Unique agents in art to activate new attentional forms since 20th century as media archaeology

In his works, Bernard Stiegler proposed the bifurcations of every kind as an act to resist the broad production in economic and political rationality induced by digital grammatization (i.e. the process of recording, reproducing, discretising and spatialising the mental temporal flows of people), that limits imaginations.  Stiegler named works of art as one of the areas to be worked on (Stiegler, 2017).

Like everything else, the pharmacological situation (meaning something can be both a poison and a remedy, where it can bring good or bad depends on how it is used) of works of art is placed at the heart of political economy, influenced by not only the artists, but the government, commercial world, the public… etc.

Fig. 1 The Macro Ecosystem, The Micro Ecosystem, The Three C’s — Culture, Commerce, Community (Kumar, 2018)

With reference to his concept of pharmakon (i.e. technical object that is pharmacological) and its possibility to become traumatype (i.e. the technical object that allows formation of senses that disrupt common usage), a tool to create diversities (Stiegler, 2014), the paper focuses on arts since the 20th century, with an intention to identify the approaches and strategies involved to activate trauma from tertiary retentions, as a review of possible strategies for artists to practice bifurcations, where the maker, the creative process and presentation of artwork are the main areas to be discussed.

Four techniques in art practices shared connections with Stiegler’s call for bifurcation are selected for discussion:

  • Concrete & defamiliarization
  • Chance & indeterminacy
  • Breaking the fourth wall
  • Society as participants

The selected approaches involved the process of introducing unique agents as strategies to activate alternative forms of art, which becomes traumatypes that induce new attentional forms.  How the techniques activate attentional forms and their the links with media archaeology are discussed.

Concrete & defamiliarization

Some artists experiment with the materials they can use to create artworks by sourcing from everyday life, removing the symbolic and representational meanings from the source, the defamiliarization challenge audience to experience the sound and images in an alternative way.  

Experimental filmmaker Robert Cahen employed visual strategies to defamiliarize everyday images with abundant overlappings, repetitions and special effects – the sea, waves and reflections in his work L’invitation au voyage (1971) and the human hand in Artmatic (1981) becomes patches of moving colors, the train and the sky superimposed in Trompe l’oeil (1979) to become a surrealistic space, all these manipulations result in works that require new ways of attention.  

Fig. 2 Still image from L’invitation au voyage (Cahen, 1971)
Fig. 3  Still image from Artmatic (Cahen, 1981)

Editing introduces possibilities – non-linear editing, montage, photo-retouching, visual special effects – allows manipulations like repetition, slow motion, time-lapse, image deformation etc, they contribute to the defamiliarization of materials.  But somehow the growing power of editing softwares does not seem to have much impact on the growth of new forms to change attentional forms.

John Cage’s experimental music is a way for capturing and organising everyday sound like the sound of trucks, rain, the static between stations etc, and to use them as musical instruments (Cage, 1973); whereas Brecht suggested ‘all sound may be music’, the way to immerse into the everyday experiencial arena is to abandon the ‘discovery or observation of phenomena’ practiced in traditional music appreciation (Dezeuze, 2010).  Pierre Schaeffer theorized musique concrete as a way to experiment with sound and its qualities, free sound from its source and meanings, thus open up possibilities of sound.  In terms of experiential music, noise, as opposed to traditional music, is concrete, it is ‘part of everyday life and experience’ (Kirby, 1995).

Recording technology frees sound from its source, allows sound to be listened again and again – listening becomes an exercise to experience the internal structure of sound, allowing what Schaffer referred to as reduced listening.  Again, editing technology plays its part to allow composers to organise with listening intention, to select materials to present – listening becomes a more open and precise experience.

Similarly, for the Happenings, the ‘materials’ involved are concrete, the performers, physical elements, or mechanical effects ‘are taken from and related to the experiential world of everyday life’ where the materials and things involved are strongly related to and ‘function as direct experience’ (Kirby, 1995).   

The approach to defamiliarize materials, turn them into something unrecognisable, creates pure experiential worlds of visuals and sound that are not about deciphering meanings, which requires new attentional forms by the audience to perceive without the popular attempt to ‘look for answers’ in mainstream narrative executions.  

