Wolfgang Ullrich

The Artist as Agent

The artist as scientist, the artist as curator, the artist as entrepreneur or manager, the artist as social worker or service provider, the artist as ethnographer, cartographer, anthropologist, sociologist or futurologist: Here are just a few of the labels used in recent years to characterize typically new forms of artistic activity. What is striking is the word 'as', for it suggests that artists are being completely absorbed into various professions, appropriating their modes of action and subject matter to such a degree that the artists could be mistaken, in the end, for actors from other sectors. In extreme cases, they would no longer be identifiable as artists at all. But would this not throw their very identities into question?

In place of the word 'as,' then, we might expect to find the word 'like,' implying the continued existence of a boundary separating the artist from other fields, while simultaneously asserting the comparability of the two in at least one regard, perhaps that of method or intention. Then the artist would have something in common with the scientist or the entrepreneur, but without his own identity becoming threatened in the process.

Nonetheless, the word 'as' is more appropriate than the word 'like,'

for it can also be interpreted to mean that an artist simply takes up another activity as a role, i.e. attempting to adopt it like an actor (but not 'as' an actor) (Veronika Ferres as Christiane Vulpius, Nana Petzet as physicist). In so doing, the artist stands in a long tradition according to which art possesses a mimetic character, and according to which it exists by mimicking something else, by conjuring its appearance. Again, this means that the artist does not really want to become (or to become like) a social worker or a sociologist, that his claim lies instead in staging this 'as-if' as perfectly as possible. The quality and the magic of such a performance lies precisely in the fact that he is not what he pretends to be.

Admittedly (and Plato's critique of art was already based on this), artists themselves sometimes seem to overlook the fact that they are not what they imitate. They may arrogate competencies which they do not in fact possess, and must then reckon with being judged by the criteria governing the area they have encroach upon (and accordingly, with being criticized harshly). These artists, then, face the same problems as certain doubles who cease at some point to distinguish between themselves and their celebrated models. Here too, professionalism consists (alongside the mimetic performance) precisely in being able to draw clear boundaries.

Just as doubles prey on especially attractive personalities, artists too show a preference for status-bearing professions, those enjoying high social regard (or at least those regarded as important). In any event, they find stimulation in the grand and the complex, the venerated and the difficult, the mysterious and the inscrutable. Because artists are revered 'for themselves' in an almost cultic fashion, while at the same time having practically no access to real power (something like sovereigns deprived of realms), they tend to feel an affinity primarily for domains possessing great or even overpowering influence. They would like to have the feeling first hand, at least for a brief interval, of being on the side of those capable of making things happen. From this emerges an additional 'as,' namely the role of artist as agent. Such individuals infiltrate a given system without exploding it, or even wanting to alter it substantially (not that they would be able to do so). For it is rather a question of making use of the rules of the system in order to unleash a potentially significant impact through ones own (comparatively modest) contributions. In the process, it is accepted that such contributions cannot be traced (at least not within the system itself) back to their authors without effort. It may be that the very anonymity of such actions provides a substantial stimulus to agents, who can now regard themselves in a conspiratorial light.

Among the group of artists who continuously seek out roles as agents, we find a duo with the anonymous codename M+M. Behind this name is Marc Weis and Martin De Mattia, who have collaborated for over ten years, embedding themselves in various highly divergent systems. They have developed numerous projects to varying stages and 'degrees of reality.'Their point of departure is always a concept that represents the planned intervention into a given system. M+M present the given concept in the representational idiom prevalent in the respective system, so that already in this initial stage, the entire authority of that domain is brought to bear. In the end, it remains incidental whether the concept attains realization or not (i.e., for reasons of insufficient financial or administrative support). When not, we have an additional demonstration of the powerlessness of the artist, and simultaneously the surest confirmation of the boundary separating an

artistic acting-as-though from 'genuine' agency.

In 1998, for instance, M+M developed the project Duftwolke(Perfumed Cloud), which envisages an apparatus, stationed on a mountain ridge in the Alps, that would emit perfume at regular intervals, upon which it would be absorbed like a cloud into the climatic system and disseminated according to its laws. Wind, temperature, atmospheric humidity and barometric pressure are a few of the factors determining exactly where, how strongly, and for how long the perfume would be detectable.

A technical drawing with a precise (English language) inscription is meant to convey an impression of the functioning of this apparatus (which would self-made), while only an expert would be capable of evaluating the correctness of the design. An additional (computer generated) diagram shows the coordinates used by meteorologists to calculate and represent the development and transformation of a cloud. Here too, some expertise is required in order to decipher what the image depicts.

With this pair of illustrations alone, meanwhile, M+M have already demonstrated (or simulated?) sufficient knowledge of specific systems to gain our confidence in their abilities to influence the Alpine climate. In so doing, they have done justice to their roles as agents – long before ever having begun actually constructing their apparatus and disseminating perfume into the air.

Things are similar with another project, dating from 1996, and entitled Autobahnschleife(Motorway Loop), through which M+M proposed to intervene in Italy's traffic network. Near Vittorio Veneto, a supplementary exit ramp was projected that would offer drivers the opportunity to make a sort of victory lap, only to reenter the expressway, after having accomplished a 360-degree curve, at the same point where they had exited. While this may seem absurd, it does offer drivers a chance to take in the surrounding landscape like a panorama, substantially aestheticizing the process of driving.

As proof of the seriousness of their systemic interventions, M+M shows a project study depicting the Motorway Loop in the form of an accurate architectural drawing, complete with exact indications of measurements and angles. Again, we find the consequential adaptation of an expert visual language, one that impresses while leaving no doubt that the project has been planned down to the smallest detail, making it realizable at any time. There is even a photograph showing the expressway alongside the attached loop, whereby it remains unclear whether we are viewing a mere digital manipulation or instead a genuine document showing an actually executed variant of a traffic circle.

In subsequent projects, M+M have also acted, for example, on the telecommunications and medical systems. Thanks to their painstakingly calibrated conceptual depictions, they provide insights into the techniques of representation specific to a given system, and even an opportunity to reflect on these. Altogether, their work can be understood as a contribution to the critique of the image and of the media. They make the beholder aware of just how vulnerable he is to seduction by visual languages having the appearance of professionalism, and how easily he comes to believe in something if it looks as though it were designed by a scientist, engineer, or other expert. By evading becoming totally absorbed by their roles as agents, by instead disclosing them openly through documentation presented in exhibitions and publications, M+M avoid coming to feel like agents who disavow their status as artists. Instead, they demonstrate impressively what art qua mimesis can mean today.

Above all, M+M allows the beholder to share in the sublime feeling of imagining oneself intervening in a specific large-scale system without knowing in advance exactly what is likely to happen. Most systems, after all, follow the principles of chaos theory, according to which even minute modifications can have unanticipated and farreaching effects. Who can rule out the possibility that a certain strain of mosquito will be attracted to the perfume cloud produced by M+M; which will in turn alter the flight patterns of swallows; preventing farmers from learning promptly about threatening storm phenomena in the affected region; which could substantially damage their harvests; causing an inflation in grain prices; thereby elevating the cost of living; hence preventing the government from being reelected; in turn leading to a shift in the political fortunes of the entire country; which in turn elicits international conflict, leading to...? And people say artists are condemned to impotence!

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