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Un Magazine 10.1

Editorial: Co-working

Shelley McSpedden and Meredith Turnbull

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Editorial

The co-worker is the maximum cohesion of the thing and its purpose. A collaboration between the material energies of humanity, technology and the spontaneous forces of nature. Boris Arvatov’s co-workers were electricity, radio, urban landscaping, Le Corbusier’s house as a ‘machine for living’. Our co-workers are multivalent. A co-worker is that, this, you, me. They are networks, communities, things, objects, artworks, matter, material, energy.

In 1925 Marxist theorist and art-critic Boris Arvatov identified, somewhat idealistically, the beginnings of a potential monism within culture, stimulated within the context of the collectivisation of American culture and capitalism.1 Arvatov’s text, Everyday Life and the Culture of the Thing (Towards the Formulation of the Question), explicates this monism as a sort of rapprochement between the natural world, everyday life and technology. A rapprochement, engendered under American capitalism, that could only reach its full potential under socialism and within the new socialist economy in Russia. A return, as art historian Christina Kiaer describes it, ‘not to craft art, but… to socially harmonious structures of making and using objects’.2 Things, and by extension objects, were the pivotal elements within Arvatov’s theory. Harnessed within these relations, things ‘became something functional and active, connected like a co-worker to human practice’.3 Despite his positive analysis of the permutation of production and the spontaneous forces of nature and humanity there is also a darker side to this rapprochement which leads inevitably — through market forces, the increasing individualistic, dynamism of human movement, combined with the collectivization of technology and the everyday — to a fetishisation or abjuration of nature. A soullessness within culture that occurs when a thing’s ‘dynamic-labouring structure and its living force are never simultaneously present’.4

un 10.1 takes Arvotov’s theory as a starting point to consider the instances of objects and things. The world of things, as Arvatov described, is inclusive of material forms and processes and the objects that can inhabit, articulate and expand these contexts through the coalescence of the ‘material energies of society and nature’5. We consider what defines and differentiates objects and things. How they intersect. How we might understand the world through ideas of relationality, engaging a range of philosophical frameworks from Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, Gilles Deleuze’s work on the nature of becoming, to more recent discourses, including Object Oriented Ontology and New Materialism. Whether philosophy purports that matter is inherently active and agential — or enlivened by productive forces, nature or human intention — what 10.1 attempts to extrapolate is the potential of objects to effect social and political change. This issue reflects a persistent and collective concern with objects and their agency as an ongoing human preoccupation across cultures and time. This preoccupation elucidates an assiduous desire to order and reorder the world around us. This is a desire to comprehend and communicate through the work of objects enabling us to learn about ourselves and our shared histories. Equally it empowers us to consider what we might seek to change about our environment and contexts through the contemplation, creation and implementation of objects.

A significant number of contributions to un 10.1 ruminate on the myriad ways that contemporary philosophical discourses on the material world, and our relationship to it, feed into and are expanded on within the visual arts. Andrea Eckersley transposes Brian Massumi’s concept of ‘moreness’ to expound on the forces of materiality and the potentiality of objects activated within Susan Jacobs’ and Elizabeth Zvonar’s respective practices. Parallel concerns of thingness, transformation and the transcendental are evoked in commissioned artist pages by Isadora Vaughan and Jessie Bullivant, along with prose by Tom Melick and Saskia Doherty. Tristian Harwood meditates on the relational processes of becoming in his discussion of a number of works in the recent exhibition The Biography of Things at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, observing how they prompt a radical reconceptualization of subject-object dynamics. While Sophia Dacy-Cole’s interview with cultural theorist and political philosopher, Erin Manning, explores the artistic and political implications of the concept of the infrathin. Anatol Pitt and Emily Castle offer a counterbalance to some of the optimistic assessments of the recent artistic focus on the agency of matter, reflecting on how they might inadvertently obscure social and political responsibilities. Interviews with Indigenous curators and cultural workers, Glenn Iseger-Pilkington and Tahjee Moar, foreground some of the cross-cultural considerations and challenges that arise when exhibiting and working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artefacts, artworks and cultural materials. While Chris Griffiths’ reflection on the imbrication of objects and embodiment in the song and dance cycles of Miriwoong and Ngaliwurru countries remind us that humanity’s knowledge and employment of the productive forces of the material world has a long and continually evolving history.

