‘Vertically Integrated Manufacturing’ proved that the way labour conditions changed in the 20th century have not left the art world unaffected. Inspired by Jacques Rancière’s observation that ‘artistic practice is not the outside of work, but rather its displaced form of visibility,’ the exhibition brought together ten artists who address such changes by highlighting their production methods. The approaches presented were wide-ranging, yet circled around common concerns about artistic self-definition – what curator Helen Molesworth calls ‘the process of the professionalization of the profession.’ Such work moves away from the manufacturing of goods to providing immaterial services that often confuse the line between work, performance and leisure.
‘Vertical integration’ refers to a production model in which companies manufacture all aspects of a given supply chain – a strategy that implies the interconnectedness of the artist as both independent and a participant in a larger economic system. Carl Andre’s Base 7 Aluminum Stack (2008) makes the alienation of the artist-worker from its material apparent. Instead of physically altering the state of the 49 aluminium ingots used in this work, Andre chooses to arrange them in a neat triangular stack more reminiscent of commercial product arrangement than of traditional forms of industrial labour. The length of Seth Price’s eight-hour mix CD, mix, 8–4, 9–5, 10–6, 11–7 (2007), suggests the duration of a traditional working day. Yet, as workdays are now often flexible, the piece instead suggests that work and play begin to blend together creating a new ideal of a tirelessly creative worker.
In Recycle (Hanging Proposal for Sculpture by Kelley Walker), (2007) Fia Backström addresses the equation of leisure and consumer ethics. Against a backdrop of BP (British Petroleom) flower stencils and IKEA-style furniture, this tableau features a sculpture of a recycle sign (by Kelley Walker) as one of the protagonists in an idyllic picnic, suggesting that even free-time activities are part of a system that renders us as a perpetual consumer.
The pairing of Allan McCollum’s The Shapes Project: Shapes From Maine, (2005/8) with four photographs of industrial architecture in the Ruhr area by Bernd and Hilla Becher (1968–88) illustrated the strategy of artists mimicking the process of production represented in their choice of subject. McCollum’s phalanx of 144 unique copper cookie-cutters is produced in a laborious handmade process by a small company in Maine. Similarly, the Bechers’ serial approach is based on an intense research process that identifies each photographed form as a uniquely designed structure within a bigger composition of a vanishing style of industrial architecture.
A proposal for an ideal of shared labour that refuses to adapt to current modes of economic exchange was presented by one of the historic pieces in the show: Douglas Huebler’s Variable Piece #150 (1973), for which the artist makes the collector of the work an essential part in the physical completion of the piece. The collector is asked to follow a sheet of typed instructions – such as taking a picture, or revealing a secret – which would then left blank in a panel. In this particular case, however, these instructions remained unfulfilled leaving the work unfinished; it speaks to a style of collecting that ignores the original intention of a work in favour of its value.
‘Vertically Integrated Manufacturing’ presented a strong selection of works that succeeded in illustrating how the production of art has simultaneously mirrored and anticipated transformations in labour developments. The exhibition suggested that the historic ambition to unify art with life has led to the incorporation of today’s work practices into the artistic process. Yet as much as strategies begin to look alike, differing incentives prevent the full assimilation of the artist into the contemporary workforce.
First published in Issue 130