David Teh on 5 Mar 2001 05:19:28 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] work works in nyc

work works in NYC
review for <nettime> by david teh

Two exhibitions currently showing in MoMA’s New York complex demonstrate the 
peculiar status of "work" in New Economic America.  They stand at opposite ends 
of the faded spectrum of labour discourse.  The installation (‘Person Remunerated 
for a Period of 360 Consecutive Hours’) and video-catalogue of works by Mexico-
based artist Santiago Sierra, upstairs at PS1 in Long Island City, are a 
testament to the severe marginalization of labour concerns in public discourse 
today.  Meanwhile "Workspheres", at MoMA-proper, is a blithe and irredeemable 
servant of this very marginalization.  

In an era when so few real-world spaces remain open for commentary or critique of 
the organization of labour under late capitalism, and where workforces are so 
splintered by the legal taxonomy of corporate justice, at PS1 issues a cry from 
the sidelines.  For many years, Sierra (b.1966) has staged happenings in which 
workers – often young, unemployed men from underprivileged communities in Latin 
America – are hired for a pittance to perform simple or repetitive tasks.  The 
amount of ‘remuneration’ is always disclosed, the work recorded on video.  
Sitting in a box, holding up a gallery wall, even riding around in a bus, the 
subjects’ participation documents, with a formal directness seldom encountered in 
contemporary art, the paltry exchange value of work in the labour diasporas of 
the developing world.

Sierra’s works, minuets in political minimalism, resound with a clarity and a 
bluntness that we have come to associate with certain forms of radical protest.  
Informed more by the tradition of Arte Povera than by Courbet, there is nothing 
classical or timeless, no nostalgic stoicism, to these studies.  The labour 
depicted is transient, anonymous, dispensable.  It is clearly subject to the 
arbitrary temporality of scheduled exploitation.  These are works about work, in 
work – real-time sculptures, as it were, fashioned in the medium of labour.  Yet 
despite their brutal eloquence and rigorous formal regimen, they are hardly 
moving as ‘art’; their formal simplicity is coupled with a conceptual economy 
that precludes any deep aesthetic experience.  Any such depth would detract from 
the urgency and primacy of the message.  But it is indeed worrying that this 
bluntness, and the spaces of art themselves, need to be thus employed; that the 
inequalities being depicted are so poorly exposed in the media-sphere that it 
should be necessary to enlist rarefied gallery-art in the cause.

It is necessary, because out in the real world the image of labour has been so 
thoroughly twisted, spun and airbrushed as to be completely unrecognizable, even 
to the educated ‘knowledge-worker’ as he clamours to market, CV attached, no 
longer seeking employment so much as shopping (on-line) for a job.  And nowhere 
is this image more airbrushed than at MoMA’s Manhattan headquarters, where the 
pallid "Workspheres" exhibition has been installed.  Here is work tarted up to 
look like Hollywood Future-Exploration - labour in drag.

According to its free pamphlet, this exhibition "presumes that while our work 
determines our lives, in the future our lives will be able to shape the way that 
we work."  This is a mighty and loose presumption indeed, and illuminates the 
thin line separating one sort of presumption from another, less mindful sort.  
We’ve become roundly desensitized to this confused IT-ological cacophany - the 
nefarious union between lifestyle porn and technology fetishism - spread thickly 
as it is in service of daily commerce.  We are less accustomed, perhaps, to 
hearing it from the esteemed guardians of (official) modern art.

With this dreadfully disappointing show, reminiscent of the Guggenheim’s gleaming 
Motorcycle Showroom (1998), MoMA invites some overdue scrutiny of its charter and 
raison d’etre.  It would be a shame to have to demand of an institution which, 
like this one, had a proud record of enshrining design excellence in the temple 
of fine art, that it revert to hanging oil paintings alone.  But we will if this 
is the sort of flaccid, mercantile showcase they are going to serve up every time 
there’s a lull in the global parade of modernist Masters.

The pamphlet, complete with simulated coffee-stain (powered by Starbucks?) begins 
with the chief Fanciful Premise of this show – "nomadic work" – the gullible and 
embarrassingly credulous assumption that thanks to technology and 
decentralization, work is becoming heroically individualized, and therefore 
miraculously liberated from the tyrannies of workaday corporate environments, 
their values, architectures and accoutrements.  This is a flimsy basis for an 
exhibition supposedly devoted to labour, and the pamphlet utterly fails to 
conceal what the show is – a Great Pornographic Exhibition of Techno-Fetishism – 
composed of six 5-minute, walk-thru advertorials designed (to the more paranoid 
mind) chiefly to distract the new professionalized proletariat from its own 

The document reads and looks far more like a catalogue for The Sharper Image than 
a ‘museum catalogue’.  If one could possibly overlook the scores of casual 
product placements (bic, Apple, FedEx), endorsements and registered trademarks 
that punctuate its pages, then the congenial sterility of its language should be 
convincing enough – this in its rhapsody to the wonders of worker-mobility:

"A portable computer integrated with a cellular phone and operated from a seat on 
a train to Boston, for instance, is enough to generate an efficient worksphere.  
With a little help from design – such as a foldable handkerchief screen and 
keyboard – this setup can become as efficient as an office desk in New York, and 
may even be more conducive to inspiration."

As if the inspiration were not obvious enough, of a Communicating Scarf (care of 
France Telecom), complete with phone, keyboard and screen; of a chair that 
changes colour to match the user’s trousers; and how better to assert control 
over your work-hours than with the ingenious Bed-in-Business (powered by IBM), 
with screens built into its ‘adjustable foot’ and (I shit you not) "loudspeakers 
embedded" in the pillows.  This last idiotic fixture recalls a long lineage of 
hare-brained futurism, Utopias all but forgotten, and bad Irish jokes about 
things like Underwater Alarmclocks.  And it eloquently proclaims, moreover, 
MoMA’s atrocious dereliction of curatorial integrity in the pursuit of corporate 

Perhaps the only gesture in Workspheres worth the MoMA admission price were the 
"h!bye nomadic worksphere seeds", a piece of conspicuously un-American irony from 
Spanish designer Marti Guixe.  These were a variety of ‘edible and non-edible’ 
pills, each a tongue-in-cheek prod at the jingoisms of post-geographical 
convenience: "Feel Comfortable Everywhere" was a portable arsenal of spices, 
amulets against generic cuisine, sorted by continent.  (Bearing only the most 
incidental relevance to ‘work’, these would have been more resonant among the 
paperbacks and vending machines of airport terminals, or better still issued by 
US Customs on arrival.)

I would not wish to detract from the ingenuity or accomplishments of any of the 
featured designers.  The problems with this exhibition are institutional, 
curatorial, directorial – in a word, corporate.  Under the pretext of a focus on 
work, this was a paltry buffet of leftovers from the future, a labour-less, 
Utopian feast of sign-capital.  What little intellectual work went into the 
arrangement of this pathetic show was in vain.  At least the fruitless labour 
served up by Sierra was tabled knowingly.

Santiago Sierra, Person Remunerated for a Period of 360 Consecutive Hours
@ PS1, Long Island City, Sept. 17 – Nov. 2001

Workspheres (curated by Paola Antonelli)
@ the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2nd floor galleries Feb. 8 – Apr. 22, 2001


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