Kurant is considered to be an art curator who became an artist when her curatorial projects began to surpass a curator's traditional role. As the artist herself admits, in comparison to being a curator, "being an artist is a difference measured in freedom". She takes a metaphysical look at the world, weighing facts against fiction in a playful way. Kurant’s practice relates to the "economy of the invisible", exploring the "unknown unknown" of knowledge and collective intelligence. It refers to phenomena such as virtual capital, imaginary property, immaterial labour and mythical economies.
She is interested in the hybrid status of things: hybridity of value, authorship, production, dispersion and ownership, as well as the aura of objects and new modes of production, distribution and dispersion in cognitive capitalism. Her works are often in constant transformation and have shifted their status and meaning in different ways since their creation. They shift forms and formats depending on different quasi-fictional or unexpected factors, parameters and contexts operating in reality, such as the impact of rumours, fiction, or the weather on economy and politics.
She studied history of art at the University of Lódź (1997-2002), photography at Film School in Łódź (1998-2001) and creative curating at Goldsmith College in London (2002-2003). In 2008, she was invited to participate in Frieze Projects, part of Frieze Art Fair in London. In 2009, the artist was short-listed for the international Henkel Art Award.
Invisible and Unaudible Works
Her first major project was an exhibition in the form of a magazine, which Kurant designed in London together with Mathew Copeland. Unlike other magazines which present works of art, Perfect Magazine (2002-2003), distributed by Presses du Reel, made the works of the invited artists – such as Gilbert&George, Maurizio Cattelan, Liam Gillick, Philippe Parreno, and Art&Language group – disappear. For, the magazine itself was invisible – the photographs and articles were printed in white toner on white paper.
Another step was an invisible exhibition, or to be precise, an exhibition of invisible works entitled Snow Black, which had a few openings, first at Yvon Lambert gallery in New York (2005). Kurant undertook a conceptual game not only with the material aspect of a work of art, but with the economics of an exhibition production as well – depending on the location and conditions of the invisible exhibition, its budget changed significantly. However, since the works were invisible, at least transport was not required. As the artist said, "one could place it on top of a pin and launch it to universe".
Some of the works were offered by the artists, others – as Kurant admitted herself – she stole. Nobody has seen them – how to prove an invisible theft? This is what exactly happened to an (un)displayed work by Gino De Dominicis, entitled Invisible Cube, which required complicated transportation, even if its weight was fictitious. In addition, the exhibition hosted an invisible sculpture by Maurizio Cattelan, an invisible film by Jay Chung and a painting by Roman Opałka, which was sold before it was created. The Polish edition of the exhibition in Kraków (2007) was promoted by a poster printed black on black. The artists' names and works' descriptions could only be read in ultraviolet light.
At this point, it should not raise any doubts that an autotelic neon sign of a fragment from Maurice Marleau-Ponty's The Visible and the Invisible written in Morse code, which for a month gleamed over the Centre Point building in London, was an art project (with Cerith Wyn Evans and Matthew Copeland). It was visible and invisible at the same time. This work sparked a lot of speculation in the London press about the mysterious message behind the project.
Kurant's subsequent projects, which she signed with her own name, have moved in a similar direction. She has searched for what could be a gap in logic, crossing the borders between the visible and the invisible, the present and the future. The artist often engages experts on different disciplines, e.g. scientists, into the process of creation of her works, or more complicated projects. The influence of a conceptual tradition can be traced in her artistic actions. Umberto Eco's concept of "the open work", which sees the text as growing in meanings and interpretations, as if freeing itself from the author's intentions, seems to be the closest to Kurant's art. The artist explains:
I am interested in moments in which art becomes reality, the moments in which the manifesto of the avant-guard utopia to bring art to people is realized. Then, it ended in failure, because artists did in fact not care for people, and their language proved too hermetic. Paradoxically, this manifesto is being realized at the moments of misunderstandings, false interpretations, when the work frees itself from the author, when the author loses control of their work.
Thus, Kurant performed the role of a person taking control over another artist's work, and an artist aware of a lack of control over her own works. Hypothetical Value, her work combining a drawing by Wilhelm Sasnal and Magic Drawing by Gianni Motti serves as the best example. Sasnal's drawing is visible only if exposed to sunlight, while Motti's work when the temperature falls below 18 degrees Celsius. Kurant's commentary to the work disappeared a few moments after it was finished. Her other work, Political Weather, (black snow, inspired by the Soviet Union's attempts to manipulate the weather in the twenties and thirties and the weather's impact itself – as a factor difficult to predict – on politics) took on an exceptional meaning after the plane crash in Smolensk on 10 April 2010, and the subsequent volcanic dust cloud from the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, an Icelandic volcano, which paralysed air traffic over Europe and prevented many guests from participating in the funeral ceremony for the President Lech Kaczyński, who died in the airplane catastrophe.
