Theron Schmidt: 'Agency'

Three meanings of ‘agency’

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.

For a more detailed analysis, link to my essay here.