Art's Agency

Volume 16 December 2017

Steen Ledet Christiansen, Jens Lohfert Jørgensen, og Frederik Tygstrup

One of the recent turns in the humanities and arts research is the switch from a focus on art as a static, representational thing to art as an active actor within a larger network of agential objects. What unites these approaches is that they all suggest that art is something that does things. Such a perspective explodes the notion of art, opening it up to a broad range of practices, where art participates in society instead of merely reflecting society. Art is thus not only a cultural field a la Pierre Bourdieu (1993) but also a range of practices intent on engaging our senses and sensibilities. Where earlier aesthetic and cultural research focused on matters of meaning, signification, and hermeneutics, this special issue asks questions of aesthesis, materiality, agency, performativity, sensation, and feeling. Not as a matter of rejecting earlier findings but simply as an attempt to explore the “other side” of the experience of art.

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Computation as Medium
Agency and Motion in Interactive Art
Dr. Elizabeth Jochum og Dr. Lance Putnam

Artists increasingly utilize computational tools to generate art works. Computational approaches to art making open up new ways of thinking about agency in interactive art because they invite participation and allow for unpredictable outcomes. Computational art is closely linked to the participatory turn in visual art, wherein spectators physically participate in visual art works. Unlike purely physical methods of interaction, computer assisted interactivity affords artists and spectators more nuanced control of artistic outcomes. Interactive art brings together human bodies, computer code, and nonliving objects to create emergent art works. Computation is more than just a tool for artists, it is a medium for investigating new aesthetic possibilities for choreography and composition. We illustrate this potential through two artistic projects: an improvisational dance performance between a human dancer and a mobile robot, and a virtual reality art work based on procedurally-generated content. Through our practice, we find that computation fosters an interrogative approach to artmaking that raises questions about agency and intentionality, such as how artists work with immaterial processes to generate novel and unexpected aesthetic experiences.

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Sounds of Futures Past
Materiality, Hauntology, Affect
Steen Ledet Christiansen

This article examines the ghost effects in Dark Night of the Soul produced by the residual media of old sonic technologies. Alfred North Whitehead’s notion of perception in the mode of causal efficacy is used to explain how materiality has agency over the listener.

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Disturbing the Metaphor
Performance and Medial Presence in the Fiction of Elfriede Jelinek and Günter Grass
Beate Schirrmacher

In this article, I want to discuss the way metaphors take form as diegetic actions in Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher (1983) and Günter Grass’s Too Far Afield (1995). In these texts, the reader must literally picture what metaphorical language usually only conceptually refers to. Both authors confront their readers with disturbing actions that are felt to be significant in some way; they resist straightforward interpretation and rather provoke affective reactions. This deliberate disturbance of metaphorical language can be understood as medial presence effects. They foreground the mediality and materiality of language and literature. The way literature performs and functions as a medium is made visible and perceptible.

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Changing Your Vision for Good
The Work of Words and Books in Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks
Jens Kirk

Taking its point of departure in recent considerations of the notion of post-pastoral literature as capable of inducing awe in readers, this article discusses the work of words and books analysed and performed by Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks (2015) in terms of vastness and accommodation.

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Experiencing a painting
An interdisciplinary discussion regarding epistemology and experiencing
Kim Malmbak Meltofte Møller

This article discusses how the relationship between the perceiving and the perceived can be outlined in terms of a current philosophical and neuroscientific understanding. The ambition is to highlight the potential relations between the processes of consciousness and interpretation, particularly regarding the experience of art as invoking an immediate feeling. The article takes a philosophical standpoint that is inspired by Edmund Husserl’s epistemological discussions regarding intentionality and tries to combine it with a discussion of art as having the potential to invoke a feeling. In other words, the article tries to answer how, if we maintain the philosophical understanding of ourselves as the perceiving entity, art can invoke an immediate feeling within us.

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Studying the Aesthetics of Images and Advertising Films
Combining Systemic-Functional Grammar and Audience Physiology
Anders Bonde og Birger Larsen

The notion, that aesthetic objects are not only things but also does something to those who engage with them, is consistent among various researchers in the arts and humanities; and also that this is not primarily a matter of interpretative symbolic meaning in the fields of semiotics and hermeneutics, but may rather be associated with sense perception, such as arousal, vigilance, fascination and appraisal (Marković 2012). In this position paper, we sketch out a conceptual approach for the study of art by combining, on the one hand, the systemic-functional and social-semiotic approach to textual analysis of grammar (Kress & van Leeuwen 2006, van Leeuwen 1999), and on the other hand, attentional and affective-computing techniques for measuring audience response.

