Category Archives: work

Crises of labour, language and behaviour. An interview with Jeremy Hutchison

I discovered Jeremy Hutchison’s work in 2011 when he was exhibiting a series of laughable objects he had commissioned to manufacturers around the world. Not only did he ask them to fabricate items that would be unusable but he also requested that each worker had full license to decide what the error, flaw and glitch in the final product would be. Hutchison ended up with a collection of dysfunctional objects and prints of online exchanges with baffled factory managers. Err is an artwork that’s both ridiculous and profound. Behind its perfectly impractical combs, chairs, skateboards and trumpets, lay moments of poetry within the perfectly oiled machine of globalization and an elusive portrait of the anonymous factory workforce that manufacture all the consumer goods we don’t need but have been conditioned to yearn for.


Jeremy Hutchison, ERR, 2011. Untitled (made by Carlos Barrachina, Segorbina de Bastones, Segorbe, Spain)


Jeremy Hutchison, Movables, 2017. Fondazione Prada curated by Evelyn Simons. Photo by Paris Tavitian

At the time, I was expecting Hutchison to be a one hit wonder. I liked Err so much, i imperiously decided the artist would never be able to live up to everyone’s expectations. And yet, over the years, he kept on creating artworks that “explore improper arrangements of labour, language, behaviour and material to produce crises.” Artworks that proved my instincts wrong again and again: canvases involving BOTH an investment banker and an Occupy protestor, an exhibition orchestrated by members of the Sapporo Police Department, a video starring employees of a peanut factory without peanuts and a series of consumer goods that explore the (possible) “well-meaning dictatorship” of design.

Whether it meditates on the condition of the worker or investigates the recuperation of anti-capitalistic aesthetics by capitalism, Hutchison’s work is always imbued with humour and compassion. He’s having a few exhibitions across Europe this month. One of them is Transnationalisms which opens this week at Furtherfield in London. I liked Aksioma‘s version of the show in Ljubljana so much, i thought i’d use the London edition of Transnationalisms as an excuse to get in touch with the artist.


Jeremy Hutchison, from the series Movables, 2017. Courtesy the artist


Jeremy Hutchison, from the series Movables, 2017. Courtesy the artist

Hi Jeremy! Your project Movables will be part of the Transnationalisms group show that opens this week at Furtherfield in London. I find the work very moving. You sourced an image from the Daily Mail – a website that spreads hatred and contempt towards immigrants – and you used this as a starting point to question the regulations over the freedom of movement. Can you tell me more about this work?

Yes: I came across this photo on the Daily Mail website. It had been taken by police at a border point somewhere in the Balkans. The image showed the inside of a Mercedes: the headrests of the front seats had been torn open by police, revealing a human body hiding inside each seat.

This photograph testifies to a reality where human bodies attempt to disguise themselves as inanimate objects, simply to acquire the same freedom of movement as consumer goods.

In Movables, I translated this absurdity into a series of photo collages. They combine elements of high-end fashion shoots and car adverts – enacting an anthropomorphic fusion between human bodies and consumer products. The results are sort of uncanny. They appropriate a familiar visual language, but distort it to present a series of freaks. In doing this, I wanted them to embody a contradictory premise of global capitalism – with respect to the freedom of movement. Capital requires ‘free’ individuals to function as cheap labour forces. But it simultaneously needs to restrict their movement since it can’t offer the same freedom to everyone. 


Jeremy Hutchison, Fabrications, 2012-16. EVA Biennale curated by Koyo Kouoh. Photo by Miriam O’Connor


Jeremy Hutchison, Fabrications, 2012-16. Courtesy the artist


Jeremy Hutchison, Fabrications, 2012-16. EVA Biennale curated by Koyo Kouoh. Photo by Miriam O’Connor

You are currently showing Fabrications at Division of Labour. For this project, you spent time in a jeans factory in Palestine and asked the workers to make jeans that translated what it was like to make jeans in Palestine. How did they react to your request?

Well, this project started with a conversation I had with the factory manager. He showed me a photograph of an Israeli tank, parked outside the factory. Its cannon was pointed directly at the building. He said it was hard to describe the physiological effect of this experience: of working under the threat of total obliteration.

So I asked him if he could manufacture jeans that described it instead. He produced five pairs. Each was distorted into unwearable positions; monstrous contortions of human legs. In some ways, I think they point to the way in which trauma becomes inscribed on the body. Stress isn’t simply a psychological state, it’s an embodied experience. It becomes genetically encoded, and passed down through generations. I think these jeans describe something of this process; how history is inscribed on the body – producing material, anatomical realities.


Jeremy Hutchison, Fabrications, 2012-16. EVA Biennale curated by Koyo Kouoh. Photo by Miriam O’Connor

Jeremy Hutchison, Fabrications, 2016

The description on your website says that the “project constructs a counter-history of Palestine.” What do you mean by that? And how does Fabrications achieve it?

I’ve produced a number of projects in the Middle East. And the more time I spend there, the harder it becomes to think in terms of facts, history, or truth. Whatever position you take, it’s subject to a myriad of subjective distortions.

So in this project, I accelerate this process. Via a series of heavily retouched images, I suggest that Palestine was once bright blue, like the sky. Vast quarries of dazzling indigo rock spilled out of the land. They used the indigo to dye jeans. In turn, this attracted foreign investment, colonisation – and ultimately the Indigo Wars.

Of course, this is absurd. Indigo isn’t a mineral, but a flower. There were no indigo mines, no Indigo Wars, and Palestine was never blue. By invoking this fictitious narrative, the work invites a critical reflection around the construction of historical discourse, alluding to the distortions that take place in the structuring of history. But ludicrous as it may be, this falsified history operates in a tension with contemporary reality. After all, Palestine’s representation in Western media is plagued by uncertainty. Its geopolitical status is perpetually ambiguous. So the work concentrates this state of uncertainty into a poetic delusion. The land itself becomes a vessel for the imagination.

I’ve exhibited this work several times – including the ICA in London, the EVA Biennale in Ireland. What’s interesting is how often it passes for historical fact: how readily a fictitious history is unquestioningly accepted by a sophisticated audience. Perhaps this is part of the project’s success: it performs its own problem. It demonstrates how truths can be manufactured and circulated, like consumer goods. And it points to the role of white British men in doing so.


Jeremy Hutchison, In heaven people play peacefully sometimes people helping each other love making and working together peacefully, 2016. Photo by Rebecca Lennon


Jeremy Hutchison, In heaven people play peacefully sometimes people helping each other love making and working together peacefully, 2016. Photo by Rebecca Lennon

I’m interested in your work In heaven people play peacefully sometimes. In this project you invited four Task Rabbit workers to paint a mural as if they were a single person. Does the performance point to potential new forms of collaboration that would somehow counterbalance the new tech-mediated trends in labour that dehumanize workers and reduce them to just another cog in the machine?

In many ways, yes. I wanted to explore a situation that rehearsed a kind of solidarity between this distributed workforce. A physical solidarity among workers in the gig economy. None of them had ever worked alongside another ‘Tasker’ – in fact, they’d barely even met one. And this is precisely the point. The fragmentation of workers in the gig economy means that they are pitted against one another. Their individual success depends on their ability to outperform their peers – not to organise or collaborate with them.

The project was triggered by something a gig worker told me. He had stopped using the leather case for his iPhone. Why? Because the time it took to open the flap would result in him losing a gig. During that split-second delay, another worker would get there first. The apparently casual working conditions of the gig economy don’t produce casual workers, but individuated neurotics, fixated on data, personal rankings and milliseconds.

So in this sense, I’d agree with you: we can see the gig worker as a ‘cog in a machine.’ But do the new tech-mediated trends in labour de-humanize workers? Not always. In fact, I think it’s precisely the workers’ humanity – their human capital – that is often foregrounded in these labour platforms. Their personality, social attributes and subjective traits are commodified in their profile pages. So rather than de-humanising workers, I would argue that digital technology does the opposite. It obliges us to amplify our subjective human traits: to exaggerate our individuality and present it as a quantifiable economic resource.

With each new project, it seems that you uncover and investigate a new aspect of production, of consumption but also of labour and how technology is changing its dynamics and logics. How does it affect you personally? How does it change (if it does) the way you shop, work, relate to others?

Well I buy fair trade, I don’t eat meat and I boycott fast fashion. But I have an iPhone that’s stuffed with conflict minerals from Congolese mines. Like everyone else, I’m inextricably complicit in these exploitative networks of production and consumption. Try as we might, it’s extremely difficult to adopt a position outside them. I guess I’m interested in understanding my own complicity and articulating this; to trace out a relationship between my own lifestyle and a global problematic. How do my consumer choices relate to current humanitarian catastrophes? How does the stuff I buy feed off racial hierarchies, economic inequalities, and exploitative supply chains? Consumer objects are portraits of these things – and like most people, my home is filled with them. So I think my art practice helps me to think about the invisible structures that support my privileged Western position. These structures are man-made: they can be re-shaped and distorted by us. I think art can be a way to think through these questions.

Jeremy Hutchison, Monolimum, 2017


Jeremy Hutchison, Limomolum, 2016, Documentation of linocutting workshops at Trust In Fife housing shelter, Kirkcaldy

I learnt a lot from the text you wrote for Limomolum. I found it very moving too. Is this all based on your own experience/relationship with linoleum? Or did you mix stories you heard while in Kirkcaldy?

Thanks Regine, yes all the texts draw on my own experience. Limomolum explores a town called Kirkcaldy on the East coast of Scotland. For two centuries, it was a very productive, affluent place: home of the global linoleum industry. But in the eighties, it started to fall apart. Today Kirkcaldy is largely a place of unemployment and drug addiction.

My father was born there. His family owned a linoleum factory, but he was estranged from them. So I grew up knowing very little about the town. So I took the train up there, and set out to explore. One morning I wandered into the homeless shelter and started chatting to a couple of residents. This was the beginning of a year-long project: we turned the shelter into a performance centre, and the employment support clinic into a linocutting workshop. The work was exhibited in the Kirkcaldy museum.

So yes, I wrote a publication to accompany this show. I wanted to try and capture the complexity of this place, without reducing this constellation of histories and economies. When projects become as extensive as this one, there’s a temptation to make the work complex. I find that writing helps to keep things simple.


Jeremy Hutchison in collaboration with James Inglis and Deone Hunter, Limomolum, 2016. HD video still


Jeremy Hutchison in collaboration with James Inglis and Deone Hunter, Limomolum, 2016. HD video still

I only have an external and superficial perspective on your work of course but it seems to me that you manage to establish a relationship based on mutual trust and respect with the workers (or unemployed people) you feature in your works. How do you manage to convince them that you’re not there to exploit them and make a spectacle of their life? How much efforts, strategies does that require?

