Conceptual art that demands supplementary texts to attain meaning—or meaningfulness—is often worthy of skepticism. At its best, such work is phenomenologically engaging on its own and underwritten by good ideas. The 10 mixed-medium sculptures and installations in Agnieszka Kurant’s recent exhibition succeed on both counts. As much social science as art, the works explore ideas of collective authorship and unconscious labor with imagination and rigorous execution.
Kurant, who was born in Poland and now lives in New York, examines myriad forms of collective engagement—from the online crowdsourcing so ubiquitous today to more unconscious, fundamental processes, like Darwinian evolution. Whether we’re clicking a “like” button or selecting a genetically compatible mate, such activity, however pleasurable or unwitting, is labor that generates capital that’s sometimes invisible to its creators. Kurant calls it “phantom capital.”
These concepts drove the exhibition. An untitled 2014 installation consists of an empty, unattended conveyor belt that loops through a mirrored wall, seeming to disappear into itself and regenerate as it courses into and out of the mirror. (The viewer, reflected in the mirror, becomes the implied laborer, enacting invisible labor.) Elsewhere, Quasi-object (2014), an animatronic soccer ball, “kicked” itself around the room, plaything to an invisible team. Living Currency (2014) is an inconspicuous generator that was attached to the gallery’s main entrance and that charged a small battery when visitors opened the door.
Composed of dyed sands, gold, crystals and glitter in stalagmite-like mounds, the colorful installation A.A.I. (2014) was visually and conceptually stunning. The piles were built by termites to which Kurant and a group of entomologists provided the raw materials. Artists have long outsourced their work—to chance, to the elements, to physical and chemical phenomena. Kurant takes that a sly step further by employing the unconscious hive intelligence of another species to create art to which we, in turn, assign a price—the dollar’s value being itself a collective agreement.
The shared labor behind three of the pieces on view is that of collective imagination. Phantom Library (2011-12) is a shelf of blank-paged books that otherwise exist only as fictional references in works of authors like H.P. Lovecraft and Kurt Vonnegut. Map of Phantom Islands (2011) and Political Map of Phantom Islands (2011) are composite maps created by Kurant to include fictional islands, like Atlantis, Hyperborea and Antilia, that have appeared on historical maps by cartographers who believed they existed.
Several of Kurant’s projects are still evolving. In The End of Signature (2014), an autopen machine scrawls an unintelligible “signature” on successive sheets of white paper, while on the adjacent wall the same signature appears as a glass tube, which fills intermittently with black water from left to right as though a line penned by a giant, invisible hand. A slot in the wall invited visitors to contribute their own signatures; like the charging battery downstairs, they will likely be used for some future work. According to the gallery, the original squiggle was digitally synthesized from some 5,000 signatures collected in Utrecht—an ingenious comment on the death of personal signatures in a keyboarded age.
Compelling ideas like these want wall texts, however—a missed opportunity by the gallery. Most of the specific references and processes behind the works I learned only by consulting press material, others through conversations and e-mails with gallery staff. For an exhibition so clever about hidden labor and its exploitation, its meanings were sometimes too well hidden, their apprehension laborious.