Agnieszka Kurant discusses the concept of collective signatures, including one for 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.
Agneiszka Kurant: As we have learned, Facebook gave away personal data of 50 million citizens to Cambridge Analytica for targeted political propaganda purposes. So these theoretically harmless exploitations may not only bring profit to private corporations but also destabilize our democracies. The A.A.I. project allowed me to think about how societies, communities and social movements are creating collective personalities that are like super-organisms with one collective personality/identity. I was inspired by a collective intelligence organism called the slime mold, which despite the lack of any nervous system becomes intelligent in aggregate: if in danger, millions of disparate cells come together and move as one unit. I also thought about the fact that contemporary production is based on crowd creativity. Internet memes resemble the monuments of human imagination such as the Bible and mythologies, which were also created collectively and anonymously. Today these new quasi-monuments circulate and mutate like viruses.
The project The End of Signature reflects further on this train of thought – this phantom, dormant capital that can be aggregated when people get together for a social movement or a common cause. I was also thinking that, especially here in America, people are thinking about how little impact they have over politics and over what’s happening in this country. The last presidential election made people realize that actually, even people who are dispossessed, in aggregate, do have an impact and can possibly make a change. It’s not necessarily a change for good but perhaps these aggregated energies can be captured for a good cause, as with the collective intelligence of Wikipedia, where hundreds of thousands of people contribute their work for the common good.
Since 2013, I’ve been creating collective signatures for various communities and social movements. The first time I did it was in Utrecht in the main public square, where a disturbing thing was happening. The center of the city was mostly privatized, but a thousand people were living in a housing project on that formerly public square. The building is from the ‘70s and three generations are living there, but it became an island of public property in the middle of private property. There was a conversation about whether the space still belonged to them or not. I generated a collective signature by collecting all the signatures of people who lived in this building – of various ethnicities, backgrounds, and ages.
Further on, I have generated signatures for various communities joined by a common cause or a protest movement. For example, I did one for the protest movement last year in Poland against the fascist government, and one for some representatives of the Occupy Wall Street and the Indivisible movements.
In Cleveland, the subject for the 2018 Triennial is: an American City. Cleveland is part of the rust belt, and there’s a conversation about what agency people have in this city, how many are left out, and what is the role of public institutions and the cultural, financial, and intellectual capital that can be harvested. So for this iteration I am generating the collective signature out of the signatures of all the people that contribute to the cultural, financial, and intellectual capital of the Cleveland Art Museum – from the guards, cleaners, and temporary workers to the curatorial staff to the board of this museum. As in earlier instances, I worked with a computer programmer to generate this form using an algorithm created especially for this purpose. The signatures are scanned and then this custom-made program fuses all the signatures into one averaged aggregated form. It will be displayed on the façade of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Castro: What is the process for displaying it?
Kurant: I developed a system which allows for rendering visible the flows of energy. In my practice, I collaborate constantly with various professionals, including engineers. I’m working with a high-end light studio in New York. We developed a form which imitates the flow of ink with light. It’s going to be an LED light sign, but it looks like a flow of black ink — as if an invisible hand was perpetually signing the museum wall. It’s all done with light technology. The previous iterations of this piece were done with actual liquid inks .
Castro: This is a further advance of the technology.
Kurant: Yes. I have been interested in how, in the contemporary world, social energies can be compared to and converted into other forms of energy, e.g. kinetic or electrical. The contemporary economy, in which both money and labor are undergoing gradual dematerialization, relies more and more on the circulation and transformation of energy into and out of form. Economists since middle 19th century have been comparing the principle of conservation of energy in thermodynamics to the conservation of value in economics. A Ukrainian socialist, Sergiey Podolinsky, unsuccessfully tried to persuade Engels and Marx that energy was a more correct value principle than embodied labor. He anticipated that in the future energies will become currencies. After Nixon and the end of the gold standard, the value of money is no longer guaranteed in gold. Since then, people are looking at energies to see what can guarantee the value of money. A few days ago, Venezuela created a crypto-currency, the value of which is based on their oil resources. The only thing needed to power a digital crypto currency such as Bitcoin is electrical energy, since even the management labor is automated. In the contemporary world, social energies are being mined in the same way that oil or gas or gold were mined before. Today, we no longer know when our labor or social capital is being harvested. Private corporations use behavioral forecasting to capitalize on predictions of our future decisions, movements, and habits. Our interactions are a dispersed social factory. This is complemented by all the trumped up waves of social unrest caused by the bots, the click-farms, troll farms – fake social energies, positive or negative.
Castro: What are click farms?
Kurant: Entire warehouses stuffed with people who spend all their time clicking and liking pages for money. Troll farms are similar warehouses, in Russia, for example, that are creating dis-information — fake news – and posting it to generate waves of positive or negative energy. All this is being harnessed and harvested by algorithms. In the collective signature, algorithms allow quantification and valorization of social energy. My work is about how aggregated social capital can be used for good causes. Its value can even be calculated.