‘When automatism frees millions of hours for leisure’, wrote Lucy Lippard in the catalogue to the conceptual art exhibition 955,000 in Vancouver, 1969, ‘art should gain rather than diminish in importance, for while art is not just play, it is the counterpoint to work. The time may come when art is everyone’s daily occupation, though there is no reason to think this activity will be called art’. [1]

Wow: the end of work and the naturalisation of art. At the end of the labour-saving 1960s, it must have seemed like those ‘millions of hours of leisure’ were there for the taking. Even the remarkable Lippard could not have foreseen, as her domestic robot mixed her Martini, that when ‘automatism’ went post-industrial and found its ultimate technological form in the shape of the personal computer and internet, we would have less leisure time, not more. Actually, it’s probably truer to say that the very distinction between leisure and work time became unclear, that global connectivity has reduced everyone to a state of permanent vocational standby. Or maybe the opposite is the case: now that leisure and work share a technological language, perhaps the worker is on permanent recreational standby.

If we look beyond its utopian rhetoric, maybe there is something in Lippard’s idea that art (or at least some forms of art), having leached into the wider vocational delta, might one day cease to be known as such. Perhaps she intuited that art would exploit the area between work and recreation, and thereby acquire a ‘meta-vocational’ condition. The post-studio strategies engendered by conceptualism are, after all, commensurate with a wider sociological shift away from ‘product’ towards ‘process’, and concurrent with a waning of manufacturing industries and the rise of service industries.

In the last decade, a commonality has been sought between process/research-led art and the ‘post-materiality’ of the contemporary workplace. In a 2009 interview with Sonja Lavaert and Pascal Gielen, philosopher and figurehead of Italian Marxism Paolo Virno is asked to account for the art world’s recent interest in his work. Virno attributes it to his concept of ‘virtuosity’. ‘Virtuosity’, he says, ‘happens to the artist or performer who, after performing, does not leave a work of art behind… What strikes me is that today work, and not just work for a publishing company, for television or for a newspaper, but all present-day work, including the work done in the Volkswagen factory, or at Fiat or Renault, tends to be an activity that does not result in an autonomous “work”, in a produced object’. [2]

These non-producing workers, these virtuosos of what Hardt and Negri call ‘biopolitical’ or ‘immaterial production’, are of course the lynchpins of post-Fordism. For Virno, virtuosity is ‘a model for post-Fordist work in general’, and the mechanisms of that virtuosity are inherently linguistic: ‘the earliest type of virtuosity, the one that precedes all others, precedes the dance, the concert, the actor’s performance and so on, is typically the activity of our human kind, namely the use of language’. [3] In the service industry, linguistic ability has replaced labour time as the new test of worker efficiency: the airline cabin crew and the call centre worker must use their verbal powers to oversee the quality of a transaction rather than the quantity of goods. It is not, exactly, that the worker plays no part in a material outcome, but their purpose is to embody a process rather than master it, and language and voice are central to that embodiment, both technically and ethically—technically, because the worker must say what needs to be said during a given transaction; ethically, because the words they choose can be seen to either conform to or deviate from the expected template.

Art’s critique of its ontology in the avant-garde era—the appropriation of alien objects and materials, the much later appropriation of other vocations, but above all the supremacy of language as a postconceptual mediator between distinct experiential provinces and disciplines—is primed for an assimilation into post-Fordist neo-liberalism. Like the avant-garde, neo-liberal freemarket ideology excels in persuading us that, post-product, what is most sellable is nothing less than our own autonomy, our own freedom. What art experienced as the avant-garde—an exponential expansion of its material lexicon—is now more conservative than alternative vocations. There is a slow, careful toleration of individuality and hybridity in the workplace, a gradual integration of personal and institutional interests. According to Virno, this is one of the more insidious aspects of neo-liberal hegemony. As he witheringly puts it: ‘I [now] need to be granted a certain degree of autonomy in order to be exploited’.

Virno suggests that it’s no longer the worker’s labour time but his autonomous creativity that’s recouped as surplus value. ‘Exploitation’ now lies in the employer’s ability to codify that creativity within a system of rules, so that the potential collision between individual desire and managerial law is recast as collusion .

Artists who appropriate aspects of other vocations operate within this overlap of law and desire. Their discursive, didactic and pedagogical activity—whether interlaced with a material product or ontologically extrinsic to it—is usually presented as ‘practice’ rather than ‘work’. This preference for a word that names a (post-Fordist) process rather than a (Fordist) product also, it has to be said, reflects art’s complicity with neo-liberalism’s assimilation and dilution of art’s autonomy and vocational alterity. Many, far from capitalising on its perceived vocational alterity, now view art as merely the most creative discipline in a ‘creative sector’.