These are complex ethical questions. How do I convince people to work with me? How do I avoid making a spectacle of their lives? I don’t think I necessarily do. If we engage with them squarely, the exchanges that take place in social practice are often loaded with asymmetrical power relations. Value can be produced in tacit, invisible ways. Rather than smoothing over awkward socioeconomic imbalances, I try fold these questions into the work. I think the more interesting answer is to be honest, about when social arrangements become exploitative, or turn sour, or fail. Despite my best efforts to anticipate ethical problems, sometimes I fall right into them. I don’t think the answer is to avoid these messy situations, but to move through them.

You were recently on residency in Japan. Can you tell me what you were doing there?

I went to Japan to think about labour conditions. I wanted to explore a country that even has a word for work-induced death: karoshi. Given the relentless pressure to work, what will happen when jobs are automated? How will Japanese people navigate the existential challenge of a post-work condition? What will they do?

This resulted in a project called HumanWork. Borrowing its name from the premier recruitment agency in Japan, it explores the process of recruiting someone for a week of non-productive labour. The project was commissioned by Arts Catalyst / S-Air, and should be exhibited fairly soon. Oh, and I also made a project with the Sapporo Police Department. But I’ll tell you about that another time!

Thanks Jeremy!

Transnationalisms, curated by James Bridle, is at Furtherfield in London, from 15 Sep until Sunday 21 Oct 2018.
Jeremy Hutchison’s work is also part of APPAREL at Division of Labour in Salford, Manchester, Jerwood Drawing Prize at Drawing Projects in Trowbridge, Market Forces at HeRo Gallery in Amsterdam and many more i’m sure.

Transnationalisms is realized in the framework of State Machines, a joint project by Aksioma (SI), Drugo more (HR), Furtherfield (UK), Institute of Network Cultures (NL) and NeMe (CY).

Previously: Transnationalisms – Bodies, Borders, and Technology. Part 1. The exhibition and Err (or the creativity of the factory worker), a conversation with Jeremy Hutchison.

Treebour. Do we pay trees fairly for the immaterial labour they perform for us?

Very few of us think of trees in terms of how hardworking they are. And yet, they work 24/7 and most of their labour is to our benefit. Trees (and any plant for that matter) perform all kinds of services for us. They shelter us against the elements, they help filter water and cool the air, soak up solar radiation, prevent soil erosion, provide living space for wildlife, can be turned into wood, some of them bear fruit and beautiful flowers, etc. They also perform all sorts of ‘cultural services’ for us: they help us unwind, inspire art, mental well-being and spiritual experiences. All of us, human and non-human alike, benefit from their presence around us.


Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour, 2018. Photo by Pau Ros


Image courtesy of Marija Bozinovska Jones

Artist Marija Bozinovska Jones pays homage to this ‘treebour’ in her contribution to Playbour – Work, Pleasure, Survival, an exhibition at Furtherfield in London that explores an issue that deserves more attention from us: the blurring between work, well-being and play in an age of increasingly data-driven technologies.

With the sound piece, Bozinovska Jones investigates playbour from the perspective of trees and asks:

What would it mean to value this treebour like we value human labour? Trees’ careers last hundreds of years. They’re also natural co-operators and communicators, existing in symbiotic harmony with each other and other lifeforms. If they ever form a union and strike for back pay we’re in trouble.

If we were more aware of what trees do for us, would we treat them like we treat women doing an unfair share of household chores? Like the YouTubers creating free content, the factory and field workers exposed to hazardous chemicals and the other human workers who don’t get a decent wage for their efforts?

And if we valued the labour that trees perform for us, wouldn’t we be tempted to make them work harder? Would we try and extract profit from the “social” underground and air-borne networking of trees? Would they end up being the new victims of companies like Uber, Deliveroo and Amazon Mechanical Turk that promise autonomy and flexibility but make humans compete for each gig to drive down costs and reframe hobbies as potential revenue streams?

Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour promo video

The Treebour sound installation gives a human voice to three treebourers. Each of these anthropomorphised trees patiently describes their worth, highlighting the insidious logic of the gamification of all forms of life and work.


Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour, 2018. Photo by Pau Ros

Treebour is a very moving and smart sound piece. I don’t have a video or sound file of the beautiful text of the trees’ pleas but i got in touch with Marija Bozinovska Jones and asked her to tell us more about trees, anthropocentrism and all things playbour:

Hi Marija! Why did you decide to approach the playbour theme through trees? Looking at some of your previous works, i would have expected you to explore playbour through a piece that comments on playbour in virtual environment.

I tend to consider mimicry of biological in computational and social infrastructures.

The early stages of conceptualising the work was collective, during a workshop organised by curator Dani Admiss with Furtherfield. After its conclusion some of us participating were asked to produce work towards an exhibition.

In the course of the workshop we were discussing the unusual gallery location of Furtherfield – in the middle of a park; I am personally keen to exhibit in environments outside the white cube. The first idea was to work with couple of chosen trees surrounding the gallery onto which we would map contemporary socio-cultural values, for example through creating social media profiles for the trees, where they would compete against each other for attention, followers and likes.

Consequently, another workshop participant, Rob Gallagher who is a postdoctoral researcher in Gaming and Identity at King’s College, and myself developed individual monologues for three tree species found in Finsbury park to correspond to human characters. They were to communicate gamified aspects and corporatization of interpersonal relationships online. We likewise aimed to disneyfy the tree personas to appeal to the wide demographic of the audience that passes through the park and the gallery.


Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour, 2018. Photo by Pau Ros

The text of Treebour is amazing. It’s moving, very well researched and it made me appreciate trees even more. Perhaps, if we had a better understanding of what trees and other plants do for us we would be less keen on ‘artificializing’ our landscape with roads, airport extensions, shopping malls, etc. Do you think we need to instrumentalize nature more in order to recognise its value? Or are there dangers to that strategy?

Being an anthropocentric society, we have a tendency to translate other natural species’ communication to fit our logic rather than leaving it as something open which transcends our knowledge and perception.

Beyond our own nature, we often tend to take others’ for granted, as something to be consumed, exploited and conquered. In this respect we can learn from trees who live in symbiotic relationships with each other and other life forms.

We have organised ourselves in a way that we are dependent on concrete infrastructural architecture. In urban environments, the ratio of the built and the artificial is highly disproportionate with the natural.

Research studies observe how our wellbeing increases when surrounded with other natural species of flora and fauna, even with downscaled botanical versions such as plants in our living and working environments; the sole use of green colour in interior space is supposed to have calming properties for the human nervous system.


Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour, 2018. Photo by Pau Ros


Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour, 2018. Photo by Pau Ros


Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour, 2018. Photo by Pau Ros

I can imagine where you found the information for the techy-intellectual tree and the habitat tree. But what about the “relaxing tree”? How did you manage to make it sound so Gwyneth Paltrow-ish? Where does that particular jargon come from?

The character for the Relaxing (beech) tree was based on ASMR YouTubers. I asked my studio colleague to contribute with his voice for it as he has a very soothing voice.

The monologue was based on guided mindfulness instructions as something I am practicing myself as well as researching for work.

Treebour is clearly the outcome of a research on trees and the role they play in making our planet more liveable for us and other living species, etc. Is there anything you discovered during your research that truly amazed you?

The research was building on previous knowledge, for example of way in which trees communicate with each other as well as other life forms, phrased as ‘wood wide web’ and arboreal ARPANET. Rob came across some descriptive botanical jargon such as ‘vascular cambium’ and ‘carboniferous rhytidome‘.


Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour, 2018. Photo by Pau Ros

I love that you made Treebour a sound installation. It’s very suggestive and gives a sense of intimacy. But what were your motivations to do an art piece rather than a video animation or a performance for example? Why did you decide to give trees a voice?

For awhile now, our modes of communication is mediated through blackboxed screen interfaces predominantly employing the visual sense, followed by the haptic and the sonic. Over the past years, I have been examining human voice as a dimensional interface which is able to encapsulate affect. Due to our ability to detect and project emotions onto voice, it is often exploited by technocapitalism through disembodied AI. For example, intelligent personal assistants couple sleek consumer products with a sentient often female voice since we are genetically predisposed to react to a voice most similar to our primary caregiver’s, our mother. Anthropomorphised technologies are something I have been addressing through a proxy MBJ Wetware, a simulation of my voice via machine learning.

What shape does the concept of playbour play in your life as an artist?

Producing ’Treebour’ was a role-play itself.

With the plethora of social media with its potentials to promote work, lifestyle and disseminate opinions, playbour reaches new immaterial labour heights.

Thanks Marija!

Marija Bozinovska Jones’s Treebour is part of Playbour, an exhibition curated by Dani Admiss for Furtherfield Gallery in London. The show remains open until Sunday 19 Aug 2018.

Playbour is realized in the framework of State Machines, a joint project by Aksioma (SI), Drugo more (HR), Furtherfield (UK), Institute of Network Cultures (NL) and NeMe (CY).

Treebour. Do we pay trees fairly for the immaterial labour they perform for us?

Very few of us think of trees in terms of how hardworking they are. And yet, they work 24/7 and most of their labour is to our benefit. Trees (and any plant for that matter) perform all kinds of services for us. They shelter us against the elements, they help filter water and cool the air, soak up solar radiation, prevent soil erosion, provide living space for wildlife, can be turned into wood, some of them bear fruit and beautiful flowers, etc. They also perform all sorts of ‘cultural services’ for us: they help us unwind, inspire art, mental well-being and spiritual experiences. All of us, human and non-human alike, benefit from their presence around us.


Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour, 2018. Photo by Pau Ros


Image courtesy of Marija Bozinovska Jones

Artist Marija Bozinovska Jones pays homage to this ‘treebour’ in her contribution to Playbour – Work, Pleasure, Survival, an exhibition at Furtherfield in London that explores an issue that deserves more attention from us: the blurring between work, well-being and play in an age of increasingly data-driven technologies.

With the sound piece, Bozinovska Jones investigates playbour from the perspective of trees and asks:

What would it mean to value this treebour like we value human labour? Trees’ careers last hundreds of years. They’re also natural co-operators and communicators, existing in symbiotic harmony with each other and other lifeforms. If they ever form a union and strike for back pay we’re in trouble.

If we were more aware of what trees do for us, would we treat them like we treat women doing an unfair share of household chores? Like the YouTubers creating free content, the factory and field workers exposed to hazardous chemicals and the other human workers who don’t get a decent wage for their efforts?

