It's that time of the year again! The merry days of the Design Interactions graduation show. The final projects are as different from each other as possible and the first work in my short series of RCA posts deals with what The Guardian calls the serious business of creating a happier world. Happiness, it turns out, is no longer just the desire of the individual, but of governments and legislative bodies. In 2011, the UN Resolution 65/309 encouraged member states to measure happiness and countries are now ranked according to the happiness of their citizens. Which 3 years later, sounds as weird as ever.
In her scenario, not only is the happiness of a UK town closely monitored and assessed but active measures are also taken to almost enforce happiness upon its inhabitants.
That town is Blackburn which the Office for National Statistics declared in 2013 to be one of the least happy cities in the UK.
As you can see in the video below, men in suit convene in a London office and draw up a series of measures to turn a miserable and distant town into a cheerful one. People get tax discount if they wear yellow and skip gaily down the streets, etc. Even the name of the place is changed from Blackburn to Yellowburn.
Smile, The Fiction Has Already Begun (video)
Although as individuals we may each wish to be happy, when our emotions become an indicator of government 'success', where might this attempted control over our emotions end, and at what price? This project aims to question the motivations behind this global legislative trend of focusing on happiness, which in its essence is immeasurable.
Does the government want me to feel happy, or are there other, greater, unspoken reasons for their focus on my emotions? This project aims to raise a discussion about these intentions by speculating about a future city, Yellowburn, in the north of England.
A few questions to the designer:
Hi Zoë! The focus of your project is the city of Blackburn which was declared one of the unhappiest places in the UK. Do you know how this level of unhappiness was measured?
Happiness is no longer just the desire of the individual, but of governments and legislative bodies; countries are ranked according to the happiness of their citizens and happiness is starting to be positioned as a better measure of 'success' than GDP.
As to how Blackburn was classed as one of the least happy places: the ONS (Office of National statistics) conduct an annual survey, including four questions which create what is commonly referred to as The Happiness Index. The questions are:
- How happy did you feel yesterday?
When I was working on this project the data showed that Blackburn, Newport, Stoke-on-Trent and Inner London were among the least happy places in the UK, but the lists of the happiest and unhappiest places often change when new data is announced.
Why did you select Blackburn rather than any other unhappy places?
In this speculative project, Blackburn felt like the kind of place that the Government would select for the trial run of these new happiness proposals. It's up north, it's not too large nor too small, and it's in need of regeneration. Also, although economically Blackburn is now struggling, it was one of the first industrialised towns in the world, and so it seemed apt that it should be the first place to have these happiness proposals implemented and lead the UK into a new, happier, era.
The Investor Document explores the profit potential of happiness. Could you elaborate on that and also tell us if there is any existing political or scientific research on that topic? Is the level of people's happiness already valued as an economical asset?
The research shows that happier people are more agreeable, more healthy and more productive. Therefore, happier people are more beneficial to the economy, as they cost less in policing and healthcare, and create more profit for companies.
Having interviewed Dawn Snape, head of the department at the ONS which carries out the Happiness Index, she admits that they do not know, when asking people about happiness, what it is that they are really measuring, and that the results vary according to who asks the questions, whether the questions are asked in person or over the phone, and so on. Yet, countries are being ranked on this data, UN resolutions have been passed which encourage the measuring of happiness, and happiness is being positioned as a measure of 'national success'. However, with happiness being in its essence immeasurable, for legislative trends to be based on such an immeasurable factor seems to me to be absurd. I would question therefore the motivations for this global focus on happiness - is it just that our politicians want us all to feel happy and good, or is it that they want us to be more agreeable, more easily controlled and more profitable? This project aims to raise a discussion about these intentions.
In my research for the project I met with lawyers to try to determine whether a legal definition of happiness could be created, and therefore whether we could be more precise as to what was being measured - it was in this meeting that I was introduced to the term 'mere puff', which is basically that you can say something which is not believable and therefore you can say it without being held to it. Mere puff is what allows advertisers to make claims like 'open happiness' (coke) which is obviously nonsense. In my project politicians are also able to make certain claims about happiness which are absurd (which i see happening in current politics too!)
In your scenario, people are taxed for wearing black, sent to therapy when they look too gloomy, etc. Why are the measures taken to ensure that the population of Yellowburn is happy so authoritarian?
In this speculative project, in order to climb up the Happiness rankings, the UK Government targets one of its least happy cities, Blackburn, and bans NonHappiness in public places by implementing a number of proposals (one of which is changing its name from Blackburn to Yellowburn as black is the colour of insecurity and fear, whereas yellow is the colour of happy, sun and fun).
