The artist as a double agent

Zachary Cahill and Philip von Zweck discuss how artists reroute the institutional impulse of today’s art system by taking up day jobs that feed into their practices — acting, in effect, as double agents.

double agent n. A spy who works on behalf of mutually hostile countries, usually with actual allegiance only to one.
— Oxford English Dictionary

One has heard of double and triple agents who themselves in the end no longer exactly know for whom they were really working and what they were seeking for themselves in this double and triple role playing… On which side do our loyalties lie? Are we agents of the state and of institutions? Or agents of enlightenment?

Or agents of monopoly capital? Or agents of our own vital interests that secretly cooperate in constant changing double binds with the state institutions, enlightenment, counter-enlightenment, monopoly capital, socialism, etc., and, in so doing, we forget more and more what we our ‘selves’ sought in the whole business?
— Peter Sloterdijk

Zachary Cahill: It is well worth pondering the idea that the ever-greater erosion of the romantic conception of the artist that we have seen over the last few decades has appeared in tandem with the rise of a hybridised notion of artistic agency that moves within and between the various institutions that comprise the art world. In some instances this erosion may be lamentable. No doubt weighed down with the impossibly heavy baggage of claims to genius and crimes of nationalism(s), the romantic figure of the artist may still prove useful in an art world that is increasingly shaped by impersonal institutions. But if we
are to have no truck with nostalgic lamentations for the fall of the romantic trope, then we should take stock of what contributes to the rise of hybridity and some of the ways it has become manifest in the art world today.

The institutional imperatives that have given rise to this hybridity are (at least) twofold. On the one hand, we have institutions playing the role of artists. Theorist and critic Boris Groys locates the production of art in the realm of ‘multiple authorship’, where art is the product not only of the artist but also
of choices made by curators, museum directors, museum board members, etc.,
in a kind of Duchampian play of artistic selection writ large.3 On the other hand,
we have the artist as employee of institutions, occupying numerous roles (from marginal to gainful employment) within art schools, museums, galleries and art periodicals, for example. These two poles could be thought of as opposed ends of the spectrum that constitutes a new hybrid notion of the artist, which might even be entering a phase of maturity. This mature figure, I would offer, is that of the artist as double agent.

Philip von Zweck: What is significant here is that, while not new, this hybridisation — what we will describe as ‘double agency’ — is becoming a required tactic for artists, especially those trying to participate from positions outside of centres (geographic
or otherwise) of influence.

The Romance of Double Agency
ZC: Double agents, as we understand from popular culture, move between different states and have a complex relation to their identities. Often we find spy movies rather empty because, in the end, after all the shuttling back and forth between allegiances, the truth
of the spy’s identity is that there is really no one there. We don’t have access to the agent’s personal life because it is subordinate to the task at hand; spies are in some sense non- characters. They do not have the courage of their convictions, or the convictions behind their power appear so intense that it is hard to fathom what really drives them — a belief in their country as a rationale for their dangerous work can seem hardly more than ideological brainwashing. Chameleon-like spies adapt to their environments to survive. Loyalties get confused. Notions of right and wrong, the just and the unjust, are less governed by actual laws than a personal code of conduct.
Conventionally understood, the romantic figure of the artist is an individual who retreats into his or her own subjectivity. Against this extended misconception, however, it might be instructive to recall the dictum of that Romantic artist par excellence,
Caspar David Friedrich: ‘I have to morph into a union with the clouds and rocks in order to be what I am.’4 I would like to propose that the operation the Romantic painter describes as morphing with the landscape is roughly analogous to the ways in which artists merge with institutions to perform their double agency.

PvZ: I think that you are not describing double agents but a perception of the double agent predominantly informed by fiction. While I am not a spy, I think the decision to become
an agent (double or otherwise) is indeed made through conviction; the problem of
double agents (for both spies and artists) is that their need to keep those convictions and motivations guarded may lead to distrust. In contrast with the Romantic painter’s desire to become one with the landscape, the double agent doesn’t morph into the institution, he or she only appears to do so: there is always a distance, an awareness on the part of the double agent that his or her long-term plan is not necessarily aligned with that of the institution.

