Agnieszka Kurant, Crowd Crystal exhibition, installation view, Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Torino, © photo: © Sebastiano Pellion di Persano, Courtesy Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Torino

Between the Virtual and the Organic Exploring the polyphony of emergence in the XXI century: In Conversation with Agnieszka Kurant

In Conversation with Agnieszka Kurant, conceptual artist currently living and working in New York. By creating artworks often designed as systems independently mutating into novel hybrid forms, Kurant explores the phenomena of phantoms, collective intelligence, subjectivity, artificial intelligence, redistribution of capital, evolutionary algorithms, and where they lead us as a 21st century society. 

Her works have been exhibited in the most renowned art institutions, among them Guggenheim Museum in New York, Palais de Tokyo in Paris, De Young Museum in San Francisco or Tate Modern in London. In 2010, she represented Poland at the 12th International Architecture Exhibition of Venice Biennale. Her latest project is a solo public commission for the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, opening this September. 

Alicja Stąpór: What interests you the most in life? What is the biggest inspiration for your art?

Agnieszka Kurant: My work is inspired by evolution of culture, transformations of the human, and social change. I investigate the future of labor and creativity, and the exploitations present in surveillance capitalism. I am exploring the new kind of extractivism: the ways in which the twenty-first-century digital economy developed systems of value extraction from the collective intelligence of society as a whole. Today, with digital technologies and the use of AI, the entire society has become a giant factory of data production, extraction and exploitation, and we all have come to be ghost workers in the machine. Social energies are mined with algorithms by corporations just like oil or gas, so in a way they became a part of the global energy market.

What interests me is the fact that today the computable aspects of the future can be mined and speculated upon as assets. In the post-digital world the so-called “third nature,“ as McKenzie Wark has recently named it, treats every possible future state of nature and synthetic nature as quantifiable, computable, and configurable resources. These possible futures can be calculated, hedged, simulated, valorized, and monetized.

Another point of departure for my work is the increasingly blurring boundary between natural and artificial, real and synthetic, life and non-life, sentient and non-sentient, biological, geological and digital. The distinctions between these realms are starting to crumble and that is a meaningful paradigm shift because it complicates the possibility of ontologically classifying  many contemporary objects and phenomena.

I am also exploring the alternative pathways of evolution of societies, based on collective subjectivity, not individualism. Individualism is what brought us to where we are today:    climate change catastrophes,  privatization of the commons, and profound social inequality. Today, collective subjectivity and the commons need to be healed and restored. 

To pose questions about the deep consequences of contemporary ideologies and technologies I constantly undermine individualism and I probe human intelligence and the “self” as a multitude of agents: a polyphony or a collective intelligence, involving minerals, microorganisms, viruses and algorithms. I’ve also been  experimenting with the redistribution of capital. 

Agnieszka Kurant, A.A.I. (Artificial Artificial Intelligence), 2015, termite mounds built by colonies of living termites out of colored sand, gold and crystals, collaboration: dr Paul Bardunias, dr Leah Kelly, private collections

AS: Your art often crosses the ‘no-man’s-land’ of phantoms. What initially inspired you to enter this world of a certain non-existence?  Did your interest in phantoms come from your study of filmography and photography?  Is your interest in phantoms, connected with your work on the so-called invisible labor? Did one thing lead to another? I  am thinking of your 2015 installation  ‘A.A.I.’, featuring sculptures built by termite colonies, which refers to the labor of Amazon’s lowest-pay workers, the ‘mechanical turks’. Do you think that, however paradoxical, we actually live in the world of phantoms? 

AK: Yes, we certainly live in the world of phantoms. 

My background is in philosophy and my interest in phantoms came from the realization that our societies are organized around fictions and phantoms such as money. The virtualization of money is not a product of digital capitalism – it  started long before the advent of physical money when human civilizations were starting to form. All human civilizations were built on the basis of fictions. Fictions such as money, laws, and gods (religions) were a social glue which allowed larger groups of people who never met to be connected by an overarching narrative they all believed in or agreed upon (a social contract). I realized the impact of fictions on the economy and politics. A rumor can cause a stock market crash, an ash cloud over Iceland can freeze the global economy for weeks.  

Today, money has become almost completely virtualized. About 90 % of money in world circulation exists only digitally and not in physical form as notes or coins. Money is essentially a phantom, a specter, because the basis for its existence is debt. 

