Work as Art

by Ian Milliss

Ian Milliss is an artist who worked on Wrapped Coast.

John Kaldor, as this exhibition demonstrates, has a well-earned reputation as a great patron. In my understanding of art as the process of cultural adaptation, Kaldor’s history makes him a considerable artist in his own right, using other more conventionally recognisable artists as his material to change Australian culture.

Like most Australian artists, John Kaldor supported his art with a day job, as a manufacturer of widely admired high quality textiles for both clothing and interior decoration. As a manufacturer he commissioned original designs, many of which are now in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. But by 2004 when the Australian branch of Kaldor’s company closed, his daughter Bettina, who had been managing director of the company’s UK division, identified that the economics of the fabric market had significantly changed:

“For textile wholesaling, the better years were behind us,” Bettina Kaldor said. “There’s probably lots of reasons for that, but the market – and I don’t just think it’s an Australian market – tends to want to do prints that have already been done overseas.

“Therefore if you are copying or creating the design, it’s not the design (the customers want), it’s whether you (the supplier) can do it quickest and cheapest.

“The whole business in that sense has really changed; it’s not colour and design that’s important, it’s logistics. It’s about getting a product as quickly as possible (to market), so I guess over time we did lose our unique angle.

“The biggest thing is (that) the originality of fashion is really not that important any more.”

The fact that Kaldor’s fame rests so much on his activities as an artworld patron raises interesting questions about what we recognise and value as significant cultural activity, how we understand labour in society, and how we value it. It is a thread that appears several times in the Kaldor projects, often in challenging ways.

If we start at the end and look back we can see that, in the fifty years Kaldor Public Art Projects has been running, art has effectively disappeared, at least in the sense that it is no longer the production of a high status consumer item but has become a general category of human activity rather like work. Any activity can be art, just as any activity can be work (or not work) depending on its context. Initially this was described as the “institutional definition of art”, that any object or activity could be regarded as art if it was endorsed by an institutional consensus. But this definition has broken down in the 21st century as the institutional gatekeeper’s role has collapsed in the face of new technology enabling wider participation and distribution. There are no longer effective gates for the gatekeepers to keep, and indeed the institutions are increasingly scrambling for relevance. As a result institutional recognition is insufficient – what matters in the future is whether an activity generates cultural change.

Three Kaldor Projects illustrate this. The first is Wrapped Coast in 1969. For me as a young artist who worked on Wrapped Coast, the most impressive aspect was the artwork as work, as an organisational and financial project involving hundreds of people being managed to an end that most people considered absurd and yet became increasingly fascinated by. Thinking about this in following years led me to understand organisational structures as cultural artefacts, potentially as works of art, and also to an understanding that an organisation or a group of workers could be regarded as an artist. This is how I came to understand the NSW Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) and other trade unions like the Federated Engine Drivers and Fireman’s Association (FEDFA) as artists in the sense that as collaborative groups they used their one tool, their ability to withhold their labour, to generate cultural change. In fact their influence was so great, starting with their first Green Ban at Kelly’s Bush in Sydney’s Hunters Hill in 1971, that they inspired the development of the German Green Party, leading to worldwide parliamentary Green Parties, one of the most important elements of the battle against climate change. This was cultural change on a grand scale.

The second is Project 22 in 2010, titled 7 forms measuring 600 x 60 x 60 cm constructed to be held horizontal to a wall, by Santiago Sierra. Forty years after Wrapped Coast the world was a very different place. The rise of neoliberalism had featured global arbitrage of labour, by constantly shifting production from one country to another in search of the lowest conceivable labour costs and conditions. Sierra’s work symbolised this process, a titillating spectacle of  abjection where unemployed workers carry out meaningless tasks at the lowest wage. In this case they held up a series of beams against a wall, a sad parody of the caryatids of classical sculpture as precarious workers but also a forerunner of the age of so-called “bullshit jobs”. While essentially pointless and unproductive, low paid bullshit jobs served to maintain a psychology of managerial control over workers. Sierra’s work portrays this toxic cultural change.

In 2013 the anthropologist David Graeber published an essay entitled “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs“. Graeber argued that the value of increased productivity was divided unequally, almost all going to management and shareholders and little to workers. Bullshit jobs were used to keep workers divided by constantly monitoring each other. Meanwhile the Puritan-capitalist work ethic turned having a job, any job, into a religious duty that stigmatised those who were not in paid jobs, disregarding the work they often did as carers etc. Wikipedia summarises Graeber’s argument:

 … [people] believe that work determines their self-worth, even as they find that work pointless. Graeber describes this cycle as “profound psychological violence”, “a scar across our collective soul”. In turn, rather than correcting this system, Graeber writes, individuals attack those whose jobs are innately fulfilling.

The third is Project 29 in 2014, Tino Sehgal’s This Is So Contemporary. Sehgal’s work involves creating a parody of service industry bullshit jobs. It is hard to see his work as anything but an attack on “those whose jobs are innately fulfilling”, and this may well explain his reluctance to have the work documented in any way. Seghal’s resistance to documentation can perhaps be understood as a residual shame, a desire to leave no evidence. Sehgal’s work allows institutions to misrepresent socially engaged art as little more than annoying harassment interrupting their preferred business model of art as exhibitions.

At the heart of this is the rise of social practice, the offshoot of conceptualism beginning in the mid 1970s that resulted in many artists (including me) distancing themselves from the official art world to work instead embedded in communities, using their artistic skills in social and political activism. The institutions, over ensuing decades, made repeated attempts to incorporate and monetise this tendency. The work of Vanessa Beecroft (Project 12, 1999) promoted by the curator Nicholas Bourriaud as “relational aesthetics”, was typical of an earlier attempt to institutionalise the idea of community collaboration by mimicking it while compromising it, thus robbing it of political power. Sehgal is a later attempt that promotes but also parodies attempts at social engagement, turning it into a form of abuse and harassment.

Sehgal’s temporary popularity probably reflects the way institutions had begun to feel their own significance slipping away. Their power had waned as the more marketable forms of art had become less meaningful, hollowed out by vacuous biennales, art as tourism and money laundering, the art world version of the same processes of global neoliberalism that had slowly made the Kaldor fabric business less profitable and also less fulfilling. In art as in fashion originality is “really not that important any more” and the market only wants the quick, cheap and familiar delivered fast. It is ironic that within the Kaldor projects there is such an exposition of that process.

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