Reading ‘Agency’ I was struck, as often before, by the use of words in art discourse which have a rather different meaning than they do in the non-art world.
For example the word ‘agency’ is used in the art world to denote the behaviour of individuals, usually in a context where they are constrained by politics, culture, or economics. Thus to give someone agency is to grant them a freedom of manoeuvre to which they are not normally accustomed.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in everyday life, the word 'agency' is used when an individual has the power and financial resources to delegate tasks to a third party. People pay travel agents, estate agents, and insurance agents to do their bidding.
In thinking about my artworks, the dual meaning of the word agency is of particular interest to me. As the originator, instigator, and co-creator, I have agency. And I am giving my participants agency because I am empowering them to collaborate with me in contributing to a collective work. But I’m also asking them to take on the role of an agent to whom I have delegated aspects of a creative task.
On reflection, this is a good description of three aspects of what I’m doing as an artist, but using a single word to do so. My work is to do with three sources of agency: my own, my participant’s, and my delegation.
It’s thought-provoking to discover that the meaning of the word ‘agency’ has rather a different one in a fine art context to that which it has in the commercial world. In the latter it’s used to denote an intermediary who acts on behalf of someone. For example, travel agency, estate agency, and advertising agency. In these service businesses a task is contracted out by the client customer to be completed on their behalf by an agency who is paid for their execution of it. In this relationship the client customer has the power.
However, in the art context the word ‘agency’ is used to refer to the individual acting on their own behalf, often in opposition to others. Perhaps ironically, Lois Keidan and Catherine Ugwu alluded to the commercial usage of the word ‘agency’ in naming their Live Art Development Agency (LADA) in 1999. Their organisation was set up to act as the agent for artists using agency.
Keidan’s 2004 Vision Statement confirms the individualistic and oppositional underpinning of Live Art: “For much of its short existence, performance/live art has existed purposefully on the margins of most critical, pedagogical, and historical discourses.” The LADA website answers the question ‘What Is Live Art?’ with “Disrupting borders, breaking rules, defying traditions, resisting definitions. Asking awkward questions and activating audiences, Live Art breaks the rules about who is making art, how they are making it and who they are making it for.”
Writing in his Introduction to ‘Agency – A partial history of live art’, Theron Schmidt, Editor, notes that for most involved in Live Art ‘agency’ is seen as someone acting against the establishment. “In social theory, agency has typically been described in relation to actor/structure dualism: a tension between individuals’ experiences as active agents, with the freedom to exercise their preferences, and the social and cultural conditions that shape, mediate, and even determine what it is possible to think, feel, and do.”
In seeking to mark and move forwards from the 20th anniversary of the founding of LADA, Schmidt felt the need to acknowledge the maturity of the Live Art scene and its acceptance by the art establishment. The 2012 opening of The Tanks at Tate Modern being a significant milestone in this process of assimilation by the mainstream. Quoting philosopher Karen Barad: “Agency is a matter of intra-acting; it is an enactment, not something that someone or something has.”, Schmidt signals a mellowing of the oppositional stance taken historically. He anticipates a new era in which ‘agency’ can be a more collaborative and interactive force in the making of art.
Schmidt proposes: “In other words, agency is Live Art: the possibility of new forms of living and being, manifest for example in the interplay between the lived experiences of bodies, the value-structures of institutions, the capacities of different kinds of spaces, the movement and dispersal of communities, and the resonance and reverberation of actions.”
But what struck me forcibly about this schema is that Schmidt didn’t include objects. It’s true that LADA Co-Founder Keidan places great emphasis on Live Art communications, but little on its materiality: “Perhaps the biggest shift that has affected almost everyone involved with Live Art is technology. Developments in technologies allow us all to create and access online platforms to research, connect, share, catalogue, publish, and disseminate Live Art in unprecedented ways.” However, her focus is on capturing the live events themselves, largely through photographs and videos, rather than any physical products that may result from them.
This raises interesting an important question about the nature of subsequent engagement with the archive of a Live Art event. Catherine Wood, Senior Curator, International Art (Performance) at Tate Modern reports on an interesting conversation she had with Joan Jonas. This occurred while looking at photographs of Jack Smith’s performances: “She was saying something like: ‘these photographs are just nothing like it was to be there at the time in his loft. He’d turn up late. There were only ten of us. It went on for hours. It smelt like this. It was the atmosphere’ and so on. It was incredible to hear her testimony. But at the same time, I’ve spent hours looking at those photos and imagining it. They trigger an idea, which may be inaccurate, but it would be a tragedy not to have it represented at all, I think, just because it’s not the real original.”
My synthesis is that there continue to be two meanings of ‘agency’ and both can be embraced in an art context. I believe that a professional artist can have agency in pursuing their own Live Art to communicate their ideas as powerfully as they can, using their own bodies as a core tool or medium. I also think an artist can act as an agent for participants in Live Art actions to enable them to have a physical art experience. This can immerse them and elicit more intense thoughts and feelings than by just observing.
But instead of leaving it at that, with the protagonists’ memories, their testimony, and the audio-visual recordings being the Live Art legacy, what about a product of the event? The collective use of agency could produce 2D, 3D, or digital artefacts which could stand alone as the outcome of a Live Art action. The performance could be designed with two ends in mind: the experiential and physical legacies.
Thus participants would have two forms of agency: they would effectively delegate to the artist responsibility for creating the event, including its idea, format, structure, site, and financing. Then they would exercise their own agency in participating and collaborating experientially, and in producing a collective art work. They might even contribute to the cost by buying a ticket or subscribing to the work.
Clearly the participant collaborators have a privileged position which the artist would have to acknowledge. They would always have the richest memories of the experience. However, their physical or digital product could be a powerful memento, especially when viewed in conjunction with the audio-visual record of the Live Art itself.
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'Agency' - essay