The proposals for Yellowburn were all based on research but I wanted to balance fact and fiction and so chose proposals which best worked to highlight the absurdity of measuring something as vague and changing as happiness. In order to measure something one needs to know what one is measuring. It is for this reason that in this speculative future, happiness is defined quite neatly and peoples behaviour can therefore be analysed as to whether it fits the new definition of Happiness. In this way the data gathered can show the UK to be happier, and thus push the UK up the global happiness rankings.
Other proposals include FRCCTV (Facial recognition CCTV) which tracks the happiness of residents by their smile and body language and rewards 'happy' residents with tax credits, and punishes nonhappy residents with tax penalties and escorting them off to the Y-Districts for various therapies. Another proposal was the tail-wagging cat, which becomes a symbol of Yellowburn. Most people feel happy when they see a dog wagging its tail; the thinking of politicians was therefore that cats should also be trained to wag their tails, so that we would feel happy when we see them wag their tails too.
Let's talk about that therapy. Any citizen who doesn't adopt a happy behaviour is escorted to the Y-District. What happens there?
These Y-Districts would have a range of therapies including CBT, NLP and Psychotherapy. People would also be coached on how to smile better and have body language training to appear happier. There is a cost to the resident for attending the Y-Districts, but attendance is not optional. This cost serves as another deterrent for a resident to exhibit any NonHappiness in public places.
When i talked to you during the press view, you seemed to doubt the sagacity of positioning happiness 'as a better measure of a nations success than GDP.' Why so?
The pursuit of happiness is accepted as a good thing almost without question. This project aims to be the question, one which I think is very much needed to be more audible in our minds. The pursuit for happiness has been raging for centuries despite the fact that we each experience the reality of emotions as rising and passing away. Yet today, scientific research into methods to rid us of unwanted emotions is attracting financial resources from around the globe and the possibility of removing unwanted feelings is fast becoming a reality; this project aims to help people pause, think and feel what the costs of such advancements might be.
I feel that positioning happiness as a measure of success of a country, although it sounds great and lovely at first glance, is ultimately rather dangerous. Once our emotions are important to the government in terms of their world standing and respect from other nations, these emotions are then rife for manipulation and control. We already live in a society where happiness is the 'correct' way to be, where happiness is encouraged, where brands sell to us promising us happiness, where anxiety is treated with drugs, where transhumanists dream of a future where we won't have to feel any negative emotions. For me, happiness is just one emotion, and other emotions should be equally as respected. I wish we would place more value on emotions such as melancholy, as for me they have always been present in my life and I think they need to be listened to more, rather than swept under the carpet or otherwise disregarded.
I should point out that this speculative project is aimed to create debate around the consequences of ranking nations according to happiness, rather than be seen as a reality of a future.
Has anyone from Blackburn reacted to your project, either while you were there filming or later on?
I am very grateful to the residents of Blackburn who I met: they were all extremely friendly and very kind and patient while the filming was going on. Each film is a 3.5 minute continuous steadicam shot - doing rehearsals and then take after take through the back alleys and wasteland of Blackburn with the steadicam rig certainly attracted attention from local residents and a reporter from the local paper came down to find out what we were doing.
Although the data shows the residents of Blackburn as being amongst the least happy in the country, this was not my experience, which perhaps further highlights the difficulty of measuring happiness and adds to the debate as to what it is that we are really measuring.
Could you also remind me of the golf tournament in Newport story? and its impact on the happiness of the town?
Perhaps ironically, the ONS is based in Newport, which is one of the least happy places in the UK alongside Blackburn. So when I visited Newport I interviewed residents about their (lack of) Happiness. Time and time again I was told the story of how, when the owner of Celtic Manor (a golf course just outside Newport) wanted to bring the Ryder cup there, he lobbied to turn the town into a city. This new city status brought with it increased council rates and business taxes, which people could not afford. Coupled with a large retail park opening up outside the town, the town centre saw a decline in business and many of the residents attributed the unhappiness of the people of Newport to this event - one man wanting the Ryder Cup to come to his golf course.
Is the UK government taking measures at the moment to make the nation happier?
David Cameron introduced the measuring of Happiness, and government departments now consider happiness when making decisions. Recent data showed the UK to be in 22nd place in terms of happiness, but just this morning (19-june-14) new data shows that the UK is now ranked in 11th place - a jump of 11 places. I find these statistics fascinating and absurd in equal measure.
Are you planning to push the project any further?
This was the final project of my MA at RCA, and I will continue to work on design projects in this subject area.
You can check out the works at RCA Show 2014 until 29 June.
