BY Agnieszka Gratza in Features | 21 MAR 14
Featured in
Issue 162

Exit Ghosts

Phantoms and immaterial labour in the films of Agnieszka Kurant

BY Agnieszka Gratza in Features | 21 MAR 14

‘How does it feel to write about a person of the same name?’ curator Raimundas Malašauskas asked me after I’d complimented him on his idio­syncratic contribution to Agnieszka Kurant’s monograph, Unknown Unknown (2008), which took the form of an interview with a fictional artist also called Agnieszka Kurant. (In fact, Malašauskas has been known to use the name ‘Agnieszka Kurant’ as a pseudonym on occasion.) I related how I was once mistakenly given a key to Kurant’s room in a hotel in Utrecht. The same group show, in which Kurant had a work and that I was going to write about, had brought us both there. The receptionist was so adamant I must be Kurant that, although I didn’t quite doubt my own identity, I felt like a character in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s 1991 film The Double Life of Véronique or, worse still, the distraught hero of Roman Polanski’s 1976 psychological thriller The Tenant, who throws himself out of a window after suspecting that his neighbours are trying to convince him he is the suicidal former tenant. As Malašauskas puts it in his interview with Kurant, invoking drug-addled psychonaut Terence McKenna: ‘We are all movies.’

Kieślowski and Polanski are among the star alumni of the renowned film school in Kurant’s hometown of Łódź. Kurant herself studied photography there, in the cinematography department, while simultaneously reading for a degree in art history at the University of Łódź. Photography at Łódź Film School was taught from the vantage point of cinema, and seen as a good foundation for those intending to go on to study cinematography. Kurant was supervised by artist and filmmaker Jósef Robakowski, one of the founders of the avant-garde Film Form Workshop (WFF), a group of structural filmmakers and artists active at the school in the 1970s, who represented the institution’s more experimental leanings. The WFF contested the notion of singular authorship, for instance, in the realms of visual arts and cinematography. In his ‘assembling films’, Robakowski would invite authors to make short films, contenting himself with initiating and overseeing the entire process.

Cutaways, 2013, starring Charlotte Rampling, video still. Courtesy: Anna Lena Films, Paris, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, and Galeria Fortes Vilaça, São Paulo

When I point out that photography as a medium barely features in her work, Kurant tells me that her decision to study it was chiefly guided by practical concerns. Having been brought up in a modest way, Kurant did not at that stage dream of becoming an artist. Her parents encouraged her to turn what had been a hobby into a useful trade, one that could be combined with theoretical pursuits. Photography was a more creative way of earning a living than the other options open to her then. ‘If I had to use photography in my work now,’ she explains, ‘I would probably not do it myself. I haven’t got the time nor the money to buy the right equipment; I would hire somebody to do it.’

Much of Kurant’s work as an artist – a role it took her a while to grow into but that she now fully assumes – consists precisely in identifying, tracking down and ‘hiring’ experts with the technical know-how and apparatus that she herself lacks to help her realize whatever she dreams up. Ideas are Kurant’s business; she leaves to others their execution. Working on next to no budget more often than not, but armed with what she calls an ‘economy of enthusiasm’, pluck, seductive proposals backed by research, as well as a certain doggedness in the pursuit of her goals and ambitions, Kurant has succeeded in enlisting the support and collaboration of the best people working in a given field, many of whom are prepared to offer their services for a token fee or free of charge.

She recently drafted in the Academy Award-winning film editor and sound designer Walter Murch – who did the sound mixing and design for several Francis Ford Coppola films, including The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979) – to assist her with the editing of Cutaways (2013). Kurant’s new film, starring Charlotte Rampling, held pride of place in the artist’s recent solo exhibitions, presented concurrently at the Sculpture­Center, New York, and at Stroom den Haag in the Netherlands. In conversation with curator Chris Fitzpatrick at the opening of the latter, Kurant confided that she had tried to approach Murch through the official channels and failed. Then, a few months later, she got wind of the fact that he was doing some editing work on 27th Street in New York, just down the road from where she lived at the time. She took that to be a sign and emailed him directly. He replied within 24 hours.

