The Working Life, curated by IMA directors Aileen Burns and Johan Lundh, raises questions about the fraught nature of work and artwork in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. Its complex and urgent interpretation of personal and political crises finds particular resonance in Australia now, six years after the GFC, as the climate of austerity is more acutely felt under present state and federal governments. The exhibition is composed of eight video and performance works made after 2008, which present a cacophony of competing therapeutic methodologies to their viewer. They variously stage psychoanalytic treatment, guided meditation, group therapy, and forum theatre in diverse settings that include an office building and a bookstore. There is a chaotic bleeding of sound between the works that undermines the singularity of their approaches. One can hear the occasional burst of Andrea Fraser’s hysterics in Projection (2008) cut through the calm, commanding voice of the hypnotist in Superflex’s The Working Life (2013). This contributes to its overwhelming sense that no healing direction can be prescribed. The works contain themselves to small-scale social experiments or microcosm crises to reveal fundamental hypocrisies and failures of communication. The exhibition acknowledges the near impossibility of global change, but proposes, as a starting point, that we make effective and affective changes to our critical discourses.
Resistance to resolution is performed in each of the works and is at the core of the exhibition. The one therapeutic method that directly addresses its viewer and prescribes action also stages the absurdity of resolution; Superflex’s hypnotist instructs that we workers lock ourselves in our office bathrooms, striking the system that oppresses us. Its hyperbolic proposition suggests that the complete shutdown of the system, achieved through our collective lack of productivity, is perhaps the necessary break from the efficiency mindset of crisis-causing neoliberal ideology. The Working Life takes its title from the Superflex work and is an incarnation of The Talking Cure, which Burns and Lundh curated at Oakville Galleries in Toronto earlier this year. In their catalogue essay to that exhibition, Burns and Lundh characterise the precarity of our economic and psychosocial situation as the result of a paradigm shift into permanent crisis. They raise concerns elucidated by Andrea Fraser in her 2012 essay “There’s No Place Like Home” about the deeply problematic and imbalanced economic structure of the contemporary art world. Fraser’s essay attributes a crucial significance to the function of art discourse. The language of crisis found in that (including this) discourse is increasingly, explicitly focused on the socio-political dimensions of contemporary art, though it often remains divorced from it. The artists in The Working Life, including Fraser herself, perform their own language of crisis.
In film and literature, humour is frequently adopted as a strategy for coping with trauma. Satire and absurdity pervade the exhibition, though they tend to produce more discomfort than moments of relief. Richard Bell’s Scratch an Aussie (2008) employs black humour in more than one sense of the term – Bell is forced to work as a therapist to fund his contribution to the Sydney Biennale, and is in turn forced to seek counsel himself out of apparent concern for his patients, attractive young Anglo-Australians who tell racist jokes in the comfortable environment of their therapy sessions. The flamboyant style of the video work’s setting—which includes Bell’s Aryan analysands in gold bikinis and budgie smugglers—is crucial to its absurdist humour, and is otherwise in contrast to the rest of the works. On the whole, the exhibition is characterised by stark, structuralist aesthetics, which focus on the mechanics of therapy and speaks to the climate of austerity they were produced in.
It is not only Bell’s work that places the artist in the dual role of provider and receiver of therapy; Andrea Fraser performs in both capacities in her 2-channel video work Projection, as does Penelope McGhie in Melanie Gilligan’s Self-Capital (2010). Stuart Ringholt has also been described, in an essay by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, as “a paradoxical person with traits of both analyst and analysand”[i]. This duality produces a split in the subject that provides rich ground for affective experience. Not only does it contend that art is therapy, it offers a metaphor of artists at work on themselves as commodities. It also stages a situation of mediating discourse that is analogous to the legitimizing discourse artists are required to engage with as part of the trade of contemporary art. Each of these therapy sessions are characterised by their inability to be resolved, signalling a breakdown in communication that can be read as a rejection of productivity and efficiency. In Fraser and Ringholt’s works, the exhibitionism of artist as performer is painfully undercut with unflattering self-exposure. The sacrifice of the artist’s ideal image marks a turn toward affect; their expressions of anger, shame, and anxiety aim toward honest communication with their viewer or co-participant, working against art discourse that colludes in “the distancing of affect and the dissimulation of our immediate and active investments in our field.”[ii]
The experience of discomfort is invoked not only in the dark humour of the works, but also in the way they confront notions of consumption and disgust, and boundaries between the tolerable and the unbearable. This is explored in the representation of the body in Gilligan’s satirical work, which personifies the Global Economy (played by Penelope McGhie) as a middle-aged, middle-class white woman having a nervous breakdown. Economy is referred to a specialist for their “unorthodox body-oriented techniques,” despite the fact that her doctor fears she is untreatable. In a particularly striking scene in the final of the three short episodic works that compose it, Economy pronounces words that are either consumable (“migrant workers”) or ripe for rejection (“contract”) and experiences the visceral effects of each. The incurable state of Economy is perhaps here signified by the breakdown of her speech, which occurs as an inability to process the ethical in language. The fact that this cannot be resolved—like all of the therapies featured in the exhibition—is its crucial offering.
Marianne Flotron’s WORK (2011) appropriates strategies from forum theatre or “theatre of the oppressed” to the unlikely corporate environment of a Dutch insurance company that prides itself on the freedom of its workers. Jesse Jones employs Brechtian methods in The Selfish Act of Community (2012), which re-enacts a group therapy session conducted by the American psychologist Carl Rogers in 1968. Flotron and Jones, as well as Darius Mikšys and Stuart Ringholt in their performance works, contrive a sense of community that is potentially realised through shared affective experience. Mikšys’s work Artists Parents Meetings (2008-ongoing) is premised upon the gathering of strangers, who are arbitrarily connected by the occupation of their children. The limits and conditions of the situations are determined by the artists, but are nevertheless subject to the contingencies of the performances of their participants. The outcome of Jones’s work, which has been predetermined by the transcripts of the original source, is that its participants are emotionally bound together in spite of their cultural, socio-economic and gender differences. The outcomes of the performance works are less clear – the conversation and experiences of the participants remain in the closed circuit of their communities. In WORK, forum theatre facilitator Hector Aristizábalobserves that the free workers are oblivious to the fact that they are oppressed and alienated. Through affective means, these artists “draw the principles of high art closer to a lived life.[iii]”
The Working Life proposes a usefulness for art, therapy, and its discourses that is removed from (but conscious of) the use-value attributed to them in a system of economic exchange. There is a relationship constructed between human productivity and feeling that runs through the exhibition: the trauma of the unproductive subject in Superflex’s video work results in the rejection of the economic model they serve, and the productive insurance company workers in Flotron’s WORK are alienated and apparently unable to recognise the oppression of their environment. Affective experience cannot be read in terms of productivity; rather, it works against alienation experienced in the self and the community. The ethical dimension of the exhibition is found in gestures of belief that are manifested in its therapeutic proposals, which, however uncertain they may be, push past cynicism. To refer to its psychoanalytic frame of reference, there is a Lacanian notion that the dimension of truth emerges in language when we acknowledge the position of lack from which we speak. This unresolvable, untenable place is where The Working Life is symbolically situated and it signifies a turn to a more honest and affective language of crisis. It is one that perceives its limitations, acknowledges that it is inevitably implicated in the situation it criticises, and does not overstate its claims or its effects.
[i]Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, “Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev on Stuart Ringholt”. Artforum 45. no. 5 (Jan 2007), p. 199.
[ii]Andrea Fraser, “There’s no place like home,” Whitney Biennial 2012 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2012), p.33
[iii] Christov-Bakargiev, p. 199