The contemporary artists most committed to this post-Bohemian programme are those specialising in social engagement. During a recent panel discussion at the Showroom in London, Emma Smith spoke of her reluctance to describe herself as an artist in relation to her role in recent participatory projects. [4] It seems that the A-word impedes dialogue, causing participants to fall back on received/parochial ideas of what an appropriate art methodology might be. Smith recalled a certain (literary) project that involved the production of an anthology of writings by residents of an English village. One participant—evidently an accomplished wordsmith—was adamant that it should be ‘about water’, and Smith was hard pressed to dissuade him. The anecdote demonstrates a conundrum particular to social engagement: does your training as an artist qualify you to challenge your collaborators’ parochial belief that art must be ‘about’ something before it can produce a meaningful encounter? Is your first task is to convince them it’s the other way round, that content is established through the encounter? Or do you say to yourself that this parochialism is precisely the thing that must be ‘engaged’? Smith’s forthcoming project Playback at the Showroom entails a collaboration with pupils from nearby Quintin Kynaston School to produce a project exploring what Smith calls ‘tacit knowledge’, local knowledge pertinent to the area around Lisson Grove. Through workshops, this knowledge was developed into ‘a series of script components: settings, scenarios and characters, that will form the basis of an installation in the gallery into which the public will be invited to construct their own playlets’. [5] Parochial knowledge, then, is integral to the project.

Between the particular cultural ideas that participants bring to social art projects and the universalising strategies artists use to structure those ideas lies the general. As Virno has argued, the general is not the universal. The universal presupposes common understanding, while the general is the set of commonly encountered but by no means commonly understood things that we use to establish political affinity/antagonism (eg, ‘tacit knowledge’). Jacques Rancière refers to this commonality as the ‘distribution of the sensible’. Michael Hardt has noted that Rancière seems to ‘[treat] the common as if it were a given or relatively fixed element. When we emphasise that the common is not natural but made, and thus shift our focus to its production, the definitions of such terms as common, made, and production are necessarily reconfigured. Politics involves not only the distribution of the common but also the production of the common…’ [6] Hardt believes artists can help produce the common and shape the creative interrelations of the political and social realms. The danger is that the less virtuosic practitioners, those willing to trade art’s vocational alterity for a more clearly defined role in society, are instrumentalised as service providers by the neo-liberal structures that characterise those realms.

The virtuosos, meanwhile, regularly lampoon this instrumentalisation. A famous example is Andrea Fraser’s ‘Untitled’, 2003, for which the artist was filmed having contractually agreed sex with a collector in a hotel room. The price was $20,000, and the collector got to keep a VHS cassette of his afternoon tryst. Contemporary art patronage is thus refracted through the oldest profession of all, the collector enacting a portrait of himself as a personification of late capitalist desire-fulfilment. This is social engagement at the other end of the spectrum: the artist as a service provider, not for a laity of all-comers in need of cultural edification, but for a select cognoscenti.

Hardt’s idea of a ‘produced common’ is prefigured in GK Chesterton’s 1905 book, The Club of Queer Trades, a series of six portraits of people who’ve invented unique ways of earning a living. Chesterton’s characters are not artists-turned-service-providers, they are just innovative service-providers. There is Mr Northover’s Adventures and Romance Agency, an organisation that arranges for real-life theatrical dramas to happen to members of the public; the Organiser of Repartee, a man who manipulates dinner party conversation so as to cue up the host’s bon mots ; the Professional Detainers, ‘paid by their clients to detain in conversation, on some harmless pretext, people whom they want out of the way for a few hours’; a botanist-turned-estate agent who specialises in leasing treehouses; a linguistician, Professor Chadd, who invents a new language, attempting to communicate with people solely through the medium of dance; and, finally, the Voluntary Criminal Court, committed to trying people for ‘minor crimes’ such as ‘selfishness’, ‘vanity’ and ‘stinginess’. [7]

The events in each story are utterly confusing, until explained as the result of the trades listed above. The explicator is Basil Grant, a quasi-detective whom we follow from one outlandish situation to another. Basil’s initially bizarre but retrospectively logical behaviour is the necessary fictional component for revealing the existence of each trade. At the end of the book, we discover Basil was in on the Club of Queer Trades all along; in fact, it is he who sits as judge in the Voluntary Criminal Court, a body that doubles up as an AGM for the Club of Queer Trades. Each member is called upon to explain how and why he came to ply his singular trade. It is here that the book ends, the justifications being left to the reader’s imagination.

Such justifications might argue for the necessity of certain individuals to adopt peculiar positions in order to fit into the social formation. Adapting Hardt’s and Virno’s terms, we might say that Chesterton’s renegade businessmen—his vocational neologists—use their virtuosity to reshape the ‘commonality’ of the social formation around their own desires.

