PUBLIC LIFE : vanguardism in the age of casualised labour, the information economy and extra-cultural communities
Siraj Izhar 2004

The culture of work today is very different to that of 30 years ago.
The historian Eric Hobsbawn in his account of the twentieth century, The Age of Extremes, speaks of the end of the ‘golden age’ which saw the integration of the working classes into the status of full ‘citizenship’, the inclusion of women in the formal labour market, the introduction of the Multicultural State and the establishment of the Welfare State. [1]
Today as provisions of the Welfare State recede by the year in the wake of free market liberalisation, economists speak of a ‘re-commodification of labour’ harking back to very emergence of the ‘self regulating market’ (SRM) in the 1830s.
The constituent elements of the SRM were what the economic historian Karl Polyani referred to as the 3 fictitious commodities of the capitalist economy - the fictitious commodities being money, land and labour. A variety of legislations such as the New Poor Law of 1834 and abolition of the Corn Laws allied to the Enclosures Acts slowly naturalised the 3 fictitious commodities in the collective mind, and embedded the idea that these things could be freely exchanged in an open market. [2]
200 years on, we seem to be on the cusp of a similar scale of capital-led transformation of our lives with a swathe of liberalising legislations akin to the Victorian era albeit now under the aegis of GATT, WTO and restructuring programmes.
The grand transforming philosophy of the SRM is being re-enacted.

The re-commodification of labour in the new liberal economy takes the form of flexible labour, flexible meaning deregulated for the new labour markets of immaterial labour in the information market and affective labour in the service sector. Immaterial and affective are productive of each other and both require a subjective investment as an integral part of the work. The ideal this paradigm of work draws on is to close to the work of a particular social type – the artist – whose sense of personal autonomy is woven into the material aspect of labour without limits on time and commitment.
The socialisation of such labour into a mass labour market is tied to its casualisation.
Flexible and mobile, the shape and form of new labour is mirrored by the increasing centrality of culture and the means of cultural production in the new economy. The profile and incorporation of the artist as a commodity subject and iconic paradigm is necessary to the new economy. Under the provisions of the Culture Industry, ‘Art’ and in particular the commodified production of an avantgarde is now an integral part of the cultural menu.[3]

1992-96: the Public Lavatory and the visual eco-system

The strike project began in 1992 when it occupied the derelict Victorian public convenience in Spitalfields to start the project called Public Lavatory. With the owner's later consent, the disused space was returned to public access, if not for its original use. Over 4 years the Public Lavatory went to incubate and host a sequence of projects which received some critical attention from the formal gallery system and funding structures.

The Public Lavatory was an art project but not a 'public art' project; it set out to define a matrix involving a variety of social players not just artists. Throughout every aspect of its operation, strike's curation sought to link two singular issues together:
1, casualised and affective labour and 2, authorship.
The term a visual ecosystem was used to denote an order of unity whereby people and processes which would otherwise be unrelated could be articulated in an unified aesthetic field. The specificity of this art project so lay in the artists presense, not only the product, but the labour with a particular focus on meniality.
From the curatorial perspective, the ecosystem had a working function - to redefine the telos of an artist's work to something that had to be constructed in parallel.
Whilst the ecosystem was a construct external to the individual, as a cultural entity it was dependent on the subject and authorship. How it was animated given the diversity of subjects involved and how it operated at an individual level required working concepts such as Bourdieu’s habitus [4].
may be described as ' the total ideational environment of a person', the practical sense of an environment arising from a subject's background.
Given the slow gestation period of every strike project, the ecosystem was a sequential montage of overlapping habitus'. It was not latent; as such it served strike’s agenda to avoid the value neutrality intrinsic to cultural discourse and to be an active agent. This agency evolved insitu, through a fabricated ecologic net, which could be ruptured if need be though not wilfully.

Whilst this strategy brought into frame the labour of multiple subjects, neither was it strike’s agenda to represent this labour; labour had its particular domains of representation. The methodology of using an ecologic was to aestheticise the ideology [5] at work in the process by which an artist’s labour acquires value, in particular, exchange value.
This draws into relief the question of who the avantgarde subjects were, whose labour leads to aesthetic consequences in the ecosystemic field and what constituted autonomy. The exchange value of the artist’s labour linked to a Kantian notion of autonomy imbues it with cultural capital, enabling its transference to another circuit of consumption.
This transference is productive of the artist as cultural commodity. It is also simultaneously productive of an ‘extra-cultural’ constituency. The extra-cultural denotes what is subject to the culture industry - its means of production, expansion and its technologies of representation - but what does not serve its use value, or translate into exchange value.
The double production may be selectively applied to a multiplicity of types of subjects who can be amplified in the public imaginary using diverse technologies of representation, though the methodology, the filtering of autonomy, (i.e. the reproduction of the ideology of production) stay the same.


