An Introduction to Agonism: Volume 3

One of the highlights of the symposium “Discourse and Discord: Architecture of Agonism from the Kitchen Table to the City Street” is the chance to experience some of my favorite artist-theorist-architect-programmer-activist friends engage in agonistic embrace on stage at the Walker. Here is the opening salvo (not to be confused with Di-Salvo).

How should I explain the idea of agonism to my neighbor across the street?

Pro+agonist: The Art of Opposition A new book and deck of cards by Marisa Jahn explores the productive possibilities of agonism, a relationship built on mutual incitement and struggle.

Warren Sack: “Agonism” is the ancient Greek word for a contest with a prize. In the sense we are using it, is a way of understanding life and politics as a game or contest.

Marisa Jahn: My neighbors do in fact ask me what agonism is. But then I like to throw it back on them. I say, “ok, let’s play a game. When I say agonism, you say…” I’ve gotten all sorts of answers. One person said, “Paradise Lost.” Lucifer wrestling the angels. A physiologist responded that the agonist is a contracting muscle; the antagonist is the muscle that returns the limb to its natural state. A techie person was reminded of the symbiotic relationship between the fig wasp and the sycamore tree. A musician likened agonism to noise. As in, harmony is control, order. Noise is the sum of sounds; it fluctuates between harmony and cacaphony. Noise is difference, polyphony, epistemological and political pluralism.

Mark Shepard: I don’t think you should explain agonism to your neighbor – better to enact it through engaging her – with empathy and respect – on an issue you disagree.

Carl Skelton: There is a variant of agonism, which most people think of as how open-source software happens: an idea gets proposed in an initial form to the widest possible group. Of the many who find fault with it, a small minority will actually propose an improvement, which is then subjected to the same process, except that the original proponent gets to weigh in as a critic. Anybody who cares enough to keep the idea moving owns it. Over time, competing variants and improvements are adopted and discarded by ad hoc groups which themselves persist, peter out or mutate over time.

Carl DiSalvoAgonism is the truth that your neighbor already knows – legislation doesn’t *solve* anything, the conflicts continue regardless, it’s just the nature of politics.

How does agonism express itself in your practice as an artist?

Mark Shepard, artist comp, structures for dischord

Marisa: If agonism merely describes a condition in the world, then expressing agonism through artwork in fact paints reality more aptly and with greater complexity. Agon makes things fun! Agonistic art practices “work” by coming in through the backdoor to solve problems and intrigue using a different kind of logic.

Carl D: My practice is about creating spaces for an agonistic pluralism to flourish, for creating spaces where we can participate in conflicting values and practices towards the composition of new social conditions and structures.

Mark: As an artist I maintain an agonistic relationship to the discipline of architecture. My work exploits the tensions between architecture and media art with respect to how space is conceived, constructed, organized and interpreted within technologically mediated environments.

Warren: Much of my work as an artist is concerned with politics and publics, and I consider what would it mean to make political metaphors material.  For example, we talk about debates as though they are scored like boxing or wrestling contests, but of course they are not.  What would happen if we devised a scoring system for debates?

Warren Sack, Agonistics: A Language Game

Carl S: Nothing ever gets finished, but you never run out of room for improvement.

We’re clearly living in a fractious time. How can agonism help us?

Courtesy Carl DiSalvo

Carl D: Like any theory, agonism is a tool to think with. So it gives us a way to understand what we mean when we use terms like democracy and politics. From this, we might begin not just “think about” but also “do” democracy differently.

Marisa: Paying attention to agonism helps us reframe how we see struggle. Instead of regarding it as a symptom of a bad or messy or contentious situation, we can instead see agonism as a symptom of an environment that is strong enough to withstand difference and adversity.

Warren: As many theorists have pointed out, our culture is increasingly “gamified.” People tend to think of many everyday actions as moves in a game.  For instance, what does it mean “to make a move,” “to make a play,” “to play around,” “to call someone a loser”? If indeed, all the world’s a game and all the men and women merely players, then what is this game we are playing and how could it be otherwise?

Mark: One would hope that agonism offers a way to come to terms with extreme ideological differences – not resolving them, but at least making the debate more tolerable.

How do we foster a space for dissensus, critical dialogue, and debate?

Marisa: Promote and commit to diversity! This may mean doing the work to figure out how you are going to outreach to people from a different point of view or ilk, subjecting ourselves to uncomfortable situations; and building conditions to foster a sense of tolerance and difference. Listen to who’s not speaking and see why not; create a space where this differential is foregrounded. Understand that you can hold difference; understand when compromise sacrifices particular points of view and when compromise strengthens alliances.