And if we valued the labour that trees perform for us, wouldn’t we be tempted to make them work harder? Would we try and extract profit from the “social” underground and air-borne networking of trees? Would they end up being the new victims of companies like Uber, Deliveroo and Amazon Mechanical Turk that promise autonomy and flexibility but make humans compete for each gig to drive down costs and reframe hobbies as potential revenue streams?

Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour promo video

The Treebour sound installation gives a human voice to three treebourers. Each of these anthropomorphised trees patiently describes their worth, highlighting the insidious logic of the gamification of all forms of life and work.


Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour, 2018. Photo by Pau Ros

Treebour is a very moving and smart sound piece. I don’t have a video or sound file of the beautiful text of the trees’ pleas but i got in touch with Marija Bozinovska Jones and asked her to tell us more about trees, anthropocentrism and all things playbour:

Hi Marija! Why did you decide to approach the playbour theme through trees? Looking at some of your previous works, i would have expected you to explore playbour through a piece that comments on playbour in virtual environment.

I tend to consider mimicry of biological in computational and social infrastructures.

The early stages of conceptualising the work was collective, during a workshop organised by curator Dani Admiss with Furtherfield. After its conclusion some of us participating were asked to produce work towards an exhibition.

In the course of the workshop we were discussing the unusual gallery location of Furtherfield – in the middle of a park; I am personally keen to exhibit in environments outside the white cube. The first idea was to work with couple of chosen trees surrounding the gallery onto which we would map contemporary socio-cultural values, for example through creating social media profiles for the trees, where they would compete against each other for attention, followers and likes.

Consequently, another workshop participant, Rob Gallagher who is a postdoctoral researcher in Gaming and Identity at King’s College, and myself developed individual monologues for three tree species found in Finsbury park to correspond to human characters. They were to communicate gamified aspects and corporatization of interpersonal relationships online. We likewise aimed to disneyfy the tree personas to appeal to the wide demographic of the audience that passes through the park and the gallery.


Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour, 2018. Photo by Pau Ros

The text of Treebour is amazing. It’s moving, very well researched and it made me appreciate trees even more. Perhaps, if we had a better understanding of what trees and other plants do for us we would be less keen on ‘artificializing’ our landscape with roads, airport extensions, shopping malls, etc. Do you think we need to instrumentalize nature more in order to recognise its value? Or are there dangers to that strategy?

Being an anthropocentric society, we have a tendency to translate other natural species’ communication to fit our logic rather than leaving it as something open which transcends our knowledge and perception.

Beyond our own nature, we often tend to take others’ for granted, as something to be consumed, exploited and conquered. In this respect we can learn from trees who live in symbiotic relationships with each other and other life forms.

We have organised ourselves in a way that we are dependent on concrete infrastructural architecture. In urban environments, the ratio of the built and the artificial is highly disproportionate with the natural.

Research studies observe how our wellbeing increases when surrounded with other natural species of flora and fauna, even with downscaled botanical versions such as plants in our living and working environments; the sole use of green colour in interior space is supposed to have calming properties for the human nervous system.


Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour, 2018. Photo by Pau Ros


Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour, 2018. Photo by Pau Ros


Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour, 2018. Photo by Pau Ros

I can imagine where you found the information for the techy-intellectual tree and the habitat tree. But what about the “relaxing tree”? How did you manage to make it sound so Gwyneth Paltrow-ish? Where does that particular jargon come from?

The character for the Relaxing (beech) tree was based on ASMR YouTubers. I asked my studio colleague to contribute with his voice for it as he has a very soothing voice.

The monologue was based on guided mindfulness instructions as something I am practicing myself as well as researching for work.

Treebour is clearly the outcome of a research on trees and the role they play in making our planet more liveable for us and other living species, etc. Is there anything you discovered during your research that truly amazed you?

The research was building on previous knowledge, for example of way in which trees communicate with each other as well as other life forms, phrased as ‘wood wide web’ and arboreal ARPANET. Rob came across some descriptive botanical jargon such as ‘vascular cambium’ and ‘carboniferous rhytidome‘.


Marija Bozinovska Jones, Treebour, 2018. Photo by Pau Ros

I love that you made Treebour a sound installation. It’s very suggestive and gives a sense of intimacy. But what were your motivations to do an art piece rather than a video animation or a performance for example? Why did you decide to give trees a voice?

For awhile now, our modes of communication is mediated through blackboxed screen interfaces predominantly employing the visual sense, followed by the haptic and the sonic. Over the past years, I have been examining human voice as a dimensional interface which is able to encapsulate affect. Due to our ability to detect and project emotions onto voice, it is often exploited by technocapitalism through disembodied AI. For example, intelligent personal assistants couple sleek consumer products with a sentient often female voice since we are genetically predisposed to react to a voice most similar to our primary caregiver’s, our mother. Anthropomorphised technologies are something I have been addressing through a proxy MBJ Wetware, a simulation of my voice via machine learning.

What shape does the concept of playbour play in your life as an artist?

Producing ’Treebour’ was a role-play itself.

With the plethora of social media with its potentials to promote work, lifestyle and disseminate opinions, playbour reaches new immaterial labour heights.

Thanks Marija!

Marija Bozinovska Jones’s Treebour is part of Playbour, an exhibition curated by Dani Admiss for Furtherfield Gallery in London. The show remains open until Sunday 19 Aug 2018.

Playbour is realized in the framework of State Machines, a joint project by Aksioma (SI), Drugo more (HR), Furtherfield (UK), Institute of Network Cultures (NL) and NeMe (CY).

Work it, Feel it! New mechanisms of body discipline


Toni Schmale, hafenperle II, from the series: fuhrpark. was das/der neue gefährt sein kann, 2013. Installation view: Work it, feel it!, Kunsthalle Wien 2017, Photo: Jorit Aust


Juliette Goiffon and Charles Beauté, Face mask, 2016

Article 24 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights declares that Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

But does this still hold true? What remains of the values and achievement labour movements have fought so hard for since the Industrial Revolution? The growth of the service industry, of automation and of the white collar workforce liberated our bodies from the most physically exhausting exertions but does that mean that we feel a sense of body relief and comfort?

It turns out that, from a physiological point of view, sedentary activity is putting new strains and burdens on our bodies. News reports calling sitting ‘the new smoking’ abound. Employers are now increasingly responding to employees’ stress, loss of motivation, back problems and sick leaves with corporate wellness programs. Some offer wearable activity trackers to make work more fun, improve workers’ health, boost employee productivity or save money on health insurance costs. Others grant free gym membership. Or bananas.

As for rest and leisure, anyone with an internet connection is painfully aware that ‘urgent’ work emails, itches to update social media status and message from clients and colleagues are quietly nibbling away at our leisure time. Furthermore, the growing use of zero-hour contracts in the low wage sectors of the service and digital economy is imposing a new time discipline where the worker, informed often at short notice if their efforts are required, remains constantly on alert. Fortunately, we can still retreat in sleep. We might have less and less of it nowadays but it remains the last territory that capitalism hasn’t directly and completely conquered. Yet.


Visible Solutions, Clarity, 2010. Installation view: Work it, feel it!, Kunsthalle Wien 2017. Photo: Jorit Aust


Hannah Black, Bodybuilding, 2015. Installation view: Work it, feel it!, Kunsthalle Wien 2017. Photo: Jorit Aust


Hannah Black, Bodybuilding (excerpt, 2m46s), 2015

A new exhibition at Kunsthalle Wien is looking at the work of the future and the future of work. The show focuses particularly on the increasing demands that work is placing on our physiology and how these demands are met with (conscious or not) moments of bodily resistance. Bearing the energetic title Work it, feel it!, the show is part of the Vienna Biennale for art, design, and architecture which theme this year is Robots. Work. Our Future. The various exhibitions in the biennale explore innovation, speculation and the future. With a bit of scifi and a bit of healthy imagination. Work it, feel it! stands out from the other curatorial perspectives by taking a more critical, more oblique yet very pertinent approach that scales the theme back to the body of the worker. And while the show zooms in on the disciplining of the human body, it never loses sight of the broader picture and issues: the capitalist organization of work and its impact on all aspects of our life.

The exhibition focuses on the demands placed on the human body and its possibilities to act, as seen against the backdrop of an increasingly automated workplace. What are the mechanisms of discipline and control that have been applied to the mind, and above all to the body, to make it an efficient production tool and a pillar of consumerism?.

Work it, feel it! explores the role of artists in this context. Not only did artists pioneer new working models based on flexibility, freelancing and precariousness, they also constantly question systems of control, redefine spaces for agency and present possible alternatives and escape routes to this implacable drive for productivity that has become the ‘new normal.’


Danilo Correale, No More Sleep No More, 2014/16


Danilo Correale, No More Sleep No More, 2014/16. Installation view: Work it, feel it!, Kunsthalle Wien 2017. Photo: Jorit Aust

Danilo Correale, No More Sleep No More (intro)


Danilo Correale, No More Sleep No More (still), 2015

The most thought-provoking work in the show for me was No More Sleep No More, Danilo Correale‘s compelling essay on the chronopolitics of sleep and wakefulness in postmodernity.

In 2014, Correale started a series of conversations with various experts on sleep: doctor David M. Rapoport, anthropologist Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer, historian Roger Ekirch, sociologist Simon Williams, labour studies scholar Alan Derickson, geographer Murray Melbin, philosopher Alexei Penzin and feminist scholar Reena Patel.

The interview part of Correale’s installation is a 4 hour long study of the tensions between the unyielding urge to be productive and the impact that sleeplessness has on productivity but also on social life as well as physical and mental health.

I didn’t get to hear everything but the whole research behind the work is so fascinating that i’ve just ordered the book! While i was in Vienna, however, I did get to listen to Roger Ekirch. The historian believes that industrial capitalism’s relentless need for productivity has shaped our sleeping habits. Not only did we sleep more in the past but we also used to divide our sleep into two shifts. Then came the Industrial Revolution in Europe and stricter, less intuitive sleep/wake schedules were imposed on the workers.

No More Sleep No More suggests a very near future when productivity will not only encroach on every waking hour of the day, as it already does, but will also take control over our sleeping cycles.

As an ironic and somewhat cruel comment on the dictates of neo-liberal capitalism over our sleep patterns, the installation features a dreamy, scifi screening of hypnotizing moving fluids to be experienced, not sitting on the traditional gallery bench, but reclining on the most comfortable bed i’ve ever tried in my life.


