Keynote speakers

Art, Agency and the Technological Unconscious
Andrew Pickering
University of Exeter, United Kingdom
Friday, November 16, 2012
DAY 1: Technological Matter and the New State of the Living
SymbioticA (Australia) and The Potter Lab (USA). MEART – The Semi-Living Artist, ongoing project. 2004 SARG and The Potter Lab. Photo by Phil Gamblen
SymbioticA (Australia) and The Potter Lab (USA). MEART – The Semi-Living Artist, ongoing project. 2004 SARG and The Potter Lab. Photo by Phil Gamblen

Our technological unconscious is a problem, perhaps the problem. We dream of mastering the cosmos, from quarks and the most primitive layers of matter up to ecosystems and the global economy, but our dreams turn increasingly into grim nightmares stalked by mechanisms gone bad. I am interested in artworks that help straighten out our dreams and bring them closer to reality—works that evoke a neo-Taoist ontology of decentred flows and reciprocal transformations, that we are caught up in, by no means in control. If the Western tradition aimed at representational realism, the works I have in mind aim at what one could call agency realism—not the portrayal of how things look but how things go. I discuss examples of works that foreground the agency of nature and machines; that function as technologies of the self, transforming our inner being; and that stage dances of agency between human and nonhuman actors. One thread that runs through these examples is an evocation of temporal emergence, becoming, the appearance of unpredictable novelty in the world. Dreams of mastery deny emergence and lapse into horror when it inevitably shows up. We can find a few examples of artworks that confront us with this, and many examples of works that thematise instead an experimental openness to emergence, and adaptation rather than control. Of course, dreams themselves are not the problem, but we tend to act them out in broad daylight.


Andrew Pickering (b.1948, Coventry, England) studied physics as an undergraduate at Oxford University and he has a PhD in theoretical particle physics from University College London and a PhD in science studies from Edinburgh University. He taught for many years at the University of Illinois in the USA, but since 2007 he has been professor of sociology and philosophy at Exeter University in England. Pickering has been a leading figure in the turn towards studying practice and materiality in science & technology studies (STS), and in developing the ontological implications of this approach more generally. He has held fellowships at MIT, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, Princeton University, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Center for Advanced Study at Stanford, and the Universities of Durham, Konstanz and Weimar. He is the author of many books and articles including, most recently, The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of another Future. Cybernetic Brain explores topics as diverse as brain science, robotics, antipsychiatry, the arts, Eastern spirituality and the counterculture of the 1960s, and Pickering’s current research focuses on art, agency and the environment.