(Julkaistu @work Networkin The Story of Work -tapahtuman Reader-julkaisussa huhtikuussa 2007) Working in the Process of LURE - Exhibition of Infinite Possibilities written by Pilvi Porkola translated and edited by Janne Saarakkala
Few years back I was asked to document @work network - The Story of Work on video. Eventually, after a few fortunate occurrences I became the director of the Reality Research Center’s production LURE – Exhibition of Infinite Possibilities. To my surprise it doesn’t include any video projections or any other images either. Where have all the images gone?
1. Images of Work
Work is such a difficult concept. It feels so basic; self-evident and common. But when you try to define it, you can’t. Work shuns definition. It is an impossible notion. I do work every day but still I can’t define it. Other people around me work everyday but the definition runs away from them too. Maybe the difficulty derives from the megalomaniac assumption of modernism; everything should be thoroughly comprehensible and controllable. The world just isn’t like that anymore (and I doubt if it ever was). The notion of total domination is a joke. The picture of a complete world breaks down, flees and vanishes. Solid world is a relic; nothing is self-evident. I don’t find it frightening or distressing; things have changed, that’s all. It could mean that yet unknown possibilities have become accessible. As my colleague Pasi Mäkelä puts it: “The attribute of realism is incomprehension”.
One starting point of our research work was to collect newspaper cuttings of pictures of work. How the media portrays work? How are the images of work displayed upon us? The results were interesting. We found four ways of depicting work:
- Traditional work. Man and the machine; man with a chainsaw; three men and an excavator.
- Expertise in work.
- Talking heads talking and representing. Talking is great part of working.
- Illustrations of specific working surroundings of restricted access and specific instruments and devices alien to every day life such as laboratories, test tubes, overalls etc.
- Esthetical work. In these pictures work could be anything from nursing to ice-breaking. In all of them aesthetics are more important than information; the poetic twilight of operating theatre; ice-breakers in the sunset.
- Ideal or utopian work. Sexy and trendy young men and women smiling to each other and to the viewer. Nothing communicates about the nature of work itself except the headline: “Come and work with us.” “Working is wonderful.” “Work and you’ll be hot.” In these pictures work is a part of personal image.
If I try to figure out my own relationship to these pictures I get even more confused. I have no idea how an excavator works. My devices are video camera and computer. My relationship with them is functional; I use them but how do they operate? I don’t know, and, as objects, they tell nothing about the content of my work.
Expertise is a sinister concept. In his essay Zygmunt Bauman claims that expertise is a crucial problem in the distribution of power. When the power to decide is centralized to specialists and to expertise, the power becomes inaccessible to the common man.
In my own work aesthetics are important. In creating performances one is always making aesthetic decisions; how to display what one wants to say? It is a subjective choice; at best of times giving the piece a personal, rare taste – or a reference to something else in common knowledge. But when a piece is trying to convey information, aesthetics usually get in the way to dim, distort and romanticise the information. Aesthetics steal the limelight from information.
What about the sex and work? Is my work sexy? Yes, working is so wonderfully exhausting that I forget to comb my hair and take a shower. I clench my teeth and frown when I think about the infinite possibilities. Repeat some ten self-evident remarks of work and anyone’s really hot! Do five different tasks at the same time and don’t forget to fetch your kid from the day care. In this process I have thought of pornography zillions of times… but sex? Not for once. The hottest incident was a dream of Karl Marx!
What do these pictures tell about work? Work is becoming a mere image. Research Worker and Author Jussi Vähämäki has written that the concept of new work spreads like a drop of water on the table. The limits between work and identity, between work and construction of thinking are dissolving. Work is everywhere and yet nowhere. We’re working in the thin air, as the British say.
2. Art as Imagination
The relationship with invisible and the unknown is central in art. There, in front of you is a piece of art; a painting; a photograph. You might be able to describe it very clearly but can you say where the art in it is? Is it the colour, shape, topic or maybe the style? Another impossible task.
“Art is what the art institution defines it to be” is one of the most common definitions of art. Banana peel on a kitchen table is not art. But when it’s put into frames in a museum it becomes a typical piece of contemporary art, commenting the tradition.
The boundary of art and non-art interests me. How much of it is mere thinking, cultural knowledge and assumptions (I know this is art) and how much is invisible, intangible – the presence of the unknown.
I’m not an essentialist. I don’t believe that all art shares a common essence that just takes different forms. What I do think is that the unknown, the indefinable and the invisible are important in art.
What we know about a piece of contemporary art is more important than what we see. The fact that we know Anders Serrano uses blood and sperm as a material in his work affects our interpretation when we look at his abstract photographs. Our interpretations are shaped by what we know about the artist; the circumstances in which the work was done and by numerous other references; gossip, comments by friends; I love the pale blue in this piece because it’s the same tone than my little brother’s toy elephant; I hate the whole exhibition because I hate everything today.
