"A new job to unwork at" at Participant Inc.
Flash Art, November 2018–January 2019
After previous iterations at LACE, Los Angeles (2016), and Artspace, New Haven (2016–17), “A new job to unwork at,” curated by Andrew Kachel and Clara López Menéndez at Participant Inc. in New York, comprises a group exhibition along with a publication and an extensive program of talks, workshops, and performances. The project feels timely both in a national context — the collapse of organized labor and erosion of workers’ rights in the U.S. and the centering of the mythical “white working class” in post-election political discourse — and in light of recently intensified organizing in the art world, from museum union efforts (such as the MoMA union’s recent, drawn-out contract negotiations) to art workers’ rights initiatives like W.A.G.E. and Coop Fund, both represented in the exhibition’s programming.
A pair of clock sculptures by Fred Lonidier (Create-A-Clock, from 1978) mark the threshold of the space, so that moving into the gallery feels a bit like clocking in or out. Lonidier has long focused on organized labor in his practice. On one of the clocks, which is simply a framed set of hands and numerals applied to an ad for a create-your-own-clock kit, is written “AESTHETICIZED TIME.” With Create-A-Clock, Lonidier probes the complexity of making art — or making work, as we often say — about labor and alludes to standardized time as an invention of capitalism. More recent works by Dylan Mira, Wes Larios, Karin Schneider, Goldman Club (a collaboration between Emanuel Almborg and Aliza Shvarts), and Kandis Williams of Cassandra Press seek to materialize the processes and grapple with the abstract violence of labor under neoliberal capitalism.
Several of the included pieces, particularly the older ones, investigate the ways in which daily life and identity are shaped by work. On one of two monitors placed on the floor, Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Sanman Speaks (1977–85) documents her years-long Touch Sanitation Performance, in which she traveled around New York shaking hands with 8,500 sanitation workers, or “san men.” The video offers a straightforward look at those responsible for the daily work of keeping the city clean — a form of maintenance art, as Ukeles termed it in her 1969 manifesto — and details their frustration at the lack of appreciation for their labor: “When you draw a picture of us, show everyone sticking daggers in us,” one worker tells her.
On the other monitor, Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance (Outdoor Piece), Video Documentation (1981–82) provides grainy footage of the titular performance, in which the artist lived outside in Manhattan for a year, refusing to enter buildings, vehicles, tents, or caves. We see Hsieh waking up in a dirty sleeping bag tucked into a small alleyway; buying clothing from an outdoor market; and undressing to shave and bathe near the river. The work simultaneously simplifies and complicates the daily work of living by narrowing its parameters. In another scene, policemen confront Hsieh — presumably for appearing homeless — before aggressively dragging him away. The parameters of the daily work of living are enforced, in part, by state violence. (Cops aren’t workers; they are, as the saying goes, bastards.)
Labor and state repression converge again, more obliquely, in Devin Kenny’s Untitled (butane tags for Dead Prez) (2011), a painting of ash on Cortega tile (a material used to make cheap, institutional ceilings). “PIMP THE SYSTEM” is scrawled across the tile in haphazardly burned block letters, a reference to the Dead Prez song “Hell Yeah (Pimp the System)” (2003). The exhibition text notes that using lighters or matches to burn writing is a common form of communication in prisons, and the residue of fire that marks the work’s surface also brings to mind the incarcerated people fighting wildfires in California for $1 an hour — effectively slave labor. (A list of demands for the prison strike, which ran from August 21 to September 9, is taped to the gallery’s front door.) Yet work, even in its less egregious incarnations, is always already racialized, especially in the cauldron of antiblackness that is the United States. Kenny’s work feels particularly crucial because it suggests the impossibility of considering labor in isolation, outside a number of other social and cultural forces — and because its relatively simple materials and construction seem to require little actual work in order to make this point. The exhibition proposes that certain forms of work can be subversive — that unworking, or working otherwise, can counter the exploitation that labor entails. And while how we work and what we work toward matters, it’s tempting to consider that sometimes, the most radical way to work might be not to.