Issue #41, 2012

Heigh-Ho! The Need To Re-Materialize The Immaterial Labor
Cristian Nae

The Workers: Precarity, Invisibility, Mobility, MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA, 29 May 2011 – 31 March 2012
At Your Service – Art and Labour,Technishes Museum Wien and Erste Stiftung, 23 March 2012 – 3 March 2013

If certain terms such as „immaterial labor“, „general intellect“, „service industry“ and „creative industries“1 have long seized the post-Fordist discourse about the situation of today’s mobile, flexible and interconnected proletariat, and terms such as „multitude“2 have replaced the references to the masses, the proletariat and the collective subject of the Marxist view, the critical discourse about the emancipative potential of labor and the resources of its neo-capitalist exploitation is far from being exhausted. On the contrary, it seems to have refined and rallied to some analyses of the new living conditions such as the increasingly precarious working conditions (extended and generalized to an ontological level3) in order to question the increased gap between the rich and the poor, as well as the refinement of the exploitation and capitalization methods. In other words, it seems to be more frequently called upon to identify the increasing gap between those prebendaries of the invisible corporate hyper-bourgeoisie (who are asked, as experts, to solve the major problems of modern economy) and the precari – meaning the rest of us, including artists and cultural industry workers.4 Is it possible that the birth of a new discourse about labor would avoid its purely reflective condition in relation to the society, and thus shirking the failure of the artistic discourse to produce performative effects in a society dominated by the internalization of the critical discourse in the very heart of the culture industry’s fundamental mechanisms of reproduction?

The growing number of exhibitions which have labor as a subject in the last years not only indicates an increasingly acute crisis of the capitalist society, which manifested itself in collective spontaneous movements such as „occupy“ during the last years, but also the need to constantly rethink the constructive potential of the Marxist discourse. The increasing interest for this subject can be explained by the fact that revisiting the labor issue in the contemporary exhibition practice becomes a more acute necessity given the conditions of its depoliticizing through aestheticization and camouflage. Or, the very reverse of the society of the spectacle consists of camouflaging physical labor behind the organization of information, the production and the circulation of images. In other words, people tend to forget that the spending and consumption of free time becomes a form of labor in itself, that the production of subjectivity is our daily labor, and, finally, that the service industry is grounded on the maintenance labor of the invisible – the unemployed, the homeless, the day laborers, the volunteers, the workers in maintenance services and the workers in the affective service industry – for which, as Foucault observed, the social support systems play exactly the punitive role of sanitizing the public space and removing the useless ones from the scopic system of the generalized hedonism. Making visible the systemic complexity of the immaterial labor and finding strategies to counter its visual manipulation methods is therefore the responsibility of the institutions of contemporary art which seems to derive directly from the privileged place occupied by contemporary visual arts among all the contemporary mechanisms of social representation.

Two exhibitions with similar themes seem to suggest different (and successful) ways to assume this responsibility. The recently closed exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) named simply The Workers aims to question how the artists in the last decade have chosen to address the poor condition of contemporary labor, which forces the worker to adapt to the increased mobility of temporary job offers. This direction is made clear in the subtitle of the exhibition Precarity, Invisibility, Mobility – in fact, a response to the slogan „The Mark of Reliability“ of Sprague, the former electricity company, in the buildings of which the museum currently operates. The exhibition illustrates the intersection of labor with issues such as unemployment, homelessness, illegal employment, geopolitical conflicts and declining environmental responsibility. The curatorial selection made by Susan Cross sought (and managed to gather) various tactics of self-reflection and critical positioning, thus managing to impress with the individual quality of the works exhibited (not less than 40). If Tyler Rowland’s work, All the Objects You Need to Install the Work of Art (Gustave Courbet’s Stonebreakers), suggests, through a biographical reference, the precarious condition of the artist’s labor, often forced to perform invisible works during the setting-up of the artwork, raising the problem of the relationship between the maintenance work and the actual work of art, Harun Farocki’s film focuses on and emphasizes the suspended state of the worker between work and free time, the rift between these two ways of producing subjectivity in which the alienation of the individual through labor is also recovered in the condition of anonymity. The emotional and invisible aspects of the workers portrayed at work or during training breaks, are captured photographically by Allan Sekula and Claire Beckett, who re-insert individuality in the subjects they work with and expose their vulnerability. Sekula insists on the exhausted figures of the volunteers involved in the ecological disaster on the coast of Spain in 2002, while Beckett focuses on the situation of the soldiers during the training period, contrasting the fragility of these young people with the difficult tasks required by this type of work. The cynical, self-referential and performative reference to the issue of underpaid labor and dehumanizing conditions involved by this type of work, which is often illegal, is a common tactic for Santiago Sierra, present in the exhibition with two of his works. One is Burial of Ten Workers, Calambrone, Italy, in 2010, for which Sierra has hired ten men to be buried in the sand, and an action in which veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are forced to work in shifts facing the wall during the exhibition. If the first intervention also illustrates the symbolic disappearance of workers in the post-industrial economy, the second evokes a punitive and anti-heroic measure while revealing the anonymity of this type of labor specific to the war industry and to necro-capitalism. This cynical questioning of the borders between the ethic and the aesthetic, which highlights the dehumanization accompanying the precariousness of the working conditions, is also to be found in Yoshua Okón’s works such as Canned Laughter (2009), who hired unemployed people to mimic the work they’ve used to perform on the production lines in Ciudad Juárez, in a scenario that serves as an allegory of exploitation in show business and, at the same time, of the dematerialization of labor. His subjects bottle forced laughter for sitcoms produced in a grotesque orchestration and a strict management of labor conditions. Anthony Hernandez uses photography to investigate and discover the physical traces of the lives of the homeless in the urban landscape of Los Angeles in a series of works made between 1989 and 2007, while Adrian Paci chooses to use the video to show the generalization of the „state of exception“ which describes the situation of illegal workers captive in concentration camps in Italy, absurdly called Centro di Permanenza Temporanea(Temporary Permanence Centers), in an allegory of both invisibility and resignation, as well as of quiet resistance. Using illegal immigrants from California, waiting silently for a non-existent aircraft to take off from a busy airport, Paci also manages to reveal the general condition of the underpaid labor mobility by suspending it in time and isolating it in a symbolic moment, similar to operation of photographic revelation of the social substrates.

