Placeholder Labor: An Introduction

Kris Cohen and Christa Noel Robbins

What I’m working for is something more than free.
-Jason Isbell
Fig. 1: Andrew Norman Wilson, The Inland Printer-164, 2012. Inkjet print on rag paper, painted frame, aluminum composite material. From the ScanOps series.

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.[1] 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.[2] 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).[3] 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?

Fig. 2: Andrew Norman Wilson, The Jungle – Frontmatter, 2012. Inkjet print on rag paper, painted frame, aluminum composite material. From the ScanOps series.

We might think of placeholder labor as akin to Marx’s concept of the Träger, or bearer of value, in commodity exchange. Marx describes the “physical properties of the commodity” as the “material bearers [Träger] of … exchange value.”[4] There is no direct correlation between those physical properties and the exchange value that comes to adhere in them—they are merely the material placeholders for value generated in and as exchange. Marx extends the placeholder properties of the Träger to another of capital’s components: the laboring figure, who carries or bears value along, “working it” (providing the “socially necessary labor-time”), but not creating it. Wilson’s photographs materialize something essential about this figure as the bearer of values: the manner by which value is generated through but not by the laborer. But Wilson’s found-images also make something clear that the figure of the Träger cannot. In Marx’s terms, the figure of the Träger, in bearing value along, might be seen to move value forward. The placeholder, however, in its pausing quality, has the potential to un-make, to counter value’s production and reproduction and, in its gesture of holding-open or marking, to disrupt, if only for a moment, the smooth processes of its own erasure. In its place-holding aspects, Wilson’s ScanOps series registers just such a pause in one of the most expansive systems within which today’s labor is dispersed—a pause just long enough to show us what was always there: the intransigent body inputting labor-time so that the derealized and “fantastic” system of value production can continue.

By declining the act of making, by frequently out-sourcing the searching required to find these images in Google Book’s vast database, by doing, in other words, little more than pointing to images that already exist in Google Books, Wilson takes on an interior position to the very processes his works materialize. This is a marked departure from the documentary practices of the early twentieth-century, such as those of Jacob Riis or Lewis Hines, for which the artist’s labor is necessarily removed from the labor they depict. In that removal, politicized documentary practices like Riis’s seem always caught somewhere between paternalism and solidarity—while the worker is immobilized, if only in the realm of representation, the artist roams far and wide. In Wilson’s practice, however, the artist merely sustains the laborer’s placeholder status, as if neither he nor they can do more than hold open the page of the book so we and the machines can get a good look.

As new modes of filling our “socially necessary labor-time” emerge—picking Amazon’s shelves, removing Facebook’s offending content, training robots to do one’s own job—a reconsideration of the value of place-holding seems especially pressing. We are particularly interested in pursuing this topic for Open Set to seek out positive or reparative views of the kind of non-sovereign subject-position that bears rather than crafts relations. The differently productive space that the placeholder holds open is one that scholars and artists have long investigated. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “weak theory” and Lauren Berlant’s “lateral sovereignty,” as well as Patrick Jagoda’s recent description of ambivalence as a critical subject position, all work toward a description of what it is to fill time and bear relations that one occupies but does not create.[5] Fred Moten, re-writing Marx’s fantasy of the “commodity that speaks” as a history of slave labor, reminds us that the co-location of the commodity’s materialization and the laborer’s body has always been a source of both violence as well as resistance for black bodies.[6] The “undercommons” of black study, as Moten and Stefano Harney conceptualize it, radicalizes such placeholder labor: in the undercommons, the placeholder is always already using the space afforded to the laborer, holding open a place for the alternative, non-reproductive ends, of, in Moten and Harney’s terms, “fugitive planning.”[7] John Paul Ricco’s work (a contributor to this cluster) similarly attunes us to the work of unworking, of erasure and “unbecoming” as a radical re-inhabitation of the bearing of relations. In Ricco’s writing, sex, for instance, is neither self-inflating nor self-dissolving; it is about holding open a space, as irreducible difference, between people.[8] These projects do not attempt to describe or create spaces that foster less alienated forms of labor; rather they, like Wilson’s photographs, explore and re-think the vacuoles occupied by the placeholder and the kind of thought and action made possible therein.

