Mechanism Art I

Towards a new mode of creative production

The authors wish to thank Alex Espinoza and Pekko Koskinen for extensive support in research and Laura Lotti, Erik Bordeleau, Victoria Ivanova, Patrick Rawson, Nick Houde, Gary Zhexi Zhang, Jeein Shin, Anna Fasolato and Marco Mattei for their critical insights and precious perspectives. Finally, deep appreciation for Sam Hart, Sarah Friend, Billy Rennekamp, Arthur Roing Baer & Moving Castles, Distributed Gallery, Terra0 and their pioneering praxis.

Introduction: the necessity of mutation

A viscous feeling of paralysis is among us. Spiraling acceleration and fatal stagnation co-exist. The urgency for renovation is exorcised through critique: taxonomies of the system proliferate in universities, museums, and other institutions. Yet, despite their precision, many of these analyses fail to engage with the state of asphyxia. An uncanny question arises: is the endless act of defying the box, reinforcing the box itself?

The answer is a complex one that echoes across disciplines. In a system that rewards the objective, where seeing is believing, and to observe is to know, creativity is subject to functional rationality too. Faith in the exposé and of moral indignation pervades so that the space we give to what should be obfuscates what could be, perpetuating a static loop that objectifies possibilities a priori. There is a pattern that scintillates in history and headlines, in axioms and trends. Unnoticed but certain, in some moments it has become packaged, obscured of meaning and purpose. Beyond the limits of sight and speech, it is the pattern of mutation that still offers an aperture of possibility, departing from cynical paralysis to renegotiate the edifice of critique.

This first installment is intended to survey the morphology of relationships in aesthetic and economic practice to propose a concept in which these patterns may take on shapes. In doing so, it speaks of mechanism art, an emerging mode of creative production that interlaces art and economics. As a forming concept, for now, it may be thought of as art that refashions systems of value to articulate alternative socio-economic configurations. Mutant and mutating, this emerging paradigm could be a directed vector out of the contemporary standstill. While this first episode is conceived as a non-linear journey that follows the emergence of mechanism art, the next installment will move on to the affordances that mechanism art allows.

Relationality as medium

In 1992, the 303 Gallery in New York City presented "Untitled (free)," the first solo exhibition of a young Thai artist. On the day of the opening, visitors could hardly recognize the gallery, as the backroom contents were put on full display, and the newly emptied office was transformed into a temporary kitchen. There, a smiling Rirkrit Tiravanija was preparing and serving Thai vegetable curry where he was often mistaken for a caterer leading to playful and funny encounters. Through food, Tiravanja cast a spell on the gallery and created convivial moments in which art is simply experienced as "what happens between people".

Rirkrit Tiravanija. Untitled (Free/Still). 1992, © Rirkrit Tiravanija.
Rirkrit Tiravanija. Untitled (Free/Still). 1992, © Rirkrit Tiravanija.

Tiravanija is among artists who compose social bonds and relationships as a form of artistic expression. Their works behold relational aesthetics, a term coined by Nicolas Bourriaud which recognizes artist-arranged social circumstances as montages of reality. In serving food or sending party invites, these gestures compose an interactive space that allows for social connections to emerge at an enfold of experiences, simultaneously unfurling into a model of "possible universes," materializing the moment as an image. These “moments” as inherently transcendent artifacts were perceived as boundary-pushing concepts that could liberate art from the private gallery space, as they could exist anywhere, impermanently, as interactive fields, secured by the intangible sharedness of all who were there. Such co-creating involves “the engineering of intersubjectivity” (2), or the idea that new subjectivities within situations may blossom from the artful worlding arrangements. In short, these moments belonged to the involved: the artists, formerly known as the audience, and therefore valued on the “sum of social relationships”.

“The interstice is a space in human relations which fits more or less harmoniously and openly into the overall system, but suggests other trading possibilities than those in effect within this system.” (3)

Art as an alternative montage of reality, a laboratorial space for re-imagining what exists, relational aesthetics expresses the potential to abstract social activities and human-nonhuman interactions into a proliferation of experimental pluriverses. What is at stake here is the idea that in such situations new subjectivities may blossom thanks to the artists’ mini-worldbuilding capacity and the artistic ritual capacity to propose models of relations and interaction.

The idea of modeling interconnection between entities as a way of doing art is at the center of different traditions. Thirty years before Bourriaud, the visionary Behaviours and Futuribles Manifesto was published in the United Kingdom. Its author, key theoretician, and pioneering cybernetic artist Roy Ascott foresaw art’s role as an object for relationship design:

"Consider the art object in its total process: a behaviourable in its history, a futurible in its structure, a trigger in its effect." (4)

The artwork should engage the viewer in which she may be able to manipulate, interact, and forge something new from it. Cybernetic Art’s ideas emerged during a period in which computers and digital technologies became commercialized, re-shaping ways of interacting. These morphisms expedited, condensed, and expanded human perception on such a scale that they were incorporated into artworks, transforming viewers into active participants by embodying interaction and process as a new medium.