Cutaways, 2013, starring Abe Vigoda and Dick Miller, video still. Courtesy: Anna Lena Films, Paris, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, and Galeria Fortes Vilaça, São Paulo

Besides collaborating with artist–filmmaker Charles de Meaux on two trailers for non-existent films, projected between corporate ads on the main Panasonic Screen in New York’s Times Square in 2006, as well as with other members of the French production company Anna Lena Films, including Pierre Huyghe, Kurant has independently made a number of conceptual short films and videos in the last few years, including Chinese (2009), Apocalypse Now (2010–11) and One Minute Empire (2011). Chinese was a trailer for Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film La Chinoise that the artist had dubbed into Polish by left-wing intellectuals active at the time of the original’s release. The resulting footage and recording is played backwards to disconcerting effect. Referencing Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964), the black and white One Minute Empire is a mere snippet of a film at only 90 seconds that condenses the footage from a seven-hour shoot of the Palace of Culture, Warsaw’s equivalent of the Empire State Building, for the duration of which Kurant arranged for the clocks on the tower to run backwards.

Though not much longer than any of these works, Cutaways styles itself as a mini-Hollywood production: a fragment of ‘Hollywood’s economy’, conjuring up the world of professional film that is its object of scrutiny. The film brings together, in a densely allusive plot, three minor characters who, for one reason or another, were edited-out from the final versions of Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971), Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) and Coppola’s The Conversation, a film edited by Murch himself. What’s more, these characters – a hitchhiker, a lawyer and a junkyard owner, originally incarnated by Rampling, Dick Miller and Abe Vigoda respectively – are re-interpreted by those same actors, decades later and aged accordingly.

The three characters stand in for the scores of others whose phantom presence hovers over the films from which they have been excised due to editorial decisions. To the audiences who see only the final version of a film, they remain ‘unknown unknowns’, to use Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase, or ‘things we do not know we don’t know’. In the course of her investigations, Kurant has uncovered around 200 such ghost figures, all of whom are listed in the protracted credits, which purposely last twice as long as the eight-minute film itself. Assisted by graphic designer Will Holder, Kurant has identified many of the original disparate typefaces and used them for the 200 actors’ names that appear and fade out of view in the way they would have done in their respective films’ credits.

The unauthorized appropriation of typefaces amounts to a theft of sorts, as the artist readily admits. The same may be said for the three phantom characters that she has selected to feature in the film at least partly because each has a different story to tell about copyright issues. Whereas Coppola, owing to Murch’s intercession, granted the artist leave to do what she pleased with Vigoda’s character from The Conversation, Kurant is still waiting to hear from Tarantino’s team and, following Sarafian’s death, she was denied the right to use Rampling’s hitchhiker, although she chose to do so regardless. Should someone decide to take her to court, Kurant could claim ‘fair use’ of these materials – an exception to the exclusive right granted to the author of a creative work in copyright and intellectual property law – for critical commentary and intellectual reflection­­.

Phantom Estate, 2013, installation view at SculptureCenter, New York. Courtesy: SculptureCenter, New York; photograph: Jason Mandella

Such issues get to the heart of what the artist refers to as ‘phantom capital’. Insubstantial outputs of ‘immaterial labour’ – a concept that she borrows from Italian philosophers Paolo Virno and Maurizio Lazzarato – including patents, copyrights and other intellectual property, are the stuff of cognitive capitalism. Kurant sees giving papers, interviews and other research activities as an integral part of her practice and she was among the organizers of ‘The Labour of the Multitude? The Political Economy of Social Creativity’ conference at the Free/Slow University of Warsaw in October 2011, which addressed some of these topics (cognitive capitalism, immaterial labour, surplus value and the like), notably in the keynote lecture by the French sociologist Luc Boltanski, co-author of The New Spirit of Capitalism (2005).

