The Work Life Effect:
A Small Extract from an Endless Exchange.
Liam Gillick and Hans Ulrich Obrist, 2021
First published in The Work Life Effect, Gwangju Museum of Art, 2021

Statements, prompts and points of reference from Hans Ulrich Obrist with responses and notes from Liam Gillick on the subject of new work / life effects.

Hans Ulrich Obrist (HUO): Our liability to infection, deterioration, and our inability to be proximate with others makes us reconsider what it means to be isolated.
Liam Gillick (LG): My experience has been the city of New York. There, isolation takes a new form when it occurs so close to other people. Isolation needs a new name when it refers to millions of city dwellers, alone, just a few meters from their neighbors. At the same time a lot of city workers have never stopped connecting and have not been in isolation while at work. Apart from the obvious health workers, there are many service sector workers who have struggled to keep cities functioning during this whole time and have worked without much of a break. There are also specialized jobs that have continued but in fragmented or perverse form and have completely changed. At one point in 2020 I started dreaming of pilots flying empty planes across the Atlantic and Pacific as if they were performing a ritual task in memory of forgotten pilgrimages – now journeys without economic logic. I started to think of them performing illicit aerobatics now the pilots were free of the requirement to keep a calm and placid human cargo.

The negative effects of city isolation are maybe most profound for those who normally rely on informal connections and the presence of others to produce new meaning and develop productive exchange. Events where people swapped ideas in the spaces in between managed moments diminished the most. This has affected the cultural field in a profound way. In the West the“dominant culture” are not used to wearing masks or face coverings. We now have to find new ways to look for emotion and reaction in the eyes, and in new body and hand gestures. This is a time of masking and inversions. Where cultural events have returned – in a limited way – the wearing of masks has reduced non-verbal signaling and our ability to judge shared reactions. This has limited the subtle interactions, signaling and reactions that used to be shared through non verbal means. The eyes now communicate reactions to what the eyes have seen.

It is important to remember, however, that there are people who are thriving for the first time now, precisely because they do not have to experience in person meetings for a while. At the opposite extreme, people who relied on the power of their presence in a room can now be somewhat destabilized. This has had interesting implications for existing power structures. We have found that the old styles of management and control can’t always operate in the precisely the same way. Body language has reconfigured itself and those who struggle with technology have been exposed. It is interesting to me that these two facts – in the US – have often affected bosses, CEO’s and traditional leaders. It is hard to dominate a room while struggling to get online. American and European television has been full of moments where politicians, leaders and experts – often male – have been humbled by their inability to dominate these new exchange systems whereas younger people have found new voices and new ways to accelerate past traditional authority.

HUO: The secession from physical to virtual space throughout the pandemic has reduced us to digital users bound to the interface that images our working bodies. How do we move beyond the linear determinism of the clock within this new reality, removing ourselves from the binds of time that regulate us as a productive force, but also as the product itself?
LG: Sleep is an obsession for the elite in developed neo-Liberal cultures. Self-discipline and anxiety in relation to the clock was a luxury not afforded to people who had to get up at 5am to collect the garbage. Now that has been ruined and thrown into chaotic disarray by the somnambulistic stress of lockdown. Meanwhile the garbage still gets collected, the mail gets delivered and the bodies are getting buried, routines and habits have been disrupted – including control over sleep. This has caused a degree of anxiety among the self-aware classes. It seems that disordered sleep represents some bigger loss of control for those who searched for the ideal eight hours uninterrupted by crazy dreams and wakefulness. For others, this new escape from routine has offered new vistas and possibilities. I have sat at my window wide awake in the middle of the night and watched people going for a casual stroll at four in the morning and I have seen people going to sleep as I wake from an afternoon spent dreaming of pilots performing low altitude maneuvers. Sometimes in the middle of the night I pass people in the street and I wonder if they too feel happily apart from the usual discipline of time.

HUO: You published a book titled “Underground Man” in 2003, with an introduction by Italian theorist Maurizio Lazzarato. The book is an updating of the only work of science fiction by French sociologist Gabriel Tarde. The story is about a global catastrophe that leads the remnants of society to construct a new society of art and philosophy underground. It is both a vision and a parody of a world beyond work and life. Lazzarato has written:
“In order ‘to produce a new discourse, new knowledge, a new politics, one must traverse an unnamable point of absolute non-narrative, non-culture, and non-knowledge.’  Maurizio Lazzarato, Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity
LG: I think what Lazzarato means is that we must go beyond all contingencies that form a barrier to thinking about how to establish new relationships between each other and the world. All attempts to move on and create new freedoms are historically stunted by returns to old hierarchies. It is also true that universalist ideological assertions that erase difference and complexity have not worked either. Non-narrative, non-culture and non-knowledge means escaping everything that limits thought and every control system that diminishes human potential. I think he is also saying that a negative relationship to narrative, culture and knowledge means rejecting simplistic revolutionary ideas that attempt to create a simple centralized model. Negative and “non” are ways of thinking that are essentially dialectical. They help us by testing what we think we know. In the same way that an architect might test a building or an artist might question a structure on paper, what Lazzarato is proposing is a thought game rather than negativity for its own sake. There is nothing to be frightened of here, he is encouraging us to start imagining the “beyond” and feel our way towards what might come next. Narrative in this case can be both stories or trains of thought that describe fixed established positions. Get rid of them. Culture can oppress another culture or create levels of control. Get rid of it. Knowledge can be institutionalized to wield power and restrict new thinking. Forget about it.

