Chris Salter’s Alien Agency

Orit Halpern

Committee on Historical Studies/
Affiliate Design Studies
New School for Social Research/Parsons School of Design

“To break through language in order to touch life is to create or recreate the theater [and art] . . . ” [1]
Antonin Artaud (1938)

Chris Salter’s ambitious new book, Alien Agency: Experimental Encounters with Art in the Making (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015), is both a manifesto for new forms of research at the intersection of art practice and science studies and an elegant treatise on what it means to encounter non-human agency. Sure to be of interest to practitioners in a range of fields from anthropology, to science studies, to the fine arts, this book is unique in offering both a rumination on method and an aesthetic experience. Above all, Alien Agency is a call for imaginative action in the interest of reinvigorating critique. Salter asks that we think about making art and ‘experiment’ synonymous; not in the sense of homogenizing the differences between science and art, but in exploring how different practices make and remake the world through performativity in ways that can never be expected or controlled. [2]

On the surface, this argument might appear as part of a long and fatiguing debate about the fate of the humanities and critique in the present. But such debates miss the point. What makes this book a worthy read is its investment not in the past, or the present, but in the imaginary of what research could become. Salter’s project is to demonstrate how art practice and “products” . . . “[are] orchestrating dynamic material acts and performances into being and how these material performances mark and transform the world .” [3]

In this Salter follows a particular “minor,” in Deleuzian parlance, tradition in theater and performance art, a tradition that I identify with the Surrealist Antonin Artaud (a figure that Salter also regularly invokes). Artaud was among the most forceful to argue the insufficiencies of language and the place of sensory activation, stimulation, even pain, in breaking with social strictures and mores. For example, in 1938, within the context of Europe’s slide towards war, Artaud called for a theater of “cruelty,” affect, and sentiment. Such a theater would shock the complacent spectator into finally embracing life and enjoin her/him into struggling against a rationalizing social order. Art, and especially theater, must, he argued awaken us not through offering representations of the world, but rather through the production of new sentiments, sensations, and connections between bodies and experiences. Language in such theater is rent from representation, in the interest, perhaps, of allowing agents to speak without the shackles of already socialized subjectivities. [4]

Salter follows this mandate, faithfully. It is what makes the book most exciting, and occasionally challenging, to digest. The text is organized as a series of ‘encounters’ with the alienness of artistic practice and with the agency of non-human entities. These encounters are, to paraphrase Artaud, “cruel”, not in a moral sense, but in a sense of being cruel to any stability of subjectivity of bodies or to our academic sense of authority and expertise over the subject matter to be discussed. This is a text that refuses separation from, or authority over, its subject matter.

The book accomplishes its stated goals through travelling with and through three practices. The first practice involves sound, focusing on resonance as a theoretical and material concept in the collaborative urban soundscape installation work of the American sound artist Bruce Odland and the Austrian-born Sam Auinger (O+A). The second case investigates cellular ‘vitality’ through an examination of the temporalities invoked through the building of biomechanical machines done in collaboration with the Australian based art+research centre Symbiotica. The third example investigates ethnography as an experiential practice through a reflexive interrogation of Salter’s own performance-installation practices building immersive environments done through the Montreal-based Hexagram Centre for Research-Creation.

The book is thus about transformations and interventions as a form of critique, a form understood not to involve the explanation of an event, but rather the participation in, and addition of, chance and experience to the world. Salter’s discussion of resonance in architectural soundscapes and of temporality in biology are both particularly excellent in elucidating the agency and materiality of art practice and how these actions can induce sensations, cadence our bodies, and reorganize relationships between humans and other living and architectural agents in interesting and surprising manners.

Alien Agency vacillates between autoethnography, theatrical reenactment, and theoretical and historical explications making the text itself unstable and active, much like its subject matter. Occasionally frustrating but usually engaging, this is the element that makes this book original in a world of academic treatises lauding the appeals of materiality and performance. Salter does not permit us to leave the labs, soundscapes, or immersive installations safely ensconced within the walls of knowledge and expertise. In fact, this book poses fundamental challenges to what constitutes knowledge, and what is the status of this knowledge in relation to both society and the researcher. While this question is not, and perhaps cannot be resolved, Salter at least forces us to ask what types of knowing, and by extension, being we would like to have in the future. Knowledge, therefore, equates with encounter in this text. Encounters whose alienness in Salter’s language, “provokes us to theorize culture anew; to recognize its temporal, emergent, dynamic being.” [5] By extension, knowledge is not about description or command but always about complexity, entanglement (as Salter also argues in his first book Entangled), and questioning.

If there is one limit to this text it is that Salter defers extended engagement with the problem of translation or signification, and by extension any engagement with political economy, power, value, or subjective difference. With so much materiality, we are always left to ask whether all forms of sensing and affect are the same? How is it that sense can be organized towards the structure of care or love for other things and beings, and how come it can also result in hate, violence, or simply banal apathy?

That said, in evading direct discussion of such questions, Alien Agency also directly engages with them. It is, of course, an almost impossible task to express the inexpressible, and Salter knows that and embraces it, a fact he reiterates multiple times throughout the book. The book’s impossibility is itself a reflexive image of the practices it seeks to depict. The necessity of translation, and its impossibility, from the realm of pure sensation to that of representing, and ultimately, also translating experience to others – whether human or not – is always the productive limit of and incitement to write. The book thus serves as a reminder that a critical new form of art-research-creation practice will never be progressive if it does not engage with the final element – that of meaning making and translation. Language always haunts the room here, but Salters’ eloquent and beautiful interrogation of what it means to attempt to engage the materialities and performativities of agencies that are beyond or outside the human also makes us recognize the possibilities and potentials inherent in that differential between what can be enacted and what can be represented. Alien Agency activates that space between the word and the world to imagine that we could, indeed, attach ourselves differently to other bodies, species, lives, and technologies; that we could, to cite Artaud, “touch life”.


  1. Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double (New York: Grove Press, 1958): 7.
  2. Christopher Salter, Alien Agency: Experimental Encounters With Art In the Making (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015): 14
  3. Salter, Alien Agency, 17.
  4. Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double.
  5. Christopher Salter, Alien Agency, 242.


Dr. Orit Halpern is an assistant professor at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College. Her research is on histories of digital media, cybernetics, cognitive and neuroscience, art and design. Her book Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945 (Duke University Press, 2014) just came out. She has also published and created works for a variety of venues including The Journal of Visual Culture, Public Culture, C-Theory, Configurations, and at ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany.