Skills are cheap; chemistry is expensive

One of the upsides of the pandemic lockdown for some has been the opportunity to learn online and to develop new skills. The changes in the economy which will inevitably follow make up-skilling or re-skilling a smart choice.

However, predicting which skills will be in demand, and how to acquire them, is more difficult. In fact, the rhetorics of skills and their relationship to education and employability has been vexed for some time by narratives that include immigration, class, creativity, and an industry of educators resilient to change.

Unskilled, unwelcome

In February, the UK government laid out its proposals for a new ‘points-based’ immigration system. A migrant’s eligibility for an employment visa is set to be determined by their potential earnings and the level of their qualifications.  

These plans already had their opponents, but as the debate came into renewed focus in May, and the main bone of contention was the issue of skills. Nurses and paramedics, heroes of the pandemic response, were held up examples of professionals that would no longer be eligible for visas because their starting salaries fell under the government’s proposed salary floor. A widely-circulated tweet prompted outrage: is a radiographer really ‘unskilled’?

This in fact is a misrepresentation of the proposed policies: on that list of healthcare professions, most meet the government’s proposed criteria for qualifications, and earnings. 

All the same, the outrage continued. An opposition minister questioned the government: “Are our shop workers unskilled? Our refuse collectors? Of course they are not.” The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants echoed: “bus drivers and lorry drivers, care workers and shop workers, nurses and cleaners – they are not ‘unskilled’ or unwelcome.”

Whether one is skilled and whether one is welcome are separate questions. This appeal against the migration policies relies on a false equivalence: it constructs an analogy and solidarity between radiologists (qualified professionals with extensive training) and waste collectors (the dictionary definition for unskilled labour) on the grounds of their skills, rather than on moral or economic ones. There are of course plenty of other arguments for keeping borders open, for example to increase the diversity in the labour force, for the economic contribution migrants make, on humanitarian grounds, or more cynically because migrants are cheaper to employ.

If to be unskilled is to be undesirable, then skills become highly emotive. We can no longer recognise what skills are, how they are measured, and how to discriminate between them: the discourse proposes that all skills are equally good, useful and desirable. To deny this and to imply that some workers are unskilled is to strike against their dignity. 

It’s not what you know

Implicit in the desire for cutting low-skilled migration is the contested belief that a significant proportion of the indigenous population is economically inactive, probably fraudulently in receipt of state welfare, and only just qualified for those low-paid jobs. Ironically, that very same part of the UK population, perhaps having forgotten just how poor the conditions of low-wage work can be, are assumed to have voted to block migrants from competing in the job market in the Brexit referendum. 

A version of a popular meme circulating in early 2020.

This narrative is further confounded by stories of qualified surgeons who as immigrants drive taxis or wait tables, which inspire awe and resentment in equal measure. The flip-side of this phenomenon is brain-drain: countries like Bulgaria and Romania lament skilled youths fleeing their homelands for more prosperous EU countries, taking with them their states’ education. In reality, the picture is more complex: it is mostly the lowest-skilled workers who have taken advantage of open borders, and some countries like Poland have been able to convince many of their citizens to return. 

And so both anti- and pro-immigration politics produce almost the same attitude to skills: it most likely doesn’t matter what you know, but rather who you are and how hard you’re willing to work at whatever is left over when the better jobs have been distributed.

Home to world-class talent

The national morale is shaped by a country’s place in international rankings of wealth, education, productivity, and of skills. Britain’s marketing collateral maintains that the country is a powerhouse of innovation, ingenuity, and quality, all supported by a skilled workforce. Countries and businesses compete for those skills – one recalls for example the threat of financial services talent fleeing to Frankfurt if the Brexit trade settlement turned out unfavourably. 

Even London’s architecture competes for talent.

An index of an individual’s suitability for vacancies in the labour market is in principle useful to ensure that the public education system produces graduates with the right level of qualifications and skills to meet the demand of employers. Formally, skills are measured by qualifications and training. A master’s degree is a reflection of a higher level of skills than a vocational qualification obtained at secondary school. Until the 1980s, this was hardly controversial, along with the view that highly educated societies were wealthier, healthier, and happier. 

Things got complicated with the collapse of manufacturing and the rise of the service and knowledge economies: workers moved from the assembly line to the office and the office demanded different skills. This move coincided with the 1990s widening of access to higher education which flooded the labour market with graduates. Eventually, the same job could attract – or demand – candidates with a higher level of qualifications. Whereas a typical clerical job in the 1980s could be performed by a worker with college-level education, by the 2000s, it was deemed a degree-level position. 

Skills for all and all for skills

This inflation in qualifications demanded does not necessarily indicate that the job itself became any more complex or that university is now the best place to gain the required skills. The rapid spread of office technologies highlighted differences in skill levels between generations of workers, but given the subsequent adoption of the same technologies in everyday life, this gap righted itself without much intervention. 

Training and schooling naturally respond to external developments in technology and communication. Many children today arrive at school knowing their way around a keyboard, and undergraduates will have been able to access the world’s knowledge even before arriving at university. Formal education builds on those already cultivated basic skills. Given their head-start, a graduate in 2020 should in principle have wider knowledge or practical experience after three years of learning than a student with the same qualification from 1980, particularly in disciplines which have continued to develop rapidly.

There is, however, a draw-back for this student after university: not all the university-level skills which the graduate brings to their first office job are strictly necessary, and even less so if they end up in a mismatched career. If all that’s needed in the basic knowledge-economy office job are MS Office and Instagram skills, why spend three years studying anthropology? In the long term, this serves to devalue formal education, and eventually a degree course may be worth no more than a secretarial college diploma of the 1970s. As 34% of graduates end up in non-graduate jobs, they may be better off not investing in gradate skills.

Do you want fries with that? The traditional view of value of a liberal arts education. Photo: Robert Couse-Baker

Some of this devaluation has already been internalised by the education system. A report a decade ago criticised much of the UK’s vocational training as unfit for its purpose, singling out a formal qualification in ‘personal effectiveness’ which taught 11000 teenagers how to claim unemployment benefits and to use a telephone. An explosion of Mickey Mouse degrees – for example bachelor’s degrees in golf management or cultural studies that include modules on the science of Harry Potter – attracted even more derision than art history studies traditionally did.

Department for good intentions

If we believe that skilled societies are wealthier, then Tony Blair’s mantra of ‘education, education, education’ should still be the orthodoxy today. Instead, governments have struggled to capture the relationship of skills to the economy and society. In the past fifteen years, UK ministries responsible have included the ‘Department for Education and Skills’, for ‘Innovation, Universities and Skills’, then ‘Business, Innovation & Skills’, before splintering into the ‘Learning and Skills Council’ and eventually the ‘Skills Funding Agency’, an arm’s reach, non-political body.

The days of university education for education’s sake may be numbered as the government no longer believes that 50% of young people should go to university. According to the universities minister, the institutions have “dumbed down”, “inflated grades”, and left students – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds – with a “debt that didn’t pay off in any sense.” The answer, in the form of the forthcoming T-levels, a new grade of vocational qualifications that lead to careers in human resources, accounting or administration, seems designed to reverse the qualification inflation and to replace a range of degree courses with cheaper alternatives. 

Whether this critique of universities is fair is debatable, but a reversal in the higher education policy would complement the forthcoming shake-up of the migration system. Brexit Britain has committed itself to replacing migrant truck drivers and shop staff with indigenous workers, in one clean sweep reducing unemployment and cutting the education bill. In the long run, there will be little reason to keep investing in skills that these low-pay jobs do not require. 

The UK government polls organisations to identify which sectors of the economy find it difficult to fill vacancies owing to skill shortages in the working-age population. Contrary to the intuitive view that the most skilled professionals are always in highest demand (no-one has ever met an unemployed pharmacist or lawyer), the industries which report the greatest difficulties in filling vacancies are construction, utilities, transport, and manufacturing, all of which rely on semi-skilled workforces. 

Industries with either low-skill work (such as hospitality and retail) or with professional workforces (communications, education, business services) have fared better – but hotels, restaurants and factories have been most likely to look for employees from abroad when they struggle to fill vacancies at home.

Planning for this future, however, is riven with complexities, limited by the accuracy of forecasting of global trade and labour markets, and frustrated by a generation-long lag between investment in skills and its pay-off. The challenge to the economy posed by the Covid-19 pandemic will add to the difficulty of predicting future demand particular skills too.

Four skills good, two skills better

In sociological and population studies, the skill level of a job is a stand-in for its holder’s social class. Not surprisingly, social grade correlates with income, consumption of media, and spending patterns. Some 10-15% of the working age population are in either unskilled, semi-skilled manual jobs or lowest-grad and casual employment – and this proportion has been falling since the 1960s. 

In the UK’s historically-conditioned relationship to social stratification, nobody wants to be working-class. Politician John Prescott, suggesting that a participant of his 2009 television documentary was working-, rather than middle-class was rebuffed with a sharp “I don’t work, do I?”

If no-one wants to be working class, then no-one should want to be unskilled. The received wisdom is that education – twinned with hard work and good luck – is the key to social betterment. While the advice remains unchanged, every generation has its own framework for skills and education, and recent slogans in the UK have included ‘achieving excellence’ and ‘raising aspirations’. 

What skills should young people aspire to bring to the economy? One might disparage teenagers dreaming of careers as influencers or e-sports competitors: the liberalisation of education has arguably mis-sold dreams of careers rich in choice, satisfaction and reward to recent generations for whom work is a lifestyle as much as a necessity. 

Channeling these supply-side aspirations into a demand-led skill and labour market has been challenging. In 2011, the Russell Group of leading UK universities introduced guidance to aspiring students on school subject choices, favouring STEM  – science, technology, engineering, mathematics – as facilitating entry to the prestigious institutions and their most prized courses. Top universities were to be once again almæ matres to the professional cadres, training engineers, scientists, lawyers, doctors, while ‘softer’ skills would remain part of the less competitive open market for education. Far from encouraging debate about the kinds of skills society will need in the future, the guidance met with backlash from the humanities education lobby, who resisted the implicit characterisation of their subject matter as secondary. Some arts institutions have sought advantage by aligning themselves with the sciences-first ethos. The Royal College of Art, for example, markets itself as a STEAM leader – adding arts to the STEM canon. The recently updated Russell Group guidance for fourteen year old students now paints all choices as valid, disavowing the institutions’ responsibility for the viability of students’ careers.

It’s what you do with it

The A in STEAM has a legitimate place in contemporary life: one would hardly wish for a world run by and for scientists alone. The generous Covid-19 rescue packages for the arts have highlighted the importance of culture to national aspirations of Germany and France. In the UK, a generous bailout follows two decades of instrumental investments in skills for the creative economy. This has arguably created a concentration of expertise that made the country an attractive place for practitioners and investors alike, making it a powerhouse of film production, game design, advertising and fashion. 

By 2000, that ‘everyone was creative’ was a matter of public policy. Creativity was to fuel the growth of service and knowledge economies, and it became the must-have skill. The arts, cultural and media industries have been trading credit for their contribution to the economic value of the creative industries to secure funding and attention, and the relationship between arts education and the wider economy has eluded policymakers for some time. 

In a bid to become the skills provider of choice, it was art schools – rather than, say, technical colleges or universities – that presented themselves as experts. What did these institutions equip students graduating into the creative economy with? Given the trend for deskilling that characterised much of postmodern art practice and art education of the 1980s, this question is a paradox at best. Since Marcel Duchamp presented his readymade ‘Fountain’ in 1917, art has been loosening its demand for technical skill, and Joseph Beuys’ proclamation that ‘everyone is an artist’ became true.

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, replica
Anybody can be a ‘creative’. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, 1918

The dominant art school curriculum at the turn of the century favoured concepts over their execution, and context over formal considerations. Art schools expanded their offerings and attracted unprecedented numbers of students, eventually blurring the boundaries between skills and aptitudes. 

