How to Find a Better Life?

Julieta Aranda et al. (eds.), Are You Working Too Much? Post-Fordism, Precarity, and the Labor of Art

Sternberg Press, 216pp, £10.95, ISBN 9781934105313

reviewed by Nina Power

The notes at the back of this latest e-flux collection state that one group of contributors, the Precarious Workers Brigade, ‘have a policy of including information on the context in which their work appears.’ To this end, they detail the dates when the piece was written (March - April 2011), the number of people involved in writing it (nine), that their text is also available online for free and is licenced under a Creative Commons licence, how they spent the $750 they were paid for the article (‘collective investment’) and the fact that e-flux journal employed two interns to work on the journal the article appeared in.

How much were these interns paid? $0 an hour. This single line sums it all up: the ‘work’ of the art world, and the increasing tendency of all work, is predicated on the fact that those at the bottom (and increasingly the middle) will do everything for nothing. But why, ask the editors, ‘should so many talented and hyper-qualified artists submit themselves willingly to a field of work … that offers so little in return for such a huge amount of unremunerated labor?’ Why indeed? The editors talk of the combination of structural exploitation and self-exploitation that characterises the ‘pseudo-professionalism’ of work in the art world (and we could include in this description not only artists, but curators, art writers, and all those at the less glamorous end of the gallery/museum/art fair spectrum). This unhappy situation in the art world (and the rest of the world) is the crux of the collection at hand.

The flip-side of the structural inequality of the art world, a curious microcosm of the global financial system that massively overlaps with it at the level of speculation and the increasing abstraction of ‘value’ that art currently symbolises, is the kind of work – constant, frenetic, networked, endless, overlapping, highly libidinally-charged but exhausting - that characterises freelance art world labour. A poster on the Precarious Workers Brigade’s website asks ‘Do you freelance but don’t feel free?’ and ‘Are you anxious during the day and sleepless at night?’ Identifying the material conditions whereby work and its unpaidness are interlinked is the task of many of the essays here. Rather than posing this question in the usual way – namely, how does art ‘deal with’ politics? Can artwork ‘be’ political? – Hito Steyerl discusses ‘the politics of the field of art as a place of work’. Contemporary art, she argues, is ‘squarely placed in the neoliberal thick of things’. A ‘brand name without a brand’, it ‘lends primordial accumulation a whiff of post-conceptual razzmatazz’ and is in practice, the answer to the question ‘How can capitalism be made more beautiful?’ So far: recognisable, acutely described and utterly depressing.

Returning to an old Soviet concept of ‘strike’ or ‘shock’ work, Steyerl recognises that the contemporary production of art operates on precisely these lines, albeit less with painting, welding, and moulding than with ‘ripping, chatting and posing’, operating as ‘affective labour at insane speeds, enthusiastic, hyperactive, and deeply compromised.’ Steyerl speculates that apart from domestic and care work, art work, characterised in this accelerated way, is the industry premised on the ‘most unpaid labour around’. It is also one of the hardest kinds of labour to organise, since it rarely recognises the conditions of its own production, even while it ‘routinely packages injustice and destitution’. Steyerl argues that ‘opportunism and competition’ are not affects that operate at the margins of art labour, but are structural features of its very ability to run (just think about the ethical and subjective dilemmas of applying for funding, and the logistical difficulties of operating as an art collective, or without ‘contacts’).

As a way of moving forward, Steyerl suggests a return to institutional critique, but on a massively expanded scale that would include critique of sponsorship by banks, arms traders, funding patterns and financial sources, laid bare and open for all to see. If Charles Saatchi, of all people, now finds himself alienated from art collecting because it has become ‘the sport of the Eurotrashy, Hedge-fundy, Hamptonites; of trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs; and of art dealers with masturbatory levels of self-regard’ (Guardian - Comment is Free, 2 December 2011), then something in the art world really has tilted into absurdity (though of course Saatchi’s moralistic ego-centric vision is not a stand-in for a serious mapping of the relations of capital and art.) But Steyerl is no moralist and she is not interested in ‘clean-hands’ politics either, as if that would be remotely possible. It is, as she says, ‘at best illusory, at worst just another selling-point’. She suggests that what is most alien to the contemporary art world (though less and less to forms of contemporary politics, perhaps) is ‘solidarity’.

Solidarity in the art world, with all of its contradictions and impossibilities, is best exemplified in the document by the aforementioned Precarious Workers Brigade, whose account of ‘a week that changed everything’ analyses events in London during November 24 – December 9th 2010, a period of time that now seems both incredibly distant and highly proximate, inasmuch as the student and anti-cuts protests, as well as their violent police repression, have come to characterise much of the political scene since that time. The strength of the Precarious Workers’ reflections, particularly compared to some of the more idealist musings on art, work and labour contained in the rest of the collection, lies in their honesty regarding the manifest difficulties they encounter, both conceptually and practically, as well as their definitive calls for ‘the articulation of a cultural and political commons’, for ‘free education for all’ and for cultural assets ‘to be managed through democratic processes’. Their document captures the excitement and turmoil of that week: when they write that ‘regimes of spectatorship, observation, and aesthetic judgement ... that felt so impenetrable before, suddenly seem anachronistic in the context here and now,’ I know exactly what they mean. The questions that emerged around this time are well-summarised in the questions the group proposes to take forward, among them: ‘How do we maintain the momentum of event-togetherness-excitement in all of our practices?’ and: ‘How do we begin to set up the world we want to be in?’

The complex positivity of the Precarious Workers Brigade’s diagnoses finds its dark mirror in Franco Berardi (Bifo)’s reflections on ‘semiocapital’ in “Cognitarian Subjectivation”. Here Bifo describes the ‘epidemic of panic and depression’ that is ‘spreading throughout the circuits of the social brain’, where neuro-physical energies are put to work and the emotional energy of the ‘cognitive class’ (or ‘info-producers’) is exploited, rendering these workers desensitised, precarious and lacking pleasure. While it is always dangerous to generalise about the experience of work, or to privilege one type of worker over another – and as Keti Chukhrov points out in her essay on immaterial labour and post-Soviet labour, ‘the central contradiction of the theory of immaterial labour consists in the fact that the zones of oppression, physical exploitation, and material labour often lie beyond its interpretation of the commons’ – Bifo is surely correct when he points out that attacks on the education system are part and parcel of a war on cognitive labour (‘The university system across Europe is based on a huge amount of precarious, underpaid, or unpaid labour’) and that ‘the economy has achieved the status of a universal language’.

It is not enough to understand that immaterial labour and precarity are making us sick: Bifo suggests we need to find an ‘erotic social body of the general intellect’ to get any sort of grip on the ways in which immaterial and cognitive work is sliding away from us and being ever-devalued. The art world provides a peculiarly privileged vantage point for surveying the wreckage of post-Fordism (or whatever we might call it): but solutions are few and far between. Questions, however, are better than nothing, and there are more than enough to go round here. As Liam Gillick inquires in his essay, “The Good of Work”: ‘How to find a better life in all of this?’

Sternberg Press (
Nina Power is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University. She is the author of One Dimensional Woman and has co-edited Alain Badiou's On Beckett and his Political Writings.