A Report on Occupation Workplace
4th – 6th February 2013. Brigid McLeer, Jane Ball, Corey Hayman, Craig Cooper, Sam Kelly and Jake Watts participated in a workshop named ‘Occupation Workspace’.
This workshop occurred at the Mead Gallery, situated in the campus of Warwick University, in the West Midlands. The participants inhabited a staged curatorial conceit that constituted a section of the then current exhibition ‘Workplace’. The exhibition displayed the video works of Abel Abidin, Emily Jacir, Joao Onofre, Pilvi Takala, Superflex, John Wood and Paul Harrison.
What follows is a report on the issues discussed, processes undertaken and a series of thoughts on the prospective future of the project past the primary activity:
Please Familiarise Yourself with Your Surroundings, In Case of Emergency
The structure of Occupation Workplace prior to our inhabiting of the space was kept purposefully loose. The intention being that the environment in which the process occurred would act as the stimulus for conversation that could, but not necessarily, culminate in the production of a response to issues raised through our discussions.
The artworks within the Mead Gallery’s exhibition articulated a narrow focus (especially visually) on the concept of workplace, with particular emphasis on offices as a site of work and living. Their own description of the exhibition indicated that they were attempting “explore the workplace through contemporary art as a universal experience, one which cuts across political and geographical boundaries as well as distinctions between types of industry, including the production of art”1.
While offering an overview of some common sites of post-fordist work production, through office environments and artists’ studios, the works within the exhibition did not engage explicitly with the conversations that parallel these environs. There was a notable absence of discussion dealing with artists and their relationship to concepts of labour and work in terms of material, immaterial and affective modes of creation and subsequently the sites in which these definitions are being dissected, namely institutional constructs such as the economic market and academic discourses surrounding the philosophy of post-workerism and the associated fields of inquiry.
Working through Discussion/Discussion as Work
“Not thinking about art while making art is different to not thinking while preparing a powerpoint presentation. Of course I am working even when it looks as if I am not working. And even if I am not working and it looks as if I am not working I still might claim to be working and wait for you to work out what objective signifiers actually point towards any moment of value or work. This is the game of current art. Art production and work methods are not temporally linked or balanced because the idea of managing time is not a key component of making art, nor is it a personal or objective profit motive for artists. Unless they decide that such behaviour is actually part of the work itself.” – Liam Gillick2
Once in conversation the group consistently utilised the term immaterial labour to refer to the unaccountable nature of thought processes that precede the manifestation of ideas as artistic acts. In relation to defining these terms David Graeber’s position in interrogating immaterial labour as inherent within cultural production in his article ‘The Sadness of Post-workerism’ proffers his assertions regarding the ineffective definitions that currently exist when discussing these processes; when he states that “Immaterial labour, we are told, is labour that produces information and culture. In other words it is immaterial not because the labour itself is immaterial (how could it be?) but because it produces immaterial things”3. This moves to imply that immaterial labour as a dichotomy with material labour (in a Marxist sense) is reductive and that “the labour of creating people and social relations has always been the most important form of human endeavour in any society”4.
The group alluded to the potential of these approaches when the conversations moved to define art as offering a fluid approach to dealing with current social and critical issues in a way that traditional leftist movements cannot. One of the flaws, and simultaneously strengths, of those movements being that they are restricted by having to occupy their position through the languages they have developed to represent themselves, languages that have given them the autonomy they require. Whereas art occupies positions through visual and representative systems to produce objective spaces that create the flexibility to engage a range of arguments, yet will ultimately be subsumed by the very systems it critiques. An example of this would be the language of surrealism that attempted to dissect consumer culture becoming the very devices advertising now uses to engage its audiences.
Concerns around validating these processes became the basis of our primary discussions; in turn the social implications of these issues formed the preparatory foregrounding for manifesting a commentary on the subjects through some form of artistic action.
The conversations that followed used each individuals understanding of their own practice in relation to how they articulate their processes to others through artworks. We moved on to discuss concerns of how this communication is contextualized by those that experience it.
