Art & Power: James Bridle on agency in the age of opaque systems

James Bridle. Courtesy British Council/Strelka, Moscow

Bridle is an artist and writer based in London. His writing and blogging on the cultural effects of networked technology have turned increasingly to the unforeseen consequences of social media and surveillance technology, brought together in his new book The New Dark Age. ArtReview catches up with Bridle in Berlin, where he’s busy installing Agency – a group show of artists whose work looks at ways of rethinking powerlessness and agency in the face of these vast and increasingly opaque systems.

ARTREVIEW The show at NOME takes for a starting point that we appear to be powerless in the face of unimaginably complex new technologies. How does that powerlessness manifest, and how can it be resisted?

JAMES BRIDLE We measure ourselves against the entities that we’re capable of addressing, but as those entities have become ever larger and more diffuse – transnational governance and financial regimes, fully automated corporations, opaque computational networks, the global climate – our ability to respond is diminished. The result of that is fear and anger, or apathy, the dominant impulses of our times, which have very concrete psychological roots in our inability to make sense of the world around us. When power is abstracted to the degree that it becomes both unassailable and almost invisible, we are unable to think clearly, and we feel utterly powerless in response. This is not necessarily because we actually lack power, but because we lack any systemic understanding or narrative cohesion with which to construct a response. So one way to resist such power is to delve into both the given systems – technological, financial – and into excluded systems – magic, mythology, non-Western traditions – to gain literacy in them, so that those narratives can be rewritten, or overwritten.

AR What is the relationship between creativity – artmaking, storytelling – and agency in that context?

JB Whereas literacy is the ability to read the situation, agency is the capacity to take action. In complex systems, agency might simply be that degree of autonomy, knowledge and stability that allows one to operate without falling into fear or apathy: it’s the baseline for doing anything at all. In the domain of artmaking and storytelling, agency is the freedom to move around a subject, to manipulate it, to enact one’s will, to have some say or stake in the narrative produced, and in the shape of the world.

AR Early cybernetic utopianism was often about perfecting political and economic control – is there still human political power behind the machines, or can no one claim control? What are the prospects for human democracy?

JB There’s plenty of political power behind the machines, and it’s mostly in the wrong hands, but the fight is still definitely on. The opacity of contemporary computational systems favours control by those with the most power and knowledge in the present, whether that’s oppressive governments or a technological priesthood. But that’s not a fixed state. Spend any time around those with apparent power – politicians or engineers at Internet giants – and you quickly see how limited their appreciation of their own agency is: in most cases, they lack systemic literacy too. Present conditions are no guide to future possibilities – but the track we’re on hardly bends towards democracy, and it’s precisely the democratisation of agency that is needed to face the systemic crises of our age: securitisation, automation and climate change.

AR What does it mean to ‘enchant’ present conditions? How does that undermine the established networks of power?

JB In my book I write about how certain narratives – certain understandings of the world – are baked into the tools we use every day, and once baked in they become hard to see and hard to question. When one has a hammer, goes the saying, everything looks like a nail. But this is to not think the hammer. The hammer, properly conceived, has many uses. It may pull nails as well as drive them; it may forge iron, shape wood and stone, reveal fossils and fix anchors for climbing ropes. It may pass sentence, call to order, or be thrown in a contest of athletic strength. Wielded by a god, it generates the weather. To write new narratives – and crucially, to recognise our power to do so – is what I mean by reenchantment. Established networks of power are built upon the promulgation of dominant narratives that benefit the entrenched incumbents: trickle-down economics, nationalism, the value of data. To reenchant our tools and make magic under present conditions is thus to heat the mould so that these narratives can be recast.

AR What are the practical means by which it is possible to wrest back power? Through the formation of new communities? By learning how to operate, or to sabotage, the instruments of power?

JB These are all valid strategies – but they are all individually insufficient. It’s absolutely necessary to understand and thus be able to operate and negate the tools of power, and because it’s impossible for any single individual to technically understand everything in the system, this practice of sense-making is not one of technical explanation, but one of imaginative storytelling. We know too that these tools alone will never dismantle the master’s house, and therefore we need to create radically different systems in which to practice. The excitement – and inherent utopianism – of the early Internet was largely a product of its communities, which allowed people to break out and away from the communities of knowledge, practice and constraint in which they had been living. Unfortunately, the counterrevolution of the Internet brought these communities back under control, either through capitalisation (the mall-ification of the Internet) or surveillance, so that it’s much harder once again to have free – as in speech and in beer – conversations. But we’re starting to build those tools too: open-source, peer-to-peer, distributed, anonymous (from power, but not from one another).

AR The new technologies are capitalist means by which to make money from people through the gathering of information; do you still believe in technology’s potential to significantly change economic relations?

JB That’s not my definition of technologies. I prefer Ursula Le Guin’s: ‘They’re what we can learn to do’. So while it’s obvious that surveillance capitalism is the primary mode of the globalised technologies in production today, all that tells us is that paranoid capitalists are still in charge of production. Surprise! Technology will do whatever we want it to do, when we figure out who ‘we’ are and what we want. Deciding that neither of those questions will be answered by economics might be a good start.

AR What does the art ‘world’ have to offer – or is there still an art ‘world’ to speak of? Or does ‘art’ now describe a mode of practice, and how might it be characterised?

JB There are many art worlds, many types of artists and many ways of making art. For myself, I am interested in art’s capacity to inflect or change the narrative of present conditions: in works that do work. The waters are rising and the works that I am interested in right now are ones that lay down duckboards. The role of bad actors should never be ignored, but the crises of democracy, movement and climate change that we are presented with are primarily crises of narrative, of imagination, of our ability to think. Narrative, imagination, thoughtfulness outside the established bounds of good behaviour: these are precisely the skills of art. The artists gathered in this show, which takes Agency for its title, all have very different modes of practice, but the result is the same: the shattering of that feeling of powerlessness, and the recasting of narratives for different ends.

Agency is at NOME, Berlin, through 7 December. Artists exhibiting are Morehshin Allahyari, Sophia Al-Maria, Ingrid Burrington, Navine G. Khan-Dossos, Constant Dullaart, Anna Ridler and Suzanne Treister

From the November 2018 issue of ArtReview