Featured image: Sam Meech, Punchcard Economy, 2013. Photo courtesy of FACT.
The new exhibition “Time & Motion” at FACT in Liverpool, UK, takes the pulse of punchcard protocol and creative capital in our own “Modern Times”.
The exhibition Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life at FACT Liverpool is a collaboration between FACT and the Creative Exchange at the Royal College of Art – an initiative which looks at how arts and humanities researchers can work with industry to effect digital innovation. Rachel Falconer reviews the exhibition in the context of the paradoxical dynamics of cognitive capital and the changing landscape of the labour market.
Concerned (but powerless),
An empowered and informed member of society
(Pragmatism not idealism),
Will not cry in public,
Less chance of illness,
Tires that grip in the wet
(Shot of baby strapped in back seat),
A good memory,
Still cries at a good film,
Still kisses with saliva,
No longer empty and frantic like a cat tied to a stick,
That’s driven into frozen winter shit
(The ability to laugh at weakness),
Healthier and more productive
A pig in a cage on antibiotics.
Fitter Happier, Radiohead.
The frantic quest for the elusive Shangri-La of work/life balance is a neurotic luxury afforded only to the always-on, hyper-connected generation of precariously unstable home office workers in our hypercapitalist society. The working rhythms of this emergent class of “precariat”  are far removed from the forensically prescribed scientific management resulting from the time and motion studies associated with Taylorism at the beginning of the last century. This shift in working patterns generated by the digital revolution is the primary focus of the exhibition Time and Motion, Redefining Working Life currently at FACT, Liverpool. From an archival, filmic view of the automated, (Western) industrial factory labourer to contemporary portraits of the global information worker’s state of perpetual imbalance and non-stop, hyper-connectedness  the participating artists expose the – often contradictory – ecologies of labour, consumption, and the conditions in which they operate. The exhibition also marks the collaboration between FACT and Creative Exchange at the Royal College of Art – an initiative which looks at how arts and humanities researchers can work with industry to effect digital innovation and confront contemporary modes of production.
Taking the archival stimulus of time and motion measurement as its title and industrial work patterns as a starting point, the exhibition Time & Motion is the latest in a series of exhibitions and symposia addressing immaterial labour and new working patterns in the age of globalisation and creative capital. Rather than following the well-trodden path of casting the figure of the artist as digital labourer, or attempting to portray an expansive, post-colonial view of nomadic, labouring diasporas, Time and Motion reflects a more subversive and fragmented approach to the politics of work, rest and play in the global information economy.
Sam Meech’s Punchcard Economy is at once a homage to the textile industry and a recognition of the contemporary precariat. With more than a symbolic nod to northern England’s textile heritage, Punchcard Economy consists of a machine-knitted reinterpretation of the Robert Owen’s 8-8-8 ideal work/life balance. The piece was produced on a domestic knitting machine using a combination of digital imaging tools and traditional punchcard systems. During a residency at FACT last year, Meech collected punchcards from visitors detailing their working hours. This data was then translated into a knitting pattern which was used to generate the final work – a banner depicting the contemporary working day. Any hours worked outside the eight-hour day appear as a glitch within the fabric. This banner – historically a symbol of the working class and trade unions – also denotes the fragmentation and blurring of national class structures in the era of globalisation.
The move towards a flexible, open labour market has not eroded the class system completely, but a more fragmented global class struggle has emerged. The “working class”, “workers”, “proletariat” are terms that have been embedded in our (Western) culture for centuries, and used as badges of honour by some, and terms of derision by others. By incorporating a large cross-section of working society under one banner, Meech has literally – in stitching different socio-economic groups together into the very fabric of the working day – rendered the once potent archaic class signifiers as little more than evocative labels.
“75 Watt” by artist Cohen Van Balen and choreographer Alexander Whitley also riffs on the trope of the long fought for 8 hour working day. Deriving its title from a quote from Marks’ Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers: “A labourer over the course of an 8-hour day can sustain an average output of about 75 watts”, the film is a subversive ballet of the complex and often skewed relationships between production, consumption and distribution in the post-industrial age. The film features a group of Chinese labourers working an assembly line, (playing on the stereotypical “Made in China” trope). The object they produce, however, has no logical use. The purpose of the exercise is simply to choreograph the combined movements performed by the labourers in the manufacturing process. The work examines the nature of mass-manufacturing on differnt levels; from the geo-political context of hyper-fragmented labour to the bio-political condition of the human body on the assembly line. Echoing the Taylorist ideal, here we see engineering logic taken to its conceptual extreme; through the scientific management of every single movement we witness the passage of factory labourer to a man-machine.
By shifting the purpose of the labourer’s actions from the efficient production of objects to the performance of choreographed acts, mechanical movement is reinterpreted into dance. The artists ask: “What is the value of this artefact that only exists to support the performance of its own creation? And as the product dictates the movement, does it become the subject, rendering the worker the object”?
This operatic construction line also points towards the ultimate failure of scientific management. Taylorism was always dictated by the needs of capitalist exploitation, but in its pure form it proved to be inefficient in drawing on workers’ talent and potential. In time the bourgeoisie recognised the inadequacies in Taylorism, and Taylorist methodology was mostly withdrawn by the 1930s. However, this was not the end of time and motion measurement. More recent management theories include Theory X and Theory Y introduced by Douglas McGregor in the 1960s. Contemporary Taylorism takes the form of the Lean practices introduced into major departments of the British civil service (including HMRC, DWP, MOJ, and MOD). Workers incorporate “efficiency savings” as an integral part of their job, and work priorities are monitored by the soft panoptic gaze of non-hierarchical “collaborative practice”. Here,workers time their work processes, identify forms of waste, and propose changes in work practices. This “bottom-up” approach goes hand in hand with the new language of management – as managers morph into “leaders”. As efficiency savings are made from workers’ suggestions, the “leaders” try to enforce impossible targets, and decide whose post is next to be eliminated – hence the creation of the precariat. As part of the precariousness of employment, workers not only worry about losing their jobs, but also have to propose measures which, in the name of efficiency, might put them out of work. Added to this the increasing automation of work and the burgeoning AI scene, where does human cognition stand in all of this?