If university qualifications were prerequisites for many entry-level white-collar careers only as a result of oversupply of skilled workers, is art school-grade creativity really necessary for careers in marketing, PR or events management, let alone the retail occupations which are the top destination of creative arts graduates

Shortage of creativity in the labour force is not a barrier for employers, but this has not stopped universities and art schools from promoting the idea that investing in creativity is an imperative. Such was the esteem for the creativity and critical thought of arts graduates that in 2004 the Harvard Business Review suggested that “the MFA is the new MBA”. 

Not lacking in creativity: other skills are in short supply, according the the Employer Skills Survey 2017.

Everyone can call themselves an artist: no trade body membership or accreditation are required. As art school degrees are a straightforward way to demonstrate commitment to the field, art schools obliged with a platter of qualifications. The Diplomas of the 1970s which recognised artistic training morphed into BA (Hons) of the 1990s. Today, an MA is the entry-level qualification for jobs in the creative industries, with PhDs not uncommon amongst practicing artists. 

If everyone can be an artist. everywhere can be an art school. A 2017 work by Bob and Roberta Smith. Photo: Loz Pycock.

The diversity of postgraduate specialisms has grown in recent years, indicating that universities have begun taking their responsibility for the employability of their graduates seriously. Where creative studio practices of art, design, fashion and photography were at the centre of most programmes, disciplines such as ‘art and internet equalities’, ‘photography and social practice’ or ‘data science for the creative industries’ have expanded the field.

Art is skill

The sculptor Eric Gill maintained that skill is crucial to art – “that it is the first meaning of the word.” In a world where creativity is universal, this view fell out of fashion as much as Gill’s work has in light of revelations of his personal life.

Eric Gill, Ariel between Wisdom and Gaiety
Eric Gill, Ariel between Wisdom and Gaiety Photo: Mike Knell

The loss of traditional skills is both the story of and material for contemporary art. Belgian artist Eric Van Hove’s work in Morocco is a lament of the disappearance of technical skills and experience with the passing of the country’s last generation of craftsmen. To avert this extinction, Van Hove employs a full workshop of carpenters, smiths and leather workers in an attempt to create a home-built alternative to the imported motorcycles ubiquitous on the country’s roads.

In this so far unsuccessful project, the artist is not the master craftsman, but its CEO and shareholder. And perhaps it is the business world that offers the most important skills to today’s artists; a traditional studio and gallery practice relies as much on fluency in marketing, financial management and contract law as it does on the quality of ideas and artistic technique.

Art and craft back together: atelier Eric Van Hove in Marrakech.

Art school students – increasingly seeing themselves as customers and conscious of the value of their education to their future careers – have placed pressure on schools to provide ‘professional’ training. The response has been mixed, and continuing development opportunities for artists are scarce. All the same, artists are finding ways to practice: in the US, almost 40% do not have degree education at all.

Skills are cheap

Throughout the history of avant-gardes art movements, art has made claims of its importance in shaping not only the communal imaginary, but also providing blueprints for social and political changes. Today’s art sees its social mission as core, and even the most commercial of art practices describe themselves as political. This ‘social turn’ coincided with developments in cultural policies that allowed the artist to take central positions in civic society. 

It is not long ago that the goals of social arts practice, such as education, facilitating dialogue or driving urban renewal, were the domains of teachers, social workers and architects. Today, artistic projects aimed at building community cohesion, encouraging resilience, or ameliorating social conditions are the mainstay of cultural providers. Arts Council England’s strategy that makes funding for arts institutions contingent on the positive social effects of their work is indicative of a drive to replace the traditional guards of social order with the free-form rebellious creativity of artists.If art is to appropriate the work of other professions, shouldn’t it at least pay heed to the skills which drive them? Artists don’t think so: a recent survey lists only the softest of skills in play: respect, influencing, diplomacy, leadership. In composing a lexicon for art’s utility, Steven Wright notes the fundamental difficulty: “to speak of artistic competence is to sound suspiciously conservative, if not downright reactionary”.

Nurturing creative instincts is arguably cheaper than technical training. It’s cheaper than chemistry, too, and this alone renders a nuanced debate on skills useless. So much so that Mal Pancoast, to whom the enigmatic, yet believable quotation in the title of this essay is attributed online, on inspection turned out to be fictional.

There will be no miracles here

The arts might have hoped for a clean slate – but the post-pandemic art world is unlikely to be much better than the old one.

For many, particularly the urban middle classes, the denial of access to the culture they knew was the first shock of the pandemic. In the early days of the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, the plight of the arts featured in media commentaries almost as heavily as the far more dramatic events in hospitals. This was perhaps because the government-mandated closures of theatres, galleries and museums heralded what was still to come for restaurants, bars, shops and community centres.

And so the art world was raptured away into the new universal museum for anxious souls: the Internet. Alas, after an early explosion of online exhibitions, many an Instagram Live performance started off to an audience of two dozen before losing half to technical difficulties. Screen fatigue and existential anxieties meant that the initial explosion of interest in online production and consumption of art has waned almost as quickly as it arose.

Arrows everywhere. A Google Arts and Culture virtual tour of Guggenheim New York.

While competing with Netflix for bandwidth and attention spans, the arts began to count their losses. Emergency government grants and philanthropic support have helped to stabilise the short-term incomes of organisations and artists, but many should not expect to recover with ease, if at all. As days passed under lockdown, the art world was shaken by reports of New York’s MoMA unceremoniously sacking its education staff while their endowment stands at $1 billion, or London’s Southbank Centre having to remain closed until next spring due to a shortage of funds. 

The view from the precipice can be as exhilarating as it is terrifying. In the trauma of cancelled exhibitions, scrapped projects, postponed residencies – not to mention lost incomes – one can hear a cry for change, and a desire to emerge into a different reality. 

The show business glamour of the art world: the globetrotting and champagne-fuelled networking in Venice or ArtBasel that only few can truly afford has been wearisome for some time. Calls for reform have been a constant refrain in the rhythm of biennials, conferences, art fairs and exhibition openings. In the publicly-funded institutional sphere, contemporary art also trod an unsustainable path, taking on a heavy burden of driving social change, promoting and enacting the most ambitious of political agendas on the tightest of budgets.

All change

The opportunity seems too good to miss. With every constituent of the contemporary art world, from the international auction house to the freelance gallery technician, disturbed to the core, the pandemic offers a moment to reflect and plan a recovery that’s more sustainable and equitable.

Similarly-poised campaigns in other areas have seized the moment of the pandemic – we all marvelled at the photographs of crystal clear waters in Venice and applauded plans for car-free city centres in Paris and London – so why couldn’t art?  

A desire for change was voiced in the statements of museum directors, countless editorials, and plenty of Zoom seminars with artists. A selection of art press headlines in early April proclaimed “the end of the art world as we know it,” that “the art world has the opportunity to be truly open” and that “life after the coronavirus will be very different.” A curator even observed that “before the lockdown, the public was agitating for a revolution in […] museums.”

But were they? What could one expect from an industry riven by internal contradictions and a sustainability score of an oil tanker? However glossy, democratic, progressive and inviting the Western art world appeared to its lay audiences, it had long suffered from all the ailments of late capitalist commodity culture, including widespread exploitation of labour, vast inequalities in income and wealth, inexcusable environmental record, and friction at the boundary of public good and private luxury.

Despite decades of negotiation and public self-flagellation – symbolised by institutional critique, a movement which honed in on the inescapable corruption of the art world and the impossibility, in the words of Andrea Fraser, of participating without becoming synonyms with its complexities – there is no consensus on what a better art world and art could be.

No premonitions

For associate editor of the Spectator Mary Wakefield, “getting coronavirus does not bring clarity.” On suffering trauma, Wakefield naturally hoped for a premonition. She describes the fatigue, fever and whooping anxiety of the illness, all of which go unrewarded. The world’s artists, museums, and art fairs alike have suffered unprovoked damage too, and they are looking for some sort of awakening in compensation.

History does offer some grand precedents which almost justify this hope. In the wake of the Second World War, the arts came back stronger, notes Charlotte Higgins. Picasso’s Guernica, painted in response to the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War, is one of art’s most powerful expressions of anger and pain and has symbolised the anti-war movement since. And sure, time may bring significant art. Maya Binkin points to Henry Moore, Egon Schiele and Ai WeiWei as examples of artists whose practices responded to trauma to their strengths.

The sheer amount of artistic energy recently poured into Zoom alone should see a new art take form, and meeting a digital-only audience will encourage new ideas. This will take time, though. Jörg Heiser describes much of the ‘quarantine art’, including projects commissioned by the world’s foremost institutions, as ‘empty heroics’. The artist Simon Fujiwara’s now deleted Instagram post which cited the Diary of Anne Frank as inspiration for starting his own quarantine diary comes to mind. 

But where for some artists, the experience of lockdown, illness or losing loved ones may result in a profound change of practice, there is no guarantee that the structural issues of their industry will be touched by it at all. As Michel Houellebecq, the bad boy of contemporary French literature proclaimed, the world is likely to be the same, only a little worse after the ‘banal’ virus. The changes we may see are the same ones we could have predicted years ago: an encroaching obsolescence of human relationships that drives the world into the hands of ever-consolidating business and technological interests. 

Saving the arts

Reading the statements of arts institutions which accompanied the lockdown closures, one could be touched by their almost magnanimous care for their audiences and staff. In preparing their quarantine programmes, outfits like Tate Modern had a head start, but even smaller institutions soon found ways to open up their archives, stream endless video, and host live conversations. 

For a moment, it seemed that this move to the virtual could have a democratising effect. Audiences who had previously been excluded from accessing cultural experiences – through economic, geographic or educational obstacles – could now all point and click their way towards artistic enlightenment. Blockbuster exhibitions turned free and even art fairs like Frieze that normally cater to a narrow base of collectors and professionals went online, with price lists visible to all. 

That this opening effect will last is far from a given. If will was all that was needed to make existing art materials available free of charge, why hadn’t this happened a long time ago? Free exhibitions that so generously opened online in March were by May were giving way to fundraising appeals, print sales and charity auctions. 

Please believe these days will pass
We’ll help you if you help us. A comforting message by artist Mark Tichner next a theatre’s appeal for donations. 

One may also read the cries of solidarity between the art world and its audiences as a thinly veiled attempt to ensure self-preservation in the inevitable economic downturn that will follow the pandemic. By highlighting the public relevance of the arts in a time of crisis, the arts are preparing their argument for public support in the future.

While for many advocates the value of the arts is universally understood, some tug at the purse strings of an entirely different department altogether. In an attempt to secure patronage for his institution, the vice-chancellor of the Royal College of Art in London Paul Thompson made a perplexing argument that “art schools play an essential role in supporting the medical industry”.

Faced with a shock, the first instinct of the art world colossus has been to seek stability in the very same structures of capitalism that made banks ‘too big to fail’ in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Those actors who were strongest before the pandemic also stand the highest chance of accessing the support – that is funding – that will allow them to weather the storm.

The giants of the commercial art world, including the blue chip galleries that disproportionately benefit from the art market’s stellar rise of the past decades, have displayed nothing but optimism for the future. Marc Glimcher, director of Pace gallery, spoke of his personal experience of Covid-19 with an air of martyrdom, chastised himself for waste of relentless international travel his job entails, but stopped short of resolving to make any changes. Former gallerist and art fair founder Elisabeth Dee, hopes for more cooperation between galleries in the future – but also for interest-free credit and subsidies for art fairs.

No (good) new ideas

In the history of revolutions, those movements which were successful in bringing about lasting change were underpinned by strongly-developed ideologies which permeated their society. In the French Revolution, the complete permeation of Enlightenment ideals in the aristocracy and bourgeois classes created a parallel ideology to absolutism that was ready to replace it. And, frustrated by the endless postponements of the true revolution, the Bolsheviks simply created their own shadow government structure. In the smoldering ruins of 1917, they were the only ones left with an idea, any idea, and thus took power. 

For things to change for good, Covid-19 would need to have more in common with a revolutionary movement than with an evolutionary process. There may have been many revolutionary ideas in the art world, but none of them have taken centre stage. 