Meanwhile, today we can observe the emergence of the new working class: the ghost workers. Jeff Bezos has once cynically described the work of ghost workers on the online crowdsourcing platforms as “artificial artificial intelligence” since in aggregate they simulate the operations of an algorithm. Tens of thousands of people become the cogs in the machine. The “ghosts in the machine” are in fact ghost workers in the machine. Today the entire system of artificial intelligence is becoming a globally distributed factory of data collection and exploitation, and we all have become workers. Our data is used to train the AI algorithms while millions of ghost workers perform small online tasks for pennies. Most of labor is invisible, performed passively, unbeknownst to the workers, extracted from all people around the globe. 

AS: A big part of your artistic research is focused on the contrast  between collective intelligence and artificial intelligence on  the one hand, and  the very genuine and natural occurences in the world – such as individual signature or wildlife – on the other. Is it so that you can find a certain connection between those highly complicated mechanisms and the purest forms of expression, living? 

AK: I have spent many years studying various forms of nonhuman intelligence.  What drew me towards collective intelligence is the fact that this phenomenon is to some degree uncomputable. In times when everything seems possible to predict with algorithms, it was humbling to discover that in such complex systems novel forms emerge out of millions of molecules, bacteria, termites or humans in a largely unpredictable way. 

I started experimenting with collective intelligence to undermine the paradigm of individual, singular intelligence and of creativity understood as an individual process, as well as the concept of fixed stable forms. Collective intelligence disrupts some fundamental concepts in philosophy and anthropology. It produces an ontological shift based on questioning the notion of the human as an individual intelligence. Today we realize that the contemporary human is in fact an assemblage, a multitude, or a polyphony of simultaneously operating agencies and intelligences, from microbes and viruses to AI. Bacteria and viruses are necessary actors in our immune system and our microbiome impacts our mental states and all the decisions we make. At the same time, our decision-making processes are automated and optimized by corporations through algorithmic data mining. In a way, we are being hacked both from the inside—by microbes and viruses—and from the outside—by algorithms. As a result, the concept of the “self” as a singular, autonomous individual begins to collapse. Around 2008, my research brought me to complexity science, a field studying complex systems and, among others, the phenomena of collective intelligence and emergence. Collective intelligence basically means group intelligence, where novel forms emerge in nonlinear and unpredictable ways from interactions between thousands or millions of elements, agents, or molecules in a complex system. It can be observed, for example, in slime molds, termite colonies, the Internet, social movements, the stock exchange, cities, and in our brains. Complex phenomena such as hurricanes, consciousness or inception of life are products of emergence—a property of collective intelligence  based on self-organization which exists both in physical and social systems: from living systems and geology, to economy and AI. 

Complexity science discovered that groups of organisms such as termites,  bacteria, or social movements display diverse personality traits as superorganisms or “collective persons.” 

Creativity and the production of culture can be seen as the labor of a multitude, and not of single individuals. It seems that contemporary culture is slowly evolving in that direction again, although it might bifurcate at some point in a completely unexpected way. While the current form of artmaking favors individual authors, culture might evolve into different, more complex, hybrid, collective forms involving not only multitudes of humans but also machines, minerals, living organisms, and viruses – a polyphony of agencies. This seems  a possible evolutionary change, comparable to the advent of writing.

Agnieszka Kurant, Errorism exhibition, installation view, Museum of Art in Łódź, © photo: A. Zagrodzka

AS: Your projects ‘A. A. I.’ with termite colonies and ‘Animal Internet’ with the webcam observations of wildlife, give us an insight into the natural environment of animals. They, however, introduce us to two different narratives or, perhaps, perspectives into looking at the animal kingdom. However amazed we are with termites, we tend to underestimate their role and existence while we glorify and celebrate the tigers and bears we observe online. Do you think this paradox is a reflection of  the system of values present within our own societies? If so, do you think this is inevitable in the times of capitalism? 

AK: Indeed, late capitalism tends to turn workers into abstractions and erase them. The digital ghost workers who train the AI algorithms used by platform capitalism (the algorithms used by Google, Facebook, Amazon etc) do not exist in the consciousness of most people using the internet. Similarly, the social media users are mostly not aware that the production of computers and data centers is contingent on the extraction of coltan, copper, gold and rear earth metals, based on exploitative or slave labor in African or Chinese mines. The extraction of these minerals powering the work of the global system of AI not only hinges upon exploitation of millions of people but is also causing devastation to the entire ecosystem. This remains completely invisible from the perspective of an average internet user. 