Danilo Correale, Boosted (detail), 2014


Danilo Correale, Boosted, 2014. Installation view: Work it, feel it!, Kunsthalle Wien 2017. Photo: Jorit Aust

Correale also explored alertness and the hyper-productive body through a series of silk scarves which patterns are inspired by the aggressive language of advertisements for energy drinks and invigorating ‘superfoods’. The fairly recent explosion in the energy drink & food market seems to respond and sustain the capitalistic call for 24/7 ebullience. According to its rhetoric, rest is a waste of time, aspiring to it is seen as some kind of moral flaw, a socially unacceptable blemish on productivity.

One of the scarves was covered in weapon patterns, implying that the future of our performances might not lay in maca and Red Bull but somewhere in the U.S. military’s ongoing sleep-reduction research program.


Shawn Maximo, Creeper Comforts (Specialty Multi), 2017. Installation view: Work it, feel it!, Kunsthalle Wien 2017. Photo: Jorit Aust


Shawn Maximo, Creeper Comforts (Specialty Multi), 2017. Installation view: Work it, feel it!, Kunsthalle Wien 2017. Photo: Jorit Aust

At the back of the exhibition space is Shawn Maximo’s futuristic beauty store. It looks familiar, like a Sephora of the future, only that along with the usual eye shadow palettes and myriads of lipstick shades, you find body parts. Various shapes of butts, colours of eyeballs, hands in all possible skin tone hues, etc. The cosmetic store specializes in the optimisation of the appearances of both humans and robots.

We already know that in the future, human bodies in need of enhancement will have access to affordable biofabricated flesh, 3D printing prosthesis and other customizable body parts. Maybe in the future we will all be like Aimee Mullins, the double-amputee model and Paralympian, who collects set of legs and sees in each of them the possibility to acquire new powers, new function and a new identity. How about self-conscious robots? Maybe they will be as free (or as constrained) as we are to change their appearance in a bid to look fit, attractive, modern and ready to comply with any new work requirement.

Which made me wonder: will we want to look more like a super powerful and sleek piece of robotics in the future? Or will the robots strive to look slightly flawed and more ‘natural’?


Sidsel Meineche Hansen, The Manual Labour Series (detail), 2013


Sidsel Meineche Hansen, The Manual Labour Series, 2013

Sidsel Meineche Hansen’s Manual Labour Series questions the hierarchy between manual labour and cognitive labour forms. The series, consisting of five woodcut prints and a laser-cut wooden plate, depicts the human autonomic nervous system (that’s the control system that acts largely unconsciously and regulates functions such as the heart rate, digestion, pupillary response, urination, etc.) as well as hands injured by repetitive strain and affected by tendinitis.

To make the print series, the artist appropriated Edvard Munch’s woodcut printing technique and digitalised it by converting her handmade drawings into illustrator files, which were then laser-cut into the surface of the wood she used for the printing. The veins of the wood emphasize the craft, but also suggest a depiction of psychic spaces.

Depression, stress or nervousness are often interpreted as the collateral damages of our time and pressures at work. But what if they are signs (if not to say symptoms) of a resistance of the body—against its commodification and its exploitation by capitalism? The logic of profit strains the most intimate parts and particles of our bodies, from our emotions and our desires down to the tendons of our fingers. Everything can potentially create value, nothing escapes commodification. The whole body is mobilised and absorbed by this logic and the invasive technologies that support it. Sidsel Meineche Hansen’s work addresses the psychological and physical consequences of late capitalism, on a micro- and macro-political level, at home and at work, and seeks to locate points of resistance.

More images and works from the show:


Juliette Goiffon and Charles Beauté, Face mask #1, 2016


Juliette Goiffon and Charles Beauté, Upgrade (overall equipment), 2017. Installation view: Work it, feel it!, Kunsthalle Wien 2017, Photo: Jorit Aust


Installation view: Work it, feel it!, Kunsthalle Wien 2017. Photo: Jorit Aust


Louise Hervé and Chloe Maillet, Prosper Enfantins Performances, 2009

PDF of the exhibition guide.

Work it, feel it!, curated by Anne Faucheret and associate curator Eva Meran, remains open at Kunsthalle Wien (Karlsplatz location) until 10 September 2017.
The exhibition is part of the Vienna Biennale for art, design, and architecture.

Play Station: Bread and Circus for the new jobless society


Lawrence Lek, Play Station, 2017


Lawrence Lek, The Nøtel (with Steve Goodman/Kode9), 2015

In Ancient Rome, politicians used to court the approval of the masses with circus games and cheap food. The satisfaction of citizen’s immediate needs distracted them from any concern regarding the management of the state and made them more likely to vote for lavish politicians. Satirical poet Juvenal found the political strategy disgraceful and talked about panem et circenses.

What will be the 21st century’s bread and circus when the unavoidable impact of job automation puts many of us out of work? Where are we going to find satisfaction and self-worth in the coming years when, as experts predict, automated systems replace 50 percent of all jobs? Will our countries have to face waves of unrest as citizens flood the streets asking for employment, dignity and a reason to get up in the morning? If a universal basic income provides us with bread, what will be our circus?

Artist Lawrence Lek’s latest utopian fiction VR game imagines that in the near future tech companies might throw us a bone:

Set in 2037, Play Station takes place in a futuristic version of the White Chapel Building, the London headquarters of a mysterious technology start-up known as Farsight. A world leader in digital automation, Farsight trains employees to outsource their jobs as much as possible, rewarding top performers with access to exclusive entertainment and e-holidays.

Play Station is ‘a useless-job simulator’. Farsight has no need for human workers, because it relies on automation to ensure profit and growth. The VR simulation is only there to give people a sense of fulfillment. Because Lek trained and worked as an architect, most of his works are site-specific. Play Station, for example, will be installed in the atrium of the recently re-invented White Chapel Building in London where it will stand as a critical comment on the changing boundaries between workplace and playground.

I had a quick email conversation with Lek ahead of the launch of the work for Art Night 2017 on July 1:

Hi Lawrence! Should we rejoice at the idea that playing video games might one day become the new form of work? Or is there something more sinister behind the idea?

In the training and promotional video for Play Station, the guide explains, ‘It’s work! It’s Play! No, it’s Playwork™!’

Play Station is a VR simulation set in 2037 London, where the player is a new employee in a warehouse distribution training centre for Farsight Corporation, a company that specialises in AI automation technology. Here, all work is disguised as play.

The project continues my hybrid site-specific/science-fiction world of Sinofuturism, exploring scenarios where advanced technology, driven by Asian research and investment, poses an existential problem for humanity’s heroic vision of itself. In the Nøtel (made in collaboration with Steve Goodman/Kode9), a fully-automated luxury hotel has its staff replaced completely by drones; In Geomancer, a Singaporean satellite AI comes to earth, hoping to become an artist. With Play Station, I asked – if mechanical automation and AI have kept on replacing the human workforce, could this be seen as an unexpected form of utopia?

I think it would lead to some kind of crisis about work because so much human self-worth is defined in relation to an individual’s value as a labour-provider. It’s a universal syndrome. Whether these beliefs stem from the Protestant Christian or Chinese work ethic, an individual’s relevance to society has extremely deep-set roots in the basis of civilization in agricultural societies, where labour was necessary for survival and (hopefully) prosperity.

Modern work culture has its roots in the transition from an agriculture to the Victorian mechanised workforce; jobs that used to be performed by human labour have repeatedly been augmented and replaced by technology. But what if the ultimate conclusion of the Marxist liberation from drudgery was actually a life of leisure? What would people do if they had universal basic income and they never no longer had to work in order to enjoy a sustainable living?

One idealistic possibility is that everybody will be an artist, free to express themselves and explore the highest forms of human creativity (with lots of government grants and charitable funding of course). More realistically, people would spend time playing computer games, hanging out, and indulging in some kind of play. And at its most extreme, there will be a crisis when the justification for our place in society is no longer predicated on our ability to work.

Lawrence Lek, The Nøtel (with Steve Goodman/Kode9), 2015

Why did you chose a Virtual Reality game to explore post work society?

Play Station is essentially a useless-job simulator. In a way, it’s a future version of medieval re-enactment cosplay scenarios, where people dress up as knights and gather for banquets, tournaments and archery.

In the game, you’re being trained to perform a job that isn’t actually a financial necessity for Farsight corporation. They’ve made billions through AI automation projects. Play Station is one of their charitable goodwill projects. In the future, maybe ‘corporate social responsibility’ goes beyond sponsoring charities. The VR simulation is to give people the illusion that they are productive members of society!


Lawrence Lek, Play Station, 2017

Should we be worried that, soon, all we will have left to spend time is going to be game and VR?

Virtual reality is just the latest in a long line of entertainment mediums that seek to be more immersive. From theatre, to cinema, television, and video games, I think these forms of mass media are designed to envelop the viewer in ever-increasing forms of immersion. That’s why there’s been such a big push in investment, from Facebook acquiring Oculus, to Samsung and Sony developing their own forms of VR. It’s compelling from a multinational business perspective, because the medium can be distributed and domesticated into individual households. There’s a huge potential market for the devices.

So in a post-work society, if everybody has 100% leisure time then VR might be the new opiate of the masses.

Geomancer (Trailer), 2017

Your visions of the future tend to be quite dystopian. But is Play Station anchored in actual examples of trends, news stories and practices? How much of this piece and how much of your work in general is tied to reality and how much of it is the result of your own imagination?

In Geomancer, set in Singapore in 2065, the curator AI says, ‘Utopia VR is big business these days.’

Although it’s often set in the future, my own work is very much tied to reality and what I see in everyday life, from promotional stands at Westfield shopping centre to the hyperactive ads that pop up before Youtube videos. Play Station and Farsight are fictional entities based on how tech companies continuously attempt to improve their public persona through architecture and branding. As part of the installation, I’m creating a marketing video based on promotional videos for hi-tech companies seeking investors and customers. Many of these companies’ founders have genuine utopian dreams about the potential of technology to create a thriving company and to benefit humanity. Naturally, those two things don’t always work together. But in the fictional world of the promo trailer or the VR playground, they do.

I don’t make these works as judgemental criticisms, they are simply more of a reflection of the symbiosis of society, culture, technology, and corporate growth. Whether that’s dystopian or not, I don’t know. But it’s what I see around me every day.


Lawrence Lek, Play Station, 2017


Lawrence Lek, Play Station, 2017

Is there anything about The White Chapel Building that call for this type of post-work/game scenario?

I’m very interested in the interdependent relationship of property economics and architectural aesthetics. The White Chapel Building itself is a newly-renovated former centre for the Royal Bank of Scotland. It’s now leased out to digitally-driven companies and agencies. The new interior reflects trends in workplace design; the 1980s anonymity of big-business architecture (stone cladding, vast central atrium, muted colours) has given way to the post-Millennial workplace (the atrium has a cafe and is open to the public, and you can see the open-plan offices, colourful furniture, and contemporary artwork all around).