If things change, they will do so because of market failure, not because the industry willed it. The art world is just one instrument of many in the financialised arsenal of control. In the beginning of the pandemic, Naomi Klein’s doctrine of ‘disaster capitalism was typical of the liberal intellectual response: the ‘unprecedented’ nature of the event was in fact well-rehearsed and a familiar tool of late capitalism for extending control over its subjects. 

In the art world torn apart by its own inequities while it preaches revolution to its audiences, a practical, scalable methodology for change is lacking. As long as artists and their institutions seek artistic freedoms, social relevance, fame and profits at the same time, they will remain stuck in the vicious circle Klein describes. 

Disaster capitalism has its victors, but it also requires martyrs, and artists are only happy to oblige. When a study suggested that artists were amongst the professions least likely to contract Covid-19, second only to lumberjacks, ArtMonthly sighed with indignation that the scientists clearly hadn’t heard of social practice, while The New York Times shed a tear for a generation of artists graduating this year who will miss out on being ‘discovered’, despite having paid their tuition fees.

Risk and reward: The New York Times rates artist and loggers amongst the safest of professions.

Sacrifice is arguably self-seeking, if not economically, then symbolically. Now that most arts institutions have moved their discursive practices online, making them free to all, one can tune in on artists, curators and thinkers across the globe discussing their difficulties and anxieties in uniformly grim tones infused with perfunctory hopes for a brighter aftermath.

Alexander Garcia Düttmann laments the compliant response of art schools, historically the breeding grounds of social critique, to the conditions of the pandemic: artists and the academy “are content with reproducing bland social therapy discourses”. This is hardly new: plenty of the social practice projects that are the stalwart of museum and gallery engagement and education programmes confuse the performance of preordained ameliorative services with meaningful critique or emancipation. 

Jörg Heiser suggests that artists pay lip-service to social causes while cultivating the image of a heroic dissenter precisely because “not doing so would require them to admit […] an unsettling sense of existential insecurity.” This would damage the myth of the artists as an truth-seer immune from petty concerns, “so the typical panic reaction has been to rehash preconceived notions to fit new circumstances.”

One bold suggestion has been mega-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist’s ambitious proposal to meet the challenges of the post-pandemic art world with a programme akin to the 1930s US Public Works Arts Projects. The post-depression programme  commissioned thousands of works of art and gave employment to hundreds of artists, and has gone down in history as the greatest state-supported art initiative, outside perhaps of communist China and Bolshevik Russia.

California Life, Coit Tower, San Francisco
One of the works commissioned by the Works Art Project Administration. California Life, Coit Tower, San Francisco, 1934.

In the coming years, many artists will surely relish an opportunity of employment decorating state schools and hospitals – many do so already – but Obrist’s proposal fails to take into account capitalism’s ability to wield the soft power of art to its own advantage, and artists’ wary reaction to its advances. Many of the well-meaning public art projects of the past thirty years have served only to paper over the cracks in the social fabric of the state, making their authors complicit with the very same ideologies they oppose. The public art works for the 2020s will likely be more private than public too, and as Tom Morton observes strolling through art-fuelled place-making projects, this renders them susceptible to all the nepotistic corruption of their sponsors.

No absolution in sight

Who will be the winners of the post-pandemic art world? The short answer is simple: the same actors who were ahead at the outset. The shaken market for art commodities, for art audiences and for art education will find ways to consolidate. Where it innovates, it will seek to reduce its dependence on human factors, as is the case after every economic crash. The migration online has already provided a model that will at once allow big brands to maintain their market leads and to cut costs, and one should expect that this tendency will soon enough evolve into a profitable proposition.

If the art world fails in making its pleas to the public, philanthropists and collector-speculators, we may see a reduced demand for art, and therefore for artists, in the medium term. Were the arts subject to the same supply and demand rules as the rest of the labour market, art schools would see fewer applicants, museums and galleries would eventually pay their talent better, and the commercial art world would lose some of its allure. 

But in the ensuing recession, the life of an artist may only grow in allure. Earlier this year, the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that those studying at art and design schools achieve lower lifetime earnings than their peers who don’t go to university at all. Yet art school admissions have been rising every year: a calling for art disregards the wallet, often at its peril. And for those whose wallets are impervious to crisis, an arts education becomes an increasingly attractive dumping ground for ne’er-do-well failsons (and daughters) of the 1%, similar to the function of monasteries and nunneries in ages past for absorbing excess and unproductive elites.

The art world’s perennial internal crisis will not come to an end as a result of the pandemic. Greta Thunberg, finding that her pet cause has been overshadowed by at least two other headline-grabbing crises, exhorts us to “Fight every crisis”. But just as ‘Wars on X’ have had diminishing returns, we lack the attention span to sustain attention demanded by the layering of crises. 

For the art world and its pandemics, it may learn some lessons from them, but it may not find it in its heart to share them. We need only to look to Mary Wakefield for confirmation: she shared her Covid-19 illness with her husband Dominic Cummings, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s principal political advisor. Given that their quarantine-breaking cross-country trip met with public furore and an ill-afforded political crisis, it may have served Wakefield better to wave the experience off with a simple “I’m fine, thanks.”


Cover image: There will be no Miracles Here, Nathan Coley, 2007. Photograph Ghost of Kuji/Flickr.

From the artist’s studio, to the factory, WeWork, Zoom, and back again

How the myth of the Romantic artist has shaped the way we work, and how it could define working habits of the post-pandemic world.

Au déboulé garçon pointe ton numéro
Pour gagner ainsi le salaire
D’un énorme jour utilitaire
Métro, boulot, bistro, mégots, dodo, zéro.
 
Hurry boy punch in your number
To earn the pay
Of this great productive day
Subway, work, diner, fag-ends, kip, nothing.
 
Pierre Béarn, extract from Couleurs d’usine, 1951

Almost fifty years separate the Paris riots of 1968 and the opening of the first WeWork office – but both events could prove useful in preparing for the next revolution in our working lives, which may have already begun.

Under pandemic-induced lockdown, the world of work has experienced dramatic change. Many workers have already lost their jobs, with no guaranteed return. Up to 1.5 billion workers have spent the past months on government-supported garden leaves. Many more are finding ways to work from their kitchens or bedrooms. Only for those whose work has been deemed essential, it’s business as usual – save perhaps for a new level of anxiety and risk.

The systemic shock has led to calls for a wholesale reconfiguration of conditions of labour and reevaluation of the role of work in our lives. While some changes, for example the increase in popularity of home-working, are almost inevitable, it is unlikely that the Covid-19 recovery plan will bring about the labour revolution heralded by Karl Marx. Instead, any significant changes are likely to follow the same patterns that shaped work in the past century, when the labour market adapted to shocks like the aftermath of the Second World War or the 2008 global financial crisis.

The Romantic myth of the 19th century bohemian artist-intellectual has been the underappreciated blueprint for evolutions in the labour settlement. The Baudelairean flâneur lifestyle is echoed in the design of ‘gig’ work Intellectual creativity is a key commodity of the knowledge economy. The 21st century office environment itself emulates an artistic workshop. 

For all its promise of glamour and freedom, the mythical artistic lifestyle is riven with insecurity, anxiety, and competition, while offering only a simulation of release from the demands of capitalism. And yet, artists have often been keen to forego security in pursuit of autonomy, often to breaking point. They volunteer to work longer hours in damp studios on a patchwork of poorly-paying projects whose main reward is often the unquantifiable sense of social relevance or peer recognition.

As capitalism has continually exploited artists’ willingness to make sacrifices in pursuit of their desires, understanding how this mythology plays itself out in the labour marketplace will be key in negotiating the role of labour in the coming months and years. 

Eat, work, sleep, repeat

Métro, Boulot, Dodo, the sarcastic slogan of the 1968 Paris protests, roughly translated as Commute, Work, Sleep, encapsulated a central demand of France’s general strikes: liberation from the drudgery of monotonous work. In the decades prior, Europe overcame the economic losses of the Second World War, fueling and eventually fulfilling mass consumer demand. 

In fact, the worker’s perennial struggle for dignity, good pay and equitable working conditions had never been fulfilled, despite the economic boom of the swinging sixties. The intoxication with consumption went some way to alleviate the inequalities that lingered in post-war Western societies, but these effects could only be short-lived. Like yin and yang, as consumption grew, so inevitably did pressures on productivity and profit, demanding new sacrifices of the workforce. 

The student strikes in Paris, May 1968.
The student strikes in Paris, May 1968.

This rise of consumer culture also had its detractors amongst the intellectual classes who saw it as hollow and unfulfilling. Indeed, commodity capitalism was one of the central concerns of the March 1968 student occupation of a Paris university campus. Concerns over teaching conditions and a heavy-handed police intervention were a perfect catalyst for the demonstrations to spread to the streets, winning the support of fellow students, artists, and public intellectuals.

Pierre Bourdieu (1) traces the intellectual opposition to capitalism’s uniformity to the 19th century idea of the bohemian artist. The emancipated, carefree and intoxicated antics of the Montmartre circle painters like Henri de Touluse-Lautrec or the bad-boy of poetry Arthur Rimbaud have been emulated and caricatured since. The artistic class rejected the bourgeois pursuit of status and uniformity, favouring instead autonomy and authenticity. 

For the artist, this meant a reluctant rejection of the spoils of progress: comfort could not be compatible with true freedom. This ideal, as old as the Romantic poet himself, continued to influence avant-garde artistic movements of the 20th century and shaped intellectual attitudes of the French academy. 

In Paris, the particularly French phenomenon of sympathy strikes helped factory workers seize the moment of student unrest to articulate their desire for improved working conditions and pay. Soon, the discord escalated to a wave of nationwide strikes involving all major industries. Workers joined the student marches, and by May 1968, the entire country’s economy came to a standstill.

The two emancipatory desires of labour and intellect become entangled and indistinguishable in historical memory of 1968. Portrayals, amongst them Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Dreamers in which the very electric atmosphere of Paris births late-night conversations about political film, heroic banner-waving, and love triangles, give the impression that the protests were Western Europe’s last truly universal liberation movement. 

Another form of protest. Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, 2003.

In reality, the ideological objectives of the students and the labour force had little in common. Workers were sympathetic to the students’ protest against France’s class divisions or loss of individual autonomy, but this alone would not have led them to down tools. The intellectual elites could not have in earnest acted as the representatives of the working class either. By late May 1968, the labour unions settled for a 10% pay rise, and workers returned to the factories. The student protest inevitably died down too, arguably without achieving its goals. 

Choice, freedom, autonomy

Adjustments in the relationship between labour and capital have been a periodic feature of market economies since the industrial revolution. This moment is relevant today not merely because the 1968 general strikes brought industry to its knees much as our Covid-19 furlough economy is doing now, but because its mythical status has helped to define the nature of work in ways which only became evident in the 21st century. 

1968 is symbolically important because of the way it involved artists, students and intellectuals along the factory workers. The short-lived collusion of workers and intellectuals came to an end before it had time to develop a common language, but it lingers in contemporary consciousness. 

In response to 1968, capitalism embraced the challenge of providing each individual with precisely the set of freedoms and conditions they were willing to bargain for. According to sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello (2), the demands of 19th century artists were finally met in the synthesis of the authenticity and labour dialectic. Post-1968 capitalism conceded levels of individual autonomy that would have been unthinkable to Bourdieu’s bohemian.

The invisible hand of the market provided an efficient pricing mechanism for balancing mainstream values and true individual authenticity. To those who could not afford this transaction outright, it exposed the capitalist condition’s inherent denial of authenticity and autonomy and offered a substitute.

For the worker, the transactional nature of the new settlement manifested itself in the accelerating cycle of consumption and production of choice. For a generation that forgot the suffering and inequalities of the Second World War, labour was no longer merely a means of survival. Choice became the driving force in the development of markets and diversification of consumer tastes, as well as the neoliberal policies and economic environment that nourished them. Deregulation and developments in technology made it possible for mass-produced goods and services to reach consumers in forms which satisfied this taste for choice. According to Noam Chomsky (3), advertising, whose power grew with the reach of television, forced individuals to behave irrationally, redirecting their will and desires precisely where they would be fulfilled for profit.

