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Poetics of Restructuring
On the question of production in the contemporary section of Manifesta 9.
In his seminal study An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations of 1776, Adam Smith already foresaw that the division of labour would lead to an increase in productivity. Smith argued that the division of labour would prove to be the propelling force for economic growth. However, Smith was also the first to criticise (in the same book) the division of labour by warning that the workers were in danger of becoming ignorant and isolated upon being confined to a single repetitive task. This, in a sense, already foreshadows Karl Marx’s concept of alienation, where the worker is estranged from the product of his labour (Marx 2005). Today we have learned to define the production capacity of workers as ‘human capital’. Through the organised combination of human and physical capital, as well as technological development, huge increases in productivity became possible, while prices could be kept low. And because of the low price per produced item, this low cost production system turned workers into new customers and thus the modern consumer culture was born.
During the early twentieth century Henry Ford can be said to have been the first industrialist to have implemented the division of labour in his automobile factory, where workers were engaged on a production line, performing a single task over and over again. Charlie Chaplin presented the most caustic picture of this - and the consequences Smith had predicted - in his film Modern Times (1936). Production lines are nowadays almost entirely automated, and tasks are performed by high-tech robots, a development which in a sense was foreseen by Chaplin, in a hilarious scene in which a worker is fed lunch by a mechanical device.
At the end of the 20th century post-Fordism has become the dominant system of economic production and consumption. Post-Fordism (also termed Flexibilism), in contrast to Fordism, is predominantly a service industry rather than one that produces tangible objects. It is characterised by small-scale production of specialised goods by expert workers, using new information technology (telecommunications, consumer service, banking, or information technology, for example). Consumer categories are seen as more important than the social class in which they belong.
The cognitive ability of workers, propelled by technological progress, is presently seen as the deciding factor in a nation’s wealth. It is particularly the intellectual class with a high cognitive ability that enables the evolution of capitalism and the rise of wealth (Rindermann and Thompson 2011). Globalisation has enormously enlarged the possibilities to transfer goods, services, money, people and ideas among different countries around the world. The highly developed countries of the Western world take advantage of this by outsourcing their production to developing countries, where labour is cheaper, where unions and collective bargaining are less important, where environmental regulations are less strict and profits for multinational corporations can be much higher (Freeman 2009).
The end of the 20th century has seen a shift from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. In his influential text The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973) Daniel Bell forecasted the post-industrial society. According to Bell the post-industrial society would see a shift from the manufacturing goods to the offering of services. New science-based industries would take a central position, manned by a new technical elite and a new principle of social stratification would emerge as a consequence of the new economy. The service industry’s ‘clean’ forms of work include: trading, banking and finance, information, communication, entertainment, real estate, logistics, security, management and technical consultancy.
Indeed, western societies have left their polluting, smoky, noisy, machine propelled industry behind and moved their heavy industry to the developing countries where wages are lower, trade unions powerless or absent and regulations less stringent or entirely non-existent. But even in developing economies the service industry is booming. In India for example the share of the service industry was already more than 55 % of the gross domestic product in 2007, which defines India more as a developed than a developing nation.
The current financial crisis is having a devastating effect on manufacturing and declining industrial production resulting in increasing factory closures (The Economist 2009). But even prior to that, the shift from the Fordist mode of production to what socio-economist Christian Marazzi has called “stock managerial capitalism” occurred because of “the exhaustion of the technological and economic foundations of Fordism, particularly by the market saturation of mass consumption goods, the rigidity of productive processes, constant capital and the politically ‘downwardly rigid’ working wage” (2011:30). He argues that Fordist capitalism was “no longer able to ‘suck’ surplus value from working class labour” (ibid). In order to increase profits this resulted in lower wages, and attempts to circumvent the unions. The automation and robotisation of entire labour processes, the delocalisation to low-wage countries, the creation of a flexible labour reservoir and the diversification of consumption models did the rest. The very concept of accumulation of capital has been transformed: “It no longer consists, as in the Fordist period, of investment in constant and variable capital (wage), but rather of investment in apparatuses of producing and capturing value produced outside directly productive processes”(ibid 54; emphasis in original). Facebook (and its imminent IPO) would be an apt example.
In light of these developments, the contemporary section of Manifesta 9 has been conceived as a reflection on the question of production and the shifts that have taken place in the post-industrial era. Taking as its point of departure the legacy of mining and the repercussions of industrial capitalism, the contemporary section brings together a tight selection of artistic responses to the changes incurred to the productive system around the world.1 It traces the shift from industrial to post-industrial production, looking into shifting centres and geographies of production, de-industrialisation, economic restructuring of the productive system, and changing conditions of labour, and material production in general. The contemporary section of Manifesta 9 probes the legacy of coal mining and industrialism, its material residues, the ‘imprint’ it has left on the environment and transformations today in terms of work and production, in a world of industrial and post-industrial capitalism, and the new economic and labour conditions that have come with them. The exhibition has been conceived not as a parcours with a linear curatorial narrative but rather as an ‘archipelago’ of individual artistic positions reflecting on a complex web of issues that spring from the practices and effects of and post-industrial production and the economic and social relations these engender.
