The Pillow and The Screen
i. Labour // Work
What is labour? For Marx, labour is intricately bound with nature. It is our basic metabolism. The labour of locomotion, respiration and self-nourishment, of our own animal subsistence, brings nature so close that it permeates our bodies and skin. The world’s sensuous vitality forms the material substratum of our consciousness; it resides within our bowels and under our feet. To step back and witness this noise would entail a cessation of labour. But as Marx insists, we labour to belong. As a metabolic process, labour can either reveal one’s purpose through the production of vital activity within a ‘sensuous exterior world’, or it can consign one’s life to production for others, reducing the social agent to a ‘slave’ who only ‘feels herself freely active in her animal functions of eating, drinking, and procreating’. If we reverse these criteria, we see that humankind’s proper ‘species-life’ of free, purposeful activity can only exist after the full substratum of animal functions have been dealt with: we fuck our way to Paradise.
Yes, we labour to survive, but we also labour to flourish. The labour of living, of lifestyle and loves, tips this collective activity over the metabolic scales, into determinate forms of work.
What is work? For the political theorist Hannah Arendt, ‘work is the activity which corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence. Work provides an “artificial” world of things, within its borders each individual life is housed’. Work is protective; it shelters the scared self from a world of unwarranted labour (from the labour of others). At the same time, work is clearly bound up with style. It is a style of being with oneself away from the work of others. We can therefore say that work partitions a world of subjects into a world of houses that face each other in rows. It is anti-political, anti-others. For example:
ii. The Pillow
The feminist and art historian Griselda Pollock writes on the context of the nineteenth century: ‘women were encouraged to ornament every conceivable surface because decoration in itself suggested a refined, tasteful life-style.’ Ornament // surface // decoration // lifestyle. When you line these terms up, what you reach is an infinitely serene and plastic flatness; the kind of flatness that speaks directly to the planar, the canvas, the living room and the wall. What is it about this plastic flatness that so neatly neutralizes and cordons off the practice of women artists at work in the history of art, leaving them speaking to the wall? The clue is in the last designation – lifestyle – which, while conceptually consolidating it’s formalizing antecedents into a pocketable nosegay that may be seen, felt and admired when tea is served (but never thought on), also serves to draw the line between Style and stylisation.
Style squanders and hijacks and breaks the limits of form (even before it has properly surfaced); and all in its race to represent an Idea (any idea). If Style regards the object only fleetingly on its quest of critical invention, the protocols of stylisation quite literally force the practitioner to the ground’s surface (‘Style’ from stilus [Latin] DEF: a stake; a pointed instrument, used by the Romans for writing upon wax tablets). Embroidery epitomises stylisation to the extent that it is ornate, concentrated, mannerist. When holding a pillow up to the afternoon light, you cannot survey: you must scrutinize microscopically. Here, vision itself figures the hand-weary entrapment and social paralysis encoded within embroidery as culture practice. Style is what we remember after the progress of years. But this is only because it is the name that unthinkingly carves up and allocates space for the work of women’s anonymous toil.
My query and desire in writing here, is to find a passage back to the metabolism of labour through the anonymous toil of work. (And by so doing it is not my intention to reclaim embroidery as cultural practice.) Instead, I would like to reconfigure what labour means for us today, by salvaging and separating the cumulative routine of work from its rule of isolation. This means returning to nature (labour’s battery and end). And in order to do that, I must first describe mimesis: a category that pretends to substantiate our desires, by feeding them back through the enveloping (now receding) loop of nature.
iii. (Mimesis) Imitation // Mimicry
Mimesis is an Ancient Greek name that can be split into two related functions: imitation and mimicry. What is their difference? An imitation of nature points to a sympathetic representation of a subject of the world that is also (now, then) not of the world. That is to say, the subject behind an imitation (the embroider) has a narrow jurisdiction, and to try and stretch and expand her range would be wrong. At the same time, an imitation of nature (embroidery) is declaratively not the ‘real thing’ but an approximation. It is, in Hannah Arendt’s language, ‘artificial’.
Mimicry is imitation’s more playful side. To mimic someone is to learn by copying their actions, but it is also to laugh and undo them in the process. Walter Benjamin writes that ‘the mimetic faculty… remains closely tied to the commonplace, sensuous realm of similarity’. What, then, is the difference between forming an imitation and locating similarities?
