Agency is the Ability to Act

'Agency is the ability to act' is a site-specific interactive animation, where the participant's touch controls the movement of frames on Instagram stories, like a digital version of a flickpad animation.The piece was created for Holden Gallery Manchester's Interruptions Series during the UK's third lockdown in January 2021.

The work will exist as two durational performances on Holden Galleries Instagram Stories for 24 hours on the 3rd and 10th of Feb 2021. Each performance examines the dance and flow of agency between the viewer and the app itself. The work asks how an app like Instagram might be seen as a simple organism with the intrinsic goal of keeping users continuously engaged (and therefore shedding data and clicking on ever more targeted ads). As part of her process, Heaney uses quantum computing algorithms to animate watercolour paintings of unicellular organisms, creating an uncanny delocalised creaturess that viewers encounter occupying the black-box of their phone.

The title comes from Karen Barad's theory of agential reality where human and non-human entanglements create new intra-active phenomena. The first iteration of Heaney's Instagram Story performances was touch is response-ability commissioned by Hervisions at Lux for their Out of Touch programme during the first lockdown.

What kind of agency does an app like Instagram have? ⁠⠀
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Taking a post-human definition of agency as the ability to act from Barad, I also refered to Jenann Ismael's book How Physics Makes Us Free to think about Instagram as a Self Governing System whose umbrella company Facebook gives it and adjusts a point of view (encoded in the algorithm) and some certain goals.
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I looked at simple unicellular organisms and their agency - they're not cognitive agents, like ourselves, but they're too adaptive to be machines. I began to think of instances of social media apps like Instagram on peoples' phone as goal oriented unicellular organisms, their machine learning driven algorithms adapting to continuously pursue⁠Instagram's goals: to hold user's attention, to target increasingly relevant ads and for users to click on these ads/purchase things. A man-made creature that reproduces, consumes energy and deficates. ⁠⠀
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So I started making water colour paintings of unicellular organisms like the valonia ventricosa, a species of alga with a diameter that ranges typically from 1 to 4 centimetres and stentors (trumpet animalcules), one of the largest extant unicellular organisms. I worked with really wet surfaces so the boundaries of the forms spread out and became wave-like. Strange formless creatures hiding in the blackbox of social media apps.Then I used quantum computing algorithms to animate and blur these watercolour images even further, creating uncanny creatures from another dimension living inside the black box of the phone’s apps

Watercolour paintings, digitally edited.

Interruptions is an experimental platform showcasing live art and performance. For this season, Interruptions moves out of the gallery, presenting works outside and online. Through these events, they hope to provide ways of staying connected with each other, and build online communities, as they bring people together to participate with and view a new series of works.

This season will take place between February and May 2021. Artists include Libby Heaney, Harold Offeh and Michelle Williams Gamaker, Conway & Young and Juliet Davis – Dufayard. Further details of each event will be announced soon.