Since the last global financial crisis, precariousness has been installed in many people’s lives. Finding a decent job is not an easy endeavour: most of them don’t currently guarantee the possibility of making a living because wage labour has been enormously devaluated. This is the scenario where the workshop “A Practice which Is Not Labour”, which took place in the frame of CARPA6, comes from. The activity allows for the generation of a space of thought and action to look for alternatives to the ruling conventions that affect the practice of art. The present text contextualises and condenses the principal ideas and outcomes that emerged from and relates them to my own approach to artistic practice and research.
Key words: performativity, work, idleness
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Recently, I was talking to a friend about ways of tackling the artistic process, especially when one needs to explain beforehand what they intend to do, even though most of the times they don’t really know how everything will turn out eventually. This is especially noticeable when it comes to site-specific projects, in which there are huge chances for change once one goes further into the process and has to deal with eventualities and uncertainty – something with which we seem to be less and less tolerant nowadays for a variety of reasons, among which precariousness and the urge for constant justification are counted.
We both agreed in that, although there is a high level of variability implied in this type of processes where one is constantly coming across new possibilities that move us away from our initial ideas and intentions, the ensuing changes do not come out of chance but, rather, they are a result of our own decisions and our ability to cope with the not-previously-known. As a matter of fact, a big part of artistic research has to do with dealing with the uncertain, and with not expecting that everything will make sense from the very beginning. Sense will be made one step at a time, or not made at all.
The need for justification is closely tied to the process of professionalisation that artists have undergone especially since art became an academic degree, but also to the strong bureaucratisation of most spheres of life in nowadays’ Western societies, which leaves very little room for those activities with a high level of uncertainty. To be a professional means that play is dismissed – or, in the best cases, disguised – in favour of more productive occupations that manage time with efficiency and which, ideally, can be capitalised.
But art has a lot to do with play, and so does art as research. As a matter of fact, playing is one of the first ways through which the human being starts learning, as well as it is a tool for social interaction and cohesion, among other outcomes. Besides being at the origin of knowledge, to play implies dealing with the uncertain, doing something for no specific reason, shaping rules on the go or creating temporary spaces where no fixed rules apply. Playing, at its core, is a performative activity – and a very unproductive one if it is looked at with the all-pervading eyes of capitalism. Therefore, not being allowed to play can be understood as a way of limiting the access to knowledge. But it also limits our relationship with time, since it needs to be employed in useful tasks to make the most of it. This leaves work as the principal remaining option, even during the space reserved for leisure. For example, when we use social media to get distracted, or for publishing pictures of our last trip or the last exhibition opening we attended, we are, in fact, working for others for free. Therefore, the conception of work needs to be revised.
Today more than ever, life is arranged around the idea of work, and to this idea are tied concepts such as useful, leisure, productive or employment. Indeed, everything that doesn’t respond to the logic of work is deemed dysfunctional, unimportant or a loss of time.
Work has set a pace, a way of living and of managing time, and it also has denied any alternatives nor oppositions to it. This logic has even pervaded the practice of art. We can see this, for example, when applying to open calls, where we are asked to demonstrate a regular rhythm of production, to provide a detailed project proposal with work samples in visual or audible formats, and even to be younger than a certain age in order to be eligible. In other spheres of life, we are expected to be constantly visible and active – through social media, for instance, and devoting most of our “free” time using “free” technology and products, and consuming.
At the same time, culture has become less and less socially valued nowadays, since in many occasions it does not really fit in the logics of production. Culture is often mistakenly thought of from the point of view of utility or productivity, leading to systems which prioritize these aspects over other central ones. The practice of art can be, as a matter of fact, a practice which cannot be considered labour.
This can open up a huge range of possibilities regarding, for example, the management of time – or life. If this time is not subject to labour, we cannot say of it that it is wasted or well employed. It is just lifetime.
Thus, although the possibilities of escaping from these logics are scarce, there is always room for resistance, and art can be a good space for that.
The idea of conducting a workshop revolving around unproductiveness seemed to me a perfect oxymoron for the context and subject of CARPA6. The institutional and academic frame provided by the conference was an ideal environment to reflect on these issues through performativity with a group of people coming from different backgrounds within the art field, who have a very close relationship to the body and gestures in their respective practices.
