PUBLIC LIFE : vanguardism in the age of casualised labour
strike 2004

1992: strike & ideas on work

The culture of work today is very different to that of 30 years ago.
The historian Eric Hobsbawn's account of the twentieth century, The Age of Extremes, speaks of the end of the post-war ‘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 and the establishment of the Welfare State. [1]
But there is now a process that takes us backwards, back to the early days of industrial capital and then onto another emergence of a ‘self regulating market’ (SRM). The elements of the SRM were what the economic historian Karl Polyani called the fictitious commodities of the capitalist economy - money, land and labour. A number of legislations such as the New Poor Law of 1834 and abolition of the Corn Laws aligned to the Enclosures Acts slowly naturalised the 3 fictitious commodities in the collective mind, with the idea that these things could be freely exchanged in an open market. [2]

200 years on in a digital age, we are in a similar scale of capital-led transformation of our working lives forced through by legislations as in the Victorian era; today under the aegis of GATT, WTO and restructuring programmes. The transforming philosophy of the SRM is being re-enacted.

A new labour for the new economy comes with new language for the digital age and its deregulation; there's the immaterial labour for the information sector and affective labour for the service sector. Immaterial and affective both demand greater subjective investment in the making of the new labour. The ideal they draw upon is the work of a particular social type – the artist – whose sense of personal autonomy is woven into the labour without limits on time and commitment. This is the paradigm of 'Total flexibilisation' for the new worker [3] - the avantgarde for a new negotiation of fictitious commodities in the new age.

1992-96: the Public Lavatory

The strike project began when it occupied the derelict Victorian public lavatory in Spitalfields. 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 stray critical attention from the formal art system and funding structures.

The Public Lavatory was a project that set out to define a matrix involving a variety of social players through art in the new realities of work. By that, strike sought to link two issues:
1, casualised and affective labour and 2, authorship.
The term a visual ecosystem was used to signify an order of unity whereby all the disparate elements could be articulated in an unified field.
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. The specificity of the project so lay in the artist's presense in that field.
Whilst the ecosystem was a construct outside of or external to individual authorship, how it was animated given the diversity of subjects involved and how it operated at an individual level required broader working concepts such as Bourdieu’s habitus [4].
may be described as ' the total ideational environment', the practical sense of an environment arising from a subject's background.
With the slow development of every strike project, the ecosystem was a sequential montage of 'overlapping habitus'. This was about an evolution of context, not about an autonomy of production, or value neutrality as art.

Whilst this strategy brought into frame multiple subjects, neither was it strike’s agenda to represent the labour of each; labour had its particular domains of representation. The methodology of using an ecologic was to clarify or 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 differentiation in the ecosystemic field and what constituted autonomy. The exchange value of the artist’s labour linked by convention to a 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 self-production, expansion and its technologies of representation - but what does not serve its use value, or translate into exchange value.
This double production in a visual eco-system is selectively applied to a multiplicity of subjects to place the author in the public imaginary.

Rethinking rebuilding the Public lavatory 1996 -1999

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' book Culture 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.
Strike’s understanding of a visual ecosystem required a goal of the reproduction of its means of production within the cultural industry’s circuit. 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 strike sought was a strategic autonomy based on a regularised daily engagement with the public - this had to emerge from a process constitutive of its context. This autonomy would be closer in an aesthetic sense to the autonomy of the extra-cultural constituency: that which is not appropriated by the Culture industry. The contention was not complicity with exploitative forms of existence or capital, but defining the claim to its material conditions, 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 - lay another space for forms of autonomy.
The extracultural constituted not a latent service [sector] or aesthetic superfluity or everyday surplus but an emergent shadow vanguardist subject position.

Public Life 1999 - 2003

The only rules of operation for 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

This was to enable a dynamic relationship with the public not a deterministic one. Its working ecology was conceived as 3 threads, of media and communication, of money, and of building. How they would interweave would effectively produce 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. An amoebic space in the middle of a public pavement provided the ideal prototype for this experiment.[8] As the activity was to be self-generating, the classification of use was a fuzzy combination of hub and club, digital venue, film venue, meeting place, webcasting node, etc.
What was inserted into the space was a plug in and play internet broadband network,projectors, a sound pa system, and a bar. Then on, it was meant to be self-sustaining, economically, just as culturally it was to be self-instituting.[9]

The change from Public Lavatory to Public Life lay in subsuming the artist's labour into the project’s economic operations[10]. 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).
Public Life became a hub for connecting work from divergent contexts. Whilst disparate, there were 2 key 'off-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 - hidden, unofficial, 'stolen' work taken from the workplace as ‘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. It is purely the means of production that an employer owns that is diverted in small incremental ways to serve the worker's personal ends - the small un-noticed extras.
‘Immaterial’ poaching, the un-noticed is central to this culture production, self-curated by peer to peer exchange. This potential of the un-noticed extra is theoretically unlimited but dependent on the skeleton of capital intensive infrastructures. Nonetheless the combination of the two through the dispersive space of the internet alters the landscape of cultural formations and emergent aesthetics.
The accumulative possibilities lead to a tipping point in an understanding of contemporary cultural practices, with contradictory yet 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 be a convergence process for a dispersed spectrum of an extra-cultural, to construct a reality, not to represent any reality. A sort of convergence through all its own fictitious commodities rolled into one (akin to the land, the money and the labour of Public Life). What that would be could not be formulated at the onset.
But in its time, at the core of its praxis in the political sense was the question of work. Given the destabilisation of work, the strategy of the Culture Industry is to co-opt the vangardist position as its own. In such circumstance, the possibility of any autonomous practice lies in parallel strategies and vocabularies of construction to create sustainable counterpoints to the Culture Industry.


[1] Eric Hobsbawn, The Age of Extremes : A History of the World, 1914-1991, Michael Joseph 1994

[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.

[10] This differentiates Public Life from the derelict Public Lavatory. 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 a culture industry can interpellate as commodifiable. Such practitioners would foreground the economic dimension of Public Life as contrary to cultural autonomy without the necessity to construct the material conditions of autonomy.

[11] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life. Vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California Press 1984.
Lack of planning consents restricted the daytime economy and activity dependent on the completion of enclosure and installation of server and network. Thus one could argue that the perruque was limited in range 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.
© All Rights Reserved Siraj Izhar 2004