This is familiar territory to contemporary performance artists, especially to those who work directly in the social realm within recognisably utilitarian paradigms. Three examples come to mind. In 2009, Harold Offeh performed a series of secret actions in undisclosed locations as part of Services Rendered, a joint commission between Tate Modern and David Roberts Foundation, London. ‘Toilet Attendant’ entailed working as a toilet attendant at Tate Modern, while ‘Doorman’ found him standing as a bouncer at the gallery entrance of David Roberts Foundation. Offeh calculated that, given the average wage for an inexperienced doorman and toilet attendant (£10 and £7.45 per hour), he would need to work 36/38 hours at the gallery and 16 hours at Tate Modern to earn his £500 commission fee. In Carey Young’s participatory work ‘The Representative’, shown at the 2005 Zoo Art Fair, the visitor was required to sit in a booth, pick up a phone and speak to a call centre agent working at a remote location. Callers were offered a chance to ‘get to know’ the agent, and thus experience a portrait. Young prepared ‘a generic script of topics for possible conversation to be offered to callers based on interviews with the agent about their personal background and experiences of call centre work. Following these initial options, calls were unscripted and based on the conversational interests of the caller’. In a 2006 version of his 2002 work ‘This is Propaganda’, Tino Sehgal employed people dressed as museum guards to sing the title of the work operatically and without warning as they wandered through the galleries of Tate Britain.

In each case the ‘worker’ is identified as a figure who challenges our preconception of their role by injecting—or withholding—virtuosity. At some point, Sehgal’s operatic situationist must break the silence; Young’s call centre worker must make her move from generic technocrat to specific interlocutor; and Offeh—well, Offeh reverses things, withholding his creative autonomy in favour of a melancholic emphasis of the ‘art worker’ as an agent of the culture industry (reversing Virno’s idea that virtuosity has replaced labour time as the new test of worker efficiency). Of the three, Sehgal is perhaps the only true Chestertonian, the only true vocational neologist. When writing on his 2006 work, ‘Progress’, I coined the term ‘discursive choreography’ to describe the way in which its verbal character was spatially configured. [8] Viewers were led through the ICA’s empty galleries by tour guides of increasing age, beginning with a small child and ending with a senior citizen. The guide’s task was to initiate a conversation about progress. The loquacity of the guides increased with their years: the small boy said very little, while the conversation with the older woman was entirely one-way. Somewhere in the middle was a moment of genuine dialogue, with neither interlocutor in the ascendancy.

In Sehgal’s ensemble pieces, the choreography is contrived to accommodate the viewer’s own verbal responses; you leave with the feeling that your instincts were somehow anticipated and factored into the work in advance. Sehgal plays with the notion that your instincts, your desires, your hopes and fears for the work, might be reducible to a set of rules, a behavioural blueprint. The effect is one of thwarted enchantment.

If, as Victor Burgin has noted, ‘In classical antiquity, the word “art”…was the name given to any activity governed by rules’, [9] then contemporary art is more agonistic, predisposed towards challenging rules. Which doesn’t mean that it lacks rules, just that it constantly reformulates them. Society, by contrast, must stabilise its rules in order for us to be able to live vaguely consistent lives. Burgin sees the ideological interrelation of art’s and society’s rules in terms of Law and Desire: ‘the collision, or collusion, of Law and Desire is to be found in all parts of the social formation… Art is perhaps unique among representational institutions… in that it may now have no function other than to represent such encounters’. [10] Artists who appropriate the trappings of existing vocations—or take on familiar vocational roles—allegorise this collision of Law and Desire: the adopted vocation represents the Law, and their adaptation of it represents Desire. This is different to the old Bohemian model of refusing vocational convention, the agonistic reformulation of rules that we associate with avant-garde practice. And yet, as stated earlier, that same agonism now surreptitiously pervades the wider workplace. It’s possible that art’s infiltration of the workplace is motivated by the desire to give such agonism a more local inflection. Perhaps this is the kind of naturalisation of art referred to by Lippard at the outset.

Sean Ashton is a writer living in London

[1] Lucy Lippard quoted in Benjamin Buchloh, ‘Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions’, October, vol. 55,Winter, 1990, p.141
[2] Paolo Virno, ‘The Dismeasure of Art: An Interview with Paolo Virno’, in Pascal Gielen and Paul De Bruyne, Being an Artist in Post-Fordist Times, Rotterdam: Fontys, Nai Publishers, 2009, p.17
[3] Virno, op cit, p.18
[4] The Ethics of Power in Pedagogy, Showroom, London, 25 January, 2011
[5] Playback, 22 June–31 July, Showroom, London, 2011
[6] Michael Hardt, ‘Production and Distribution of the Common’, Gielen and De Bruyne, op. cit., p.51. Author’s emphasis
[7] GK Chesterton, The Club of Queer Trades, New York: Dover Publications 1987
[8] Sean Ashton, ‘Live Art and Artefact’, in Maggie Smith (ed.) The New Art,
London: Rachmaninoff’s/Zoo Art Fair, 2006, pp.72–79
[9] Victor Burgin, The End of Art Theory, London: MacMillan, 1986, p.143
[10] Burgin, op. cit., p.197