The questions and issues raised are numerous and complex: a probing into the organisation and workings of mass manufacturing in formal as well as informal economies (Burtynsky, Izquierdo); the repercussions of Fordism on the workforce, the performativity of labour, the question of the ‘usefulness’ versus ‘uselessness’ of work, the problem of alienated labour, and the Sisyphean dimension of repetitive actions of ‘work’ (Furlan, Amorales, Haifeng, Kozakis & Vaneigem, Timmermans); the organisation of systems and patterns of production and the social organisation within these (Shen); the retro-futurist ‘archaeology’ of industrialism, and the collection, display and documentation of the material residues of industrial production Hüner; the sensory and physical recollection of past systems of labour (Maciá, Soi); the historiography or commemoration of the activities of industrial conglomerates, and the question of archiving and memory (Boom); the comparative relationship between ‘making’ and ‘production’ in art as in manufacturing, the concept of work as ‘idea’ or activity in pre- and post-industrial labour, and the question of cognitive labour (Schlingenhoff, Cain); the role of art in modernist industrial utopias (Jitrik, Apóstol); the question of social engineering, the relationship between architecture and industrialism and how the former responded to the collective needs of the social masses (Konrad); the current economic crisis, the plight of workers, and historical precedents (van Lieshout); strategies of survival for those working in taxing conditions (Vega Macotela); the disempowerment of the labour force – female as well as male – and the reactions to this (Monko, Cvijanovi´c); the impact of the demise of industry on communities which have been shaped by and depended on it, its inscription both on the bodies and the landscape of those affected (Karikis & Orlow, Matthys, IRWIN); the cyclical movements of goods and products and the cycles of labour, production, circulation and consumption under globalisation (Jafri); the accumulation of capital, economic neo-colonialism and the quest for new territories necessary for capitalist expansion (Woods, Raqs Media collective); the problem of pollution and the accumulation of waste (Vanden Eynde, Geers); the demise of grandiose visions of Socialist industrialism and progress, their crumbled metaphors of power and their material and often pernicious remains (Claire Fontaine, Selander, Biscotti); the deployment of waste products of coal and their largely unknown and extensive deployment in manufacturing, medicine and the military (Torfs); entrepreneurship, product development, economic restructuring, the marketing of cultural products and the increasingly slippery line between art and business in a capitalist economy (Campbell, Heiremans & Vermeir, Visible Solutions, Tomaszewski); the elusive and codified nature of contemporary capital in the light of virtual and fictitious money and the financialisation of capital (Goldin+Senneby); and finally, a reflection on possible political alternatives in a post-ideological, unipolar world of global capitalism (van Harskamp).
The ‘mining machine’ may have become obsolete in Europe, but it is alive and kicking elsewhere. The dream of ‘clean energy’ remains a remote utopia: coal output is on the rise, and the world is burning more coal than ever before. Despite grave concerns for the environment, the plundering of earth’s natural resources continues, pollution in the developing world is on the rise while in the developed world we are still in denial about its effects, the problem of waste, and destruction of natural biotopes. Responsibility is deferred to later generations. The economy, the financialisation of capital, and the obsession with ceaseless increases in profit have become the primary motors driving politics, economics and those who decide. The demise of communism, which at least in a sense provided a kind of counter-balance to the excesses and inequalities of capitalism, signalled the unabated gallop of the latter, and the demise of social institutions and policies which protected people who are not able to partake, compete in or profit from the capitalist casino. In his timely book The Violence of Financial Capitalism Christian Marazzi warns of the dangers of financialisation and systemic crisis of capitalism which has rendered finance incomprehensible, unmanageable and out of control, and which transforms human beings into fixed capital. Taking sub-prime lending as a leading example he argues that “in order to raise and make profits, finance also needs to involve the poor, in addition to the middle class. In order to function, [this] capitalism must invest in the bare life of people who cannot provide any guarantee, who offer nothing but themselves. It is a capitalism that turns bare life into a direct source of profit” (2011: 40). The principle of profitability is now imposed on society as a whole. This need for growth reinforces social regression and destroys social cohesion. This form of exploitation of the entire corpus of humanity has been termed ‘biocapitalism’. Whereas capitalism once primarily transformed raw materials into consumer goods using machines and physical labour, biocapitalism uses not only the physical qualities of the workers, but the entire person. Striking examples are Facebook and Google, which tap valuable information from users, which can then be used to turn them into willing consumers. This leads increasingly to the marginalisation of paid labour and the valorisation and instrumentalisation of free user labour. With these circumstances in mind, and the increasing disregard for human beings and their social fabric, we might just have reached a tipping point. Capitalism will no doubt continue unabated since there – as yet – has been no vision of a political or economic program that has managed to usurp it. But as the gap between developed and underdeveloped countries seems difficult to close; as once comfortable, democratic societies, particularly in Europe, experience the demise of the welfare state, where social security, education and culture are being cut back; as the banking system becomes increasingly fragile and precarious; as the idea of civil society becomes marginalised in the drive for the privatisation and de-regulation of practically everything; and as questions of national safety and security become pretexts for increasing surveillance and limits on freedom, it is certain that a large segment of the “99%” (Huxley 1947) will experience grave social and economic circumstances in years to come.
One thing is for sure: we will not be able to eat our iPhones nor find comfort on Facebook unless there is a fundamental move away from the complacency for which we are responsible.
Contrary to the inflationary tendencies of recent biennials - too many artists, too many locations, too few resources spread too thinly - the curatorial team of the contemporary section decided to opt for a smaller number of artists, and a close working relationship during the development of each artist’s project, with a focus on a specific question: that of production and productivity, as outlined above.
Aldous Huxley responded in a letter of 21 April 1947 to a request by his brother Julian, Director-General of UNESCO, for his comments on the proposed Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “(...) think of what ninety nine percent of the human race want – food, shelter, a secure family life and to be left alone by bosses and busybodies. Unfortunately the one percent who are interested in power and ideals and ideologies are the ones who call the tune.