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.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Not DIY, but DIO

Community orchard in Detroit (Photo by aur2899, downloaded from Flickr, Creative Commons attribution-noncommercial-sharealike 2.0 license)

A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times Sunday Magazine ran an article by food editor Christine Muhlke about urban farming that included coverage of what's happening these days in the D, AKA the town formerly known as the Motor City. The article dealt primarily with the idea of food communities of which Detroit was cited as the premier example. In fact, the article was illustrated with a photo of a vegetable garden being tended in an inner-city Detroit neighborhood with the requisite vista of ruin porn in the background.

Food communities rely on reciprocal, and in many respects mutually obligated, relationships among producers, distributors, consumers, and everyone else associated with bringing nature's bounty to the table. It's the opposite of the system of alienated transactions that occurs under commodity capitalism where exchange is anonymous, self-interested, and contingent. English historian E.P. Thompson terms this other way of circulating goods and services "the moral economy," which actually was what prevailed in the premodern era. And as Muhlke notes, it's not about the individual  but the group -- Do It Ourselves rather than Do It Yourself. (You don't really do anything yourself; we're all embedded in this thing called society for better or worse.)

It's also important to recognize that the urban agriculture movement isn't a utopian escape into the past. Rather it's more properly related to the alternatives that have arisen in response to modernity as it's currently unfolding under the global regime of neoliberalism, or what Tony Negri and Michael Hardt in their book Commonwealth term "altermodernity." Altermodernity seeks to reclaim the commons, that space that is neither public nor private but collectively shared, something I've noted as a significant factor in recent Detroit art. (I won't rehearse those ideas again in this post but click here, here, and here if you're interested in more on the topic.)

To this idea of food community, I'd like to add a similar notion, namely, aesthetic community. It's an idea put forth by French philosopher Jacques Ranciere, for one. As he notes in a 2006 lecture, the aesthetic community isn't a community of aesthetes but a community of sense, that is, a network of relationships of people and things that anticipates new forms of socialization, of being-together, in this case where there isn't a separation between something called art and something called life, a vision of the possibilities of existence after the fall of the Fordist system of mass manufacturing and commodity consumption.

Aesthetic community is something my second-year seminar students in the CCS MFA program are mapping out in the research they're conducting this term at The Russell Industrial Center. As they negotiate the cavernous 2.2 million square foot facility surveying the various artists, designers, crafts persons, artisans, and other cultural producers at work there, the term they encounter time again and again is "community." A woodworker offers framing solutions for the seemingly odd installation needs of a graphic artist down the hall, an illustrator hooks up a fashion designer with a photographer on another floor, a documentary filmmaker provides performance space for an otherwise homeless underground theater group, the whole motley crew gets together to put on a public showcase whatever wackiness they're up to, and so on. One informant terms it "functional anarchy," and it's an apt description of the way things work in art and culture in Detroit.

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Click here to view a video posted this summer on The Guardian's website on urban agriculture in Detroit. Also, below is a 2008 interview with Jeanette Pierce of Inside Detroit that really stresses the community aspect of urban farming:

Here is a clip of Nicolas Bourriand, curator of 2009 Triennial at the Tate Gallery in London and also the guy who gave us the concept of relational aesthetics, talking about altermodernity in art.