Friday, November 12, 2010

The Art of Dead Labor

Dylan A.T. Miner, Damos Gracias (Wal-Muerto), 2007, relief print on recycled grocery bag. (Image courtesy of the artist.)
Capital is dead labour that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.
-- Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Vol I, Chap X, Sec 1
Although the exhibition of work in the CCS Alumni and Faculty Hall by artist/activist Dylan Miner (which ran concurrently with the Center Galleries show of Todd Erickson and Faina Lerman I previously reviewed) closed a couple of weeks ago, I still wanted to write about it. Miner went to CCS in the mid-1990s but got his BA at Western Michigan University and then an MA and a PhD at University of New Mexico. He now teaches in the Residential College at Michigan State and is also a member of the Justseeds Artists' Cooperative, a group of 26 artists working in the US, Canada, and Mexico who use the printmaking medium as a form of social, environmental, and political activism.

Set between the Center Galleries main exhibition space and the CCS Library, the Alumni and Faculty Hall might seem like a less-than-auspicious venue, but artists who have shown there have generally used its bad lighting and odd dimensions as the jumping-off point for creating some pretty engaging environments to showcase their work. (Check out, for example, the current installation, Transition by Annica Cuppetelli, which uses hanging layers of white mesh scrim and translucent blue theater lighting gels to completely transform an otherwise bland institutional corridor into a promenade of ethereal beauty.) Miner's project was no exception.

The show's title "Big Enough to Win, Big Enough to Lose" took its cue from legendary UAW leader Walter Reuther's famous quote on the character of risk in the face of adversity: "If you are not big enough to lose, you are not big enough to win." It also evoked analytical Marxist economist John E. Roehmer's treatise Free to Lose: An Introduction to Marxist Economic Philosophy, which challenges the conventional Marxist theory of exploitation grounded in the labor theory of value and replaces it with one based on a version of neoclassical rational choice theory.

Installed on the walls were a variety of printed matter related to Miner's practice as an artist/activist. Among the materials on one side were mass-produced posters for an immigrant rights campaign featuring an illustration of an indigenous tattooed face filling up the left side of the frame out of whose mouth flows the phrases "We are workers. We are humans. We have rights" in several languages to cover the globe. Another commemorated the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-37 that led to the consolidation of the UAW,  a watershed in the American labor movement.

On the other wall was a collection of relief prints, mostly in black and red, on recycled grocery bags. Several featured imagery based on the Mexican Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) during which people remember family and friends who have passed on, a reference perhaps to the union movement in its moribund state but also Marx's idea of capital as dead labor, the remains of surplus value appropriated by the bosses during the working day. Others commemorated significant figures in leftist thought, such as Emma Goldman and Mikhail Bakunin, and one series riffed on the folk songs of labor organizer and troubadour Joe Hill. Traversing the entire space from front to back and tying the two elements together was a series of hand-printed and -sewn pennants bearing the slogans "Labor," "Resist," "In the Shell of the Old," and "Remembering to Resist."

An absorbing piece was the wall-mounted cardboard construction Wobbly Radio, inside of which was a recording of the artist reading archival transcripts of 1930s broadcasts originating from the Industrial Workers of World (IWW) Detroit chapter. The IWW, of course, is also known as the Wobblies. Joe Hill was a Wobbly as was Eugene V. Debs. The Wobblies also figure prominently in Thomas Pynchon's sprawling, anarchic opus Against the Day. Detroit has an interesting chapter in Wobbly history, in the early twentieth-century controversy over indirect political action vs. direct militancy against management, the so-called "yellow" vs. "red" factions. By 1925, the yellow Wobblies, based in Detroit initially under the leadership of Daniel De Leon, dissolved, leaving the Chicago-based organization in command. Hence the broadcasts date from the later period when Michigan-based Wobblies more or less freelanced confrontations with management, including taking part in the Flint Sit-Down Strike and other automotive union organizing. A Detroit Wobbly branch still exists. (Click here for the Wobbly Kitchen Detroit Facebook page.)

Delivered via a set of headphones hooked up to an "i(ww)Pod," the readings of Wobbly Radio detailed union programs for food relief, announcements for social gatherings, and other solidarity activities. They hearkened back to the days gone by of robust union communications initiatives, when labor had a strong voice in the broadcast landscape through ownership of the means of media production. WDET-FM, for example, started out in 1948 as the radio station of the United Auto Workers union, which sold it for $1 to Wayne State University in 1952. (See Elizabeth Fones-Wolf's 2006 study Waves of Opposition: Labor and the Struggle for Democratic Radio for a good history of the golden age of union broadcasting that lasted from the 1930s to the 1950s.)

The work of Miner's that best summed up his project for me, however, was the relief print Damos Gracias (Wal-Muerto) (above). Printed on a recycled grocery bag, the image's central skeletal figure is wearing a store clerk's smock with an "un-smiley" face pin above the employee (oh, I'm sorry, I meant associate) nametag. She stands before a big-box store facade bearing the slogan "Siempre Pobre" (Always Poor), a reference to Walmart's advertising tagline "Always Low Prices" and its direct connection to the immiseration of workers both within and outside of the company in the global economic race to the bottom driven by the enormous retailer's ruthless cost-cutting business model. The neoliberal ideology of so-called free markets (which in fact are rigged to give advantage to the haves and even more to the have-mores) is represented in a prayer at the bottom left that translates to the effect of "Let us give thanks to the Virgin of Capitalism for delivering us from poverty," a statement of false consciousness that the dead laborer reveals, along with the shopping cart she pushes representing commodity consumption as the reproduction of the inequality low wages initiate.

According to his artist's statement, Miner's use of humble handcrafted and recycled materials and indigenous-based imagery are an act of resistance to the alienation at the core of the modern capitalist system (that our relations with one another are estranged, mediated by the cash nexus). Together, form and content constitute a material-semiotic relation, a meme (the basic unit of communication similar to the gene in biology) that can be replicated and transmitted, released into the cultural idea pool so that it might have a chance of changing our way of thinking. I, for one, hope it goes viral.

No comments:

Post a Comment