What I’m working for is something more than free. -Jason Isbell
Andrew Norman Wilson’s photographs from his 2012 ScanOps series uncover an impasse at the heart of labor. Here, fingers, sheathed in pink prophylactics (fig. 1) or blue digital masking (fig. 2), evidence the bodies whose invisible labor supports Google Books. If the digitalization industry dissolves its workers’ bodies to better accommodate the flow of information, these photographs return those bodies and their labor to the realm of the visible, making them count, if only minimally and ephemerally. We might call this a labor of materialization through unmasking. Wilson, however, does not create these images; they are not carefully constructed documents of labor’s abuses. Rather, these are found-photographs, glitches in Google’s mass-scanning project. Intercalated into the digitized pages of Google Books, they are available to anyone, obscured only by the unfathomable scale of the operation that produces them. Revealing what Marx calls the “physiognomic” dimension of labor time, Wilson’s photographs snatch these bodies out of the digital ether, where they are dispersed and abstracted except for a single quality: the suppleness of their fingers, which allows them to assist the scanning machines that, when working perfectly, automatically erase all evidence of their place-holding function (fig. 2 shows this erasure in process). In this most recent cluster of essays, we wanted to pursue the theme of labor as seen from the point-of-view of the placeholder, which strikes us as an essential, but often overlooked mode of laboring in today’s markets, and to ask, as Wilson’s images do, what are the politics and possibilities of placeholder labor?
Art Workers Coalition (1969), New York, NY. Photo: Mehdi Khonsari.
In the eighties and nineties there was a lot of talk about “services” and “administration” as new forms of labor being embraced by contemporary artists. These were characterized by art theorists (Benjamin Buchloh, Boris Groys and Nicholas Bourriard, to name a few) as outgrowths of conceptual art’s occupation of language and the supplement over and above the production of objects. Artists such as Andrea Fraser, at the center of a generation of artists tending toward ephemeral and temporary installations or performances, helped not only to explain this shift but also addressed the precarious state such a shift placed artists in as their roles migrated from producing objects to rendering services. Today the artist’s multivalent role as a producer is taken as a given. This is as much a result of our shifting economic conditions, as of evolving cultural expectations. The artist’s mobility as a laborer can no longer be thought of simply as an extension of the “art work” rethought—as it was in the conceptual practices of the seventies. Rather, the artist increasingly finds herself preoccupied by a variety of roles—teacher, writer, curator, maintenance worker, school administrator, marketer, fund raiser, etc.—whatever sort of “art work” it is she thinks of as the ultimate fruits of her labor. For this questionnaire we sought responses to and accounts of the artist within this condition of dispersed labor. We circulated a version of this preamble along with six questions. The responses are posted below in alphabetical order (an artist biography follows each submission). Submissions are published with minimal edits.
“Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time,” says Mierle Laderman Ukeles in her Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!, presented prominently in the first room of the artist’s recent retrospective at the Queens Museum in New York.
My Brilliant Friend (2012) The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), The Story of the Lost Child (2015), by Elena Ferrante, Translated by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions.
In her 1975 essay “Wages Against Housework,” feminist activist Silvia Federici argues that “housework”—cooking, cleaning, care, sex, kids—should be acknowledged as work, as something taken from the person who performs it and put to ends that are not her own. Part of a collective of Marxist and post-Marxist feminists working across Europe and North America, Federici had recently helped to launch “Wages for Housework” (or WfH), a campaign premised on the assertion that any attempt at class struggle must first contend with the unwaged domestic work expected of women. Written at time when New Left activists were accusing WfH of sidelining the interests of the industrial proletariat, Federici’s essay is both a rallying cry and a defense. Wages are not an end in themselves, she asserts; rather, they’re the only proof under capitalism that labor has taken place. “Exploited as you might be,” Federici explains, wages allow you to show that “you are not that work.”
What do we mean when we say that we “make the bed?” Is the making involved here the same making as when we talk about “making love?” Exactly what kind of “making” are we talking about, and what is it that is being made by these forms of poiesis? “Making” (poiesis) would here seem to refer to a kind of doing (praxis), yet a doing such that in nothing being “made” or produced—neither the bed nor love—we might say that the making of love and the making of the bed are the inoperative praxis of poiesis. They are workless forms of making, and thus affirm—through love or the bed—that that love and that bed are always already unmade. Continue reading
Early in 1969 a group of artists came together under the name “Art Worker’s Coalition” (AWC) in order to advocate for the rights of artists. Initially formed in response to the Museum of Modern Art’s mistreatment of a sculpture by a living artist and subsequent refusal to take that artist’s desires into consideration, the AWC quickly expanded into an activist group that agitated not only for artistic integrity and compensation, but also, and most visibly, for equal rights and an end to the Vietnam War. Continue reading