Working the Digital Image: An interview with Mike Stubbs, Director of FACT

Punchcard Economy, Sam Meech, 2013. Installation at FACT as part of Time and Motion Redefining Working Life

Punchcard Economy (detail), Sam Meech, 2013. Installation at FACT, Liverpool as part of Time and Motion: Redefining Working Life

The exhibition Time and Motion: Re-defining Working Life, currently on view at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool, is a collaborative research project between the institution and the RCA’s Creative Exchange Hub. Based on a scientific method partly developed by the American mechanical engineer Frederick Taylor, the innovative project seeks to consider what work means today. As our industrial economy has given way to a digital service and knowledge economy – one which produces ideas and experiences rather than objects or artefacts – our patterns of day-to-day working life have also changed. This interview with FACT’s Director Mike Stubbs, conducted by our blog editor Daniel C. Blight, seeks to discover a little more about the artists and works in the exhibition, and the way in which the digital image represents, criticises or destabilises working life in the present day.

The artists exhibiting include: Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, Harun Farocki, Oliver Walker, Blake Fall-Conroy, Sam Meech, Molleindustria, Jeff Crouse and Stephanie Rothernberg, Andrew Norman Wilson (who recently spoke as part of The Photographers’ Gallery’s digital programme) and The Creative Exchange.

iPaw, Electroboutique, 2011. Installation at FACT as part of Time and Motion Redefining Working Life

iPaw, Electroboutique, 2011. Installation at FACT, Liverpool as part of Time and Motion: Redefining Working Life

Daniel C. Blight: Working life may have changed with the invention and increasing use of the Internet for business and communication. What might some of these changes be? 

Mike Stubbs: The rubric of eight hours’ work, eight hours’ leisure and eight hours’ rest – fought hard for in the nineteenth century during the campaign for the eight-hour day – evaporates for most us as our leisure is the work and our work the leisure. Do you have one or two Facebook accounts? How are those under-employed contributing within new economies across the world, as consumers and players, or is this just a way of dressing up mass unemployment and shifting the problem as employment patterns change?

“Until then, he had relied on the Vickers shipyard hooter to signal the end of the working day, as did his wife, to put on his tea.”

As our future world of work involves hybrids of network, database and communication skills, traditional roles in clerical and office work become further vulnerable. As manufacturing represents only one in ten jobs in the USA and is increasingly automated with industrial robots, this starts to show a trend that productivity continues to grow while employment diminishes. What dirty labour there is left to do can be migrated to the latest place where people work for the lowest wage, where robots are too expensive or have not had those competencies designed in as yet. However, this is a transitionary phase – as healthcare and education become distributed via new technology, and mining gets automated, we really could be heading for a worldwide state of unemployment.

75 Watt, Tuur Van Balen and Revital Cohen, 2013. Installation at FACT as part of Time & Motion Redefining Working Life

75 Watt, Tuur Van Balen and Revital Cohen, 2013. Installation at FACT, Liverpool as part of the exhibition Time & Motion: Redefining Working Life

Perhaps we should see work as a dance? Post-service industries, post-manufacturing. Or perhaps when the production process is removed and ‘outsourced’, out of site, we feel more comfortable as consumers? 75 Watt (2013) is an artwork in the Time & Motion exhibition that reverse engineers value in the supply chain. Artists Cohen Van Balen collaborated with choreographer Alexander Whitley and a group of workers in a Chinese factory, hired specially to make a ‘useless’ physical object. However, the product of the labour on the production line is a dance, not useful and not an object as we have come to know them. In a society where all leisure and work are interchangeable, a series of movements by the workers can be perceived as the product, which embodies a complex set of relations on a global stage while actioning new forms of trusting relationships. These relationships fundamentally challenge assumptions of industrialised labour and consumption. Producing ‘nothing’ is a highly relevant and valuable proposition for a ‘bling’ society still obsessed with gold-plated Bentleys and champagne lifestyles.