If strike’s ecologic net was a construct beyond the cultural industry’s circuit, to survive it had to examine the concept of authorship.
Walter Benjamin in Author as Producer declares that ‘the work of the author who has reflected deeply on the conditions of present day production will never be merely works on products but always, at the same time, on the means of production.’
Raymond Williams whose book Culture was integral to the Public lavatory project states that a social formation which did not reproduce the means of production at the same time as it produced would not last a year. Any strategic engagement for the strike project required a goal of the reproduction of its means of production.
In this respect, strike was different to (and often mistaken for) an artist run space which sought a tactical existence in a derelict venue as a stepping stone to the normal industry paradigm of Art in the gallery system [6]

The autonomy that Public Life sought was an emergent autonomy - this had to emerge from a process of production constitutive of its context. This autonomy is closer in its construction to the autonomy of the extra-cultural constituency: that which is not appropriated by the Culture industry. By working insitu, the issue was not complicity with exploitative forms of existence or capital, but defining the claim to, and the real politics of autonomy. Within the extracultural, this was ground out in a web of relationships in which the contestations and distinctions between commodity culture and the [necessary] commodity (Georg Lukacs), capitalism and ‘non-capitalism’ (Fernand Braudel) and capitalism and the market (Samir Amin) were being played out. [7]
In a dynamically changing cultural landscape with the production of new social spaces and critically new social subjects - in the interaction between megalithic capital and beaurocracy and ‘non-capital’ enterprises of corner shops, minicabs, and informal economy– aesthetic possibilities abounded for emergent forms of autonomy.
The extracultural constituted not a latent service [sector] or aesthetic superfluity but a vanguardist subject position. With the strike project this was analogous, in intent, to Negri and Hardt’s multitude (though multitude is a concept and not a sociologically determined term).

Public Life operations

Rules of operation for participating in public life were:

1 not to solicit activity, all activity had to be self initiated, volunteered or uninvited
2 not to say no to anything, reject anything but attempt accommodation in some way

Functionally, Public Life was a prototype for an integrated micro-urban site of production and consumption. It generated its own income and re-circulated it within a feedback process between production and consumption. This is a dynamic relationship not a deterministic one. Within the one project the ecology splits into 3 threads, involving an ecology of media and communication, an ecology of money, and an ecology of building. How they interweave effectively produced Public Life – as a cultural subject and institution. What Public Life was could not be appropriated by an external culture -it operated on the streets on its own terms.

A tiny amoeba of a space in the middle of a public pavement provided the ideal prototype for this experiment.[8] The public lavatory was a single nuclear space; everything took place in the one room. As the activity was to be self-generating, the classification of use was a nebulous combination of pub, youth club, club, digital gallery, film venue, meeting place, webcasting node…
What was to be inserted into the space was:
a plug in and play internet broadband network, and a music pa system, and a bar. The latter was responsible for the generation of money (which was to pay for building works, then an internet server and enclosure on ground level). The circulation of money within the project was solely for Public Life's self instituting, not for individual profit through ‘ownership of privileged means of production’ to quote Raymond Williams. [9]

The key ideological shift from the Public Lavatory to Public Life in terms of curation was subsumption of the artist into the project’s everyday operations[10]. This meant a clearer focus on technology as a means of production in the greater landscape of cultural production. A music led digital media culture progressively emerged though the activity was generated by an unorchestrated mix of artists (i.e.who identify themselves as artists) and amateurs.
Though restricted to a evening economy, Public Life functioned as a hyperactive cell for work originating from divergent sites. Whilst geographically disparate, there were 2 key sites of production.
Firstly, the sub/urban bedroom – in Hackney, Whitechapel, Walthamstow, Croydon, Willesden Green, ..... domestic DIY digital culture thus migrated to Public Life as an epicentre for shared consumption;
secondly, the office of the information industry productive of workplace ‘perruque’ to use a phrase from Michel de Certeau [11].
De Certeau describes la perruque as a worker's own work disguised as work for his [or her] employer' – perruque does not involve theft or fraud because the employer does not suffer any tangible loss. Its purely the means of production that an employer owns that is diverted in small incremental ways to serve the worker's personal ends.
‘Immaterial’ poaching is central to digital culture and self-curated by peer to peer forms of exchange. The accretive potential to this low level micro-activity is theoretically unlimited but dependent on the skeleton of capital intensive information infrastructures. Nonetheless the combination of the two through the dispersive medium of the internet fundamentally alters the landscape of cultural formations and emergent aesthetics.
The possibilities of such production leads to a critical tipping point in an understanding of contemporary cultural production, with binary and contradictory, but liberatory implications - whereby the means of production is as distributed as the means of reception, and the nodes of production as diverse as the nodes of reception.