Finally, the exhibition brought together works that can be read as individual explorations of various geopolitical conditions in which labor can become a revealing factor of the socio-political transformations in the region. For example, Mircea Cantor’s work, I’m Selling My Free Time, eludes the objectuality of the labor products expressing directly the Marxist relationship between the wages and the time spent in producing the object having as a background the precarious labor situation (and the development of the black market) in the post-socialist economy, also suggesting the negotiable and variable nature of the labor agreements and thus, implicitly, the variability of the relationship between free time and work time in this economy. In its turn, the snapshot made by Osman Bozkurt in Budapest (Destruction, 2007) which captures the work done to eradicate the signs of the socialist past in a strange negative reflection of the representation of the heroic effort previously made to build the „new world“, testifies for the way the neo-capitalist expansion symbolically devalues labor while contributing to the economic colonization by a simultaneous de-culturalization and obliteration of the collective memory.

The second exhibition, opened recently in Vienna, offers a collective reflection on labor along with the reflection on technologization and thus of modernity. Designed as an intervention inside the Museum of Technology in Vienna and implemented with the support of ERSTE Stiftung, the exhibition, curated, at the museum’s invitation, by Silvia Eiblmayr and Christiane Erharter, entitled At Your Service – Art and Labour, addressesthe problem of mechanization and automation of labor as a general phenomenon faced both by the Fordist industry and the post-Fordist service industry as well. But, without insisting on this starting point, the exhibition rather seems to explore the issue of technology understood as a condition of the late modernity, as a specific form of world domination (Ge-Stell), which is achieved by exploring certain specific aspects of labor in a fragmented Europe. In its turn, it outlines the instability and volatility of the labor force and the constituent aspect of labor for today’s relations and social processes. Unemployment, labor flexibility and dematerialization, poor working conditions, the consequences of mechanization, production supervision and the internalization of control are, as well, some of the many reflections which the curators of the exhibition integrate into a coherent reading process, complementing the didactic and educational offering of the museum.

In fact, what draws attention in this case is the critical strategy which relates the labor issue to the educational role of the museum. Thus, perhaps one of the most important acquisitions of this exhibition is the attention to where it is located and to its existing functionality, and the fact that it manages to avoid contouring an exhibition for a specialized audience only. On the contrary, taking into account the existence of an audience already established, mainly made up of museum visitors, the curators propose an exhibition discourse that is intelligible and direct, lacking the historical mediation and the excessive criticism, yet without becoming thereby populist or vulgarizing. The small size of the exhibition, discreetly inserted in the structure of the museum, is very helpful for this self-conscious positioning, offering a service as a reflection on services and thus introducing art into the social field of labor by a quasi-Adornian act of both denial and sublimation of the status of the artistic labor in the work.

