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?

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The Labor Issue: Questionnaire

Image result for Art Workers Coalition (AWC)'s "Art Workers Won't Kiss Ass" (1969),

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.

Sara Black & Amber Ginsburg | Critical Art Ensemble | Robert Davis | Harrell Fletcher | Michelle Grabner | Matthew Metzger | Boru O’Brien O’Connell | Karen Reimer | Tyler Rowland

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Andrea Fraser’s “How to Provide an Artistic Service: An Introduction”

Christa Noel Robbins introduces Andrea Fraser’s 1994 talk.

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