We begin the cluster with a questionnaire that addresses the day-to-day activities of the working artist. Circulated to a number of contemporary artists, the questionnaire asked for reflections on the potential disconnect between the labor by which artists “earn their living” and the labor by which they pursue their practice. Some of the artists who responded feel emphatically that there is no difference between the two, in part because they make work that is about making a living. Others find it difficult to reconcile these two, feeling that their living often steals time from their practice. And there were a handful of artists who did not want to respond to questionnaire at all, in part because Open Set cannot (yet) pay a fee to its contributors. In line with today’s W.A.G.E. movement, they will not work without compensation or, in the words of W.A.G.E.: they “demand payment for making the world more interesting.” Anna E. Clark, in a review of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, addresses the uneven terms of compensation in creative labor. There the issue is less about the difficulties of earning a wage as a creative producer than it is about the skewed standards by which labor is judged as creative in the first place. Focused on the legacies of feminist labor critique in Ferrante’s novels, Clark’s review reminds us that a debate begun several decades ago with the publication of feminist tracts like Silvia Federici’s 1975 “Wages Against Housework” remains sharply relevant today. The question of what does and does not count as creative work is also at the heart of Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s practice. Allie Tepper reviews the first comprehensive retrospective of Ukeles’s “maintenance art” at the Queens Museum, demonstrating that despite its critical reflection on labor practices, the avant-garde’s compulsion to move forward, to dramatically separate from one’s predecessors, too often elides the kind of work it takes to simply maintain art, let alone one’s own body and the bodies placed in one’s care. John Paul Ricco offers a lyrical essay on the separation that arises “in the midst of intimacy,” a separation that Ricco argues is constitutive of intimacy as such. Ricco here continues a line of thought he has long been pursuing, arguing that this separateness, this finitude that is the condition of being with others, is not to be mourned, but simply observed—it is just a fact about our being always “together-apart” and, as such, need not be overcome. Here non-reproductive labor, the labor of unmaking, is located at the very heart of the most laborious of all relations: intimacy. Finally, we have included a reprinting of and introduction to Andrea Fraser’s 1994 essay “How to Provide an Artistic Service: An Introduction.” In this essay Fraser offers a “methodology” for redressing the increasingly precarious nature of art making in the nineties, when artists stopped making objects and tended instead toward ephemeral, project-based works. As with today’s W.A.G.E. movement, Fraser’s research into the terms of service-work in the arts continues a mode of artist advocacy that began with the Art Workers Coalition in the late-sixties, the aim of which, in Fraser’s words, was “to collectively redefine both the material conditions of [artists’] practices and [art’s] social function […].”[9]

Each of these contributions describes a moment when value and labor are prised apart. In so doing, they provide resources for thinking about new and emergent modalities of work while also showing how those new forms are animated by both recent and most distant histories; they illuminate new imperatives of productivity by describing spaces of radical un- or non-productivity; and they help model new ways to track the ongoing commerce, but also the ongoing potential for solidarity, between aesthetics and other sites of labor. That is, they each theorize forms of labor while also performing them. Theory, criticism, speculation, even history are, in their own ways, forms of placeholder labor.

[1] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (New York, New York: Continuum International Publishing House, 2004).

[2] In most cases, Wilson doesn’t even perform the subsidiary labor of recovering these images. See Kenneth Goldsmith “The Artful Accidents of Google Books,” The New Yorker, December 4, 2013,  

[3] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, Ben Fowkes, trans. (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 137.

[4] Marx, Capital, 126.

[5] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading, Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003); Lauren Berlant, “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency),” Critical Inquiry 33, no. Summer (2007); Patrick Jagoda, Network Aesthetics (Chicago, IL.: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[6] Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

[7] Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe; New York; Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2013).

[8] John Paul Ricco, The Decision Between Us: Art and Ethics in the Time of Scenes (Chicago, IL.: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

[9] Andrea Fraser, “Services A Working Group Exhibition,” in Games, Fights, Collaboration, Beatrice von Bismarck, Deithelm Stoller, Ulf Wuggenig, eds. (Das Spiel von Grenze und Überschreitung: Stutgart, 1996).