For her 2007 project Future Anterior (Thermochromic silkscreen ink on paper, 57 x 37.50 cm) the artist made an authentic issue of The New York Times dated 29th June, 2020. She invited a clairvoyant, Krzysztof Jackowski, to join the project. He conducts a business activity in the field of "paranormal services" and made a name for himself while cooperating with the police, taking part in a TV show Eksperyment jasnowidz / The Clairvoyant Experiment on Polsat channel, and providing services for Danuta Hojarska, a member of the Polish Parliament representing the Samoobrona Party. Kurant asked Jackowski to predict what is going to happen in 2020. The clairvoyant predicted the collapse of the European Union, terrorist attacks on a massive scale in Europe, an uprising against the Chinese government, and the ultimate destruction of the Amazon forest. Ten journalists from New York wrote articles based on Jackowski's predictions. This is how the content of the newspaper was created. Yet, the artist decided to use a special toner again, this time changing its qualities when exposed to temperature. The pigment is visible when it is cold and disappears when exposed to warm temperatures. As a result, the newspaper is almost impossible to be read. The text (in a sense, the future) disappears when being held in one's hands. The artist was less concerned wih the vision of the future, more with how visions of the future are interpreted in the present and how they can even affect the present, such as the trouble in bringing the disappearing newspaper into Chinese territory due to its prediction regarding the country.
In 2012, the Paris-based the Fondation Ricard included Future Anterior among the 100 projects to mark the 10th anniversary of its Pavillon Neuflize OBC, a creative laboratory located in the Palais de Tokyo. Claude Closky curated the anniversary exhibition. For ÇA & LÀ / THIS & THERE Closky spread the reach of exhibition beyond the confines of the laboratory itself, inviting each artist to present his or her work in the setting and media of their choice. Kurant chose to present her work in the urban space, allowing the fluctuating temperatures of spring to dictate how her work would appear or disappear.
A technique similar to the one used in Future Anterior or Hypothetical Value was applied in a work entitled Symfonia Tesli / Tesla Symphony Sonogram, which was created between 2007-2009 by Kurant in a cooperation with a composer, Zbigniew Karkowski. This is a symphony that cannot be heard because it is composed of infrasounds -- low-frequency sounds inaudible to humans which may, however, have influence on a person's mood, behaviour (e.g. drowsiness), and even cause physical pain. The title name corresponds to the name of a "mad" scientist, Nikola Tesla, who experimented with radio waves which he claimed he used to send messages to distant planets. The artist herself was fascinated by a message detected by a telescope in Ohio in 1978, called the "WOW signal" based on a note made by a scientist who received it. This signal was never deciphered but there have been numerous theories regarding its origin. We do not know whether it is a message sent by an extraterrestrial civilisation, or a signal sent from the Earth in the past (by Nikola Tesla, perhaps?). Kurant engraved the signal on a crystal tablet (the single understandable word for a human is the word "wow") and entitled it Language Is a Virus from Outer Space, a quotation from William Burroughs.
Invited to participate in Frieze Projects in London (2008), Kurant created a mini-zoo of three parrots (Ready Unmade). These were not regular parrots - at the artists' request, Marek Żyłkowski, head of the Society of Talking Bird Owners, taught the birds to bark. As a result, a caricature of artificiality was created, which is typical of a contemporary human (and animal) environment. At the crowded art fair, as the artist predicted:
The work will take on a different meaning. People will start talking to birds, the birds will start repeating different words. Their language will fall into parts. In this project, I reflect on Marcel Broodthaers' work 'I say' which involves a living parrot and a voice recording of different people repeating the title phrase.
At the turn of the year 2009, Kurant, together with Anna Baumgart and with the organizational support by the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, worked on a project entitled (…). In the exact place where, during the Second World War, a footbridge existed over Chłodna street linking two parts of the ghetto, the artists placed a temporary installation of balloons forming a punctuation mark of an ellipsis (two parenthesis and three dots). This mark is used in texts to indicate a break in a quotation, absence, or understatement. The artists called this project an "anti-monument". As Kurant said:
For many people, this installation may be shocking. But this is an artistic protest against the emptiness in the place of this footbridge. Until this day, nothing has been created in here to remind us of that trauma.
At the same time, the artists wanted to escape from the so-called Holocaust industry. As they explained:
We are interested in the actual monopoly of the memory discourse by the monumental language of a specific, existing alphabet of forms and signs commonly used in the visual language of monuments.
The ellipsis was meant to be "a mark for rent" and to be fulfilled with a different meaning depending on a space where it would be placed. Jörg Heiser wrote:
The work by Kurant and Baumgart is open in its principle: we can easily imagine that its index-like aspect - its ability to visually mark emptiness - may function well in many different contexts, however all of them being marked with the traumatic absence and taboo. (…) It is of an essential meaning that the flexibility of this work does not imply indifference to given contexts (…) - it is rather a rejection of the idea that art relieves the public from the task of addressing these issues, as if they were a kind of imposed ersatz of commemoration.