This informs some of the thinking behind Kurant’s ‘Phantom Capital’ cycle, which the artist has been working on for the last three and a half years. Besides Cutaways, the series comprises Phantom Estate (2013), 103.1 mhz (title variable) (2012), Minus One Dollar (2012), Phantom Library (2011–12) and Map of Phantom Islands (2011). All but the last piece – a sculpture which consists of 3,000 coins imitating the quarter dollar but inscribed with the words ‘minus one dollar’ – were featured in the artist’s ‘exformation’ shows at the SculptureCenter and Stroom den Haag.

Kurant conceived her new solo exhibition as a variation on the theme of ‘exformation’, one of these ugly neologisms that never quite took hold, coined in the 1990s by Danish popular science author Tor Nørretranders. The term refers to ‘explicitly discarded information’ or, as Kurant puts it, ‘the negatives of information’: what gets left out or condensed to make the information clearer and more straightforward. The artist is interested in editing as a creative process, one that presents obvious affinities with curating, since both involve decisions about what stays in and what is left out. Kurant’s artistic career grew out of curatorial ventures such as 2005’s ‘Snow Black’, at Yvon Lambert in New York, which showcased 50 invisible works by artists with conceptual leanings (Huyghe, Art & Language and Gino de Dominicis amongst them), and ‘L’Exposition qui n’existe pas’, a parasitic exhibition in the form of a Super-8 projection of Kazimir Malevich’s 1920 White Suprematist Cross onto other art works in the collection at MAMCO, Geneva, in 2006, after she completed an MA in ‘Creative Curating’ at Goldsmiths in 2003.

Map of Phantom Islands, 2011, thermochromic pigment on archival paper, 76 × 114 cm. Courtesy: Galeria Fortes Vilaça, São Paulo, and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York; photograph: Eduardo Ortega

Taking her cue from Heinrich Böll’s short story Murke’s Collected Silences (1955), about a radio editor who hoarded recordings of silence, Kurant has painstakingly collected and spliced together silent pauses that she takes to be a constitutive part of public speech as well as an instance of ‘exformation’. The title of this two-part sculptural installation varies depending on the frequency of the location where the piece is broadcast via transmitter – it was called 103.1 mhz at the SculptureCenter but 88.2 mhz at Stroom den Haag and at Objectif Exhibitions Antwerp, where the work was first shown in 2012. The subtle differences in these silences relate to the size and shape of the rooms in which they were recorded; in a sense, the piece could be seen as a negative sound sculpture.

Another sculptural installation inspired by literary works – above all, Stanisław Lem’s Perfect Vacuum (1971), a mock-critical anthology of non-existent books – Phantom Library is made up of ‘phantom books’ based on passing mentions and descriptions culled from fictive accounts by the likes of J.G. Ballard, Roberto Bolaño, and Jorge Luis Borges, as well as Lem himself. A neat row of volumes of different colours and sizes rests atop a single wooden shelf, suggesting a library. Produced to Kurant’s specifications by printers in Warsaw and Łódź, each book is a ‘unique multiple’: a singular, customized object made using techniques designed for the economy of mass-production. The artist acquired barcodes and ISBN numbers for the books to endow them with an economic identity and, consequently, the National Library of Poland owns a set. Though blank inside, they exist as titles and blurbs (the publishing world’s equivalent of film trailers) in different typefaces created for the unknown content. Kurant has also invited writers to devise plots for them with the intention of one day filling the books’ pages.

