Annie Abrahams reflects on the right classification of her own ... what, exactly? Hypertext work? Net Art, electronic literature, digital art, intermedia art, computer fine arts, internet art, interactive writing experiment, computer art, poetry, flash art, animation, hypermedia, lecture, digital print, performance, opera, sound piece, contemporary art, video art? Rather than settle on tags that were mostly based on technology and didn't say anything about what was experienced through the work, Abrahams now profers a behavioral art that considers human/machine interactions somewhat in the way behavioral science in the 1970s "studied monkey behavior in a cage."
When looking at “separation/séparation” (2002), a relatively simple hypertext work in flash, which was included in the Electronic Literature Collection 2, we see a piece that literally obliges the readers to change their behavior in front of the screen.
This is the first time that my body has been directly addressed, indeed disciplined, by a Net Art work. This is made possible by its complex composition. “separation/séparation” is made of many parts: a web interface, an economical visual aesthetic, texts (the monologue, the instructions, the commands), human-to-machine interaction.(Catlow)
“separation/séparation” is net art, electronic literature, and was exhibited in digital art exhibitions. It has been called intermedia art, is part of a computerfine arts collection, and won a prize in the internet section of “choréographies du travail”, a dance related art exhibition.
“ViolenceS”, an ongoing interactive writing experiment started in 2006, appears in several forms. The online html and php work became printed text in “Casa de Citas / House of Words” by Nilo Casares (ed.) (32-34). It is also an executable called “violence.exe” that was shown in poetry and fine art exhibitions. Another derivate, “Discours populaire sur la violence”, was published by Bleuorange as a flash animation in a section they called hypermedia.
It has always been very interesting for me to participate in my own online writing experiments (AttentionS, SollitudeS, ViolenceS, PeurS/FearS, FolieS, etc.). It confronted me with the voices of people of different ages and backgrounds. The text on the screen however, was not “nice” to read. When in 2004, I started to read this text aloud, I could give the phrases something back of their initial emotional charge (“AttentionS” in Théâtre La Fonderie in Sète). I discovered that the utterings on the screen were closer to the spoken word than to written text, and so I started to experiment with these readings and evolved naturally to a performance practice. In 2006 “PeurS/FearS” was used in the “_Oppera Internettikka - Protection et Sécurité” performance (with Igor Stromajer and Christine Kattner) at the Opéra National de Montpellier. In 2007 the “All Star Girlsband” performed “PeurS/FearS” in epoetry2007 in Paris. And in 2011 two volunteering firefighters read “PeurS/FearS” in a sound piece presented in the exhibition “Training for a Better World” at the Centre Regional d'Art Contemporain in Sète.
In 2012, I got an ELMCIP commission to do a performance in the “Remediating the Social” conference in Edinburgh. “Huis Clos/ No Exit – beyond (spectacle)” was a series of three performances. Five artist prepared and executed one every day of the conference.
“Using only their mother tongue, the five artists will challenge each other into collective action while trying to overcome language and cultural differences. Their communication is handicapped by this constraint - which means they will have to invent a new language based on some common words, codes, the technical possibilities of streaming and their bodies.” (Abrahams)
In the end we published three videos Exposition on the New Aesthetic, Newer Aesthetic and The internet is not as good as it was yesterday, that were shown in a show called "Subversive Systeme. Poetische Transfiguration des Digitalen" in the Stadtgalerie in Mannheim, Germany in 2014.
… hypertext work, Net Art, electronic, literature, digital art, intermedia art, computer fine arts, internet art, interactive writing experiment, computer art, poetry, flash art, animation, hypermedia, lecture, digital print, performance, opera, sound piece, contemporary art, video art, ...
The list of denominations was becoming impressive, but I wasn't satisfied with any of the classifications. Not that I bothered about others giving my work “names” but it made it more and more difficult to clarify my work in a few lines. All these categorizations were based on technology and didn't say anything about what was experienced through the work. I am not so much interested in a form as in what this form produces, what kind of behavior it concerns.