But this anonymization of the worker is inherent to capitalism from the beginning, and today we have all become anonymous worker termites because the data unwillingly harvested from us participates in the training of AI and the optimization of algorithms. Our data is also used to predict individual and collective social behaviors, mostly for nefarious purposes such as predictive policing or profiling people by credit rating agencies, which leads to widespread injustice. 

 AS: Do you think that by observing and analyzing the processes occurring in nature we can actually learn more about ourselves, our society, our civilisation? I believe that analyzing your works gives me, above all, more insight into our human nature, collective processes and social hierarchy. Do you plan on making more wildlife oriented projects? 

AK: Yes indeed. Similar processes happen in biological, geological and social systems.  My works compare the emergence of social phenomena to the emergence of forms in other systems. Complexity science is the field that brought all these realms together. 

This year during the Venice Biennale, as part of Nicolas Bourriaud’s exhibition “Planet B. Climate Change and the New Sublime”, I am presenting a new piece, Semiotic Life, which is an entanglement of a 74-years-old bonsai tree with its optimized model, an algorithmic prediction of a future ideal bonsai of the same species. I am drawing on the concept of “third nature”, which I mentioned above, and the ways in which we can compute future states and forms of nature – speculations and predictions some people try to capitalize on. For example, there is speculation about future forms of organisms which could be manufactured with synthetic biology: e.g. optimized plant species.  But in reality, nature might evolve differently –  it may diverge from our predictions as evolution is driven by errors that can’t really be computed.  Semiotic Life is an entanglement of the prediction or model we create with AI with real life. Bonsai trees, which originated in the 6th century in China, are themselves an interesting example of artificial nature, trained and carved by humans over  centuries. Therefore, I’m juxtaposing nature as an evolutionary algorithm with the evolutionary algorithms of machine learning of AI. 

AS: In your latest exhibition ‘Crowd Crystal’ at Castello di Rivoli you emphasize the constant changes in the appearance of your artworks. The installation changes physically, as a reaction to social changes, online demonstrations of protests. Is it so, that this exhibition does not only reflect the issue of artificial and collective intelligence, but that the art works in their own right also become an independent, ever-changing, embodiment of those matters? Is it right to say that the installation is essentially an autonomous body of collective intelligence? 

AK: Yes indeed. Some of my works undergo perpetual plasticity and mutation, physically reacting to changes happening in the society. I’m investigating the impact of digital footprints made by millions of people around the globe on physical changes and mutations of matter. 

I think that the nature of cultural products might change in the future: artworks or books might not be considered finished products as artists and writers will be able to continuously change and update them in real time. Artworks will be evolving parallel to society. There will be no fixed forms, which we can already actually observe in the perpetually evolving technical objects, constantly updated by their creators and users. 

I often analyze the molecular level of reality, the molecular composition and transformation of matter, and the relationship of the micro to macro scale.

I developed a novel way of producing artworks, based on crowdsourcing to thousands of human and non-human agents. I often simply create conditions in which novel forms can emerge or crystallize out of thousands or millions of molecules, bacteria, termites, or the activity of thousands or millions of humans. I create unstable, evolving forms or grow artworks like geological formations. 

This leads to the production of hybrid forms oscillating between different states and realms, evolving or dissolving: between naturally occurring formations and sculpture, between real and synthetic processes, between artificial and natural products, between human and nonhuman, between nature and technology, between life and nonlife, between singular and plural subjectivity. I wanted to create an alternative way of producing artworks based on various forms of collective intelligence and collective agency, as an alternative to a single, individual author. I started to observe parallels between the ways in which different forms crystallize and emerge in living systems, in geology and in society: a mineral crystallizes in a similar manner to a sign, a tool, a rumor, a currency, a meme, a crowd, a social movement. My works often consist of either identifying or creating systems, which result in the emergence or crystallization of forms. I simply set up a system or program and deliberately lose control over the process. 

In Conversions, opinion dynamics and emotions of thousands of people around the globe cause the transformations of physical matter of the liquid crystal molecules on the surface of the painting. In Chemical Garden, I grow crystalline forms resembling plants which emerge from a mixture of inorganic chemicals—salts of metals present in contemporary computers—the industrial extraction of which destroys entire ecosystems. However, paradoxically, the same metal salts generated quasi-plant structures at the inception of life on Earth. The virtual, the geological, and the biological are intertwined and the organic and inorganic substances in the world are continually reorganized into various unstable forms. 

