The spectre of collective labor haunts Agnieszka Kurant’s striking, timely exhibition at the SCAD Museum of Art. Featuring collaborations with non-artist and non-human agents—e.g., termites—the Polish artist’s work deals with the outsourcing of labor, notions of creative authorship, as well as exploitation and fair wages. Though perennially important, these issues have, in this moment of bots and temp-gigs, of gaping income disparity, of techno-fueled populistic upsurge—become urgent.
Kurant’s Artificial Artificial Intelligence series takes its name from a term coined by Jeff Bezos to describe menial tasks too complex for algorithms or robotics, which must instead be completed by sentient beings. Bezos meant low-wage workers, Kurant employed termites. Working in collaboration with an entomologist and researchers at the University of Florida, Kurant provided colonies with a variety of alternative materials: day-glo-colored sand, gold, glitter, and crystals. The resulting mounds, which take between four and five months for the termites to create, fill the center of the gallery, an uncanny blend of forms and fluorescent color rarely found in the natural world.
On ViewScad Museum Of Art
October 12, 2017 – January 14, 2018
Once completed, these crusty, sparkling totems are coated with a stabilizing lacquer, though that step of production was delayed by Hurricane Irma. Interestingly, production was affected by the storm in another way: in the presence of the increased humidity, the termites went into overdrive, producing larger, more complex mounds than before. Alongside is a companion series, A.A.I. (System’s Negatives) made out of zinc casts of the interiors of termite mounds in Namibia. In addition to being an aesthetic foil to the mounds (they look skeletal, or like some robo-coral) these filled-in, exposed passages represent Kurant’s aim to make visible the obscured inner workings of a given system.
For the Production Line series, Kurant collaborated with the artist and filmmaker John Menick, and a large number of anonymous workers crowdsourced from Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk platform. This is an example of Bezos’ AAI. The program takes its name (and orientalist aroma) from the famous 18th-century chess-playing automaton made by the Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen. A globally diffuse network of Turkers (as they refer to themselves) are paid pennies for Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) such as completing surveys or transcribing images of street signs in Google Street View. Though the interface suggests otherwise, in the program, as in the Turk itself, there’s a person inside.
For this series, Kurant and Menick paid thousands of workers from around the world to draw a line. Earlier drawings included around 500 collaborators; recent ones include up to 2000. Payment was both market rate and a pittance. The lines were then assembled, by algorithm, into these compositions, which were printed onto archival paper and sold through Kurant’s New York dealer, Tanya Bonakdar. When the works sell at art-market rate, profits are distributed to the line drawers in a sweeping, symbolic redistribution of authorship and reparation. The drawings themselves are striking. They are both hand drawn and digital, combining the evolving geometry of a Sol Lewitt wall drawing with the stilted line work of a stylus signature on a bodega card reader.
Assembly Line (2017) gives face, of sorts, to the communal labor seen throughout Collective Intelligence. Ten thousand Turkers submitted front and profile view selfies. That data was layered to create a 360-degree collective portrait of the workers. 3D printed in resin and then plated with nickel, the work resembles a Futurist bust of Mussolini.
What is most evident here, and throughout the show, is a diffusion of authorship. This continues with Cutaways, a 2013 film made with Oscar-winning film editor Walter Murch, which stitches together characters cut from different movies to highlight the presence of absence to create a new narrative of the discarded. In fact, with the exception of two lenticular prints merely inspired by the work of economist Thomas Schelling and research done at the Santa Fe Institute—a theoretical research institute specializing in complex systems—each work in the show was made in collaboration with another, be they an artist, scientist, gig-based cyber-laborer, or termite.
A final work, Mutations and Liquid Assets (2014), addresses the alchemical process of how authorship functions in the art world. Elsewhere, the labor of others is transformed into an art object. Here, art objects themselves undergo the transformation. Works by Joseph Beuys, Carol Bove, Carsten Höller, and Richard Prince are melted down to create one piece, an abject and burnt alloy of steel, silver, bronze, and brass. This hardened puddle of metal is displayed alongside four certificates of authenticity. In creating this new work, Kurant reflects back upon the art world—that strange economy that allows for all of the above transactions.
Collective Intelligence reminds us that, no matter how infinitesimal and diffuse a system’s components, there is a physical footprint. Visualizing this presence becomes an artistic imperative. In a world where twitter bots and algorithmically targeted fake news sway elections, where once-atomized extremists gather in public parks, an exhibition demonstrating how collective labor can be harnessed—and manipulated—to shift meaning and value is of paramount importance.