This was not the first time that I had done this activity: in December 2018, I presented a similar workshop at Medialab Prado (Madrid) – titled “Volverse inútil” (“Becoming Useless”), and in July 2019 I had also dealt with this topic on the participatory, site-specific installation Unlike Us, Penelope Had a Purpose in San Román de Candamo (Asturias). But it was the first time that this activity was centred on the practice of art specifically.
The workshop at CARPA6, titled A Practice which Is Not Labour, was devoted to the exploration and discussion of different ways of performing idleness. Its aim was to create a temporary space of resistance in which no concrete results were expected, but in which anything could happen. The task was to look for imaginative ways of exploring what is generally considered useless from a neo-liberal perspective. Participants were invited to think of ways of developing a proposal that is “useless” for the context in which it is inscribed, but still valid as an artistic gesture in itself. They were encouraged to challenge their own personal approaches to the practice of art, to think about what kind of conventions affect it on a regular basis, and to explore the transformative potential of the “useless”.
Time was a key element in the development of the workshop. The limited amount of it that was given was used to generate a space of contingency – in the sense that Giorgio Agamben expands on in his essay “Bartleby, or On Contingency” (Pardo ed. 2001) – that allowed play without any kind of restrictions or expected results. As a matter of fact, play is an autonomous space by itself.
The eighteen participants (4 men and 14 women) could choose what they wanted to do with that time, whether it was just thinking about their relationship with it in their practices or exploring the ideas introduced by the workshop through a performative exercise which reflected on possible ways of developing self-sufficient actions which could not be subsumed by capitalism in general and the art system in particular. Those actions would be useless from those perspectives but would not be so from the point of view of artistic practice. Even the option of refusing to take part in the activity was feasible, and it actually happened in two particular cases.
One of the main ideas behind the workshop was condensed in what André Breton (as cited in Society of Nothing s.a.) stated in 1929 regarding the decades in which Duchamp’s refused to make art «in favour of a never-ending chess game»: he said that, despite this, his stance «gives an interesting idea about an intellect that is not willing to serve.» This idea, along with other possible synonyms and connections the word “useless” has – such as “expendable”, “failure” or “not marketable”, for instance –, makes a crucial point that speaks about the power of having the ability to do something but purposely choosing not doing it anyway. In moments of increasing inequality, as it is the case since the last big capitalist crisis, it is necessary, if possible, to actively look for alternatives that open other ways of living and of bringing power back to the people in order to guarantee everyone’s rights and basic needs.
Related to the previously exposed, one mechanism that can help achieve this search of a practice which is not labour is the suspension of time. Time has always been used by capitalism as its most efficient way to control our lives: the faster we work, consume or produce, the better for the system. One may think that the solution would be going in the opposite direction and diminishing the pace. But capitalism, as Mexican philosopher Luciano Concheiro (Concheiro 2016) has pointed, has also taken advantage of this countermovement and sells, for example, “slow food”, “relaxing experiences” and the like. Therefore, the only way of escaping these logics, this thinker says, is to find ways to suspend time, to situate ourselves at a zero point where these logics do not apply.
However, this suspension, according to Concheiro, can only be momentary due to the impossibility of situating ourselves there forever, since we are inevitably immersed in this system. Additionally, it can only be personal, because there is no tactic than can be universally applied; they need to be adapted to each specific situation.
The workshop started right after the first plenary session of the Colloquium. The lecture given by Erin Manning, with statements on the untimeliness of performance and the «violence of use» in relation to value, recognition, property or capital – and the imposition of these modes of evaluation in society and in the academic context –, was a perfect introduction to it. «Performance is always out of time», said Manning (Manning 2019). It «can give us time differently.»
The location of the workshop was another important component. As a symbolic gesture, I had requested that it could be developed outside Kiasma, since there is a big green area beside the building where we could be comfortable. However, we were only given permission to stay in a small paved square around a monument located next to the museum’s main entrance and a road with a considerable amount of traffic. Later on, it called my attention that a couple of young skaters were playing in that same spot, and that in the surrounding green areas some people were practising yoga or having an outdoor meal on the grass: recreational activities which did not differ essentially from what we were doing there earlier.
