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<nettime> cats meaow panel report
t byfield on 23 Mar 2001 00:03:22 -0000

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<nettime> cats meaow panel report


CATS MEOAW [Media Art or Worse] PANEL

Representing Work / Organizing Life: a response to Workspheres and work
conditions NOW!

center for advanced technology at NYU
wednesday, 21 march 2001 6:30-8:30pm

offically billed as:

     Information Technology has purportedly transformed how we work,
     certainly how we represent and support the institutions of daily life
     that order and structure that activity we call work. In this panel we
     discuss what counts as work and what doesn't, as a response to the view
     of work materialized in MOMA's Workspheres exhibition. What
     transformations have been accomplished, whose interests do they serve,
     and do the media artist who reuse and reinterpret the technologies of
     work present any alterity?

    andrew ross, director, American Studies Program, NYU
    perry hoberman, installation artist
    pud, CEO, fuckedcompany.com, the dotcom deadpool

    Paola Antonelli, curator, 'workspheres' exhibition, MoMA


(what follows is parochial and not particularly accurate or 'adequate.')

the panel led off with a remarkable presentation by andrew ross on his
ethnographic research into the world of dotcoms, with the caveat that
presenting ethnography in progress is a tricky task--at worst, as he put
it, 'dishonest.' warnings of that kind often come off as a sort of a
pro-forma defense, as if to say that you cannot rebut what hasn't actually
been asserted, but in this case the complexity of his survey justified such
an opening. (for an earlier talk by ross at the tulipomania conference, see

though ross didn't exactly say so, the use--not some infra-academic
prescriptive definition but, rather, the *use*--of the word 'culture'
formed the center of his presentation. 'culture' means very different
things in, say, the mouths of an ethnographer, a pundit, and a dotcom
worker. but, in that sense, 'means' means more than it might seem at first,
because meaning is *the* cultural effect par excellence. for an
ethnographer, culture is a sort of N+1 dimensional space composed of what
anything and/or everything means. but, as ross noted, for workers in
dotcoms it's typically used to describe something much more limited, a
'proprietary' perquisite of a company's environment--basically, policy plus
a ping-pong table. as such, this latter understanding of culture is
consciously manufactured as a commodity--obviously, if it isn't obvious,
from existing scraps of what the former understanding tries to structure.

the vast divide that separates these two understandings is the realm where
a variety of forces--ranging from the unintended consequences of zoning
laws, to shifts in focus brought about by surveillance as a normative
practice, to social traditions so pervasive as to be invisible--produce a
kind of foggy statistical laboratory where, among other effects, dotcom
workers have been busily and eclectically combining and recombining new
ways to fail to recognize themselves as what they are, namely, laborers.
their eclecticism--a little bohemian work schedule here, a bit of
cooperativist politics there, a dash of post-bauhausian design fetishism, a
pinch of utterly mainstream casual-friday clothing, and so on--has provided
a procedure by which they've continually sidestepped any systemic-systematic 
(or even merely coherent) analysis of what's afoot. more than that: their 
explicit goal of 'creating their own culture(s)'--through minor modifications 
of corporate work circumstances--has obfuscated the larger shifts they're 
entrenching. these are many, in the sense that the effects of the dotcoms' 
rise rebound back through the very same worlds in which zoning laws, 
surveillance/analysis techniques, and social traditions inhere. so, though 
the dubiously minimal version of 'culture' promulgated by dotcom workers is 
governed by a mutant montessori ethic ('the child's work is play'), the 
effects of their rise and fall--for example, abrupt changes in urban 
economic systems--are nevertheless quite real.

as noted, though, ross's explicit emphasis fell not so much on 'culture'
but more on labor; in particular, on how dotcom workers' practices are in
many ways continuous with traditional divisions, ideals, and circumstances
of work (and, hence, of education). ross describes dotcom workers as a
'value-adding middle-class' workforce, and it's within that rubric that,
though the names have changed slightly, some basic distinctions remain much
the same: craft-oriented 'creatives,' technically-oriented engineers, and
rationalist businesspeople. it's to these *continuities*, as opposed to
rupture-obsessed antinomian rhetoric of the 'information revolution,' that
ross devoted most of his talk.

in a way, it's a shame that 'pud' from fuckedcompany, a self-described
'programmer,' followed ross because the two speak very different languages
and in very different ways. it was *between the talks of ross and pud* that
the panel could have taken off but didn't. fuckedcompany has succeeded
because, as the dotcoms collapse en masse, their workforce which only
recently was so intent on 'disintermediating' the middleman out of every
conceivable social transaction is now confronting the fact that we all
(dotcom workers included) are all middlemen--and now *the* dotcom workers'
heads are on the disintermediating chopping block. they're pissed, and
fuckedcompany is where they've been pissing, leaking, and venting like
there's no tomorrow. pud's articulacy is a savvy effect of the networks,
and as a result his authority isn't so much his (or if it is that wasn't
the point in this context): it's collective. it would be 'an honor' (i.e.,
intimidating) even for a self-assured academician to follow ross, who's a
hell of a hard act to follow; but for a twenty-something geek who was
weirdly out of his element in NYU's Center for Advanced Technology, it must
have been much more difficult than he let on.