I spent the weekend in Eindhoven for Age of Wonder, a festival which turned up to be even more exciting and engaging than its name promised. I'll get back with images and posts later but right now i felt like blogging my notes from Nick Bostrom's keynote about Superintelligence. Bostrom is a Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy at Oxford University and the director of The Future of Humanity Institute. He talked about the ultra fast pace of innovation, hazardous future technologies, artificial intelligence that will one day surpass the one of human beings and might even take over our future.
Bostrom is worried about the way humanity is rushing forward. The time between having an idea and developing it is getting increasingly shorter. This gives less space to reflect on the safety of innovation. Bostrom believes that humans cannot see the existential danger this entails. If the future is a place where we really want to live, then we will have to think in different and better-targeted ways about ourselves and about technological developments.
Bostrom's talk started on a high and slightly worrying note with a few words on existential risk. An existential risk is one that endangers the survival of intelligent life on Earth or that threatens to severely destroy our potential for development. So far, humanity has survived the worst natural or man-caused catastrophes (genocide, tsunami, nuclear explosion, etc.) but an existential catastrophe would be so lethal that it would ruin all future for all mankind. An analogy on an individual scale would be if you find yourself facing a life sentence in prison or in a coma you don't wake up from.
So far we've survived all natural catastrophes but we need to beware of anthropogenic risks. New technologies haven't yet managed to spread doom. Nuclear weapons, for example, are very destructive but they are also very difficult to make. Now imagine if a destructive technology was easy to make in your garage, It could end in the hands of a lunatic who plots the end of human civilization.
Potentially hazardous future technologies such as machine intelligence, synthetic biology, molecular technology, totalitarism-enabling technologies, geoengineering, human modification, etc. had not been invented 100 years ago. Imagine what might emerge within the next 100 years.
So if you care about the future of human civilization and if your goal is to do some good, you need to look at how to reduce existential risk. You would need to influence when and by whom technologies can be developed. You would need to speed up the development of 'good' technologies and retard the development of others such as designer pathogens for example.
How does this play out with a rise of machine intelligence which could result in Super Intelligence?
Machine intelligence will radically surpass biological intelligence (even if it is enhanced through genetic selection for example) one day. Experts find it difficult to agree on when exactly machines will reach the level of human intelligence. They estimate that there is 90% probability that human level artificial intelligence might arise around 2075. Once machine intelligence roughly matches human's in general intelligence, a machine intelligence takeoff could take place extremely fast.
But how can you control a Super Intelligent machine? What will happen when we develop something that radically surpass our intelligence and might have the capability to shape our future? Any plan we might have to control the super intelligence will probably be easily thwarted by it. Is it possible to have any gatekeeper that/who will make sure that the artificial intelligence will not do anything detrimental to us? The Super Intelligence would probably be capable of figuring out how to escape any confinement we might impose upon it. It might even kill us to prevent us from interfering with its own plans. We should also think about any ultimate goal that a Super Intelligence might have. What if its own goal is to dedicate all the resources of the universe to producing as many paper clips as possible?
How can we build an artificial Super Intelligence with human-friendly values? How can we control it and avoid some existential risks that might arise down the road?
The forms of artificial intelligence we are familiar with can solve one problem: speech recognition, face recognition, route-finding software, spam filters, search engines, etc. A general artificial intelligence will be able to carry out a variety of challenges and goals. How can we male sure that it learns humanly meaningful values?
A couple of weeks ago i spent the day at the Dana Center in London for First Person Plural: The cult of the photographer and the culture of social media, a symposium hosted by The Science Museum in collaboration with Film and Video Umbrella.
First Person Plural accompanied the final days of Only in England: Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr, the first exhibition of the Science Museum's brand new Media Space. The conference briefly paid homage to the legacy of Tony Ray-Jones, who chronicled the social rituals of the English in the 1960s, which he feared were at risk of disappearing with Americanisation.
In the increasingly globalised world of the early 21st century, are there equivalent expressions of cultural identity, or equally idiosyncratic social rituals and behaviours, that modern life seems to be passing by - and who are the contemporary artists and photographers who are recording them? Or, taking our cue from new technology, should we turn this question the other way round? In the age of the 'selfie' and social media, might it be the figure of the Photographer, as observer and recorder of social change, that is becoming passé, destined to be replaced by a new type of collective 'portrait' formed from the aggregation and analysis of big data?
The symposium looked at the impact that current technologies and social media have on the roles, image and identity of the photographer. Some of the highlights of the day included Natasha Caruana explaining how she met with married men in search of an extra-marital affair and documented fragments of their restaurant encounters using a disposable camera, writer and lecturer Julian Stallabrass reminding me how much i love Martin Parr's work (though i'm pretty sure that wasn't Stallabrass' objective) and a talk by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin whose work i've been following with enthusiasm since i discovered it At Strozzina in Florence a few years ago.