Years ago, when I was studying biology (MA, 1978), I spent time studying monkey behavior in a cage, and now it became evident that somehow on the internet I looked at humans with the same interest. Thus, I started to think about my art as “behavioral art”. In 2017 in an interview with Marc Garret and Ruth Catlow I explained why I did that only silently:
“Because the behavioral science of the late seventies didn’t suit me very well – using Skinner boxes, operant conditioning techniques and related to sociobiology, with a link to eugenics – it has become impossible to use this historically contaminated term. The wish to control, mold nature, and humans wasn’t mine. “Behavioral” was and still is a “stained” word for me.” (Catlow and Garrett)
But no doubt, my artistic methods are related to my scientific background. I do conceive my performances as experiments. There are never rehearsals. We only do tests, to make the participants familiar with the possibilities and limits of the technology they use. Every performance is structured with a protocol that is clear, precise and open at the same time. It gives a description of what has to be done, but does not say how to do this. Even a relatively complex performance as “Ours Lingages” for eloPorto, where we used language learning tools, collective writing, code, voices, dance, singing, audience participation and a blindfold, had a protocol that could be easily memorized and was not rehearsed.
As using “behavioral art” was not an option, I had to find something else. Maybe “agency art” would be better. Arjen Mulder uses it in his article “The Beauty of Agency Art” from 2012. In this article, visiting thinkers as diverse as Shannon, Wiener, MacKay, McLuhan, Cassirer, Langer, Gell, Latour, Heidegger, Derrida, Badiou, Rancière, Danto, Whitehead, Steiner, Rolnik, Deleuze and Guattari, he sets out to see where and how the discourse of contemporary art intersects with the discourse of technology art. Mulder cites Alfred Gell's definition of agency: “Whenever an event is believed to happen because of an 'intention' lodged in the person or thing which initiates the causal sequence that is an instance of 'agency'” (quoted in Mulder). And he states: “Agency Art is art that makes it clear to the receiver via his or her body what is at stake, where opportunities for action lie, and which virtual behaviors he or she can actualize.” In this sentence “virtual behavior” is an extension of “virtual feeling” introduced by the philosopher Susanne K. Langer in her groundbreaking book “Feeling and Form” from 1953. Langer explains how each individual art medium evokes, manipulates and investigates “virtual feelings” in its own way.
“A painting calls forth virtual depth with lines and colors; a sculpture constructs a virtual volume around itself; a novel constitutes virtual memory, tracked through virtual time. Dance follows virtual forces of attraction and repulsion. All the experiences that are part of this “feeling” are spaces of possibility, virtual feelings waiting for actualization; their nature, allurements and dangers must be studied, and art is where this investigation takes place.” (quoted in Mulder)
As I understood it, Agency Art does not take a medium, or technology as a starting point, but highlights what they make possible. It is an art that is anchored in behavioral choices. Its meaning is the actions made possible. This was interesting and I decided to look at, and read about, works from other artists, with whom I felt connected. A list of keywords on Agency Art was the result:
“collectively made, refusing hierarchy, a knitting together of artists and performers in the moment of the event, erasure of the artistic ego, practice, changing rules, choices, connecting, accepting the unexpected, responsive, shared, collaboratively authored, open to all, working with temporal behavioral phenomena, healing, enactment, improvised, including environmental conditions, attentional strategies, instructions, protocols, apparatus, meeting, embracing the ordinary, rehearsing alternatives, re-hijacking therapy, exercising our relations to others, our social (in)capacities, exploring rituals, being together, participatory, concerns individuals and politics”
Keywords collected from texts by: Deufert&Plischke, Shia LaBeouf, Lotte van den Berg, Pauline Oliveros, Olivier Auber, Samantha Gorman and Ienke Kastelein. From dance, theatre, digital art, sound, poetry to performance.