Inari Wishiki’s set of ludicrious alternative employment models (such as Banana Multiplier), are in reminiscent of the subversive, performative models of the Fluxus movement. Inari’s online work Recruit Agency for People Who Don’t Want To Work dramatizes this staging of an alternative labour market. The website includes documentation of a series of performances by the artist exploring the premise that with the proliferation and development of technology, we as humans have lost our place in the world of work, and yet still need to appear to be “useful” in order to earn a living.
Recruit Agency For People Who Don’t Want To Work is a set of systems which allow people to engage in the act of commerce while abandoning “all the meaningless rituals of having to be useful in order to earn money”. In INARI TRADING CARD, the artist documents the way in which “essential” workers function as a social infrastructure. He observes that “money was naturally following those workers according to their essential motions, unlike that of workers who seek after money”. These set of performances are an ironic counterpoint to the hyper-efficiency promoted by neo-Taylorism, and point towards the informal norms that are in tension with the industrial time norms still permeating social analysis, legislation and policymaking in the globalization era.
In his text “The Value of Time Spent” in the accompanying catalogue to the exhibition, Mike Stubbs supports this strategy of “design for disassembly” and novel values of exchange. Stubbs maintains that these alternative ecologies of exchange are necessary in order to allow us to question how we spend our time, and for us to lay bare the new patterns of professional fulfilment and social relations inherent to our hyper-mediated society.
The classic distinction between the workplace and the home was forged in the industrial age, and when today’s labour market regulations, labour law and social security systems were constructed, the norm was a fixed workplace. This model has now fragmented and crumbled and the term social factory, popularized by Tiziana Terranova and others, is applied to describe this shift “from a society where production takes place predominantly in the closed site of the factory to one where it is the whole of society that it is turned into a factory – a productive site”. The production is one of value, where the collective efforts of intelligence and creativity are networked, controlled and exploited. Labour takes place everywhere, and the discipline or control over labour is universally exercised. But policies are still based on a presumption that it makes sense to draw sharp distinctions between the workplace and home – and between workplace and public space. In a tertiary market society, this model is obsolete, leaving the information worker increasingly pressurized and isolated.
One of the recurring themes in Time & Motion is this hybrid and compromised locus and infrastructure of the work place. Harun Faroki’s moving image work A New Product presents an insider’s view of the paradoxical construction of so called “fluid” working environments. He describes his new film as: “Scenes from meetings within a company which advises corporations how to design their offices — and the work done there. The film shows that words are not just tools, they have become an object of speculation.” In this work, he stages the brainstorming sessions of a business consultancy specialising in the design of workspaces, offices and new concepts for mobile work hubs. The resulting seductive imagery of the ideal workspace is an exercise in brand development pastiche rendered as pseudo video game.
Time & Motion also stages a co-working space, developed by the RCA CX team, which weaves together venue, audience, workspace and digital space – presenting the entrance space of the gallery space into a live research ‘lab’. Visitors are encouraged to participate in the research, interaction and interventions, and workshops, salon discussions, and hacking and making sessions are woven into the experimental fabric of the exhibition.
The ‘CX Co-Working Space’ features three design interventions. The first, Hybrid Lives, features video work by Karen Ingham and an interactive installation responding to data traffic, dressed with ‘co-working furniture’. Where Do You Go To? is a wall-mounted moving freize showing the output from an app, co-designed with a group from the BBC, with the mission to connect remote workers through exchanging, Snap-chat-like (pre-hack) images of desks and workspaces. According to Ben Dalton, one of the main developers, this sharing of ‘desk context’ helps form a synergy of ‘headspace’ between remote workers.
Taking its cue from Frances Cairncross’s 1995 “The Death of Distance”, where the compelling vision that, over time, the communications revolution would release us from geographic locations, the project illustrates how digital space has redefined our working lives. However, for all its good intentions, this gesture towards remote solidarity seems to be muddying the new principles and rhythms of work with Taylorist and later Fordist ideals of panoptic surveillance and somehow stands in direct opposition to the emancipatory rhetoric of convergence culture.
Time and Motion focuses primarily on a particular demographic of labourer (generally the global information worker), and paints the picture of a tertiary lifestyle which involves multitasking without control over a narrative of time use, and habitual fractured thinking – where non-stop interactivity (a digital version of Taylorist motion) is crack cocaine for the drones. For this category of workers, the workplace is everyplace – diffuse, unfamiliar, a zone of insecurity. We are left with a “thin democracy” in which people are disengaged from political activity except when jolted into consciousness by a shocking event or celebrity meltdown witnessed virally on Youtube during office hours. As more work and labour takes place outside the pre-determined workplace – in the hybrid environments of cafes, trains and across the domestic landscape – the very idea of a work/life balance seems like an alien ideal to aspire to.In an open tertiary society, the industrial model of time, and the bureaucratic time management of factories and office blocks, breaks down. There is no stable time structure and we are increasingly losing our grip on our own time. Time and Motion at FACT interrogates the impact of this fragmentation on the aesthetic forms of contemporary art, and contemplates how artists might offer a critique of our neo-Taylorist predicament.
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