In our era we are surrounded by objects that have hybrid, transitory, and shifting status, value, or meaning— connected objects, inherently unstable objects, and speculative products. The science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling coined the notion of a spime, where “an object is no longer an object but an instantiation.” Spimes “begin and end as data: they are designed on screens, fabricated by digital means and precisely tracked through space and time throughout their earthly sojourn.” I think “the Internet of things” will change the status, functioning, and form of certain artworks.
We are also surrounded by what Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects”—objects exceeding the time scale of human civilization. They are so massively distributed in time and space that they transcend spatiotemporal specificity. The isotope of plutonium-239, which is the byproduct of nuclear reactors, has a half-life of 24,000 years. That’s close to the age of the Lascaux cave paintings. What humans tried to achieve over the centuries with the creation of monuments of various kinds—namely some form of eternity—is paradoxically achieved with the byproducts of our industrial era. A styrofoam cup, for example, has a half life of 500 years, so it has some qualities of a monument.
SR Individual agenda and self-expression in art are comparatively new, though. Until less than 200 years ago visual art was mostly in service of a society’s ruling forces, like religion, ideology, tribal or social, and economic interests. It’s daunting to consider that individual authorship might be out the door again soon.
AK Complex, hybrid authorship could change the existing paradigm in art and culture. Perhaps in the near future we are going to witness the phenomenon of dispersed authorship in the arts, paralleling the phenomenon of Wikipedia in the realm of knowledge: crowdsourcing platforms or systems of crowd-augmented cognition and creation for real, artistic (and no longer commercial) works of higher critical and cultural value. Perhaps soon single, individual authorship, so fetishized in cultural history, will gradually be replaced by collective intelligence and emergent forms of creativity.
SR Theoretically, it sounds more democratic. In the arts, though, there’s also the stereotype that collectivity waters things down, takes the juice out. For instance, books or plays written by committee, are considered more predictable and unoriginal than the ones authored by one person. What do you think?
AK Crowdsourcing as a tool is just at the beginning, and just like any other new tool it needs to develop. Its potential may be fully realized only in a few years. The exciting thing about complex systems is that we just do not know and can’t predict how they will behave in the long run since their development is nonlinear. They may give boring and foreseeable results at the beginning but then the long tail (high numbers of users, participants, and elements) can lead to a sudden and unforeseeable critical mass and an emergence of an extremely rare event.
We really can’t tell how certain networks will behave. They are like living organisms.
SR The Cleverbot application, which allows people to converse with an algorithm, is already quite popular. Maybe that is because the machine keeps learning from the input of millions of people which makes it unpredictable again and somehow human and “alive.”
Let’s talk about editing, which is an underlying topic in most of your work. What is cut and what is kept is fundamental to all areas of life and it’s not always up to us or within our control, most obviously not if we consider evolution.
AK Evolution is a process of constant editing by nature. Best evolutionary adaptations stay and some other features of organisms get “edited out” if they are redundant. I thought about all that while working on Cutaways. There is the power of the phantoms of things that were eliminated. The exformation of information. And the “silent heroes” cut out from real narratives of history, politics, and culture.
Walter Murch (who edited The Godfather and Apocalypse Now among other films), whom I invited to work with me on the production of Cutaways, considers editing as an art form—an invisible art form—since perfect editing is often imperceptible to an average viewer. I consider an editor a proto-curator, I also think of artists as editors. Cutaways is a portrait of the invisible universe of phantom characters that have been completely deleted from the final cuts of feature films after decisions regarding film duration or structure were made by editors, directors, and producers. These phantom characters leave no apparent trace in the stories, yet they strangely belong to them. I decided to make a film about that no-man’s land or junkyard of surplus characters and deleted narratives. So Cutaways narrates the encounter of three cut-out characters from major American films. The original actors continued to impersonate their characters in my film: Charlotte Rampling as the hitchhiker cut out from Richard C. Sarafian’sVanishing Point (1971), Abe Vigoda as the lawyer and best friend of protagonist Harry Caul in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), and Dick Miller as the deleted junkyard owner Monster Joe in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). At some point in the film it becomes apparent that these are not just fictional characters but that this is a story of three copyrights that started living their own lives.
SR There is a counterfactual approach to considering phantoms, ghosts of phantoms, and negative entities. Are you asking us to imagine variable and alternative outcomes?
AK We should be prepared for the fact that the next large surprise or the unknown unknown, technological or historical, will not resemble what we have in mind. The neoliberal and technocratic economic discourse is already trying to capitalize on these unknown unknowns of the future (like stock market crashes) by trying to predict them and speculate upon them. It turns out that they can be sold in the same way as debts, air rights, or even plots of land on Mars. Capitalism succeeded in what has so far only been a dream of science-fiction writers: teleporting the wealth from the future to the present. Our entire material world is built with the use of money based on credit—money coming from the future. The future is already here in the form of phantom wealth that is not real.
SR I believe that art—and here I mean visual art, literature, music, film, and theater—is one of the few areas that is not fully bound up with economy, necessity, or logic. And this remains its strength and potential.
AK But art involuntarily becomes socially and economically useful—it helps urban redevelopment and local financial growth. Artists turn out to be important players in the game of the real estate market although they do not participate in the profits. Urban gentrification often begins by artists bringing an immaterial value to an area and producing the symbolic social capital wherever they move. As they transform industrial ruins into commercially attractive “creative industry” spaces, developers and investors immediately come in to capitalize on the artists’ resourcefulness. We all participate in these disguised exploitations.
However, art very often grasps important social, scientific, or political phenomena intuitively—in a similar manner as mathematics, which develops equations for things that remain mere abstractions for centuries and find applications in unexpected contexts much later. The “conscious erring” of artists who are simply curious about the world can anticipate and lead to many inventions and new social phenomena.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee