MAP: To start by discussing Agency, the show you curated at Nome Gallery in Berlin, could you speak a bit about the origins of the show, and why you wanted to bring those specific artists together? Was it a matter of you wanting to show these artists in a particular context or did the artists emerge as the logical people to include once you had the theme?
James Bridle: A little bit of both in the sense that they were all artists whose work I was familiar with and really enjoyed, but to be honest, also quite separately. I hadn’t really thought of them ‘together’ in a particular context until the genesis of this show. And the show came from a few places. In part, it came in response to my own work - both my work in the visual arts and my writing. The point being a sense of a fairly widespread grimness in the world that we’re struggling to try to figure out a coherent response to, and that was also framed by a lot of work that I see in the art world, and particularly in Berlin, which is grappling with a lot of the questions that I’ve been concerned with in my own work like global surveillance, the environment, the use of what was once thought to be a kind of utopian network for incredibly dystopian purposes, the different ways in which technology increasingly feels like something oppressive rather than liberatory. All of those were the things I was thinking about and trying to see a way through essentially, particularly a way that didn’t continue to amplify that feeling of dread and fear.
MAP: The nature of how power and curation work together is something I wanted to touch on, because we see the word “curated” everywhere from playlists, to menus, to exhibitions, and a lot of the “curation” that people experience in music, particularly, is done via algorithm triggers, and given that you did this project from a more personal place, I was wondering if you had thoughts about the ways our lives are being shaped by what is called “curation”, but which is basically just information organisation. How do you see the act of curating in light of the migration of this term, but also the power dynamics that’s creating?
JB: I would preface by saying that my take on curation is, as you say a very personal one. I know a lot of professional curators who really take this on as their work. I’ve been lucky enough to curate a couple of exhibitions which have been personal explorations of work I was interested in. I have to say, I love the artists and the works in the show so much [that] it felt half like putting on a private show for myself. It was an incredible privilege to put all these works in a room and be with them myself but that question of who is organising the information is absolutely critical to the theme of the show. The word that I keep using is “agency”, it’s specifically about that: who chooses which information to present, and how is it presented, and what is the responsibility that you take for doing that.
I don’t want to use the word curation to describe it because that’s specific, but in terms of this wider definition of how you organise information, how you select what’s important, how you choose what to focus on, that’s absolutely central to what each of these artists are doing, I think, because they are taking what are established, or widespread, or, often, overbearing narratives or power and control and saying “we can actually reconfigure these”, “we can step into these narratives”, “we can reshape them and retell them”. This is what I see each of them doing, but the kind of overarching narrative for me was this ability to say no to [the] kind of unthought receptiveness to information, the throwing up of one’s hands in the face of overwhelming, and often terrifying, information. That whether it’s “algorithms”, in this very broad, hand-wavey sense, whether it’s the very established networks of power that often are added into those computational systems—that are always behind them—whichever one it is, they’re not monolithic and all powerful. They’re still amenable to different forms of storytelling and retelling that are in the hands of artists and writers all the time.
MAP: In your writing in particular you speak often about the emergent properties of things. I imagine that in a curatorial situation you are likely experiencing emerging dialogues between works, and I was wondering if—particularly in an exhibition entitled Agency—if there were dialogues between works that emerged that surprised you, or maybe revealed new aspects of the works to you?
JB: Absolutely, when you put these things together the really kind of shift in their meaning, both in your response to them, and in their response to each other. I knew Anna Ridler’s work and was really fascinated with her work around machine learning in particular, but when we started having these really good conversations about a kind of role that she was playing with the work it became less about these specific technologies, machine learning and AI, and much more about an engagement with the materials, and that’s why we chose the work we did: the WikiLeaks work, which is a few years old now, but really got into the heart of this attempt to write other narratives through these technologies, not just merely to respond to the way in which they present themselves; in this case, a vast archive of leaked material, but, really, it’s material for the artist to reconfigure and explore, and when you put that up against Navine Khan-Dossos’ paintings, which also take up [the] iconography of the digital world—she’s capable of reaching into those systems [and] pulling out these aspects of them in order to reconfigure them, and tell them as different stories which is such a powerful act when we’re constantly made to feel so helpless in the face of these things.
Another really good example of that, I think, is Constant Dullart’s work. I’d know that work for a long time and I was more familiar with the social media aspect of it, this is the work where Constant bought tens of thousands—if not hundreds, if not millions—of fake followers online. First he was buying Instagram followers, and then he was buying an army of fake profiles on Facebook, creating his own masses of bots, and I really really loved that project but, it wasn’t until I started thinking of them—in the context of this somewhat magical act that runs through the agency show—seeing these sim cards as these material relics, or not even relics, I started to see them as sarcophagi for digital souls; these little lamps, like genie lamps that you’d rub to release the djinn, the online fake profile, or the bot, which then, of course, put it immediately into dialogue with Moreshin Allahyari’s ‘She Who Sees the Unknown’, the 3D piece which is about djinns and this kind of magical resuscitation.
MAP: To speak now a bit about your literary work, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future (Verso, 2018), particularly, and the way it talks about how a dark age is constructed in relation to information and literacy of certain kinds—digital literacy being a key factor. Vernacular digital literacy, using social media and the like, is driving the way that information is affecting politics and cultural dynamics. It seems what’s happening, particularly in light of the Cambridge Analytica revelations in Britain, is a sort of information arbitrage where people are exploiting, or creating, information deficits and finding ways to create forms of ignorance through information. How does an artist approach the differential distribution of information literacy, and the strong correlation that has with preexisting power dynamics between corporate, or government, entities and individuals?