The Simpson’s Mr Burns agonising over the choice between ketchup and catsup.

The artist was left none the better off either. Whereas for the bohemian, authenticity could come from a simple act of opting out from consumption, now freedom was reconstituted as dependent on exercising choices in an authentic fashion. The triumph of choice is that it offered a semblance of freedom and control, delivering to each individual an experience matching their own price point.

Tipping the pyramid

The bohemian ideals of freedom and authenticity could now permeate the factory and the office too. Management theories propose a plethora of ways to motivate workers. Abraham Maslow’s classic pyramid hierarchy of needs, for example, suggests that an individual’s most basic requirements – sustenance, shelter, safety – must be satisfied before they seek intellectual or emotional fulfillment. The worker’s salary, then, first secures sustenance and shelter, while safety is a matter of working conditions. When these are adequate, the worker is free to exercise individual choices in pursuit of self-actualisation, in a process that is extrinsic to work itself. 

To the worker-consumer of the late 20th century, work is thus only a means to acquire freedoms. Any positive side-effects of the worker’s emotional or intellectual fulfillment outside of the workplace, such as increased productivity, are returned to the workplace voluntarily. 

But what if it turned out that one of Maslow’s human needs could be played off against another? Could the engaged, fulfilled worker be compelled to labour with the same productivity for a lower salary in return for enhanced self-actualisation potential? What if this self-actualisation could also become part of labour itself, rather than a private good? And what, perhaps, if the self-actualisation could be made to reproduce and reinforce itself, at no great cost to the employer?

Against a backdrop of weakening social and family bonds, the 21st century workplace is a perfectly promising arena for the pursuit of belonging and self-actualisation. Those workers lucky enough to have been freed from the drudgery of the factory line by the West’s move away from manufacturing into the knowledge economy now look to their employers for recognition, validation, and even emotional fulfilment. 

The ethos of the bohemian artist – think now of the 1960s Manhattan warehouse loft – came handy in shaping the corporation’s response. Team building exercises and paintball games complemented structural innovations that would nurture the individual. New ideologies of work, manifested in the freedom-inducing, open-plan, warehouse-style offices, encouraged the flow of emotion as much as of information.

In No Collar (4), an account of the American workplace at the turn of the 21st century, Andrew Ross observed that when the New York’s startup scene made the break from the cubicle office of corporate America, employees valued the open social and cultural design of the workplace for its potential to fulfil their human aspirations, sometimes ahead of the economic value of their own work. Ross describes one media company’s employees as ‘artists’ who made for better workers precisely because they had internalised the transaction between personal fulfilment and monetary rewards. Just like the bohemians, they were cheaper and more committed to their work.

By the time the dotcom bubble burst, its artist-workers realised that their sacrifices served only to reinforce corporate America’s reach. The ‘perks’ of airy offices – soon the standard model around the globe – did more to extract productivity than they did to free the workers. 

The freedom-through-work paradigm turned out to be illusory, just as choice and consumption had earlier. By the 2008 financial crisis, the worker had again lost control of the only recently-earned privilege of trading pay for authenticity, and the human need for individuation was fair trade both in the workplace and in the private sphere.

Hour zero

Pierre Béarn’s poem Couleurs d’usine, which inspired the 1968’s protest slogan, inadvertently prophesied another aspect of work that came true in the 21st century: the factory, commute, and sleep intensified to fast food, fag-ends, and eventually led to zero.

The foundation of today’s ‘zero hours’ and ‘gig’ economies is the transaction between freedom and morality. To participate in the market, the emancipated worker agrees to avert their gaze from the more egregious injustices of capitalism, such as the ongoing colonial exploitation of developing economies or gender inequality. Morality thus becomes a matter of transaction, and the individual may further consent to become the subject of some form of systemic injustice, in return for another consideration.

To the now ‘casual’ worker keen to recover from the post-2008 depression in the labour market, flexibility and mobility are presented as synonymous with control and success. A portfolio career of multiple part-time or gig jobs could, in principle, be a way to avoid the malaise of alienation from labour, or offer space for family commitments, study or other pursuits.

This appearance of control and choice distract the worker from the costs of non-traditional labour: the often low earnings, unregulated working conditions, and lack of stability. This makes micro-entrepreneurialism a popular political aim; in the UK, for example, the welfare and education systems encourage self-employment without regard for the viability of the underlying business plans. In the early 2000s, a plethora of freelance web designers, personal trainers, delivery riders – and artists – were to be the masters of their own lots.

This freedom had to be paid for – not even the bohemian would have expected such choice and autonomy to come free. In the algebra of emancipation, this is a step back: while Bourdieu’s artists could in principle opt out from exploitative capitalist conventions, the contemporary worker must first labour in the extractive system to earn the right to distance himself from it. 

Certainly, that Romantic model appears more attractive. The seductive myth of the artist – late on rent but always up for a party – gave the impression that the bohemian lifestyle was shielded from destitution. In fact, many of those bohemian lifestyles and the intellectual productivity they afforded were bank-rolled with other people’s money. The archetype of the Montmartre artistic scene Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, for example, was an aristocrat. William S. Borroughs, one of the great American bohemians, came from a well-established family, and Jack Kerouac, the ultimate bohemian drifter, actively fuelled speculation on his noble roots. 

Château Malromé
Down and out: Château Malromé, the childhood home of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Photo by Henry Salomé.

Were Bourdieu’s bohemian to swap places with his 21st century successor, he might find the economic precarity-as-lifestyle a lot less alluring. Despite the harsh realities of maintaining a sense of autonomy while making a living in late capitalism, artists have continued to reproduce the Romantic myths of the bohemian visionary. The explosion of the international art market that brought stardom and wealth to a handful of artists who acquired the status of rock stars, making the myth of an artistic life still more desirable.

Altermodern, the 2009 Tate Triennial curated by Nicholas Bourriaud lauded contemporary artists as hyper-connected, interdisciplinary, multicultural mobile agents that, today, in light of the fraying of globalism, looks like jaw-dropping naivité. Never mind the damage this idea has done to a generation of artistic cadres in promising pseudo-intellectual satisfaction in return for an air fare: 21st century capitalism would adapt this artistic mythos to create a new value translation between labour, freedom, and creativity.

Everyone is creative

“Everyone is creative,” proclaimed a 2001 paper by the UK’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport. In New Labour’s optimistic vision, creativity and the creative economy were Cool Britannia’s unique selling strengths. Britain was to become a nation of games designers, filmmakers, web creators, and – in preferably smaller numbers – artists, all ready to export their creativity.

Heavy public and private investment in creative education, film, games, and design industries followed. As a perverse by-product of this supply-side ideology, by the latter years of the 2000s, London’s coffee shops were filled with graphic designers, but they were the ones making the coffee, rather than hot-desking over flat whites.

Creativity, independence and enterprise, embodied by the creative startup founder folded over a laptop in the corner of the high-brand-values coffee shop, endured as an aspirational ideal for all work. Startup by startup, everything would be disrupted, improved, re-monetised. Taxis, hotels, banking, shopping and dating all changed beyond recognition. 

Disappointingly, all these revolutions did not render work obsolete. But WeWork, the most notorious disruptor of late, was poised to reshape the world of work itself forever. Its weapons? Flexibility, creativity, and free beer. WeWork’s central idea, inspired by founder Adam Neumann’s childhood at an Israeli kibbutz, is that every worker should find fulfilment in a collective experience of labour without losing their sense of authenticity. The office couldn’t offer the rewards of proximity to the land, but it could mimic another rural utopia: the artistic colony. 

Inner-city pastoral

At the turn of the 19th century, artists flocked to scenic villages of the Netherlands, Germany and France, where they could commune with nature and with their muses. Romantic art is rife with images of comradery between peasants and intellectuals; the countryside, far away from the bourgeoisie’s petty concerns, was the perfect setting for both intellectual and physical labour. 

Otto Modersohn, Autumn on the Moor, 1895
The artist colony idyll: Otto Modersohn, Autumn on the Moor, 1895.

Just like the art colony, the WeWork office blurs the boundaries between toil and art, except where the artists once played at farming, office workers now get to pretend to be artists. This would be a fair exchange, except that where the painters at the colonies at Worspede, Skagen or Nida would derive inspiration from the countryside but stop short of performing any agricultural labour, the office workers are required to perform their traditional office duties and now hand over the results of their creativity to their employer too. 

By providing an environment that, like the rural idyll, stimulates the body and the mind, WeWork creates spaces in which workers become entrapped: their days stretch out in a rhythm of coffee meetings, community events and pinball tournaments. And WeWork is only a shadow of the office design trends pioneered by technology giants over a decade earlier: the Googleplex, for example, boasts swimming pools and laundry facilities, and the Apple Park is larger than the Pentagon. 

Scale can be blinding – WeWork has a portfolio of almost 850 properties – and it conceals the fundamental differences between the working conditions enjoyed by employees at Google and those hot-desking for a startup. Those Googleplex swimming pools – just as the salaries and healthcare plans of the ranks of software developers – come at significant cost. Few employers can justify such expense in the name of talent retention alone. For the majority of office workers, colourful sofas and table football games have to do.

To create spaces that adapt to their users’ needs, nurturing and shaping their productive impulses – that is to increase productivity – the office behemoth hired an army of architects, including the Danish star Bjarke Ingels who had co-designed Google’s New York HQ. For all of WeWork’s radical architectural ambitions, it could have got by with a lot less. In designing its Toronto offices, the software giant Autodesk used a generative design artificial intelligence system to produce interior layouts that took into account the needs of all parts of the business, down to the positions of succulents on the desks. Philosopher Theodor Adorno (5) observed that even anti-bourgeois sentiment – the drive for authenticity – undergoes a process of standardisation. Artificial creativity is now indistinguishable from human creativity.

A  WeWork location empty during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A WeWork location empty during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo Dennis Goodwin.

WeWork’s interiors are in fact banal copies of the coffee bars already familiar to their startup clients, shiny evolutions of last decade’s open-plan budget spaces which even accounting firms now want to escape from, softly infused with brand-appropriate representations of what an artist’s ‘creative space’ might look like. Luckily for WeWork’s tenants, the mere promise of creative freedom seems to satisfy much of an individual’s desire for it. The worker’s implied ability to endlessly customise their working environment is surprisingly fulfilling. 

The language of creativity has permeated the world of office work. The ‘media-style offices’ of the 2000s are now ‘creative’ or ‘maker’ spaces. But when the employee shapes their environment, they do it just like an artist does in their studio: not to be happier, but in order to make more work.

Werther’s sorrow

Paradoxically, the more creativity is put to the service of the corporation, the less space there is for personal creativity, for art. Once work has commodified creativity, it could be leased back to the individual. Back at the art colony, the fruits of creativity were rewards in their own right, but in today’s office they literally become a trading card in a salary negotiation: a ‘creative marketing executive’ will accept lower pay than a ‘marketing officer’. Once again, to be a ‘creative’ artist became incompatible with being a worker.

To the truly bohemian artist, this would have been welcome news. In Geothe’s seminal novella Sorrows of Young Werther, the archetypal Romantic protagonist – a poet consumed by unrequited love – takes a position at the fringes of good society, his talent alone distinguishing him from the self-obsessed bourgeoisie or the non-intellectual idleness of aristocracy. When he is forced into employment, he suffers it with the greatest indignity, and prefers to fall back on his inheritance instead.

Young Werther, 19th century engraving
Young Werther, 19th century German engraving.

Should we have sympathy for Werther’s 21st century descendants? If we believe in the bohemian myth, art should be precisely the arena where existential limitations are overcome with the help of the muses. And art has of course evolved in line with – sometimes ahead of – its surroundings. Whether the creative industries comprising thousands of young Werthers graduating art and design schools every year can survive in the style of Goethe’s hero is a matter of supply and demand, education policy, and individual choice.

