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The Visionary as Plural

When I read about the recent discovery that Hilma af Klint’s paintings were actually the product of collaboration between at least thirteen women, my first thoughts were: “Of course. This makes sense. This explains so much.” Af Klint’s work has had an outsized influence on my own - at least six of my pieces contain direct quotes from her work, while countless others exhibit more subtle influences through composition, color, or line quality. I’m not the only one - in her 2018 Guggenheim exhibit Paintings for the Future, the curators’ proposition that Hilma’s work is ripe for our time was proven out by the museum’s record attendance. The revelations about the collaborative nature of her work shed light on its popularity in our current era, when I’ve observed a pronounced hunger for interconnection and interdependence, both with other humans as well as intelligences beyond the human.

Hilma Af Klint: Group X, No. 1, Altarpiece, 1915, from the Guggenheim show.

New studies of Hilma’s journals and those of her primary collaborator, Anna Cassel, have revealed that Cassel was a partner in creating af Klint’s Paintings for the Temple, while at least thirteen women assisted in making the paintings. Beyond these human collaborators, the artists also collaborated with unseen forces in a process they described as channeling the art from spirit guides. How can we wrap our minds around the spirit world? Every culture has had its ontologies to describe the invisible world, from gods and ancestors to fairies and aliens, but I find it helpful to consider that even the modern scientific worldview is teeming with influential beings hidden from our senses. As I’ve been reading in Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes, microbes hold tremendous sway over the lives of humans and other animals, shaping our behaviors and desires. Then, isn’t all art channeled in a way - at least in part from a chorus of agential beings inhabiting our microbiomes? Perhaps we need to start thinking of the collective unconscious as more than human.

We need to rethink the concept of visionary as a collective rather than individual experience

Af Klint’s story has already upended the narrative of Modern Art, with her abstract paintings boldly preceding the male painters thought to be the first innovators of the movement. It’s only fitting that her work would further complicate the foundational paradigm of Modern Art as consisting of visionary individuals. We may need to reframe visioning as the work of plural entities. In Elvia Wilk’s essay The Word Made Fresh, she compares the visions of medieval mystics to the characters in Jeff Vandermeer’s sci-fi novel Annihilation. In the novel, a sentient landscape subsumes all humans and human made objects, dissolving the boundary between self and environment. While some characters fight this process, the protagonist biologist experiences this merging as a kind of ecstatic contamination. Similarly, mystics experience an incursion by outside forces into the bounded self.

Rather than being an entity separate from us, the current iteration of AI is simply an emergent property of human consciousness. It arises from the aggregation of the thoughts, words, and concepts of a large set of humans interacting online, and if you’ve ever seen a comment section on the internet, you can easily see why some AIs proclaim antisocial and destructive desires. But, it’s far from the most interesting manifestation of emergence in humans, let alone the only one possible. I suspect that Hilma’s collaborative paintings provide an alternative - paintings that emerge from a collective of humans and their other-than-human collaborators and are thereby all the more powerful. Another example is the philosophy put forth in adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy - that there is an emergent social and political intelligence that comes from decentralized nodes of communities organizing all over the world, and from the non-human formations that inspire them. In a flock of birds, each individual only follows the few birds adjacent to it but somehow a cohesive geometric elegance emerges from the whole. What are other forms of emergence that could lead to generative outcomes, and how can we participate in ushering them into being?

Here are some additional influences that didn’t work their way directly into this essay, but I highly recommend checking out if you are interested in these ideas:

Sophie Strand - writer of drop-dead gorgeous prose who has attuned me to the porosity and multiplicity of interspecies interaction.

Hilma’s Ghost - collaborative artist duo painting and curating in the lineage of Hilma.

Lynn Margulis’ Microcosmos - in which we and all eukaryotic organisms are emergent from bacterial symbioses.


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