Artist & researcher

The act of pollination turned into a task of knowledge production

Starptelpa: Collaborative authorship in performative arts. June 14, 2023. ISSP Gallery, Riga.

Reproductive labour and the arts as a form of unpaid labour.

Today I’m going to start my talk with the argument about productive and reproductive labour. A militant discussion that already began in the late 1960s and was an important part of the early feminist discussions in the early 1970s, especially in the black African-American feminist struggles and especially in the northern Italian industrial and urban feminist labour struggles.

Mariarosa Dalla Costa writes how the militant workerist organization Lotta Feminista, Feminist Struggle or Movimento dei Gruppi e Comitati per il Salario al Lavoro Domestico, Movement of Groups and Committees for Wages for Housework, focused on the capitalist sexual division of labour, which was often completely ignored by the (male) militant workerist and Marxist movements of the 1970s. Dalla Costa writes how the initial focus was on the difference between men being paid for their work in producing goods and women not being paid for the work of producing and reproducing labour power: the unbearable contradiction of an unpaid worker in a wage economy. (Dalla Costa 2015).

It was in 1977 that a new wave of social conflict, challenging fundamental assumptions about class struggle, political forms and the nature of social subjectivity, emerged in many parts of Italy, commonly known as the Workerist or Autonomia movement, which briefly dominated the local revolutionary milieu in Italy and France. It was short-lived and, as Dalla Costa writes, by the end of the year it had retreated into confusion and disorder. In January-April 1977, the Comitato per il Salario al Lavoro Domestico di Padova, the Wage Committee for Domestic Work in Padua, published the last issue of Le operaie della casa, the magazine for domestic workers, which included writings by prominent members such as Mariarosa Della Costa and Leopoldina Fortunati.

They argued that “This movement consists of all the struggles which have always been invisible in the eyes of the left […] It also includes all those struggles that, insofar in as the left recognizes them, it considers acts of counterculture – the lesbian women’s movement, for example.” Fortunati goes to elaborate in detail in her seminal book The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labor and Capital from 1981, and Dalla Costa in several articles throughout decades, most famously in the article Women and the Subversion of the Community from 1972, that they  aim not to describe the anarchist “transformation” of daily life, or attack the “family”  per se because this NO only meant “a complete ‘no’ of money to women,” where both Leninist and anarcho-dadaist – such as the Situationist International,

“they offer us a reheated version of the same old stuff of a ‘new consciousness’ (which, as we know, costs nothing, beyond some small individual effort) – the reorganization of our misery.” (Comitato per il Salario al Lavoro Domestico di Padova, 1977, 13).

Wage labour is the essential and original invention of the capitalist structure of labour; wage labour is based on the subordination of all relations to the wage relation. This means that the worker, as a free labour force, must enter into a contract with capital as an ‘individual’, deprived of the protection of kinship.

Reproduction is separated from production and “reproduction, appears as the creation of non-value. Commodity production is thus posited as the fundamental point of capitalist production.” Therefore the “reproduction now becomes posited as ‘natural’ production,” however, as Fortunati argues, “reproduction is the creation of value but appears otherwise […]  posited as a natural force of social labor”(Fortunati 1995, 8). 

In this way, art, as an autonomous regime, is regarded as a maintenance or reproduction of the mind, or care, with no value. Art, as a regime of creativity, is considered a free or natural process, a natural force of social production that should not cost capital anything.

When we turn that cognitive turn?

In 1996, Paolo Virno, a former activist in the Operaismo movement of the 1970s, wrote about the contemporary condition of cognitive labour as follows “power to enjoy’ is always on the verge of being turned into a labouring task,” and “[m]ass intellectuality is the prominent form in which the general intellect is manifest today.” (Virno 1996, 265-66).

This is what we know today as the turn to knowledge production as the key mode of production. Virno goes on to say, in a manner often quoted in biennial catalogues, that contemporary artists and performance artists have no skills because, “the skills required are not specialized as they were in the industrial division of labour, but general. They are language, affective capacity and memory. Moreover, these skills presume common participation in and a relation to general intellect, where sharing and collaboration become the central labour force and explicit on production.” (Virno 1996, 267).  It goes without saying that Virno was not writing about artists, but about politicians, and in particular about populist politicians.

These skills are part of the general intellect, as Marx wrote in 1858, and are the “immediate organs of social practice”( Marx 1993, 706).  The period from which Virno writes was the height of the IT boom and global market capitalism, where the focus was on this manipulation of memory, sociability and the modulation of our collaborative capacities, both soma and psyche. Yann Moulier Boutang writes how, since the 1990s, there has been a significant shift from the production of jars of honey, as in the industrial factory, to the collaborative ethos and the “act of pollination” (Moulier-Boutang 2011, 164).

The product is inseparable from the producer, as Christian Marazzi argues on the maintenance and affective determination of work (Marazzi 2011, 81). The pollen floats among the subjects, and the value is not in the finished product, but in the intermediate states, in the processes, in the encounters and in the collaboration.

Yet it may be a little shocking to realise that such an informal and ‘general’ intellect has been part of production for much longer. In the late 1960s, when Mierle Laderman Ukeles was a young artist and a new mother, she proposed in her Manifesto! (1969) that she would live in a museum and do the things she normally did in her life, as an artist and as a woman. She wrote: “I am an artist. I am a woman. I am a wife. I am a mother. (Random order). I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc. Also, (up to now separately) I ‘do’ Art.”( Ukeles 1997, 7). I think we can all relate to this, at least to some extent, and make the connection that reproductive labour is not productive in the sense that it creates jars of honey, but that it always remains in-between, like pollen. Like pollen, reproductive labour is often invisible.

