By Valerie Verhack
Since October 29th the Antwerp based contemporary art space Objectif Exhibitions hosts Assembly (Objectif Exhibitions), the first solo exhibition in Belgium of Agency, a Brussels based Belgian artist initiative founded almost 20 years ago by Kobe Matthys. Agency collects and archives a continuously growing list of so-called things, all cultural objects or acts derived from lawsuits or controversies around their intellectual property. Most of these things on Agency’s list are thus based on jurisprudence, literally ‘the caution to judge’. What Agency is most interested in, are indeed the doubt and hesitation accompanying most of these cases. That is also the reason why the list contains numerous quasi things, items that can become things once an outcome (either legal or at mediation) is reached concerning the category to which it belongs (for example private property versus common good, artwork versus simple reproduction, etc…).
Agency’s activities are not solely limited to exhibitions like the one in Antwerp, in which a selection of things are on show. Things of Agency’s list also appear in art catalogues and magazines (Starship Magazine – summer 2008 or De Witte Raaf – January-February 2010, …) or may form the subject of a performance. The latter is also the case in the current show in Antwerp. This performance will take place as a closing event in the exhibition space itself and is already latently present by a wooden platform as a forum for debate. On Saturday December 17th, the last day of the exhibition, the artist will invite several guests (among whom a lawyer, a philosopher, a physicist, an artist and an art historian) to debate upon one of the exhibited items Thing 001032 (Transparent Color Sheets).
For Assembly (Objectif Exhibitions) Agency made a selection of its list of things in reference to the question: how can ideas – which by law are exempt of copyright protection – be included in art practices? Copyright law indeed distinguishes two categories: ideas and expressions. Since only expressions can be attributed copyright protection, Agency inquires about the many art practices that involve ‘schematic, incomplete, sparse, malleable or changeable expressions’. Thing 001160 (Teddy Ruxpin) for example illustrates the law case around a nostalgic 1980’s toy Teddy Ruxpin,a ‘speaking’ bear able to move his eyes, nose and mouth thanks to a modified cassette player and programmed tapes. These cassette tapes contain two tracks: an audio track containing songs and stories, and a command track activating the eyes, nose and mouth of the bear. W.O.W. Inc who brought Teddy Ruxpin on the market sued Vector, a toy company manufacturing cassette tapes intended to activate Teddy Ruxpin. The court finally enjoined Vector from distributing the cassette tapes any longer.
The exhibition contains ten other things: from the controversies about a puzzle, a toy ball, a video game or an advertisement photograph, to those about a logo, a cardboard display, color samples or book-keeping forms. In this big diversity among the selected and exhibited things, only thing 000743 (A one minute silence) (a musical composition) and thing 001254 (For Pok) (a visual artwork), really concern an art practice as referred to in the overall question of the Antwerp show. Thing 000743 (A one minute silence) illustrates the controversy around the British composer Mike Batt and his band The Planets who released a cd including a track entitled ‘A One Minute Silence (Batt/Cage) – classical version’, consisting of a minute of silence. When Peters Edition, the music-publishing company administering the John Cage catalog, asked Mike Batt to pay royalties for using a composition by Cage, he refused. Batt finally came to an outcome at mediation with Peters Edition.
Similarly Thing 001254 (For Pok) bears witness of the case of Hungarian artist Victor Vasarely who instructed his assistant Valluet on how to execute the painting For Pok based on Vasarely’s previous painting For Pauk. After a dispute over payments Valluet claimed to be the author of For Pok. The matter was finally settled in court where the judge had to decide whether the instructions given by Vasarely were just an idea for an artwork or already its expression. The final decision was in favour of Valluet.
As in all previous Agency shows, the selected things are exhibited according to a systematic title and display. The title of the exhibition does not refer to the underlying thematic question but merely contains the name of the venue or the title of the group exhibition Agency participates in. Assembly (Objectif Exhibitions) is for example not very different from the titles of recent Agency shows like Assembly (Speech Matters), the group show in the Danish Pavillion of the 2011 Venice Biennale or Assembly (The Showroom) at The Showroom in London during the spring of 2011.
This deliberate uniformity also characterizes the exhibition space itself. Like in the aforementioned recent exhibitions, on one side of the space a limited number of objects or specimens are on view on wooden tables illuminated by aluminium hanging lamps. Each exhibited thing on the table visualizes the short neutral description of the case displayed on A4 paper next to it. None of these summary texts reflect any preconception, emotion or humour. Instead of taking sides or suggesting anything, Agency merely presents the selected things from its list like pieces of evidence. On the other side of the space, all the other selected things are stored in wooden cases and shelved in simple racks. They can only be consulted on demand and under supervision. By imposing this limited and administrative access to the archived cases, Agency’s installation calls to mind a sort of Kafkaesque bureaucratic system in which the artist can freely and deliberately manipulate the ‘truth’.
At the base of Agency’s seemingly uniform and objective interventions, lies a list of things that seems all but neutral. The so-called list is an instrument that probably no-one but Kobe Matthys himself will ever fully grasp. This leaves every visitor of one of Agency’s shows with a lot of questions. How does the artist come by all the things of his list? What are the criteria to be included in the list? And does an extensive list even exist at all? Agency’s website (www.agentive.org) which for months already states to be ‘under construction’ does not reveal anything more. Ever since its creation in 1992, it seems like Agency has succeeded in keeping the myth alive.