According to Jean Baudrillard a picture that reveals everything is obscene; everything is on view and therefore there’s nothing to see; everything is public and missing a secret. A gaze can only be born when the object is hidden, writes Baudrillard. Genuine presence requires absence. The enchantment is born from emptiness.
How many a time in the audience I feel there’s just too much stuff in the performance. The performativity of the performance is in my face. What in fact do we want to see in a piece of art; presence or absence? Are we trying to create a relationship with the invisible via visibility? How far could we go in being invisible? How about invisible, imaginative pieces of art? Could we say something about the visibility through invisible art?
3. The New Work
New work is invisible and intangible, merely an act of creating possibilities, some of which might get realized and some not. And realizing is not the most profitable part of it. It is the virtual sphere of options that is being maintained and upgraded. Sounds like very much in tune with the rest of the world. As Slavoj Žižek points out we drink coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, coke without sugar; we eat butter without fat, we smoke without smoke, we wage war without war (from behind a computer screen), we want to meet the Other without the other (foreign influences spice up our lives nicely – but we don’t want them to move next door), we have sex without sex, sleep without sleep… We might as well work without work. Where is this life without a real life familiar from? From Matrix, the movie by Andy and Larry Wachowski.
Is it any wonder we panic? Everyone tries to grab anything real, or, at least anything that feels real; like nostalgia, like the good old work ethics. When work is vanishing from work, what do we do? We work even harder. And not only that; we force everyone to work harder just for the sake of it, even though we know it’s pointless, even destructive, lethal – we want to feel like working, we want to look like working, we want to see people working. And, at the same time, almost unconsciously, we feed the global economy that is there only to maintain the Growth, the sphere of options – and not to maintain human wellbeing, not to mention the planet.
So, if the good old work has been pushed into the cheaper Third World, to the immigrants from the Third World and to the robots, what is left for us? Art, of course. Anything designed can become an art form, like cooking or hairdressing but why stop there? Politics, nursing, business, sleeping, prostitution, beliefs can also be sold as Art; art as an exquisite product, art as an exclusive service, art as an exceptional image. I am my own work. And when I come off in my full potential I become a work of Art. And if you find Art too highbrow, you can be a Handicraftsman like plumbers. It’s almost Art.
My two-year-old son goes around the house and, pointing at a toy car, asks: “Who bought this?” Then he points at a cushion and asks: “Who bought the cushion?” And continues: “Who bought this book? Who bought the wall? Who bought my head?” I’m not quite sure is he trying to define buying, or does he want to know from what are these things are made of or from where they all come from. My groping answers unveil a weird world where everything is really bought (except the head, perhaps). I can’t avoid thinking of Karl Marx and his idea of alienation. We have created a world full of objects, machines and concepts – in the middle of which we stay alien.
Another form of alienation is how little we know about the things around us. I have a mobile phone in my hand but no idea how it functions. If somebody would ask me what electricity is I couldn’t give a proper answer. I eat bread without knowing how it’s produced and dress up in clothes – I know the country of manufacture – but that’s the end of it. Everyday life, the one that should be familiar, turns out to be unknown. The more carefully you look at it, the less you comprehend.
You don’t know how often I think of you, Karl. What would you make of all this?
5. Questions Without Answers
They say our culture is thoroughly visual and the sight dominates all other senses. Quoting Jean Baudrillard freely: the problem with images is that culture turns invisible itself as a result of overproduction of visibility. In the midst of this image overload our sight becomes extremely selective, narrow. More over, the pictures do not carry the meanings they originally did. Instead the meanings develop in sequence with other cultural implications that develop in sequence… until they become empty, like work.
In his recent Helsinki lecture on post-dramatic theatre, Hans-Thies Lehman pointed out the strange legacy Aristotle left for the western philosophy: the narrative; the beginning, the middle turn and the end. What a strong hold it has in our lives! In our way of thinking even though in “reality” the pattern doesn’t even exist. All changes are building upon what already exists. Every difference is in relation with something, a consequence of something preceding. There’s no beginning, no irreversible turn, no ending.
I’m pondering questions and the ways of asking. How often a question is set to produce a desired answer; how the answer is organically connected to the question. The World History is full of questions beginning from existence to the use of electronic toothbrush. A typical western way of thinking; to assume that all questions have answers, they just have to be found. But is it really so? What if it’s just another formal thinking pattern like the Aristotle’s narrative? What if it is just a habit – a bad habit – like biting fingernails?
Would it be so impossible to accept a world with questions but no answers?
The world is crowded, full of pictures and ways of looking at them. Why create more? As a video artist this could be a point of crisis. But on the other hand, it is a relief. I am small in the middle of these extreme proportions. And even though the pictures around me are familiar and I know ways to analyse them, I still remain alien. In the end of the day, diversity and the infinitive possibilities to choose from don’t seem to bring me freedom, only a longing for an empty picture.
Pilvi Porkola Director, Video Artist, Reality Research Center