Another important aspect of the exhibition is the production of new works, four out of the seven invited artists producing works commissioned especially for this event. Their emplacement in conjunction with the themes already established in the museum, such as „Energy Production“, „Rail Transport“, „Daily Life“ or „Heavy Industry“ is also remarkable. In Roll of Honour, Anna Jermolaewa makes an intervention on the institutional structure of the museum, which focuses on the de-hierarchization of the labor process as well as on the collective aspect of the constructive efforts without individual benefits (either symbolic or, more often today, financial) made for the good of the institution imagined by the artist. The panel lists the museum staff in alphabetical order accompanied by a standard photo, thus dismantling the existing management structure. This egalitarian utopia counters the productivist myth still in vogue in large corporations, overlapping the socialist ideology of labor as material activity to the neo-capitalist one, which is flexible and intangible, in order to extract from this conjunction the community aspect still unspoiled by the collectivist ideology of the communist mass subject. Ulrike Lienbacher proposes a simple intervention which can be easily mistaken for one of the technological devices of the museum, making a system of mirrors watching over the public, both spectacular and effective on a symbolic level and inefficient in the current conditions of artistic display. Lienbacher is thus transgressing the boundaries of the autonomy of art as a tool of reflecting the social processes, suspending at the same time the interventionist aspect. Other works directly explore the precariousness, the mobility and the invisibility of labor. In Nordbahn, Anna Jermolaewa documents the situation of the labor force mobility, explored through a series of interviews, short excursions into the lives of many workers forced to work in Austria in conditions lacking social security. The invisibility of the workers in the industry of maintenance services is emphasized by the video work Drift: diagram xii made by Anne Tallentire, which exhibits in slow motion the routine activities of the employees working in London’s financial district, routine which mirrors precisely its invisibility conditions in the public space. The sculpture proposed by Daniel Knorr both in the museum and in the public space (Alpha and Beta Begging Robots) explores the complex relationship between unemployment, the black market of services and the work ethics, raising uncomfortable questions not only about the relationship between man and machine (is a machine more entitled to beg than a man?), but also between the various forms and conditions of labor in the contemporary society (when does labor become a blamable practice and under what conditions is a social practice valued positively, despite the crass exploitation of the worker and the alienation of production?). Finally, the changes that have occurred in the creative process, and thus the function of writing is explored by Pavel Brăila in a history of the typewriter which traces the transition from the era of the print and manuality to the digital era, a change affecting in a broader sense the way we memorize, stock and produce information as well as our current forms of subjectivization.

To complement this process, the exhibition also incorporates earlier works, such as the already famous Turn On (2004) (also exhibited by Adrian Paci, among others, at the Venice Biennale), an impressive focus on the issue of unemployment. This work not only coagulates the physical energy produced by the power generators, needed for it to become visible as a social phenomenon, but also the social energy required for the silent gathering of people to take the form of protest and to acquire a political dimension as a collective phenomenon of the unvoiced resistance. The mechanization of the labor force and the different speeds of the economic modernization process in Europe, Africa and India are being compared, without value judgments, in the video Comparison via a Third (2007) by Harun Farocki.

One could argue that the two exhibitions only manage to stay within the boundaries of a social representation, lacking a direct political engagement, thus becoming inefficient methods of social criticism. They do not aim to work with the local communities, do not identify problems and do not initiate specific strategies to artistically solve (more or less temporarily) these problems, they do not intend to operate on the boundary between social services and the engaged art practice. One could also upbraid the passive approach of the public with whom they operate, as well as that the mere representation of certain issues, the effect of which cannot be anything more than public awareness in a Habermasian representation of the exhibition as a public sphere, is not sufficient to stimulate and empower the proletariat, and finally, to start a revolution without educators and without ruling elites, in the manner Rancière would ideate the emancipatory aesthetic experience (and putting it into practice).5 However, the conceptual coherence of the curatorial selection and the focus of the discourse presented in the museum in the first case, and the intelligent way to relate with the existing offer of the museum in the second case, are outstanding options to approach the public sphere by the materialization of the reproduction conditions of immaterial labor and thus to represent broader social structures and processes in which they are inserted. Moreover, bringing into question the precariousness of labor in the contemporary society is a symptom of the fact that this problem no longer represents the appanage of the leftist discourse which seems to dominate the current scene of critical art, but is an emergency for a wider public debate.

Translated by Alex Moldovan



1. ‑See Maurizio Lazarrato, „Immaterial Labor“, in M. Hardt and P. Virno (eds.), Radical Thought in Italy, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1996; Paolo Virno, „Notes on the ’General Intellect’“, in Marxism beyond Marxism, eds. Saree Makdisi et al., London – New York, Routledge, 1996, pp. 265–272.

2. ‑Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, Los Angeles – New York, Semiotext(e), 2004; Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, London, Penguin Books, 2005.

3. ‑I’m thinking here not only of Judith Butler’s analyses concerning the existential insecurity existing in the United States after September 11, in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London, Verso, 2006, but also of the more general analyses made by Renata Salecl according to which the corporate system’s mechanisms of accountability and self-blame of producing subjectivity result in generalized anxiety, elaborated in The Tyrrany of Choice, London, Profile Books, 2011.

4. ‑Vaclav Belohradsky, „Prebendaries and Precari“,

5. ‑See, for example, Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, London – New York, Continuum, 2006.