The revolutionary censure of the logic of consumption underpinning capitalism finds renewed significance in our current times. The impact of our collective neglect of our natural environment in the age of the Anthropocene is the subject of a number of contributions to un 10.1. Richard Frater provides a sharp account of the ways that big business cynically co-opts growing ecological concerns to fuel new consumer markets, while Taloi Havini’s photographs of the Panguna copper mine in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, powerfully convey the corrosive impact of our insatiable consumption of natural resources. Meanwhile, Natalie Thomas stages a tongue-in-cheek rebuke of the encroaching influence of materialism in the art world itself.

Arvatov’s vision of the socialist object liberates it from the passivity of the static commodity, instead registering it as an agile and influential agent in our everyday lives. Such a vision is predicated on an optimistic belief in the potential of technological and design innovations to transform our understanding and use of objects, prompting new social formations and systems of exchange. A preoccupation with the transformative potentiality of objects remains a pressing concern today, as demonstrated in a number of contributions in this issue. Noting the rise of design as the subject of serious institutional consideration, Deirdre Cannon utilises local and international case studies to unpack the effectiveness of differing curatorial strategies to reckon with the dynamism of contemporary design objects. While Manon van Kouswijk’s drawings and photographs celebrate and mourn our habitual co-existence with, co-dependence on, and the loss of a range of objects in our daily lives. Ella Mudie examines the ‘inter-agency of the biological, technological and energetic world’ explored in recent exhibitions by Nicholas Mangan and the collaborative duo, David Haines and Joyce Hinterding. She considers the way that these artists’ speculative experimentations with energy currents, systems and circuits push us to think beyond the limits of an anthropocentric worldview. In a similar mode, Pia van Gelder presents us with a schema for a speculative instrument, what might be described as an intuitive communication machine fuelled by the radiant energy of bio-circuits.

As editors we embrace Arvatov’s enthusiasm for the expanded possibilities offered by technology and are excited to launch a new digital publication, un Extended, which runs in parallel with this publication. un Extended 10.1 presents articles, artworks and pod-casts commissioned to make the most of the unique capabilities of the online platform to further develop the ideas and concerns engaged with here. It includes an article by Julian Murphy and Matthew Taft on the increasing employment of digital media and technologies within contemporary gallery and museum contexts. You can listen to a pod-cast of Vincent Silk’s interview with Despo Debby from the Australian sex worker art collective Debby Doesn’t Do It For Free. Continuing our exploration of cross-cultural object ontologies, Dylan Rainforth applies Hito Steyerl’s concept of ‘material translation’ in his meditation on the curatorial strategies deployed in Encounters: Revealing stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects from the British Museum, and the accompanying Unsettled: Stories within, exhibitions recently presented at the National Museum of Australia. Mashara Wachjudy presents a series of artworks produced exclusively for un Extended 10.1, Saskia Doherty has transposed her prose text into an evocative sound recording and Melody Paloma explores the relationships between material, poetry and technology in her article The Materiality of Language. You will find numerous other audio and visual accompaniments to items from this print publication on the online platform. In this way the two formats are envisaged as co-workers — adapting, expanding and enriching the offerings presented in each.

un 10.1 co-editors:
Shelley McSpedden and Meredith Turnbull


  1. Written most likely in response to Leon Trotsky’s essay ‘Proletarian culture and proletarian art’ in Literature and Revolution (1923). Arvatov, B., and Kiaer, C., (1997) ‘Everyday Life and the Culture of the Thing (Toward the Formulation of the Question)’, October, Vol. 81 (Summer, 1997), p. 119 (note 1). 

  2. Kiaer, C., Boris Arvatov’s Socialist Objects, October, Vol. 81 (Summer, 1997), p. 116. 

  3. Op.cit, Arvatov., p. 126. 

  4. Ibid., p. 128. 

  5. Ibid.