by Miriam La Rosa 

The notion of labour and the issue of site-specificity
Miriam La Rosa: Talking about your practice, this encompasses the inclusion and questioning of power structures, often resulting in a direct reaction to the architectural elements that surround you. In our specific case, to the Window Space. In this respect, two projects for buildings can be interesting to look at. One is the Phalanstère, or Phalanstery: a building designed for a utopian community by Charles Fourier in the 19th century and apparently taken as an inspiration by Le Corbusier. Its goal was to encourage the progress of gender roles in a community environment, where 500 to 2000 people work together for mutual advantage. The second one is something that came to my mind as a contrast to the former, namely the Panopticon, designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century and never realised. In particular, what interests me is Foucault's interpretation of it as a metaphor for modern disciplinary societies and their inclination to observe and normalise. This strategy, in fact, generates a consciousness of perpetual visibility as a form of power, where domination is allowed in the easiest way possible, i.e. through the fear of being watched. Hence, the Phalanstère and the Panopticon mirror two different aspects of your work for Freedom; from one side, your interest in the significance and implications of labour and from the other side, the configuration of the Window Space (its exposure and visibility) and your relationship with it. Would you like to elaborate on these two points and contextualise your position towards them/share your opinion about it?

Charlotte Warne Thomas: Regarding the parallelism between labour, in general, and artistic labour, in particular, I think there is a link here in terms of the privatisation issue. One of the things I was thinking right at the beginning is that, with the crazy property prices, there is the matter of artists’ studios. Having the space – a studio – but also the time to be an artist – because most artists have to balance a job with an artistic career, which generally does not really pay you in a city where half of the money goes on rent and transport is very expensive and everything else is incredibly expensive. It is only getting worst because of this issue of investment capital flying into London and prices rising with property speculation. So these issues are really tied in with what makes it possible to be an artist and a lot of people I know are completely fed up with London. Many artists from London have gone to Berlin and Brussels, because it is untenable to have a low income in London because housing costs and studio rents are so high. So, I think that survival of artists is really on the edge in London and then you get this horrible situation where the only people who can survive are from wealthy backgrounds, especially with education being so expensive now. There is a sense that London is becoming more untenable for artists and low paid workers – because artists are essentially low paid unless they become really successful which happens to a tiny minority. Then the other thing is that big developers make use of artists and you get this artwashing phenomenon that you can see in Shoreditch and Hackney, where creative industry and graffiti and the inner city’s cheaper area is colonised by artists. As Richard Florida identified, the cultural capital is then gradually turned into speculation capital and the area takes off and then the artists can’t afford to live there anymore. So, gradually, the area is becoming more sterile. I do not think artists are responsible for this, but they are protagonists – or pawns perhaps. So, for instance, with the Balfron Tower, which is now being rented out on the cheap to artists as that kind of artwashing exercise, the artists who are there are not complicit – is not their agenda, but they are taking advantage of cheap rent while they can and they will eventually get kicked out. But they are also being used to gentrify these areas, basically. So yeah, I think there is a situation with artists being low paid and all low paid people being treated badly. This is a bad situation, especially in London.
Thinking about the labour of the artist, there is something a bit magical about it. If you think of labour in terms of Marx, you have got alienated labour and I think that artists are slightly outside that system, or the idea has always been that they are outside this because, in theory at least, the artist is in control of their labour; they do not have to sell it, they do it for themselves or for their own gain and if they are successful artists, their labour produces fantastic gains For example, Damien Hirst, his labour is more like branding, isn’t it? So I think there is something about this that is very specific and different than the alienating labour of other workers. But it is also not quite the same as the entrepreneurial or small business owners, but it is similar. It is a really good case for artists being the ultimate neoliberal subject, because their entrepreneurialness is all they have got, in a way. Then, there is a contradiction because the state of the artworld at the moment means that most artists are not able to sell their labour as an artist – and I do not even try, to be honest. I put my labour into the creation of my work, but because I rarely make saleable commodities, it is effectively valueless. This to me raises the question of what is value? In a sense my work is kind of an opposite capital; I am investing capital in something that is almost definitely going to be financially value-less.
So going back to the issue of labour, there is the slight connotation – when you are talking about labour – that you refer to manual labour, like a physical trade. I think there is a really strong feeling in this country of snobbery against manual labour. The education system is focused on people going to university and it is not at all focused on people doing engineering and high technical skills; manufactory and industry are not highly regarded, they are kind of felt like dirty. There is a real snobbery about manual labour; you notice this in the artworld too, where technicians’ skills are often disregarded, despite the fact that a lot of artists work as technicians. There is hierarchy in the artworld and society, where someone that works in a bank, for instance, gets paid a huge salary and somebody like a nurse who works really hard and is highly skilled is terribly badly paid. This is somehow acceptable. Yes, there is this kind of snobbery and I think that the artworld repeats that situation in itself. Artists can be treated like royalty but if they’re behind the scenes, then they become manual labourers and are completely overlooked.
Regarding the second point about physically being in the window space, at the beginning especially it was quite weird, when I was doing my research and using my laptop, I felt really vulnerable sitting there; that was quite odd and unexpected. I hadn’t really pictured it. How this influences the work that has been made and the project as a whole, I do not really know, because it has got to the point now that when I am in the Window Space I am building something. Certainly, the last few weeks have been about doing the stuff that needs to be done in there rather than using it as a studio space to conceive the works. So it hasn’t felt like such an issue anymore. At the beginning, we discussed how the process – and physically occupying the window space – was going to be really important and I am not sure how much that has really been the case; there is not enough time to stop and think like at the beginning. It has become less about process and more about deadlines. The process here is about showing what happens for real, the production aspect of making work, which is rarely seen, but which is actually 90% of the work – the labour – itself. People walking by the window in this past week have seen us taking apart the scaffolding and removing the wallpaper; all things that belong to the de-installation of the previous work and preparation for the new one. I always feel like if you make site-specific work you often do not spend much time in the studio. However, in this case, the studio is the site of the display. And this is a really difficult way of being an artist, because it puts a lot of pressure on you and it is a lot of problem solving all the time. Another aspect of site-specific work that is difficult is that your work tends to change quite a lot, in response to the architecture, the surroundings and the space you are responding to and, by its very nature, if you work like that it is a nightmare for marketing and stuff like that; selling your work. Commercial galleries are, in general, not particularly interested in it. So, it is a really difficult position to put yourself in. But it definitely is an interesting situation to be in, full of problematics, but at the same time full of potential and possibilities – and certainly never boring.  

FREEDOM > Miriam La Rosa > 03.05.2015