The project of Public Life was to use such processes to construct a reality, not represent a reality. By reality, Public Life meant a projection; the building process, the social process, the cultural process all rolled into one single evolving totality. What it would be could not be formulated at the onset.
The germ of Public Life's project lay in its ideology, in the construction of a praxis for an evolving social whole to use Georg Lukacs’ term. Missing today is the certainty of the political agency that Lukacs reserved for the revolutionary proletariat as a vangardist subject.
The strategy of the Culture Industry is both to co-opt the vangardist position and diffuse its agency. In such circumstance, the possibility of an autonomous practice lies in parallel strategies and vocabularies of construction to create sustainable counterpoints to the Culture Industry. And therein lies the potential meaning for the words, and a project called Public Life.

[1] Eric Hobsbawn, The Age of Extremes : A History of the World, 1914-1991, Michael Joseph

[2] Karl Polanyi, 1944, 1957. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press

[3] In his The 3 Ecologies published in 2000, Felix Guattari describes the fourth-stage capitalism, which no longer engages the primary (agricultural), secondary (manufacturing), or tertiary (services), but only the purely cultural - signs, syntax, subjectivity.....

[4] Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice Cambridge University Press 1977
Habitus here is a means of subjectivisation of a fluid construct like a visual ecosystem with the disparities that individuals and communities import and deploy. A visual ecosystem draws from urban ecology and the radical ideals of social ecology theorists. It served as a curatorial tool for strike to generate a chain of works through it and formed the basis for a process of subsumption addressed later.

[5] Althusser in his essay Ideology and the State would say that ideology is the imaginary relation of individuals to the real relations in which they live. Ideology according to Althusser interpelletes individuals as subjects. By interpellates he means 'calls',' beckons'.
Louis Althusser, Essays on Ideology, Verso 1984

[6] see Live/Life 1997 Font National D’art Contemporaine, Paris a compendium of artist run spaces based in London. It would be a salutary exercise to rerun the ‘show’ to see firstly how many of the projects survive and secondly what type of work they are engaged in.

[7] Georg Lukacs, Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat, from History and Class Consciousness, Merlin Press 1971 ; Fernand Braudel, The Perspective of the World, New York, Harper and Row 1986 ; Samir Amin, Capitalism in the Age of Globalisation, The Management of Contemporary society, Zed books London, 1997

[8] The public lavatory was different to other strike spaces such as Fashion Street which provided 6000 sq ft of different types of spaces and cells of activity along with differentiation of use - as public< >semi-public< >private. The spatial scale and differentiation at Fashion Street allowed an experiment in modelling a ‘factory for integrated social production’ by bringing together an experimental mix of artists and social activist projects into the same shared facility.

[9] Raymond Williams, Culture, Fontana 1981
Raymond Williams uses notions of symmetry and asymmetry when referring to the relations between ownership of the means of production and, general social and cultural production. With cultural production using new technologies, the scale of asymmetry relating to ownership invoked a new set of relationships and new questions for cultural autonomy.
Autonomist artist projects focusing on the liberatory aspect of new technology try to redistribute the means of production but are over-reliant on the authorial precept of 'immediate means of production' which marks their use-value.
At a micro-economic level with regards the ownership of the means of production, the Public Life experiment was an attempt at 'symmetrical' autonomy with all potential income and expenditure being both internalised within the project and merged into a single process.

[10] This differentiates Public Life (from the Public Lavatory) as it does not produce the commodity value of the artist’s labour. According to Negri, the production of real subsumption will lead to the emergence of new collective antagonistic subjects ‘Real subsumption ..does not amount to indifference. Rather it produces and displays a complete transcription of the real relations (individual, of class, of force), and introduces a maximumization of plurality and dynamism.’ Antonio Negri, In First Displacement: The Time of The Subsumed Being from Time for Revolution, Continuum New York 2003.
Predictably whilst the user base of Public Life was self-evolved, there was little continuity from previous strike projects and spaces and it was avoided by many artists whose practices were integrated into art institutions – i.e. those the culture industry’s ideology can interpellate as commodifiable subjects. Such subjects would foreground the financial enterprise in Public Life as contrary to cultural autonomy, without the necessity to construct the conditions of autonomy.

[11] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life. Vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California Press 1984.
Lack of planning consents and Public Life’s autonomy restricted the daytime economy and activity dependent on the completion of enclosure and installation of server and network. Thus one could argue that it was not the perruque of the disempowered but 'consumer perruque' as the in-house production aspect of the Public Life project did not properly commence. Whether this undermined the project is arguable - the three years served to define the operating possibilities for the future.

© 2004 The author. All Rights Reserved.