The Contemporary Superorganism: The Artist in the 21st Century as Impetus for a Resilient, Innovative, Transcultural, and Transdisciplinary Future
In 2016 the term Artist Innovator was coined by Emergence Creative, a global creative agency dedicated to social impact. They go on to define the artist innovator as “someone who works outside the studio, that brings their distinctive talents and skills into business, government, and the social sector.”1 They suggest that cognitive diversity and creativity are the most important factors in successful problem solving in any field. Sure, I’ll buy that. It’s surely not the first time this notion has been put forth but somehow it’s different. The term “artist” is blurrier now more than ever. This shift from the more conventional notion of artist, attached to a studio creating discrete objects, does two things: it repositions the contemporary artist within the at-large community as a tool, and shifts the artist from a more peripheral role to a much more centralized social position. It validates the artist as not only a credible but critical component of contemporary conversations that range in topic from changes in social and political climates to technological frontiers to environmental crises. I believe this term has been repurposed to reflect a sea-change not only in how contemporary art is experienced, but because the systems and structures that we have lived by until now are no longer working. This shift is most directly seen in terms of the stretching of the artist practice, the increase in alternative spaces and communities that artists build, and the rise of popularity of residencies and programs built by the at-large community, established to incorporate artists and creativity into their traditionally non-arts based spaces.
With the expansion of the definition for what we call art— from traditional painting and sculpture to more abstract embodiments like performance, sound, installation, social practice,etc, artists have become one of the most difficult figures in the global community to position. The way we operate tends to not make any sense to those in more easily-definable fields like medicine or accounting. One can say “I’m a doctor” and we know what to do with this information, “I’m a chef,” great; definable, we know what the product is, on some level we have encountered either these things— we all eat, we’ve all sought some sort of medical care, etc. Yet even though we are collectively surrounded by the outcomes of art and artistic energies whether it be through the clothes we wear, the spaces we occupy, or the objects and images that cover our walls and screens, it’s still pretty complicated to make out the edges and boundaries of art in a way that truly encompasses what it means to be an artist today. For example, I am a trained sculptor and very much consider myself an artist yet I haven’t made a discrete art-object in some time. Over the course of the past three years, my studio work has become one aspect of a multi-dimensional practice that now primarily exists outside of the traditional studio. It has grown to encompass running an art space, curating, writing, researching, performing, building networks and communities, activities that can feel really uncomfortably disparate, not only for those that are not embedded in the world of art in this way but also for me, too, as I struggle to define these activities in recognizable ways, according to boxes and categories that simply aren’t meant to accommodate people like me that exist in this liminal space.
In fact just spent the past six weeks trying to explain all of this to the Polish Consulate in New York City in what has been hands-down one of the most unbelievably, Kafka-esq situations I’ve ever encountered. In the (ultimately successful) attempt to get a long-term tourist visa to Warsaw, the city I’ve called home for the past three and a half years, I made a few mistakes. The first was using the word “work”. My second mistake, was not having a pattern or logic to my life that is recognizable to someone grounded in a much more conventional lifestyle. I found myself repeating over and over again “no, there is no money, there is no contract. I am doing this on my own, no one is paying me, I do this as a part of my activities as an artist.” I mean what was I expecting, really. It does sound completely insane. But, I am an artist, these actions, these programs and projects and communities and activities, these are my work. This is my job. This is my position in the world.
As a sculptor, I have been trained to consciously consider material, spatial, theoretical, and conceptual relationships. Every object or idea, place, body, tool, and space carries myriad narratives and inherent context. As artists, we are trained to observe the world around us and to view it with criticality, to be flexible and adaptive, to be problem solvers. In some ways we are built to exist on the periphery, to somehow find comfort in instability and vulnerability. But somehow, simultaneously, this inability to be pinned down to one shape or form allows us to be almost universally adaptable. It is quite a double-edged sword. As artists we somehow have this gift of access to just about anyone and anything we can think to seek out. While this inability to define can be frustrating, it is what grants us the ability to connect with so many people and ideas from so many different walks of life.