My notes from the events are going to be limited to Broomberg & Chanarin's talk because they highlighted valid points about notions of authorship, about the perception that technology is 'neutral', but they also exposed how representation is complicit in events, not only documenting them but being actually involved in them.
One of the first projects they discussed what the Afterlife series which reconsiders a photograph taken in Iran on 6 August 1979 by a very young Iranian photographer called Jahangir Razmi. Taken just months after the revolution, the image records the execution of 11 blindfolded Kurdish prisoners by a firing squad. This is the kind of photo that wins prestigious awards, like the World Press photo prize. And indeed it won the Pulitzer Prize award. But why is an image like this so beautiful and alluring? Broomberg and Chanarin found and met Razmi and discovered that he had taken many more pictures of the dramatic moment. They looked at Razmi's 27 other frames and dissected them in an attempt to deconstruct the moment. For example, each time the prisoner blinded appeared on an image, they isolated him and included him in a collage which aim was to stop the emotional response triggered by the original image. The collage revealed also the mechanical movement of the photographer around that event.
The deconstruction and reconstruction of the image was inspired by Razmi's answer to the question "What is your favorite film?" He answered that his favourite film was a film that hasn't been made: a film of the assassination of Kennedy but taken from multiple angles.
Next, Broomberg and Chanarin also explained the importance of chance in photo reportage. For example, Robert Capa's iconic photo of The Falling Soldier was an accident. Capa didn't even look through the lens, he held the camera up and clicked on the shutter. It truly was an accidental image.
B&C illustrated chance in photography with the project The Day Nobody Died, a work made while they were embedded within the British army in Afghanistan. Once there, they turned a military vehicle into a dark room. Each time an important event happened, the duo took up photographic paper and exposed it to light and then put it back in the box. The result doesn't reflect in a figurative way the events that Broomberg & Chanarin were supposed to document in Afghanistan.
The works questions the viewer's expectation from the proxy, the photographer who goes off to the war or to the scene of natural disasters to act as a witness, record and show it to to the public. How much do the images he produces have to be figurative to act as a piece of evidence of the events?
The piece of photographic paper they took to Afghanistan was there. It did go on a journey and, abstract or not, it stands in for this notion of the witness.
A fascinating point the photographers made was to question the assumption that there is an inherent neutrality to the technology of photography. They illustrated it with a couple of projects. The first responds to the photo of a woman called Shirley. When employees of professional photo laboratories calibrate the printing machine every day, a piece of paper comes out and it comes with various shades of grey to black, then the picture of a lama appears and finally, the picture of a woman. The woman is Shirley. In the beginning of colour films, the Kodak corporation photographed one of the workers, Shirley, and sent the picture out with the word 'normal' as the normal print for caucasian skin. Jean-Luc Godard refused to use Kodak, he called it racist.
Right after the end of segregation in the USA, black and white children started to sit side by side in the same class. Kodak's range was so limited that it was at the time impossible to take a photo of a black and white child in the same frame. It was just a basic limitation of way film had evolved and that's what Godard regarded as racist. Kodak didn't respond to the problem until 2 of their biggest clients, the furniture industry and confectionary industry complained and lobbied Kodak because they were unable to photograph the various nuances of wood and chocolate.
When Broomberg and Chanarin were invited to a ludicrous mission to document Gabon for two weeks, they went on bay and collected unprocessed 'racist' films which they used in Gabon. They only produced one picture. It is pink (because the green pigment is more stable.)
From there, the photographers became increasingly interested in the idea that a camera or a piece of films could somehow embody ethical ideas, that a piece of technology wasn't ethically neutral. The collaboration of Polaroid with South Africa's Apartheid State is a clear evidence of this.
Polaroid developed for the apartheid government the ID-2 camera that was used to produce the pass book picture that all Africans had to carry around with them. The camera has two lenses so that you can make the portrait and the profile in same sheet of paper. There is also a special button at the back of the device that has been especially designed for black skin. By pressing it, you increase the flash power by 42 percent.
Two Afro American employees of Kodak ("Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement") campaign to convince Polaroid to retire from South Africa. They were fired but the Head of Polaroid eventually sent a delegation in the country and subsequently withdrew all Polaroid products closely linked to end of Apartheid.
Again, B&C went online, bought one of those cameras and traveled to South Africa to take pictures that turned on its head the toxic use of the camera. They decided to ignore the rules they found in the guide book that comes with the camera and proceeded to photograph the flora and fauna of South Africa.
The last work they mentioned is their ongoing curatorial project Shtik Fleisch Mit Tzvei Eigen, a Yiddish insult that means "A piece of meat with two eyes".