In so far as it trades in immaterial products, from copyrights to real estate ‘air rights’ – which target the empty spaces above properties; effectively, the negative of space – late capitalism succeeds, for Kurant, where conceptual art failed in its supposed ‘dematerialization’ of the work of art. To her mind, it simply replaced art works with certificates and ephemera that became objects of trade and fetishism in their turn. Designed to demonstrate that in late capitalism everything and anything can be sold, even inchoate ideas, Phantom Estate takes as its starting point the dealings of artist estates, in particular those of conceptual artists whose works are in short supply and who are important to Kurant’s own practice. Phantom Estate looks at works that were rumoured to exist or remained unrealized at the time of an artist’s death. Kurant first became interested in the subject when she heard how, following Marcel Broodthaers’s death, his widow and daughter allegedly fabricated objects based on ephemera which they would release onto the market as authentic works by him.

Endless Second, 2009, electromagnets, foam, wood, metal, powdered stone, 30 × 30 cm. Courtesy: the artist 

Far from collectively indicting artist estates, however, Kurant’s Phantom Estate pays tribute to the often-unacknowledged input of partners, friends and studio assistants in the creation of art works, which tend to be attributed to only one person. Kurant’s own highly collaborative practice is predicated upon the notion of ‘shared authorship’, which goes hand in hand with the rejection of the (modernist) myth of the singular author, proposing an alternative to it in the shape of artist collectives such as the Paris-based Claire Fontaine or Anna Sanders Films or, closer to the artist’s current home in New York, Reena Spaulings. To make a point about just how many people it takes to come up with an idea, Kurant scrupulously credits all those who in any way contributed to the making of Phantom Estate, from the artist estate representatives she interviewed – who related to her the ideas, rumours and overheard conversations from which she fashioned the ‘phantom works’ – to the architects of the automated display unit designed to hold the changing exhibits, and even those who helped her with the research.

Phantom Estate as a whole illustrates the gap that often exists between ideas and their physical realization. Attributed to Broodthaers, De Domenicis, Alighiero e Boetti and others, the ‘phantom works’ are displayed on a mobile plinth that doubles as a museum vitrine, conceived by architect Didier Faustino. They seem but shadows of ideas, ideas that have descended into the realm of imperfection, imitations of an imitation. The paltry paper and wood model of a Venetian palazzo, attached to the plinth with transparent thread, may be a faithful replica of De Domenicis’s house in Venice but it falls short of the artist’s original ‘idea of making a sculpture of a floating or levitating house based on his own house in Venice’ that arose from a private conversation. The same holds true of Faustino’s ‘intelligent museum’ itself, which took some coercion from the artist to start to move, at least on the two occasions when I was there to witness these acts of non-compliance, ironically illustrating the concept of authorial loss of control that Kurant seeks to explore with this work.

Occasional glitches do not make Kurant’s proposal for a new type of mobile museum any less appealing. When it so pleases, Phantom Estate roams about in all directions across the exhibition space, seemingly of its own accord, though attributing an agency to what is, after all, an inanimate object as opposed to a living organism amounts to magical thinking. (‘Object-oriented ontology’ has a lot to answer for.) Equipped with sensors, it reacts to walls and to people approaching, stumbles upon and sometimes damages other art works, or stops short in its tracks obstructing the passage of visitors, not unlike the artist’s parasitic ‘virus-exhibitions’ that prey on other works. As Kurant says: ‘The whole space of the exhibition rests upon its central architectural el­ement: a mobile institution that carves up the space in different ways as it moves around.’ Phantom Estate folds the gallery space into its sphere and turns a modest proposal into a Gesamtkunstwerk, realizing its author’s ambitions for an exhibition that counts as a work of art in its own right.

Agnieszka Kurant is a Polish artist based in New York, USA. In 2013, her solo exhibition ‘exformation’ was shown at SculptureCenter, New York, and Stroom den Haag, the Netherlands, and she was artist in residence at Iaspis, Stockholm, Sweden. Her film Cutaways was shown as part of Performa 13, and she represented Poland at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, in collaboration with the architect Aleksandra Wasilkowska.

Agnieszka Gratza is a writer and critic based in London.