The Spectre of Manual Labour

by Pil and Galia Kollectiv

In The Social Contract, Jean Jacques Rousseau claims that representational democracy equals the enslavement of the people. The democratic system of governance in the classical world, Rousseau explains, relied on slave labour and, thus, time was devoted entirely to freedom as a totality – democracy was a total way of life in which citizens of the Greek polis were involved in all decisions all the time. To quote Rousseau, “the citizen can be perfectly free only if the slave is absolutely a slave” whereas “people of the modern world, [who] have no slaves, but… are slaves [them]selves … believing themselves to be free, have representatives” (114 –5) [1]. The problem of the attainability of a project of total freedom is therefore not merely a problem of the division of labour, but fundamentally that of representation. To understand the implications of this problem for contemporary art, we would like to conflate two meanings of the term ‘representation’, using it both in the artistic sense, unintended by Rousseau, and in the political sense, in which he uses it. We would like to suggest a link between the rejection of representation in favour of ‘direct action’ in the political terrain and in the artworld.

In The Politics of Aesthetics, Jacques Rancière delineates a kind of chronology of the relationship between art and society: for Rancière, this history can be traced as a transition from the ethical regime to the poetic and then the aesthetic. Crucially, for Rancière this “classification of ways of doing and making” is fully analogous to the social structure of communities – the same principles operate on the political level as on the artistic level, in fact these come together in his notion of the distribution of the sensible. He posits the aesthetic as a radical break from its preceding artistic regime, the poetic or representative one. In the poetic regime, the principle of mimesis is used not only to create hierarchies between work (the art object) and nature (that which it imitates), but also to distinguish between genres and to set out political boundaries for “good or bad, adequate or inadequate, representable and the unrepresentable”. The aesthetic, by contrast, breaks away from representation altogether: as Rancière explains, “when the Futurists or the Constructivists declared the end of art and the identification of its practices with the practices that construct, decorate, or give a certain rhythm to the times and spaces of communal life, they proposed an end of art equivalent to the identification of art with the life of the community” [2].

Taking Rancière and Rousseau’s overlapping usage of the term ‘representation’ in art and in politics as our starting point, we would like to elaborate on this notion of the rejection of representation within modernity. Using Rancière’s account of the union of art and work within the aesthetic regime set up by the avant garde as a move away from the representational order, we would like to interrogate the relationship between the contemporary artistic trend of relational or ‘people art’, in Claire Bishop’s idiom, and direct action in politics. We think that both the attempt of art practices to create ‘real’ communities – using art to liberate everyday life – and the suspicion towards representational government – can be understood as consequences of the shift from manufacture to production (or post-production in Nicolas Bourriaud’s terms).

A particularly good case study for this is Santiago Sierra, who exploits ‘real’ people, giving them physically demanding, futile tasks, to expose the labour that is hidden away in society at large. It is possible to see his work as a form of overidentification, the idea that Slavoy Zizek defines as taking “the system more seriously than it takes itself seriously” [3] . However, by ‘enslaving’ others, Sierra also abolishes representation, both artistic and political, and reinstates for the artist the kind of total liberty described by Rousseau as lost in representative democracy. This is often treated as some kind of guilt inducing joke by the liberal art community – we know exploitation is bad and see his experimentation with it as critique. But Sierra’s inverted ethics ultimately disable the negotiation of freedoms and limits that defines liberal democracy and that forms the grounds for the aesthetic’s claim to political agency. We would like to elaborate further on this point and take a closer look at Sierra’s project, but before we do this, we would like to trace a certain lineage in the development of the notion of art as a means of attaining freedom, especially in its relation to work.

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The fourteenth century heresy of the Free Spirit claimed, or was at least understood to claim by its denouncers, that by forsaking one’s will, one could be united with God’s will and therefore free to act without fear of retribution. But this total freedom, which was admired by the Situationists as a negation of the limits set up by bourgeois society and its hierarchies, required a loss of subjectivity. In his study of modern freedom, The Fear of Freedom (1942), Erich Fromm shows how the same dialectical logic defines Lutheran Protestantism (and vicariously the modern age). In order to break free of the spiritual and material confines of the Catholic church and adopt a truly free worship, one must denounce his or her own free will: For Luther, “only if man humiliates himself and demolishes his individual will and pride will God’s grace descend upon him” [4] . One could be free if all were to become one: the proliferation of wills, earthly or material desires, would hinder pure freedom. Free of sin and the ability to sin, the free spirit could transgress any law.

