Temporary Workers: An Interview with They Are Here
Helen Walker and Harun Morrison have been working together since 2006, initiating their collaborative practice as They Are Here.
I met Helen and Harun last December, in Stockholm, during the reiteration of their artwork ‘The People Behind The Financial System: Sweden (2017) that was presented in London for the first time in 2016. I didn’t know what to expect of this ‘speed dating’ with professionals from the finance sector every 10 minutes. Each time the alarm went off, loud and clear, the discussions were just getting going. Though, quite easily, I could feel empowered by the possibility to share doubts and frustrations affecting my simple and personal economy: why does nobody want cash anymore, even to buy a sandwich? Are we allowing banks to control us through transactions? Or is it rather a way to emancipate us from black markets, money laundering and other illegal activities? How do our apparently insignificant, everyday habits affect the global finance system?
I met an activist, a banknote engraver, a real estate expert and a bank CEO. Soon, I realized that all the people in the room were asking the same question: how do you represent the unseen, the imperceptible, the hidden, the invisible?
A new micro-community was already there, with each element bringing knowledge, time and a critical contribution, thus creating a reflection upon our concept of value.
Valentina Sansone: The People Behind The Financial System (2016-) consists of informal encounters between twenty individuals working in the financial sector and a wider public. Over a two-hour period, attendees are invited to engage in ten conversations of their choice, each lasting ten minutes.
With regard to the structure of the piece, first presented at the Southbank Centre in London (2016), as well as for its iteration at Konsthall C in Stockholm (2017), face-to-face conversations seek to create a less hierarchical, democratic format, which also enables an open dialogue with the selected finance workers.
“The Amateur” is a book from 2017 by British urban theorist Andy Merrifield, which addresses the idea of ‘professionalism’ in higher education, city planning, the political system, big data and numerous other modern phenomena. “Professionals brook no dissent,” as the author writes in his manifesto – a celebration of the creative and political potential of the amateur.
You have noted that the title of the piece “The People Behind The Financial System can be easily misread as an authoritative and definitive revelation of what goes on unseen . . . As for those that do participate, how much will they consciously share and how much will we need to infer from what is unsaid?”
They Are Here: We were specifically referring to the wording of the title, which in many ways suggests a promise that cannot be fulfilled – on a pragmatic level because there are so many active agents across Sweden alone who would not or could not participate, but also because Sweden is part of a global mesh. The People Behind The Financial System: Sweden would ideally have included representatives from banks and agencies in Beijing, New York, London, Frankfurt and so on. More expansively, everyone is an actor within such a globalised system, even those in opposition, reform or withdrawal. An alternative approach would be like that of artist Douglas Huebler planning to document “the existence of everyone alive,” so a future iteration might include everyone with a bank account.
In advance of the performance, we discuss our intentions with the participating finance workers and invite them to consider how they might communicate what they do to someone unfamiliar with the technicalities and specificities of their work. At the same time, communication always plays with the said and unsaid and there are multiple agendas for an individual’s participation in the artwork – that may or may not align with our own.
One intention for the work is to create a scenario for this specialised financial knowledge to circulate differently: through form (i.e. face-to-face), language and a conversational mode. The finance workers are invited on the basis of co-operating in this process. Perhaps the challenge lies more with the attendees. . . that the majority of this knowledge is not ‘beyond their understanding’ as is sometimes presumed. A professional’s insistence of an area of knowledge being ‘too complex’ for public discussion can also become a mechanism to discourage civic or populist enquiry and engagement.
The artwork exists as much for the co-operating finance workers, as for those attending, the scenario offers an exchange of ideas and questions, which may in turn unlock other reflections on the parts of both parties. However, we reject an overly emancipatory narrative or ambition imposed on the work. The format of the encounters is less hierarchical than a one-way broadcast model, or the publishing of papers by the World Bank, but to a large degree how the work functions is specific to each attendee / finance worker dialogue and dynamic. Nor do we want to pretend there is no such thing as expertise – we are more interested in the recognition that the acquisition of expertise is possible with access to knowledge and time and that ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’ should be constantly encouraged to consider what civic responsibility comes with that expertise in relation to the privileges it affords them.
VS: The idea of “leisure time” interrogated by your most recent artwork 40 temps, 8 days (Tate Modern, London, 30 November – 10 December 2017) foregrounds issues of hidden labour and transparent workers. As you pinpointed, the word “leisure” originates from the Latin licere, which means “to allow”. Can you expand on this concept?
TAH: 40 Temps, 8 Days is a durational performance work, which involves a daily rotation of 5 temps employed to do activities they would usually do in their spare time. These individuals were selected from a pool of incumbent temps on the books of Adecco, a multinational temp agency. Their paid work ranged from browsing the Internet, listening to music, playing chess and video games. The piece draws on our own experience of temping and zero-hour contracts, while building on a series of recent projects that explicitly address precarity.