Once again, the work emerged from what the photographers call a 'ludicrous' commission. When the G20 met in Saint Petersbourg, one photographer from each of the G20 countries was invited to come and create a piece of work about Russia. B&C discovered a small Russian company at the avant-garde of surveillance software. Their cameras are invisible and can be placed anywhere. They capture data as you pass through and make marking of your face. The result is not a photograph but a 'data double', an algorithmic map of the face, a structure of your bone. The machine doesn't need the image to portray and identify a person. This technology heralds the breakdown of the photographer and the collapse of camera. At the same time, it announced the advent of software and computer.
The developers of the software said that the biggest challenge was developing a camera that could operate in a non collaborative mode. We are thus entering a new era of non collaborative portraiture, the subject does not even need to be aware that their face is being scanned in 3 dimensions, that can later be rotated and scrutinized. The technology totally substitute the meaning of the face with the mathematics of the face.
Some of the presentations are on soundcloud.
Previously: Only in England: Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on Resonance104.4fm, London's favourite radio art station, is aired tomorrow Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
My guest will be artist and 'videosmith' Sam Meech whose work explores the role of analogue technologies in a digital landscape, and the potential to fuse the two in production, projection and performance.
I discovered Sam's work in Liverpool a few weeks ago, it was part of Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life, an exhibition at FACT that explores how the working day has evolved from the industrial revolution to the digital age. Sam Meech has hung over the gallery a banner which translates into a knitting design the working hours patterns of people active in the 'creative industry' and they are, as you suspect, radically (depressingly??) different from the traditional 8 hour shift.
Sam is also a co-director of Re-Dock - a not-for-profit arts organisation, developing projects that explore ways in which communities relate to digital media, ideas and public space.
Finally! A few words about FACT's ongoing exhibition, Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life....
The title of the show is a direct reference to the Time & Motion Study, a method developed by Frederick Taylor (and later by Frank and Lillian Gilbreth) in the early 20th century to analyse work procedures and determine workers' optimal productivity standards.
By bringing side by side archive material and contemporary artworks to explore how the working day has evolved from the industrial revolution to the digital age, Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life makes it quite clear that a lot has changed since the days of the good mister Taylor. Digital technology has brought numerous work opportunities, but also new rhythms: work accompanies freelances and employees whether they're in an office, at home or in transit from one to the other and back. Some people juggle several jobs (no wonder at a time when a London flat earns more than a professional writer) and zero hour contracts are the ultimate expression of work 'flexibility'.
Our economy has changed too, it is now mostly characterized by services and knowledge (whether they are outsourced or crowdsourced) and mass consumption coexists with models in which we are both consumers and producers.
In this context, what remains of the Eight Hour Day movement preconized by social reformer Robert Owen in the first half of the 19th century? Is there a new definition of 'work life balance'?
Artists, along with anyone working in the cultural sector, have experienced this evolution of working standards perhaps more acutely than most people. It seemed thus natural that FACT, in collaboration with the Royal College of Art, would ask them to explore these questions. The result is timely, thought-provoking and at time, upsetting. Time & Motion will, i am sure, bring a new perspective on your working day.
I've actually already interviewed some of the artists in the show: last year, Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen told me about 75 Watt, an object for dancing in the factory line and last week, Oliver Walker explained his One Pound video installation.
Here's a couple of works i found equally interesting:
Sam Meech paid homage to the heritage of the local textile industry, whilst delineating contemporary working patterns in which digital technologies have enabled the blurring of work and private life.
Meech asked people working in the 'creative industry' to log their working hours on the project website. The data collected was compared to the traditional 8 hour shift and translated into a knitting pattern which was used to create a banner based on Owen's '8 hours labour, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest' slogan.
The banner was produced on a domestic knitting machine using a combination of digital imaging tools and traditional punchcard systems.
Between 1978 and 1986, Tehching Hsieh did a series of One Year Performances. He lived one year inside a cage, one year completely outdoors, one year tied to another person, one year without making, viewing, discussing, reading about, or in any other way participating in art (and as a consequence this last performance is barely documented.) A photo in the exhibition reminded us that in 1980-1981, the artist spent a whole year punching a workers' time clock in his studio every hour. This last endeavour involved never being able to sleep for more than one hour running or not being allowed to leave his house for longer than 60 minutes.
The Minimum Wage Machine allows visitors to work for minimum wage. Turning the crank will yield one penny every 5.7 seconds, for £6.31 an hour (UK minimum wage). If the participant stops turning the crank, they stop receiving money.
The process couldn't be more transparent: you turn a handle, a clock records your effort and penny fall down as a reward. Ultra simple and cynical!
In the future, I see possibility in a lot of these machines hooked into a grid, with people performing basic human labor for money, Fall-Conroy told Make magazine. Perhaps a new form of renewable energy generation? A new kind of supercomputer with thousands of people performing basic calculations at minimum wage "stations" across the world? Who knows?