but what was lost--in part through ross's emphasis on continuities, in part
through pud's willingness to trade in the shock-jock style he uses on his
site for a more proper tone, in part through the panel's later turn toward
the MoMA's 'workspheres' exhibition--was the aggression that played such a
huge role in the rise of what eventually were diluted into dotcoms,
specifically, a *generational* aggression. for example, where ross
offhandedly described a familiar 'cycle' of gentrification in inner-city
areas, in fact--i would say (it may be that ross would agree; cf. his
caveat above)--with each repetition we saw cumulative processes of
entrenchment and exclusion expressed in generational terms. similar cycles
have certainly defined cultural institutions as well over the last few

the sum total, in many cities, has been a series of shifts in which basic
facts of life like earning potential, cost of living, phsyical resources
needed for collective experimentation ('space'), and expectations for
institutional advancement have become closed to young people, with only
minor (and utterly procrustean) openings. the antinomianism and
'revolutionary' rhetoric that's played such a central part in the
aggressive stance of the networked young was very much a reaction to their
exclusion from all manner of institutions, both within and without work:
ludicrous demands for educational credentials, less and less secure work 
paths, the attrition of rent regulation, the entrapment of easy credit, the
diminution of cultural funding, regressive tax policies, and so on. it was
in this context that, say, the much-touted 'lowered barriers to entry' to
various media-related activities took on so much meaning for the *properly
culturally* inquisitive: they allowed technically inclined people, many if
not most of them young, to take a *generationally adversarial* DIY
approach to 'creating culture'--often, i suspect, with aims more exapnsive 
than the diktats of business, even 'new economy' business, would allow.
small wonder, then, that the dotcommies would take up whatever cultural 
forms were available--money included--in the breach and ended up a little

there's no doubt that the subsumption of that trend by kapital can and
should be seen as yet another repetition of an ever-more refined and
cyclical co-optation of cool, or rebellion, or youth culture, or whatever
you'd like to call it. and, in a way, there's much to be gained by taking a
dispassionate stance in thinking about this, as ross does (and also
doesn't, i don't mean to pigeonhole his ongoing project on the basis of a
short talk)--if only as a tentative way to sift through the 'revolutionary'
rhetoric in search of continuities, many of them intentionally (if not very
coherently) obfuscated. still, it's not so often that ross and pud appear
in public together to talk about what's happening to work--which, at the
moment, is a resurgent condition of '*unwork*,' often delivered with the
same astounding lack of professionalism that's been the hallmark of dotcom

so i was left with the sense that a golden opportunity to hash out just how
the situational rubber meets the historical road had been missed. instead,
the panel then turned to perry hoberman, who recited some of his past work,
and then to MoMA curator paola antonelli, who delicately poked and prodded
the ensuing discussion into an only marginally historical (that is, mostly
ahistorical) orbit around 'work,' 'design,' 'art,' and other such barely
ponderables. that's an overly harsh condemnation of what was nevertheless
an impressively  subtle conversation, thanks to natalie jeremijenjo's
articulate guidance. and, really, i'm just being bitchy: the discussion
followed precisely how the event was billed, 'a response to Workspheres and
work conditions NOW!' and, indeed, there's no question that ross's
presentation provided a strong basis for thinking more clearly about the
larger matrix of forces within which that exhibition's works were created.
how they're *displayed* is another question, though. at one point, the
relationship between the exhibition's de rigeur white-cube minimalist
presentation of its objects was squarely addressed. antonelli insisted that
the absence of any productive clutter (or, rather, any simulacrum of it) or
messy historical contextualization didn't push the exhibition away from
'design' and toward 'art'; but her protestations weren't especially
convincing, since there isn't a snowball's chance in hell that the MoMA would
ever realy display its warez in their fated context, namely, the dustbin
of history.

whether the MoMA's affected saunter as it struggles to remain relevant to
anything but the capital-intensive program of high modernism should be a
priority in discussions of work or the workplace is itself a fair question.
as a few nettimers may know, it was _artforum_'s prominent coverage of
unionization efforts at the MoMA ca. 1976 that led to the purging of that
magazine's editorial staff (and thence the creation of the now
fantastically somnolent journal _october_); and as more probably know,
within the last few years the MoMA squared off against labor unrest with a
staunchly antilabor position that's proven, sadly, to be utterly and
regressively typical of american 'cultural' organizations. so, to see this
shift of focus away from real conditions of work and unwork, and toward the
MoMA's absolutely complicit vision of a laborless office was more than a 
little frustrating. 

nevertheless, it's entirely to the credit of jeremijenko and her colleague
at CAT chris csikszentmihalyi--whose mini-keynote precisely dealt with his
own odyssey through the work of designing cultures within a larger cultural
framework--that at least that choice was made explicit. 



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