Lazzarato is a product of Italy from a certain moment of stress and the need for radical change in the 1970s. He witnessed a great deal and was punished for it by exclusion from academic and political life. For him, work and life need not be separated in the traditional ways we understand it. He is related to the “operaists” who ended up thinking about the “social factory” of every day life. He encourages the idea that we need to allow new stories to emerge, new cultural formations to take place and new pathways to be discovered. The only way to do this is to completely get rid of all existing structures of intellectual control. This is as much an instruction for himself as it is a suggestion for others. 

HUO: How can we time travel in this moment of stasis? How can we create spaces where the past, present and future can coalesce? How do we go beyond the binary of utopia and dystopia to build new words held together in beautiful precarity?  
LG: I think we could also ask what new forms of time travel have emerged now that familiar routes and routines have been temporarily shut down. Clearly a perception of time is disrupted when external pressures and deadlines are rearranged or suddenly halted. This is complicated by the fact that some people have been working over the last year with even more discipline and more deadlines – especially those who bring goods and services to other people and those who care for the sick. The new sense of time travel is most profound for those who have been deeply affected by the pandemic. This is demonstrated in two extremes. The first are those who have deeply suffered and entered comatose states, losing weeks and months through sickness, only to awake and find that the pandemic has continued around them. That must be a nightmare. Like the horror movie meme where you wake from a nightmare to find you are still in a nightmare. The second are those who treat and test and vaccinate. They are operating with new efficiencies and devising new divisions of time. In many “developed” countries, delivery systems and logistical structures have proliferated to a destructive yet ecstatic point. In the USA and UK stores and restaurants have closed for good in massive numbers. Remember how we talked about Utopia nearly twenty years ago? And at the time I reminded everyone that the original book by St. Thomas More was a warning – not a prescription. Applied utopia remains my interest – the attempts to make better places and spaces for other human beings. The only intellectual space where past, present and future can coalesce is through the unearthing of all the different attempted “applied utopias” from the past one hundred years of extraordinary change. When I started as an artist thirty years ago I was searching for what we could keep as we sifted through the rubble of ideology run wild. As the dust settled on the immense and disastrous twentieth century we were left with pockets of utopian experimentation that were left out of order and in a jumble of intentions and results. I contend that academic attempts to understand, codify and judge the effectiveness of “the new” during the late modern period often missed the point and diminished the effect of the trajectory of technology in favor of a focus upon loss, melancholy, failure and aesthetics. The great applied utopian projects of the twentieth century, from modest clinics to informal communes, were always accompanied by the rise of self-critique, self-description and a self-conscious reflection upon actions. This was combined with the enduring power of the artistic and cultural manifesto throughout the twentieth century. Focusing only on the failure of high modernism clouds what really got left behind that can be useful now. Maybe we need to keep the manifestos and destroy the objects. Maybe its the other way around. The main thing is to go beyond binary thinking and examine what actually got made. What got built. What did it do and to whom was it done. To do this, new narratives and dream spaces should be created that tell stories about what actually happened in relation to what was intended. Many younger people are now doing this in dynamic and fascinating ways. Recovering lost histories and telling new stories.

HUO: Thinking about technology and how this affects everything reminds me of this quote. “How will virtual reality change our memories, our dreams?” (Cao Fei)
LG: I have another way of thinking about this. I suggest that virtual memory has already changed our dreams. The locking of ideas and exchanges in digital form – in hard drives, phones and servers has had more effect than attempts to create a parallel worlds through the development of virtual reality. I would alter the whole statement and ask a different question that reflects what is already in taking place in our present. How does virtual memory change our reality? I cannot speak of dreams in general. Every night I have been going to sleep with a problem to solve – a visual problem and I dream of various options and alternatives. This has been a deliberate act. A form of directed escape. I have used 3D graphic software for years. So I have been dreaming of new forms for virtual reality and therefore I have not allowed virtual reality to shape my dreams. And this process has affected the way this exhibition looks. The exhibition is a product of the new dreamspaces that occur when virtual memory stores the building blocks of our reality.

HUO: We talked recently about the late British theorist Mark Fisher who wrote extensively on new work life relationships.
“The most Gothic description of Capital is also the most accurate. Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombiemaker; but the living flesh it converts into dead labor is ours, and the zombies it makes are us.”
Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism
LG: The zombie is a much loved image when attempting to describe the complex abstractions of the present. This is because the zombie is animated by an outside force beyond our control. The “revived dead” exist in all major superstitions and religions predating capitalism. The ghosts stories of ancient cultures are full of zombies. A zombie is an entity that is a “spirit or supernatural force that reanimates a dead body.” Lockdown has had some strange effects. Fisher makes me think of the zombie movies he is referring to. In those films the heroes usually end up locked in a building – unable to escape – trying to improvise weapons against a slowly approaching malevolent force. If we are all zombies then what happens when we are locked in the house fighting off the zombies? There’s a film for you.