Molleindustria's usual neat aesthetics casts a critical eye at the increasing popularity of online management games in which the user performs time-based tasks. The game examines the blurring of work and play and highlights the tensions between labour, automation, unemployment and repression.
Andrew Norman Wilson's short video Workers Leaving the Googleplex draws a direct parallel with what is regarded as the first real motion picture ever made: the Lumière brothers' silent film Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. Wilson planted his camera in front of two Google locations in California to document the various levels of workers. It turns out that the possession of a badge of a certain colour dictates your place in the Google hierarchy and the amount of privileges you have access to. The artist manage to film very little as his efforts were stopped by Google security and resulted in the termination of his own employment at Google.
Adrian McEwen hacked an antique clock that used to regulate strict time management and remixed it with the retro mathematical Game of Life, created by John Horton Conway in 1970.
Each day a new game plays out, driven by the punch of the time clock. The mechanical action of the clock is combined with a computer which drives a nearby monitor - and also replayed on the LED screen at the front of the FACT building - to visualise the Game of Life grid and move it on a turn every time a timecard is stamped.
More images from the exhibition:
Gregory Barsamian's Die Falle (German for 'The Trap') is a zoetrope of a man's dream-time reality.
Electroboutique, iPaw. Video by FACT
Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life is at FACT in Liverpool until Sunday 9 March 2014. The catalogue of the exhibition contains a series of essays by artists and curators reflecting on topics that range from Video games and the Spirit of Capitalism by Paolo Pedercini to an essay by Harun Farocki examining the cinematographic representation of factory workers (get the Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life book on amazon UK and USA)
This week i'm interviewing Oliver Walker on the blog. I discovered his work a few days (or was it weeks??) ago while visiting Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life, a FACT Liverpool exhibition exploring how the working day has evolved from the time of the industrial age to our current service and knowledge economy.
Walker's One Pound installation at FACT lined up 6 videos. Each of them 'lasts as long as it takes the person depicted to earn £1, varying in length from several hours for the some of the lowest paid agricultural workers in the world, down to several seconds for well paid workers in finance, with one film little over a second long.' The idea was ultra simple and the result is striking for the way it exposes vast disparities in working patterns.
Some of his projects involved outsourcing the production of a written constitution for the UK to China and having 1,000 dolls voice it, using the price of an African financial index to control lighting in a Berlin art center, testing certain hypotheses about social behaviour in a dinner party. And building an outdoors spiral staircase for cats.
Here how my online conversation with the artist went...
Hi Oliver! Let's start with One Pound, the video installation which i discovered a few days ago in the exhibition Time & Motion in Liverpool. I've been quite unlucky in my visit because when I entered the room there was only one screen on with a man working in a field. On the other hand seeing him work all alone on his screen made the impact of the artwork even more powerful for me. Who were these 6 workers you contacted? What were their job?
For the readers who haven't seen the work, I feel I should describe it a little more. The six films are displayed on six adjacent screens, with all six starting simultaneously and not re-starting until all six have played through. This means that the shortest, one second long, plays just once every one hour and seventeen minutes (the duration of the longest). The films have a 'hours:minutes:seconds' timecode burnt into the bottom right corner, which pauses when the films end.
To the side of the 6 screens were six label-sized photographic stills from the videos, there to give the viewer a visual idea of who wasn't currently visible. I chose not, however, to include too much contextual information about the protagonists in the gallery itself, hopefully leaving some space for viewers to project their ideas and experiences about who and where they might be. Having said this, the five you missed were; someone working in a cotton processing plant (35 minutes), someone driving a digger constructing a new road (12 minutes), a carpenter (4 minutes), digital media worker (1 minute), and a CEO (1 second).
The original idea for the piece was to show it in a space in which people repeatedly spend time, such as a busy commuter platform, factory canteen or large office foyer, but this wasn't possible on this occasion. The idea would be that viewers would build up a kind of cumulative viewing of all six films. With a few minutes a day over three months, for example, a viewer would see all six films in their entirety, despite the shortest only running for one second every one hour twenty minutes.
The stills mounted adjacent to the video screens function as kind of visual labels. Between these still images and the timecode built into the videos, viewers could understand the relationship proposed by the piece between between time, money and occupation. I almost always make work that needs some basic explanation (usually text), but I'm happy if it then becomes somehow autonomous (whilst not perplexing) beyond this.
And how did you select who or which type of work would appear in your videos?
Essentially the people and jobs featured can be from any working environment, but certain criteria did develop along the way. These criteria may be quite self explanatory; they tend to be people who can be isolated for filming (though not exclusively), so those who work alone; and who I can approach fairly directly in their place of work; and people whose work you can understand visually.