This mystical ideal of transgression is retained in contemporary notions of artistic freedom. Schiller defined the aesthetic state as the only truly free state of man, as opposed to emotion, which was guided by compulsion, or thought, which was a slave to reason. Liberated from utility – because it has no aims or causes – the aesthetic could provide a suspension of those forces, including the internal will, which impeded freedom: Schiller writes, “for it is certain that beauty gives no separate, single result, either for the understanding or for the will; it does not carry out a single intellectual or moral object; it discovers no truth, does not help us to fulfil a single duty, and, in one word, is equally unfit to found the character or to clear the head. Accordingly, the personal worth of a man, or his dignity, as far as this can only depend on himself, remains entirely undetermined by aesthetic culture, and nothing further is attained than that, on the part of nature, it is made profitable for him to make of himself what he will; that the freedom to be what he ought to be is restored perfectly to him. But by this something infinite is attained. But as soon as we remember that freedom is taken from man by the one-sided compulsion of nature in feeling, and by the exclusive legislation of the reason in thinking, we must consider the capacity restored to him by the aesthetical disposition, as the highest of all gifts, as the gift of humanity”. (Letters upon the Æsthetic Education of Man, Letter 21) [5].

It’s easy to see why the total freedom implied in this understanding of creativity has been seized upon as the end of alienated labour. Throughout the twentieth century, the freedom to be creative has been held up as an ideal, symbolising the end of work, its transformation into a form of freedom. In Fromm’s words, “not work as a compulsive activity in order to escape aloneness, not work as a relationship to nature which is partly one of dominating her, partly one of worship of and enslavement by the very products of man’s hands, but work as creation in which man becomes one with nature in the act of creation” [6]. Nature replaces God in this formulation, but the effect is the same: creativity, which arises from the negation of the will, leads to freedom. However, paradoxically, it is exactly this revolutionary claim for art’s power to liberate that risks undermining its political currency.

The Romantic notion of freedom in the aesthetic state was inherited by the avant garde. Its demand to break the boundaries between art and everyday life promised liberation from labour. From the Surrealists to the Situationists, creativity was enlisted to end the self-enslavement described by Rousseau, as in the words of William Morris: “the aim of art is to destroy the curse of labour by making work the pleasurable satisfaction of our impulse towards energy…” (p.122) [7]. In today’s creative industry, this has perversely been achieved. The transition from manufacture to services to cultural production has brought about a kind of union of art and work, freed of temporal and spatial limitations. Mobile information and communications technologies turn the workplace into a virtual network. We do not mean to say that contemporary labour has achieved the status of a “pleasurable satisfaction” dreamt by the avant garde, but a few noticeable changes in the last couple of decades have altered the space that work inhabits in our culture. Manual labour, fetishised by the national ideologies of Modernism, has been pushed by the logic of late capitalism to remote places. Financialisation has further removed the accumulation of capital from any physical reality reflected in the classic economic equation of production, circulation and consumption. The same deregulated forces have damaged the twin models of the welfare state, which balanced out movements in the labour market, and the ‘job for life’, which has been replaced by an unstable package of short contracts, freelance work, ever longer unpaid internships and more ‘competitive’ labour laws (like the ones that provoked such outrage recently in France). Laptops, Mobile phones and blackberries have extended the realm of work much beyond the ‘home office’ and, as Spanish sociologist Manuel Castles remarks, the space of work is now a vector of the flow of information. eBay cottage industries, myspace promotional specialists, professional on-line gamblers and special-contracted political bloggers are all part of this new paradigm: a fusion of work and play, commerce and hobby, marketing and chatting.