Institutional Romance(s)
ZC: Perhaps it is important to try to set down some provisional modes by which artists operate as double agents. The first, and perhaps most common, is the day job, through which the artist pursues his or her artistic work, making no distinction between one
and the other. He or she slips between the gears of the institution, advancing at once
the company’s dime and his or her own. This might be the artist who works in arts administration, or within the academy — an institution that often has as its mission the idea of supporting artistic research. Artist-teachers bring their clout to a teaching gig,
and, in exchange, schools allow them to build their clout. It is a symbiotic relationship. Next might be the artist-critic: the artist who takes up writing to advance ideas and arguments that enter into circulation at much higher velocity and volume than perhaps
the exhibition format can muster.5 This moment may have had its heyday in the pitched debates in art magazines during the 1960s, when artists such as Robert Morris and Donald Judd wrote impassioned and polemical texts in the pages of Artforum and elsewhere as a counterpoint to the critical hegemony of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried. Another double agent is the artist as curator, creating exhibitions with an artistic sensibility that is at once different from and the same as the curator in his or her craft. As Elena Filipovic notes,

If it is easy to see that artist-curated exhibitions can trouble our very understanding of such notions as ‘artistic autonomy’, ‘authorship’, ‘artwork’ and ‘artistic oeuvre’, what might be less evident is that they also complicate what might count as an ‘exhibition’. Many artist-curated exhibitions — perhaps the most striking and influential of the genre — are the result of artists treating the exhibition as an artistic medium in its own right, an articulation of form.

Relatively recent examples include Maurizio Cattelan’s Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art in 2006, which he co-curated with Ali Subotnik and Massimiliano Gioni, and Artur Zmijewski’s edition in 2012. Lastly, we have the artist as businessperson-impresario: an individual who wields all of these methods in some version of Warhol’s Factory, sourcing labour and content to and from a variety of participants. An example of this today might be artists Julieta Aranda and Anton Vidokle in their role as founders of the network e-flux, which uses advertising sales through its announcement service to support projects such
as e-flux journal and Time/Bank, a micro-economic model that facilitates the exchange of time and skills amongst individuals or groups of people involved in the cultural field via a time-based currency.7
No doubt these are all gross oversimplifications, but perhaps they will be at least provisionally useful for trying to understand this sketch of the artist as double agent.

PvZ: For me the idea of double agency in art has to do with getting two (or more) seemingly unaligned results out of one set of operations — that is, doing something that is your
day job while at the same time it is your art. While I can see how this can happen in arts administration, I think you haven’t gone far enough in your description. Making a living doing the work you want to do, be it in your studio or in an administrative office, however, strikes me as agency, not double agency. To qualify as double agents, artists would need to be able to claim credit for their day job as their art practice, or at least significantly blur the lines between art and work. To my mind, Pablo Helguera is a
great example, since his individually authored projects often share the same form as his day job as Director of Adult and Academic Programs in the education department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. When he presents a lecture-performance, it is his art. But when he does it at MoMA, is it his job? Also interesting is the relationship between your own administrative position at the University of Chicago, Zachary, and your work as a writer and artist.
I am unable to situate the artist as professor in a category of double agency because the goals of the artist and the institution are too in line with each other — unless we are referring to artists of such stature that they draw a pay cheque while not actually teaching (as Slavoj Žižek is so proud of doing in Astra Taylor’s 2005 film Žižek! ). In those instances both the professor and the academy are working against the students, who are drawn
to said institution by the lure of educational opportunities they may never have — a very problematic higher-education version of bait-and-switch.
I see the artist-critic and artist-curator as being the most successful modes of double agency, as they both perform a function with power and influence, which, depending on scale, has the potential to disseminate the artist’s name and critical agenda.

What I think you are failing to discuss is the urgency for artists to be double agents. In his recent book Your Everyday Art World (2013), Lane Relyea argues that artists’ moves to combine a plethora of flexible freelance jobs (studio work, curation, criticism, etc.) grew out of the forms of contingent labour that gained prominence in the 1990s, and have certainly not left.8 What we’re calling double agents may be the kissing cousins of the artists Relyea speaks about insofar as they adapt the artistic strategies we might associate with Conceptu- alism and Institutional Critique to the dire economic landscape of contingent employment and decreased arts funding: double agents embrace the DIY strategies Relyea lays out,
but also desire to work within institutions in more or less any capacity, even in day jobs, with a view to twisting an institution to work for them once inside. Such methods are used tactically (although not necessarily consciously) in the attempt to move from the periphery to the centre of an insular art world; they are small ways to manufacture proximity.

Double agency may amount to a type of romantic project whereby artists assert their subjectivity through various masks and by morphing identities within larger institutional structures.


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“The Artist as Double Agent” co-authored w/ Philip von Zweck
Afterall, issue 36, Summer 2014
Image above: Daniel Newman, John Candy Firing Range, 2012, mixed media, 53 × 47cm (framed). Courtesy the artist and INVISIBLE- EXPORTS, New York

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