So many conversations we are currently having across London are peppered with concerns about the lack of time and the negative impact of that. Simultaneously, we are acutely aware of an all engulfing ‘productivity trap’ spearheaded by corporate culture and driven by economic myths of continuous growth. Franco Berardi reflects on this in “The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance” (Semiotext(e), The MIT Press, 2012). This pro-market mania takes its toll on the employees at the lower end of the pyramid, on their health and social relations. One of the insidious ways work culture encroaches on free time is through supposedly attractive offers, a free gym membership, a work phone and so on, but these Trojan Horses ultimately chip away at any remaining boundaries and the workplace and its concerns become ever present and all pervasive. 40 Temps, 8 Days makes the collapse of these boundaries explicit through its invitation to receive paid remuneration for what might be considered an individual’s ‘spare time’ activities. On a gestural scale, temps are ‘bought out of one market place’ only to find themselves in another. There’s an irony and pathos to the scenario, a bleak joke. Many of the temps articulated this in our debriefs at the end of the day: “It felt unnatural to be on the Internet at work, cause you are on the Internet, but you do it on the sly.” However, it’s still important to recognise that for those temps they are having one less day on the treadmill and are engaged with as individuals with particular interests.
During an accompanying panel discussion with theorist Nina Power, Isobel Laishley (a recent philosophy graduate, also an Adecco temp) and ourselves, one of the audience raised the value of ‘time sovereignty’. A significant term, because an element of what makes an activity work is arguably the loss of time sovereignty, no matter how enjoyable the activity.
VS: Your artistic production includes civic practice. Gatherings have a specific function in your work. Precarity Centre at Grand Union, Birmingham (2016) and its iteration at Studio Voltaire, London (2017); 40 temps, 8 days; and The People Behind The Financial System: could you talk about the continuities for you between these works?
TAH: Precarity Centre is an itinerant, conceptual framework for an interdisciplinary programme of talks, workshops and performances, exploring and mitigating against precarity. Both iterations in Grand Union, Birmingham and Studio Voltaire are experiments in social space, seeding interaction between local groups, the arts community and those who work in the public sector. The project echoed the multi–layered activities of community centres, which continue to suffer disinvestment across London and the wider UK. We began a dialogue with homeless support charities, for example, SIFA Fireside in the rapidly changing semi-industrial area of Digbeth in Birmingham and continued dialogues with organisations such as Migrants Organise, who we have a pre-existing relationship with. The People Behind The Financial System, meanwhile, focuses on individuals with agency within the financial institutions that arguably produce some conditions of precarity itself, either directly or indirectly. 40 Temps 8 Days explicitly looks at the ‘temporary worker’, who might embody the collateral damage of the productivity trap referred to previously. Formally the works involve face-to-face discussion as a key component of their activity and gather people through invitations, which in themselves constitute an element of the artworks.
Gatherings of different scales and constituencies continue to be important as they necessitate synchronicity. Synchronicity is an element often overlooked in discussions regarding neoliberalism and social time. We would campaign for not only a shorter working week, with more people employed doing less hours. . . but to have time off in sync allows greater social organisation, campaigning, supporting of friends and family.
VS: “Occupy” demonstrations not only entered the political space and the public realm, they also accessed artistic institutions, not to mention their impact on the general contemporary art debate. As London-based artists, whose practice engages with a situation, history and ideology, what’s your vision of Brexit’s future developments and its effects on the contemporary art system?
TAH: If artists from the European mainland are discouraged from working in the UK, it greatly diminishes the richness, diversity and cosmopolitan nature of the artistic community. We are participating in the artist led campaign Keep It Complex formed after the Brexit referendum. We hope institutions, not solely artists, continue to be critical of Brexit. The divisiveness it engenders is not for the popular good, the EU is an important peace project and that has also been undermined in this process.
VS: Today, creativity has gained an important role for city planning, gentrification, and local political initiatives to develop new markets. Creativity itself has become a sort of labour and a source of productivity. Do you think we still need a separation between intellectual and manual activity? Do you agree with cultural writer Diedrich Diederichsen on the need to “neutralize” the category, to “de-dramatize creativity,” in order to open up to new possible sustainable systems?
TAH: The social capital generated by artists, inventors and engineers has been a currency exploited by the state for centuries. This is especially evident in architecture. Creativity has always been a form of labour and source of productivity. In the 21st century, city councillors across the Global North are much more eager to be seen to support these forms of labour. However, it feels more like a means to appear appealingly open and liberal. The reality is that the same councils are often not protective of the spaces, neighbourhoods and networks that might genuinely support communities of artists. The false binary of intellectual and manual activity is less interesting to us than the question of alienating or fulfilling work. We would love to see more self-reflection about the nature of work itself, more resistance to administrative culture and burnout, more self-questioning about the systems we sustain through doing particular kinds of work.
They Are Here is a collaborative practice steered by Helen Walker & Harun Morrison since 2006. Currently based on the River Lea and London, They Are Here work across media and types of site particularly civic spaces. Institutions they have developed or presented work for include: Camden Arts Centre, CCA Glasgow, Furtherfield, Grand Union, Konsthall C (Stockholm), National Theatre Studio, Tate Britain, Tate Modern, South London Gallery and STUK (Leuven, Belgium).
Valentina Sansone is a writer and an independent curator based in Stockholm, Sweden and Palermo, Italy.