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notes on labor, process and repetition

02/18/10

While working on customizing all the plastic bottles we collected for the tube system, cutting plastic bags into little biscuits, binding loops together and making rope with Leonardo da Vinci’s ropemaker (an original, almost blasting our budget), we thought about the character of repetitive work. After spending hours and hours on customizing, fabricating and assembling, we went home, slept, came back and did the same for hours and hours. I spoke to one of my teachers about that I feel like doing a nightshift at an assembly line and she was interested as well as amused. Who would have thought that the process of making art could feel so unglamorous, so free of a manifestation of romantic ideas about vocation, inspiration and wild and highly gestural outbreaks of creativity?

It was much more about figuring out how to transform things into something different, with the help of what we could get in a short amount of time at low expenses, something recycled (and recyclable) and then just do basically the same transformational process over and over with our hands, our fingers, cutting, binding, fixing. However the repetitiveness of that process made us think, again, about the meditative quality of this type of work. Something that you do with your hands over and over, turns you into a machine embodying the hand movements that have to be applied. Your body becomes a machine or at least the extension of a machine. Nobody would regard work at the assembly line though as something shaped like a ritual that can transcend a mode of being that is calm, quiet and meditative. Is it the fact that being part of an assembly line process means that one is only a small part in a larger concept that is not transparent but highly dependent what comes before and after? Or is it the fact that your workpace is dictated by the machine and not by yourself? Is it just the notion of work–or something clearly declared as work–in contrast to a necessity that makes the difference? Or is it the spatial layout itself that is not at all designed to lead the way to “find” yourself?

(There are probably tons of stories about how people’s will and creativity is broken through working in a plant at an assembly line – One of German writer Hermann Hesse novels is titled “Unterm Rad / Under the wheel” from 1903 and this expression, I think, frames it quite well – a visual reference would be Charlie Chaplin ‘s “Modern Times,” 1936, the famous scene where he gets caught in these big cogwheels.)

The assembly line and its machines dictate the workpace, they are alienating the workers form the actual process of creating something through a simple spatial division, and thereby they also prevent the workers form gathering together (… probably the Marxist point of argumentation but I can’t help thinking it…..). What would be the counterpart? Or an example of repetitive work that leads to a state of meditation, of “emptying out” yourself. I think about religious and sacred rituals that involve singing, praying and making music and I think about women doing work at home, sitting around a table in big cercles (sic!) and knitting, crocheting, lacemaking, felting or whatever (you get the picture), and singing and … chatting. So not so meditative as well – it turns out to be about communication, about having a space exclusively for women that allows them to exchange information, where they dictate themselves what is done, how and when. A space that was later replaced by department stores, for a certain class, of course.

I can’t help thinking about the gender implications our work has/had: we were in between or doing both, construction work and handicraft, the drafts as well as the fine mechanics. I had weird (for me who never liked knitting and crocheting and who doesn’t want to change her mind because all of a sudden it’s “right” and good and hip to reappropriate these techniques or to do as much as possible yourself!!) fantasies about knitting a vest with these plastic bag threads.

So these hours and hours of unusual manual labor lead me more to a close examination of the here and now and its conditions and context than bringing me to state of mind with a transcendental possibility. (This is my very personal field report and Kyoung and I had different opinions on that!!). Maybe because I agree with Karl Marx again or at least I am sceptic about any religious implications that just lead to a concealment of the actual conditions of society. On the other hand he saw everything through the lense of class oppression and this is a very limiting stance … still he and Friedrich Engels imagined a society without work (or at least this type of work that puts one “under the wheel”) where everyone is free to educate one’s mind and as little as Marx had women in mind, there is really wonderful book by Engels where he tackles the “problem” titled “The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State,” 1884.

So I am torn between longing for a transcendental experience that can be gained through meditation and asceticism and the desire to take action that can come out of an empty mind, but  of a clear one tough. And before I get caught in my own notes I just state again that we did all kind of work and that we were performing engineers, and construction workers and this is precisely what I like about art, that it is a performance, a proposition, an idea to pass where all the “intervening steps” to quote Sol Lewitt, the “founder” of conceptual art, are “of interest”, the “scribbles, sketches, drawings, failed works, models, studies thoughts, conversations … those that show the thought process of the artist are sometimes more interesting than the final product.”

In this respect what we produced is: a dysfunctional system to water a garden – two layers – an inside and an outside – that were supposed to be connected – but even the planning of the connection was so difficult that now, as they are disconnected, it makes sense to me to leave them in that state. we are left with a very sculptural piping system, a ladder with an extension that stands on its own – as a formally as well as conceptually interesting piece of art – a beautiful garden in the backyard of the gallery and the question of what to do with this post-apocalyptic system. whatever we decide, for me it is clear that we have to adapt to the process and preserve an openness of the piece that was unpredicted and that will involve, again, manual labor to perform it.

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