Architecture Venice Biennale
In 2010, Agnieszka Kurant and an architect, Aleksandra Wasilkowska entered a competition for an exhibition at the Polish pavilion at the Architecture Venice Biennale with a project Wejście/Wyjście / Enter/Exit, which would provide the pavilion into an alternative entrance on the Giardini area. The competition gave rise to critique and controversies. The jury did not decide on any of the submitted projects. Instead, they invited a curator, Elias Restone, who created a second, this time, closed competition, in which he nominated a different project by Kurant and Wasilkowska - Emergency Exit:
[this is] a construction which brings to mind a ski jump reaching almost to the ceiling of the pavilion. There will be a slot at the top into which you jump not knowing what is waiting for you at the bottom because all you see is a layer of clouds underneath.
-- described Kurant in an interview with Dorota Jarecka.
Kurant and Wasilkowska draw on the famous Leap into the Void by Yves Klein in proposing an alternate attempt to "escape from the system". Wasilkowska adds:
This is our disobedience against the system of Architecture Biennale, where mostly utopian visions of cities, plans, or models of projects are shown. We have created an installation in which, after having seen hundreds of projects and plans, one can switch off the intellect and start experiencing.
Ficticious Knowledge, Phantom Capital
In 2012 the Lucie Fontaine Gallery in Stockholm presented a solo show of Kurant's works, titled Unknown Unknown. The show presents works related to the "economy of the invisible", exploring fictions and quasi-fictions, the paranormal, paradox, myth and their relation to the pragmatics of economics, society and the logic of time and space. The vision of the future and the manipulation of that projection are also among her chief concerns. Her works are in constant flux, shifting in status in various ways depending on the circumstances of their creation and subsequent exposition.
Future Anterior was among the works on show, along with more recent projects by the artist. Phantom Library (2011) consist of a library of fictional, invisible books. These books don’t exist, except in the pages of other books, cited by such authors as Philip K. Dick, Stanisław Lem, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, and Richard Brautigan. Kurant produced the fictional invisible books as real sculptural objects for which she bought ISBN numbers and barcodes to give them status in the material world. Behind each book there is a complex economy of its production process designed to manufacture hundreds or thousands of copies. In this piece the complex and costly economy serves to produce just one single copy of each book, imagining a new hybrid mode of production between singularity, individuality and mass production. The covers of the books were designed in collaboration with the artist and graphic designer Kasia Korczak from the Slavs and Tatars collective.
Her subsequent individual exhibition "Phantom Capital" (2012) at the CoCA Znaki Czasu in Toruń featured Kurant’s special Multiverse and Silence is Golden projects. Both works revolve around the issue of contemporary knowledge and economics. Multiverse is a series of minus-one-dollar coins. The work, gaining special importance in the context of the global economic crisis of 2008, refers both to the problem of virtual debt and the hypothesis of a parallel alternative economy existing in another world as anti-matter.
The other work, Silence is Golden, examines the use of pregnant pauses that have carried weight in the speeches of major politicians, philosophers, anthropologists, linguists and other public figures. The artist compares its significance to the role of an interval in a musical score, taking the speeches of such icons as Hitler, Winston Churchill, JFK, Georges Pompidou, and Fidel Castro. The concept of Silence also represents the omission, censoring or suppressing and concealing of certain information used to manipulate the public and collective memory. Kurant is also interested in the issue of copyright of recordings of public speeches, which represent a part of a nation's cultural and political heritage – an issue that has brought on a great deal of lawsuits in recent years. She subsequently asks: is the silence also controlled by copyright?
The exhibition also featured Kurant’s works from 2011 – Phantom Library and Fata Morgana: Map of Phantom Islands which resulted from the artist’s long-standing interest in the means by which both fiction and invisible elements of reality are given real value and become symbolically, economically or politically essential.
Fata Morgana: Map of Phantom Islands depicts all the phantom islands that, throughout the history of civilization, were ever shown on maps of the world as the result of mirages observed in different places around the globe, cartographical errors, misconceptions about the world, rumours, myths and legends. Some phantom islands were also intentional "errors" by explorers who tried to persuade governments for money to conquer new lands, and so invented and placed some nonexistent territories on maps which continued to appear on other maps in later centuries. All of these islands appeared once or even several times and, with time and developments in cartography, gradually disappeared from maps. Many of them still remained until 1943, when cartography using aerial photography started. Some caused real political conflicts and almost led to wars. The piece also includes an archive of 30 phantom islands with fragments of old maps where they appeared together with descriptions of their history and origin, as well as additional information about the economies, regimes or climates of these phantom territories.
