– Summer 2012

Artistic Labour, Enclosure and the New Economy

Alberto López Cuenca

Carlos Amorales, Flames Maquiladora, 2003. Installation view, Dutch Pavilion, Venice Biennale. Courtesy the artist and kurimanzutto, Mexico City

Labour has become a frequent topic in contemporary art.1 However, this text will focus not so much on the topic of labour as on the way in which contemporary artists labour. Under the eminently financial, speculative and flexible conditions set by the New Economy, how has artistic labour changed?2 In 2002 Mexican artist Carlos Amorales presented, for the first time, Flames Maquiladora at the South London Gallery. Visitors were asked to cut wrestling shoes out of vinyl sheets, working as if in a maquiladora, one of those assembly plants set up by transnational companies in Mexico to exploit cheap local labour. Amorales did not make his visitors work as a mere parody of these practices, however, but rather he made the point they were actually working for the art world. Under the slogan ‘Work for Fun, Work for Me’, a poster explained to the public how to do the toiling for free, and in the end visitors did not produce any wrestling shoes but simply the spectacle of performing artistic labour. The audience was the concrete work-force that made the art piece happen. In other words, Amorales’s installation was not just a metaphor: it actually outsourced the free labour that made it possible. Flames Maquiladora is just one instance of the broader transformation that artistic labour has undergone in the last decades.3

Temporary and unprotected labour is far from novel for cultural producers, since most artists have historically worked under precarious conditions. In contrast to the rest of the work-force during the rise of capitalism in the nineteenth century, artists who abandoned the art academies, or never joined

  1. Labour under capitalism has been a topic at least since nineteenth-century naturalist art, as in the case of Constantin Meunier’s sculptures of workers and Jean-François Millet’s paintings. More recently, exhibitions such as ‘Work Ethic’ (2003—04) at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the works of Santiago Sierra, SUPERFLEX and many other artists have taken up the topic of labour. In this respect, see Marina Vishmidt, ‘Situation Wanted: Something about Labour’, Afterall, issue 19, Autumn/Winter 2008, pp.21—34.

  2. The term New Economy is commonly used in contemporary sociology and political economy to refer to the financial, speculative and highly technologised economy of the 1990s. In this text I use the term in a broader sense as the mode of production that has become dominant since the 70s in Western countries and the developing world. This New Economy has strongly relied upon the financial, media and entertainment and cultural sectors as resources for the production of capital. For a general characterisation of the changes the New Economy has brought, see Richard Sennett, The Culture of the New Capitalism, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009. A more detailed account of the transition from the old to the new economy can be found in David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Inquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989. As for the issue of the transformation of labour in this context, see any of the canonical works of André Gorz such as Métamorphoses du travail, quête du sens: Critique de la raison économique, Paris: Galilée, 1988, while for a more recent account see Andrew Ross, Nice Work If You Can Get It: Life and Labour in Precarious Times, New York: New York University Press, 2009. Angela McRobbie has dealt with the issue of cultural labour and the new economy in England in ‘“Everyone Is Creative”: Artists as Pioneers of the New Economy?’, in Tony Bennett and Elizabeth Silva (ed.), Contemporary Culture and Everyday Life, London and New York: Routledge, 2004. 

  3. I use the notions of work and labour as synonymous. If none of them is adjectivised as salaried, they simply refer to the human capacity to produce and create. John Holloway, following Marx, sharply distinguishes between labour and doing. That is, between waged labour and the human capacity of producing its form of existence outside the capitalist logic of production. See J. Holloway, Crack Capitalism, London: Pluto Press, 2010. 

  4. Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello in their Le Nouvel esprit du capitalisme (Paris: Gallimard, 1999; The New Spirit of Capitalism (trans. Gregory Elliott), London and New York: Verso, 2005) are the main advocates of this now popular view. See the criticism raised by Maurizio Lazzarato in ‘The Misfortunes of the “Artistic Critique” and of Cultural Employment’, transversal [online journal], January 2007, available at http://eipcp.net/transversal/0207/lazzarato/en (last accessed on 17 January 2012).

  5. See Ernesto Laclau, ‘Beyond Emancipation’, Emancipation(s), London and New York: Verso, 1996; and Jacques Rancière, ‘The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes: Emplotments of Autonomy and Heteronomy’, New Left Review, issue 14, March—April 2002, pp.133—51.

