Essay: New Forms of Agency
Now that the human is no longer central to history – replaced, instead, by networks and systems – we need to reconsider the old question “What is to be done?” It’s never been harder to make your own rules for how to act. How to continue? Acceleration or exit? Lars Bang Larsen thinks these are false alternatives and searches for new, fluid forms of action.
It is impossible to talk of agency in the arts today without considering art’s pervasive commodification and privatisation, the economic (and sometimes political) pressure on cultural institutions, the fact that it has become harder for artists without a viable commercial practice to make a living, even by teaching. Alongside the continuous financial crisis, cultural capitalism and its enchanted subjectivities have collapsed, too.
Even if one could argue that the art institution’s economy of attention is becoming less macho and heteronormative, less Western and less white, agency at large is exposed to imperatives of ceaseless activity. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney put it this way in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013): “To work today is to be asked, more and more, to do without thinking, to feel without emotion, to move without friction, to adapt without question, to translate without pause, to desire without purpose, to connect without interruption.” In their breathless diagnosis, the category of work itself leaks and spills over into a caricature of a vita activa.
All in all, there has rarely been a better time to discuss agency – also in the simple and fundamental sense of “why keep doing it”. At the same time, it is an increasingly complicated term to employ. Just consider how the concept has been given over to nonhuman forces: prevalent theoretical orientations such as object-oriented ontology, speculative materialism, media history, and post-cybernetic studies all share an aspect of negative anthropology, of the human as a deficient being. The assumption of the human as an imperial agent at the centre of history is revealed as a fraud. Instead the realm of agency is opened up beyond human scale, reaching from the infinitesimally “small agency” of bacteria, memes and code to the superstructural “big agency” of networks, systems and hyperobjects. When human individuality (dis)appears in assemblage with the nonhuman, the notion of agency has an abyss built into it.
The artist Andrea Büttner recently asked me if theories of the nonhuman remove our last hope of doing something. In my view, such theories don’t necessarily undermine what humans can do, but change what we know about doing and how we understand ourselves in the bigger picture. The anthropocene isn’t nature’s problem, for instance: “nature” doesn’t care because nature is a human idea. The anthropocene is, however, the problem of the human species and its continued existence. In her recent show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Büttner included etchings of enlarged smudges from smartphone swipes: traces of slide-to-unlock, pinch-to-zoom, and so on, now appearing as Abstract Expressionist gestures that echo human attempts to keep up with machine velocities. As images and conceptual transports, Büttner’s smudge etchings compel us to consider human agency in the digital condition at a level on which even the smallest gesture integrates sensing, cognition and calculation, and produces information that is inconspicuously captured and commodified. Our relationship to technology and nature, then, is necessarily indirect – a relationship to a second nature.
With all these reservations, let us stay with human agency. In the field of art, two opposed concepts have come to circumscribe agency: that of accelerating (incorporating the logic of the corporation) and dropping out (the exit strategy). If both terms seem tired by now, it is in part due to the fact that they have been paraded as buzzwords. Looking beyond their instrumentalisation, however, I want to propose to keep them in the loop of the discussion as two poles between which we may reconsider new itineraries of artistic agency.
When everyone is encouraged to become an entrepreneur, it is tempting or logical for artists to imitate the manner of the powerful and appropriate corporate strategies. Yet the paradoxes of such mimicry are as entrenched as our capitalist reality. The artist group Superflex resolved this playfully in an early work. The Campaign (1994) shows the three quasi-uniformed members of the group consulting with mystified corporate representatives and marketing experts on how to launch a product that the group carried with them in a sealed orange bag. A hieroglyphic item that was never named, it remained a non-product removed from the spheres of circulation. The Campaign can be seen as a tactical appropriation of the strategic intelligence of the corporate world, or even as engaging in a battle of bullshit with corporate mechanisms of valorisation. What remains paradigmatic about the piece, so long after it was made, is how it flies all the colours of brand mimicry yet stops short at the brink of its realisation. As Superflex later proved with both their activism and their entrepreneurial projects, they are perfectly capable of integrating art into life – yet here, they don’t. One can argue that when Superflex implement their projects at the level of institutions, NGOs and product lines, they bar themselves from engaging in the type of aesthetic play that The Campaign represents.
With this in mind we can recombine accelerationist thought with our wish for keeping reality (or capitalist realism) at bay. That is, we cannot accept a deceleration of thinking. All the calls for slow living and taking your time may be relevant enough under the aegis of a 24/7 capitalism, but they are futile if we can’t maintain a capacity to flash ideas through at high speed, and gauge when alternatives are best kept at a distance from the so-called real world and its dominant mechanisms of the possible.