Chance & indeterminacy

A number of artists employed chance in their works to breakaway from the invariance of artworks – during the creative process or when the work is being experienced.  Chance brings indeterminacy in the artworks, the work is not fixed, there is a degree of uncertainty.  Some artists create chance systems like numbered charts and tables, then randomly determine their selection with flipping coins, dices, roulette wheels etc, and use them as part of their works.  For example John Cage created charts with list of materials and throw a dice to determine how and the order to use them in his experimental music, George Brecht used similar method to number his options and select elements randomly (Dezeuze, 2010), whereas the monologues in Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts are chosen and arranged by chance from a list of random words and phrases (Kirby, 1995).     

Another way of involving the chance procedure by is to allow a third-party to respond to the systems of the work.  In Earle Brown’s experimental music works, performers have to ‘interpret’ the composer’s ‘mobile scores’ physically or ‘graphic notations’ symbolically (Dezeuze, 2010); in the case of Happenings, the audience becomes the chance factor when they walk into different compartments of the work according to their preferences and experience their own version of the work.  Similarly, hypernarrative forms of expanded cinema like multi-screen projections and video installations also invite audience to move around and experience their own versions of the works.            

The artist’s involvement in the final presentation of the work is reduced to a minimal where chance takes the lead.  In some of the works, the final presentations are in the hands of external systems like the social network, the financial market, the cultural scene… etc.  The #tweetscapes project (2011) by artist Anselm Venezian Nehls and Tarik Barri converted German Twitter messages into a real-time compositions, the streaming has taken place online for three years, different contents of the tweets carry different sounds – indeterminacy is pushed to an even higher extent – how the work sounds is depended on all German Twitter users, when and how they tweet.    Joshua Portway and Lise Autogena’s Black Shoals (2016) connects with global financial markets and represent them as flickering stars in the constellations within the dome-shape ceiling display.  The stars drift and flicker according to movement of stocks and other financial factors, changing the form of the constellations in real-time. The magnetic beads inside artist Chan Kiu-hong’s installation Ming Jing (2015) located in Hong Kong, are connected to a detector at the entrance of a Beijing gallery, if someone walked pass the entrance, the amplifiers in Hong Kong would induce the beads to generate sound.  These works triggered by chance are all made possible by media and technologies.

Fig. 4  Folio II (Brown, 1982)            
Fig. 5 Black Shoal Planetarium (Portway & Autogena, 2015)

Computer software, programming and the internet facilitate media artists to develop works with indeterminacy in more complicated executions, for example a lot of the generative arts are created with the algorithms in autonomous, non-human systems to either generate randomness or expand the range of possibilities.

Chance-as-collaborator introduces indeterminacy, where the creative process holds a degree of uncertainty, the amount and quality of the artwork presented (hence experienced) is variable, this reduces (sometimes eliminates) the subjective point of view of the author.

This type of works branch away from the stereotypes, where works encapsulate the artist/ composer/ author’s predetermined views, elements, forms and structures.  Indeterminacy opened up a new form of multi-possibilities in art, where unique experience can be created from an artwork for different individuals, the artwork becomes manifold.

Breaking the fourth wall

A lot of artworks and projects are created to challenge the traditional audience-presentation relationship, where audience are more than receptors to absorb whatever provided by the artists.  The audience not only experience their own versions of the artwork, they become a part of the artwork, where the stereotypic role of audience is changed, altering the meaning, definition and the form of art appreciation, spectators become not only participants but contributors to change the ways media work.  

Artist Nam June Paik known for his experimentations with television and videos, created an interactive-participatory piece, Participation TV (1969), audience can control the visuals on the TV screen with their voice through a microphone input, altering the function of a television from one-way broadcasting to private two-way communication.  Yoko Ono instructed participants in works like Instruction Paintings (1961), and evolved to more social-issue charged instructions in Cut-Piece (1965), the audience became the ones to determine how the work unfold, changed the how we perceive a painting and our understanding about what performance art is.   

