Monday, November 1, 2010


Late capitalist society is engaged in a long-term historical process of destroying job security, while the virtues of work are ironically and even more insistently being glorified.

(David Aronowitz and Jonathan Cutler)

If you can say of an unemployed person that they are between jobs, then you could also say of the North-facing office on the third floor of the commercial property at 50 Manners Street, Wellington, that it is currently between tenants. At times of economic strife, you need upbeat euphemisms. But is the empty space comforted? Is it ever lonely? Does it look forward to becoming again a place of work, or would it rather be left alone, to mind its own lack of business?

A vacant commercial space is a site of anxiety, more so than a vacant dwelling. If it happens to include a shop front, its emptiness becomes a concrete representation of crisis. An empty shop on the corner can bring down the whole neighbourhood. We use phrases like that: to bring down, to depress. Things take on mood.

Image by SomeDriftwood

Sophie Jerram and Mark Amery have been exploiting this mood for some time in their Letting Space series, in which empty commercial premises are repurposed as temporary art spaces. I wrote some time ago about Dugal McKinnon’s Popular Archaeology, but of more interest to today’s proceedings is the Free Shop set up last May by artist Kim Paton at a former nut store in Ghuznee Street. ‘A social exercise in interrogating the false economics of production in capitalism and in particular the murky terrain of wastage,’ is how David Cross summed it up. I recall asking myself at the time if those premises, which had accommodated a picture framer before becoming a nut store, and before that who knows what else, had ever been as crowded as they were on the day of my visit. But then of course at that point it had really become the opposite of itself, an anti-shop, existing solely by virtue of temporary arrangements with regular shops and their suppliers.

And so too The Beneficiary’s Office which has installed itself at 50 Manners Street is the product of careful mediation: with the property owners, with funding bodies, with the welfare provisions that allow Tao Wells to call himself an artist and not charge an admission for it, all on the taxpayers’ dime. Another murky terrain, another interrogation – of the nature of labour, of what are the products of art, and of who should pay for them.

The work itself is an exercise in misdirection. It is called The Beneficiary’s Office, but if you visit the premises the sign on the door says The Wells Group. (No, not that Wells Group.) Inside, you’ll find the artist, the receptionist, a couple of desks. Go on, you can talk to them. Or you can visit the website. It won’t tell you much. The home page is all sidebar, no content. The Media section is where all the meat is, in the form of the responses that the project has garnered. All it took was for Jerram and Amery to send out a press release in which Wells was quoted saying things like
[t]he average carbon footprint of the unemployed person is about half of that of those earning over $100,000 […] Surely, an advanced society would see us work less, and enjoy the benefits of unemployed time. We need to work less, so we consume less.
The mainstream press became aware that this very timid and relatively uncontroversial critique of our economic system received public funding from Creative New Zealand, and that Wells himself was on a benefit pursuant to the artists-on-the-dole scheme. Lane Nichols of The Dominion Post duly proceeded to prepackage the news so that it could be gnawed at by the predictably outraged.

The first to bite was blogger Inventory2 over at Keeping Stock, immediately followed by David Farrar. Regular readers know that I don’t make a habit of linking to that particular forum, but the first post at Kiwiblog on the topic is a remarkable case study of the downright irrepressible anger of the over-entitled and over-employed. Writes Farrar:
It’s unfair that I have to work 60 hour weeks to fund your fucking life style, you bludging wanker…
Not just a greedy selfish bludger, but a stupid one also…
He refuses to work, but is happy to apply for grants so he can preach about why people should bludge like him…
Listen Mr Fuckwit, you are not forced to take a job. So long as you don’t want those of us who do work to pay you a benefit, you do not need to ever work again…
Having a layabout wanker who is illegally claiming the dole, promote dole bludging as a lifestyle choice is not innovative. Would Creative NZ give money for a tax felon to set up an office and advise people not to pay their taxes?…
This makes my blood boil…

As the righteous indignation spread, Work and Income swiftly responded by suspending Wells’ benefit. Except, contrary to Farrar’s claim, the benefit wasn’t ‘illegally claimed’ at all, and the artist managed to have it reinstated in short order. In a second, less expletive-filled post, Farrar shifted his focus and intimated he would put his influence to good use and lobby for the funding of Creative New Zealand to be cut. And while ACT MP Heather Roy, whose unit of measure of public spending are glue ear operations, managed to sound like the moderate, composed voice of reason, the time came for a new issue of The Listener – formerly our weekly magazine of ideas, now the bastion of the sagging, propertied middle class – to hit the stands.