It felt good. Agency Art is multidisciplinary and opens up art practices the ones to the others.
But, the words Agency Art are also contaminated in the mind of some people (to understand what I mean, put the words in a search engine and you will know). Moreover I still was not sure the concept really covered my intentions.
And, something else is bothering me: Agency Art seemed to be based on thoughts about interactivity, on situations where we distinguish causes and reactions, while intra-activity, a term introduced by the theoretician and physician Karen Barad, is probably better adapted to understand something of what happens in my work.
“Inter means among or in the midst of, whereas intra means from within. When we add the word action to these prefixes we get a whole different meaning. When two bodies interact, they easily maintain a level of independence. Each entity exists before they encounter one another. However when bodies intra-act they do so in co-constitutive ways. Individuals materialize through intra-actions and the ability to act emerges from within the relationships not outside of it. So, why is this distinction important? Well, intra-action gives us a whole new way of thinking about the relationships with each other, with matter, with materials, with nature and with discourses.” (Kerr, Adams and Pittard)
In the performances of the Reading Club, started in 2013 with Emmanuel Guez, it is not really clear what is causing what; where the agency lies. The interface, individual computers and keyboard characteristics, server conditions, as well as the original text, the words of the co-performers, the local light conditions and family situations are all entangled in what Karen Barad would call the phenomenon of intra-action. In "The machinic author" Abrahams and Guez claim the Reading Club manifests itself as a facilitator for a diffractive, distributed intelligence on-the-fly.
“This intelligence creates text and relational patterns that do not depend on canons.
which take her out of self-reflexivity, out of systemized subjectivity, out of a world that only reproduces what it knows already” (Abrahams and Guez)
Sometimes I think my work would be better served by describing it as promoting aesthetics of attention and trust. I like the idea of seeing myself as a producer of relational machines. Would Intra-active Agency Art be something?
When I told all this to my friend Cor van der Weele (biologist and philosopher) she said: it's easy, call your work “Participative Ethology in Artificial Environments”. Not sure this brought me a lot further, but it is nice to consider. Food for thought and art works …
Catlow, Ruth. “If not You not Me”, London, HTTP gallery, January 2010, exhibition catalogue. Url: http://www.furtherfield.org/if-not-you-not-me-2/. Accessed August 22, 2019.
Abrahams, Annie. “What to do with violence?”, Casa de Citas / House of Words, Nilo Casares (ed). Gran Canario Espacio Digital. ISBN: 84-8103-474-6. Url: https://www.academia.edu/3002628/CasadecitasHouseof_Words. Accessed August 22, 2019.
Abrahams, Annie.“Huis Clos / No Exit – beyond (spectacle)”, bram, https://bram.org/huisclos/beyond/index.html Accessed August 22, 2019.
Catlow, Ruth and Garrett, Marc. “Addictive Behaviours: Interview with Artist Annie Abrahams”, furtherfield, 22/10/2017.
http://www.furtherfield.org/addictive-behaviours-interview-artist-annie-abrahams/ Accessed August 22, 2019.
Mulder Arjen. “The Beauty of Agency Art”, in Virtual Beauty, Arjen Mulder a.o. (eds), V2Publishing/Nai Publishers 2012. Url: https://www.academia.edu/19554697/TheBeautyofAgencyArt_2012 Accessed August 22, 2019.
Kerr, Stacey, Adams, Erin and Pittard, Beth. “Three Minute Theory: What is Intra-Action?” Video: https://youtu.be/v0SnstJoEec. Transcription Abrahams, Annie. Accessed August 22, 2019.
Abrahams, Annie and Guez, Emmanuel (2019) ““The machinic author” Artist’s Statement: The Reading Club”, Journal of Creative Writing Studies: Vol. 4: Iss.1, Article 8. ISSN: 2474-2937. Url: https://scholarworks.rit.edu/jcws/vol4/iss1/8