What are you most looking forward to about the Discourse and Discord symposium?

Carl D: The opportunity to have these conversations in public, and to disagree about them.

Mark: The opportunity to encounter and test different ideas on agonism through the various formats planned.

Carl S: The chance to try a few things I’ve been working on, and to find out what might be possible in re-making Hennepin avenue, which seems to have a lot in common with a lot of other urban environments that need some love in North America and Europe.


An Introduction to Agonism: Volume 1

An Introduction to Agonism: Volume 2 

Discourse and Discord: Architecture of Agonism from the Kitchen Table to the City Street

Pro+agonist: The Art of Opposition (download)

Pictures from the opening: AOV3

Discourse and Discord

Architecture of Agonism from the Kitchen Table to the City Street

Public Symposium

April 12–14
Co-Presented with and at the Walker Art Center

In an era of cultural conservatives and the liberal elite, Occupiers and Tea Partiers, civil uprisings and government crackdowns, perhaps the one point of agreement today is there’s no shortage of disagreement. But if that’s true, then why isn’t there more debate—not online flame wars, not the televised jockeying of political candidates, but live, in-person dialogue?

That question was a starting point for this three-day symposium on agonism in the public sphere. A term unfamiliar to many, agonism describes an approach to politics that embraces difference and disagreement as an important part of democracy. As a series of talks, workshops, actions, and playful experiments, Discourse and Discord aims to explore the structures or “architectures”—whether it’s the built environment, online technologies, songs, or recipes—that can draw people together for genuine dialogue and debate. It also reinforces the notion that democracy thrives on and even requires an agonistic foundation: the friction of varied publics and participation by people of different minds, views, and beliefs.

Join with a range of other unlike-minded people to debate and discuss, disclose and expose—and find out what happens when you move beyond agreeing to disagree.

More information here.


The deadline for Conflux is now past, but I will be part of the Skillsharing & Conversation Series at Conflux HQ and hope to see you there. I’m really looking forward to finally being able to participate in this stellar event Oct. 8-10.

Investigation, Action and Transmission

“Conflux participants will transform New York’s East Village into a laboratory for creative experimentation and civic action. Through public interventions, artist-facilitated walks and tours, interactive performances and installations, bike and subway expeditions, and more, Conflux artists will confront and rewrite the rules of urban public space.”

Radiator Symposium: Exploits in the Wireless City

Broadway Media Centre, Nottingham UK
15 – 16 January 2009

As part of the 4th Radiator festival, the Radiator Symposium, “Exploits in the Wireless City”, aims to instigate discussion, debate and new interdisciplinary research networks based on the understanding that the development of digital networks are transforming our notion of (public and private) space.

Bringing together artists with architects, urban theorists, computer scientists, sociologists and fellow citizens, the symposium will explore, question and play with this new urban topography where the re-conceptualizing of the public sphere in the regeneration developments of the East Midlands mirror those around Europe.

Radiator will host the symposium alongside a series of presentations, exhibitions and discussions where the audience will have the opportunity to explore, remodel and re-present space in its traditional and emergent forms.

In its critique, the Radiator symposium will question the opportunities, future strategies and implementations that artists and communities face when learning to act within these new hybrid city spaces.

Through its artistic interventions, Radiator will put theory into practice with projects and events that both position and challenge the dominant forces at work in the urban environment and explore the new territories opened up by hybrid space. The “Going Underground” project, investigates this infrastructure by placing 5 artists into the urban confines of British cities: Glenn Davidson (Artstation) (UK), Folke Köbberling&Martin Kaltwasser (DE), Ian Nesbitt (UK), Christian Nold (UK), N55 (DK). These artists will act as sleeper agents, observing and gathering information from a range of different sources including; architects, planning departments, city council offices, surveillance, monitoring centre’s and the Police to create new work in response to their research.

There are still places left to book for the Radiator Symposium. For
Bookings, ring ++44(0)115 840 9272 or email
More info on

Symposium: Experimenting with art in public places

Experimenting with Art in Public Places is a symposium free and open to the public, which will explore ways to support and present experimental art practices in public places, including in the virtual realm, outside the traditional white cubes and black boxes of cultural institutions. It brings together local and out-of-town artists, curators, producers, and presenters for a collaborative conversation about the public sphere as a site for works of art and art practices that spark the imagination but also challenge perceptions – artistic, cultural, social, political.

Full schedule here.

Friday evening, there will be a keynote presentation by Seattle phenoms SuttonBeersCuller. Saturday will be a day of Pecha Kucha presentations and panel discussions. Saturday evening, registered symposium attendees can attend the hearSIGHTED party for R. Luke DuBois’ Hindsight Is 20/20 exhibition at the Weisman Art Museum for half price.