Art is about creating an opera aperta (open work) (5) that can be manipulated and interpreted in pluralistic ways: the work of art is a system that semiotically lives between artist and spectator (6). Ascott held a similar perspective and, following the first-order cybernetic tradition, he borrowed ideas from thermodynamics to define these kinds of artworks as ‘cold’. Their informational structures are loose with many possible interpretations and public feedback (7). Relations are the fabric of any cybernetic system and Ascott’s artworks are no exception. The cybernetic artist is firstly interested in the articulation of a system and the virtual set of possibilities that are embodied within it.

Roy Ascott, Change Painting, manipulable artwork throughout the overlaying of interchangeable elements made of plexiglass, wood, and oil painting, 1959, © Roy Ascott.
Roy Ascott, Change Painting, manipulable artwork throughout the overlaying of interchangeable elements made of plexiglass, wood, and oil painting, 1959, © Roy Ascott.

In contrast to Bourriaud, the relational aspect of cybernetic art is catalyzed through an object rather than through a convivial situation. This conception derives from the artist’s interest in remote communications between computers but also in spiritual and holistic practices, such as the I Ching, Navajo sand painting, and Druid rock formations (8). For example, he organized the first worldwide I Ching casting in the context of Ars Electronica 1982. These exhibited objects offer a virtual set of possibilities and would reach within and throughout the system, inspiring Ascott’s mechanism design practice. To create an artistic system like those made by Ascott one has to design the invisible, namely, to imagine and to a certain extent anticipate the possible relationships and affordances an artistic system can offer to users and players.

The bond of economic relationships

Art has always had an intimate and yet tacit relationship with economics. While economics is the regulation of what is useful (e.g. goods and services) and what is profitable (at the price of exploitation), art resides in the realm of non-necessity, in which objects may even lose their canonical utilitarian value in becoming artworks (e.g. Duchamp’s Urinal). So dramatic is the transformation that artworks circulate in a parallel market where the bond between art and economics appears in the conspicuous consumption of non-necessity objects.

These disciplines have been intimately linked since ancient times. The Roman Emperor Augustus (27 BC-AD 14) had a close relationship with political advisor and friend, Gaius Maecenas who also became one of the wealthiest men in the Empire. Maecenas used his wealth to promote and finance poetry in Rome, from the majestic works of Virgil and Horace to lesser-known poets like Propertius. A true appreciator of poetry, he understood the pivotal role arts play in establishing an identity for the new Empire. As a statement to its relevance, Maecenas’ name became the word for “patron” in many European languages - mécénat in French, Mäzen in German, mecenate in Italian - to define economic patronage towards the arts. Following Maecenas is a long-standing tradition of arts patronage, including the Medici Family during the Renaissance, Peggy Guggenheim in the 20th century, but also in public funding from the State.

Hackert, Maecenas' Villa and Waterfalls in Tivoli, 1783
Hackert, Maecenas' Villa and Waterfalls in Tivoli, 1783

For one of the first times in Western history, art and money revealed their inherent interdependence: artists needed investments and powerful and rich actors needed art to celebrate and perpetuate their influence.

This is an example of how economical power shaped artistic evolution from the outside. Nevertheless, since the Second World War, art and economics have progressively forged a powerful relationship. The art market has expanded and globalized like never before and artworks, especially pieces of contemporary art, have become important assets in the financial trade. What prompted art and the financial economy so close? Is it just the exploitation of a new market? Or a deeper affinity is at play here?

Max Haiven, researcher at Lakehead University, argues for the former possibility: contemporary art “appeals to and reflects the ‘soul’ of financial practice” (9), as the two disciplines share similar nature and both navigate the “immaterial world of relationships, probabilities, conjectures, and opportunities”. Indeed, under a certain perspective, finance is about “convincing others that one’s immaterial, abstract assets have value, that one's representations of wealth are credible (Marazzi, 2010)”: it has a core linguistic and cultural component. This resonates with the current state of artistic production:

“Ours is a moment of postmodern skepticism towards any essentialist claims to art’s value, when the practice of art itself has been thoroughly ‘dematerialized’, and when, as Boris Groys (2011) points out, critical art can be defined (at least in part) by the way it calls attention to its own process of transforming objects/spaces/practices into art. In other words, contemporary, critical art creates itself by somehow alerting us to its own production as art. It is art to the extent it gives itself value as art, to the extent it earns our credulity. Like a financial asset, contemporary, critical art gains its legitimacy and value as a gesture within a field of other similar gestures, and in ways that, ultimately, rely not on any objective criteria but on their capacity to achieve (at least temporary) credibility and believability within a specific symbolic and material economy(10)

Thus, art and the financial economy resemble each other when it comes to the way value is created. It is precisely the power of relational networks that assign value to human objects in both disciplines. This process can be described in different ways. In mainstream economics, it is the fluctuating tide of supply and demand that determines the price of goods and services. In Marxist economics, it’s the social value of labor’s time that generates this inner quality. In the art system, it’s the shared community of artists, curators, investors, etc. that assign value to a certain artistic piece: what Walter Benjamin defined as “exposure value” (Ausstellungswert).

