“Always Working” in Fillip 18
Last month marked the publication of Fillip 18, featuring a specially edited section that seeks to extend the conversations about representing the conditions of labour in contemporary art that began last year with an exhibition I curated for Access Gallery, “Always Working.” While the artists in the show tended towards strategies of over-identification in their works, making their labour obvious or even ridiculous, the discussions that took place during the opening of the exhibition took another tack, thinking about why we often look outside the spaces of art to represent or critique the conditions of labour. Those conversations made me realize (particularly through the astute observations of Alexander Muir), that the question I was really asking through the exhibition was not about how art and everyday life might be more closely entangled through the conditions of labout, but rather why there is a block, or some kind of allergy, to representing the financial and labour conditions of art as a sphere of work: both in critical writing about art, and in art itself.
Part of my proposal to Access had been to extend and expand on the conversations started by the exhibition through a publication after the show closed, and, though the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the generosity of Kristina Lee Podesva and Jeff Khonsary—the editor and publisher of Fillip, respectively—I was able to use a section of the current issue of the magazine to try to tackle some of these questions. The result is the (rather uncreatively titled) special section of Fillip 18 “Always Working,” which includes two commissioned projects:
1) an essay by Sven Lütticken’s that looks at a history of attempts at making a film version of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, including Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s 2010 film, The Forgotten Space, and more recently, Harun Farocki and Antje Ehmann’s Labour in a Single Shot: a series of workshops where the two filmmakers challenge younger image producers to capture the contemporary conditions of labout in a single filmic take (Lütticken also writes about how these film projects ultimately circulate as commodities, as DVDs that change hands and are watched on laptops by art producers around the world);
2) a project by the artist Natascha Sadr Haghighian that charts three moments of recognizing the function of her work in the globally dispersed systems of artistic labour, from installing an exhibition at the Sharjah Biennial, to a discussion with her collaborator Uwe Schwarzer, who manufactures artworks for other artists, and through her negotiations with Casco to install an interactive version of an artwork that was originally intended as a refusal to comply with the conditions of overwork in the commercial gallery system.
In an attempt to follow Lütticken and Haghighian’s lead, I then wrote an editorial introduction that tried to self-reflexively think about why I find it difficult to account for my participation in systems of overwork in cultural production. Though it was a short text, it was one I struggled with, and which (strangely enough, and after a lot of prompting from my friend Jean-Paul Kelly) took the role of desire and love in relationship to work as its main theme. As I somewhat clumsily write towards the end of the introduction:
… to analyze the representation and aestheticization of labour in this way, as the product of the seductive powers of capitalism (and there is a well-established tradition of this type of Marxist critique in art discourse, typified by the criticism that has appeared in October since the 1970s), is to also obscure other, more nuanced desires that motivate our complicity with conditions of overwork and our need to represent them. Fantasies of autonomy—both from the commercial art market and from institutional authority—are undoubtedly central to some of these representational strategies, but they are also motivated by the inverse: by a desire for dependence, entanglement, and reliance. To articulate our practices of self-exploitation is to acknowledge our consensual participation in these systems, to admit that we want, as Andrea Fraser has put it, “to be appropriated by another.” These are the affective paradoxes of artistic labour that are repressed in representations of art-as-work: our autonomy comes at the masochistic price of working against our own best interests; to practice as an “independent curator” is to recognize and find pleasure in my bald dependence on the work of others.
These complex, often contradictory, experiences of working with and relying on others are also the conditions that, according to psychoanalytic theory, mark experiences of care. Drawing on the ideas of psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, Deborah Britzman proposes that experiences of care are both pleasurable and uncomfortable because “care itself is the advocacy of human dependency as the foundation of life, transience, and its vulnerability.”Because accepting care necessarily involves recognizing the limits of autonomy and acknowledging our dependence on others, it is always accompanied by fears of losing the other. According to Britzman, this is why experiences of care are difficult to represent: “the ‘labour’ of care leaves in its wake inexplicable experiences that are not work, that are good and bad, that signify both love and hate.”Psychoanalysis’s emphasis on the emotional vicissitudes of work and care help to explain why labour appears and disappears in the spaces of contemporary art. While there are recognizable strategies for representing the physical labour and financial conditions of art as a space of work, its affective registers—the desires, anxieties, and fantasies that motivate our participation in its conditions—remain only partially intelligible. The texts in this section attempt to chart some of these contradictions, bringing these usually obscured processes into view.
If we are always working, then we are also always desiring something from that work, and its visibility. The challenge is to embrace and articulate that desire, and the complex political and affective entanglements that go along with it.
I wasn’t totally satisfied with my own attempts at articulating the role of desire and love in the conditions of overwork, however, so I took the opportunity of the launch of Fillip 18, which happened at Access Gallery last week in Vancouver, to ask seven speakers to help me think through some of the other affective motivations we may have for participating in these systems. Charged with presenting texts that address the role of desire in labour, or the relationship between love and work, Jesse Birch, Allison Collins, Shaun Dacey, Amy Fung, Erdem Tasdelen, cheyanne turions and Vanessa Kwan graciously offered readings about love, engineering, international shipping, turds and scheduling time with your lovers via email.
It was my hope that, by presenting a variety of modes of writing about love and work, the reading salon might open up other, perhaps sexier, ways for us to think about our investments in art-as-work. But, like almost every public event I’ve organized over the past year, the reading salon felt like the beginning, rather than the end, of this conversation, and I desperately wished we had more time to talk about what all these readings—and our choice of texts—might have to offer the conversation about art and labour in the long term.