After some time working on the project I also developed a kind of rationale to link all the protagonists. Although it is not explicitly mentioned in the exhibition text, this rationale is that everyone filmed is, however indirectly, related to my morning shower. So there are people working with cotton (to produce a towel), infrastructure (to get that towel to me), carpentry (to produce a bathroom door), advertising (funded by advertising on shower products), and the CEO of a company that makes shampoo. I am also interested in developing the project and filming further protagonists, perhaps for further exhibition contexts, or just to develop the work. I often considered featuring just one industry, such as coffee, and this too would have been very quotidian. However, I felt this would have then been a study of that particular industry, and it should be broader than this. The shower is something quotidian (in highly industrialised parts of the world), but still fairly unbranded, and less loaded than the tea or coffee industries which have their own histories.
Incidentally, I filmed myself first, but discarded this.
Which kind of ideas, conclusions and reflections about the labour market did working on this project trigger?
Although I started with the basic premise of wage inequality across the world, the project is not intended simply as a didactic essay on wage inequality. Clearly, it may offer reflection on these staggering inequalities, and this political position is ultimately not left ambiguous. However, the relationship between labour and money is transformed into a more subjective medium - time. Periods of time are not as easily compared with one another as pieces of graphical information, for instance. With video, the timescale is embedded into the medium (unlike photography, graphics or text).
Another way it should offer complexity is by inviting some 'cross' comparisons of inequality - between farm workers and factory workers both in the global south for example, or between well paid creative economy workers and astronomically wealthy bankers. This picks up on something I had observed over several years. On the occasions I had spent time in poorer countries (such as Paraguay), I noticed that there was a tendency to over simplify both the wealth and poverty that existed in the global south and north (though perhaps I'm doing this by using the word 'both', but bear with me).
There can be tendency to think the streets are paved with gold in Western Europe (for example), and not understand the poverty that exists in the global north too. At the same time, to try to explain for example the extent to which the National Health Service in the UK offers all people in the country, regardless of income, world class quality healthcare free at the point of delivery, might well be unimaginable to many (although this isn't confined to those from poorer countries). Likewise, growing up in western Europe, I think it was difficult to comprehend both the extreme poverty existent in developing countries (hence the TV programmes and campaigns to help us), and the extent to which everything, such infrastructure, education and government, does function much as it does in western Europe. Perhaps this is just me, because I grew up when Live Aid was rocking, though I think little has changed.
I think it's a constant struggle to understand this complexity - to keep talking about the extreme inequality and poverty that exists in poorer countries, without stereotyping. My work, not for the first time, sails close to the wind when it comes to stereotypes. I have used very simple (perhaps over simple, certainly flawed) measures, but the breadth of examples of labour, and the choice of images, should leave some space for these issues.
I had no idea that the UK is one of only three countries in the world without a written constitution. So what was the constitution you outsourced to China for the Mr Democracy project like? Standard constitution mixing other, existing constitutions? Something entirely original? A simple writing down of the laws and principles that already govern the UK?
I actually studied this in school, and have been interested in it since then. I was interested in going to China, and started, as I not infrequently do, with some pretty simple interests - in this case lightening fast economic development and the political situation in China. Fortunately, I had this moment of realising I could turn it around, and look at the UK, which I am probably in a better position to make work about. If I get the project right, both the UK and China are criticised.
The constitution is not very revolutionary, sadly, we're still a constitutional monarchy - no republic! The authors initially tried to define more or less how the UK is at the moment, and then did a few tweaks to it. It was originally written in Chinese, and a fourth colleague of theirs translated it in English. Her language register and vocabulary were great, but occasionally she slipped with a few terms - but rightly so. So an early clause starts 'The regime of the United Kingdom is...', while we normally only hear the word 'regime' to define forms of government not currently popular or viewed as democratic by western governments (or 'regimes'!). I invited the authors to refer to other constitutions when drafting the UK's, and they did, and this is common practice when constitutions are written (the US was heavily influenced by the French, for example).
I'm also interested in your experience in finding, selecting and communicating with 3 factories in China which would manufacture the dolls. Is it easy for an individual to commission a thousand dolls to a Chinese factory? Did you require any help for that?
I had never done anything like this, and in some ways China was less accessible than I thought it would be. So many products are manufactured there, yet the process of getting something made isn't easy. It involves lots of long meetings, misunderstandings, and sometimes deception. The doll itself was not commissioned for my project, but the sound chip and electronics were, and it was very unusual to have such a long sound recording - they are usually just 10 seconds, not over 10 minutes!
