POSTED 10.03.2021

Text: Miina Hujala

Photo: Milhail Solunin/TASS


Where I left in the last text [Ponderings about the theme] was in the need of connectivity and correspondence, the alignment on “global level” to speak about the particularities involved – in sustainable measures, and the steps taken towards any change needed (be it ecological, social, political or all in some setting). 

Why the project decides to focus and work with residencies is one reason for this. Residencies are in a way of their formatting very connectivity enabling. As residency practice is providing space to work and live – usually in a setting that differs from the previous “normal” habitat and conditions – thus having ‘dislocation’ to serve as a mode of operation, but also formed with collective attendance of other residents (not always though). But the ability to work alongside others and share thoughts and practices is very central to residency practice. 

‘International’ components are also at the core, having the history of residencies built on two different settings; on the “rural” collective gathering, or on journeying to the central “locations of art” to learn and to be exposed and present one’s work. 

Therefore, I was thinking that residencies could be situated – as a format – somewhere between public and private in a way that it would give it a certain advantage to look at institutional settings and the conditions of very mundane day-to-day living side by side. As residents usually spend their working day, and also eat and sleep on site – or to widen it a bit – on the temporal occasion of the residency – personal and shared practices and spaces are formed and re-formatted. Residency as an institution also provides some key social elements (dependent on the residency set-up) based on networking, professional exposure or collegial engagement.

The fact that residency operation can be either a very location specific or then more of a ‘housing facility’ doesn’t cancel it being driven by people that provide the conditions, that decide, arrange, clean, manage and monitor. The labour, as well as the infrastructural framing that goes along (electricity, heating, waste disposal), are part of what residencies are composed of. The artistic or cognitive work that is done by the residents is thus a facilitated activity. The core backing for existence of residencies necessarily builds to the interest of artists (and others) to spend time this way. People that see it beneficial (in some sense or other). 

Whatever the changing parameters for the reasons behind attending a residency are, the ability to enable the practice of one’s own work is always present. I myself have attended residencies very differently depending on the mode I have been at the time period in question. They have been research oriented, more or less social occasions to attend to certain parameters of my work and interests, whilst at the same time providing a way to learn and explore new environments. One very central mode of pleasure that I have received from residencies is that I can experiment, not only in work, but in living. I think in surroundings that are not meant to last – in a temporal arrangement thus –  questions of what I eat, what are the routes I take, routines I make, where and how I spend my time now that I am not at ‘home’ are interesting to solve. In a way I am a version of a different “me”. This is to say that the conditions we are in also condition us to “be” what we are simultaneously. It is not that I am something more accurate or more “myself” sometime in someplace, but that existing conditions condition existing. But perhaps I’ll elaborate on that more later.

But as this thinking of pleasure derived from exploring different alternative ways of doing things, I think it must be more alluring to some than others. Adapting is not all inclusive enjoyment – there is friction, insecurity, unease. I myself have tried to find ways to do things the way I feel best fit. In all instances the borders of my habits become also clearer, and the comparisons to be made with what is "usual", necessary, or preferred become more available. 

As residencies are temporal (temporary) settings, the folding of the question of what ‘sustainability’ is (as an ‘ability to continue over period of time’ defined by Cambridge dictionary), is connected to its temporal dimension but also into questions of: what it means to ‘sustain’ something? This leads to’ ‘what to sustain’? In personal as well as institutional settings: What practices to continue with? 

‘Sustainability’ is also a term that has the “quality of causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time” (as also defined by Cambridge dictionary). The various realms are intertwined.

Sustaining life is sustaining renewability, enabling conditions for something to re(e-)merge. To explore possibilities is to live.


‘Agential realism’ is a concept by Karen Barad (a feminist and quantum physics scholar). I have wanted to read Barad on this occasion for two reasons: because I have had a lasting curiosity towards quantum physics and that interestingly shapes what we mean with physical reality, what is the matter, and also what are the perceptions that base our conception of ‘reality’ so to speak. I look into Barad’s thinking also because I think some of the thoughts and terms provided by Barad were well received in the art realm (within its post-humanist, new materialist thinkers). 

‘Agential realism’ aims to provide a way to think of the material and discursive as significantly ontologically connected. “Entanglement” or “intra-action” are terms that Barad uses. Being is entangled matter(ing).

