A New Job To Unwork At: Participant Inc, NYC

This piece was commissioned by and first published in Temporary Art Review, October 2018

Back in the mid-2000s, when most of my friends and I were in that strange post-college limbo that results from the dawning realization that knowledge production is incredibly tricky to translate into exchange value, we would while away evenings in the pub bemoaning our lot. Having just spent three or more years pointedly squirting expanding foam in a college studio or pondering Derrida for hours with a benevolent professor, we now found ourselves scrubbing floors in galleries or college toilets, answering to asinine bosses in grey office cubicles or, if we were lucky, running errands and making tea for puffed up directors (for no pay) at one of London’s big arts institutions. We had been thrust, blinking and naive, into the world of full-time work.

One particular friend, who now happens to be a very successful playwright but at the time had just left drama school, found himself propelled alarmingly quickly through the ranks of a large chain bookstore; he went from Saturday staff to manager within a year. His secret? Apparently, everywhere he went – up the store escalators on his way to chat to a colleague, en route to a shelf to replace discarded books, to the stationary room to escape the shop floor mid-shift, to the toilets or the tea room or the roof for a cigarette break – he would ensure he strode “quickly and with purpose, with a determined expression.” He used his freshly-honed acting skills to ‘perform’ his role of the ideal worker, and to such perfection that he cast an impressive and very telling illusion over his credulous superiors. By willfully transforming his workplace into a theatrical space, my friend was unwittingly expressing what curators Clara López Menéndez and Andrew Kachel have termed ‘queer labor.’

The more theoretically-engaged among you can probably immediately identify some of the intellectual roots behind their use of this concept: Judith Butler’s seminal repositioning of queerness in the ‘90s; Kathi Weeks’s more recent, sharply speculative critiques of waged ‘work’ as a constructed (as opposed to an inevitable) social and moral imperative; or Maurizio Lazzarato’s prescient 1996 discussion of the sinister rise of Immaterial Labor – as in, labor that’s informational, intellectual or cultural, and insidiously omnipresent rather than overtly identifiable as such. In an era where collective bargaining rights have been dealt a near-death blow thanks to the US Supreme Court’s Janus vs AFSCME ruling and the line between work and leisure time has become ever blurrier for workers across the post-industrialized world, this notion of ‘queer labor’ opens up a wealth of crucial questions, even as it inevitably offers far fewer concrete answers.

Menéndez and Kachel met while they were studying at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies from 2012 – 2014, and it was there that they started to mine the rich potential in these two overlapping fields of enquiry. At the same time, the graduating curators were also investigating what it might mean to work collectively while avoiding  becoming what Kachel describes as “…a collaboration that would be legible by the institution.” While their final projects remained officially separate, the two actively pooled resources such as budgets and collaborators. “While Clara was working on more symposium-intensive, discursive projects (to use that term in a very broad way), I was organising an exhibition,” explains Kachel. “But I think we were also interested in the ways that those formats were porous and could be open to each other….it was really a material way of questioning how we work, not just a theoretical questioning.”

Judith Butler’s groundbreaking contributions to queer theory provided the curators with one of their most fruitful starting points. Just as Butler reframed gender as discursively constructed and performed, Menéndez and Kachel started to wonder whether the same could be said of our identities as workers and the idea of work more broadly, or as they describe it in a joint essay,  “…a similarly complicated site of potentiality.”

“At grad school we started to think about queerness and what it could do to labor,” says Menéndez. “Then we started thinking about how queerness helps you gain some agency within traditional gender constructs that are forced on you, and that there are comparable ways you can gain agency within what you do as work and how that inscribes itself on the value system…”

“We were both thinking less about queerness as sexuality than as criticality,” she continues, “…queerness as a way of thinking about constant sets of rules that we abide by, and the critical distance that queerness as a project has brought to gender, but applied to work.”

The project’s distinctive title, A New Job To Unwork At, was inspired by the SCUM Manifesto – Valerie Solanas’ 1967 provocative, penetrating attack on patriarchal privilege and the structural inequalities that legitimize it. Solanas doesn’t merely call for a rejection of work as a societal given, but demands the formation of an “unwork force – the fuck-up force” that would forcefully hollow out the status quo by secretly destroying factory equipment, giving merchandise away for free and otherwise violently disrupting their occupations, until they’re fired and find “…a new job to unwork at.” Menéndez and Kachel used this concept as another theoretical springboard for thinking about work as a site of resistance, both behavioral and aesthetic.

In the five years they’ve been researching A New Job To Unwork At – the most recent iteration of which is currently on show at Participant INC in New York City – the two have produced a pertinent, incisive body of knowledge and curatorial activity around this compound term, in all its profuse potentiality. Over the course of the project’s journey from its initiation at Bard College to LACE Project Space in Los Angeles, on to Art Space New Haven and now at Participant INC, they’ve forged rich connections between scholarship, seminar discussions, screenings, performances, artworks and other cultural products that reimagine work as a site of resistance; examine its social, material and economic manifestations; and even fundamentally question work’s ideological supremacy.