Today’s workers are encouraged to act like Werther, but without being offered even a shadow of the privileges he enjoys. Creativity requires an element of transgression – a principle understood by innovators and entrepreneurs – and with this carries risk. When workers are asked to apply creativity to tasks that are bound by rules they themselves have no power to negotiate, they have to internalise the corresponding dangers of failure. Werther’s end, despite Geothe’s best intentions, was pitiful.

The factory and the museum

The factory can be creative too. The BMW car plant in Leipzig designed by Zaha Hadid and opened in 2005 has received praise from architectural and business communities alike. Open and translucent, the building resembles a futuristic airport terminal more than a production line warehouse. Half-assembled car chassis gracefully glide over offices, lobbies and cafeterias as they travel to different parts of the production line. 

The BMW plant in Leipzig, Zaha Hadid Architects, 2003-05.

This conveyor belt parade of cars places the product in physical proximity to all workers. Administrators, marketers and accountants all see the fruits of their labour, and this must inspire the sense of accomplishment one can read into early utopian visions of manufacturing.

Hadid’s aesthetics of glass, polished concrete and matte white surfaces emulates the atmosphere of a museum or a laboratory, in which new knowledge and ideas are effortlessly conceived. Critic Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen (6) notes that the transparent, single-level and circular nature of the production line encourages all workers to contribute to the BMW myth of great design. “It is not enough to tighten screws, you have to speak up, and be part of the collective enterprise. Workers must participate.”

The idea of blurring boundaries between a worker’s formal responsibilities and the wider success of the enterprise was pioneered in Japanese car manufacturing. Toyota prides itself on its culture of kaizen, ‘continuous improvement’, in which incremental changes to working practices contribute to increases in productivity and cost savings. In less hierarchical Western societies, workers are less likely to be incentivised by the promise of rises in profitability alone, but their contribution can be encouraged by symbolic means just the same. Zaha Hadid’s open-thinking factory harnesses the human impulses of creativity and self expression just like the WeWork office. 

In what is surely an ironic twist to architectural histories, the fate of factories is to be converted into museums. London’s Tate Modern took over a disused power plant, Barcolona’s CaixaForum used to be a textile factory, and the city of Brussels is currently converting a former Citoën plant into a contemporary art museum.

Essential works

Work is transforming again right now. During the Covid-19 lockdowns, some workers have had to carry on as normal, some have found themselves surplus to requirements, and others are developing Zoom eye.

As workspaces reopen, we may have an opportunity to renegotiate which of our fundamental needs we are prepared to transact with. While it’s clear that safety – in Maslow’s hierarchy adjacent to nourishment – will become paramount, we should expect that this will come at a cost.

In classic supply-demand economics, one might have expected that jobs associated with higher risks – such as healthcare and public-facing services – should attract high wages. However, what we colloquially refer to as unskilled labour – which is often anything but – has been in such high supply in the past decades that the market doesn’t need to resort to reward systems that actually cost anything at all. 

In the last three months, posters with and messages of support for healthcare workers hand-made by children have been appearing in windows across the UK. In Italy, communities have come together to laud their frontline workers in song. While carers and nurses remain some of the lowest-paid professional groups in the developed world, the public displays of hero-worship are society’s contribution to those workers’ sense of dignity and satisfaction in their labour. 

The exchange rate here is cruel. To achieve balance, pay plus job satisfaction must be equal with the value of the labour itself and of any exceptional risk. As long as healthcare systems struggle to adequately protect healthcare workers, short of a pay rise, the children’s rainbows and musical ovations are the only compensation on offer.

Again, the self-esteem of essential workers can be commodified. It should not be a surprise that, just as WeWork was able to hijack individual creativity for profit, so can art. In East London, artist Peter Liversidge has been hand-making and installing hundreds of posters with messages of support for frontline workers in publicly visible sites. A touching gesture for sure, but as long as Liversidge’s displays contribute to the collective recognition of the value of essential work, they also syphon off some of the public appreciation for the workers’ sacrifices to the artist himself. Liversidge received significant media attention for his action, and his poster interventions are already in the inventory of the commercial gallery which represents him.

A tribute to healthcare workers in East London.
A tribute to healthcare workers in East London by artist Peter .

To virus-proof all workplaces as economies reopen will be a gargantuan task. What we know from previous shocks is that they demand flexibility of the workforce and encourage technological replacement of manual labour. Just when the pandemic-induced unemployment figures reach a peak, this tendency may reduce the demand for labour further. This technological evolution will likely contribute to the growth in inequality and encourage exploitation of those workers who are in the weakest bargaining position. Thera are, however, historical precedents which could be explored in the face of the labour crisis.

In the wake of the Great Depression, the most profound economic downturn of the past century, the economist John Manyard Keynes proposed that technological developments would allow a 15-hour working week abundant with leisure by 2030. Keynesian economics, a cornerstone of the early welfare state, enjoyed a resurgence after the 2008 financial crisis. Today’s governments facing not only flagging markets but also stagnant and hungry labour markets may look to Keynes for inspiration.

One of the settlements of the Great Depression was the introduction of the five-day working week. Such was the excess supply of labour that workers agreed to share what jobs there were, accepting lower pay for working fewer hours. 

We could now be looking forward to a three-day weekend – a small number of companies have already been trialling such ideas and Finland had floated it as a potential policy even before the Covid-19 crisis struck. It is perhaps no coincidence that Keynes was the founding chair of what became Arts Council England, the UK’s public arts funding agency. This could almost have been a bohemian dream.

Zoom out a little

All along, a class of workers has been doing just fine in the crisis. For those engaged in dematerialised labour, a Zoom account has been enough to carry on. Marketers, project managers, software developers, account executives – but also customer service staff and teachers – have had to find ways to move their work online. For some, this is a realisation of an old dream. The sofa beats the commute, particularly when the newly-reopened metro already looks too crowded to feel safe.

Zoom backgrounds offered by LACMA.
Zoom backgrounds offered by LACMA.

In an attempt to ensure continued productivity, a handful of employers have instituted rigorous and potentially invasive performance monitoring measures such as policing workers’ use of social media and tracking their keystroke rates. These invasions are nothing new – corporations have always been able to read their employees’ browsing histories and Slack threads – and those businesses which have not visibly stepped up surveillance measures can rely on the threat of the panopticon webcam.

While a physical office enforces a rhythm of work – log in, email, catch-up, make a call – working from home makes some of these actions appear more arbitrary than previously. The new rules may take some adapting to, and some industries appear well prepared already. Twitter, which has announced that all of its 4600 employees will be able to continue to work from home indefinitely when the Covid-19 crisis has passed, is emblematic of the technology industry’s investment in remote working technologies and management techniques. This won’t be an option for everyone, but staying productive at home can be learned. Here again, we might look for tips to artists who have been finding inspiration alone in their studios for centuries. 

Indeed, the Romantic artist could be the perfect Zoom worker: self-sufficient, inspired, determined, resilient, charismatic, and already used to spending most of their time without supervision or support. The recent global explosion of the art industry also means that art workers are used to collaborating with colleagues around the world, adjusting their expectations to new environments and conditions. If artists, whose education rarely includes specific training on managing studio time and international working can do this, couldn’t everyone?

What the Zoom workplace doesn’t offer is the social reinforcement of team meetings and pub outings with colleagues that are part of the implicit contract of employment. Some of this can move online – teams can spend their lunch hours playing Animal Crossing together, and some haven’t yet tired of Zoom cocktail hours – but the ability to mediate social relationships through physical space will be lost.

It turns out that artists are struggling too. After the initial tsunami of online initiatives, performances to camera and solidarity campaigns, many are feeling the erosion of their social networks just as much detrimental to their pracces as the cancellation of exhibitions and projects that has impacted their already precarious livelihoods. Rachel Whiteread, one of Britain’s foremost sculptors, admitted that she is struggling to find reason to work: “the things that make us human have been taken away from us, things like choice and decision.”

For now, we may have to amuse ourselves with customising our video conference backgrounds – the LA County Museum of Art handily released a range of images – and arranging our bookshelves to look suitably impressive. Come winter, we might have to ask just how starving artists have been getting on in their unheated studios all this time.


(1)  Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art : Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, 1992
(2)  Luc Boltanski, Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, 1999
(3) Edward Herman, Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, 1988
(4) Andrew Ross, No-collar: The Humane Workplace and Its Hidden Costs, 2004
(5)  Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, 1978
(6)  Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen, Globalization, Architecture and Containers in After the Great Refusal, Zero Books, 2018

Cover image: The Artist’s Studio, Horace Vernet, c. 1820.

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Social art in antisocial times

It is already nothing short of a journalistic cliché that ‘we need the arts more now than ever’. In the first week of the UK’s lockdown, media were rife with lists of exhibitions and performances to consume from the safety of one’s sofa, alongside tips for home-schooling, and for making do with pasta and tinned beans.

For sure, art offers distraction and respite from daily anxiety, but is this all it’s good for? As we grow wary of pixelated click-through cultural experiences, we should ask art to deliver more of the social and political impacts it has promised. 

B.C. (Before Covid) Art

Alongside the rise of the international art market, the UK’s public arts sphere has undergone a major reconfiguration in the past twenty years. As public funding for the arts shrunk, demands on art to paper over the cracks of austerity grew. Narratives of public good now permeate galleries and Arts Council England’s funding strategy, and one would struggle to find an artist who doesn’t describe their practice as political or at least socially-relevant. Institutions of all sizes and outlooks, from Tate Modern to the small studio collective, have made renewed claims of social relevance, community-focus, and public benefit. 

Cadres of artists and administrators supplied by the ever-expanding art schools threw themselves into the challenge. The arts workforce is characterised by a high degree of employment insecurity, intense competition, and low pay, and is subject to the conditions of exploitation as with labour in other deregulated industries. In this context, the ‘social mission’ is a moral imperative.

What’s been largely taboo is the question of this activity’s effects on society – it is universally assumed that art is an inalienable human need. And from there, only a short leap for the collective art think-tank to argue art’s supreme role in shaping community structures or political discourse. Functions previously held by the state and other forms of civil society migrated to artist-led youth clubs, artist-led adventure playgrounds, artist-led support groups, if not artist-led food banks. 

All these initiatives coexisted happily with the commercially-driven art market and popular mainstream art, occasionally blurring the boundaries or encouraging friendly antagonism. One telling example is artist Christoph Büchel’s 2011 project which turned the prime estate of mega-gallery Hauser and Wirth into the Piccadilly Community Centre, complete with volunteers, knitting circles, and beauty spa treatments for seniors.  

Christoph Buchel, ‘Piccadilly Community Centre’, 2011. Installation view.

First, the galleries closed…

In early March public and commercial galleries and art institutions started suspending their exhibitions and programmes. Before any other public service, it was arts institutions’ In these unprecedented times… emails that flooded my inbox. Before pubs and restaurants closed. Before even SportsDirect closed. 

What does this timing tell us about the role that art institutions play in public life? What knowledge of epidemiology did art administrators have, and why did they lead by example in this act of publicly-minded sacrifice? In the Government’s lock-down rules, art is clearly non-essential labour; more: it is voluntarily redundant. The ‘social’ of social arts is simply not the ‘social’ of social workers; the analogy seems ludicrous now and in retrospective. Who, then, needs the arts, now more than ever?

If art is just a gentle distraction from our daily grievances, then it now finds a captive audience for its pre-recorded online programmes and ad-hoc performances to camera. But this reflective, inspiring or soothing function of art is one that has long been served by blockbuster shows presented by international consortia in exchange for market-determined admission prices and corporate sponsorship. Will the quarantine amount to more than a reconfiguration of the modes of production and consumption of artistic products? The fact that the National Gallery can smoothly transfer its Titian exhibition online should not be seen as a triumph. If yoga studios can thrive on Zoom, so can some forms of art.

