The basic unit of Agency, the institution founded in 1992 and run by Belgian artist Kobe Matthys, is the case involving the fate of a cultural object or act whose classification has been challenged in court. The hundreds of cases in Agency’s growing and potentially endless archive amount to snapshots of ‘quasi things’ (as Matthys calls them) in the process of becoming fixed, accountable things. This process of reification ends when the judge presiding over the case decides whether the litigated object belongs to the category of art, private property, intentional output, creativity and authorship, or instead to that of common good, mechanical reproduction, natural phenomenon, unintended result or undifferentiated collaboration.
Each time Agency appears, a new selection or ‘assembly’ of things is made from its expanding archive, depending on the exhibition context. For Agency’s first solo presentation in the UK, at The Showroom, the selected cases arose from conflicts regarding the nature of collaboration: in Thing 000898 (Touch) (1992–, the uniform date for all of Agency’s cases), a drummer seeks compensation for what he considers to be his co-authorship of four songs on a successful album, for example, while a violinist sues a band for due recognition, and financial compensation, for his part in a hit song (Thing 000906 [Young at Heart]). Whereas most of these cases tested the limits of collaboration between individuals, or between individuals and organisations, a few reminded us that the spectre of the law extends beyond the grave. Thing 001621 (Dead Son Drawn by Psychic Artist) describes a 1951 dispute between psychic artist Frank Leah and a man who wanted a portrait of his deceased son. When the man published Leah’s drawing without the artist’s consent, Leah sued for, and obtained, damages for copyright infringement.
Whether supernatural or mundane, each exhibited case in the exhibition, which was titled ‘Agency: Assembly (Showroom)’, followed the same format, with the object of the dispute, or ‘witness’ – a record cover, a video or sound recording, a magazine – placed next to an A4 summary of the case, under the stark light of aluminium hanging lamps. But only a fraction of the cases chosen for the show were on view; most rested in boxes shelved on one side of the space, which the visitor could peer into (under supervision) but not handle. The dry language of the summaries reflected the installation’s austerity: written in passionless, administrative English, they managed to reduce the presumably emotional tussle between competing definitions of originality, authorship and creativity to a few hundred words – all without the slightest hint of bias or personal fervour. Ideology, it would seem, has been evacuated. Unlike artists – such as Marysia Lewandowska and Tania Bruguera, among others – who transform the subversion of legal restrictions surrounding intellectual property into overt political and poetic gestures, Agency adopts a tone of absolute detachment and seemingly objective recording. Only a few of the displayed cases at The Showroom alluded, tangentially, to broader societal issues beyond instances of litigation between cultural agents. Ostensibly about the authorship of the film Malcolm X (1992), Thing 000910 (Malcolm X) touches upon the way Islam and the civil rights movement are memorialized in mainstream Hollywood cinema; and Thing 000922 (Exclusive Interview with Reverend Jerry Falwell), while documenting the high-profile 1981 lawsuit brought by the American televangelist against Penthouse Magazine over an interview he claimed was defamatory, highlights the deep rift in US media between the religious right and the left (the latter routinely accused of misrepresenting the former).
If Agency does articulate a politics, it is to be found beneath the contents of its archive, in the distillation of blurry human relationships into the implacable logic and concision of the legal brief. Here is Falwell – who, like his right-wing peers in contemporary US politics, thrives on a black and white view of the world – finding himself silenced by a judge’s similarly intractable reasoning: ‘[Falwell]’s allegations do not come within the narrow circumstances where a cause of action involving an oral expression can be sustained under a common law copyright theory. [Falwell]’s claim under such theory must therefore be dismissed as legally insufficient.’ Politics, particularly in the US and Europe, is now principally fought in the courts, where judges decide the legality of everything from genocide to healthcare coverage and same-sex marriage. Through its overt distancing from political rhetorics, Agency methodically performs the same legalisation of political discourse, and politization of legal discourse, that is slowly but surely transforming our public debates into contests between right vs. wrong, subject to the unflinching eye of the law.
Antony Hudek is a curator based in Antwerp, Belgium, where he works at the Museum of Contemporary Art (M HKA). He also runs the curatorial studies programme at KASK School of Arts, Ghent.
First published in Issue 141