We know the ‘playground’ aesthetic of Google workplaces, and Play Station is an imagined continuation of this kind of primary-colours-and-bean-bags aesthetic. But while the interior design of the future workplace will look ever more playful, the underlying economic prerogatives won’t change.

Could you describe the interaction? How do people explore the game and participate?

Play Station is set up as a mandala-like pentagon in the atrium of the White Chapel Building, with each of the five points housing a ‘promo’ station with an Oculus headset, PC, and TV screens playing the instructional video for Farsight Corporation’s ‘new brand of automated workplaces’. The video is for training new employees how to become more efficient workers. Once they put on the VR headset, players engaged in a variety of tasks for fulfilment services (goods distribution). Lucky employees even get to go on Farsight’s rollercoaster ride…

Just like Amazon’s distribution warehouses combine robot and human workforces, there’s a certain kind of automated performance that the player has to learn in order to progress in the game. I’m interested in how video games use ‘fun’ and interactivity to make the player forget the actual physical work and repetitive motion required to play the game.

I actually really dislike putting on those ugly, unhygienic VR goggles. And i’ve had to wear them A LOT over the past few years. Sometimes it was worth it though. What do you find compelling and relevant in VR technology? What makes you want to work with this technology?

I’m most interested in the how the player becomes a performer to other members of the audience, who are also waiting for their turn to become a performer themselves.

There’s a huge difference between ‘ideal’ VR where the virtual world is indistinguishable from the physical one, and the sheer clumsiness of the technology itself. VR headsets add a comedic element to interaction in a public space. At its most basic level, putting on goggles is being blindfolded to your immediate surroundings. When you’re playing, you become the object of attention for other viewers to look at, but you remain happily complicit in this relationship because you’re in another world. This results in a strange kind of reverse voyeurism, where the player’s mind is in another world, but their body stays in the public space of the exhibition.

I find these invisible relationships and social connections very interesting. While exploring, people express subconscious parts of their personality in how they interact with virtual worlds. Some want to win the game by exhausting all possible routes; others want to walk off the edge of the planet. All of these approaches express an attempt to make sense of the world, to master it, to explore the joy or sadness within it; except that it’s literally through the lens of this absurd VR technology that we see as somehow ‘advanced’.

Lawrence Lek, Sinofuturism (1839-2046 AD), 2016 


Lawrence Lek, Sinofuturism (1839-2046 AD), 2016


Lawrence Lek, Geomancer, Commissioned for the Jerwood/FVU Awards 2017


Lawrence Lek, Geomancer, Commissioned for the Jerwood/FVU Awards 2017

Is the future of work something that concerns you personally? Because i suspect that one day AI will take an even more ‘active’ role in the field of creativity as well.

I think AI will increasingly learn to perform ever more complex and creative tasks. I’m interested what this means in my own role as an artist. Can every job be replaced? Is being a writer and artist any different in essence from being a warehouse worker or stockbroker? We all have to make decisions based on certain rules that govern our task. Of course, there’s the romantic ideal of an artist making genius masterpieces. But these are also the result of a very large series of decisions, tastes and preferences as well as the mastery of a range of skills.

My last film, Geomancer, addresses this a problem specifically. While seeking independence from the Singapore government, the satellite AI decides that the most illogical (and therefore most compelling) thing for them to do is to become an artist. What kind of art work would a consciousness create if they had the whole store of human knowledge, of every human and machine language, the entire archive of the internet from 1969 to 2065? And also the capacity to use machine vision on an unimaginable scale, perceiving and recording the movement of every wave and living creature within the ocean? The places where this posthuman idea of creativity will lead are terrifying and beautiful, and maybe even sublime. I think that’s where technology and art are heading.

Thanks Lawrence!

You can experience Play Station at The White Chapel Building for Art Night 2017 on July 1. Lawrence Lek will also be joining Art Night curator, Fatos Üstek at Whitechapel Gallery on Thursday 6 July to discuss his new project.

Play Station by Lawrence Lek for Art Night 2017 is a co-commission by Outset Young Patron Circle and Art Night, supported by Derwent London.

Economia, a festival on economy without the economists


Zachary Formwalt, the Three Exchanges trilogy. Photo by Diewke van den Heuvel

A couple of weeks ago, Baltan Laboratories invited artists, philosophers, scientists, film makers and members of the public to join the Economia festival in Eindhoven. The only thing the participants had in common is that none of them would have described himself or herself as an economist. That and the fact that they had plenty of provocative and thought-provoking ideas to share about the economy. Unsurprisingly, our current economic system took quite a beating over the course of the various keynotes, (on/off stage) debates and documentary screenings. The Economia festival, however, went beyond the critiques (we’ve heard them all before anyway!) and suggested new challenges and alternatives, new perspectives and hypotheses.

As curators Wiepko Oosterhuis and Olga Mink wrote: Why not start by treating economics like any other technology? Play with it, hack it, use input from other disciplines, unleash science fiction on it, approach it in an artistic manner. In short, take ownership so that we can reshape and rework economics as we see fit.

I’ve still got a lot to unpack, think and write about so expect more stories in the coming days. For now, let’s have a quick walk around some of the artworks and design ideas i discovered at Economia:


Blake Fall-Conroy, Minimum Wage Machine, 2008-2010. Photo by Diewke van den Heuvel


Blake Fall-Conroy, Minimum Wage Machine, 2008-2010. Photo by Diewke van den Heuvel

Perhaps the easiest to engage with, the Minimum Wage Machine allowed visitors to get a tangible, physical understanding of what it means to work for minimum wage. Turning the crank yielded a one cent euro coin every 4.018 seconds, that’s €8.96 an hour, the minimum wage in The Netherlands right now. The coins dropped as long as you turned the crank. I saw many people trying it. All of them stopped after the first few cents. You want to have a go because it’s a fun and straightforward installation but you quickly realize how depressing and mind-numbing routine work is.

In an interview with 1215 today, Blake Fall-Conroy discussed the irony of being repeatedly asked by galleries to exhibit his work for free.

UBERMORGEN, Red Coin (Chinese Blood), 2015

Red Coin mining has made the People’s Republic of China the world’s largest Bitcoin producer. However, mining the cryptocurrency requires a lot of energy to power the hardware and to keep it cool. The first mining farms were built in Shanxi and Inner Mongolia where coal energy was cheap, but never as cheap as free water so most of the farms have now migrated towards the west of the country where China has been building hydropower plants.

“Both red blood cells and mining hardware consist of units that have a profitable life-span of about 4 months, they use vast amounts of energy, transport oxygen and as a result create, maintain and enable life in its various forms without maintaining any form of recognizable self-consciousness…”

The video was shot in a Chinese Bitcoin mine that spans six sites which, when the video was shot in 2014, held down roughly 3% of the network’s total hashing power.


Zachary Formwalt, In Light of the Arc, 2013. Photo by Diewke van den Heuvel


Zachary Formwalt, In Light of the Arc (video still), 2013


Zachary Formwalt, In Light of the Arc (video still), 2013

Zachary Formwalt’s video diptych In Light of the Arc, part of the installation Three Exchanges, is shot in China too but it takes us inside Shenzhen’s stock exchange when it was still under construction. Just like Red Coin, this video depicts a reality that is populated, powered and governed more by machines than by men. It is a world characterized by an increasing abstraction, by powerful activities that take place beyond the threshold of our human perception.

But while mining sites are often located in remote and sometimes even secret locations, the financial system needs its material infrastructure to be visible. The building of the Shenzhen’s stock exchange was designed by Rem Koolhaas and his firm Office for Metropolitan Architecture. The facade is your typical stern and futuristic skyscraper. The inside of the building reflects how much advanced algorithms have taken over the world of finance: the trading floor itself, with its iconic bronze bell, now serves only a ceremonial purpose.


RYBN, ADM XI. Photo by Diewke van den Heuvel


RYBN, ADM XI

The work ADM XI further illustrates the de-materialization and abstruse logic that reign over the financial world. This collection of highly irrational trading algorithms was created by 10 artists to compete with each other in a marketplace provided by RYBN.ORG. The artistic trading algorithms hosted on the platform follow their own non mercantile logic: some attempt to produce an irreversible chaos, others try to influence the market prices to make it look like a geometrical shape, while others attempt to saturate the market with non human affects. Profits are no longer driven by the usual economic instruments, but rather, by living organisms – soil, plants, bacteria; by supraterrestrial rules – environmental, astronomical, astrological; or by non-scientific knowledge – esoterism, magic, geomancy, etc.
(i wrote about the project a few months ago.)


Andrés Costa, Notes on a Suicide. Photo by Diewke van den Heuvel


Andrés Costa, Notes on a Suicide. Photo by Diewke van den Heuvel

A small car inside a glass box. The vehicle accelerator is linked to real-time fluctuations of the international oil market. Depending on the movements of prices, the car will speed up or slow down emitting carbon dioxide accordingly, possibly creating an environment too toxic for the vehicle itself.

Notes on a Suicide lays bare the domineering position of data in nowadays’ society as well as its relationship with the key players in the economic field: technology and oil.

See it in action!


Mark van der Net and Wiepko Oosterhuis, EGONOMIA, 2017. Photo by Diewke van den Heuvel


Mark van der Net and Wiepko Oosterhuis, EGONOMIA, 2017. Photo by Diewke van den Heuvel


Mark van der Net and Wiepko Oosterhuis, EGONOMIA, 2017. Photo by Diewke van den Heuvel


Mark van der Net and Wiepko Oosterhuis, EGONOMIA, 2017. Photo by Diewke van den Heuvel


Mark van der Net and Wiepko Oosterhuis, EGONOMIA, 2017. Photo by Diewke van den Heuvel

One of the most entertaining moments for me was when i got to play with the festival’s temporary local currency. Because the system is based on your own values and beliefs, you first had to fill in an online questionnaire about the importance that concepts such as knowledge, beauty, network or creativity have for you. After that, the system prints your personal money to spend all over the festival venue. You could buy drinks for friends, get chocolate at the bar, vote, gamble it, etc.

But because EGONOMIA was a social experiment rather than just one of those pop-up local currencies, you soon found yourself defied by the difference between your initial, admirable values and the very prosaic transactions you make in real life. The discrepancies between the former and the latter might explain why having the best intentions and the most laudable ideals will not necessarily translate into a fairer society.