It’s a deliberately expansive, generous remit that manages to tread that oh-so-delicate line between productive openness and unwieldy nebulousness: a quality that clearly appealed to the institutions that invited Menéndez and Kachel to bring A New Job To Unwork At to bear in each of their distinctive contexts. Each iteration has both clear connections to, and institution-specific differences from, its predecessor/s – all with a shared backbone that Menéndez described to me as “…a theoretical core that’s evolved and sprawled, but hasn’t shifted that much.”

They describe the project’s first iteration at LACE Project Space as an opportunity to articulate and continue their research in a way that wasn’t necessarily obliged to conform to a conventional exhibition format. It was a stage that offered them more time than physical space, allowing them to thoroughly delve into their material, as well as establish deep and productive relationships with a consistent group of practitioners over the course of six weeks in early 2016. Their second residency at Art Space in New Haven later that year, with 1000 square feet of white walled space and large, street-facing windows, was far more visible: more of a “show-y show”, as Menéndez puts it.

At Participant INC, it feels as if these two approaches have been fortuitously combined. The exhibition in the organization’s Houston Street space features artworks that ponder on labour of many stripes: emotional, physical and professional, as well as – crucially – examining the crossovers between them. Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Manifesto for An Exhibition: CARE is shown along with documentation from her ongoing residency at NYC’s Sanitation Department. While CARE has stood the test of time as a reflexive expression of Ukeles’s own struggles as a mother and working artist, her Touch Sanitation piece – which involved her shaking the hand of every sanitation worker in the city in an effort to highlight a far more traditionally masculine, (and remunerative) form of hidden labor – still resonates all too loudly. Dylan Mira’s VOIDS (2015) consists of several giant, blank checks inscribed with ‘VOID’ and sprawled around the gallery – delivering a punchy critique of the value system we’re forced to operate within, while Tehching Hsieh’s Outdoor Piece from 1981 – 2 is a derive-esque work that forces us to reconsider notions of public/private space, as well as brutally aestheticizing one imagining of true ‘hard work.’ Ideas around contemporary artistic labour are given a firm platform here too: Rafa Esparza’s performance, Tezcatlipoca Memoirs, for example, promises to combine an expression of the artist’s ongoing ‘matrix of labor’ that he instrumentalizes as a way to build community and expose forgotten histories.

Public events have also featured heavily in the project’s NYC outing. In a brilliant meeting of the speculatively theoretical and ‘real world’ activism, the curators invited a conversation between Kathi Weeks and Lise Soskolne – artist and core organizer of Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E). Weeks and Soskolne’s wide-ranging discussion touched on post-work imaginaries, the potential of universal income as a stepping stone for moving beyond capitalism’s powerful grasp, and the legacy of key feminist labor movements such as Wages for Housework. They also talked in depth about W.A.G.E’s new online system, ‘WAGENCY’, which enables artists to easily calculate the fees they should be receiving for fifteen types of artistic labor at thousands of US non-profits. “WAGENCY” also negotiates rates with institutions on artists’ behalf, a much-needed tool that enables artists to claw back some power in the historically uneven transactional relationship between artists and the organizations they show with. Soskolne’s contribution especially offered a genuinely exciting model for curatorial activism in the current political climate – giving a sense of what can be achieved when we make the effort to move away from just preaching to the art world’s choir and translate artistic resistance into the world at large.

The research that Menéndez and Kachel have undertaken on artistic labor and the primacy of the work ethic has had a marked impact on the way they relate to artists, too. It seems to have made them highly conscious, even unusually considerate, of the diverse requirements and limits of the practitioners they have chosen to work with. It’s an approach that they learned from their own exposure to that all-too-common disconnect between theory and action. As Kachel describes: “I think we’ve both had experiences working with people who claim very rigorous feminist politics, but there’s been an extreme disconnect with the ways they actually work and interact with people and the claims made on paper.” He continues: “Maybe it seems like a small thing, but it’s actually very difficult to make good on those claims in practice.”

Our conversation consistently returned to the importance of considering artists’ individual needs and ensuring that every contribution is as meaningful for each practitioner as possible, an ethos that they clearly work hard to cultivate. “Every work interaction is a social interaction,” explains Menéndez. “We are working with people who have different needs, and we really consciously keep that in the foreground…it’s crucial for us that the conditions of production are as much part of the work as any materials. In fact they are a material.”

Finally, it’s also worth noting that these two curators are, perhaps inevitably but pointedly given the thrust of their research, clearly working extremely hard in order to realize each iteration of this project as fully and as generously as possible. It turns out that rigorously thinking about alternatives to the entrenched capitalist work ethic requires, well, a serious and committed work ethic.

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