Immaterial Collapse: A Report on the Symposium ‘Untitled (Labour)’

Josefine Wikström

Reviews / 10.05.2012

Paida Larsen, Untitled (3. occupy pepper spray_0.jpg 18.11.2011), 2012, C-print, 50 x 60cm. Courtesy the artist

The half-day symposium ‘Untitled (Labour)’, held at Tate Britain, London on 17 March 2012, attempted to question the last few years’ frenzied obsession with the discourse around ‘immaterial labour’. Organised by PhD candidate Lauren Rotenberg and her supervisor TJ Demos, both from the History of Art Department at University College London, in collaboration with Tate’s Nora Razian, the symposium brought together artists and academics ranging from the fields of philosophy to sociology, economy and art history. The event aimed to interrogate the impact of immaterial production on the aesthetic forms of contemporary art, to address how ‘artists both embody and contest the precarious working conditions of immaterial labour’1 and in what way ‘contemporary art might or might not offer a critique of capitalism’, as Rotenberg formulated it in the introduction to the event. However the symposium failed firstly in contributing much new to the theory it claimed to use as a springboard for questions around contemporary art production, and secondly in identifying any political implications of such intersection, especially in relation to the working conditions facing artists and cultural workers today.

The framework of the symposium, if not so much the content, relied heavily on the term ‘immaterial labour’. Coined by Italian thinker Maurizio Lazzarato in the mid-1990s, it refers to contemporary forms of work that have developed under advanced capitalism, mainly in the communication, information, service and entertainment industries. Together with other contemporary Autonomia thinkers such as Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, and Paolo Virno,2 Lazzarato claims that these new forms of labour require co-operational skills, knowledge and imaginative capacities, and therefore bring a creative aspect to the labour process and so become imaginative and emancipatory as well as subsuming and alienating.

Since these theories became popularised in the 1990s, mainly through the writings of Hardt and Negri, their critique has come from several directions. The major concern regards the lack of clarification in terms of how the transformation from alienated to emancipated labour takes place. This problem was brought up in the discussions of the 2008 conference ‘Art and Immaterial Labour’, organised by the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy and also held at Tate Britain,3 and is further developed in the writings of thinkers such as John Roberts.4 In a review of that conference, John Cunningham also points out that this issue has been identified ‘by more sober analysts within autonomist Marxism such as George Caffentzis, Steve Wright and Sergio Bologna, amongst others’.5

It is surprising that none of the critiques raised in that conference was addressed in the most recent symposium. Instead, ‘Untitled (Labour)’ turned out to be a mere application of the foundational theories on ‘immaterial labour’. Although some of the presentations thoroughly questioned this term and its relation to contemporary art, the overall symposium did not allow for an in-depth examination of the topic. This was partly to do with the fact that the majority of speakers only used the theories emerging from the discourse on ‘immaterial labour’, but failed to question or think through them. It was also to do with the format of the symposium – structured around fifteen-minute presentations which left little time for detailed analysis or conceptual development – and the assumptions on which it was premised – chiefly, the presupposed connection between art and immaterial labour. For instance, one of the questions handed out to the audience read: ‘Can “immaterial” artistic practice still be considered to operate as an immanent critique of capitalism, or rather merely an expression of its recent post-Fordist development?’ Implied in this question is that there is something such as ‘immaterial artistic practice’ (without explaining what that is) and that it once functioned as an immanent critique of capitalism (without specifying when or how). Founding the conference on these assumptions made it difficult for it to go beyond any previous discussion around these issues.

Many of the speakers sought to characterise how the current economic system affects the work and life of artists. Pascal Gielen presented a sociological study comparing fine art graduates from six visual arts schools in Norway and Holland, amongst other countries, during three different periods (1975, 1990 and 2005), tracing significant shifts in the higher art education system during the last three decades. Gielen argued that the art school has gone from being a place for a few privileged art students to a democratised and free art school following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and finally, to one that imitates profit-making internationalised models. This current model of higher art education requires flexibility and mobility from the artist, with contemporary forms of education thus constituting another way of turning him or her into a ‘post-Fordist entrepreneur’, Gielen explained.

Stefano Harney from Queen Mary, University of London offered a perspective from the fields of economics and management studies. Beginning by stating that there are many reasons not to start with the category of the artist when talking about immaterial labour, he signalled management as the first form of immaterial labour, whose dream is the complete autonomy of capital. Like Gielen, Harney also commented on the status of art education, which he claimed practices a ‘care without care’, insofar as it leaves students with large debts and encourages deskilling on a mass scale. Although Harney briefly mentioned that we must encourage ‘bio-political self-organisation’ – terms borrowed from thinkers such as Paolo Virno and Negri – these phrases were left hanging in the air at the end of his short presentation.

Hito Steyerl, Strike, 2010, HDV, 28s. Courtesy the artist

In her work as an artist and writer, Hito Steyerl has repeatedly emphasised the material aspect of new forms of production, especially digital ones. In her video essay In Free Fall (2010), for instance, she explores the material aspects of finance through the history of an aeroplane junkyard in the Californian dessert. Likewise in a recent essay published in October, she brings out the ‘fleshy’ character of digital spam by playing on the twofold meaning of the word ‘Spam’, designating digital debris as well as one of the most common brands of processed meat after World War II. ‘Despite its apparently immaterial nature’, she argues, ‘digital wreckage remains firmly anchored within material reality’.6 Her presentation in the symposium accordingly addressed artistic rather than immaterial labour, a term that the artist questioned yet again during the panel discussion, identifying three categories of contemporary art workers: ‘freelancers’, ‘mercenaries’ and ‘strike workers’. The latter is a term derived from the early days of the Soviet Union, where it defined excess workers who were exceptionally productive and fervent in their work. According to Steyerl, this notion translates into contemporary conditions, insofar as it identifies today’s highly self-exploitative workers and thrives on the effects, experiences and affects of exhausting unpaid work.7