Experimenting with Art in Public Places is free, but seating is limited for the symposium, which takes place at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. To register and reserve a space, email

Keynote: SuttonBeresCuller

Friday, October 10
MCAD Auditorium
6:30 pm: reception
7:00 pm: Keynote

On Friday evening, SuttonBeresCuller (John Sutton, Ben Beres, Zac Culler), a 3-person collaborative from Seattle will give a keynote talk about their experimental art practice in the public sphere. Their work deals in the realms of experimentation and discovery through site-specific installation, performance and sculpture. The work is meant to be accessible, and it actively involves and challenges the viewer, discouraging passive viewing. It’s meant to create an ephemeral circumstance, caught perhaps in a fleeting glimpse, which removes the viewer from a daily routine and leaves them with a sense of bewilderment.

Saturday, October 11, MCAD Student Center, 9:30 am – 5:00 pm

8:30 am
Coffee and refreshments

9:15 am
Welcome and Introduction: Steve Dietz, Executive Director, Northern Lights

9:30 am

Pecha Kucha: Art(ists) On the Verge

Northern Lights recently awarded grants to 6 emerging artists “working experimentally at the intersection and technology, with a focus on practices that are social, collaborative and/or participatory.” In part, Experimenting with Art in Public Places is an opportunity for these artists to “boot up” their practice, and, Pecha Kucha style, Avye Alexandres, Kevin Obsatz, Andrea Steudel, Pramila Vasudevan, and Krista Kelley Walsh will each have 6 minutes – 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide – to answer 3 questions:

  • What is the intersection with technology in their work?
  • How is their practice experimental and social/participatory?
  • What are they planning to do?

10:15 am

Julie Lazar, A History and Future of Experimental Art Practice

Julie Lazar is a trail blazer in the support and presentation of experimental art. She was a founding Curator then Director of Experimental Programs for The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (1981-2000). As a curator, Lazar specializes in commissioning new art works in all media.

11:30 am

Panel: Playing in Public

Moderator: Jack Becker, Executive Director, Forecast Public Art
This panel will look at a range of projects that have played with our expectations for art in public spaces.

R. Luke DuBois’s
Wing Young Huie’s
Piotr Szyhalski
Marcus Young

A buffet lunch wil be available in the MCAD cafeteria, next to the Student Center, for $7.50.

1:00 – 3:00 pm: Breakout Session: Forecast Public Art
This grant-writing workshop will discuss Forecast’s annual grant program, provide an overview of recent innovative public art projects, provide time for artists to brainstorm and discuss their own project ideas and hear about the experiences of past grantees. More information here. To reserve a space in the grant-writing workshop, email Forecast.


Panel: Technologies of Engagement

Moderator: Carl DiSalvo, Assistant Professor of Digital Media in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia.

New technologies have clearly enabled new means of engagement with an audience, whether through networks of delivery or interactive and partciipatory installations or both. Technologies does not always mean “Computers! or Internet! or iPhone!”, however, and this panel will explore a more nuanced idea of the technologies of engagement, from the recent past into the near future.

Chuck Olsen
John Schott
Scott Stulen
Diane Willow


Panel: Building an Audience / Community for the Experimental

Moderator: Diane Mullin is Associate Curator at the Weisman Art Museum.

If “build it and they will come” was part of the first generation of technology-enabled community-building projects, experience has shown that building a true community for experimental public art that goes beyond the memorial or the plop is not an easy matter. This panel will explore successful strategies for building a committed audience for experimental art practice over the long term.

Tom Borrup
Doryun Chong
Carl DiSalvo
Doug Geers
Peter Haakon Thompson

7:00 pm – late

Performance: hearSIGHTED AT THE Weisman Art Museum

hearSIGHTED is an evening of music, dancing, food and drink at the Weisman Art Museum, presented in celebration of the exhibition Hindsight is Always 20/20 by R. Luke DuBois. See the exhibition and hear performances by University of Minnesota electronic music students in the galleries. Catch a special musical performance by DuBois at 9:30 p.m. Following the performance, kick up your heels to electronic grooves spun by Minneapolis-based DJ ETones.


Experimenting with Art in Public Places is free, but seating is limited for the symposium, which takes place at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. To register and reserve a space, email


Experimenting with Art in Public Places is a public progoram presented by Northern Lights October 10-11, 2008, with the support of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and the Jerome Foundation, through its support of the Art(ists) On the Verge grant program. Northern Lights is supported by the McKnight Foundation.

Full schedule here.