Alien Agency or How to do Research-Creation with Nonhumans

Alien Agency is the title of a new book which will be published by MIT Press in February 2015. The book tells tells three stories of art in the making and the way the materials used in these stories behave and perform in ways beyond their creator’s intent, becoming unknown, surprising, alien. Studying these works–all three deeply embroiled in and enabled by science and technology–enables a study of research-based practice through the experiential and affective elements of creation.

Drawing on extensive ethnographic observation and my own experience as an artist, I investigate how researcher-creators organize the conditions for these experimental, performative assemblages–assemblages that sidestep dichotomies between subjects and objects, human and nonhuman, mind and body, knowing and experiencing. Alien Agency reports on the sound artists Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger (O+A) and their efforts to capture and then project unnoticed urban sounds; tracks the multi-year project TEMA (Tissue Engineered Muscle Actuators) at the art research lab SymbioticA and its construction of a hybrid “semi-living” machine from specially grown mouse muscle cells; and describes a research-creation project entitled Displace that uses light, vibration, sound, smell, and other sensory stimuli to enable audiences to experience other cultures’ “ways of sensing.” Combining theory, diary, history and ethnography, Alien Agency also explores a broader question: How do new things emerge into the world and what do they do?

Chris Salter is Concordia University Research Chair in New Media, Technology and the Senses, Co-Director of the Hexagram network, Director of the Hexagram Concordia Centre for Research and Creation in Media Art and Technology and Associate Professor, Computation Arts in the Department of Design and Computation Art at Concordia University, Montreal. Salter studied economics and philosophy at Emory University and received his Ph.D. in theater directing and criticism with a second concentration in computer-generated sound at Stanford University where he worked with former Brecht assistant Carl Weber as well as pioneers of digital synthesis John Chowning, Max Matthews and Chris Chafe at the Center for Research in Computer Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). He was visiting professor in music, graduate studies and digital media at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) before joining Concordia University’s Faculty of Fine Arts in 2005. He was also Guest Professor at the KhM in Cologne in 2010 and Guest Faculty at the Masters program in Media Arts History. Institute für Bildwissenschaften. Donau University. Krems, Austria. October 2011. He was appointed Director of Hexagram-Concordia in 2011.