The Changing World of Work at the Serpentine Marathon – but Where are the Artists?

With 12 hours of talks (and only one 20-minute break) on a Saturday, the Serpentine Marathon illustrates how the art world plays by its own rules

The structure of the Serpentine Marathon illustrates how the art world plays by its own rules. As artist Anna Bella Geiger pointed out, it was Shabbat – a day of rest. Yet, here we were, sitting diligently through 12 hours of talks on the theme of work itself with only one programmed 20 minute break and nowhere onsite to pick up so much as a coffee.

At the start, we were informed that our tweets would be gathered for a future project: our willingness to participate and provide free labour and free creative content, in other words, was assumed. With programming taking place simultaneously across three different spaces, pervasive FOMO was a given. The underlying message, as so often in the artworld, was that rules governing the workaday world did not apply. Hey ho (it’s off to ‘work’ we go …).

Troika and Beatriz Colomina, Bed-in with Beatriz Colomina, Serpentine Work Marathon, Serpentine Pavilion, 22 September 2018. Photograph © 2018 Hugo Glendinning

Troika and Beatriz Colomina, Bed-in with Beatriz Colomina, Serpentine Work Marathon, Serpentine Pavilion, 22 September 2018. Photograph © 2018 Hugo Glendinning

In what, I imagine, was a Serpentine Marathon first, architecture historian Beatriz Colomina presented intimate portraits of Hugh Hefner working in his bed/office, both at the Playboy Mansion and in the boudoir of his lavishly outfitted private jet. The playboy bed was ‘equipped with everything for the man who never wanted to leave his bed,’ explained Colomina. Here, Hefner ate, drank, strategized, conducted meetings and interviews and ‘… consulted with Playmates.’

Hefner wasn’t alone in his horizontal predilections: Truman Capote, Marcel Proust, and the architect Richard Neutra all had a preference for thinking in repose (Neutra apparently slung a tie over his pyjamas for important meetings.) Inspired by a 2012 Wall Street Journal article suggesting 80% of young professionals in New York City were regularly working from bed, Colomina suggested that Hefner presented a new archetype: ‘Post-industrialization is collapsing work back into the home and even into bed itself: networked technologies have removed any limit to what we can do in bed.’

After her talk, Colomina retired to the Frida Escobedo-designed Serpentine Pavilion to stage a John and Yoko-inspired bed-in (an Escobed-in?) For all its sparky humour, Colomina’s presentation provided a neat primer to many of the discussions that would follow.

‘Machines [and] automated systems destroy work,’ explained philosopher Bernard Stiegler, co-host of the event. ‘The economy has been profoundly transformed, as work is replaced with proletarianization and employment – proletarianized employment offers not work but servitude, which today characterizes half of all jobs.’ More and more of us are part of a casualized, ‘self-employed’ workforce either performing physical labour directed by an algorithm (Uber, Amazon, Airbnb) or freelance and project work. The flexible employment and self-determination apparently provided by such models also re-casts the private sphere as the new workspace.

Saskia Sassen, Serpentine Work Marathon, Royal Geographical Society, 22 September 2018, Photograph © 2018 Plastiques Photography

Saskia Sassen, Serpentine Work Marathon, Royal Geographical Society, 22 September 2018,.Photograph © 2018 Plastiques Photography

Sociologist Saskia Sassen took a quick romp through the invisible events that had transformed buildings in great global cities from living or working spaces into functioning assets: ‘they are ceasing to perform as houses – people want asset-backed securities and an empty building makes more money than an occupied building.’ In a property market dominated by ultra-wealthy international investors with no intention of renting out the space they own, living space is squeezed down to its barest functionality. For many people in New York City, working from your living space translates into working from bed because that’s the roomiest private space you have access to.