JB: I talk a lot about literacy in the book. It’s a very complicated thing, and I feel like I’m very much just feeling out the edges of it, and trying to describe properly. What I would say about it in the context of this exhibition, there’s a sense to which some people have more access to information, to knowledge, to skills, than other people, and that is absolutely foundational to their power. What I try to talk about in the book is the way that kind of literacy isn’t specific to one discipline. There’s this particular idea—and this is used constantly to obscure power—that technological literacy is only one kind of literacy—which is the literacy of coding and the basic technical functioning of these systems. What I think I tried to do in the book, and in the exhibition, is to open up the range of knowledges that can be brought to bear upon this subject, that you don’t need to be, for example, a coder or a programmer to have either opinions or agency on what’s occurring. Other artistic skills, other skills from the humanities, skills from the other sciences, are just as valid as critique because this technological world we live in is not merely limited to code. It’s one of the ways in which we interact, and code affects everything else, and, so, everything else can affect code. We can shape their social practices as well. This is a show that deals with a lot of technological questions, but it doesn’t necessarily deal with them through [producing] more code. The really clear example is Susan Treister’s work, where she’s responding to the NSA surveillance infrastructure—which is a huge complex of technological power and traditional political power and secrecy—but she’s responding to it through image-making; in this case, through charcoal drawings, and, in others, through watercolour.
MAP: In the book, you mention Timothy Morton’s notion of a hyperobject and how difficult it is to feel that one has any agency in relation to it. If art is a kind of epistemology in producing a form of knowledge about a particular situation or state of affairs, could you speak a bit more about the way art can become a kind of epistemology toward a hyperobject, where possibly we lack the conceptual apparatus to talk about it in other, more traditional epistemic language?
JB: What I would also say is there is a kind of a rearticulation of agency that’s going on here: agency is often associated with mastery, this idea that in order to activate or work with some material, you have to master it in some way, and the point about the hyperobject is that it’s unmasterable in that way; there’s no complete totality of view possible over it. There’s no complete understanding from which you can get to a complete, rounded view of this thing that exists beyond a totalising understanding. So agency becomes less about being able to master a particular subject, or discipline, in order to act meaningfully within it, and it becomes about the ability to act at all, to suggest that there are multiple pathways, all of which are valid and useful, and don’t particularly have to simply reinforce the existing narratives associated with this subject matter.
MAP: One of the things that struck me was how, as you describe in the book, a lot of the information technology we have was developed with the intention of weather manipulation and creating a form of mastery or power over weather, but now that climate change is so prevalent, and its primary effects are felt in extreme weather at the moment, the same information flows and technical dynamics are used to deny that its occurring at all. This thing they tried to do—and would have been proud of—now they’re often saying isn’t happening using the same technologies that arose from the initial project of false mastery. Could you speak about the way these unintentional dynamics are written into things like coming to terms with a hyperobject, but, also, into the daily lives of citizens which infuses a sense of powerlessness, but also may provide a way to become aware of one’s agency?
JB: I’m sitting here watching a massive storm gathering in Athens.
MAP: Product placement…
JB: A massive pathetic fallacy.
MAP: I try to specialise in the pathetic and the fallacious. The reason I thought it would be relevant to this discussion is because of the way positioning and power work in relation to agency.
JB: The discourse about weather in the twentieth century was always one of mastery, of forecasting and then control, but now, because of an unintentional manipulation of the climate that’s been going on for 300 years, the only arena of mastery that’s left is in people’s understanding of what’s occurred, and, so, instead of trying to predict outside forces, you attempt to predict people’s behaviour and responses.
I use this history of the weather and meteorology as a way of understanding what’s now happening through technology in attempts to control and manipulate people’s understanding. The weather is such a good example of this. It’s the greatest hyperobject we’re all in contact with, so it stands as a kind of example of the total inability to do what power has always said it can do which is to impose a dominant narrative and utterly control it. We’ve already been through so many cycles of that failure that there remains a chance to understand that dynamic and reject it. To say that the whole principle of prediction and control is totally and utterly bankrupt. We’re in desperate need of other ways of thinking about that narrative and particularly one, for me, that brings that back from this future-orientated “how are we going to deal with this in the future” by predicting and controlling the present, to [a] focus on our behavior in the present to advance better futures. In the show, it’s about not constantly harping on the terrible things that are happening, or might be happening, but, instead, looking at how we can help and care for the present. Instead of proposing these vast schemes to continually redirect future paradigms, we look at what are the stories we’re telling about the present, and particularly about who’s telling them.
Agency curated by James Bridle at Nome Gallery, Berlin, October 27 - December 7 2018.
New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future published by Verso, 2018.
William Kherbek is the writer of the novels Ecology of Secrets (Arcadia Missa, 2013) and ULTRALIFE (Arcadia Missa, 2016) and the epic poem, Pull Factor (2016). Kherbek’s poetry collections, Everyday Luxuries and 26 Ideologies for Aspiring Ideologists are published by Arcadia Missa and If a Leaf Falls Press respectively.