75 watts is the average output of energy a human can expend in a day. What if we speculate on how that energy can be employed to create many outcomes and products, such as a dance? We have choice in all we do, yet when labour is channelled and when those 75 watts are multiplied by a workforce of 2,000 men and women in an Amazon distribution warehouse, do those 150,000 watts of energy get used to further our humanity and give people meaning in life, or have we merely converted humans into robots?

Hybrid Lives Co-Working Space, The Creative Exchange, 2013. Installation at FACT as part of Time and Motion Redefining Working Life

Hybrid Lives Co-Working Space, The Creative Exchange, 2013. Installation at FACT, Liverpool as part of Time and Motion: Redefining Working Life

DCB: What role does new media and the digital image play in these changes?

MS: Much of the most interesting new media artists such as Paulo Cirio, Michelle Terran and John Rafman (who features in our next show Science Fiction – the New Death) all share a deep interest in the syntax of images generated within and by the web. Whether through social media groups or eroneous automated imagery through Google Earth, there is a digitally native understanding of both authorship and document.

Time and Motion constantly references workers leaving the factory gates.  My grandfather owned his first watch on retirement, when he needed it least. Until then, he had relied on the Vickers shipyard hooter to signal the end of the working day, as did his wife, to put on his tea. The hooter was the town’s clock. Workers leaving the factory are more difficult to discern when they are remote workers logging out of their computers; but although the factory gates may be digital they are just as real for most. In the Lumière film of 1895, Workers Leaving the Factory Gates, there is clearly a factory and a place of work. In Workers Leaving the Googleplex, a twin screen video, the artist Andrew Norman Wilson investigates the marginalised class of Google Books ‘ScanOps’ workers at Google’s international corporate headquarters in Silicon Valley. Wilson documented the yellow-badged ScanOps workers while simultaneously chronicling the complex events surrounding his own dismissal from the company.

Workers Leaving the Googleplex, Andrew Norman Wilson, 2009 - 2011. Installation at FACT as part of Time and Motion Redefining Working Life

Workers Leaving the Googleplex, Andrew Norman Wilson, 2009 – 2011. Installation at FACT, Liverpool as part of Time and Motion: Redefining Working Life 

DCB: Today people voluntarily feed social networks and crowdsourcing systems with personal data or ideas that are then transformed into the assets of big digital corporations. How does this effect the role of the producer and the consumer in contemporary society and image culture? What do we desire now?

MS: Where the boundaries between producer and consumer have collapsed, especially within emerging digital economies, we clearly need rapid revisions of our thinking around employment.  Laborers of Love/LOL by Stephanie Rothenberg and Jeff Crouse is a crowdsourcing project that explores how sexuality and desire are mediated through new technologies, specifically new models of global, outsourced labour. The project evolved from Crouse and Rothenberg’s earlier project Invisible Threads, a virtual sweatshop in Second Life. LOL takes the form of an adult entertainment website that uses anonymous online workers to create ‘customer’ video fantasies. Utilizing Mechanical Turk, an online job engine created by Amazon.com, LOL leverages a global online workforce of workers that are not specific to the sex industry but rather a diverse group of home/computer-based workers. In an assembly-line fashion, Mechanical Turk workers collect images and video related to the fantasy from a variety of websites. A real-time data visualisation is then presented on the website consisting of worker locations (Waco, Texas, Bangalore, India etc.) and IP addresses of the mined content (images and video). This visualisation maps the process and ‘production’ of the video fantasy. The final product is a short video mashup where 1970s experimental cinema meets canned Photoshop filters, and ultimately reflects on how desire and pleasure are represented, fragmented and abstracted through the consumption of online digital media.

Laborers of Love, Stephanie Rothenberg and Jeff Crouse, 2013. Installation at FACT as part of Time and Motion Redefining Working Life

Laborers of Love, Stephanie Rothenberg and Jeff Crouse, 2013. Installation at FACT, Liverpool as part of Time and Motion: Redefining Working Life

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s