Community practice in self-isolation

What about the audiences served, until recently, by art initiatives that truly did put social impact at the forefront? The dozens of programmes in some of England’s least culturally engaged and economically depressed locations supported by Arts Council England’s funding initiative Creative People and Places will likely be subject to wholesale cancellations. Communities and individuals that did benefit from the support created by art practitioners have been left to self-isolation.

The inevitability with which artists have retreated from their community practices will highlight the fundamental problem of mandating art’s social mission: artists are not trained to fill the roles of social or healthcare workers. Social betterment through art cannot be subject to a service level agreement.

It would be callous to suggest that all social art has been without positive effects, particularly against the withdrawal of traditional social support mechanisms. Create London’s White House in Barking, a sui-generis community and art centre, the vegetable garden in Hoxton initiated by artist duo FourthLand, or Ahmet Öğüt’s Silent University which facilitates skills exchange between refugees have all played a part in making our lives collectively a little better.

The White House, Barking

It remains questionable, however, whether arts institutions are best placed to spearhead such initiatives. Why should artists need to be involved in designing community gardens? While artists are for the most part united in a progressive agenda, this strengthens the assumption that their work is socially beneficial and important. Such solidarity and peer approval, however, does not amount to evidence.

It may also become apparent that the withdrawal of artistic labour will have negligible adverse effects for its audiences, and art communities will need to answer a crucial question: was its work ever doing all that much good? Why didn’t the arts help us when we had them?

The arts need you, now more than ever

In absence of good news, popular media have been quick to focus on the life-affirming function of the arts by curating virtual cultural diets. This rally is in contrast with the usual indifference of UK audiences who may or may not have been inclined to visit museums and galleries in easier times. 

In the professional press and in arts social networks, ‘the arts will save you’ quickly turned into a call to ‘save the arts’ as the true economic impact on already underfunded institutions and leagues of precarious workers became apparent. Serpentine Gallery’s artistic director and mega-curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist proposed a new mass art public art initiative to mirror the Franklin D Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration project that would far outstrip Arts Council England’s £190 million support package announced this week.

The economic output of the arts is modest in comparison with, say, the hospitality industry, but its highly educated workforce is exceptionally good at self-organisation and voicing its demands. Whatever settlement art can negotiate, livelihoods will be on the line, organisations will fail, and many careers will be broken. 

Like after any crisis, amongst the survivors will be those who are the most agile, entrepreneurial, stable, or those just too-big-to-fail. Right now, we should not worry about the future of philanthropically-supported museums, private arts foundations, art fairs or commercial galleries. These entities, subject to the laws of competition and capitalist imperatives, will dust off their 2009 playbooks and obscure the human dimension of the extra difficult environment. 

What about the smaller non-profit players? The self-sacrificing volunteerism of the army of arts workers will be put to a test: can the arts continue to serve the public in the impending recession? 

Change may not be inevitable

Nothing feeds confirmation bias like a crisis. Many artists, alongside environmentalists and anticapitalists have sighed a collective ‘I told you so’ in response to the pandemic, as though the evolutionary biology of a virus had concern for social justice. 

We do, indeed, need art to make sense of the state of meditative non-capitalism, but we should be cautious in concluding that anything ‘changes everything’; the post-crisis opportunities could turn out not to be the silver lining we are looking for. Capitalism has had ample practice in turning to its advantage times of tightened public finances that are likely to follow the world’s spending and borrowing sprees and the inevitable recessions. Unlike in 2008, the arts will benefit from bailouts as much as other industries, and will have no choice but to prioritise their own economic survival.

In this light, it is artists who need the arts more than ever.

The arts should absorb the lessons of the last economic crisis and closely analyse their own response to the changes in power relations of society the crash produced. Many calls will be made for art to lend a hand in recovering the post-pandemic depression. 

You wasted a good crisis, a video work by artist collective DIS reminds us. Replicating the 2009 recovery model will only propel the industry in a spiral of internal competition, from which one can expect the conservative voices to emerge strongest.

DIS, ‘You wasted a good crisis’, 2018. Video still.

Could we do better than this? If one believes in the truly transformative potential of social or political art, then we must employ art to help rewrite the rules of the game. Instead of throwing its energy into fundraising, live-streaming fixes, or protectionist solidarity, could art communities engage in proposals for future art that could be transformative, ethical, ecological, fun, shocking, interesting and – insert adjective of your choice – profitable this time?


Cover image by Dennis Goodwin.

#byeweiwei

Ai WeiWei may be ‘the perfect Asian artist for lazy western curators’. He may also be the lazy marketer’s idea of viral cool, and the lazy politician’s idea of a progressive thinker. But for even the disaffected critic, WeiWei’s Law of the Journey at the National Gallery in Prague reveals failures of governance in the country’s critical apparatus.

On previous visits to Prague, I discovered the city’s contemporary art scene to be lively, engaged and alert, if not a little limited in breadth and diversity. Amongst the numerous art spaces and independent studios, the strong position of critics as public intellectuals is a positive legacy of Eastern block state cultures. I was therefore surprised to discover that a widely-publicised work commissioned by the National Gallery from Ai WeiWei has met with barely any critical response, despite its monumental scale and hallmarks of institutional corruption. The story’s end was framed for me by #byeweiwei, an event by curator Piotr Sikora for INI Project’s comparatively miniature space, who convened critics, art historians, and artists to interrogate the work, its universal unpopularity, and the silence. 

Law of the Journey consisted of a 40-metre long black rubber inflatable boat, carrying an army of faceless black rubber figures, all hanging across the oversized exhibition hall of Veletrzni Palace. The work was further accompanied by an installation of clothes recovered from a refugee camp and a semi-documentary film produced there. WeiWei’s aim in enlargement and exaggeration trick might have been a close and personal encounter with its subject; unfortunately while the boat under which paying onlookers perambulate stretches long enough to inspire awe, it also abstracts from view the very human figures above. For its monumental size, the rubber dinghy at best trivialises its subject, and indicts the reality it portrays as predictable and therefore avoidable

Ai WeiWei, Law of the Journey

It could be this very syntactic distance is what WeiWei wanted to expose, deliberately fetishising the perils of intercontinental migration and playlisting them as mere ‘content’ in the way that mainstream news outlets do routinely, therefore uncomfortably forcing art audiences to acknowledge their own disenfranchised voyeurism. The work suggests otherwise: the ‘contextual’ part of the installation presents the migrants’ garments all cleaned and pressed, making it all too easy to remain on the surface of materiality.

The relevance of the project to its Czech audience is questionable too; had Law of the Journey acted out on compassion or guilt, it could have appeared pertinent in the landlocked Eastern-European country that has the unsurprising track record of indifference if not mild hostility towards the migration problems on Europe’s Southern borders. Indeed, it is reported that the education and engagement programme constructed around the work by the National Gallery was resoundingly successful, but given the rumoured budget of $1 million, even the best schools programme pales into insignificance.

This appraisal appeared close to the views of Prague’s critical community, though those were voiced mostly through predictable jokes, dismay, and gossip. Such inarticulations conceal troubling limits of agency for the critical voice within with the neoliberal political structures of cultural markets. In contrast with more ‘developed’ environments characterized by complicity, and evident relationships between actors (as for example in the alleged exchange of corporate goodwill and public funding between Frieze and Arts Council England, as in Morgan Quaintance’s recent recent article in e-flux conversations), Law of the Journey lacks an immediately-visible beneficiary: the presentation in a Prague institution hardly increased the market value of WeiWei’s work, the National Gallery will have been left with little but a spike in Instagram activity and a budget hole, and the Czech public received only a temporary absolution of their moral shortcomings as world citizens. Who benefits?

It could be that in commissioning the work, the National Gallery, a behemoth of an institution which boasts fourteen venues, was driven by a need for popular success in fear of competition from the many independent institutions and project spaces in Prague, and those translate into institutional currency of blockbusters, media attention, and the respect of other institutionally-liquid bodies. 

Criticisms of the Gallery’s contemporary art programmes have abounded, and it is rumoured that the Gallery’s chief curator was not keen on the project but his opposition was overridden by the National Gallery’s director. Both are credited as curators of the project. Conspiracy theorists would suggest influence on the National Gallery’s programme by the pro-Chinese Czech government, and argue that WeiWei’s position as political dissident has become part of Beijing’s soft-power toolkit. 

Either way, the issue is one of governance, in which artistic quality and political and commercial factors are not weighed appropriately. Peculiar to the cultural milieu of Eastern Europe is the use of the term NGO to describe a range of institutions, including even the smallest and most precarious of project spaces. Since the fall of the iron curtain, many countries have introduced legal templates for privately-held public-good institutions, and after decades of plan economies and state culture, curators and artists have been keen to assert their independence. The NGO structures differ significantly from the idea of a charitable organisation present in English-law systems, where independent boards govern, but do not profit from, the operation of the charity. The Eastern-European NGO can take many forms, but a common pattern brings together museums, art centres and projects spaces: they are managed by single individuals or small committees, and where boards exist, they are at best consultative and have no control over management. State or local government-owned museums are indeed government-owned (in contrast to, for example, the National Gallery in London, which is an independent trust, even if the majority of its funding comes directly from the national government), and directors often report directly to their political funders. 

The space between Ai WeiWei and legal frameworks may seem vast, but I believe it is the source of Prague’s silence. While the National Gallery’s project may be criticized as expensive and artistically dubious, the art scene’s vocabulary of institutional critique has not developed beyond Palace intrigue, and this makes any systematic democratic scrutiny of such work impossible. To make matters worse, the limited legal controls on charitable activities have not seen the unbridled corporate interest in supporting the arts the legislators might have expected, and states remain the major funders of arts institutions, be it in a diminishing way. The visual arts community of Prague remains directly and indirectly funded by the Czech state, through conduits of a myriad of NGOs that receive funding from the same department as the National Gallery, and this pleases it in an unmanageable conflict of interest.

Characterised in this way, the critical dilemma is equivalent to a familiar moral one, and is solved only through a series of political decisions that may not seem to be of immediate interest to cultural activists. I believe, however, that this discussion about how basic decisions are made across the independent art sector is fundamental to answering questions on who such practice is for and why.

The Prophecy of Things

Anetta Mona Chişa and Lucia Tkáčová, Banska St a nica

“When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer… Eric Bristow’s only 27.” This infamous line, delivered live on air by BBC sports commentator Sid Waddell in reaction to Bristow’s win of a darts tournament, is synonymous with a particular brand of self-mocking hubris. A similar darts game might be taking place in central Slovakia: it took 47000 volunteers two years to build the 21km long Railway of Youth line to Banská Štiavnica… Anetta Mona Chişa and Lucia Tkáčová have in one gesture created a departure place for all journeys.

Anetta Mona Chişa and Lucia Tkáčová, The Prophecy of Things, Banska St a nica, 2017

As the 2017 commission by Banska St a nica for the now sleepy train terminus, a 1950s symbol of past industry, prosperity and hope, Chişa and Tkáčová have covered the station waiting hall with a monumental textile installation. A rainbow of coloured streams emanates from an abstractly-patterned door that resembles a damaged mobile phone screen. This composition brings to mind 20th century propaganda landscapes in which the sun, synonymous with the political leadership, brings all kind of enlightenment and wealth to everyone who cares to bathe in its rays. The rainbow arrangement in Chişa and Tkáčová’s Prophecy of Things sits comfortably with the optimism remnant in the in the Modernist architecture of the train station, signalling a future that’s nominally bright and uninterruptible, even though its source is ultimately corrupt and doesn’t offer much useful information.

Chişa and Tkáčová are no strangers to hyperbolae. In their practice, potent symbols and humble objects have swapped places or abandoned their functions, utopias and realities coexist as thought without syntactic conflict. Here also, the monumental form of the work overrides questions of any specific conflict, difficulty or discomfort, insisting that its aesthetic value alone is more than enough to go on with. I have followed Chişa and Tkáčová’s work in formal institutional contexts for some years, but this is the first time I saw them in action close to home, in situ. It doesn’t matter that that darts are a minority interest, nor that they make very poor television.