Non-conforming modes of thinking and existing in the world are nothing new for artists and those we work with, for example, the curator, which again in more recent years has also become a more blurred and intersected term. In 2017, writer and exhibition maker Jens Hoffmann wrote a short, playful book focused on contemporary curation called “(Curating) from A to Z”.2 The letter “H” is devoted to curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, who is known for his experimental, innovative, and unconventional approach to curation. He believes in what he refers to “junction making”, or essentially, network building. In section “C” for curator, Hoffmann writes “…While the curator of contemporary art advocates for current practices in a manner akin to stewardship, the practices themselves have evolved, as has the thinking around them. The curatorial position is not one of selfless sacrifice, putting the artwork ahead of one’s own interests, but of collaboration, discussion, and constant innovation. As part of this change, curators have been charged with putting forth original arguments through the display of objects and artworks. As many have noted before, they have become authors. The skills required for this task are those of a storyteller.…”
In some ways, it is all about storytelling. It’s about these narratives that we build and live by, the stories that define us and clarify our boundaries, that build the systems and links and networks and relationships. During her 2014 TED talk “The Networked Beauty of Forests”, Canadian professor of Forest Ecology Suzanne Simard says that “forests are built on relationships, and relationships form networks.” These networks are organized in the same way as our both neural and social networks, the most ancient of these networks being the fungal, rhizomatic network.” Little by little, these nodes and links form networks that symbiotically connect, eventually creating the ability for larger and larger life networks to exist.” In 2012, the Institute for Applied Aesthetics, a research platform and archive of socially-engaged art practices published “The Artist Run Space of the Future,” which positioned the artist-run space as a mushroom, its structure echoing that of the rhizomatic structure of fungi— without a beginning or end. According to the research brief the artist-run spaces of the future occupy the non-sites, the non-spaces: storefronts, vacant lots, beaches, places not-before considered the site of art, the site of inquiry, be it cultural or otherwise.3 Well, the future is now, and we, artists, are occupying and creating in these non-sites and spaces. We are building communities and exchanging ideas and are sharing energies with scientists, engineers, medical professionals, mental-health workers, healers, museum directors, economists, the at-large community and other artists, together. These exchanges are forming the nodes and links of the new systems, of the future world, where the artist maneuvers between sectors, setting into motion the contemporary superorganism.
My future non-site is in a tiny garage called Stroboskop, in the Ochota district of Warsaw, where I have been a co-director for the past year and a half. I view this space as a platform, as a way to bring people together that might not otherwise have a chance to connect. It is a space that functions as a bridge, as a blank slate, to contain any amount of activities or experiments or curiosities that need to be explored. About three years ago my studio practice started shifting as I began to spend more time thinking about the way the world is designed and how people are housed in different fields. I began working with astronomers and physicists, curious about how they see the world and why they chose the work that they did. Through these encounters, I have first-hand knowledge of the opportunities for and perceptions of artists in non arts-based institutions. The most common form of these partnerships are the artist residency, where artists are invited into a lab, research facility, or institutional setting to either work with paid professionals or alternately to use the tools or data local to the institution to create artworks.
The role of the artist is predominantly to provide new perspectives, with varying degrees of demands and expectations. Dating as far back as the 1960’s, major, internationally-renowned institutions and companies like NASA, the European Space Agency, CERN, SETI, and Bell Labs have had their own art programs to help broaden community engagement and enrich the intellectual context within their own communities. In a 2016 article in the Smithsonian,4 the collaborations between artists and scientists at CERN were described as “creative collisions”, that artists and scientists worked together as “inspiration partners.” It is programs like this that have created the space for the notion of the artist innovator, for the artist to be positioned as the central figure of a contemporary, synergistic society.
“Superorganism” is a term taken from natural science that highlights the relationship between individual and collective potential. It is not a plant, nor a fungus, nor an animal, but rather a unified social entity that when banded together, creates a body with extreme potential but alone, the individuals possess no extraordinary ability. First coined in 1789 by geologist James Hutton to reference the synergistic function of the Earth,5 the term has since grown to represent a broader spectrum of systems, including biological, social, and cybernetic. I first came across this notion, linking the idea of the artist and the superorganism, in the 2017 exhibition “Superorganism: The Avant-Garde and The Experience of Nature” at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Poland. The exhibition didn’t present a singular statement but rather posited a series of questions regarding the life process in time, through our philosophical, biological, social, spiritual, and political realms. The viewer was inspired to reconsider the context of the avantgarde through both human and cosmic landscapes, we were asked to contemplate the power of our organic totality, our system as superorganism. It brilliantly illustrated this ability that is not only embodied by but is the substance of artists to weave together ideas, to connect disparate bodies across borders and boundaries and create alternative, sensitive, and nuanced solutions.
We, as a contemporary society, have become very rigid in our labeling and ordering of the world and we have become distanced from our physical bodies and physical worlds. Information and interaction today tends to come at us with an abstracted sense of time and place, primarily through the interface of a screen— it is the tools that organize and know for us, entertain us and bring the universe into our most intimate spaces that are redefining the connection to the physical body and are blurring the boundaries between self and other.
I believe it is this inability to recognize the borders and boundaries of our own physical bodies that is leading to the rigidity and insecurity and impulse to divide and protect that exists all around us. Society is desperately losing its’ ability to perceive nuance, to act with trust or good faith, we are increasingly dis-oriented and over-engaged with bodies other than our own, with intangible spaces that we are so desperately, and impossibly seeking to connect with. This somewhat subconscious disembodiment is creating the need to grab hold of structure and order because we are perceiving the free-fall and this is not a comfortable space for most people to be.