Some of the experiences drawn on were stimulated by a sense of what I would regard as artistic guilt that is commonly present in, but not limited to, practioners who do not produce art objects as products as necessitated by the current capitalist model. This guilt is based on the artists need to validate their practice in a visible and often physical way due to preoccupation with the idea that art can be threatening to people when it serves no immediately apparent function, hence the need to be seen as contributing to society through art objects or actions as products.
This apprehension is compounded by societal misgivings regarding the creative industries, ones that attempt to reduce creative processes to fiscal outcomes. This misunderstanding is currently being established in the minds of prospective audiences of art due to the perpetuation of misconceived notions of expecting instrumentality in the arts, accompanied by a lack of accountability being sited within the sources that contributed to the systemic economic crisis.
The clearest example of this being government cuts to arts funding, which flies in the face of the fact that the creative industries as a sector are second only to banking as contributors to this country’s national GDP (I wish to note that I acknowledge using GDP as representative of the complete economic situation to be limited) and that it is essential to developing, non-statistically representative, national cultural identity.
Actions/Reactions: Processing the Conversation
In an attempt to rationalise the content of the conversations prior to attempting to communicate it to others external of the group, we collectively decided to develop individual responses. We tasked ourselves to transcribe our responses to audio recordings of the collective conversations that had occurred. This process enabled a mode of democratic horizontal decision making that employed recursion as a method through which to develop the content; each individual produced their own interpretations in a non-hierarchical process that generated content for further discussion. This took the form of dealing with the content laterally to create systems of infinite reflection that each participant could continue contribute to.
Some participants chose to directly edit the audio content, others produced visuals and others focused on non-literal translations of the spoken content of the recordings. Upon reconvening with our individual interpretations of the conversations we took time to understand each others’ approaches and analyse overlapping interests.
Concurrent to that undertaking we also began to add resources to the Occupation Workplace blog. The blog operated as a co-authored outwardly facing outlet of information to the public that provided a secondary site through which to generate discussion with individuals not participating in the workshop.
To my mind these activities were, to appropriate a definition by Freidric Jameson as used by Nick Srnicek in his talk on ‘Navigating the Neoliberal’, a process of Cognitive Mapping through which we utilised “the means to make our own world intelligible to ourselves through a situational understanding of our own position”5. Dealing with conceptual hyper-entities such as Neoliberalism and the spectre it has cast upon all areas of life, we were equipped to develop an understanding of our position through an “Ontology of feedback loops, emergent effects and contingent outcomes”6.
The act of consolidating our understanding and opinions on the topics we discussed required deploying these processes. It was embodied further in the secondary forms of documentation that operated tangentially to our actions in the form of time-lapse photography of the space, video recordings and audio recordings. This content would be added to the blog and later cannibalised to produce further iterations of our actions that ran contingently to our performing and re-performing the meta-texts produced by the participants. These undertakings were acts of experimentation that, as Hans Ulrich Obrist defined in relation to his own collaborative project Labortorium, were a “lumping [together of] diverse practices under a single category that comes unproblematically to signify interdisciplinary, avant-gardism, cultural improvement, and often, political progressiveness.”7
It was experiments through performances that would constitute a consolidation of our occupation of the space at the end of the three days. We restaged the devices employed within the curatorial conceit in which we were sited, working to create a platform through which to perform the texts. Those performances took the form of participating in a further act of recursion as we worked as a group to orate the various transcriptions within the space whilst the other iterations echoed those actions in other areas of the space.
This manifestation of the cyclical practices achieved a twofold process of making present the process of conversation as meaningful work whilst simultaneously acting to plot our relationships as individuals to the space and project. The processes applied resulted in an outwardly facing performance observed by visitors to the gallery that dealt with the issues that we as a group had internally produced.
A Fork in the Road: Looking Backwards, to Deal with the Present, to Look Forwards
The nature in which Occupation Workplace culminated as a workshop came from a collective decision to work on asserting the labour of thought and discussion as an artwork through its documentation and creatively rearticulating that material. The process at the time was a logical act to undertake, I personally found the process explorative and cathartic due to it producing a resolution of the issues in an immediate sense.
Occupation Workplace constructed a reproducible model of action that we were aware of creating from our first meeting. While Occupation Workplace currently exists as a forum of discussion through its blog (now that the participants have dispersed), the potential for a revisiting and an introduction of new participants remains. To return to the original conversation that occurred on our arrival in the space offers a possible reimagining of a different direction in which the project could have, or prospectively could, develop.