This text was originally published in Flash Art CZ/SK, September 2017.

An Afternoon by the Sea

I didn’t find much time to holiday last year. Somehow, I forgot to plan any time off. In a diary like mine, a week away in August sticks out like a sore thumb. This is not particularly unusual, mind, not of me, not of London, not of the ‘current economic climate’. In fact, it had been quite some time since I had bothered with holidays at all — I always found the beach a bit too sandy, tourist attractions too touristy, and the countryside just too far away. Why rest, we’re having fun anyway, right?

I was therefore rather surprised to find myself in Oostende on the Belgian coast, sunglasses firmly on my nose, writing postcards, scoffing seafood platters and glasses of Sauvignon Blanc, taking leisurely boat cruises, and not minding the thousands of others partaking in the same simple pleasures only feet away. Days, nights, mornings and evenings, it felt like a childhood treat, a school summer holiday which never needed to end.

I recall this because I had a similar feeling the first time I encountered the work of Heide Hinrichs in Manifesta 8. Her installation, sited in a former tobacco factory in Rovereto in Italy, consisted of a series of models of greater structures — a planetary system of footballs hanging on ribbons and rope, and a whole language in an alphabet of objects rendered in papier-mâché. Inside Hinrichs’ installation The Unexpected Obedience of Your Thoughts, I was part of an environment in state of perfect equilibrium, where every element was in balance with my own presence.

Heide Hinrichs, presence of perception, 2013

You may think me sentimental, so please let me explain. There were, in truth, no evenings in Oostende, and no sand. My ‘holiday’ consisted of nine hours in total, including two train journeys. The boat rides were indeed plural, but only when I aborted a hearty walk fearing that I would miss the last Eurostar of the day. The seafood platter was not all that much either — I walked for a good hour, avoiding all the ‘tourist’ restaurants, only to find that there were no other restaurants at all. On the way back, I squashed into a broken-down train with hundreds of seaside day-trippers to return to London by 9pm.

It then seems even more sentimental to get hung up on an idea of a holiday, and one expressed with such economy. But what brings that day to mind again — when I look at the work of Heide Hinrichs — is its encapsulation of an array of states and memories, ones I have not often, if ever taken the opportunity to act out.

With modest simplicity, Hinrichs creates arrangements in which objects act not only as simulations of other ideas, but have the potential to become them: one is another. More, the work dispenses with objecthood altogether, freeing itself from the need for properties and relations to the external world that would define it in other circumstances. What remains of the objects are marks of the artist’s fingers in papier-mâché, pencil traces, threads sewn into fabrics, and holes cut into surfaces — executed from without.

In Rovereto and in exhibitions since, Hinrichs has created indoor landscapes using all-too familiar materials — cardboard, string, recycled rubber, fabrics. Her low-toned and restricted palette encourages an informal, open and natural reaction; the artist eases her work into the surroundings as though by chance. In Rovereto, with time, I began to notice the ambiguities contained in her arrangements, and it was no longer clear whether, for example, The forgotten heart, a work consisting of cardboard boxes and papier-mâché, was a ‘work’ or merely cardboard.

Sometimes Hinrichs deliberately toys with the idea of the ready-made, placing footballs, pearls and eggs amongst her hand-shaped pieces. In seeing these together, I wondered if a football only then and there became a metaphor for a planet and a universe, or if I had always know about their — now seemingly obvious — equivalence.

With her stripped-back mise en scene, Hinrichs’ installations appear as familiar stories, reshaped and stretched into new forms — only the originals are impossible to place. It was like this in Oostende, too: my nostalgic synthesis of the day was not the result of the weather or the seascape, nor even of a particular experience in my own memory. Oostende could have contained anything, and anything but Oostende. The day became a perfect simulation of a set of conditions I could only have known from secondary sources.

It is easy to get carried away here; a scene can appear so vividly drawn that one can overstep the barriers between outsider and constituent. Hinrichs is aware of this — with typically understated humour, the artist places small statuettes, actors-observers, in the periphery of her installations. The works themselves engage in an active exchange, too: in Librarian’s Eye, for example, an isolated video animation surveys the space, encouraging other works to perform their roles. It’s a peculiar moment, to recognise so clearly one’s own feeling as belonging to an altogether different story, and in which either version of events could well be true. In my own seaside afternoon, I thought I was playing out some French film classic, perhaps the Louvre scene from À bout de soufflé.

To run so carefree under the noses of museum guards is a matter of some confidence. Without drawing attention to the self-control in Hinrichs’ works, the artist creates environments that are both protective and liberating. In the recent presence of perception, and a companion series of drawings which show house-like structures encased by the fingers of two hands, the artist holds a void, a space in which a story can unfold. But despite their immateriality, Hinrichs’ structures need only be held together with minimal force, as though they are determined to remain self-reliant, and confident that their fragility is only a matter of our perception.

Perhaps it is not then mere coincidence that I spent my afternoon by the sea in the company of Heide Hinrichs.

Not Taking Part is Not an Option

From belonging and membership to inclusion and participation

When Marshall McLuhan coined the term ‘global village’ in The Gutenberg Galaxy of 1962, he could not have imagined how quickly reality would outgrow the model he proposed. For the post-war generations, the popularisation of television and aviation brought distant landscapes and realities to the frame of individual experience in unprecedented ways. What developed over the following decades is a paradoxical mixture of illusory ‘nearness’ – the feeling of closeness to distant issues and peoples mediated by news reporting – and an equally illusory feeling of involvement in the affairs of all humanity. The late 20th century citizen felt individual compassion for victims of famines, and took individual action by mandating UN interventions in political conflicts. Before long, the ‘global village’ became a ‘global theatre’.

With this expansion – and simultaneous mediated contraction – in the boundaries of an individual’s intelligible universe, the categories of belonging, participating and membership had to be re-evaluated. A new category of citizen-spectator came into being.

A further complication arises with the arrival of virtual social networks, most poignantly Facebook, in the early years of the 21st century. The increasingly global nature of everyday experience creates a need for a new mode of proximity. Social media have eliminated the issue of distance altogether, bringing equivalence between here and there.

The categories of belonging and inclusion are disrupted again. Communities and social groups can be created online as in the physical realm, and the virtual offers a seductively egalitarian playing field. The very vocabulary of partaking changes: one can join a community, but also sign up to be a member of it, opt in, subscribe, follow or simply Like.

In parallel, institutional artistic practice of the last decades has championed participation. In Western Europe, formal art practices have been expected to engage their audiences in a way never seen before, and to seed solutions to a host of community problems. A new responsibility was placed on art practice to include individuals in the (virtual) realm of art to create a sense of belonging in the everyday.

Such socially engaged work has come under intense scrutiny, and its very aim has been described as utopian. Claire Bishop notes that “participation strives to collapse the distinction between performer and audience, professional and amateur, production and reception” in a way inconsistent with the real. It is something of an irony that Nicholas Bourriaud, whose Relational Aesthetics normalises the tools of participatory art practice, takes on the re-branding our recent present as Altermodern. With Altermodern, art has caught up with Facebook, and artists have become nomads, hyper- and meta connected with and acting on a plurality of constituencies, markets, agencies and stages.

It should be no surprise therefore that the vocabulary of the individual and the communal has reached a point of crisis, and that terms such as belonging, membership, participation, inclusion, engagement and incorporation have all found their way into casual parlance without necessarily answering to singular definitions. This lexical difficulty of taking part is a central interest for both Javier Rodriguez and the artistic duo of Karen Mirza and Brad Butler.

Javier Rordiguez was born in Venezuela in 1975, and in the last fifteen years has lived in Caracas and in London. From this dual perspective, he has been able to find unsettling parallels between the disparate social and political systems. While the UK was for over a decade dominated by New Labour dialectics, Venezuela saw Hugo Chávez come into power with the Bolivarian revolution. Britain entered the 21st century with dreamy aspirations like Rodriguez’ native country.

The lasting grip of such commonly-contested ideals is counter-intuitive at a time when social media make it possible for information and opinion to travel freely and instantly. Through a practice that spans collage, text, installation and video, Rodriguez has compared the mechanism which keep the UK’s and Venezuela’s neo-liberal aspirations in their stead, and has found that the forces at play are not as dissimilar as one may expect.

The artist’s practice stems from a deep study of media channels, in particular of newspaper publishing. From his early works with collage and books, Rodriguez has an intuitive understanding of mechanical reproduction. He has collected and collated books, pamphlets and posters reflecting the history of Latin America, and has contrasted them with the headlines of contemporary newspapers. The resulting works confound their sources. For example La Voz (The Voice), an installation of hundreds of posters on advertising hoardings in Quito in Ecuador, brings together images of the Second World War and mobile phone advertising, under a banner of a fictional news outlet.

Javier Rodriguez, Último Mundo Universal

The term ‘mixed-media’ aptly describes both the technical composition of the artist’s works and their thematic focus. Using newsprint, for example, Rodriguez brings together messages from a variety of sources, processing them with their own means of mechanical reproduction. The resulting works both appropriate and generate content. In 2010, Rodriguez created Último Mundo Universal, a guerrilla mash-up of Venezuela’s three largest tabloid newspapers, from which this project takes its title. The publication borrowed images, headlines and articles from the original national titles, and mixed them with surreal graphic imagery, texts borrowed from Slavoj Žižek, faux-advertising for spiritual media phone lines, death notices, and images of war and conflict from a variety of contexts. The publication was distributed, on a single day, through street vendors in Caracas, who gave away copies of Rodriguez’ newspaper with copies of the tabloid purchased by the public, causing widespread confusion.

Rodriguez manipulates media messages – through a subversion of the sombre tone of political slogan, through placing serious real-life situations in overtly banal contexts, and by fabricating stories with the authority of a newspaper editor – in direct response to media’s own manipulation of reality.

Javier Rodriguez, Último Mundo Universal distributed in Venezuela.

In the UK, Rodriguez has instigated similar projects, and the new publication work launched with the exhibition They don’t know why, but they keep doing it has ambitions of similar scale. The content of the publication is not settled at the time of writing, but the recent scandals relating to phone hacking and the resulting closure of The News of the World, Britain’s best-selling newspaper, open up an array of issues.

When producing his newspaper works, Rodriguez learned about the amount of waste generated by the lithographic printing process. For every thousand copies of a newspaper, a few are damaged or printed incorrectly, and many hundreds at the end of a run are scrapped. Printing houses reuse such waste by printing multiple pages on top of each other in tests, and in cleaning procedures. This way, today’s news is an increment of yesterday’s rejected headlines, and pages eventually become saturated with type, images and ink. This discovery has prompted Rodriguez to develop a non-verbal vocabulary which mirrors that of his publications. Panels of rich magentas and cyans, or pallets filled with stacks of overprinted graphic novels are at once product, archive and waste. Through the very means of mechanical reproduction, the newspaper comments upon itself, amplifying its headline out of recognition until it becomes aesthetic noise.

This kind of engagement – visible in both Rodriguez’s text and colour-field works – is described by Peter Sloterdijk in his 1983 Critique of Cynical Reason as kynicism: a popular rejection of mass culture by means of irony and sarcasm. Žižek later points out that the ruling powers’ response to such cynical subversion is that of classical cynicism: through even more solemn use of moralising rhetoric, and

the veneration of the very institutions which the common action sought to destroy. Rodriguez’s production reveals a paradox of kynical subversion. While Último Mundo Universal is a critique of Venezuelan media’s romance with the ruling powers, it is also an ideal participatory, user-generated ‘media 2.0’ product, in which the reader and writer are the same. The reader-writer is implicitly charged with the responsibility for commenting on – but is also disaffected by – the reality which surrounds him.

The position of the reader-writer as a participant of this reality is called into question: Rodriguez (and his viewer) is at the same time a member and consumer of the culture he critiques – absorbing the headlines, the telenovelas, and the political propaganda – but also its opponent – exposing the very same as absurd and damaging. In his work, Rodriguez accepts, rejects and creates the same elements of reality.