‘Work is changing,’ explained mathematician Marcus du Sautoy. ‘Algorithms are the secret to modern life: we need to understand the maths that is taking work away from people and giving it to machines.’ As with last year’s AI-themed marathon, speakers from the tech sector were less alarmed than those outside it by a world arranged according to algorithms, and accepted it as a condition that might present new opportunities (even for humour.)

Marcus du Sautoy, Serpentine Work Marathon, Royal Geographical Society, 22 September 2018, Photograph © 2018 Plastiques Photography

Marcus du Sautoy, Serpentine Work Marathon, Royal Geographical Society, 22 September 2018,.Photograph © 2018 Plastiques Photography

Confirming his status as the hardest-working man in showbiz, Hans Ulrich Obrist was among the audience volunteers with whom Du Sautoy demonstrated the basis for the Nobel-prize winning ‘Stable Marriage’ algorithm by match-making a set of stable partnerships on stage. ‘Programme or be programmed’ came his final warning to get with the algorithm.

Venkatesh Rao presented a new set of ‘Archetypes for the Anthropocene’ – an era shaped by a new species of human, apparently subsisting entirely on coffee and interacting only with their smartphones. In place of the ‘tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor …’ of previous generations, Rao suggests the ‘hacker contrarian, legislator, investigator, operator and holy warrior.’ 

Advocating for a responsive, non-hierarchical, globally-dispersed corporate model, Phoebe Tickell of the En.Spiral network described herself as a ‘renegade scientist.’ If that label sounded echoes of Rao’s ‘holy warrior’ archetype it wasn’t coincidental: Tickell was nothing if not evangelical. ‘I do most of my work on the road – this is the way I want to live my life,’ she noted. Fine if you’re a software developer type with a flexible lifestyle and elastic deadlines, not so much if you’re a caregiver engaged in tasks that require physical interaction.

David Adjaye, Jon Gray and Lynette Yadom-Boayke, Serpentine Work Marathon, Royal Geographical Society, 22 September 2018. Photograph © 2018 Plastiques Photography

David Adjaye, Jon Gray and Lynette Yadom-Boayke, Serpentine Work Marathon, Royal Geographical Society, 22 September 2018. Photograph © 2018 Plastiques Photography

Are any of these jobs even necessary, though? Filmmaker Adam Curtis suggests most of us are literally labouring under an illusion: ‘maybe the real problem is that what we think of as work today isn’t actually work: most people’s jobs are pointless. The only reason they do them is to earn money to do their real job which is to go shopping. That’s the real work we do, and I don’t see much sign of that work going away.’

The big question in all of this was where are all the artists? Sure, they were making art: Pedro Reyes presented snippets from a puppet show featuring an exploding robot Elon Musk, a rapping Karl Marx and a resurrected Steve Jobs; Rirkrit Tiravanija commissioned Archie Proudfoot to paint ‘Ne Travaillez Jamais’ onto the backdrop of the stage; Anne Imhof gigged the event to a close with music from Faust (2017). But, with the notable exceptions of Geiger, Josh Kline (who produced an election-style video promoting Universal Basic Income) and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (who draws inspiration from Prince’s legendary non-stop work ethic), artists’ participations in the discourse felt marginal. Certainly the impact of the new work economy on the creative industries passed pretty much undiscussed.

The characters in Kline’s video, enjoying the suburban wonder-world of life on Universal Basic Income, tell us they’ve finally got around to writing their novel and have taken up musical instruments. As with other discussions of this ilk (including those on fully-automated luxury communism) creative production is offered as a leisure pursuit: a manifestation of the unrealized self held back by wage slavery. This presents some profound issues about the status of the artist as worker and how art making and the creative industries in general are regarded as work (or not) and by extension how they are valued. None of this was discussed on the day. Something for next year, perhaps? That and a coffee shop.

Patrick Staff, Weed Killer, 2017, detail from installation view at MOCA Grand Avenue. Courtesy: The Museum of Contemporary Art, LA; photograph: Zak Kelley

Hettie Judah is a writer based in London, UK.

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