I ended up gambling most of my money (which was a complete surprise to me) and exchanging the rest for chocolate (now, that’s pretty normal.) I may also have ‘borrowed’ some of the banknotes i saw abandoned on the printer. I scanned them in the gambling machine and lost every single time. Ill got, ill spent…


Monique Grimord, TerraEconomics. Photo by Diewke van den Heuvel

With TerraEconomics, Monique Grimord asks us to ponder on the following questions: What if the stock was not determined by supply and demand, but by health of the earth and resource extraction? Her installation envisions a possible future when the value of goods are no longer dictated by the invisible forces of supply and demand, but are governed instead by the flux of the natural environment, the Earth’s A.I. In her scenario, the countries that pioneered this unique system called it terra-economics.

Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc

Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc is the girl who became a corporation. I wrote about her work back in 2014 already and i’ll spend more time in a coming story exploring how her project has evolved since i last saw her. In the meantime, if ever you have the good fortune to find yourself in or around Ljubljana, don’t miss her upcoming solo show at Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art.

The Economia festival was organized by Baltan Laboratories in Natlab, the former physics lab of Philips, in Eindhoven (NL) on 28, 29 and 30 April 2017.

For more photos of the festival, check out Baltan laboratories flickr set. There’s mine too but i still haven’t improved my photo skills one bit after all these years.

Interview with James Bridle about human deskilling and machine understanding


James Bridle, Untitled (Autonomous Trap 001)

Tesla customers who want to take advantage of its cars AutoPilot mode are required to agree that the system is in a “public beta phase”. They are also expected to keep their hands on the wheel and “maintain control and responsibility for the vehicle.”

Almost a year ago, Joshua Brown was driving on the highway in Florida when he decided to put his Tesla car into self-driving mode. It was a bright Spring day and the vehicle’s sensors failed to distinguish a white tractor-trailer crossing the highway against a bright sky. The car didn’t brake and Brown was the first person to die in a self-driving car accident.

Autonomous cars have since been associated with a growing number of errors, accidents, glitches and other malfunctions. Interestingly, human trust in these technologies doesn’t seem to falter: we assume that the technology ‘knows’ what it is doing and are lulled into a false sense of safety. Tech companies are only too happy to confirm that bias and usually blame the humans for any crash or flaw.

James Bridle, Autonomous Trap 001 (Salt Ritual, Mount Parnassus, Work In Progress), 2017


James Bridle, Installation view of Failing to Distinguish Between a Tractor Trailer and the Bright White Sky at Nome Gallery, Berlin, 2017. Photo: Gianmarco Bresao

James Bridle‘s solo show Failing to Distinguish Between a Tractor Trailer and the Bright White Sky, which recently opened at NOME project in Berlin, explores the arrival of technologies of prediction and automation into our everyday lives.

The most discussed work in the show is a video showing a driverless car entrapped inside a double circle of road markings made with salt. The vehicle, seemingly unable to make sense of the conflicting information, barely moves back and forth as if under the spell of a mysterious force.

The work demonstrates admirably the limitation of machine perception, the pitfalls of a technology which inner working and logic is completely opaque to us, the difference between human and machine comprehension, between accuracy and reliability.

I sometimes wonder how aware most of us really are of the impact that self-driving vehicles will have on our life: soon we might not be able to read maps not just because GPS have made that skill superfluous but because these maps will be unintelligible to us; we might even be seen as too unreliable behind a wheel and be forbidden to drive cars (we’ll have sex instead apparently.)

Taking as their central subject the self-driving car, the works in the exhibition test the limits of human knowing and machine perception, strategize modes of resistance to algorithmic regimes, and devise new myths and poetic possibilities for an age of computation.

It feels strangely ominous to write about autonomous machines on the 1st of May, a day celebrated as International Workers’ Day. After all, these smart systems are going to ‘put us out of job‘. And truck drivers, taxi drivers, delivery drivers are among the professions which will be hit first.


James Bridle, Untitled (Activated Cloud), 2017

I asked the artist, theorist and writer to tell us more about the exhibition:

Hi James! I had a look at the video and not a lot is happening once the car is inside the circle. Which is exactly what you wanted to show of course. But for all i know, the machine could have stopped to work just because it never worked as an autonomous vehicle in the first place and you could be hiding inside making it move a bit. Could you explain what the machine sees and what causes the car to stall?

The car in the video is not autonomous. My main inspiration for the project was in understanding machine learning, and the system I developed – based on the research and work of many others – was entirely in software. I kitted out a regular car with cameras and sensors – some off the shelf, some I developed myself – and drove it around for days on end. This data is then fed into a neural network, a kind of software modelled originally on the brain itself, which learns to make associations between the datapoints: knowing the kind of speed, or steering angle, which should be associated with certain road conditions, it learns to reproduce them.

I’m really interested in this kind of AI which instead of attempting to describe all the rules of the world from the outset, develops them as a result of direct experience. The result of this form of training is both very powerful, and sometimes very unexpected and strange, as we’re becoming aware of through so many stories about AI “mistakes” and biases. As these systems become more and more embedded in the world, i think it’s really important to understand them better, and also participate in their creation.

My software is developed to the point where it can read the road ahead, keep to its lane, react to other vehicles and turnings – but in a very limited way. I certainly would not put my life in its hands, but it does give me a window into the way in which such systems function. In the Activations series of prints in the exhibition, which show the way in which the machine translates incoming video data into information, you can see the things highlighted as most significant: the edges of the road, and the white lines which direct it. Any machine trained to obey the rules of the road would and should obey the “rules” of the autonomous trap because it’s simply a no entry sign – but whether such rules are included in the training data of the new generation of “intelligent” vehicles is an open question.


James Bridle, Untitled (Activation 002), 2017


James Bridle, Untitled (Activation 004), 2017

It is a bit daunting to realise that a technology as sophisticated as a driverless car can be fooled by a couple of kilos of salt. In a sense your role fulfills the same role as the one of hackers who enter a system to point to its flaws and gaps and thus help the developers and corporations to fix the problem. Have you had any feedback from people in the car industry after the work was published in various magazines?

The autonomous trap is indeed a potential white hat or black hat op. In machine learning, this might be called an “adversarial example” – that is, a situation deliberately engineered to trick the system, so it can learn from and defend against such tricks in the future. It might be useful to some researcher, I don’t really know. But as I’m interested in the ways in which machine intelligence differs from human intelligence, I’ve been following closely many techniques for generating adversarial examples – research papers which show, for example, the ways in which image classifiers can be fooled either with entirely bizarre random-looking images, or with images that, to a human, are indistinguishable. What I like about the trap is that it’s an adversarial example that sits in the middle – that is recognisable to both machine and human senses. As a result, it’s both offensive and communicative – it’s really trying to find a middle or common ground, a space of potential cooperation rather than competition.

You placed the car inside a salt circle on a road leading to Mount Parnassus (instead of on a car park or any other urban location any artist dealing with tech would do!). The experiment with the autonomous car is thus surrounded by mythology, Dyonisian mysteries and magic.Why do you embed this sophisticated technology into myths and enigmatic forces?

The mythological aspects of the project weren’t planned from the beginning, but they have been becoming more pronounced in my work for some time now. While working on the Cloud Index project last year I spent a lot of time with medieval mystical texts, and particularly The Cloud of Unknowing, as a way of thinking through other meanings of “the cloud”, as both computer network and way of knowing.

In particular, I’m interested in a language that admits doubt and uncertainty, that acknowledges that there are things we cannot know yet must take into account, in a way that contemporary technological discourse does not. This seems like a crucial form of discourse for an interconnected yet increasingly complex and fragmented world.

In the autonomous car project, the association with Mount Parnassus and its mythology came about quite simply because I was driving around Attica in order to train the car, and it’s pretty much impossible to drive around Greece without encountering sites from ancient mythology. And this mythology is a continuous thread, not just something from the history books. As I was driving around, I was listening to Robert Graves’ Greek Myths, which connects Greek mythology to pre-Classical animism and ritual cults, as well as to the birth of Christianity and other monotheistic religions. There’s a cave on the side of Mount Parnassus which was sacred, like all rustic caves, to Pan, but has also been written about as a hiding place for the infant Zeus, and various nymphs. The same cave was used by Greek partisans hiding from the Ottoman armies in the nineteenth century and the Nazis occupiers in the twentieth, and no doubt on many other occasions throughout history – there’s a reason those stories were written about that place, and the writing of those stories allowed for that place to retain its power and use. Mythology and magic have always been forms of encoded and active story-telling, and this is what I believe and want technology to be: an agential and inherently political activity, understood as something participatory, illuminating, and potentially emancipatory.


James Bridle, Installation view of Failing to Distinguish Between a Tractor Trailer and the Bright White Sky at Nome Gallery, Berlin, 2017. Photo: Gianmarco Bresao


James Bridle, Installation view of Failing to Distinguish Between a Tractor Trailer and the Bright White Sky at Nome Gallery, Berlin, 2017. Photo: Gianmarco Bresao

Your practice as an artist and thinker is widely recognised so i suspect that you could have knocked on the door of Tesla or Volkswagen and get an autonomous car to play with. Why did you find it so important to build your own self-driving car?

I think it’s incredibly important to understand the medium you’re working with, which in my case was machine vision and machine intelligence as applied to a self-driving car – something that makes its own way in the world. By understanding the materiality of the medium, you really get a sense of a much wider range of possibilities for it – something you will never do with someone else’s machine. I’m not really interested in what Tesla or VW want to do with a self-driving car – although I have a fairly good idea – rather, I’m interested in thinking through and with this technology, and proposing alternative pathways for it – such as getting lost and therefore generating new and unexpected experiences, rather than ones pre-programmed by the manufacturer. Moreover, I’m interested in the very fact that it’s possible for me to do this, and for showing that it’s possible, which is itself today a radical act.

I believe there’s a concrete and causal relationship between the complexity of the systems we encounter every day, the opacity with which most of those systems are constructed or described, and fundamental, global issues of inequality, violence, populism and fundamentalism. Only through self-education, self-organisation, and new forms of systemic literacy can we counter these currents: programming is one form of systemic literacy, demonstrating the accessibility and comprehensibility of these technologies is another.

The salt circle is associated with protection. Do you think our society should be protected from autonomous vehicles?

