“I have a plan, sir.”
“Really, Baldrick? A cunning and subtle one?”
“As cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University?”
— Blackadder Goes Forth
On the surface there appears to be little affinity between the figure of the spy and that of the artist. The former—as either intelligence operative or analyst—is engaged in producing and exploiting adversarial knowledge on behalf of a sovereign power, their practice focused on contexts of conflict, deception and enmity. In contrast, the artist is a figure busy with tying and untying the semiotic knots of meaning embedded in the material world around them, exploring the artifice of perception, space and language through intuitive and ludic practices. At the level of their relationship to power the spy and the artist appear conclusively dissimilar. The spy, embedded in a vast bureaucratic apparatus, serves power and pursues advantage on behalf of the state. The artist, solitary and idiosyncratic, questions power and undermines authority.
Considered only at level of the social meaning of their practices, it certainly appears as if we are comparing categorical opposites, not merely at variance but at odds. And yet, if one looks closely, and from an unfamiliar angle, there is more to this relationship than initially meets the eye, a way in which the practice of the spy resembles an art form, and the artist appears to acquire guileful and devious traits.
What interests us here is the mode of thought and action usually described as cunning. In myth, history, and culture cunning individuals are depicted as being skilled in the invention and use of tricks, schemes and expedients, often employed in times of difficulty to achieve an end contrary to the apparent disposition of a given situation. Famous examples are the wily Odysseus, Sun Tzu’s devious generals, or the ingenious Jason Bourne. Even in everyday life there are those among us who earn their living not through the labour of a direct approach to aims and objectives, but who rather manoeuvre indirectly, obtusely, who solve problems not through strength or force but through wit and stratagem. The con artist wields skill in rhetoric and persuasion to exploit semiotic ambiguity and the vulnerabilities of human psychology. The cat burglar employs subtle tools and ingenious plans to thwart the defences of property and capital, taking advantage of physical features unanticipated by naive designers. In such blatantly dishonest efforts we can see the craft of cunning quite clearly, yet if we conceive of such practices as simply a particular way or mode of eliciting unlikely or unexpected opportunities from the environment, then we might place the poet in the same camp as the former and the visual artist with the latter. The poet exploits the limits and possibilities of language, using it to steer and influence thought and feeling; the visual artist wields matter to bring life to mere appearance and concepts to life. To give their creations depth and reality artists of all media must become masters of deception and the manipulation of the environment, must learn to appropriate and subvert in their efforts to reveal hidden truth and conceal effective illusion—operations that, according to Hesiod’s Muses, are often the same. Adepts of cunning arts possessthe virtues of sagacity and wiles: the ability to reverse from within a situation that appeared bound to a permanent and imposed order, to elicit from the environment effects that others have not even imagined.
If we now consider the operations of intelligence—the clandestine collection, analysis, and exploitation of secret and adversarial knowledge—an institutionally distributed process which popular culture has condensed into the singular figure of the spy—we can begin to see which characteristics are shared by practices that occupy field of cunning.
Intelligence today is a vast machine, an elaborate process wielded as a tool of the state to preserve and pursue power. Its function is, primarily, to collect and exploit knowledge regarding those deemed its adversaries, and to understand the possibilities for action offered by this knowledge: what can happen, what may happen, and in particular, what can be made to happen—given the correct manipulation of levers. The levers in which intelligence is interested are the threats and vulnerabilities latent in both human activity and technical systems, the potential of intentions and capabilities, the sources of an adversary’s strength and weakness. Due to its position as the dedicated organ of secret state power, in addition to its functions of observation and analysis intelligence is often the instrument employed to act upon and exploit this knowledge, employing espionage and covert operations to convert unfavourable circumstances into favourable ones, to support interests and deny those of the adversary.
Considered as a way or mode of approaching world and knowledge, the art of cunning remains consistent across different fields of practice: it is the ability to perceive and exploit opportunities for thought and action latent in the environment, in materials, and in persons.For in all things there is a hidden, second set of uses for those engaged in creative or clandestine activities, a double-life of objects, ideas and purposes which emerges only amidst the interaction of necessity, adversity and ingenuity. For the spy this is the moment when shadows become clothing, when wires become keys, when words become weapons and traps for the unwitting. For the artist it is the moment that materials reveal their secret properties, when ideas invert the obvious and normative orders of our lives to reveal the absurd and the incredible. While the craft of each is expressed in discrete fields of action, both are inspired by the same muse: the pressures of inauspicious circumstances and the affordances of hidden possibilities. The artist manipulates ambiguous or unlikely materials, seeking to detect and display secret alignments or forge wondrous illusions, hoping to cause complex experiences of intertwined thought, perception and feeling. In a strange inversion of this process the spy aims to pierce the concealments of secrecy in order to align hidden force with deceptive illusion, to make sense of ambiguity in order to more effectively deceive. What is shared by the figure of the artist and the spy is not merely the presence of a tendency to search for hidden or tacit opportunity, but to do so under difficult conditions, and with a flair for the seizing of fleeting opportunity. Such conditions may be objective or subjective, the inherent ambiguities of artistic creation or the dangerous confusions of conflict and deception.
Uncertainty, chance, contingency, in a sense these are the true materials of artists and spies, the unstable scaffold upon which they must test their hypotheses and act out their intentions. Both the spy and the artist take risks, follow hunches and intuitions, and generally make liberal use of epistemologically unreliable methods to achieve their ends. Yet while both the spy and the artist employ the arts and techniques of cunning, only the former risks creating existential threats through their efforts. For the artist, to err may simply be another step in the process of hypothesis and creation, where the aleatory products of error may in fact become the drivers of further production. However, unlike the artist for whom error is itself an opportunity, for the intelligence officer or their political masters, error can be fatal, may cause catastrophes, iniquities, hostilities or scandals. In its role as an instrument of power the hypothetical and creative nature of intelligence becomes not a virtue but a threat, an unreliable and impulsive weapon, engendering misdirected missiles, poorly planned operations, false assumptions and misleading messages. Art, if it should err, at worst affronts only our values. Intelligence, if it should be mistaken, escalates conflict and proliferates impropriety. Cunning, like any tool, can be used for the entire gamut of human ends, for good, for ill, or for the utterly unexpected.
In sum we may say that the spy fails to make a true art of intelligence, not because their medium is secrecy and deception, but because their goal is to foreclose the future in service of a hegemonic present. The artist succeeds by opening up the meaning of situations to a manifold of new possibilities, though in doing so they sacrifice their efficacy in the world beyond the normative space of art. Given the tendency for the present combination of illiberal politics and technological change to radically transform social orders, it is an open question whether a strong distinction will remain between the spy and the artist, or whether we will see some new and hybrid forms of cunning intelligence, artful dodgers wielding signs and systems to make surprising and unexpected manoeuvres. To detect the new currents of cultural, aesthetic and technological tides, to decipher the intricate ambiguities of the material and social orders, or to identify those levers reversing the tyranny of the status quo, artists may in fact need to invent their own version of the spy, the one who knows how to live in a hostile and ambiguous world, and to succeed despite unfavourable circumstances.
This essay originally appeared as a catalogue essay for an exhibition by Daniel Jenatsch at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne.