Let’s make the most of this letter-as-trope-for-talking thing that we started.
The irony of pitching an issue on work and unprofessionalism hasn’t been lost on us, especially considering that we ambitiously wanted more content, we wanted to know what others thought and if there was something actually to be said. This is why desire is important to consider, because, really, the money just ain’t that good!
As usual, not everything goes to plan…
In Hal Hartley’s much hated film The Girl from Monday 2005, set in an over monopolized, global dystopic future, a girl from another planet arrives on Earth as the film’s main character pitches an idea that sees people, as active consumers, register their sexual encounters with the government in the form of a mutually agreeable economic transaction. Spontaneous sexual intercourse is illegal. This somewhat handy-cam and minimally acted film attempts to present a satirical account of an apathetic-everything-commodified future. Described by some as a profoundly unnecessary film, I am left wondering why the hell this film seems to have resonated and stayed with me all these months since my first viewing. It’s not, in the film at least, that sexual intercourse has become a credit rating, nor that teaching in a high school is a mode of punishment enforced by the state. Consumerism is law. Rather, it was that the exchange needed to be agreed upon as mutually beneficial so as to count. The room for error was marginal: you can’t take a risk, you can’t change your mind, desire for place and the other, sublimated.
Charlie Brooker’s first episode of the satirical sci-fi television series Black Mirror trilogy is also set in the near future. A ransom note is sent to the Prime Minister of Britain demanding he fuck a pig live on TV before a global audience, in exchange for the safe return of the recently kidnapped princess. While the populace is fixated on the tube, waiting for the ‘act’, the princess is released early and the kidnapper is revealed as the recent winner of the Turner Prize, artist Carlton Bloom. The Prime Minister is praised for his act of sacrifice, his credit rating rises while the public is kept unaware that the princess was released early — meanwhile Bloom commits suicide (perhaps the only unmediated choice left?). In Black Mirror, the slippage between keeping-up-appearances, the ultimate artistic act and the desire to retain power are called into question. The spectacle and the lie both win, while the artist dies.
Brooker and Hartley’s visions of the future feel like now. Paul McCarthy’s excessive-decadent and motorised sculpture of (the?) two George Bush’s fucking pigs Train, Mechanical 2009 may or may not have been sold for a sum that we can’t imagine, but this hauntingly hilarious after-image of a president some still hope will be taken to task, remains. Sue Dodd has recently made a series of videos titled Significant Others 2012 that animate the busts of the last twenty-seven Australian prime ministers. Each slowly mouths the name of his respective wife, as if in the act of cumming. A kind of vocal ‘human centipede’ with Dodd voicing the audio — Therese, Janette, Anita, Hazel, et al. Jules’ bust, which is yet to be made, has a stand-in modeled from clay, spray-painted gold and covered in shoe polish. Unbronzed like her lover, Tim is the only male inferred to by name rather than in monument and is also the only lover not ‘legitimised’ by the apparent state sanctity of marriage — a simple shift of power, pleasure and representation through name. With the recent return to off-shore processing and the even more recent defeat of Penny Wong in the Senate, I am left with the question: will it take another twenty-six prime ministers before there is a change in the simplicity of how we are represented?
Recently, artist Lane Cormick and I have been talking about the importance of doubt in an artwork. After the 1800 or so emails, with approximately sixty writers and thirty odd artists mentioned in order to meander through content leading to stupid 3-AM-text-message puns, more questions and few dead ends, I am left thinking doubt is our modus operandi. If Freud was around today, would he speculate that perhaps obsessional neurotics self-medicate with doubt? Doubt is proactive — with no conclusion from the two, perhaps three of four conflicting thoughts, we’ve gotta keep looking, don’t we? I kind of hope our two editions of the magazine have tried to look towards, and into, this space.
There is a work by the artist James Lynch that I often think about. Doubleday 2008 was presented in Charlotte Day’s TarraWarra Biennale 2008, Lost and Found: An Archeology of the Present. The installation appeared as an aestheticised ad-hoc post-house-party on a stage, complete with plastic chairs and fairy lights. It is accompanied by a projection onto an upturned table of a short, four-minute-looped, hand-drawn animation of TarraWarra’s in-house cleaner, silently going about his daily duties accompanied by a soundtrack composed by Evelyn Morris. A collaboration in multiple parts, the work of the artist is inextricably linked to the work of its participants — the cleaner, the probably-mass-produced-in-China plastic chair, the museum and the viewer — the labour of the world.
In a recent essay on oil, climate change and the French refinery blockades, the anarchist-anthropologist David Graeber deliberates on the problems of precarity and the demobilisation of labour:
there’s no better way to ensure people are not thinking about alternative ways to organize society, or fighting to bring them about, than to keep them working all the time. As a result, we are left in the bizarre situation where almost no one believes that capitalism is really a viable system any more, but neither can they even begin to imagine a different one. The war against the imagination is the only one the capitalists seem to have definitively won.1
If we consider the Guy Fawke-mask-wearing 1%, the city of Bristol launching its own currency in September, the march of 30,000 people down Sydney Road, our own Prime Minister’s globally recognised speech, not to mention the number of applications we received to write for this edition, it feels less like a death, and a little more like a whole lotta thought.
