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<nettime> work works in nyc
David Teh on 5 Mar 2001 17:08:27 -0000

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<nettime> work works in nyc

work works in NYC
review for <nettime> by david teh

Two exhibitions currently showing in MoMA's New York complex demonstrate
the peculiar status of "work" in New Economic America.  They stand at
opposite ends of the faded spectrum of labour discourse.  The installation
('Person Remunerated for a Period of 360 Consecutive Hours') and
video-catalogue of works by Mexico- based artist Santiago Sierra, upstairs
at PS1 in Long Island City, are a testament to the severe marginalization
of labour concerns in public discourse today.  Meanwhile "Workspheres", at
MoMA-proper, is a blithe and irredeemable servant of this very

In an era when so few real-world spaces remain open for commentary or
critique of the organization of labour under late capitalism, and where
workforces are so splintered by the legal taxonomy of corporate justice,
at PS1 issues a cry from the sidelines.  For many years, Sierra (b.1966)
has staged happenings in which workers – often young, unemployed men from
underprivileged communities in Latin America – are hired for a pittance to
perform simple or repetitive tasks.  The amount of ‘remuneration’ is
always disclosed, the work recorded on video.  Sitting in a box, holding
up a gallery wall, even riding around in a bus, the subjects’
participation documents, with a formal directness seldom encountered in
contemporary art, the paltry exchange value of work in the labour
diasporas of the developing world.

Sierra’s works, minuets in political minimalism, resound with a clarity
and a bluntness that we have come to associate with certain forms of
radical protest.  Informed more by the tradition of Arte Povera than by
Courbet, there is nothing classical or timeless, no nostalgic stoicism, to
these studies.  The labour depicted is transient, anonymous, dispensable.  
It is clearly subject to the arbitrary temporality of scheduled
exploitation.  These are works about work, in work – real-time sculptures,
as it were, fashioned in the medium of labour.  Yet despite their brutal
eloquence and rigorous formal regimen, they are hardly moving as ‘art’;
their formal simplicity is coupled with a conceptual economy that
precludes any deep aesthetic experience.  Any such depth would detract
from the urgency and primacy of the message.  But it is indeed worrying
that this bluntness, and the spaces of art themselves, need to be thus
employed; that the inequalities being depicted are so poorly exposed in
the media-sphere that it should be necessary to enlist rarefied
gallery-art in the cause.

It is necessary, because out in the real world the image of labour has
been so thoroughly twisted, spun and airbrushed as to be completely
unrecognizable, even to the educated ‘knowledge-worker’ as he clamours to
market, CV attached, no longer seeking employment so much as shopping
(on-line) for a job.  And nowhere is this image more airbrushed than at
MoMA’s Manhattan headquarters, where the pallid "Workspheres" exhibition
has been installed.  Here is work tarted up to look like Hollywood
Future-Exploration - labour in drag.

According to its free pamphlet, this exhibition "presumes that while our
work determines our lives, in the future our lives will be able to shape
the way that we work."  This is a mighty and loose presumption indeed, and
illuminates the thin line separating one sort of presumption from another,
less mindful sort.  We’ve become roundly desensitized to this confused
IT-ological cacophany - the nefarious union between lifestyle porn and
technology fetishism - spread thickly as it is in service of daily
commerce.  We are less accustomed, perhaps, to hearing it from the
esteemed guardians of (official) modern art.

With this dreadfully disappointing show, reminiscent of the Guggenheim’s
gleaming Motorcycle Showroom (1998), MoMA invites some overdue scrutiny of
its charter and raison d’etre.  It would be a shame to have to demand of
an institution which, like this one, had a proud record of enshrining
design excellence in the temple of fine art, that it revert to hanging oil
paintings alone.  But we will if this is the sort of flaccid, mercantile
showcase they are going to serve up every time there’s a lull in the
global parade of modernist Masters.

The pamphlet, complete with simulated coffee-stain (powered by Starbucks?)
begins with the chief Fanciful Premise of this show – "nomadic work" – the
gullible and embarrassingly credulous assumption that thanks to technology
and decentralization, work is becoming heroically individualized, and
therefore miraculously liberated from the tyrannies of workaday corporate
environments, their values, architectures and accoutrements.  This is a
flimsy basis for an exhibition supposedly devoted to labour, and the
pamphlet utterly fails to conceal what the show is – a Great Pornographic
Exhibition of Techno-Fetishism – composed of six 5-minute, walk-thru
advertorials designed (to the more paranoid mind) chiefly to distract the
new professionalized proletariat from its own alienation.

The document reads and looks far more like a catalogue for The Sharper
Image than a ‘museum catalogue’.  If one could possibly overlook the
scores of casual product placements (bic, Apple, FedEx), endorsements and
registered trademarks that punctuate its pages, then the congenial
sterility of its language should be convincing enough – this in its
rhapsody to the wonders of worker-mobility:

"A portable computer integrated with a cellular phone and operated from a
seat on a train to Boston, for instance, is enough to generate an
efficient worksphere.  With a little help from design – such as a foldable
handkerchief screen and keyboard – this setup can become as efficient as
an office desk in New York, and may even be more conducive to

As if the inspiration were not obvious enough, of a Communicating Scarf
(care of France Telecom), complete with phone, keyboard and screen; of a
chair that changes colour to match the user’s trousers; and how better to
assert control over your work-hours than with the ingenious
Bed-in-Business (powered by IBM), with screens built into its ‘adjustable
foot’ and (I shit you not) "loudspeakers embedded" in the pillows.  This
last idiotic fixture recalls a long lineage of hare-brained futurism,
Utopias all but forgotten, and bad Irish jokes about things like
Underwater Alarmclocks.  And it eloquently proclaims, moreover, MoMA’s
atrocious dereliction of curatorial integrity in the pursuit of corporate

Perhaps the only gesture in Workspheres worth the MoMA admission price
were the "h!bye nomadic worksphere seeds", a piece of conspicuously
un-American irony from Spanish designer Marti Guixe.  These were a variety
of ‘edible and non-edible’ pills, each a tongue-in-cheek prod at the
jingoisms of post-geographical convenience: "Feel Comfortable Everywhere"
was a portable arsenal of spices, amulets against generic cuisine, sorted
by continent.  (Bearing only the most incidental relevance to ‘work’,
these would have been more resonant among the paperbacks and vending
machines of airport terminals, or better still issued by US Customs on

I would not wish to detract from the ingenuity or accomplishments of any
of the featured designers.  The problems with this exhibition are
institutional, curatorial, directorial – in a word, corporate.  Under the
pretext of a focus on work, this was a paltry buffet of leftovers from the
future, a labour-less, Utopian feast of sign-capital.  What little
intellectual work went into the arrangement of this pathetic show was in
vain.  At least the fruitless labour served up by Sierra was tabled

Santiago Sierra, Person Remunerated for a Period of 360 Consecutive Hours
 {AT}  PS1, Long Island City, Sept. 17 – Nov. 2001

Workspheres (curated by Paola Antonelli)
 {AT}  the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2nd floor galleries Feb. 8 – Apr. 22, 2001

dteh {AT} arthist.usyd.edu.au

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