'The Ultimate Freelance Knowledge Workers'
Liam Gillick, Industry and Intelligence: Contemporary Art Since 1820
Columbia University Press, 208pp, 30.00, ISBN 9780231170208
reviewed by Kathryn Brown
The argument of the book is structured around four key years: 1820, 1948, 1963 and 1974. This choice is, Gillick admits, subjective. The dates have functioned as ‘research dumps of knowledge’ within his creative trajectory. Yet the selection is not random. For Gillick, each of these years reveals ‘hidden turning points and cached moments of shift and transition.’ Turning his back on narratives that are structured around tumultuous historical events, Gillick enquires into the impact of ‘soft revolutions’ in science, politics, and technology, quietly pivotal moments that shape the then prevailing conditions of, and possibilities for, artistic production. Gillick’s book is not, therefore, a history of modern art. It is, instead, an attempt to understand how changes in competing social, economic, and cultural conditions have shaped an idea of ‘contemporary art’ as a mode of cultural production.
It was in 1820, according to Gillick, that the conditions arose for the production and appreciation of something that would eventually become known as ‘contemporary art’. Representing an interstitial moment between the Enlightenment and the American and French republican revolutions, 1820 saw people starting to work ‘at different speeds toward different ideals.’ Gillick does not trace a simple history of exploiter and exploited, oppression and revolt in response to the rapid developments in science, industry, and technology that took place in the 19th century. He focuses, instead, on the rise of ‘secondary individuals’ – advisors, assistants, and specialists – free thinkers searching for new spaces in which to associate and exchange ideas in response to new conditions of labour and production. It was in the context of this changing model of civil society that a new creative population emerged and set the stage for the introduction of an unfamiliar character: the ‘contemporary artist’.
We skip over a century, however, before arriving at Gillick’s second crucial moment in this narrative. 1948 is noteworthy in his scenario for the nationalisation of industry in Europe, the rise of the corporation, and the creation of an urban environment designed to maximise industrial efficiency. In this context, art is marked by a strain of utopian thinking – it is the backdrop for ‘advanced progressive social programs’ – but it is also a vehicle for consumerism. In the wake of international conflict, culture became, Gillick suggests, something in which corporations could invest for the purpose of both exhibiting good taste and demonstrating a commitment to social goods. The ambition of reconciling consumerism with social programs did, however, introduce tensions into artistic practice: it was the role of the artist to reveal ‘something about a constructed notion of society’, an interpretive stance that was simultaneously indebted to, and critical of, the modes of production in which it was embedded.
The question of how artists have negotiated the labour conditions in which they find themselves shapes the remainder of Gillick’s narrative. 1963 is noteworthy for having witnessed challenges to industrial production in the form of political unions, public debates about personal identity, and the emergence of coalitions among individuals from diverse economic and educational backgrounds. Alongside pressure groups that challenged dominant systems, so too, the contemporary artist was recognised as a figure capable of standing outside institutional frameworks. By forming collectives and participating in a range of more or less stable groups, artists asserted a new authority over the management if their own careers. This was, Gillick argues, a ‘pushback against the rise of management’, yet it produced a curious result. While the artist was increasingly viewed as an ‘amoral paradigm’ capable of producing work while appearing not to work, so too he or she became increasingly aligned with a social system that was indifferent to – or worse, fostered – widespread economic insecurity. Matching the transient, stateless artist, a new institution arose for the display of art: the museum of ‘contemporary art’. This was a space that fostered an illusion of freedom. While liberating itself from the ethical claims and mission statements of traditional institutions, this new space for art was, like the artists it celebrated, embedded in the management and commercial strategies that had produced it.
1974 is seen to have ushered in a new range of technologies that impacted on prevailing labour conditions. Barcodes, industrial robotics, and the increased automation of services brought about new kinds of cognitive labour and created more time for leisure, but they also created widespread redundancy. In this culminating moment, the contemporary artist is identified with the permanently part-time worker. For Gillick, ‘artists today . . . have fallen into a trap predetermined by their existence within a regime that is centred on a rampant capitalization of the mind.’ His comments recall the image he offered of the soft revolutions of 1820, notably the rise of the ‘secondary individual’. In the wake of 20th-century conceptual art, artists are no longer associated with the production of material objects. As such, they appear to be susceptible to the charge that they are ‘the ultimate freelance knowledge workers […]; they are neurotic people who deploy a series of practices that coincide quite neatly with the requirements of the neoliberal, predatory, continually mutating capitalism of the every moment.’
Gillick acknowledges that the idea of artists as ‘implicated figures’ has a long history. In the narrative he has unfolded, however, concerns about the erosion of differences between an artist and a contemporary ‘new knowledge worker’ have taken on a new urgency. The pressing question he identifies for contemporary artists is ‘how to develop a discursive project without slipping into a set of conditions that lead to certain redundancy.’ Developing a positive strategy might involve, he tentatively suggests, a rethinking of the languages of production and the styles of ‘self-management’ that shape artists’ careers. In the absence of action, artists risk writing themselves out of their own history in the interests of economic expediency and increasingly rationalised working practices.
Historians will find Gillick’s genealogy wanting in its selective reading of key moments in European and US history. There are also times when abrupt transitions and shifts of focus undermine the clarity of the author’s argument. But it would be wrong to discount the book on either of these grounds. As Gillick himself puts it: ‘To be an artist is to be convivial with history.’ For the reader, it is worth understanding how a contemporary artist not only conceives of his or her role in society, but also accounts for the steps that have shaped the values of exchange within contemporary art production and display. This book does not fall squarely within art historical discourse, institutional critique, or the genre of the manifesto. But it need not do so. As an extension of Gillick’s visual practice, it is a work that can be understood as both an interrogation of contemporary art and a linguistic performance in its own right. As such, it is an important demonstration of the combination of industry and intelligence that motivates art production today.