Once again, don’t get used to my linking to such disreputable sources, but the editorial of the October 30 issue of the magazine must be read in its entirety to be fully appreciated or, indeed, believed. Wells’ installation is nothing less than A Blow to the Art, shrieks the heading, going on to rhetorically inquire: ‘When an artist bites the hand that feeds it, does he deserve that public funding?’ The analysis of the merits of the project runs as follows:
To further bedevil our sense of the balance between free speech and public decency, Wells has accepted public money to create an art installation in which he disparages working people, and exhorts them to ditch their jobs, live off the state and become minimalist consumers. Officials deemed it art for the 37-year-old long-term beneficiary to glorify the notion of slacking and bludging off one’s fellow citizens.
The conclusion, in equal parts veiled threat and stern warning, is just a smidgen more oblique than Farrar's avowal to deal with the blaspheming funding agency directly:
The risk for [Creative New Zealand] if it continues to make similar funding choices is that soon taxpayers may not be asking the question of the artworks, but of CNZ itself.

So this is it: a $3,500 grant ($2,000 to Wells, plus expenses), and the ongoing support of a scheme that puts artists on the same footing as the regular unemployed, are enough to buy off your freedom to make statements that are minimally provocative. It should be pointed out that Wells never called for a universal living wage, nor for an actual policy of degrowth. Nor did he at any point advocate or postulate the end of work. He simply set up shop, and used the word ‘beneficiary’ to mean something other than ‘welfare recipient who ought to be bloody grateful’. It’s literally all it took.

In another breach of my usually high standards, Wells’ op-ed in the print edition of The Dominion Post made me buy a physical copy of the paper. By that stage the controversy had died down somewhat, as reactionary and liberal pundits alike became more interested in the industrial dispute surrounding The Hobbit. Now I'll confess that I didn’t think that Wells' piece was particularly incisive, certainly not very radical: it emphasised the consequence of ever-increasing production and consumption on the environment, and the consequences of being forced to take work, any work, on the sense of self of job-seekers. Its conclusion petered out somewhat into a vague series of statements:
What we have been advocating for, is to do those things that we love, not because we are told that we love them, but because we have found real love there, enough to share.
We need to explore the idea, intellectually, of embracing our collective welfare - by taking a break.

But then I closed the paper, and my eyes fell on the main headline.

You can read the full article here.

Twenty-two (more) years of dumping, a simple statement that contains all of our dogged determination to run down the clock on the capacity of our environment to sustain us, in the name of the Economy. The value, the force of Wells' work is to be found in these juxtapositions, just like his rhetorical and artistic masterpiece isn't the opinion piece that he wrote himself, but rather the one he had The Listener write for him: a brilliantly succinct formulation of capitalist realism, with its coolly enraged curtailing of the slightest departure from the script that says that growth equals work equals wealth equals equity – a belief as entrenched on the Right as it is on the Left.

As for Mr Farrar we might wish to ask: what is it that makes him work 60 hour weeks. Is it fear? Greed? Or is he just another inmate, a prisoner of society, bereft of options? (In which case, is work going to set him free?)

He’d likely respond that it is the dissenters, the bludgers, who are forcing him to always be working, so that he can support them as well as himself. But two years ago and then again this year his taxes were cut. Is he working any less? I doubt it somehow, and he doesn't appear capable to even entertain the question without exploding into a fit of rage. But somebody should, it is perhaps the single most important question of our time: how to revolutionise society and the very concept of labour, no longer in the name of equity and justice, but the survival of the species. David Aronowitz and Jonathan Cutler wrote this over ten years ago: 'What has been called utopian in the past is now a practical necessity.' To work less, so that we all can work. To discriminate between the work that makes us richer, and the work that makes us poorer. To imagine a post-work society and create the material conditions for its existence.

In the meantime, The Wells Group will close its doors this Tuesday; Tao Wells will go back on the dole while he works on his next project; the North-facing office on the third floor of the commercial building at 50 Manners Street will be emptied again; and on Wednesday, all over the country that has chosen a currency trader as its Prime Minister and where questions cannot be asked, thousands of beneficiaries will wake up wishing for work, (almost) any work, as without a doubt in their place would I.

The Beneficiary's Office closed on November 2nd. It would be remiss of me not to link to the thoughtful reviews of the exhibition by David Cross at EyeContact  and Lew at Kiwipolitico

The Aronowitz  and Cutler quotations are from Post Work: The Wages of Cybernation (New York: Routledge, 1998), pages 40 (the epigraph) and 69 (the quotation in the post).