Agnieszka Kurant, Crowd Crystal exhibition, installation view, Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Torino, © photo: © Sebastiano Pellion di Persano, Courtesy Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Torino
Agnieszka Kurant, Crowd Crystal exhibition, installation view, Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Torino, © photo: © Sebastiano Pellion di Persano, Courtesy Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Torino

AS:  In the press release of your ‘Crowd Crystal’ exhibition we read the following: ‘The artist questions the concept of individual authorship and reflects on the notion of the footprint that everyone leaves in the digital world, as well as carbon footprints, as actualizations of prehistoric imprints left by our ancestors.’ The idea of a digital footprint reminds me of the narrative of blockchain based art. Could you share your view on that matter? Do you plan to create artworks that are solely within the dimensions of the metaverse? How do you perceive such step, from physical to non-physical art, within the spectrum of leaving a footprint? 

AK: I was interested in the notion of a footprint as a form of signature, as well as in various other forms of footprints, emerging as a product of collective expressions of humans and nonhumans: from biosignatures of various early life forms, to the first signs created by the Paleolithic humans, to carbon footprints of industrial and post-industrial economy, to digital footprints left by our activities online.

I was reluctant to generate any NFT projects because of the carbon footprint that the minting of NFT produces. But now that Solana and Ethereum cryptocurrencies are starting to be based on “proof of stake” and no longer on “proof of work” the NFT’s carbon footprint is going to be diminished. And so for the first time I am currently working on an NFT project, but I am using it for the redistribution of capital and to critically reflect on the whole crypto industry. 

I’m developing Sentimentite, which was commissioned by the new expanded NFTs platform – Zien. It’s a collaboration with Zien’s founders, Shumon Basar and Peter Holsgrove, and with the computational social scientist, Justin Lane. Sentimentite is a speculative mineral-currency of the future. It investigates the relationship between digital capitalism and geology. Today the online social phenomena have an almost direct impact on geology so I’m imagining a geological formation, which would physically transform in reaction to changes in society, shaped by emotions and opinion dynamics of millions of people. Sentimentite’s evolving, geology-like forms were shaped by aggregated emotions  concerning one hundred impactful events from the history of the 21st century.

I am also trying to imagine a future mineral or object that will become desirable to the point of becoming a currency. These are almost impossible to predict. Think for example of the sudden shortage of acrylic plexiglass used by all businesses to separate employees from visitors during the pandemic. Or the current national crisis in the US around the baby formula shortage. Suddenly and unexpectedly, these objects become extremely rare. Meanwhile, we can see how lithium, used in the production of batteries used in electronic devices, becomes a much more important mineral than it was a century ago –  we can imagine lithium one day becoming more precious than gold.

Sentimentite will be possible to redeem as 3D sculptures from a new material I created through the pulverization and mixing of all the objects and minerals that were ever used as currencies throughout the history of human civilization, or ones that are currently becoming currencies in communities in crisis: from shells, Rai stones, whale teeth, Tide detergent, chocolate, soap, candy, cigarettes, to lithium. The profits from the sales of these NFTs will be redistributed among nonprofit organizations helping refugees, ghost workers and social movements.

AS: What book are you reading now, what are your plans for 2022? 

AK: I was recently reading Bifurcate: There is No Alternative edited by Bernard Stiegler, Kate Crawford’s Atlas of AI, Rebecca Lemov’s The Database of Dreams, The Language of Plants edited by Monica Gagliano, John C. Ryan and Patricia Vieira, The Third Unconscious by Franco “Bifo” Berrardi, David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything, Siegfried Zielinski’s The Deep Time of Media and the latest book from Catherine Malabou – Plasticity: The Promise of Explosion.

My solo public commission for the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge is opening in September. This spring and summer I have a residency at Art Explora in Paris. I’m currently exhibiting my work at the Nicolas Bourriaud’s exhibition, Planet B, in Venice and at ZKM Karlsruhe in the Beauty of Early Life exhibition. Later this summer I’m doing a commission for the Emma Museum in Helsinki and for the Munch Triennale. My monograph Collective Intelligence, edited by Stefanie Hessler and Jenny Jaskey, will be published this year by Sternberg Press and MIT Press. I am also starting to work on my solo exhibitions at Mudam Luxembourg and Kunstverein in Hannover.

Agnieszka Kurant, Crowd Crystal exhibition, installation view, Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Torino, © photo: © Sebastiano Pellion di Persano, Courtesy Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Torino

About The Author


Dancer, performing artist, writer. Bachelor of Art History and Philosophy at the New College of the Humanities in London. Interested in contemporary dance, theatre, philosophy of beauty, fashion, cinema, and all things antiquity.

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