Through these comparisons, it is clear that economic value is also a result of contingencies, since community participation is primary when establishing the metrics of its own economy and, eventually, when adopting a different system. The priorities of any given group are amenable to change: resource extraction can be prioritized over biodiversity and regeneration, individuality over collectivity, and so on. It is an inherently relational process, comparable to Bourriaud's aesthetic understanding. While its rules falsely appear as “natural”, it can only appear between us as something shared, a channel that exists through the performativity of “the economy”. This resonates with the words of anthropologist David Graeber, that “the ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.” (11)

However, as the perpetuation of profit-centered measurements shows, it is not so simple and immediate as it sounds: the roaring power of ideology suffocates or assimilates every call for differentiation while promoting the ruthless financialization of daily life over any other form of value-creation. The “absence of alternatives” is another component of the general status of paralysis we described above: it is rare to find room for solid experimentation in the current economic world as it is for artists to emancipate themselves from financial dynamics. Current value systems are reinforced in the name of stability, efficiency, and due to the lack of alternatives. Clearly, some notable exceptions challenge hegemony.

The provocative Venture Communism proposal from the Telekommunisten art group dates back to 2005 and it’s an interesting case of heterodoxical economic ideas mixed with arts. Another example is the Robin Hood Coop, an investment cooperative that tried to “hack” high-frequency finance to invest in commons-oriented projects, showing a wide-open mentality and creativity in approaching current economic prejudices.

Furthermore, the emergence of cryptoeconomics and the Web3 ecosystem are significantly lowering the entry barrier of economical experimentation and spreading a collective interest in economic-microsystem design and development. Cryptoeconomics is a subset of economics that:

uses cryptography to prove properties about messages that happened in the past [and] economic incentives defined inside the system to encourage desired properties to hold into the future, entwining code and economics in unprecedented ways” (12)

In Laura Lotti’s interpretation, this unique mutation of code and economics: “unlocks the imagination and ideation of new ecosystems of value through a combination of cryptography, economic incentives and interaction design” (13). These emerging systems can be thought of as hybrid artworks that meld with technical mechanisms to facilitate the synthesizing and unraveling of relational modes. There’s no passive viewer: the legitimation of the artwork fully depends on actor participation. Artistic intent is embedded in software and economic design, necessitating new ways of being active in extended networks. Art and economics become transparently intertwined, offering agency to artists instead of being subjected to financial markets.

Interspecies Games in presentation mode at the 2021 Sovereign Nature Initiative Hackathon
Interspecies Games in presentation mode at the 2021 Sovereign Nature Initiative Hackathon

A thrilling example is an idea put forward in Interspecies Games by Curve Labs for the Sovereign Nature Initiative. The project is presented as an attempt in realizing, through software, a philosophical proposition: Man and Nature are not separated and distanced; on the contrary, they are radically interconnected and interdependent. Using mechanism design for technologically-mediated interaction and an RPG-inspired game narrative, Interspecies Games provides a framework for human-nonhuman relationships, forging ways of interbeing. Here, economical mechanisms are rewired towards regenerative environmental efforts, along with the desire to summon derivative forms of agency. Its hybrid essence is a snapshot of what can truly mean to blur the boundaries of games, art, economy, and mechanism design.

The tendency towards speculative hybridization can be also observed in Sarah Friend’s output. As an artist and software engineer, her work is a brilliant exploration of the new terrains brought about by crypto-technology and automated systems at large. Off is a multi-dimensional piece of art: it starts as a collection of NFTs dropping on the project website. These NFTs are double-face: the “public” side is a black image that corresponds to the exact pixel dimensions of a certain screen (computer monitors, smartphones, and tablets); while the “private” side is only distributed to collectors by email and it contains two things: an encrypted sentence and a shard of the private key that was used to encrypt it, plus further game instructions. The entire collection (255 images) hides a full essay and the entire private key that encrypts it: to unlock it, it is necessary to assemble ⅔ of the key shards. The faith of the project will depend on the collective behavior and coordination of the collector: will they collaborate to unify the essay’s pieces or will extractive egoism prevail? Off uses crypto-tools to create a “massively multiplayer prisoner's dilemma” that promotes collaboration as the optimal relation towards others. However, the outcome is not certain and players could ally in teams, or one wealthy player may buy everyone else out and assemble the essay.