For Rodriguez, this position is one of necessity. Faced with the deep and widespread problems of Venezuela, an individual has little chance of opting out of the political system – a voice outside is a voice not heard. A transition from participant to member of the status quo is perhaps the most productive option.

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler’s body of work The Museum of Non-Participation addresses questions of belonging and alignment in a direct way. The work came to life when Mirza and Butler witnessed – from a window of a controversial exhibition in a newly-opened National Art Gallery in Islamabad – the Lawyers protest and state violence in 2007. This experience, as well as witnessing other moments of change and protest, has led them to consider their position on either side of this gallery window, and to expand such spaces of contestation as generative.

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, The Museum of Non-Participation

Since 2007, the Museum has sited itself in Pakistan, Switzerland, Egypt, Turkey, Germany and the UK, through the network of art institutions and independently, and using video, photography, performance, text and action. In Karachi, Mirza and Butler staged performances in streets and markets, and using tape drawings, banners and signs hand-painted onto city walls, sited the Museum in contexts where a traditional art institution has no place. In London, for a month in 2009, and in cooperation with Artangel, the Museum assumed a home behind a barber shop in Bethnal Green Road in East London, hosting Urdu language classes, talks, debates and events, inviting the local and art communities alike.

The tile of The Museum of Non-Participation reflects on its own structure and function. The Greek mouseion is a museum without walls. In Urdu, linguistically the project’s birthplace, there is no original word for ‘museum’. Instead, a composite word used in substitution translates back into English as ‘house of the unexpected’.

In this sense, the Museum makes an attempt to seed an anti-apparatus, to allow for a framework which acts against the prevailing system of powers and relations. In marking the presence of an institution, Mirza and Butler’s may ask about our position inside or out, but by only drawing walls with temporary tape and fabric banners, they open up attitudes to issues reaching far beyond institutional critique.

Like Rodriguez, Mirza and Butler have occupied newspapers as medium and used them as source. On the occasion of their 2010 exhibition The Daily Battle at Vivid in Birmingham, Mirza and Butler negotiated a temporary, autonomous space for a series of writers and thinkers on the pages of the Daily Jang, Britain’s only bilingual Urdu-English daily, from which the exhibition took its title. In London, they created a special edition of the same tile, and in Karachi, they disseminated their publication by offering newspaper sheets to market vendors to use as wrapping for food and produce. In parallel, Disturbances Pre-Planned (2009) surveys the language of the newspaper articles relating to debates the artists and the Museum have direct relationships with. A lithographic print creates a taxonomy of headlines, including ‘The prime minister’s confusion’, ‘Time to take charge’ or ‘Include me out!’.

Karen Mirza and Brad Butler, The Museum of Non-Participation

In a traditional sense, the function of a museum is to collect, display, and interpret. The Museum of Non-Participation takes on these roles also, but it operates in real-life environments. Its collection of images, accounts, debates and gestures reflects the potential of the collective gestures, particularly those made by those marginalised and non-aligned, and non-participating, and the context in which they are made. This potential is contained in physical and non-physical images, objects, words and messages, and the Museum, lacking a physical structure, sites itself amongst the issues it collects and displays as a constituent agent.

At Work shown in They don’t know why, refers to the recent exhibition of the same title at the Whitechapel Gallery, consisting of works from the UK Government Art Collection, selected by government figures and, controversially, the prime minister’s wife. The display has met with criticism and was seen by some as inappropriate in times of austerity brought about by cuts in UK government spending, and the exhibition’s title as insensitive. Groups of protesters from leftist art communities have accused politicians of using art to whitewash their tarnished reputations. For Mirza and Butler, the contested exhibition highlighted the issues of museum collecting, and the inherent transfers of power taking place as artworks are acquired, owned, displayed and written about. Commenting on At Work, the artists reflect on the notion of being collected (or incorporated into a collection), considering the place of an individual in a social group in parallel to the place of an artwork in an art collecting.

Considering the consequences of action and the consequences of inaction, the artists draw a parallel between the two. The Museum’s own agency lies in its ability to re-claim the meanings of terms used to describe and formalise our reality. Understanding that non-participation is a condition of participation, the resultant compound word-definition internalises the problematic of the social turn, keeping constantly aware of its own strengths and potential. In an institutional sense, the museum is a generous and open structure, accepting freely any institutional critique its public may serve.

An asset to both Rodriguez and Mirza and Butler are the perspectives offered to them in their international orientations. For Rodriguez, the study of contrasts between Venezuela and the UK activates a productive relationship, and for Mirza and Butler the catalyst is in the ability to draw links from a variety of contexts ranging from East London to Cairo. The key is that contexts are already inter-present: London already contains Cairo, and Caracas already contains London. It is not ‘here and there’, but rather ‘here and elsewhere’.

With Mirza’s and Butler’s non-participation representing in fact the collective agency of the non-aligned, the issue of taking part is as central and complex to the pair’s practice as it is for Rodriguez. The artists are at once producers and audiences, but not in the sense proposed by relational aesthetics. Rather, they hold a deep sense of investment in a number of contexts, in which they act as agents. Actively creating realities and discourses, they partake in their successes and failures. For the artist and their audiences, not taking part is not an option.


This text was originally published in They don’t know why but they keep doing it, a catalogue of an exhibition of the same title.

Redshift

Catalogue essay accompanying a duo exhibition by Marcin Dudek and Ben Washington

Look far enough, and things will begin to appear redder than you’d expect. Look really far though – past the horizon, past the sun, and past the galaxy, a few million light years away. Look through a telescope strong enough, look at the distant starts, and you’ll notice that they glow somewhat red.

What you’re seeing is redshift, a consequence of the same law of physics that causes the pitch of ambulance sirens to change as they pass by our ears at speed. Even if we cannot quite observe redshift with a naked eye, employing instead spectral telescopes, the effect is conclusive proof that the universe is expanding. For some 13.7 billion years, light and matter have been travelling away from us, away from one another. Given time, any two distant bodies will drift even further apart, pulled away into new expanses of space. It is space itself that keeps growing, perhaps counter-intuitively, inflating ‘onto’ itself: where there was nothing, there will be space, and matter will follow.

I will not attempt a scientifically-sound description of the physical world here. Marcin Dudek and Ben Washington do not refer to equations or draw in theory into their work either. They do, however, precisely what physical science has been doing all along: they create models which attempt to describe our world with an appropriate degree of accuracy, and to make predictions on what happens next and what is just our of sight.

Ben Washington, Robert Peston
Ben Washington, The Rub, 2011

In I Will Eat This Sleepy Town, Washington’s stars mix with the dirt beneath our feet. The aerial has a dual meaning here: Robert Peston, agent of the apocalypse, hangs in a blue sky watching over the domain, bridges are built from nowhere and to nowhere, and a set of extinguished television screens shines the brightest. The works bring together elements that should not reasonably coexist – the high and the low, the stable and the temporary, the natural and the man-made.

Ben Washington, Shock and Apathy, 2011

Such shifts in scale, matter and content are mirrored in Washington’s working method. The sculptures need to be assembled element by element, and at each stage a delicate balance is found before the subsequent layer can be drawn. This stands at odds with our usual experience of the world, in which all elements appear at once, set in their ways before we become aware of them. With his selective attention to detail, and the luxury of distance, Washington allows us to live out his game, and have all the elements of the model in our field of vision at the same time.

Where Washington takes the bird’s eye view, Marcin Dudek’s tunnel installations are an exploration of the ‘fundamental’ mechanisms of the universe. Confronting his quotidian surroundings, the artist decided to find the new and the unexplained below ground and behind walls. What lies behind the next layer of rock or in the next cavity is unknown, but the directions Dudek takes in his dig soon form a diagram, and elements underground and at the surface become connected in a complex network.

Marcin Dudek, Will Eat This Sleepy Town, 2011

In I Will Eat This Sleepy Town, Dudek has unearthed a tunnel that leads us across the gallery in a peculiar and convoluted path. This construction, made from little more than packaging tape, becomes an imposing and solid conduit for our movement and thought from the surface to the antipodean interior. Preparing us for the journey is a carbon-copy book of Earth itself: Strata (2010) turns the elements of subsurface into knowledge, making connections between the Chilean miners’ rescue of October 2010 and space rockets. At the turn of his tunnel, Dudek has placed a video trap – a false triumph, a source of artificial light. Propelled further, we make our way to the end, finding that the helical descent into the ground has led us right back to the surface.

Mardin Dudek, Strata, 2010

This self-referring network, although it may appear arbitrary, is no less logical than the bonds between Ben Washington’s individual sculptures. Dudek has practiced creating this lattice on paper and on canvas, in works like Diagram or Verofragments (both 2007). The tunnels are an extended version of the painting works – in which the canvas itself is three-, if not four-dimensional. The confusing dimensionality is perhaps caused by the fact that Dudek’s installation is peculiar Möbius strip – an object in which the inside and outside are on the same surface. Emerging from the underpass, we see its exterior, a dense, sticky wall that gives no sense of liberation and opens no space.

An earlier work helps us position ourselves in the clear. Pumping Station (2008) led Dudek to twenty-four railway terminals across Europe. The journey itself created a map of human transits, and in each location, the artist installed a temporary public sculpture made of rubber bicycle tubes, entangled and pumped up to different shapes and pressures. While the appearance of the conduit changed with time and location, the relationship between the external and internal surfaces of the object remained the same, much like in the parcel-tape, walk-in cylinder in I Will Eat This Sleepy Town.

Marcin Dudek, Pumping Station, 2008

What connects Washington and Dudek is their interest in defining spaces and creating a set of geometrical parameters that describe our own position. Both know that what they create are only models, and seek out the limits at which the predictions are no longer reliable. This state of uncertainty yet again mirrors the physicist’s view of the universe, in which Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle limits the precision with which we can measure the present state and trajectory of any object. 

This restriction notwithstanding, the artists are able to tell us about the boundaries and surfaces we encounter. Marcin Dudek’s video works like Fair Play (2008), in which a tennis ball is repeatedly bounced from surfaces soft and solid in the big top of Frieze Art Fair in Regent’s Park. The artist sends a probe to the limits of (temporary and fictional) space and awaits its return. Another video work, Axis (2010) is a virtual measurement of the lengths, widths and heights of a building, all performed with tape that has no scale. The data collected is unquantifiable, and we interpret it intuitively; the tunnel installation in I Will Eat This Sleepy Town brings us even closer to the illusory object Dudek is trying to describe, forcing us to touch and be led along its very shell.

Ben Washington’s sculptures like Advanced Military Layers, which reproduces in miniature a fragment of the Moon’s surface using NASA’s altimetry data, allow us to orbit around the planetary shell. Presented on a Formica-covered office table, an everyday surface of our own, this sculpture places the diametrically different order within our comprehension, rendering both illusory and unreliable. In The Division of a County(2009), a Mars mountainscape, moulded from paper, hangs only feet above our ground, balancing on a less-than stable ladder. Physical elements of this work have found their way into I Will Eat This Sleepy Town, and act as a distant reference point for the remaining works.

Washington’s early collage works demonstrate the artist’s desire to assume different points of view. The constructions appear to contain designs for space ships and launch pads, pylons and ladders, in a way reminiscent of the uncanny accuracy with which Leonardo’s cartoons contained blueprints for helicopters and bicycles. The artist demonstrated his commitment to exploring distance in Apollo 11, when he had a galactic map showing the way to Earth tattooed on his back. In his sculpture, Washington uses his elevated position to look from without, but enlarges and brings closer parts of the landscape, so that the distant and the immediate are ours to touch. Ben Washington, Special Purchase, 2011

I Will Eat This Sleepy Town brings together the perspectives of looking from the inside and outside, and it may not be clear whether Washington’s and Dudek’s works are prototypes or replicas – the origins or the products of matter. The artists’ two perspectives, however, allow us to choose our own observation points, and to witness the redshift – proof that the universe we live in is expanding – for ourselves without having to arm our senses with apparatus, but through thought alone.