Founding the thinking on Niels Bohr’s philosophy-physics, and also on Jane Butler’s ‘matter as mattering’ and Michel Foucault’s discursive poststructuralism Barad explores how quantum physics countered the classical Newtonian views with its the renunciation of the objective observer and the determinacy of matter and how this insight or thought can be further addressed in alignment with exploration of questions of the agential actors of intra-action (the things affecting and affected, producing and produced), the role of matter and discursive practices (“entanglement of material relations that get named social, political, economic, natural, cultural, technological, scientific”). Matter-discursive is not about ‘either’/ ‘or’ but ‘both as’ / the constituting embedded participation of the semantic-ontic entanglement that is being as constant becoming.

I won’t offer here a close read-through of the quantum phenomena and the insights derived from Bohr that Barad extends to the concept of ‘agential realism’. The quote from Bohr that: “we are part of the nature we seek to understand” (mentioned on occasions in the book ‘Meeting The Universe Halfway’ [2007]) with the inclusion that in Barad’s concept “we” extends beyond ‘humans’ maybe distills it a bit. I myself want to focus on the ‘meaning-making’ constituting ‘matter’ as well as concepts.

There is something to be said about the concept of ‘apparatus’ before moving further. For Bohr theoretical concepts are materially embodied in apparatuses that produce the phenomena being described. In Barad’s reading of Bohr apparatuses “enact what matters and what is excluded from mattering”. Apparatuses are material (re)configuring and the discursive practices. 

For Bohr objective knowledge is possible because of ‘reproducibility’ and ‘communicability’. The apparatus that materially embodies concepts – the lab setting for instance including the observer – provides the possibility for production of particular phenomena. A definition of something in the exclusion of other things. Barad asks: where does the apparatus end?

‘Agential realism’ does not limit the apparatus to (I’d call it) “micro-setting” (like a laboratory) and human observer. There is always a certain cut that is made when “a concept” or a “thing” is produced/made present/articulated. Agential cut resolves indeterminacy within phenomenon (the ‘entangledness’ so to speak.) For Barad these are 'agential cuts' that are both ontic and semantic. Meaning and being are not separate. We describe being part of the description, being constituted by it. But the description is not without (its) agency and materiality in this intra-action. To separate something out of the connectivity is implementing a limitation. 

For Barad and in the agential realist sense apparatuses are specific material-discursive practices: “reconfigurations of the world through which determinations of boundaries, properties and meanings are differentially enacted.” This is ongoing. “Boundary-making practices that have no finality.”

Why I think ‘agential realism’ here in this text is to explore thinking of ‘acts’ and ‘doers’ and the constituting of ‘sustainable agency’? (Or perhaps more like ‘the agency of sustainability’). For Barad’s ‘Agential realism’ it is important to point that matter has agency and that this is acknowledged, that is always at the same time ‘natureculture’. ‘Sustainability’ thus should in my reading be highlighted as our also performative participation of matter, that is discursive. And I would propose that ‘sustaining’ means renewability of the ‘possibility to matter’ (in all of its ‘entangledness’).


“Different cuts produce differences that matter”. (a quote from Barad.)

There is something to be said, when we think about matter and the participation of the segmentation of the world (the ‘cutting of it’, if you may) , what is the role of “choice” or “will”. There is an enactment of a humanistic perception by evoking terms like ‘choice’. The residue of terms and perceptions are connected to the inseparability of thought and being – and matter. “We” takes positions (or is enacted as ‘cuts’ to follow Barad’s terminology). There are concepts that make the perceptions of “the agencies” – the actors and doers. Like we have learned to treat time (and space) as a finite resource, connected (or not) to the ‘separateness’ of our bodies. 

I feel that the necessity to produce is strong culturally and links to a fear of being deprived of something (time, energy, closeness). There is a conception of ‘loss’ or a ‘void’ if we don’t participate to this ‘production necessity’ – that is visible in the idea that we have to “do something with our time”, that we have to spend it wisely, effectively – or pleasurably. Time as a control mechanism and calculator has been seen as readily available – like as we have monitored the celestial bodies for ages. But the perceived cyclical nature of moving things doesn’t immediately lead to pressure to produce though. Avoiding here limitation to a social or economic realm, I think of the deprivation (of time) as an inherent impossibility in the material sense, where “all there is”, is constant (entangled) activity. The meaning-making of what constitutes ‘resources’ is integral and central when thinking of ‘agency of sustainability’. What does it mean, (who cares?) if we ‘constituted as humans’ consume all the resources for the lifecycle renewability of our “short-term” goals? Is it even “our” choice to make?

The role of choice introduces the role of responsibility. Ethics is something that is brought forward by Barad, as the relations in being entangled are ethical in agential realism.