  6. J. Holloway, Crack Capitalism, op. cit., p.110.

  7. This conviction that artistic labour is essentially different and morally superior from industrial labour lies, for instance, at the bottom of John Ruskin’s and William Morris’s defences of craftsmanship amidst the whirlpool of the Industrial Revolution. 

  8. Outstanding is Henry Mayhew’s taxonomy of the variety of working characters that developed in London, the first industrial city in the new age of capitalism, which he detailed in a series of newspaper articles that were published in book form in 1851. See H. Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, London: Constable, 1968.

  9. See, for instance, Jerrold Seigel, Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830—1930, New York: Penguin Books, 1986. 

  10. See Krzysztof Ziarek, The Force of Art, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004. In the case of Soviet constructivism, the political force of the avant-garde meant the actual dissolution of art and the artist into the everyday. This was a way of integrating the artist in the productive social fabric for a revolutionary purpose. In what sense has the New Economy achieved this integration in economic but not revolutionary terms? For a historical approach to the artist as producer in Soviet constructivism see Maria Gough, ‘Red Technichs: The Konstruktor in Production’, The Artist as Producer: Russian Constructivism in Revolution, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005. 

  11. For an example of this case of appropriation see Marilyn R. Brown, ‘An Entrepreuner in Spite of Himself: Edgar Degas and the Market’, in Thomas L. Haskell (ed.), The Culture of the Market: Historical Essays, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. 

  12. See especially Chapter 12 (‘Society’) in Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor), London: Continuum Books, 2004. 

  13. Silvia Federici makes a strong argument in this regard in Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004. 

  14. See L. Boltanski and È. Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, op. cit., p.27. 

  15. In this regard see the now well-known writings of Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life (trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito and Andrea Casson), Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004; Franco ‘Bifo' Berardi, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy (trans. Francesca Cadel and Giuseppina Mecchia), Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009; Maurizio Lazzarato, Il lavoro immateriale: Forme di vita e produzione di soggettivitá, Verona: Ombre Corte, 1997; and Christian Marazzi, Capital and Affects: The Politics of the Language Economy (trans. Giuseppina Mecchia),  Cambridge, MA and London: Semiotext(e), 2011. 

  16. This overlapping may be partially explained by the academic professionalisation of visual artists since the 1960s, which makes their education closer to that of academic disciplines such as architecture, design and sociology. Such a process of academic levelling also makes sense of the theoretical and multidisciplinary turn in most of contemporary art practice. See the seminal book by Howard Singerman, Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. 

  17. Caroline A. Jones, The Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996. For a less critical but ampler approach to the artistic studio space, see Mary Jane Jacob and Michelle Grabner (ed.), The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

  18. See Brian Holmes, ‘The Flexible Personality: For a New Cultural Critique’, transversal [online journal], January 2002, available at http://eipcp.net/transversal/1106/holmes/en/base_edit#_ftnref24 (last accessed on 17 January 2012). 

  19. See M. Lazzarato, ‘The Misfortunes of the “Artistic Critique” and of Cultural Employment’, op. cit. 

  20. See B. Holmes, ‘The Flexible Personality’, op. cit. David Noble puts forward a very appealing argument about the role of the computer and the degradation of work in his Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance, Toronto: Between the Lines Press, 1995. 

  21. See the reading of the period being developed by the international network Conceptualismos del sur, http://conceptual.inexistente.net/ (last accessed on 17 January 2012). 

  22. Juan Pablo Wert Ortega, ‘Preiswert’s Improbable History’, in Una historia improbable: Preiswert/Stalker.doc (exh. cat.), M.laga: Centro de Ediciones de la Diputación de Málaga, 2008. 

  23. Simon Critchley, ‘Deconstruction and Pragmatism: Is Derrida a Private Ironist or Public Liberal?’, in Chantal Mouffe (ed.), Deconstruction and Pragmatism, London and New York: Routledge, 1996,  p.32. 

  24. John Roberts, The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art After the Readymade, London and New York: Verso, 2007, p.33.

  25. See http://www.youtube.com/user/lifeinaday (last accessed on 17 January 2012). Hollywood director Kevin Macdonald then edited the footage received into a film that was released at festivals.