In certain ways, absolutely. There are many potential benefits to autonomous vehicles, in terms of road safety and ecology, but like all of our technologies there’s also great risk, particularly when control of these vehicles is entirely privatised and corporatised. The best model for an autonomous vehicle future is basically good public transport – so why aren’t we building that? At the moment, the biggest players in autonomous vehicles are the traditional vehicle manufacturers – hardly beacons of social or environmental responsibility – and Silicon Valley zaibatsus such as Google and Uber, whose primary motivation is financialising virtual labour until they develop AI which can cut humans out of the loop entirely. For me, the autonomous vehicle stands in most particularly for the deskilling and automation of all forms of labour (including, in Google’s case, cognitive labour), and as such is a tool for degrading individual and collective agency. This will happen first to truck and taxi drivers, but will slowly extend to most of the workforce which, despite accelerationist dreams, is currently shredding rather than building a social framework which might support a low-work future. So, looked at that way, the corporate-controlled autonomous vehicle and automation in general is absolutely something that should be resisted, while it fails to serve the interest of most of the people it effects.

In all things, technological determinism – the idea that a particular outcome is inevitable because the technology for it exists – must be opposed. Knowing where the off switch is a vital and necessary complement to the kind of democratic involvement in the design process described above.

The artist statement in the catalogue of the show says that you worked with software and geography. I understand the necessity of the software but geography? What was the role and importance of geography in the project? How did you work with it?

The question which I kept returning to while working on the project, alongside “what does it mean for me to make an autonomous car?” is “what does it mean to make it here?” – that is, not on a test track in Bavaria or a former military base in Silicon Valley, but in Greece, a place with a very different material history and social present. How does a machine see the world when its experience is of fields, mountains, and winding tracks, rather than Californian highways and German autobahns? What is the role of automation in a place already suffering under austerity and unemployment – but which also has always produced its own, characteristic responses to instability? One of the things I find fascinating about the so-called autonomous vehicle is that, in comparison to the traditional car, it’s really as far from autonomous as you can get. It must constantly return to the network, constantly update itself, constantly observe and learn from the world, in order to be able to operate. In this way, it also seems to embody some potentially more connected and more community-minded world – more akin to some of the social movements so active in Greece today than the atomised, alienated passengers of late capitalism.


James Bridle, Gradient Ascent, 2016


James Bridle, Gradient Ascent, 2016

In the video and catalogue text entitled “Gradient Ascent”, Mount Parnassus and the journeys around it becomes an allegory both for general curiosity, and for specific problem-solving: one of the precise techniques in computer science for maximising a complex function is the random walk. Re-instituting geography within the domain of the machine becomes one of the ways of humanising it.

I was reading on Creators that this is just the beginning of a series of experiments for the car. Do you already know where you will go next with the technology?

I’m still quite resistant to the idea of asking a manufacturer for an actual vehicle, and for now my resources are pretty limited, but it might be possible to move onto the mechanical part of the project in other ways – I’ve had some interest from academic and research groups. I think there’s lots more to be done in exploring other uses for the autonomous vehicle – as well as questions of agency and liability. What might autonomous vehicles do to borders, for example, when their driverless nature makes them more akin to packets on a borderless digital network? What new forms of community, as hinted above, might they engender? On the other hand, I never set out to build a fully functioning car, but to understand and think through the processes of developing it, and to learn from the journey itself. I think I’m more interested in the future of machine intelligence and machinic thinking than I am in the specifics of autonomous vehicles, but I hope it won’t be the last time I get to collaborate with a system like this.

Thanks James!

James Bridle’s solo show Failing to Distinguish Between a Tractor Trailer and the Bright White Sky is at NOME project in Berlin until July 29, 2017

13th. Repackaging slavery

13TH | Official Trailer

A couple of days ago, film director Lucy Walker published a short list of documentaries to unleash the activist in you. I thought i’d make my way through the list. Starting with the one that looked the most interesting to me: 13th, a film by Ava DuVernay, that argues that the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery except as “punishment for crime,” has not outlawed the practice of slavery. It has merely repackaged it into a ruthlessly efficient system of mass incarceration.

The film uses archival footage and interviews with historians, activists and other experts to expose how the subjugation of black people has evolved into a system designed to get black men into jails, grind them and them spit them out with little chance to re-build their life.

As the film reminds us, the U.S. accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners. In 2014, over 2 million people were incarcerated (a 500% increase over the last 40 years) and 40% of them are African-American men.

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Academic and civil rights activist Angela Davis interviewed in 13TH. Still from the film

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Still from the film 13th

I watched 13th yesterday. It’s on on netflix. It’s a shocking, harrowing movie. Yet you don’t doubt for a moment that it tells the truth. Not when you read that a (black) man spent 31 years in prison for crimes he did not commit, then was given a pitiful $75 as a compensation for decades unjustly spent behind bars. Not when so many police officers walk free after having murdered people. Most of them black men and women. Not when people are so afraid to be harassed and killed under spurious pretexts that they feel the need to remind society that they have the right to live too.

The moment that upset me the most? This one:

An extract from 13TH

Releasing the film on Netflix is a smart move. It gives the message more chances to reach people who might otherwise feel totally unconcerned by the issue.

Please, drop whatever you’re doing right now and watch this documentary!

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Still from the film 13th

The 13th
Interview with Van Jones, an author, activist and co-founder of several organizations including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights which focuses on police brutality and youth prisons

Related story: Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter and A People’s Art History of the United States. 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements.

Book review – Goodbye iSlave. A Manifesto for Digital Abolition

41QWY245+BLGoodbye iSlave. A Manifesto for Digital Abolition, by Jack Linchuan Qiu, Assistant Professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Chinese University of Hong Kong and he is also part of the Hong Kong-based NGO SACOM Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour.

On amazon US and UK.

Publisher University of Illinois Press writes: Welcome to a brave new world of capitalism propelled by high tech, guarded by enterprising authority, and carried forward by millions of laborers being robbed of their souls. Gathered into mammoth factory complexes and terrified into obedience, these workers feed the world’s addiction to iPhones and other commodities–a generation of iSlaves trapped in a global economic system that relies upon and studiously ignores their oppression.

Focusing on the alliance between Apple and the notorious Taiwanese manufacturer Foxconn, Jack Linchuan Qiu examines how corporations and governments everywhere collude to build systems of domination, exploitation, and alienation. His interviews, news analysis, and first-hand observation show the circumstances faced by Foxconn workers–circumstances with vivid parallels in the Atlantic slave trade. Ironically, the fanatic consumption of digital media also creates compulsive free labor that constitutes a form of bondage for the user. Arguing as a digital abolitionist, Qiu draws inspiration from transborder activist groups and incidents of grassroots resistance to make a passionate plea aimed at uniting–and liberating–the forgotten workers who make our twenty-first-century lives possible.

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Foxconn suicide survivor Tian Yu was 17 when she jumped from the roof of a Foxconn factory. Via SCMP

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Greenpeace Switzerland. Foxconn @ Public Eye Awards 2011 (iSlave.) Adbusting for the Public Eye Awards 2011

Despite all its innovations and promises, the contemporary world remains plagued by slavery: children are kidnapped to become soldiers or sold to solve family debt, women are trafficked into prostitution or forced domestic labor, inmates work for the prison-industrial complex with no pay, etc.

Digital media plays a role in slavery too. Our gadgets need to be produced materially. Tin aluminium, cobalt and coltan and other materials have to be extracted (too often by children working in dangerous and appalling conditions); plastics need to be processed and shaped; components have to be assembled. Both the raw materials and the finished products have to be transported. Before the laptop or mobile phone lands into our hands it has caused much suffering, increase in social inequalities and human rights violations.

Who Pays the Price? The Human Costs of Electronics

BBC One – Panorama, Apple’s Broken Promises

Linchuan Qiu analyzes the world of profit making and human exploitation that makes ‘progress’ possible. The focus of his research is the Apple-Foxconn alliance. Foxconn is the world’s largest electronics manufacturer, it employs 1.4 million workers in China alone. Apple is the multinational technology company that entrusts the making of its luxury electronics to Foxconn without seeming to do much to improve the labor practices in the factories.

The investigation carried out by the author reveals that Foxconn is an independent kingdom in itself, state authorities only have restricted access to it, it has its own traffic rules and it is overlooked by guards known for their brutality towards workers (from a slap on the face to torturing, detaining and even maiming, although guards are allowed less liberties after the suicide wave of 2010.)

Although they improve with each scandal, the sleeping, living and working conditions of Foxconn employees are shocking. Interns are blatantly exploited. Resigning from the job is made as humiliating as possible but Foxconn is free to fire its employees without much ceremony in times of market slowdown. Victims of work injury and ex-workers suffering from health problems because of exposure to poisonous chemicals in the working place hardly ever get any compensation. And whenever Foxconn is brought to court by employees, ex-employees and their families, it is never made to bear any civil or criminal responsibility. I could go on but i suspect you’ve read it all before.

Deconstructing Foxconn

Maybe Foxconn and Apple are not even the worst offenders but Linchuan Qiu chose to zoom in on them because they embody a global regime gone wrong and the parallels he draws between 17th-century slavery transatlantic trade with 21st-century digital media enslavement are pertinent and enlightening.

The author looked into the history, sociology and legislation of slavery and found out that despite the centuries separating them, New World slave trade and today’s global IT industry are united by many similarities.

First of all, there is little regard for the human beings who work behind the curtains of our consumption culture. But what is most upsetting is our own complicity. Contemporary gadgets, it seems, are as addictive as sugar was to the Old World. The ultimate slave, the author notes, is the one who is voluntarily shackled, the one who yearns for the latest piece of electronics (and is ready to sells his kidney in order to get it), the one who’s too happy to work in the data mine. Consumption culture is not only responsible for the manufacturing iSlave, it is also relying on the “manufactured iSlave”.

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Molleindustria, Phone Story. Image GiantBomb

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Yue Yuen shoe factory strike in Dongguan. Image SCMP

There is light at the end of the tunnel though! As long as there is slavery, there will be resistance to it. Linchuan Qiu details how today’s workers form their own networks and resist the logic of capital, how they use social network to protest and share stories, how global solidarity is slowly rising and how individual projects –such as Fairphone and Phone Story— confront the ‘Poisonous Apple.’ The author even compared Fairphone to the ‘free produce’ stores started in Baltimore in 1826 by Quaker and free black abolitionists to provide alternative mode of commerce so that consumers could use their purses to show their support to the slaves.

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Photos of Foxconn worker “The iPhone girl” were found in a brand new iPhone in UK

I already knew of artists, activists and journalists who investigate labour issues in digital technology but so far, i had never encountered academics whose writings focused on similar critiques of the global IT industry. Jack Linchuan Qiu has written an impeccably researched treatise that analyses how slave-powered economies are enabled by global systems but also by individual, alienating, fanatical consumerism. Perhaps more interestingly, his book also reminds us that technology is not in itself a guarantee of progress and emancipation.

