Do You Feel It?
Art, work, utopia and the real
Lars Bang Larsen
I am looking forward to going to Spain for an art event. At the terminal in the Frankfurt airport, our Airbus taxis in next to a Japanese jumbo jet. A population of Pokemon figures strangely modifies the aircrafts Brobdingnag dimensions: the cartoon people frolicking on the enormous machine seem to have removed it from the gravitational struggles of aviation and delivered it to pure styleAll that is solid melts into air, as the famous Marx quote goes.
F.P. Reshetnikov, Stalins Great Oath, 1949
Airports are utopian transits. They are non-places, traffic hubs that, in a soberly nihilistic way, compress the world map. In an interview with the Russian philosopher Boris Groys, I asked him why the utopian has been an abiding art world referent since the early 1990s. Recently, for example, the ongoing exhibition project Utopia Station was launched at the 2003 Venice Biennale, curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Molly Nesbit and Rirkrit Tiravanija. For the Soviet artists who worked in the thaw period after Stalins death, the utopian was an ambivalent concept because the dictatorship used it to define history. But why do we miss it if the utopian is so twentieth century? Groys said:
In classical thinking, there is the reality in which we live, and utopia on the other hand is a thing of the future. We have a place, and after that we will have no place.I would argue that at the moment we have no place, so we are effectively already now in Utopia. You see, all of us have projects, have plans, have health insuranceall these things are pointing to the future, all of them are utopian.If you look at the exhibition Utopia Station, for example, it isnt an exhibition that points to some condition that is different from what there is; it is merely a description of what there is. It is a realistic description of our world as utopia. Everybody has a project about utopia, everybody isnt completely present, because each of us thinks about what he will do in one year, in two years, three years, four years.Everybody has his own Stalinist five-year plan. So in that sense utopia has become not a perfect society, but a kind of normal condition. So what Hans-Ulrich Obrist and the others are doing is just describing how they are living. Utopia Station is Hans-Ulrich Obrists lifestyle! He spends his life in front of all these computers, constantly going places, meeting peopleits his life on the move.1
Wait a minute. First of all, how did a utopian art exhibition become a realist description? And secondly, how does artistic work relate to, and indeed partake in, the engineering of reality?
I.A. Laktionov, Letter from the Front, 1948
Let us have a look at utopian realism and how it was used in Stalinist art. This art was a facade that covered atrocities and repression. If one considers the art of the Stalin era as high art, one can hardly call it anything else but bad art. Imagine the way paintings such as Civil defence girl from the chemical industry or Collective farmers greet a tank stimulated peoples party allegiance. It isnt surprising that nobody really liked these pictures when they were made. The idea was that people would grow to like them in keeping with their being deprogrammed of their decadent, bourgeois tastes. Accordingly, the success of a painting wasnt measured for what was inside its frame but in terms of its distribution: when a picture had been approved of from on high, it would be disseminated throughout the Soviet Union as posters and book covers. One doesnt judge a pop song for not being great poetry. The same goes for the pictures of the Stalin era: good art or notthese pictures were the Partys own hits.2
Immediately after the 1917 revolutionjust as social and political values were set freethe arts were no longer obliged to work within tradition. They became avant-garde, aimed for the streets and infiltrated everyday life. But engineering reality demands serious planning, and the Party eventually ended up taking the hard line. In 1932, the Party invented the concept of Socialist Realism, which was made the official propaganda style. This spelled the end for abstract and constructivist experiments; in came the human body and imperial style, which became the mold for malleable human consciousness. In this way, aesthetic and political dictatorship went hand in hand with recreating reality in accordance with chief architect Stalins personal vision and master plan. Stalin was the tyrant as artistwithout whose signature the Soviet Union couldnt exist.
Of course, Socialist Realism didnt present Soviet everyday life as it was. It neither depicted reality nor made it probable, but produced it as it was supposed to becomeheroic and good. In the words of Boris Groys, it was an attempt to create dreamers who dreamt socialist dreams. Today we can manipulate images digitally, but Stalin produced virtual reality with oil paint and celluloid. In the war film The Fall of Berlin (1949), he isin blatant breach of historical factflown into the Third Reichs fallen capital to receive his troops tribute. The Red Tsar himself celebrated this end to the film (and the war), and personally congratulated the director Mikhail Chiaureli on his script.
B.J. Wladimirskij, Female Worker, 1929
In other words, as long as something was ideologically desirable for power, it had reality. And Socialist Realism was only realist in so far as Soviet reality was a construct in the first place. Similarly, the German painter Gerhard Richter once said that Pop Art was capitalist realism, which qualifies the idea held by some art historians that Pop Art is a kind of realism; it is a realism, but only insofar as what is real is already ideologically determined.
The last thirty years of the twentieth centurythe postmodern erawere characterized by all the things that were announced to be disappearing or dying: the death of the subject, the end of art, the disappearance of work, etc. It all sounded bleak, but these symbolic deaths actually signified the outmoding of traditions and the way vocabularies become obsolete; the how just isnt quite as clear (as in how you are going to go on doing and talking about things). Work, one of the primary means of reality production, is one of the things that died. Today, instead of the industrial eras paradigm of work, there is immaterial work.