Instead of assuming that dematerialised forms of labour can serve as an immanent critique to contemporary working conditions, Steyerl was one of the few at the symposium who proposed an artistic strategy for political resistance. If digital images are material, she argued, it is also possible to alternate, interrupt, rebuild, wreck and occupy them. This would allow for a withdrawal from representation as governed by massive social network corporations such as Facebook and newspaper empires such as Rupert Murdoch’s. Examples of this strategy given by Steyerl included the Guy Fawkes mask used by protesters during the Occupy movement and the work of artist Paida Larsen, who erases protesters from demonstration photographs in order to expose police violence.

Similarly critical of the presupposed connection between art and immaterial labour that the conference organisers put forward, Stewart Martin turned in his presentation to the philosophical foundation of the concept of labour itself. Through Karl Marx’s concept of ‘labour-capacity’ he explored what he called ‘the radical potentialism’ of art and claimed that contemporary art’s potential is ‘very ambiguous’.8 He also argued that capital’s ability to appropriate labour has little to do with labour being material or immaterial, thereby questioning the often-assumed capacity of immaterial labour to resist being subsumed under capital.

Elmgreen & Dragset, Re-g(u)arding the Guards, 2005, 12 museum guards in an empty gallery, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artists and Galerie Perrotin, Paris

In her talk Claire Bishop investigated performance artists who emerged in the late 1990s and who delegate their performances to non-professional actors (often chosen for their race, gender, class or professional identity) and then moved on to compare delegation as an artistic strategy to the rise of outsourcing in corporate management.9 She gave examples such as Martin Creed who hired professional athletes to run through Tate Britain (Work No. 850, 2008); Elmgreen & Dragset, who have employed gay men to lounge in the gallery space (Try, 1997); and Santiago Sierra, who often uses stigmatised political groups such as sex workers and illegal immigrants in his social sculptures (for instance, in 250cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People, 1999). Her claim was that these performances should not be judged according to the degree of exploitation implied in their labour relations but rather according to the extent to which they render visible and question the existing reality with regards to issues of subjectivity, economics and ethics. Bishop also observed that the last fifteen years have seen what she called the ‘industrialisation’ of performance art within the contemporary art market.

The questions raised by the audience during the final discussion laid bare one of the paradoxes underpinning the symposium: to what extent is it possible to question the relation between art and labour from a large institution such as Tate without addressing its complicit role in shaping the precarious conditions facing artists and cultural workers today? Sadly such a debate was aborted when the organisers, prompted by a member of the audience, declined to reveal the budget of the event, or to engage in a discussion about how its economic parameters and labour conditions are directly related to the issues it aimed to interrogate. This could have set off a discussion addressing related issues such as: what kind of politics do art institutions perform when they employ their gallery assistants (who are often young artists) on ‘casual contracts’, as for example Whitechapel Art Gallery, Tate Modern and Tate Britain do, whilst at the same time increasingly financing their exhibitions with capital from controversial corporations such as BT and Bloomberg?10 What autonomy is left for artists working in these institutions, which are now forced to seek out private funding solutions? None of these questions was asked during the symposium, which, despite its timely subject matter, left the audience frustratingly empty-handed before these urgent issues.

  1. Quoted from the description of the symposium on the University College London website, available here:

  2. Autonomia, sometimes also called Workerism (Operaismo) has its roots in a radical political movement in 1960s Italy, which considered the autonomy and subjectivity of the workers to be crucial in their emancipation from capitalist modes of production. For an overview of this movement, see Michael Hardt, Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996, and Mario Tronti, ‘The Strategy of Refusal’ in Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi (ed.), Autonomia: Post-Political Politics, Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2007.

  3. The conference ‘Art and Immaterial Labour’ was held at Tate Britain, London on Saturday 19 January 2008 and included presentations by Éric Alliez, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Maurizio Lazzarato, Antonio Negri and Judith Revel. The papers presented were later published in Radical Philosophy, issue 149, May/June 2008, pp.17–46. Audio recordings of the conference are also available here:

  4. See especially his book The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art After the Readymade, London: Verso, 2007.

  5. John Cunningham, ‘Art Stripped Bare By Post-Autonomists, Even’, Mute [online journal], 5 February 2008 (last accessed 4 May 2012).

  6. Hito Steyerl, ‘Digital Debris: Spam and Scam’, October, vol.138, Fall 2011, p.71.

  7. Steyerl has explored the notion of ‘shock’ or ‘strike work’ in several essays. See, for example, H. Steyerl, ‘Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Postdemocracy’ in Julieta Aranda, Anton Vidokle and Brian Kuan Wood (ed.), Are You Working Too Much?, New York and Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011, pp.30–40.

  8. This presentation was a continuation of thoughts that Martin has explored in earlier essays such as ‘Artistic Communism – A Sketch’ in Third Text, vol.23, issue 4, July 2009, pp.481–94. He will further develop this paper in a lecture at the conference ‘Marx and the Aesthetic’ to be held at the University of Amsterdam (10–13 May 2012). 

  9. Bishop’s paper was a shortened and updated version of the essay ‘Outsourcing Authenticity? Delegated Performance in Contemporary Art’ in C. Bishop and M. Sladen (ed.), Double Agent (exh. cat.), London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 2008, pp.110–28.

  10. See John Douglas Millar, ‘Art Workers’, Art Monthly, no.335, April 2012.