We occupied the permitted place with our bodies. Someone sat on a bench, another one lay down on an adjacent one, other people gathered in a small group to chat, another person found a cobblestone and was walking holding it with her hands, another one stood alone looking at his phone, and someone else was moving almost imperceptibly, eyes closed. I sat on a bench with Jana, the moderator of the activity, looked at what everyone was doing, and engaged in a conversation with her on the subject of the workshop while she timed that part of it. No pictures of this moment were taken.
Once the time was up, we went back inside the museum and shared our experiences. We were less people than we started: three of them had left.
When describing their actions, most participants manifested that they had found the task quite difficult, although interesting to give it further thought. Following I will briefly summarize some of the approaches to the proposed practice. One of the participants said that I had not provided them with any tools to work with, so she just looked around to see what the rest was doing, and devoted that time to think about «ways of occupying time with her silent body. To do nothing, just listen.» Additionally, she brought to the room «a gift» as a sample of her art making process: it was the smell of a plant she was hiding in her hands, which she carefully let each of us sense one by one. She had opted to remain conscious of the moment, and found a way of making us take part in it with the sensations and memories a specific smell can bring forth: a sort of mixture or play with the multiple layers of time.
In line with this intervention, the woman who found the cobblestone shared that the way she sought to suspend time with was by trying to reach a state of consciousness through breathing and feeling the material she was holding, which she threw away at some point provoking the ground to emit a sound from the impact. Previously, she had come to me to make me sense the stone by holding it with her and by synchronizing our breathings.
Another participant, a composer who had never performed before, shared that she tried to describe the linearity of time through a combination of voice and movement: she closed her eyes and started walking very slowly in a straight line while singing something as slowly as she was moving forward, until she felt it was enough and stopped. That moment coincided exactly with the end of the activity.
Although most of the proposals were more centred on the idea of time rather than on seeking ways of becoming useless or dysfunctional through artistic practice by means of its suspension – which actually was difficult given the length of the workshop and the complexity of the assignment –, the participants identified some key mechanisms to achieve that goal and apply them when desired. As one of them summarized, the sense of the task was «a matter of focus and play.»
My conversation with Jana during practice time brought insightful points of view on the subject of the workshop. Jana considered the exercise I was proposing to be «very contextual», which it certainly was. In fact, it cannot be detached from the global and personal circumstances that it comes from. These are precisely defined by precariousness, uncertainty and a new return to the parental home. In the conversation that opened this text, my friend and I agreed in that in every specific project it is crucial to know and acknowledge where one was at the moment it started up. That is much more important than any theoretical justification one makes of it.
Therefore, the mechanisms that each person may use to become dysfunctional will be inevitably tied to their surrounding contexts. Evidently, the cases vary. It is not the same when someone has to take care of children or other people, or when one does not have their basic needs fully covered, to name just two possible scenarios. Indeed, not everyone has the privilege of refusing to work. Furthermore, health is another important variable, since those with different capacities and levels of dependency are constantly being reminded of their limitations in almost every situation. However, the purpose of this particular exercise was to seek diverging temporalities, that is, provisional escape routes or breaking instants, as Concheiro puts it. That being said, the workshop was contextualised specifically within the realm of art, which calls to a different set of problems and circumstances – although the resulting mechanisms can be reformulated and applied to other spheres of life.
When the art world becomes more and more precarious as well as over-professionalised and over-bureaucratized as it happens nowadays; when all that seems to matter is sales and success – whatever that is –, the possibilities of art as a space of contingency, or play, become limited. Thus, searching for spaces of self-sufficiency in our respective practices, or turning them into a self-sufficient activity in itself, not dependent of capitalist criteria, is a way of injecting value into what we do regardless of the inertias that condition them. As Manning (Manning 2019) reminded, «we, performers, have learned that our work has value in the moment it takes place.»
I recall commenting Jana about the possibility that someone refused to take part in the activity. To voluntarily do nothing. Back in the Seminar Room at Kiasma for discussion, we found a message written with a red marker on the flipchart, which was not there when we left. It said «THIS DOESN’T WORK», clearly manifesting some sort of disconformity. The message was written by the three people who purposely decided to not do nothing as their contribution to the workshop, as they later let me know. Below those words, the technical assistant to the workshop had written right below, in green: «BUT I DO.» Here, to end this text, I will make clear that I would prefer not to.
