In Conversation: Adam Basanta
by Anna Kovler
Adam Basanta uses sound and image to illustrate the behavior of feedback loops, blurring the line between technology and nature while testing the boundaries of authorship. His projects have featured ear buds that sound like locusts, a cello player whose bow hand is machine-controlled, and infinite arrangements of microphones and amplifiers. By their very nature, feedback loops imply a certain loss of control. (A ripening apple on a tree releases a gas triggering the rest of the apples to ripen, and contractions during labor release a chemical, which brings on more contractions.) The inability to separate cause from effect is at the core of Basanta’s practice as he highlights the interdependence of seemingly autonomous parts.
In his installation All We’d Ever Need Is One Another (2018), two scanners generate “artworks” by continuously scanning one another and printing results that match existing works of art. Relinquishing control once the system is set up, Basanta simply leaves the room, and lets the chain reaction play out. Colorful abstract images slide out of the printer one by one, vaguely recalling a Rothko or Pollock, marked with the grainy signs of digital production. The question arises: who is the artist? Is it the scanners, computers, printers, algorithms, databases, or Basanta himself? Like in all feedback loops, this question is impossible to answer, revealing a whole much greater than it’s parts.
I spoke with Adam to find out why his installation scares people and what he’s working on next.
AK: Your piece All We’d Ever Need is One Another has a disturbing quality to it, as it points to a world that doesn’t need humans. Was that intentional?
AB: Absolutely, and that's one of the conceptual lines in the work, but it’s bigger than that. I don’t feel the need to advocate for humanity or the post-human future. I think its much more complicated than choosing between those binaries. What I think is interesting is that as we are living with increasing automation, there is a lingering emotional understanding that art is the one thing that is still distinctly human. So part of the disturbing quality of the piece is that it’s doing something that is viewed as a distinctly human privilege, while appearing not to involve any human beings.
AK: But you designed it to run a certain way, right?
AB: It’s designed yes, the algorithms are guided by a research practice, and there are artistic decisions and repercussions to these decisions. I was working with these materials to see what could be automated, so there is a lot of directed activity, but each image that is produced is not made with me in the room. It’s designed to create certain kinds of results, but it’s hard for me to predict any specific result at a specific time. There are a lot of surprises when I see the images. That's where the disturbing part or the emotional response comes in, because it challenges the idea of artistic gesture as originating in a human being or in some kind of intentional intelligence.
The piece operates according to the principle of emergent behavior, which occurs when a system with localized decision-making processes creates results that transcend the local decisions, where something much larger comes out of it. Like the way clusters of birds fly together, or the way termites decide on a location to make a nest. When all their individual behaviors are put together, the flock is bigger and moves in synchronicity, although this involves no planning or learned behavior. The images created by this work are a reflection of a systemic relationship between its technical parts, and the art market database, where it refers to decide whether a generated image should be published as art or not.
AK: You were recently in legal trouble because an artist felt your installation infringed on their ownership of their work and this seems to have become part of the work itself. Can you talk about that?
AB: From my point of view, it’s definitely meshing with the work itself, and when I present the work there are legal documents for people to look through and it’s integrated into the fabric of the work, not in a way that I planned but again a form of emergent behavior I suppose. But there is a facet of the original piece that touches on the idea of authorship, in the sense of asking what is originality? And can a machine do something original but do something that is similar to what the art market has recognized as successful? Can the art making process be tailored to fit the parameters of the art market, and be rewarded for this? So the fact that this issue has come up in a very pointed way, has made it part of the fabric of the work.
AK: What are you working on now?
AB: One of my new projects is a series of landscape paintings made using other landscape paintings. I go into a database and narrow a data set, for example 17th century Dutch paintings, then I use a software to mosaic pieces of these works to create a new artwork that is made of little parts, which are not originally mine. These are being shown at Ellephant Gallery in Montreal, until October 12. I am also starting to work with sculptures that involve live plants and synthetic element existing in an ecosystem together. It's the first time that I’m working with something biological. All the art we’ve been talking about has an element of asking how does a system work and perform in a certain way, and the projects have circularity to them. In a similar way, these will be half-natural, half-artificial systems.
AK: What is your favorite feedback loop in the natural world that is not sound-based?
AB: Wow let me think about that! You know, there is one thing that is stuck in my mind recently, because there is something ridiculously random and sophisticated about it, are Leafcutter ants: they collect these leaves and place them in their nests. They don't eat the leaves but a fungus grows on the leaf and they eat the fungus. So they are farming this fungus, and it’s such a complicated and intricate relationship! How did the ants find out about this? There is something poetic about it I think.
Recent exhibitions for Adam Basanta include Intricate Connections Formed Without Touch, a performance at Mutek Festival in Montréal. Upcoming exhibitions include Landscape Past Future at the Media Art Bienalle in Braga, and at the NEMO Biennial in Paris. His exhibition All We’d Ever Need is One Another (Trio) is on view at Arsenal Toronto from September 19 – November 2, 2019.