In Bishop’s book Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, we are exposed to the idea of art standing for something more than just an image for visually aesthetic purposes. Even though this cultural shift first happened in Europe during the historic Avant Garde movement in Europe in 1917, art as agency has grown to become more eminent as a social catalyst that invites discourse and dialogue.
The concept of art and agency took on a new dimension with protest art. Protest art came about in the 1920s with the Dadaists (Zurich based European Absurdists). Protest art in terms of an agency can be found in various degrees in terms of the subtlety expressed through an image, or more performance based mediums like theatre or song writing. The painting/ depiction carries a certain ontological meaning that could state a larger phenomena and allows participation for the people who are exposed to, or express discontent on the same phenomena. The signified becomes an ideology, and the signifier or agency is the art form. The concept of transmission of affect also implies in this case where the subject of art intended to cause a certain physical reaction due to the emotion triggered by the image/art form.
Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ was one of the most iconic artworks of the Dada art movement.
I would like to mention two artists whose works have evoked notable ‘reaction’ in the age of capitalism, surveillance capitalism (which was caused by corporations gaining monopoly over the internet). One would be Banksy, who is probably the most controversial graffiti artist of the late twentieth century. Some of Banksy’s artworks have a clear undulated message, where the artwork is almost a direct satirical representation of the issue he tries to highlight (in case of the image below) – the Syrian refugee crisis. Banksy happened to speak about this particular work of art – “We’re often led to believe migration is a drain on the country’s resources but Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian migrant. Apple is the world’s most profitable company, it pays over $7bn (£4.6bn) a year in taxes – and it only exists because they allowed in a young man from Homs.” This work depicts Steve job, who was actually the son of a Syrian migrant who travelled to America after the Second World War.
‘The Son of a Migrant from Syria’ 2015 (source: The Telegraph)
Another one of his famous works ‘Balloon Girl’ was chosen as Britain’s favourite art work in 2016 in a poll done by Samsung. This mural originally painted on to a wall in Shoreditch shows a young girl letting go of a heart shaped balloon. The nature of the mural which might appear dreamlike to some, depicts hope, in a world marked by atrocities like 9/11 and the refugee crisis. The fact that it was voted as Britain’s favourite painting conveys how his subject struck a chord with the audience and triggered some kind of an emotional reaction within them. This participation might be somewhat passive physically but created a larger emotional impact that resonated with people. The Steve Jobs mural was more direct and assertive in what it signified than the ‘Balloon Girl’ which was more of a subtle trigger.
‘Balloon Girl’ 2002 (source: guyhepner.com)
Another artist whose work could fall under the bracket of protest art but in a different cultural space would be Simon Denny. Denny’s work “addresses today’s major digital issues such as crypto-currency, big data and internet surveillance, along with the biggest players in this area such as Peter Thiel, Kim Dotcom and Jeff Bezos, as well as the founders and inventors of new digital currencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum.” (Hamish Coney, a conversation about Founder’s Paradox, Newsroom). This work of art is currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland. The game is based on the popular board game ‘Life’ to highlight the evils of surveillance and the possible dangers of tech. It allows participants in the game to think of their own actions – while playing the game, and questionable values that underpin surveillance capitalism. Denny says “Presented in this alternate visual context, the very real concepts can instead be “posited as some kind of weird fantasy”—one that may actually help viewers better evaluate the legitimacy or absurdity of the underlying phenomena” (Denny, Artnet, 2018). ‘The Founder’s Paradox’ is a satirical modern take on the downside of the digital age where the medium and form can be instantly identified by the participant by means of popular culture and re designed to transfer greater meaning to the artefacts and the game itself.
‘The Founder’s Paradise’ (source: Artnet)
I wrote about Banksy and Denny’s work because both these artists use art as an intended agency to spark a certain trail of thought or emotional response in the audience. They deal with similar concepts but are unique in their medium (Banksy in the late 1990s with the trademark stencil graffiti and Denny more recently with the oversaturated visual language of tech and data). It would be interesting to see the course of art and agency as artists pull away from traditional aesthetic to explore the cluttered semiotic sensibilities which prevail in our physical and mental spaces.
Bishop, C. (2012) Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Verso Books
Brennan, Transmission of affect