18 In this text, the word “useless” is employed in the sense that Nuccio Ordine (Ordine 2013) develops in The Usefulness of the Useless.
19 Many authors have manifested their opposition against the distinction between time in and out of work. Along with Paul Lafargue or Kazimir Malevich, among others, Marcel Duchamp stood against wage labour, as different analyses of his oeuvre have shown. See, for example, Maurizio Lazzaratto’s Marcel Duchamp and The Refusal of Work (Lazzaratto 2017).
20 This installation was set up in the former post office of San Román de Candamo (Asturias, Spain). It was comprised of a set of cards with floral motifs (in Spanish, the popular name of those flowers translates as “nonsense”) distributed in different points of the space, imitating the wallpapers in the old rooms for guests on the upper floors. The two large pieces of furniture embedded in one of the walls were used in this occasion as receivers of a specific correspondence, centred on personal stories dealing with tactics for practising idleness, that is, of escaping the inertias and social conditions that affect us on a daily basis. One of these pieces of furniture communicated with the outer patio with hemp ropes which served as a directional element. Their ends were tied to the weeds that had grown in it, generating a slight movement. The installation was accompanied by an artist’s book that includes images and stories of San Román related to the mail, the act of weaving and the disuse, as well as some instructions to become useless.
21 I expound on this particular aspect in my doctoral thesis (Rodríguez Casado 2017), which analyses the complexities of the avoidance of documentation in non-object-based artistic practices. As a matter of fact, the lack of documentation gives the art work in the form of a gesture or event the capacity to exist in its own right regardless of any other systems of validation.
22 Further examples of this are provided in my thesis (Rodríguez Casado 2017). Among them, Lee Lozano, Isidoro Valcárcel Medina or Josechu Dávila are only three examples of artists who have avoided the documentation of some of their actions, thus challenging the visual preeminence and durability of the artistic activity. In these cases, the attitude plays a central role (see chapter 2.1.3).
23 Currently, protests against capitalism, inequality and the consequences of globalisation and colonialism are taking place in several countries of Latin America.
24 Manning was actually referring to the perpetuation of colonialism in the academic sphere, but I am using her words here because their sense also functions in the context of the dynamics that the workshop posed.
25 This is not uncommon. Every time I have invited other people to think about this issues, many of them have recognised the difficulty of reflecting on them, since, according to them, they are not used to think in those terms. Actually, one of the participants recognised that he preferred to devote the time of the workshop to «do networking». That is why I consider crucially important that spaces like the one this workshop allows for can be activated.
Concheiro, Luciano. 2016. Contra el tiempo: Filosofía práctica del instante. Barcelona: Anagrama.
Lazzaratto, Maurizio. 2017. Marcel Duchamp y el rechazo del trabajo. Translated by Javier Basas Vila. Madrid: Casus Belli.
Manning, Erin. 2019. “How Do We Repair.” Personal notes. Kiasma Theatre, Helsinki, 28 August 2019.
Ordine, Nuccio. 2013. La utilidad de lo inútil. Translated by Jordi Bayod Brau. 15th ed. Barcelona: Acantilado.
Pardo, José Luis (ed.); Melville, Herman; Agamben, Giorgio & Deleuze, Gilles. 2001. Preferiría no hacerlo. Translated by José Luis Pardo. Valencia: Pre-textos.
Rodríguez Casado, Javier. 2017. “Hacia una reducción extrema del acontecimiento artístico: prácticas sin objeto y sin documentación en la contemporaneidad” [“Toward an Extreme Reduction of the Artistic Event: Non-Object-Based and Undocumented Practices in Contemporary Art”]. PhD thesis. Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Madrid.
Society of Nothing. No Show Museum web. Accessed 14 November 2019. www.noshowmuseum.com/en/2nd-b/marcel-duchamp#info.
Javier R. Casado
Javier R. Casado is an artist and researcher who, in the previous years, has devoted part of his activity to the search of forms of suspension, improductivity, impermanence, invisibility and minimum action through negligible gestures carried in specific contexts. He holds a PhD by the UCM, Madrid.