This notion of the free-fall: the blurriness of the contemporary world—is related to job insecurity, migration, climate change, any number of issues. Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has referred to it as “liquid modernity.”6 More closely linked to our societal transformation from producers to consumers, this unsteadiness, of this state of instability is becoming more and more commonplace and while maybe we don’t consciously understand what is happening, we sense this. We feel, we perceive this misalignment, this groundlessness, in our bones. In her essay “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective” German artist Hito Steyerl talks about it as a unified free-fall which, if we’re all falling at the same rate, we don’t even observe the fall, it instead feels like stasis. “Traditional modes of seeing and feeling are shattered. Any sense of balance is disrupted. Perspectives are twisted and multiplied. New types of visuality arise…In falling, the lines of the horizon shatter, twirl around, and superimpose.”7
But as an artist I say, what else is new? As an artist I am accustomed to this insecurity, this placelessness, this instability. The unknowing. And while perhaps traditionally this has been our burden, it is now our opportunity to show the world how to maneuver within this. The artist innovator is a response to the times that we live in. In many ways, the artist innovator is in itself a technology. In 2004, science-fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a short piece in response to an accusation that she avoided technology and instead wrote “soft science fiction.”8 Le Guin railed against this, defining technology not as “wires and servers,” but as how society responds to physical reality. Originating in the early 17th century, ‘technology’ referred to the systematic treatment of art, craft, technique, related to making or doing.9 The concept of technology has always had strong relationship to the hand, to the human body, to the fullness of the life experience. It wasn’t until the tail end of the 20th century that we began equating technology almost exclusively with the computers and devices that we live with and use. In fact, the term ‘digital’ has a similar corporeal relationship, being coined even earlier, in the 15th century, and referring to a finger or a toe.10 In this short span of about thirty years we’ve almost all but eliminated the history, the diversity, and the physical connection to the body that both of these contemporary definitions all but deny. So how do we weave dimensionality back into these ideas?
I’ve been thinking a lot about weaving recently, and the physical embodiment of the networked structure, or even the visuality of lattice; a woven, organized structure or network. Recently I was having a conversation about early programming/binary systems, one of the first if not the first example being the jacquard loom. Within days of that conversation, I received a digital newsletter from the online forum Hyperallergic, with a headline about the recently concluded Anni Albers exhibition at the Tate Modern in London. Albers, a German-born, American textile artist and printmaker explored the idea of communication through pattern, and created pictorial weavings, embedding within them coded language and messaging. Thinking about these layers of meaning and connection I began thinking back to the rhizome, the collective, connected body, through the structure of weaving, tying, knotting, looping, threading, to create structures like a lattice, the grid, the network, the cloud, the rhizome. These endless forms and structures are related to nature, to humanity, to technology, they are repeated in time, space, and at every scale imaginable. They are the structures that we construct our physical and social worlds by and with, the give us both stability and freedom. It is complex and dimensional, it is simultaneously above, below, behind, in front, and encompasses the totality of the I and the you.
We are bounded by borders: of nations, of geography, psychologically, materially, we are limited to the confines of a physical body. The differences and separations we have are not bad or wrong, they should not be erased in favor of borderless and boundless, but rather bridged. They should be acknowledged, questioned, respected, explored, pushed, pressed, flexed, and re-negotiated. The artist today is this figure that bridges, that can morph like a chameleon to their environment and once information is gathered can walk to the other side and continue this process ad infinitum. By bringing together engineers, scientists, artists, writers, theorists, politicians, people from all walks, backgrounds, and experiences, we create the human superorganism, the body that protects, encourages, and inspires as we move faster and faster into unknowable worlds.
Artists are often misunderstood because there is very little precedent. It is our duty as artists to ask questions and be curious. Sometimes that takes the form of material works while other times it translates into developing new models for living and working in this world. And perhaps now that means abandoning the traditional definitions of art and artist in favor of more dynamic, more blurred conceptions for the way we look at, think about, and interpret life in time, space, and place, as an individual within a mass. This indefinability allows us to straddle and breech and connect in ways not before known. We are the critical links in the network, in the rhizome, that binds all things, no matter how diverse or seemingly disparate.
I truly believe that the way we will most successfully transition into future worlds is through continued, conscious adaptation, which can only result from a community of diverse and resilient individuals. We need to create spaces that encourage alternative ways of thinking and being, to recognize the marked value of cultural work and creative labor, and create opportunities for continued growth and exploration, to prioritize and value the a world filled with new shapes and forms and possibilities, with artists at the center.
1. “Artist Innovator.” EMERGENCE, Emergence Creative, www.emergence-creative.com/artistinnovator/.
2. Hoffmann, Jens. (Curating) from A to Z. JRP/Ringier, 2017.
4. Lewis, Danny. “CERN Seeks International Artists For Full-Time Residency.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 16 Mar. 2016, www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/cern-seeksinternational-artists-full-time-residency-180958448/. 5. Staff, Smithsonian Institution., and E. O. Wilson. Biodiversity. National Academies Press,
6. White Fuse Media Ltd. “Liquid Modernity.” Social Theory Rewired, routledgesoc.com/category/profile-tags/liquid-modernity.
7. Hito Steyerl. “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective,” The Wretched of the Screen. Sternberg Press, 2013.
8. Le Guin, Ursula K. A Rant About “Technology” 2004
9. Technology (n.). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.etymonline.com/word/technology
10. Word trends: Digital. (2016, March 10). Retrieved from https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/03/06/word-trends-digital/