Artist Lauren McCarthy developed an app Crowdpilot (2014) to stream actual conversations online where an anonymous crowd can watch to provide suggestions.  Her work engages participants to be either the observer or the observee, transforms the fundamental function of surveillance from monitoring to an interactive mode where the observer can communicate with the observee, and the observed situation can change according to the communication and contribution of the participants.  

Fig. 6 Crowdpilot (MaCarthy, 2014)

The synergetic creative works open up a new form of attention, change the way we approach media – an artwork is considered to be something constructed by the artist with participants to create new ways for engaging media.  This changes the form of attention, activating the public from passive spectators to active contributors.

Society as participants

Some artists involve third-parties for a different reason, a lot of practices that involves audience as participants intend to expand from the art-world and infiltrate into life with a social cause – the Fluxus artists’ believed in removing boundaries to unite art and life as one (Friedman, 1998), Nam June Paik once wrote about his idea of striking back from the years of being tortured (Paik, Herzogenrath & Schmidt, 1999).

The rise of socially engaged participatory art projects shared a common strategy to involve the society to develop the work, to bring social change.  These projects create a new attentional form for people to engage with art, where art becomes a tool to draw attention to and influence particular groups of people in the social system.

Chinese artist Xiong Wenyun creates site-specific artworks with truck drivers along highways in Sichuan, Qinghai and Tibet in her project Moving Rainbow (1998-2001) to bring awareness for the protection of the area; the colored materials used to cover the trucks are actually of better quality than what the drivers have been using, and improved the drivers’ work gears.  Artist Rick Lowe transformed ruined houses into art studios and living spaces for socially impaired single mothers in his project Project Row Houses since 1990.  The project provides a community platform to intervene the neighbourhood of Texas, to create sustainable opportunities for young mothers, and to cultivate positive and creative environment to enrich lives through art and empowering programs.  

These works created a new attentional form, where the participation of social groups in the artwork becomes the agent to activate traumatypes, the works require social groups’ involvement to be called works.  These works change our understanding about art and what art can do. Art projects and practices as something outside of the political and economic system, now becomes a vehicle to bring awareness to and influence people in the social system.

The question of assessment

The selected strategies discussed demonstrate intentions to alter normalities and introduce unique agents to activate alternative forms of art which can become approaches to attain bifurcations suggested by Stiegler.  

The approaches are derived from an artist’s point of view where the focus is mainly on the maker, how and what the maker can do to contribute in art-making that bring bifurcations.  In terms of assessing the quality of an artwork, there are many influencing factors; while in here we are focusing on the strategies and agents in their qualities to develop bifurcations.  In the case of concrete and defamiliarization, the strategy works when the materials cannot be recognized or perceived as we normally do, but there might be a chance that the audience need certain tools or guidance to experience the works; for chance and indeterminacy, the strategy works when the creative process or final presentation of artwork is not fixed for generating multi-possibilities in the work.  For breaking the fourth wall and society as participants, the assessment is more tricky as the way the participants involved is critical in terms of creating new attentional forms. In the case of breaking the fourth wall, the quality of the execution lies in whether the participants will be able to contribute to defining new ways to engage with media; for society as participants, new attentional forms are created to form new definition of art – to form systems to influence and change the social groups (the people) involved, it could be something to improve their living conditions, the way they live their lives… etc, of course the extent of the influence can vary in different projects, and that concerns the quality of the art project (Bishops, 2004) not the quality of bifurcations.  

The mediated executions involved in the strategies allow us to trace connections among the agents and techniques, in some cases more significant, some cases less.  The process of finding the dots and connecting them create a montage of the past and hopefully it will bring the possibilities to resist the broad production in the current economic and political situation.

Situation Unique agents Positive outcome New use of media and technology
Symbolic and representational meanings in artworks Concrete & defamiliarization Creates pure experiential worlds of visuals and sound that are not about deciphering meanings Editing


Invariance of artworks Chance & indeterminacy Multi-possibilities in art, unique experience of an artwork for different individuals, artwork becomes manifold Computer software

Programming Internet

Traditional audience-presentation relationship Breaking the fourth wall Passive spectators become active contributors to create new ways for engaging media TV



Self-enclosed art-world Society as participants Art to bring awareness and influence the social system Variable

Fig. 7 The four strategies to introduce unique agents that activate new attentional forms



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