Immaterial work becomes a condition and not something you have or not. At the same time, it is strangely discontinuous, because while you are working you are busy qualifying for the next job. As the labor theorist Andr Gorz put it, it is rare that immaterial workers can say, Here is something I produced. This is what I do. This is my work.3 To be more exact, the concept of immaterial labor refers to two things:
[O]n one handthe modifications of working-class labour in the big industrial concerns and big organisations in the tertiary sector where the jobs of immediate labour are increasingly subordinated to the treatment of information. On the other handa series of activities which, normally speaking, are not codified as labour, in other words to all the activities which tend to define and fix cultural and artistic norms, fashions, tastes, consumer standards and, more strategically, public opinion.4
This means that we work even when we arent at work. We are on all the time. Work used to be a learned skill that you would apply from nine to five; today work is what you do with your language, your imagination and your subjectivity. According to Gorz, post-industrial capitalism has made Stalins motto its own, The human being is the most valuable capital. The human is subsumed under the production process as a human resource, human capital. She is a human being only if she can function as capital, and immaterial work describes the way productivity has become intravenous, so to speak; inserted into our nervous system.
Since immaterial work feeds off human behavior at its most human, it can be said to be similar to artistic work. The artists Henriette Heise and Jakob Jakobsen started the Copenhagen Free University, a self-organized micro-institution that goes head-to-head with the artists role today:
G.M. Shegal, Leader, Teacher, Friend, 1937
When we turn our attention to the mode of aesthetic production we have to recognize that the artist is becoming the role-model worker of the knowledge economy. The artist traditionally invests the soul in the work, which is exactly the qualification modern management is looking for when looking for a new employee. The entrepreneurship, self-employed independence, and the sacred individuality of artists are the dream qualifications of the knowledge worker of tomorrow: An unorganised, highly skilled individual with no solidarity, selling his/her living labour as a day-labourer. The heroic avant-garde artist of yesterday will become the scab of tomorrow.5
In other words, material work hasnt just something to do with the way work and class are organized, but also ties into the new soft forms of surveillance and control. Social control increasingly takes fluid and ephemeral forms, rather than being something that is enforced by external authority and physical regimentation. Instead, we subject ourselves to self-control and self-discipline through the mechanisms of production and consumption.
Immaterial work has something to do with what Marx called the free competition within the realm of knowledge, by which he meant that even the most subversive works and ideas will be allowed to appear in the marketplace on the grounds that they may sell. He was even confident that once the ideas of revolution and communism became accessible to the masses, they would sell and communism would come into its owna box office revolution!6
Something that frustrates Marxist analyses of immaterial labor is that the old nature-culture dichotomy that informed Marxist thought (Marx worked in the romantic tradition after all) no longer holds. Nature is no longer a problem; human civilization controls natures very molecules and has no longer an outside. This is a moment that Marxist theory has difficulty grasping. For if civilizations echoing of itself is the primary condition of possibility for any endeavor, how do you gain authority over History? Since production and consumption is immaterial, work has begun to overlap or even become indistinguishable from life; it has become very complicated to operate with the notion of the means of production. How can you do without the central perspective of the means of production and maintain control?
The victories of art seem bought by the loss of character. At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to become enslaved to other men or his own infamy. Even the pure light of science seems unable to shine but on the dark background of ignorance. All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and stultifying human life into a material force.7
Mankind, or its rationality, is no longer struggling with nature, but with economy. That is why Marxist thought doesnt know whether immaterial work is a curse or a blessing; if indeed work has become immaterial, it can lead to the capitalist marketplaces more sophisticated repression of the subject, but it can also lead to a liberation of imagination and desire.
Boris Groys brings the notion of immaterial work down to earth by his claim that it is a theory that ignores the material side of work. However, he speaks first and foremost as a media theorist and is probably more aligned with the immaterialists than he is ready to admit:
I cant understand what people are going on about when they talk about immaterial work. You know, there is nothing more material than information hardware. If you compare classical art with computer art, I would say computer art is much more material, simply because its material support is so much heavier. You have to have all this equipment, all these monitors, all these cables, electricity that you have to pay for every day. My own work is certainly not immaterial. I work hours and hours on the computer, like an industrial worker in the 19th century, producing all this stuff and megabytes....We have to take into consideration this enormous amount of complex work that built the material core of the system. We have to investigate the material side of these activities that seem to be intellectual, artistic or semi-artistic, but actually arent.8
The tricky thing is exactly that immaterial work is unstable, which is why it is difficult to authorize it and ascribe it value. It is inconstant both as a threat and as a promise.