The Leninist avant-garde and activist motto “What is to be done?” that has sometimes appeared in curatorial concepts in recent years is beginning to sound out of key. For one thing because it takes for granted that agency is directly accessible, even inherent to the human subject – an assumption that must be qualified through a posthuman understanding of agency. Moreover, there is no getting around the fact that it is a recipe for an agency whose logic is foreclosure: we should do this, not that. It tends to restrict agency, and to assign it to particular subjects. Is it possible to ask this question in a non-prescriptive way that makes possible a multiplication of agencies instead? What if one flips the question and asks, “What is not to be done?” What is not to be done in order to prevent the self-destruction of the human species and avoid perpetuating the status quo, so that agency remains open and thinkable?
And yet isn’t “What is not to be done?” just an oversimplification of the premise of a liberal, democratic civil society, in which nobody tells you what to do as long as you abide by the law? In a certain sense, yes. But we are all the time told what to do, by the state or in commercial spheres of circulation. The more ambitious challenge to give ourselves, and one that especially impinges on the field of art, would be to find a way to extricate agency from representation. Here, the counterintuitive question to ask is: What is agency when it is one of art’s most important tasks to maintain a distance from reality, to create vacuums, to produce something entirely imaginary? How do you make something disappear in an art world that constantly demands affirmation and appearance?
When it comes to exit strategies, Bartleby’s wonderful motto “I would prefer not to” has by now been rehearsed into a mode of operational Nachträglichkeit [deferred action] without the sense of tragedy that Melville lent to his suicidal scrivener. The notion of dropping out might offer another perspective or “sound” to the discussion. To even entertain the thought of dropping out today seems either highly abstract or naïve in the extreme – or both. Outside of the art world, those who don’t have a choice or whose very existence is at stake don’t talk about “exit strategies” or “dropping out”. If dropping out describes a process of self-proletarisation, you still need to relinquish something: a social guarantee that is at the same time perceived as a lack of freedom. The realm of cultural production, however, thrives on competition and viral dissemination, and is in this way already shot through with negativity, amnesia, and anonymity. There is no symbolic edifice from which you can walk out.
Yet it is not only Harney and Moten who talk about “fugitive planning”. In Empire (2000), Toni Negri and Michael Hardt agree that the 1960s counterculture created a revolution in subjectivity, behaviour, and economy, but also note that “‘Dropping out’ was really a poor conception of ... the refusal of the disciplinary regime and the experimentation with new forms of productivity.” The philosophers’ predictable lament is understandable if “dropping out” is taken to be an exit to a metaphysical outside that only radical subjects can perform. But for all the history that it has against it, to proceed on the question of regaining agency one must maintain some notion of dropping out, vis-à-vis our leitmotif of “what is not to be done”. Without the ability to refuse, to walk out, or go on strike, one fundamentally loses political agency. One needs to be able to access a plane of withdrawal, a zone of disinterest from which one can resist the chronic activity solicited from the contemporary subject. Dropping out can perhaps be thought of as series of events that connect physical or temporal realities (a celebration, another constellation of bodies, the possibility for non-exposure) to conceptual procedures (a vocabulary for non-production, radical imaginaries) and certain dispositions or states of mind (acceptance of invisibility, public non-existence, de-subjectification).
Negation is a fundamental political move, but one must always take it one step further. One must collectively create a new culture. Take, for example, the Johannesburg-based CUSS GROUP (CG), founded in 2011 by Ravi Govender, Jamal Nxedlana, and Zamani Xolo. Without a background in art, they curate “video parties” as public interventions in Johannesburg venues (a hair salon, a TV store, an Internet café), out of car trunks in Zimbabwe, at alternative spaces in London. Artists featured in the parties are always from abroad: South Africans in Zimbabwe, Europeans in South Africa, Africans in London, thus orchestrating the group’s brand of cultural translation across countries and (non-)institutional spaces. Their own artistic production traffics in digital art, from software programming to the creation of interactive installations, prints, and digital wallpapers, soaked in pixels and found digital imagery that are an a affront to any 20th-century notion of good taste and visual organisation.
Today CG is a self-described “global network” that moves across various constellations of people, projects, and venues. It is characterised by a rhythm of dropping in and out at the levels of both venues and participants. I must confess that part of my fascination with the group derives not from what I know about it, but from the fact that it is part of a “post-African future” (as one of their digital wallpapers is titled). I want to see what this new life-form does. CG pulsates and supplements itself, is movable, divisible, and multipliable. It can tolerate one individual member dozing off momentarily to become inspired again, to vaporise in the group and become unresponsive for a while, and, conversely, to go into acceleration mode: to re-form and build up intensity and critical mass with others.
Dropping out has always been related, with a certain indifference, to the Kantian idea that one’s agency could be considered a general rule of behaviour in society. It is not necessarily an absolute and definitive secession, but a line of flight, an intensity in a forcefield, a mood-dependent gesture. Staying in touch with doubt and vulnerability, unproductivity and invisibility, it can yield the greatest results.
Writer and curator LARS BANG LARSEN is guest professor at the HEAD in Geneva, and a research fellow at the University of Copenhagen, where he wrote his PhD on art and psychedelia. His books include “Arte y norma” (2015) and “Networks” (2014). He is co-curator of the 32nd São Paulo Biennial 2016.