AJNHAJTCLUB, a celebration of migrant workers

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Bernd Oppl, Crooked Building, 2015

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Evelyn Bencicova & Adam Csoka Keller, ASYMPTOTE

AJNHAJTCLUB, an exhibition at frei_raum Q21 in Vienna, celebrates the men and women who came from Yugoslavia (now Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina) to work in Austria.

50 years ago, on 4 April 1966, the two countries signed a contract that regulated the legal and voluntary migration of labor towards Austria, and created the Gastarbeiter (guestworker) phenomenon. Austria needed unskilled workers to support the surge of industrialization and Yugoslavia benefited from the money that workers sent to their families back home.

One of the articles of the agreement stipulated that the newcomers had the right to keep and develop their own cultural identity into workers social clubs. The clubs offered immigrants a way to connect to their roots as much as it kept them away from the street.

That’s from these clubs that the slightly baffling name of the show comes from. AJNHAJTCLUB means oneness or unity club in english. The German word for it is “EINHEIT CLUB” and AJNHAJTCLUB is the phonetic transcription of the word. Because many newcomers to Austria could not speak German this type of spelling was often used to simplify verbal communication between cultures. One of the artists in the show, Goran Novaković aka Goxilla, actually set up a class room in the space upstairs so that visitors can learn to pronounce correctly a look-a-like-language that they can not actually speak.

AJNHAJTCLUB is a contemporary “club” that “aims to unite these migrants’ past and present narratives using contemporary artistic practice and research, providing a look back to inform the future. Although more familiar from black and white imagery, the guestworker phenomenon is still alive. The exhibition shows this phenomenon in full color, complete with animated 3D avatars, modern folklore, interactive performances and contemporary interventions.”

It is tempting to see parallels between the focus of the exhibition and the current refugee situation in Europe. The context is quite different though. While Gastarbeiter came as a result of an agreement between two countries, the people who arrive in Europe today have been forced to leave their home because of the consequence of wars and other global developments.

AJNHAJTCLUB is a brave, timely and intelligent show that celebrates immigration and the economic and cultural contribution it can bring to a host country (i only wish that Trump, Brexiters and their likes across the world would visit it.) AJNHAJTCLUB could have been an exhibition full of gravity, nostalgia and anxiety. And indeed it sometimes features moments as serious as the times we are living but it is mostly a show full of humour, lightness and self-irony.

A quick walk through some of the works exhibited:

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Milan Mijalkovic, Arbeiter mit Vorschlaghammer (Worker with Sledgehammer), 2015. From the series Arbeiter

Milan Mijalkovic‘s large format photograph Worker with Sledgehammer portrays a worker on a trash bin in the middle of a construction site. The heroic posture and the bin used as a pedestal celebrate anonymous migrant workers who, every day, physically erect buildings throughout the country.

Milan Mijalkovic, The Monument of the Working Man

The bitter-sweet Monument of the Working Man was one of my favourite works in the show.

The video shows balloons that are seemingly blown up automatically by a machine hidden inside the beige pedestal. But the balloons are actually inflated by a man who barely fits inside the box. The artist found the worker in front of a store where workmen gather and offer illicit labor. A Romanian bricklayer agreed to do it, demanding 1 Euro per balloon.

The deflated balloons on the floor are a sign that the party is over. In this work, the artist adopts the role of the brutal employer, reminding us of the reality, where this kind of
exploitation is carried out on a daily basis. Using people to operate the machines in closed boxes is cheaper than using a reliable machine-operated system
.

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Addie Wagenknecht, Optimization of Parenthood, Part 2. Photo: Bernd Oppl

Addie Wagenknecht’s Optimization of Parenting is a robot arm that gently rocks the cradle whenever the baby cries and the mother is at work. The work pays homage to the women who left their home to work in Austria back in the 1960’s. Some of them had to leave their children with the grandparents. The installation also alludes to the fact that in these time of growing automation when many jobs can be done by machines, the roles and tasks of guestworkers are changing.

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Bogomir Doringer in collaboration with Nature History Museum Vienna, Curated by Nature, 2016

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Bogomir Doringer in collaboration with Nature History Museum Vienna, Curated by Nature. Opening of the exhibition. Photo Foto: eSeL – Joanna Pianka for Q21

Because migrants are often compared to migrant birds, Bogomir Doringer, an artist but also the curator of the exhibition, asked experts from the nearby Natural History Museum to select a series of birds whose narrative could be compared to the one of the guest workers.

Some of the birds in the showcase go back each year to the place they come from. Others stay in the new territory and become part of its ecosystem. Either because they find better living conditions or because their original habitat has changed for the worse. Some of these birds are called “invasive species.”

Interestingly, one of the birds selected is the Eurasian Collared Dove. The species came from Asia via the Balkans to Vienna and is now regarded as a typical Viennese bird.

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Evelyn Bencicova & Adam Csoka Keller, ASYMPTOTE

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Evelyn Bencicova & Adam Csoka Keller, ASYMPTOTE

In the elegant and almost clinical images produced by Evelyn Bencicova and Adam Csoka Keller, anonymous models pose next to buildings from the socialist period of Slovakia. Their forms seem to merge into the powerful architecture, suggesting that bodies function as pillars for institutional constructions and for an ideology that raised much hope but eventually failed. The work also suggests that to a young generation often described as ‘individualist’, the aesthetic of collective participation must have a very seductive, if abstract, appeal…

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Opening of the exhibition. Photo Foto: eSeL – Joanna Pianka for Q21

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Krsto Papićs, The Special Trains (film still), 1971

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Krsto Papićs, The Special Trains (film still), 1971

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Krsto Papićs, The Special Trains, 1971

Krsto Papićs’ The Special Trains is an extremely moving documentary.

It shows how the men who had volunteered to emigrate to Austria or Germany are transported by “special trains.” They are accompanied by a guide who ensures that they will arrive at their final destination quietly and cause as little disorder as possible. Prior to their trip, the workers are submitted to medical inspections to make sure that they will be strong and healthy enough to get a worker permit.

The film maker interviewed a group of these Yugoslavian guestworkers on the train. Many of them had to leave their family behind and most are a bit dispirited, wondering if they had made the right choice, realizing how hard it will be not to see their children, fearing that they will be regarded as second class citizens, lamenting the fact that they will feel uncomfortable in a country they know so little of. The film follows their arrival at Munich main station, where they are led to a basement. From this point on, they are no longer called by their names but by numbers.

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Bernd Oppl, Crooked Building, 2015

Bernd Oppl distorted sculpture of a social housing block in Vienna highlights the inherent instability of such spaces. The Crooked Building also reminds visitors that while the guestworkers actually built the structures, they received quite late (compared to other countries) the right to get access to social housing.

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Nikola Knezevic, V for Vienna (cropped window), 2016. Photo: Joanna Pianka

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Nikola Knezevic. Installation view frei_raum Q21 exhibition space. Photo: Q21

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Nikola Knezevic, The Placeholders (three oil paintings), 2016

Nikola Knežević‘s tryptich was another stand-out for me.

V for Vienna (cropped window) is a trophy to a guestworker employed in an aluminum factory in Vienna. Part of his job involved making each of the aluminum windows and doors for the Hilton Hotel in Vienna. The worker feels proud each time he now walks by the hotel.

The Placeholders are Mondrian-style paintings that allude to the presence of the phenomenon of guestworkers on the largest contemporary archive in the world: the Internet. Knezevic did an image search for the word Gastarbeiter and encountered mostly black and white images. Before the images appear on the screen, they are represented by placeholder filled with the dominant colour of each image. The placeholders that emerged while googling Gastarbeiter were sent to an oil painting company in China, where they were turned into abstract paintings and shipped back to Vienna. Everything was commissioned, executed and paid from a distance. The workforce is no longer required to be mobile as it was in the 1960s.

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Nikola Knezevic, Not Yet Titled, 2016

The final work in the series, Not Yet Titled, brings side by side an ORF documentary from the 1970s about guestworkers and the opening sequence of Orson Welles’ film F for Fake (1974.) Both films use the same editing technique, the former to depict guestworkers, and the latter to introduce a professional art forger.

In each case, the camera follows a young woman in miniskirt walking in the street while male passersby (unaware that they are being filmed) stop on their track and openly stare at her. The woman in the ORF report is presented as an objectified and slightly threatened victim, while the one in Welles’ movie (who in real life was a Croatian woman living in Vienna), as a powerful temptress who directs men’s desire. The voice over of the ORF film even deplores that the guestworkers came with very few women.

The juxtaposition shows how similar images can be manipulated and given a different interpretation depending on the message that has to be communicated.

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Olga Dimitrijevic. Photo Joanna Pianka for Q21

Olga Dimitrijević set up a “celebratory karaoke bar,” where visitors are invited to perform songs based on the lives and favourite songs of ex-Yugoslav women who live and work in Vienna.

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Marta Popivoda, Yugoslavia, How Ideology Moved our Collective Body (still from the film), 2013

Marta Popivoda, Yugoslavia, How Ideology Moved our Collective Body (trailer), 2013

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Marta Popivoda, Yugoslavia, How Ideology Moved our Collective Body (still from the film), 2013

In the center of the exhibition is a monumental projection of Marta Popivoda’s film study on “Yugoslavia: How Ideology Moved Our Collective Body (2013)”. The film uses archive footage to draw a personal perspective on the history of socialist Yugoslavia and its tragic end. The footage focuses on state performances (such as May Day parades and Youth Day celebrations) and on counter-demonstrations (student and civic demonstrations in the ‘90s, and the so-called Bulldozer Revolution which overthrew Slobodan Milošević in 2000.) Ultimately, the archive images demonstrate how ideology has the power to shape performances of crowds of people operating as one, but it also exposes the power of the same crowds to destroy the ideology.

More images from the exhibition:

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Marko Lulic, für ein Denkmal für Migration in Perusic. Photo: Joanna Pianka

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Josip Novosel, U Can Sit With Us. Photo: Bernd Oppl

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Leyla Cardenas, Overlaying. Photo: Bernd Oppl

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Claudia Maté, Untitled

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Opening of the exhibition. Photo Foto: eSeL – Joanna Pianka for Q21

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Opening of the exhibition. Photo Foto: eSeL – Joanna Pianka for Q21

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Opening of the exhibition. Photo Foto: eSeL – Joanna Pianka for Q21

If you speak german, then well done you! You can enjoy this interview that Vice did with curator and artist Bogomir Doringer. Otherwise, i’d recommend the lively audio guide tour with the curator.

AJNHAJTCLUB was curated by Bogomir Doringer. The show remains open at the frei_raum Q21 exhibition space, MuseumsQuartier in Vienna until 4 September 2016.