It is an old avant-garde idea that as society becomes aesthetic, art becomes impossible or obsolete. The American abstract painter Ad Reinhardt, for example, hoped to realise modernisms presumed revolutionary potential in a near future, where art would have ceased to be decorative or a picture of something and instead have assumed social authenticity. Reinhardt wrote in 1946, when he still believed in the possibility of reconciling Piet Mondrian with Karl Marx:
Mondrian, like Marx, saw the disappearance of works of art when the environment itself became an aesthetic reality. In its dissatisfaction with ordinary experience, the impoverished reality of present-day society, an abstract painting stands as a challenge to disorder and disintegration. Its activity implies a conviction of something constructive in our own time.9
Later, Reinhardt decided to drop out of the environment altogether with his black monochromes, rather than integrate art into society. But has our environment today become an aesthetic or artistic reality, as suggested by immaterial work? No, it hasnt, if only for the reason that arts time and space are accessible, and social time and space dont share such properties and potentials. As Marx put it: The atmosphere in which we live weighs upon everyone with a 20,000 pound force, but do you feel it10 In a sense, art is the last place to feel it, because we cant live in art.11
Socialism is, or was, the perfect method of preservation. In the absence of a marketplace, forms and materials remained the same because history was under Socialisms command. Go to Havana and you can dine at hotels in an impeccable 1960s ambience. As Marshall Berman writes:
Ironically, communist states have done far better than capitalist ones in preserving the substance of the past in their great cities: Leningrad, Prague, Warsaw, Budapest etc. But this policy springs less from respect for beauty and human achievement than from the desire of autocratic governments to mobilize traditionalist loyalties by creating a sense of continuity with the autocracies of the past.12
Capitalism conceives of time differently. When a globalized economy is behind the wheel of history, things arent meant to last. The more things break down, the better they work. Our environment changes speedily, with new styles, new models and buildings and new ways of organizing territory and urban space emerging all the time. While in communist states it was or is a centralized power (the Central Committee, the Party) that administers history, capitalism works like a virus and arrives when everything is ready.13 It can do nothing on its own, but needs something to feed off of. Capitalism works in space, whereas communism works in time. It enrolls history as a part of its own narrative in order to decide the future. Capitalism can only define the utopian in the present. It doesnt care about history and deflates the future by waiting it out. We know what tomorrow will be like, exactly because our desire wont be directed towards the same thing as today. In capitalism, we know by not knowing.
All that is solid is, if not melted into thin air, then at least up in the air. In a sense, that is where it has always been. What if we are indeed nowhere, with no historical dynamism? How do we get somewhere? Perhaps what we need is an imagination with which we can produce the future, and a disillusioned rationality with which we can analyze the present. Perhaps then we can produce utopias that evolve from the margins, not from the mainstream of big ideologies or production forms.
Maybe it isnt that difficult to find out what the material facts are, after all. Coming back from Spain, the Copenhagen connection is three hours delayed in Frankfurt. The gentleman next to me smokes his cigarette like the FBI boss from The X-Filesif only a little more wistfully.
We can feel it.
This text is one component of a dispersed publication accompanying the exhibition Inset, organized by Atopia Projects for the Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the University of Houston. An listing of the locations of other exhibition-related texts may be found at www.atopiaprojects.org.
1 Jeg accepterer ikke at utopia er en telefon. Boris Groys interviewed by Larsen. Lettre Internationale no. 1, Copenhagen 2003.
2 Dream Factory Communism, exhibition catalogue, p. 32. Ed. Groys and Hollein, Kunsthalle Schirn 2003.
3 Andr Gorz: Arbete mellan misr och utopi. Daidalos, Gteborg 1999, p. 10.
4 Umherschweifende Produzenten, Ed. Antonio Negri, Maurizio Lazzarato, Paolo Virno, ID Verlag, Berlin 1998, p. 3940.
5 All Power to the Copenhagen Free University. In: Documents #22, fall 2002, p. 3940. Heise and Jakobsen previously ran the project space Info Centre in London 1998-99, based on the same notions of stimulating critical communities and audiences on the level of networks. See also www.copenhagenfreeuniversity.org
6 Marshall Berman: All That Is Solid melts Into Air, p. 112. Penguin Books, London 1988.
7 Ibid. The sociologist Richard Sennett also concludes, though without referring directly to this place in Marx, that the new post-industrial paradigm of production erodes the character of the individual worker, who through high demands on mobility and flexibility loses her ability to identify with her work. The Corrosion of Character. Norton, New York 1998.
8 Groys interview, ibid.
9 Michael Corris: The Difficult Freedom of Ad Reinhardt. In: Art Has No History!, p. 70.
10 Speech at the Anniversary of the Peoples paper, in: Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd edition (Norton 1978), pp. 57778.
11 You could argue that the space and time of art is a kind of hypothetical space-time, that is different from the psycho-social reality of accessible space and time. See Sren Andreasen and Lars Bang Larsen: Inside The Echo, catalogue text for The Echo Show, Tramway, Glasgow 2003.
12 Marshall Berman: All That is Solid Melts into Air. The Experience of Modernity, p. 100. Penguin, New York 1988.
13 To use the French historian Fernand Braudels phrase.