Forging networks of care and collaboration is a key concept also for Sarah Friend’s other project, Lifeforms. Lifeforms is a collection of NFT-based “creatures”: these entities have to be given away within 90 days of receiving it or they will cease to exist.

Sarah Friend’s Lifeforms at Kunstverein in Hamburg, 2021, © Sarah Friend
Sarah Friend’s Lifeforms at Kunstverein in Hamburg, 2021, © Sarah Friend

Lifeforms encourage the practice of dispossession, which becomes crucial for the perpetuation of the artifacts themselves. It inverts the NFT logic of holding onto something until it’s valuable, typical of many crypto-collectibles like Cryptopunks. Again, this project is characterized by an unpredictable nature: for instance, high-price auctions have been observed with the risk of not selling the Lifeform and letting it die in a wallet. As the artist remarked in this interview, both Off and Lifeforms can be described as “contingent systems” (14), that changes based on the behavior of the audience. Through such creations, Sarah Friend adopts contingency as a catalyst for experimentation and play. Value systems become malleable and can be re-engineered to project new principles and ideas thanks to the availability of new technologies.

The emergence of mechanism art

Let’s recap the core elements of the scenario so far depicted. Relations can be the medium of artistic expression, whether they are forged through the creation of human situations (Bourriaud) or the affordances of an artwork-system (Ascott). Relations are also a common element shared between contemporary artistic practices and economics, especially in finance. In these contexts, what it’s produced through relationships is value: thus, value has to be considered as the product of contingent decisions, principles, desires, and stereotypes. Value is something that can be rearranged with different priorities and configurations. This doesn’t happen often, due to a certain paralysis in economical, social, and political imagination but also due to an objective difficulty in finding the right setting for this kind of experimentation, as good experimentation needs care, time, and patience. However, the emergence of crypto-economy and Web3 technologies is opening spaces for this kind of intervention as it creeps beyond the grounds of financial primitives, towards speculative cultural production. Yet, these innovations are still in their infancy and need a vast experimentation process before they can act on the world. The best way to distribute a sense of agency to the public is through endowing them with the mechanisms of value mutation and collective artistic practice offers a singular intellectual space to engage in these types of speculative inquiry.

Mechanism art is an attempt to frame and provoke this quest for a new alphabet that can straddle the deployment of aesthetic, financial, and technological symbols and materials as hybridized media to impact reality. To talk about mechanism art is to discuss a hypothesis on a possibility that’s simultaneously not yet here and has long arrived; a crucible of forces colliding from the past and the near present. Together, they weld a new concept for creative production, a unique “mode of articulation between ways of doing and making” (15), and aesthetic practice that curbs the impulse for stoic representation. Mechanism art moves beyond the cynical attitudes toward technology and economics by wielding artistic powers to synthesize new social interiorities.

The Chaos Machine by Distributed Gallery, 2018, © Distributed Gallery
The Chaos Machine by Distributed Gallery, 2018, © Distributed Gallery

To carry on the pattern of mutation of mechanism art, it is necessary to plant the seeds of economic creativity in the social interstices opened up by art. Economic media can become a new canvas to collectively experiment with the conception and production of value. The power of generating situations, time-space configurations in which different rules apply, needs to be reinforced and used to challenge the catatonic moment we find ourselves in. There’s a shift in perspective here: we abandon the cynical sensation of stuckness and we learn instead how to “better inhabit the present” (16), how to embrace Dionysian force to patch together different tools and thoughts, moving towards the possibility of new forms.

This is the challenge of mechanism art: to perceive economics as a vitalizing medium for artistic production and to artistically make economics an experimental practice— a de-hegemonizing force against the seemingly omnipotent monolith of economic rationality. To make economics experimental means re-conceptualizing methods to valorize previously hidden entities and actions while revitalizing and expanding the Ancient Greek understanding of the term (oikos nomos: the law of the house). Far from being only the idea of the household, economics has to do with ethics and a specific idea of a good life (17). Economics was the condicio sine qua non that allowed people to engage in noble activities like philosophy and politics. In its Greek conception, means and ends overlapped—production was not a goal in itself. It is such a vision that we have to re-vitalize, making economics something different from a static, poisonous mega-machine. With this in mind, our desire is to move away from Greek univocity towards gardens of mutative ecologies.

Descending from the lineage of art to encounter the unseen, mechanism art grasps what has always been invisible to the embodied hand, revealing it as a collective body to signal a renewed conception. Mechanism art needs to profane the broken formalism of individual rationality of economics, to overcome the artificial divide between art and economics, and to learn how to play with the junction of these interwoven fields. To embrace the radical contingency of value systems and become the designers of the world to come, turning artistic production into a massive multiplayer co-wordling.

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