Issue 1/2012

Bon Travail


Do a good job. Who could disagree with this general maxim, be it from an artistic or a critical-theoretical perspective? Engaging with something as work almost inevitably signifies drawing on all the skills at your disposal. It is simply not an option to do nothing or not to make a good enough job of what needs to be done. A kind of »no-no« in flexibilised capitalism, which increasingly builds on critical creativity.
But what if work – either in terms of the jobs on offer or the utility of work – is increasingly vanishing? And what if the volume of work shows a tendency to keep on growing and growing, as the increasing intermingling of work and leisure hints? The concept of work has become caught up in a strange twofold movement in the current crisis-ridden global economic context: on the one hand, there has been a significant dwindling of work, at least in the Western world, with striking consequences in the social and cultural sphere; on the other hand there is an unmistakable upsurge in work, apparent in the many outsourced, deregulated and informal economies around the globe. Or indeed on our own doorsteps, as we see aspects of work or work-related processes increasingly penetrating into areas that used to be remote from the world of work, such as private life, leisure or social relationships.

The »Bon Travail« edition considers the specificities and omnipresence of these brave new worlds of labour, which are at the same time not so brave and new at all. What is the impact of the shrinking of conventional modes of work, given that indefatigable activity is at the same time encroaching upon more and more realms of life? Do the modus operandi of work in the art world offer scope to draw conclusions about societal developments? Which precursors of a post-precarious lifestyle – if indeed such precursors can be identified - become legible in the light of current art practices?
In his piece Pascal Jurt recapitulates the emergence of the notion of precarity in the art world and explores the forms of resistance and action that have developed to date in response to the spread of such precarity. Jurt turns his attention to the demands voiced recently in France by young freelance workers in the creative realm, viewing this as a kind of after-shock resonating out from the »post-Operaist« movement, those studies on immaterial work conducted in Italy from the early 1970s on, with an implicit militancy that still constitutes a kind of inimitable political yardstick. Filling in more detail, Franco »Bifo« Berardi, one of the protagonists of this movement, talks in an interview about the current impact of immaterialisation and flexibilisation. He explains that the era of the »Soul at Work«, to cite the title of one of his books, sees more than just a rapid increase in mental suffering and disorders; the hope of a better future, which once fuelled the notion of emancipation (of work, society and art), is also knocked out of kilter once and for all.

Just as Berardi avoids creating a sense of a general apocalypse, the other pieces in this edition do not admit defeat in the face of the numbing awareness of a dead-end situation and a never-ending crisis. In respect of the topics explored by Turkish contemporary artists, Süreyyya Evren examines the type of libidinous economy concealed in widespread precarity. Does this simply exist as a state of being exploited or is there perhaps a touch of consensual sado-masochism in the flat hierarchies that predominate today? Kerstin Stakemeier picks up on the discourse about the way in which work has become immaterial at a point when - in art theory terms - the focus has shifted to self-transgression or the blurring of boundaries concerning the concept of the work: Adorno’s thesis of the destruction of art’s quality as art, the »Entkunstung der Kunst«, thus becomes the point of departure for reflections on the historical emergence of the idea of art as labour (»art workers«). At the same time, Stakemeier diagnoses artists as currently having little or nothing to say about the conditions of reproduction in their field. Nevertheless a series of artistic approaches, albeit as isolated ad-hoc explorations, hone in on these conditions of reproduction, and an exemplary selection of these are represented here: the calls from the UK’s Precarious Workers Brigade for example or the boycott movement organised by the Gulflabor Coalition protesting against the large-scale cultural architectural projects in Abu Dhabi. In the context of the Occupy initiative, which has now spread across several countries, these responses are a manifestation of a refusal to keep quiet – a repeatedly expressed wish to generate broader public awareness of the conditions of labour and reproduction of the 99 per cent that possess next to nothing, yet nonetheless still do a good job.