In the much noted French documentary Merci Patron! (2016), the head of one of the world’s largest luxury brand companies, Bernard Arnault, states that a workers’ revolt poses the greatest threat of all. Monsieur Arnault’s fear of strike has, of course, to do with that it halts the production of commodities (clothes, handbags, services) and therefore capital accumulation. In contrast to the production of handbags, it is less clear what the consequences would be if art production stopped and artists went on strike. What would an artistic strike mean for the luxury conglomerate’s spectacular art institution, Fondation Louis Vuitton, in the outskirts of Paris? From what production would the artists in revolt withhold their labour? Who is the employer that would fear such a strike?
The notion of an artistic strike raises a number of contradictory questions, which have occupied several generations of contemporary artists. Conceptually, anything from John Cage’s compositions that let the viewer perform the work, to minimalist and conceptual art, can be said to question artistic labour. Among the more explicit artistic practices that deal with the theme of strike are Daniel Buren’s blockade of his own exhibition in Milan 1968, Robert Barry’s 1974 exhibition in Los Angeles that consisted only of a sign saying that the gallery was closed, and Gustav Metzger’s self-initiated stop to his art production between 1977–1980. A more contemporary example is Santiago Sierra’s exhibition at Lisson Gallery in 2002, where the entire gallery was covered in corrugated metal that made it impossible to enter.
In her first solo exhibition in Great Britain, at Chisenhale Gallery in London, Berlin-based artist Maria Eichhorn joins the list of artists dealing with the question of artistic strike. Eichhorn’s practice can be described, in reference to both Fluxus and institutional critique, as language-based and oriented toward institutional and social structures. At last year’s Venice biennial, she showed the video Militant (2011), in which a young girl lies in bed reading Empire by post-Marxists Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, a book that helped popularize theories of work in the art world roughly a decade ago. Part of the exhibit in Venice was also Eichhorn’s installation Toile/Pinceau/Peinture, Leinwand-Pinsel/Farbe, Tela/Penello/Colore (Canvas/Brush/Painting), in which artistic work was outsourced to the visitor, who was asked to paint monochromes using a number of preselected paints.
For her exhibition 5 weeks, 25 days, 125 hours at Chisenhale Gallery, Eichhorn chose to close the gallery for the entire duration of the show. This was presented as a way of “giving back time to the staff”. In practice this means that a large part of the staff receives a five-week paid vacation. A sign informs the visitor that the gallery is kept closed for the full length of the exhibition. Information is also given about the symposium that was held on the day of the opening, with lectures by theoreticians Stewart Martin and Isabel Lorey. A publication of texts, including a transcribed group discussion with the staff that Eichhorn initiated at the beginning of the project, is downloadable on the Chisenhale website. Indeed, this group discussion seems to form the kernel of Eichhorn’s project.
Should Eichhorn’s exhibition be understood, in the spirit of Metzger, as stopping artistic production? Or is it an attempt at organizational critique that strives to illuminate the working conditions that prevail at art institutions today? If so, in what ways does this attempt succeed?
Eichhorn utilizes her own artistic labour to liberate the wage labor that her art partly depends on. It is therefore not Eichhorn’s labour that is withdrawn. Rather, she plays the part of saviour or employer by – in her role as an artist – giving the workers a vacation. But in spite of her will to liberate work and time, neither production nor wage labour are, in themselves, stopped. Wages are paid nonetheless, and the exhibition continues. And even if all emails to the gallery are deleted after an auto-reply, the piled tasks that after the “vacation” await the person in charge of communcations, or the curator, do not disappear. Production, too, goes on in the wider sense that the private funders that Chisenhale depends on – among them, the multi-national media corporation Bloomberg and Frieze Art Fair – are not affected by the gallery shutdown. The financial base of the exhibition is, in other words, still highly productive.
More than an actual withdrawal of work, the exhibition must be understood as an artistic gesture that is acted out in emails, on signs, in the publication and perhaps most of all in the discussion with which Eichhorn began her project. The director of Chisenhale, the curator and other employees are interviewed by Eichhorn about a number of questions regarding what they do at work and what they think about it, which reminds me more of organizational theory than a critique of capitalist labour itself. Comments like “I like the idea that you’re constantly learning while you’re working”, and the less positive “Sometimes my day gets eaten up with responding to emails or various smaller tasks”, are familiar to most employees today. In spite of this, Eichhorn reacts with naive surprise several times, when informed about such things as that the director spends 75% of her time finding funders.
Chisenhale Gallery is a comparatively small, non-profit institution in East London, and like many other cultural institutions in England it has been greatly affected by the conservative cutbacks. This means that they are forced to seek more private funders for their program, and also find solutions for making as many exhibitions as before with smaller grants. For Chisenhale, as for other art institutions, this has meant that working conditions such as overtime are a rule rather than an exception. Whitechapel Gallery is an example of a larger publicly funded art space, which does not pay the London living wage to its cleaners and exhibition guards, while its directors are piloted like international soccer stars between different institutions. This warped wage policy is especially problematic for institutions like Chisenhale and Whitechapel Gallery, which are located in some of the poorest districts in all of London.
The discussion between Eichhorn and the workers at Chisenhale, to a large extent illuminates how neoliberal conditions at art institutions affect those who work there, and above all what the consequences are for the exhibitions that are shown. What Eichhorn is after, seemingly, is highlighting what happens when all the work that is required to exhibit and experience art is removed. And, indeed, there is no exhibition in the usual sense. But the gesture seems too small, and self-referential. Closing Tate Modern for five weeks would have had more far-reaching consequences, which could have placed a heavier emphasis on the paradoxical relation between artistic and productive labour. At a small, specialized institution like Chisenhale, it would have required a more radical gesture to achieve a similar symbolic or real effect. Instead, the impression of Eichhorn’s project now is that it does not really say anything new, either about the specific liberating capacity of art, or about the working conditions that prevail at art institutions today. Next time, she might try working a little harder.