In the past 20 years, prominent arts sociologists have turned to Actor-Network Theory as a suggested theoretical advancement (Almila 2016, Born 2010, de la Fuente 2007, Hennion 2001). And yet, perhaps because so many empirical ANT-inspired studies are centered on proving the agency of materialities in narrow case studies, their practitioners have been critiqued for neglecting the wider field. In literary studies, ANT has also been invoked as a productive theoretical framing (Love 2010, Felski 2015), but with little empirical grounding. This paper accepts central insights of ANT and builds toward a new, broader perspective on the ecology of contemporary creative practice in its aesthetic, economic, and political dimensions by focusing on an overlooked institution of cultural production.
Since the 1990s, artists have increasingly turned to residencies (Elfving 2019, Vargas 2016), either as temporary work spaces or alternative career models: that is, artists themselves found institutions for other artists. Defying both utopian and critical claims, residencies simultaneously resist, adapt to, and enable neoliberal conditions of precarity and entrepreneurialism. Drawing on preliminary research conducted among writers and visual artists at the largest residency in the United States, we outline an approach that attends to the materiality of creative work. Residency ecology emphasizes the complex agencies of art objects, granting institutions, and artist reputations in the art world today, a global system of increasing specialization, scarce ‘day jobs’, project-based commissions, and compulsory movement.