For Barad ‘we’ (but not only “we” humans) are responsible to the others in ‘the entanglement’ “not through conscious intent” but through “the various ontological entanglements that materiality entails”. This is because nothing is (made as) such just because. “Intra-actions” affect what is real and what’s possible as some things come to matter and others are excluded as possibilities opened up and others foreclosed.”

In the constant making of the world (and us in it) we are responsible for this making/doing/being. This is not something that we can avoid, is what Barad concludes the book, bringing forth a question by Prufrock: “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Barad points to the question: can you stand outside of it?

To invoke limits is to be present in making cuts. This is a position that invokes responsibility because we are not outside of making them. To get back to the very disturbing role of ‘productivity’ that entails actors and doers (producers) – assigning a role that we have to use energy, time, resources to “do something”. (It surely does seem that the current status quo is to have/do “something more” as the affirmative and the worry number, also one stated at state level as how to enhance productivity.) But reflecting on this ’more’ in the situation of (using Bard’s terminology) constant ‘intra-action’ – as all is just movements and shifts, constant ‘entanglement’– countless, but maybe not innumerable, reactivity – what constitutes ‘more’? What do we mean with “cumulative” material compositions and also – why should we prefer them? ‘Sustainability’ as a term seems to cut to the core of the issue, as sustaining is not bringing forth the notion of ‘more’ (or perhaps less). The sustaining – the quality of being able to continue – seen not as a possibility to continue a thing or a doing – but the possibility of doing/thinking/mattering requires the acknowledgement of openness. Perhaps – as following Barad – activating constantly embedded participation on “cutting” of “what matters”. 


Barad uses the term ‘realism’ to provide understanding that whilst ‘making science’ is something that is conditioned, the things science provides have a realness. They are not whatever.

When we perceive something as ‘real’, it has the ability to ‘hold truth’ in some sense. Following Barad, not everything can be manipulated in that way that it can be whatever. But then again everything can be quite a multiple thing. 

In reading Barad’s ‘Agential realism’ I think of the role and practice of science as a possible ‘antidote’ to the situation when the practice of science is seen as a pursuit diluted to mere (social) power games, been used in entertainment propaganda (in media) to prove whatever purpose or point. The ignorance of not attending to the results provided (climate change denialism is a very obvious example) or the blunt need/wish of manipulation for desired purposes don’t change the scientific results as factual. The measurements are real. This is because matter has its agency, its role even if it does not have ‘essence’ – a set, unrelated determinacy.

In alignment with Barad’s multidisciplinary approach (I think we all should be to some extent post-disciplinary) examining the role of ‘residency agency’ has the possibility for me to draw insights from multiple different fields all at one.

And I see that residencies can be a very interesting locus of exploring ‘the sustaining’ – be it of (human/) capacities, bringing together cultural specificities, social and economic factors, living conditions, working pressures and modes, contact points, institutional framing, as well as cognitive and creative pursuits ect.

But also, crucially all these things are simultaneously – and ‘embeddedly’ – also material. ‘The metabolic’, ‘energetic’, discursive (‘ontic-semantic’) limitations are set to what is called the ‘practice’ of art making and what perceived not belonging to it. The electricity we “use” is cut from mattering when warming a residency facility or making a seminar projection doesn’t matter (or writing a text about it), but they are all there/here. We are culturally sectoring things, placing things on distance to enable the visibility of things as objects (cutting them from ‘phenomenon to produce phenomena’). This practice has validity only if we acknowledge its temporality and ‘restrictedness’. Barad’s crucial point that not ‘anything goes’ that matter has its agency (let’s say its ‘quantum behavior’) is also that the definitions matter. Even though mattering is not unaffected, and can’t be found “somewhere”, it is produced by apparatus that is itself part of the same matter/mattering as the conceived and presented ‘result’. This result is ‘real’ and the cuts are real – they are just not something specific before they are made. This allows us to ponder on the role of making them. Possibilities to think and to act are not deterministically set, but they are not countless either. Responsibility is tied to the limiting or enabling factor – the ‘agency’.

“We” all as part of the apparatus are limiting or enabling certain things, we don’t only produce, but also decline to do so. ‘Sustaining’ can be about renouncing from the necessity to produce more. Resign to activate the accumulative fantasy that ‘more’ is better. Acknowledging that less and more as ‘directions’ are not arbitrary but so intrinsically connected, that the mattering of the direction is under constant rethinking (re-viewing, restricting, restructuring); asking what matter(s)?