Shhhhhh... Artists at work.

The Trainee. A work by Pilvi Takala

A sharp rap at the window makes us look up from our laptop screens. There is a man peering through the glass, and he is frowning at us. Behind him we see red flags and the heads of a large crowd passing  by. It is the 29th of June, and a general strike has been called in Basque Country. What are we doing, the man at the window seems to ask, and why aren't we outside marching with the protesters? We shrug our shoulders, at which he rolls his eyes in disgust. The next moment he has disappeared from our view, and we hear him rattling the blinds of the baker next door.

What are we doing indeed? We look back down at our screens, hoping to find a convenient answer, but are greeted with an endless list of facebook gossip and weblog trivia, and an empty document in which we are supposed to write this text before its deadline. Have we been caught in the act of working? A thought provoking question. After all, what is the work of an artist, and how does it relate to the protest against labour reforms outside?

Bruce Nauman once said “If I was an artist and I was in the studio, then whatever I was doing in the studio must be art. At this point art became more of an activity and less of a product.” He then proceeded to record hours and hours of video of himself stamping around in the studio, or rearranging bits of metal. Of course, these videos went on to become products in their own right, but this is less interesting to us than the idea he proposes of an art practice that does not produce anything, an art practice that takes boredom as its guiding principle.

We live in a world in which it is increasingly difficult to see where work starts and where it ends. Immaterial labour has become the dominant mode of production in capitalism, and it extends not just to the creation of ideas, or the flow of information, but also to the smile that accompanies your hamburger at a fastfood restaurant, or the network of social relations you maintain, with its blurred distinctions between friends and potential contacts for work.

This vague and extended definition of work is nothing new to independent and self-employed artists, who have always managed to carve out an existence under different conditions of precariousness. What is new, however, is how notions of creativity and flexibility, once held to be exclusive to that kind of existence, seem to have become the desired attributes of a workforce in which those cumbersome categories of “paid employees” and “welfare recipients” are metamorphosing into “freelancing subcontractors”.

When the freelancing “cultural producer” becomes a kind of role-model for the working class, unemployment becomes just another opportunity to realize your potential: Be creative, start your own business, live and work like an artist! It suggests that having a job has less to do with its availability, than on your own willingness, and ability, to adapt to a flexible labour market and to comply with hidden codes of social conduct.

How could the cultural freelancer articulate some kind of resistance to this libertarian annexation of its  way of life, we wonder, as we listen to the noise from the crowd on the street. The problem is that despite the informal collaborations and strategic alliances artists, designers, etc... may forge, these highly individualized occupations have no recourse to the power of collectivity we hear outside. But perhaps that is not the point, especially since we suspect that even that traditional manifestation of the working class, the collective strike action, has lost the ability to really change the course of labour's future.

If the figure of the artist can inspire an expanded notion of work, however, it may very well inspire an extended notion of not working too. We remember the project of Pilvi Takala, a Finnish artist who worked for a month as a trainee at the marketing department of Deloitte. At first she appeared to look like a normal member of the working community at the office. After a while though, her colleagues discover that there is something strange about the new girl, who sits at her desk all day with her hands folded in her lap, doing nothing at all. On another day, she stands in the elevator, riding with the people that are moving between floors, but never getting off with them. When they ask her what she is doing, she tells them that she is thinking, doing “brain work”.

The good-natured amusement with which they initially react to her enigmatic presence gradually makes way for feelings of unease and fear, as her colleagues struggle to maintain an air of normality. By the end of the month, her quiet demeanor is considered a threat to the peace on the workfloor, and demands are made to the superior to have her removed.

Takala's project demonstrates the potential for artistic and political meaning that lies in being idle and bored. Not working is perhaps one of the most significant activities an artist can pursue these days. And while we cannot claim to have the definitive answers to how the art world should respond to the call for a  strike, we have to admit that we were a little disappointed with the news that Manifesta 8, which is taking place in Murcia this year, has postponed their opening for a few days, “out of respect for the general strike” on September the 29th. It seems to us that an art event that seeks to play a critical role in the advancement and enhancement of dialogue within Europe, could do so much better than to display such flexibility.

Now if you'll excuse us, the sun is shining outside, and we are going to join our friends chanting the revolution. This text will have to write itself.

Sunday, 18 July, 2010

Published in: