TO BE or TO ACT
Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg
Recently there was a news article recounting a recent scientific experiment about gene modification in monkeys that made lazy monkeys work harder. According to the researchers, monkeys work harder at a task — and were better at it — when a key brain compound, dopamine, was blocked. Like humans, monkeys tend to wait until the last possible minute to finish up their work, and become very adept at estimating how long they have. Dopamine, a message-carrying chemical associated with rewards is the key to this kind of perception. The scientists used a genetic technique to block the D2 gene, which makes a receptor for dopamine. Because of the gene knockdown, a remarkable transformation in the monkeys work ethic was observed. Without the dopamine receptor, the monkeys that would normally slack off initially in working toward a distant goal would consistently stay on-task and make fewer mistakes because they could no longer learn to predict how their work was going to get them a reward.
In the same week, a recent best seller in France made news (possibly because the author was being brought up on disciplinary charges by her employer — the states Electric company) with a book titled "Hello Laziness — The art and importance of doing the least possible in the workplace". The book is basically a call to middle managers of the world to rise up and slack off.
The 10 commandments of idleness in the book read as follows:
1 You are a modern day slave. There is no scope for personal fulfillment. You work for your paycheck at the end of the month, full stop.
2 It's pointless to try to change the system. Opposing it simply makes it stronger.
3 What you do is pointless. You can be replaced from one day to the next by any cretin sitting next to you. So work as little as possible and spend time (not too much, if you can help it) cultivating your personal network so that youre untouchable when the next restructuring comes around.
4 You're not judged on merit, but on whether you look and sound the part. Speak lots of leaden jargon: people will suspect you have an inside track.
5 Never accept a position of responsibility for any reason. You'll only have to work harder for what amounts to peanuts.
6 Make a beeline for the most useless positions (research, strategy and business development), where it is impossible to assess your contribution to the wealth of the firm. Avoid on the ground operational roles like the plague.
7 Once you've found one of these plum jobs, never move. It is only the most exposed who get fired.
8 Learn to identify kindred spirits who, like you, believe the system is absurd through discreet signs (quirks in clothing, peculiar jokes, warm smiles).
9 Be nice to people on short-term contracts. They are the only people who do any real work.
10 Tell yourself that the absurd ideology underpinning this corporate bullshit cannot last for ever. It will go the same way as the dialectical materialism of the communist system. The problem is knowing when . . .
We thought that it was interesting to put these 2 attitudes of work up against each other and mix in the idea of happiness, in that many of our present day notions about labor (and jobs in general) try to balance a sense of personal and emotional fulfillment that a job offers.
The idea that "labor" might in-and-off-itself offer a sense of happiness or fulfillment has not always been the case. Greco-Roman civilization tended to view work as a chore best left to slaves, while fulfillment could be reached by the wealthy — who could freely devote themselves to the contemplation of ethical and moral questions (i.e. philosophy and politics) — elevating these pursuits to what we now consider as the "ideals" of that culture.
Similarly, Early Christianity took a bleak view of labor — in that man was "condemned" to toil and suffering to make up for the sin of Adam. Labor was considered a burden and punishment, where labor conditions could not be improved.
Not until the Renaissance was a more cheerful attitude toward work detected. Artisans, merchants and entrepreneurs would be celebrated for having pursued a path of authenticity and glory through their labor. Artistic labor could allow one to transcend the ordinary limitations of our everyday lives.
Finally, capitalism and Marx brought the idea of worker happiness in direct conflict with labor (or as he pointed out — worker dissatisfaction or alienation — with labor) and spurred the idea of "artist hero" as dissenter, saboteur or thief. An agitator whos not interested in "working for the man", and whos materials and practice often reflected that attitude. For example Duchamp and the Ready Made, Situationists and later, the practice of appropriation.
Presently, the perception of an artist (as defined through the lens of labor) might lie somewhere between the Renaissance ideal of the artist as craftsman and the agent provocateur of modernism. It's with this in mind that we thought it an interesting pairing to have this monkey gene therapy butt up against the disobedience of "Hello Laziness".
It is interesting that as prevalent as the art of appropriation has become over the years (consider for example how much sampling is done in the music industry or the use of found footage in film), from a lay perspective, craft retains a moral high ground by which art is often measured.
We think that there is an opportunity between the tradition of craft and the apparent slacker model of appropriation that allows for some interesting art. But, as working artists, the idea of labor is central. There is a word: praxis — which is derived from the Greek verb meaning "to do" or "to act". And the idea of being an artist is to get something done. Make it, show it, get it out there. This is where the gene therapy would be really handy.
We have noticed, through out our years of collaboration that there is a sort of pattern to our practice, which is that we will get very excited about a project or an idea when we are initially talking about it. And then we have to start making it. Which is all fine and well, but sometimes, we have bigger eyes than our bellies and we will get working on a piece and it starts getting boring and the end seems really a long way off. On the flip side, as we get closer to finishing it, we start working harder and get all excited.
What caught our attention with the gene therapy research in the first place was the possible wish to maybe have our dopamine blocked while we were in that middle phase of making something where it was dull and boring and seemed to take forever. We were thinking, wouldnt it be great to be working on this project — for example, weaving the screen for the half stack, which was proceeding at an excruciatingly slow pace of three inches every day, to feel like we were just around the corner from finishing it when in reality, we were calculating that it was going to take another three solid weeks of weaving.
At the same time however, all that labor — the repetitiveness and familiarity with working with the material over long periods is what in a sense is the "craft" that we have developed with the material. For example, figuring out that we might be able to bend the material instead of carving the curves in it. Figuring out a jig to cut the cords instead of doing each one individually. Through out — the hands-on process and time spent with the material has opened up possibilities to try new things with it, and to new possible projects.
The French Social Anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu describes a field or a graph that plots economic capital along a vertical axis and cultural capital along a horizontal axis. The graph indicates that those with occupations at the bottom of the economic capital scale usually work with their hands while those at the top tend to be paper pushers. The Artist is in the unique position of being able to roam freely in this graph. To simultaneously occupy a position with high economic and cultural capital while toiling in the means of production used by workers of limited economic and cultural value.
As artists in this day and age, we can see how artists have exploited these different approaches to labor to fabricate work, for example, In the most recent Whitney Biennial, Maurizio Cattalan contribution to the show consists of a museum label that implies that his piece was buried in the floor of the museum. Basically, he is toying with the viewers expectation of being gratified with some form of demonstrated labor or work. His piece is nothing other than a piece of paper on a wall with some text. It operates in a field of labor predominated by executives and upper civil servants. Similarly, Tom Friedman, hung a blank piece of paper on a gallery wall. The materials used — according to the checklist — are 1000 hours that he spent staring at that piece of paper. It shows that the artist is in the privileged position of being able to navigate between both craft and concept and that there is already enough historical precedent that in a sense puts pressure on both in any given artistic practice.