If an imitation (which I am here linking to the stylized constraints of work) represents the object as an object upon which the sympathetic subject can only reflect, similarity disallows the disinterestedness of judgment, by molecularly qualifying the object against other living things in its radius. The formal task of naturalistic approximation is replaced by the open playing field of proximity. Similarity denotes an animal, labouring cognizance concerned with the attractions and repulsions that exist between separated masses: at no point does it seek to hypostatize what it senses into objects on display. Similarity reveals the object’s inner correspondence to a posited outside, which is tantamount to turning the object inside out, to dissolving its appearance [Schein] into a receptive mass that is not so much a closed harmony within an object as a harmony between the object and the subject. If an imitation presents the object’s perfect harmony with itself, similarity squeezes harmony porously out, into the politically acute, spectatorial spaces that exist between things and subjects. In other words, if an imitation sets the stylistic parameters for the work of the social subject (embroidery or otherwise), it is also a disciplinary tool that decides whom in society is permitted to do what where, in what way, for how long and at what time of day. Mimicry’s play of similarities labours to unlock the artificial housing within which imitation cordons the work of subjects through history.
Returning to the scene of the pillow, I now want to jump forward to the site of the screen, to spotlight and make sense of a labouring mimicry, forceful enough to overturn the work of imitation.
iv. The Screen
The contemporary French artist Camille Henrot recently showed a video installation at the Venice biennale titled Grosse Fatigue (2013; Colour & Sound; 13 mins.). This work is the outcome of a residency Henrot undertook the previous summer at the Smithsonian Institute, in Washington, DC. Grosse Fatigue purports to present the ‘origins of the universe’.
A spoken narrative lilts, quickens and grows tight through a jet stream of enunciations, names, and taxonomies, as it races to ‘tell the story’ behind EVERYTHING. Close your eyes, and you hear in sharp definition the hip-hop beats Henrot’s partner, Joakim Bouaziz, put together in Paris to accompany the presentation. Watching this cluster of images and images of objects pulled from the archives of the institute clutter and unfold within the frame of the artist’s desktop is terrifying. Sexual desire slip through the gaps of the animal kingdom as Henrot intercuts zebras and eggs, mosquitos and palm trees, with lingering close-ups of women and men masturbating in private.
The viewer is left with a strange kind of spectatorship. On the one hand, a menagerie of things, specimens and people are offered up in all their brute familiarity. Countless little slices of the world are quarantined and made available to the foot-weary viewer. This is imitation at work: the kind of doing and making that knows its statutory rights and limitations. A zebra is not an egg; a mosquito might flit past a palm tree but they remain quite different. However, as pop-up windows and tabs recruited from Google and Wikipedia accumulate massively, momentarily emerging in relief one by one – before falling behind one by one – Grosse Fatigue morphs into a pulsating encyclopaedia that splits down the middle and falls sideways. By telescoping faster than the eye can see, this sequence of imitations club together to hijack the form in play and run rings around it. That is, by putting the spectator to work (who by minute seven is only halfway present in minute six), Henrot’s video itself manages to account for every individual neat image (read: stitch) while simultaneously mimicking our inability to keep up. It is like riding a merry-go-round and being laughed at by the stationary operator, who has been sitting there (by the window’s light) all day.
What would be work – the work of imitation – can now realize itself as labour in light of the other’s confusion: because labour always requires an other, even if that other is to be mimicked and made fun of. Where the pillow stiffens and grows heavy through long hours of work, Camille Henrot shows how the screen can relax that weight by drawing the other to you and the other out of you.
The pile-up of JPEGs serially smeared up and down the desktop screen project frontally outward, enveloping the viewer in an animal cognizance that feels like labour (like sex). You are still riding round, quivering with vertigo, but now you are operating the ride too. It is only by submitting ourselves to this hyper-panoply of image; by recognizing the paradoxical co-presence of similarity and difference in my work and your work, that we can move toward renewed forms of labour and living that don’t get caught up in the isolating frame-work of lifestyles that now underpins the post-metabolic world.
This piece originally appeared in SALT: Magazine of Feminism & Contemporary Art, Issue 5: Anti-Work (February 2014)