Harrison Kinnane Smith I became more interested in the frameworks of thinking that facilitate one’s ability to contextualize themself in this larger system.
By Mary Truong November 4th, 2020
Verbose is an accurate description of both Harrison Kinnane Smith’s speech and artwork— several projects that he lists on his website are accompanied by an extensive number of sources. Unassuming objects (say a rock on a box) are conceptually crammed with meaning revealed through artist statements (in the named case, about Leibniz’s concept of monads, physics, and colonialism). There's a diverse range to Smith’s inquiry, but he notes that earlier works in his practice had the general theme of “race from my personal perspective of a Black, mixed person… and how it relates to history and migration and culture and land.” As he continues making art, he finds himself thinking outside his individual experience, moving towards structural explorations, and turning to systems aesthetic artists like Hans Haacke and Mark Lombardi for inspiration. Smith’s more recent art consists of applying a systems approach (influenced by Karen Barad and Bruno Latour) to a research topic, culminating into a textual work that is sometimes visualized by an art object that acts in service of communicating the conceptual idea.
“I’ve started to decenter myself in the work that I’m making.”
For Smith, applying “systems thinking” means unearthing relations within a social or historical context and understanding how those relations implicate us in a contemporary moment. Navigating these webs is necessarily complex; I will try to summarize one of Smith’s research projects, but what I write is only a condensed version of his work. In the late 1800’s, an Italian ship transporting Indian Zebu cattle that carried the (now extinct) Rinderpest virus landed in what is now Eritrea. The virus quickly swept through the African continent's domesticated livestock and wildlife, resulting in starvation, death, and the destabilization of indigenous cultures. As a result of the mass death of grazing wildlife, African grasslands experienced secondary growth, and the tsetse fly, which thrives in this growth, dramatically expanded its range. The tsetse fly carries a parasite that causes sleeping sickness, and the spread of this disease compounded the public health crises experienced throughout the continent. The increased vulnerability of native populations contributed to a substantial expansion of colonization. More recently, the traps that capture the tsetse fly for scientific study use a bait that includes cattle urine, predominantly sourced from Indian Zebu cattle. This same cattle urine is used in Ayurvedic healing practices; the source of crisis (Zebu cattle) also contributes to its remediation— an “ouroboric” relation that "mimics the more abstract cycle of relations between the immaterial relations and material interactions in the collectif."
The result of this research was an essay describing how material interactions affect immaterial, colonial structures and a physical recreation of the tsetse fly trap. Through the work’s exhibition, Smith hopes “not only to entangle them [viewers] within the already complicated web,” but also to have them understand their complicity in US trade, colonialism, and the positive and negative effects of Western science.
“This systems thinking can help one understand the way that the world is now and how it relates to all these intricate and complicated relationships.”
From the perspective of a computer scientist, I consider networks in relation to circulation: the transmission speed of data, the reliability of the network, the security of communication. Nodes are almost superfluous to this vision— humanity’s largest man-made network, the Internet, is built for redundancy; the loss of a single node results in algorithmic reactions that create new pathways for information to travel. The Internet is “plug and play,” meaning that nodes can be added and lost without dire consequence to the robustness of the network, but Smith’s understanding of networks is far more considerate. Every node has bearing on this world, and the loss or introduction of seemingly innocuous objects (cow urine, of all things!) interacts with other objects to create outstanding consequences on our lives. One last technological metaphor: “computer systems” often refers to how hardware and low-level programming interact for a computer to run higher-level applications (think a web browser or Photoshop). Likewise, in the “systems thinking” that informs Smith’s art, the interaction of low-level, material objects allow for the emergence of higher-level meaning: ideology, culture, beliefs.
Now imagine the introduction of one more node added by Smith to the complicated web of human systems. It’s easy to imagine Smith’s ‘object’ articulating relations in the world and making its interactors conscious of their status within these relations (like a map that points out your location) and therefore affecting its interactors’ ideologies. Can it do more? Can it have bearing on the material relations of this world? Smith optimistically believes in art’s capability to do so (taking influence from Cameron Rowland’s Disgorgement). It’s a treacherous proposition considering the inextricable link between art and capital, but perhaps conceptual art can leave the realm of the immaterial in a different way, and Smith can be one of its shepherds.
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