What’s in it for me?

For about two decades now, authors such as Clair Bishop have been telling us that the artwork has become a mere asset of speculative ideas or social constellations on the global market. It seems that artwork is nothing more than a social contract for the distribution of value. I apologise for oversimplifying the sophisticated ideas that have focused on the difficult relationship between the artwork and capital, intrinsic value and price.

What I have not quite grasped, even though we have discussed the value of immaterial labour and art at length, is that there is an interesting relationship between the immaterial labour of art and the reproductive labour that is required for the maintenance of art and collaborative practices to exist. This is what feminist thought has been focused on for much longer, as I mentioned earlier. How much different kinds of unpaid labour also take place in order for the immaterial labour of art to exist.

But in the context of today, in contrast to the feminist struggles of the seventies, unpaid labour is not limited to cooking, cleaning, sex and so on, but I would like to propose to think that in the turn of what is often called today the process of financialisation, unpaid labour includes much more. As mentioned in the definition of cognitive labour, which uses the general intellect and affect, unpaid labour includes this. Our assets. They are abilities and capacities, skills and also material or physical. Assets are not the skills of the entrepreneur, but something more primordial.

What financialisation means is that the models and schemes of finance or economics are applied to the non-financial regimes, such as art or reproductive labour. It is a restructuring of the non-financial spheres.

At the institutional level, we can say that almost all the models used in strategic planning in universities come from neoclassical economics or finance. This can be tested simply by asking whether the model or idea is based on the argument that “the market is always right” or “entrepreneurial thinking is more efficient than the ‘bureaucratic’ public sector”. These are all narratives, or as Mariana Mazzucato argues, they are all just stories, but very powerful ones today.

We are all aware of our assets, even if we prefer to call them skills, capacities or abilities. That is, when they are part of our process of unpaid work, in other words when there is no payment or salary involved, that is what they are, just human interaction and creativity. But in the context of knowledge production and distribution, it is no longer so simple. They can be turned into assets, in other words they can be invested in, which does not mean a direct payment or salary, but rather an option that in the future some payment, salary or liquidity may follow. But not yet.

Another important change from the industrial context to cognitive market capitalism is how our vocabulary changes, how the market, in other words financialisation, informs and dictates our desires, affective capacities, thought patterns, feelings and interests. It is transforming our learning environments and communities through a subtle shift in vocabulary. The shift is in the title of my short presentation, from pollination to production – which, to be honest, is only partly true, because in today’s context we should rather use the term knowledge distribution. We are producing less, but distributing more; we are moving from galleries to Instagram streams, as Emily Rosamond argues about social media assetization.

We have become more and more of an individual with a portfolio of assets, as Robert Meister has written about the financialised self, in which “ever-changing exposures to risk and opportunity that must be actively managed over the course of a lifetime in response to inherently uncertain future conditions.”( Meister 2021, xi). We build life portfolios, both abstract and practical, so that we can make better choices and maintain our social credit. We learn to quantify and estimate future changes, to value our collaborative efforts and how we choose our future in education, practice and knowledge distribution. In knowledge distribution, knowledge is an expression of distributed relationships and assets between different agents. More importantly, as it applies to artists, this does not mean payment, at least not yet, but only an option for the future. Today it is unpaid labour.

The price is determined not by what something is worth today, but what might be the price or the change and volatility of the price in the future date of expiry.

Now we collaborate.

What is now understood as financialisation is an activity that uses complex models to quantify a future change in value. Activities such as collaboration, education, research or practice can be placed under such practices, where we estimate how much they involve risk as knowledge production. The models link the future to the present. In other words, if risk is always a narrative, then the future is a narrative. Financialisation is a process that analyses and creates narratives that live on.

In this context, when we work with someone, we assess the risk and trustworthiness of that person. Can we trust them and how much? But in any context we need to assess the responsibility of the person and how risky it might be to participate. But the more we know can also make us more insecure and anxious, and this is one reason why economic and financial models infiltrate our practices, because they teach us, as Robert Meister writes, to become “‘better decision makers’ under conditions of uncertainty”( Meister 2021, 46).

We have learned to adapt better to increasingly anxious and uncertain conditions, we are learning to choose better, to assess future risks better. However, as Meister continues, “the ultimate power that capitalists have in capitalism comes from being in a position to destroy capital markets merely by withdrawing from them, thereby bringing ruin on themselves along with the rest of society.”( Meister 2021, 94). We feel, fearfully, that the future is not in our hands. It is ‘us’ versus ‘them’. We have lost touch with the social nature of finance, economics and the future. How narratives are built and maintained. We have lost sense of purpose.

I see a trap here which is the ‘I’. How do we know, in the advent of the collaborative relationship, how the narrative of consciousness is constructed? How is the ‘I’ produced? What are my needs and what are the needs I did not know I had? What is the drive to become aware, to become visible, to be seen? Where does this choice come from?

I see that these narratives are bound in a contractual nature. The needs become assets of knowledge production. They require care and maintenance. The care of the self is risky. The ‘I’ is a narrative, not a point of view, not an observing eye, but part of the variable and individuating process. The ‘I’ is the essence of employability, the role of the self-assetizing investee.

A crucial aspect of this side of value is the discussion of consent, care, maintenance and needs. Yet how do we know what narratives are being played on us?


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