Agnieszka Kurant: Complex Systems

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Agnieszka Kurant A.A.I (10-15) 2017 Termite mounds built by colonies of termites from colored sand, gold and crystals .Courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York
. Photo: Dylan Wilson

“My work is about how aggregated social capital can be used for good causes. Its value can even be calculated.” – Agnieszka Kurant

Agnieszka Kurant  is preparing to install one of her collective signatures on the façade of the Cleveland Museum of Art. She is the Ida Ely Rubin Artist in Residence at the MIT Center for Art, Science, and Technology. Her commission for the SFMOMA was launched earlier this month.  In 2017, Kurant’s recent exhibitions include a solo show at SCAD MoA in Savannah and at the CCA in Tel Aviv and commissions for Guggenheim Bilbao and for Bonner Kunstverein. In 2015 she did a commission for the façade of the Guggenheim Museum, New York. In 2013-2014, the artist presented a major solo exhibition at the Sculpture Center, New York.

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The End of Signature. Guggenheim Museum facade. sight specific light projection, 2015_ variable dimensions

Kurant was born in Łódz, Poland in 1978. She gave Sculpture the following exclusive peek at the science and thinking behind some of her innovative projects.

Jan Castro: When did you come to the United States?

Agnieszka Kurant: I came here six and a half years ago, first on an artist’s residency. Very early on, I was lucky enough to meet the curators of the Guggenheim Museum and started working on my commission for the Guggenheim in New York, which was exhibited in 2015 on the museum’s façade and inside the rotunda. And so I stayed.

Castro: Your works are technically sophisticated. How did you get started as an artist?

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Agnieszka Kurant A.A.I. System’s Negative, 2016. Zink. Courtesy of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery. Photo: Dylan Wilson

Kurant: My background was in philosophy and in curating. I never studied art. I was always interested in complex and hybrid forms and structures and in complex systems in both nature and culture. The piece you told me you like, The Phantom Library, is a good example of what I’m talking about. It consisted in conducting an extensive research into fictional books that were invented by various writers and described in their books.  For example, Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K. Dick would describe a fictional book written by a fictional writer. Sometimes these books were described in great detail, yet they were not written.  One master of these kinds of reviews of nonexistent books was Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem whose whole book called Perfect Vacuum consists of reviews of nonexistent books that he invented. I started thinking: this is frozen, potential, phantom capital — like frozen patents for unrealized products, which technology calls “vaporware”. I extracted the descriptions of these fictional books, and I produced volumes that were designed and printed. I acquired ISBN numbers and bar codes for these books to give them an economic identity. They were fabricated as mass produced objects but the printing press was stopped after one copy. So they are mass produced unique multiples. I gave some of these books to the Library of Congress and to other libraries.

Castro: Is anything inside the books?

Kurant: No. They have elaborate covers with any information that we can deduct about their possible content from a given source book, but they are empty inside. I invited a number of writers to actually write these phantom books. They have been working on their books for a few years now and hopefully these books will be published one day and replace the empty pages. Some writers who heard about the project have contacted me.

Castro: I’ll write one!

Kurant: Everyone’s invited to do it. My piece consists of fragments of content that were envisioned by all these writers. I’m aggregating these concepts invented by different authors into a new hybrid form. This piece has a hybrid status on multiple levels. I have been invited to talk about it at conferences about art and law because of its complex copyright status. It’s also open-ended, so we may be adding other books to it. Of course, I’m the author in terms of curating it and co-designing it, but essentially, it has a wide input from various agents, and many of my works operate this way. I use aggregation and amalgamation methods fusing or morphing together molecules or identities and labor of human and non-human agents.

Castro: Let’s now move to your signatures piece. You’ve done iterations of it at the Guggenheim Museum and you’re doing one at the Cleveland Museum this summer. Would you talk about the collective nature of the signature and the technological aspect.  At your solo exhibition, I saw the moving pen that signs and erases itself. Such a beautiful tromp l’oeil.

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Agnieszka Kurant The End of Signature. 2014 Glass tubing, water pump, ink, water

Kurant: My practice of the past few years has been centered around this phenomenon called collective intelligence — a property of the so-called complex systems. A complex system can be a colony of termites, a city, a society, the Internet, the human brain. Complex systems have a multiplicity of agents or units or elements that, in aggregate, produce an unexpected, nonlinear result that is impossible to foresee. It’s an emergent result. The project you saw at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, entitled A.A.I. started a few years ago and continues until today. A.A.I.  stands for artificial artificial intelligence – a term introduced by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to describe online labor on a crowd-sourcing platform which he established. I basically set up what I call a “soft exploitation” factory in Florida, where, together with an entomology lab, I am outsourcing my sculptures to colonies of living termites. Termites are an interesting species because they have the most complex social structure after humans. They are more complex than apes, bees, and ants.

Castro: How did you discover this?

Kurant: I read a lot about science and social science, so it was fascinating to me to learn that termites have a social structure like a class society that consists of various strata of farmers, soldiers, nurses, and foragers. Entire groups of farmer termites cultivate mushrooms inside the termite mounds. What distinguishes them from other species like bees and ants is that they build sustainable monumental abstract shapes that resemble pyramids or temples of human civilizations.

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Agnieszka Kurant Phantom Library
, 2011-2012
 embossed canvas, silkscreen on paper and cardboard, thermochromic pigment on paper, gold leaf, silver leaf, offset print on paper
 Courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York
and Galeria Fortes D’Aloia and Gabriel, Sao Paulo. Photo: Jean Vong

Something really interesting happens. Each colony that consists of about a million species produces some kind of collective personality that is distinct and different from other colonies. We can think of the shapes and forms of the termite mounds as a product of what each personality is like – fast and mobile or sluggish and non-curious. Each shape is different and unique.  This was perfect to use as a system of production of sculptures where a single artist is replaced (or helped) by a multiplicity or non-human agents. The termites are almost blind, so you can give them other materials to work with – pigmented sand, broken crystals, gold particles.  I work with Dr. Paul Bardunias, and we sectioned off part of a lab at Florida University in Fort Lauderdale.

Over the course of a few months, each termite colony built its own monument.  At the end, we let the termites leave, we seal the structures with resin, and then I exhibit the finished termite mounds-sculptures. This is an ongoing factory of sorts since 2014. I am using this experiment to talk about different kinds of very soft and invisible exploitations that happen in human societies. For example, our data is being exploited by corporations and platforms such as Google, Amazon or Facebook who sell our personal data to advertising companies. We’re not really being harmed by it in a similar way that these termites were not really harmed by me. The termites didn’t see the difference between ordinary sand and building sculptures for me that I could exhibit in museums and galleries and sell. It’s a model of soft exploitations that we witness constantly in our societies.

By Jan Garden Castro

3 responses

  1. I found the part about termites fascinating. After seeing the giant termite colony sculptures in Tanzania I will now look upon them as art. Also, learning they are more complex in social structure than bees and ants is more to learn from art than I knew from science. The overlapping of science and art makes Kurant’s art memorable and cohesive. Thank you Jan for another fascinating column.

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