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Dissolving Europe?
Fear of refugees and ourselves in Christian Lollike’s Living Dead
Birgit Eriksson

When the performance Living Dead premiered in Denmark in 2016, its reception was characterized by an equal amount of praise and unease. Written and directed by Christian Lollike, Living Dead dealt with the increasing number of refugees coming to Europe from Africa and the Middle East. Controversially, it was a “horror performance” focusing on the fear, anxiety, and potential dissolution of Europe. The article examines the agency of the performance. How does it engage our senses and sensibilities? How does the affective and intensive elements of horror relate to the representation of the refugees? And how may the horror on stage affect our feelings and stance towards refugees outside the theatre – and relate to contemporary humanitarianism? In order to clarify these questions, I will use the analytics of mediation suggested by Lilie Chouliaraki (2006), Sianne Ngai’s theory of “ugly feelings” (2007), and Judith Butler’s reflections on the sensual dimensions of war (2009).

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What Literature Can Do
Performing Affect in Zoë Wicomb’s October
Liani Lochner

Our affective response to works of literature, Derek Attridge argues in “Once more with feeling: art, affect and performance” (2011), is not “some mental simulacrum of affect, but a real feeling” (330) that replicates remembered experiences in the extra-literary domain. While reading, we feel these emotions “always as performances of language’s powers” (334) as we perform the literary work, bringing to life as events the “individual’s mental processes” – “the emotions, the mental and physical events, the apprehendings of the external world it depicts” (58). The affective response Zoë Wicomb’s October (2014) elicits in the reader, I argue in this essay, is also staged in the novel: like Mercia, who returns again and again to Marilynne Robinson’s Home, a novel she finds “Strangely familiar” (12), to reflect on ideas of home, her own conflicted relationship with her past in South Africa, and her present deracinated existence in Scotland, the reader of October feels the performative power of language in a novel that affectively unsettles complacent understandings of memory and belonging.

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Making Art as Resistance
The Psychiatric Patient as Subject
Jodie Childers

Examining 20th century “art brut” by James Edward Deeds, Martín Ramírez, Ovartaci, and Clément Fraisse produced within psychiatric facilities in America and Europe, this paper argues that these artists enacted transgressive creativity, not only aesthetically but through the materiality of their approaches, thereby resisting what sociologist Erving Goffman terms “total institutionalization.”

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Performing Sociology at a Music Festival
Katalin Halász

The white woman has been a central figure in second wave feminism. Conceptualised variously as an embracing character allured by racial difference by Mica Nava (2007) or as a racist oppressor by Hazel Carby (1992) among others, she has emerged in various disguises which all point to her centrality in feminist and anti-racist movements. This article considers The Chamber of White, a video performance that reconfigures this historical figure in contemporary relations. It explores how the performance enables an affective experience of white femininities by inviting audience members to engage in different affective states. The question is discussed how to do sociology – a sociological research on whiteness and gender– through the intensive, the performative and affective dimensions of art. It is argued that the performance expands on the concept of “live sociology” (Back and Puwar 2012), whereby through doing an artful sociology the affective and sensory aspects of sociality are not simply reflected but enacted in order to critically examine the affective power of whiteness in a feminist context.

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The Work of Art
From Fetish to Forum
Frederik Tygstrup

The modern idea of art has been in place for about two centuries. It has concurred with two other features of modernity: that of developed capitalist economy, and that of the new democratic public sphere. This article explores some of the relationships between art, capitalism and democracy. It argues that the notion of art heralded by modern aesthetic theories mainly hinges on the epistemic form of the commodity, highlighting the interaction between a producer, a product and a consumer. A different theorizing of the work of art could, however, depart not from the market place of commodities, but from the public forum for democratic deliberation. This alternative foundation of aesthetics is delineated on the basis of the anthropological idea of the ritual and its instantiation in contemporary theories of performativity, where the work of art is seen as an affordance for social encounters as well as for individual contemplation.

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How is an Art Work an Agent?
Rita Felski

A brief reflection on recent theories of art works as agents and a response to the essays published in this issue.

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