At the turn of 2013 and 2014, the Sculpture Centre in New York and the Stroom Den Haag in The Hague held two interconnected individual exhibitions of the artist (it was also Kurant’s first solo exhibition in the United States). The title of the shows "exformation" refers to the concept invented in the late 90s by Danish journalist Tor Nørretrandersa to describe the process by which certain information is effectively concealed.
The exhibitions featured new works, such as the video piece Cutaways which premiered at the prestigious Performa13 in New York. The video is the first part of the series of films based on a collection of scenes from feature films cut out in the editing process. The film, created in collaboration with the legendary editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather), tells the story of an encounter of three "cut-away" characters who were played by actors cast to original films: Charlotte Rampling as a hitchhiker in Vanishing Point directed by Richard C. Sarafiana, Abe Vigoda as a lawyer and Harry Caul’s best friend in The Conversation directed by Francis Ford Coppola and Dick Miller as the owner of the junkyard in Pulp Fiction directed by Quentin Tarantino.
In Stroom in The Hague, the artist also presented Phantom Estate, which is a phantom miniature museum building (designed together with French architect Didier Faustino), hosting a show of non-existent works. The works on display were based on unfinished works or just ideas of works merely mentioned by artists (such as Edward Krasiński, Marcel Broodthaers and Alighiero Boetti) during conversations. The non-existent institution featured also a special unit of artificial intelligence.
In mid-2015, Kurant’s neon light The End of the Signature was suspended on one of the most recognizable buildings in the world – the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The work is composed of blending the signatures by thousands of visitors to this institution. The collected signatures are converted into a single pattern through software created by the artist in cooperation with programmers. The collective signature created in this way blinks on the façade of the building in the form of a laser projection reminiscent of a neon light. It imitates the act of writing as if the building were signed over and over again like a palimpsest by a gigantic, invisible hand.
Part of The End of Signature is an Autopen machine installed inside the museum building. Autopen is an automaton built at the beginning of the 19th century for Thomas Jefferson – the third president of the United States and one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence. The machine allowed the president to write a great amount of handwritten signatures. In Agnieszka Kurant’s work, the arm of the Autopen machine creates an unlimited number of fully identical collective signatures on blank pieces of paper. The work was commissioned by the Museum for the collective exhibition Storylines: Contemporary Art at the Guggenheim (2015), devoted to different ways of telling stories by artists.
Szalona Galeria (The Wild Gallery) is a mobile cultural centre brought to life by Janek Simon, Agnieszka Polska, and Jakub de Barbaro, whose objective was to popularise contemporary art. Among the 35 Polish artists who partook in the project was Agnieszka Kurant. In the summer of 2016, the gallery toured across Poland. Apart from a contemporary art exhibition, it also consisted of a book store and an open-air cinema. The idea for this grass-roots educational initiative arose from a desire to show the public that everyone’s perception of reality is different and nobody has the ‘right’ recipe for life.
In 2017 the Centre for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv presented Agnieszka Kurant’s first solo exhibition in Israel. The artist examines the correlations between collective intelligence, shared fictions, as well as invisible and ‘immaterial’ work. She does so through her artwork, e.g. Production Line, which is a series of drawings created by thousands of online workers through crowdsourcing. Another piece included in the exhibition was a sculpture entitled A.A.I. Made by termite colonies out of coloured sand, gold and crystals it questioned individual authorship. The works devoted to analysing invisible labour and unseen forces of control are Air Rights – a levitating meteorite and the film Cutaways. When it comes to co-authorship, Kurant asks about the value of art, since it is closely related to its author’s identity, such as in the piece Mutations and Liquid Assets, which is essentially several small sculptures created by famous artists melted into one. Taking appropriation a level higher, the artist questions economic dependence and offers a commentary on the variable status of art objects and their transformative potential.
That same year Kurant’s Political Map of Phantom Islands (2011) appeared in the international collective exhibition Wyspy i Atole: Mapowanie Wyobraźni (Islands and Atolls: Mapping the Imagination, 2017). The exposition organised by Wozownia Art Gallery in Toruń presented paintings, objects, and installations created by various artists from around the world. It took visitors on a fictional journey into the unknown. The maps – which took on many forms – referred to both cultural and individual memory, evoked personal recollections and brought back long-forgotten legends. They colonised and defined areas of imagination. Even in the case of maps which depicted specific territories, the works lost their realness and became elusive or displaced. The exhibition aimed to show that the mapping of our imagination and memory is often the most interesting.
In 2018 Agnieszka Kurant was invited on a residency at the Berggruen Institute, which is a think tank that develops ideas to shape social and political institutions of the modern world. Throughout her visit to California, the artist explored how complex social and economic systems can operate in ways that confuse distinctions between fiction and reality or nature and culture. Her works, probing collective intelligence, surveillance capitalism and the evolution of labour and creativity, often behave like living organisms.