Art has responded to this socio-economic transformation by producing new forms of production, or indeed post-production. Using social interaction, audience participation or collaboration between audiences and institutions rather than objects as their focus, the artists whom Nicolas Bourriaud writes about in Relational Aesthetics (and we do not wish to enter into a more detailed discussion about his inclusions and exclusions here) seem to transcend the boundaries of studio work and gallery display. As Bourriaud himself puts it: “Relational Aesthetics is today's sensibility. Take the Pop Art of the sixties for example and you will see that the common ground was the fear of consumption. Today it totally shifted to the sphere of human relations. This is because we are not living in a production or consumption society today but in an information society” [8] .

But today’s socially engaged art does not represent it’s fears and hopes in relation to the information society, preferring to enact them as participatory scenarios. Claire Bishop has criticised this trend in October magazine, claiming that: “In such a cozy situation, art does not feel the need to defend itself, and it collapses into compensatory (and self-congratulatory) entertainment”. In this context, she contrasted the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija and Liam Gillick with that of Santiago Sierra and Thomas Hirschhorn, whose work, she writes, “acknowledges the limitations of what is possible as art…and subjects to scrutiny all easy claims for a transitive relationship between art and society. The model of subjectivity that underpins their practice is not the fictitious whole subject of harmonious community, but a divided subject of partial identifications open to constant flux. If relational aesthetics requires a unified subject as a prerequisite for community-as-togetherness, then Hirschhorn and Sierra provide a mode of artistic experience more adequate to the divided and incomplete subject of today. This relational antagonism would be predicated not on social harmony, but on exposing that which is repressed in sustaining the semblance of this harmony” [9].

We would like to look more closely at Sierra’s work, though, and suggest that it does more than set up a relational antagonism, and more specifically that the way liberty and labour figure in his work set him even further apart from other ‘relational’ artists. Sierra is famous for such projects as Workers Who Cannot Be Paid, Remunerated To Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes (Kunstwerke 2000), The Wall Of A Gallery Pulled Out, Inclined 60 Degrees From The Ground And Sustained By 5 People (Accesso A, Mexico City 2000) and A Person Paid For 360 Continuous Working Hours (PS1 2000). These and other pieces, in which pointless labour is hired to testify to the conditions of work in the third world and of immigrants’ work within the first supposedly force the viewer to acknowledge the impact of globalisation, taking the logic of late capitalism to an untenable extreme. Sierra himself has compared this type of work to 1970s performance art, to (quoting Sierra) “the physically hard, almost Sisyphean labors of Marina Abramovic and Ulay, who carried endless buckets of stones in a 1978 performance. But Lifted Out Wall takes the idea one step further, because the work is performed by paid employees” [10] .

Such works not only mirror the blurring of labour and other social networks which delineate it, but, more precisely, stand for fundamental changes in the patterns of artistic work: from manufacture to ‘experience’ economies, from studio production to relational aesthetics. These changes are central to the way liberty is defined through Sierra’s artistic practice. The step further that he takes is from showing labour as a kind of return of the repressed, as in the Abramovic and Ulay piece, to establishing his own freedom, his own agency as a subject, through a virtual enslaving of others. According to Rancière’s interpretation of Plato, work is the “impossibility of doing ‘something else’ based on an ‘absence of time’. This ‘impossibility’…establishes work as the necessary relegation of the worker to the private space-time of his occupation, his exclusion from participation in what is common to the community. Thus, if, as Rousseau also insists, people are only truly free when they are employed full time in the discussion and expression of their freedom, then Sierra is supremely liberated by his actions. Free of any representatives, or indeed of the need to represent anyone else, his work functions directly by setting him up as a free man in the Greek sense, his freedom contingent on the lack of freedom in those he is subjecting to work. Instead of illustrating conditions of work, he could be said to be illustrating those of the total liberty discussed earlier, demonstrating that it is not enough to negate one’s own will, but that true creative freedom requires the subjugation of the wills of others. As viewers, we do not experience a gap between the work we are seeing and that which has been hidden away, the real work that has disappeared from our cultural landscape. What we experience is the artist’s liberation: we are citizens like him, free to talk about freedom. The workers themselves become commodities, fetishised stand ins for the spectre of manual labour.