HUO: You wrote about Donald Judd in relation to post-modernism when you were at art school. Judd quoted John Dewey at times. He seems the opposite of Fisher. Believing in human potential and exchange. He makes “sensible” statements about capitalism, culture and life.
 “The growth of capitalism has been a powerful influence in the development of the museum as the proper home for works of art, and in the promotion of the idea that they are apart from the common life.”
John Dewey, Art as Experience
LG: Dewey is a specific product of the American experience. His writing is particular to a period of extraordinary shifts in structural capitalism that occurred in the early twentieth century in the United States. Dewey’s quote appears to be a statement of historical fact. We have to remember that he saw massive changes in how wealth was accumulated and redistributed in his early life. Dewey was already a University Professor when Federal income tax was first introduced. He would have therefore known the America of extraordinary concentrated wealth that had been built up via new technology (the railways and telegraph) and banking – a process that is repeating itself today. In Europe, the merchant class and the bourgeoisie were more involved in the emergence of the museum – a shift in class as much as capital flows. They took culture from the control of the aristocracy and established their own institutions and did it with solemn seriousness. It was the bourgeoisie who were the first to be silent during concerts and to collect the art of their time and take it seriously. In America it was the “robber barons” who were behind the collections that became the new encyclopedic museums of Chicago, Indianapolis and Baltimore with their Etruscan vases and Old Masters. They were aping the European aristocracy. In America, capitalism and museums are always openly interconnected but have very different characters. The early grand museums and the later museums of modern and contemporary art each have a specific relationship to capitalism, culture and identity. What is more interesting to me here is Dewey’s use of the phrase “common life” as if that might be something universally shared and understood. What could this mean? What would art from “common life” look like? The problem with the statement is that it “separates and divides” through its universalizing notion of common experience and also seems to make assumptions about the role and primacy of the museum as a site of authority and control. Museums are historically affected by academic hierarchies, artistic shifts and the influence of private patrons operating outside of standard power structures as much as they are a simple reflection of capitalisms reach. Museums are not a symptom of capitalism, they are its dormant genes or an expression of its surplus. The “common life” Dewey is referring to here is a projection as much as it is description of a condition that might easily be described and located. Dewey’s believed that education and free intellectual exchange within a democratic society would produce progress through applied reason. This makes sense, but the conditions to permit it have not been achieved. The “common life” he is referring to is a life to come – not one that already exists.

HUO: Paul Preciado was one of the first theorists to write at length in an art context about the effects of the pandemic and control. He is very clear that Covid-19 has also been an opportunity to extend surveillance and control.
“One of the fundamental biopolitical changes in pharmacopornographic techniques characterizing the Covid-19 crisis is that the domestic space, and not traditional institutions of social confinement and normalization (hospital, factory, prison, school, etc.), now appears as the new center of production, consumption, and political control. The home is no longer only the place where the body is confined, as was the case under plague management. The private residence has now become the center of the economy of tele-consumption and tele-production, but also the surveillance pod. The domestic space henceforth exists as a point in a zone of cybersurveillance, an identifiable place on a Google map, an image that is recognized by a drone” Paul B Preciado, Learning from the Virus, Art Forum, May 2020
LG: Now we get to the crux of the work life effect. What Paul describes here has been true for some time – especially among the class of knowledge workers of which we are a part – artists, curators, intellectuals and theorists. So it is not just a question of the home becoming a site of cyber-surveillance – that already happened when we first sent and email from our bedroom thirty years ago. Something has also happened in relation to the deployment of algorithms that has matured and intensified during the different lockdowns. What has occurred can also be described in terms that are not as dramatic as Preciado’s statement. What has also changed may be more devastating than the simple process of universal surveillance.

Under lockdown the distribution and reception of media has become even more precisely targeted to the relatively wealthy city dwelling consumer. The distribution of goods has also matured, grown and entangled itself around the home at the same time. Creative communities had already been criticized for being at the vanguard of working models that were endless, diffused and informal. The accusation was that freelance cultural workers developed working models of endlessness and constant communication that have led others down a complicated path where no one knows the edge of work any more and we are therefore all diminished, manipulated and worn out by self-management. Artists were supposed to show better ways to live and not lead us into a nightmare of self-management. My text “Why Work?” from 2010 was precisely a response to this accusation. But I think we can learn from the artists, curators and theorists who have been thinking about questions of work, life and leisure over the last thirty years. In order to do so we might need to ask what they do all day rather than view it through a filter of lifestyles that have merely appropriated an imaginary vision of “creativity”.

© Liam Gillick 2024