Firstly, we discussed the possibility that the act of discussion occurring within the space for the period of the workshop, in and of itself, could have sufficed as a complete action. It is most likely that the very artistic anxiety that we highlighted in our conversations got the better of us and we acted on the impulse to make present the act in a very material way but without the set of actions that followed we would not have as concrete a relationship to the collective understanding of the areas of concern as that which we established.
This leads me back to a second strand of conversation that remained in its infancy during the workshop. This was a (seemingly inevitable considering the title of the workshop) discussion of the Occupy Movement. The participants attempted to draw similarities between current art practices and Occupy, likenesses such as having many addressees and utilising modelling as a way to instigate change. There was also the acknowledgement that as model, rather than as a system, Occupy was inevitably going to capitulate. I would suggest that the reason art as a system continues to sustain itself is that it is a complex mimetic assembly that, however indefinably complex, has a solid structure from which models can be born and capitulate in a self-serving cycle.
Having already cited Graeber in these reflections, it is pertinent to mention that since early 2008 (the time at which he wrote the sadness of post-workerism) he has become heavily involved in the Occupy Movement, providing critical articulation and reasoning behind its emergence. At that time he had offered similar insights to the conclusions we drew in during the workshop when he suggested that “While they are not always self-consciously revolutionary, artistic circles have had a persistent tendency to overlap with revolutionary circles; presumably, precisely because these have been spaces where people can experiment with radically different, less alienated forms of life.”8
With that in mind it would seem to me, that to consider Occupation Workplace’s future would be to develop a strategy through which it can employ artistic objectivity to create new models of participation and thinking, particularly those related to dealing with the present situations in workplaces.
As Berardi suggests “The future itself is a cultural construct”9 and as cultural agents, artists, are ideally suited to assist in defining that cultural construct. Occupation Workplace could be a collaborative vehicle through which acts of alternative models could be developed and implemented.
To do this it specifically requires collaboration with participants that would not usually operate within the artworld; allowing for it to become critically reflective and assertive in ways it has yet to do, despite the various sources of research the participants thus far have drawn on.
During the 1980’s artists entered fordist workplaces and collaborated with workers and within unions to strengthen the voice of individuals within those systems. The economic landscape has however moved into a post-fordist existence due to globalisation, with the laxness of trade laws in other cultures seeing the movement of material manufacturing to these locations. The resultant worker’s plight, I speak specifically to Britain and western European countries, has been the struggle to have a collective voice in the un-unionised precarious workforce.
The co-opting of the model established by Occupation Workplace may be most effectively employed in an anarcho-syndicalist fashion, locating these disenfranchised workforces in their localities. My hope would be that re-siting the workshop in these environments would allow each of the participants, in each reiteration of Occupation Workplace, the opportunity to wrangle with their definition of workplace and concepts of work, as the participants at the Mead Gallery were afforded the chance to. With the aim of debunking the notion that capitalism is the default system of work.
This is not a new concept, people such as Alex Foti have been working since 1998 to attempt to unionise what he defines as ‘the new precariat’ through the organisation of chainworkers10 who constitute the workforces of the retail and service industries. Attempting to break down the Neoliberal conditioning entrenched within large capitalist organisations, and systems of commerce, that have isolated the individuals who work for them and stripped them of their rights – under the guise of flexibility.
While these actions are direct in attempting to establish a language through which these individuals can speak and effect positive judicial changes to their rights, Occupation Workplace could function to augment these efforts by helping those same types of workers to cognitively map their position within the systems they contribute to, through the objectivity afforded to art practices. Through this awareness a coherent position of how to reason and remedy these inequalities could be established and acted upon.
With this thought I return to Graeber and his talk of prophets: “Of course the real role of the prophet: [is] to organize the desires of the multitude, to help these already-existing forms of communism burst out of their increasingly artificial shackles”11. Artists may not be those prophets, but collaborative art models could produce meaningful work to help formulate spaces for new prophets to emerge. These new prophets could help theorise a less dystopic vision of the future, one not bound to exist in the same cyclical perpetuation of capitalist concerns; a future where individuals can determine their own concepts of work and its value for themselves.
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