If Sierra wanted to represent the suffering and exploitation of underpaid labourers, the victims of global capitalism, he could easily have painted them, sculpted them or even made a film about them. Instead, he chooses to brand them with a tattooed line to show that there are people willing to volunteer for such humiliation for what little money he offers them (160 Cm Line Tattooed On 4 People 2000 El Gallo Arte Contemporáneo. Salamanca, Spain). This work relies on rejecting such symbolic mechanisms, which would not produce the same kind of total freedom that it does. If the labourers he employs stand in any relation to those the world over, it is that of a synecdoche, a part of a larger whole. In Sierra’s words: “The tattoo is not the problem. The problem is the existence of social conditions that allow me to make this work. You could make this tattooed line a kilometer long, using thousands and thousands of willing people” [11]. The political equivalent of this artistic methodology would be the kind of direct action espoused by various anti-globalisation activists, with which Sierra is often grouped. The author of No Logo, Naomi Klein, writes, “This movement is not, as one newspaper headline recently claimed, ‘so yesterday.’ It is only changing, moving, yet again, to a deeper stage, one that is less focused on acts of symbolic resistance and theatrical protests and more on ‘living our alternatives into being’” [12]. It is this uncompromising desire to live alternatives into being that is implied by Sierra’s work, a rejection of representation that suggests a total freedom, real freedom, exists beyond it. The aspiration towards this total freedom, the end of work (which, in an ideal world, would be extended to Sierra’s employees), sidelines political debate as a negotiation of a multiplicity of freedoms and corresponding limits and boundaries. Or, to quote Rancière, who also writes about Sierra in this context, “this obsession with the real, this feverish will to do or make something that is a solid object, an effective action or a testimony to the state of the world also reflects the singular position of artistic activity in a universe that tends to efface not only the great revolutionary projects but the very forms of political conflict” [13] .

By assuming a privileged position for art, in which one can perpetrate evil without being evil (because it’s just part of the temporary autonomous zone that is art), Sierra affiliates himself with the kind of thinking that made the Free Spirit such a dangerous heresy. It wasn’t the question of whether or not adherents of the cult raped and pillaged that made them so dubious – rather it was the idea that they could transcend their own will to become a-moral, above human morals. Sierra’s work should not be dismissed on ethical grounds (i.e. - “what he does is bad”), as many have written, but the way it actualises the romantic ideal of total freedom weakens the position of art as a critical faculty within the compromised world of Capitalist work relations.

[1] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, The Social Contract, London: Penguin, 2004, p.115.

[2] Rancière, Jacques, The Politics of Aesthetics (Gabriel Rockhill – trns.), London: Continuum, 2006, p. 25.

[3] Zizek, Slavoy, quoted in: Benson, Micheal (dir.), Predictions of Fire, 1996, at: [accessed 5/10/05]

[4] Fromm, Erich, The Fear of Freedom, London: Routledge, 2006, p.65.

[5] Schiller, J. C. Friedrich Von, “Letter 21”, Letters upon the Æsthetic Education of Man, 1795, [accessed 1/10/06]

[6] Fromm, Ibid., p. 225.

[7] Morris, William, Art and Society: Lectures and Essays by William Morris (Gary Zabel – ed.), Boston: George’s Hill, 1993, p. 122.

[8] Lewis, Ben, “Ben Lewis On Relationalism”, in: Your Gallery, [accessed 5/10/06]

[9] Bishop, Claire, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics”, OCTOBER 110, Fall 2004, pp. 51–79.

[10] Sierra, Santiago, “A thousand words: Santiago Sierra - Interview“, in: Art Forum, Oct. 2002 [accessed 5/10/06]

[11] du Bois, Jerome, “Santiago Sierra: The Little Conquistador”, The Tears of Things, July 2003 [accessed 05/10/06]

[12] Klein, Naomi, No Logo, London: Flamingo, 2002, p. 458.

[13] Rancière, Jacques, “Chronicles of Consensual Times” (Suhail Malik – trns.), Beyond Art, Ed. Du Seuil, 2005