Editing this magazine has made visible the desire for the possibility to explore, share, and continue to engage in, open discussions about materiality and its relationship to the world. These discussions are always, and must be, opposing, contradictory and at arms with each other (managing a war without weapons?). It is this that is inherently political within art — that it bothers to negotiate an anarchic terrain, inclusive of multiple voices, institutions and capital. My persistent optimism, however annoying, injected with that healthy dose of cynicism means I hope, even if there isn’t any, that the artist doesn’t have to die.
Now, tell me about your show!
With love, Lisa x
PS: I just received this text from my film-making friend musing about a recent Masters colloquium she participated in:
The best thing on Friday was this odd eccentric genius who was into interpreting what possums say; he suggested that if you want a different perspective, ask a goth, because no one ever asks them for answers.
It is 12:31 AM and I can’t sleep, as I need to write my letter to you — at this time of night I fear Liam Gillick was right when he wrote:
The accusation is that artists are at best the ultimate freelance knowledge workers and at worst barely capable of distinguishing themselves from the consuming desire to work at all times, neurotic people who deploy series of practices that coincide quite neatly with the requirements of neo-liberal, predatory, continually mutating capitalism of the every moment.2
When I first read this text, I felt like Gillick was writing directly to me — being a workaholic probably doesn’t help me here. Whilst not emphatically suggesting that all aspects of artistic practice have been completely subsumed by capitalism, this text does capture a tension within the arts which has then been perpetuated in a number of recent texts on the subject, as seen in e-flux, Sternberg Press and Frieze. Beyond the relevance of these publications, I think our reasons for pursuing the subject of ‘work’ is deeply embedded in our own experience of labour within the arts.
Whilst working towards the publication of this issue of un, Patrice Sharkey and I curated the exhibition No reasonable offer refused at West Space, Melbourne.3 The exhibition hoped to interrogate acts of commerce and circled a number of ideas similar to this edition of un. Yet as the exhibition drew closer, Patrice and I came to the realisation that by asking artists to re-imagine acts of commerce, we had perhaps created an impossible challenge — when writing the catalogue essay and speaking with the artists I had great difficulty in the articulation of these aims. Was this because we just couldn’t imagine ways to nudge our current capitalist system? My gut feeling is no, but it seemed that our inability to articulate the workings of these systems and this negotiation in relation to the art object had became the crux of the exhibition. Agatha Gothe-Snape addressed this beautifully with her work for the exhibition Emotional Wall 2012, in which she paid Dan Moynihan to build a wall that blocked out the space in which a viewer would commonly view an artwork. By negating this material exchange between viewer and art object, Gothe-Snape instead highlighted the workings of this symbolic exchange and the anxiety (and possible aversion) toward putting an art object out into the world.
I remember when we first tossed about ideas for this issue; the subject of ‘work’ was key, but, more specifically, we were interested in artists’ other practices — the aspect of their practice that gets sidelined because it is less cohesive to include multiple forms of production when characterising an artist’s work. The work of Vivienne Binns and Dale Frank comes to mind. Beyond their painting practices, Binns held numerous craft workshops in rural NSW in the 1970s and Dale Frank facilitated a number of discos and performances in the 1980s and 1990s. One such work, Bowie 1994, saw five David Bowie CDs played continuously from speakers installed in the outside entrance of the National Gallery of Australia. By the time I went to art school in Canberra, that work must have been removed — what a difference Bowie would have made to my 9 AM’s, waiting in the cold, outside the NGA for my art theory classes! Being a fan of both these artists’ paintings, I’m interested in how their paintings have been informed by their ‘social’ forms of production. Immediately, one can see the cheeky pop culture connections between the lush, wet pours of varnish that make up Frank’s paintings titled Ryan Gosling 2008 or Daniel Radcliffe 2008 and the intrusion of Bowie’s pop hits upon the brutalist building of the NGA. As a painter myself, I feel a bit guilty for producing paintings — alone in the studio, painting is an unsociable activity (see Helen Johnson’s ‘It seems like everyone knows everyone already so let’s get to work’) and I think this is why I attempt to make my practice more sociable (the production of magazines is an inherently social structure). I wonder if Binns and Frank have a similar feeling?
Liam Gillick, Why Work?, Art Space, Auckland, 2010, p. 3. ↩
Agatha Gothe-Snape, George Egerton-Warburton, Kelly Doley, Christopher Sciuto and Juilet Rowe, No reasonable offer refused, West Space, 21 September – 13 October 2012. ↩