The British Council were helpful in finding people to help me, so I had an art student as a translator and fixer, though actually he had no more experience in finding a factory than me - he was an art historian. I also spoke a lot to a Chinese designer (Tom Shi) who had studied in the UK, and moved back to Guangzhou to start a design practice, and a family. He let me use his studio for free while I was in Guangzhou, and the two students (Sarah Yin Liu and Jackon Li Yao) helped me way beyond what any assistant should, and we're still friends.
It was all very hands on. I was not doing this in the way most business people presumably do: I visited all the factories, filmed there, and organised the shipping myself -I even went into the ports, which was fascinating.
I think the main person I worked with at the factory that installed the sound chips into the dolls was mainly just interested in meeting me, and of course I wanted to meet him too. There was a funny moment when we were sending the sound file back and forth trying to compress it for the sound chip, and after I had actually agreed to going ahead with it, he called back to tell me that one of the articles was repeated on the sound chip. It was funny to have him read it back to me, as I had always been careful to not talk about the political content of the piece, but as long as it wasn't about China, it wasn't a problem. It was also funny to hear 1000s of dolls in a Chinese factory saying 'The Constitution of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Article One...', as they were being tested.
By the way, why did you chose China and not India? because i suspect that this choice made the working process even more challenging.
China does have a different position with regard to global development than India, but India might have seemed a more obvious choice, historically. China seems more unequivocally a coming super power than India, and is much more symbolic as a place where products are manufactured. Also, the vast majority of toys in the world are made in China, (and of those a large majority in the Pearl River Delta). That China is not considered a Democracy is also important.
I was reading through the blog of the project and found this entry. Could you explain what happened here? How artworks are usually assessed at customs? What is the rule or law? And how it all ended?
When you export/import something, you use a customs agent to organise the customs for you. Mine refused to describe my dolls as artwork, because they were, well, dolls. Artworks attract a lower rate of VAT and no duty, so the difference is huge, as it's a percentage of the value. As the project was funded by the Arts Council England and supported by the British Council, I thought I had a chance of getting them through as an artwork, which of course they are.
I had direct contact with a customs officer, and she explained that Haunch of Venison were currently in a legal battle with the authorities over the import of a complete video installation (with the video equipment), while the customs were insisting it was simply technical equipment. It was a Bill Viola piece. The customs woman conditionally agreed to view my works as artwork after I emailed her photos taken in the factory with me working on the piece, because their definition revolves around working on objects by hand, pretty much ignoring two generations of contemporary art. I was quite impressed with my negotiating skills!
Now let's have a look at another of your projects, Bringing the Market Home. Why did you chose to work with the Dow Jones Africa Titans 50 index? Why select a pan-African index for an installation that was located in Europe?
The piece reverses a tendential direction of influence, with an African share index determining the operation of an aspect of everyday life in a western city, in this case Berlin. Financial markets exercise massive influence, both directly and indirectly over many people's lives over the globe, and this piece makes already existing connections physical, and immediate, while changing the direction of those influences. A blip of speculation on food prices could make a crop unaffordable for thousands of people in one country or region: in this piece, that process is reversed, making financial indicators from Africa ('the 50 leading companies that are headquartered or generate the majority of their revenues in Africa') tangible (cutting the house lighting of the HKW, House of World Cultures, Berlin) in a western city.
Was it on 24/7? Or does the Dow Jones follows 9-to-5 type working schedules?
Yes, it ran 24/7. The first time we got it working it was two in the morning, and we didn't know if the index would be shifting, but it was! We spent ages trying to work out which indices would be working when, but in the end the stocks are traded on multiple exchanges across the world, so several of the indices can change for most of the day, although there are periods when no exchange is open.
So what was the impact that this connection with the DJAT50 had on the lighting circuit in a corridor? Was the light constantly on and off? Or were fluctuations slower to manifest themselves?
Essentially it's pretty erratic. It is read every 30 seconds, and we didn't analyse the data explicitly, but it changes fairly often - sometimes five times in a row, sometimes remaining off for five minutes. This worked well performatively - sometimes meaning viewers didn't notice that there was any change to the system, and then suddenly asking themselves what was happening, why the lights weren't working. This was an important consideration of the project (that you can't see from the documentation) - I really wanted it to be something that was installed in the existing space, that people noticed and asked themselves why this was happening, rather than an autonomous object that people were invited to look at.
Any upcoming project, event, field of research you'd like to share with us?
I'd like to continue working on the One Pound project and Dinner Party. I've also been looking at the relationship between money and happiness, which I started looking at on residency in Paris at the Cité des Arts. I think inequality, mighty fascinating as it is, will come up again soon too, though I don't know how at the moment.
You can see Oliver Walker's video installation One Pound at the exhibition Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life, at FACT in Liverpool until Sunday 9 March 2014.