This text by Maja Klaassens was written for Sven Lütticken’s MA seminar Art Criticism, for which students normally write a series of exhibition reviews. The Corona Crisis necessitated a rethink, and in this short essay, Maja reflects on culture, criticism and political mobilization under Covid-19 and beyond.
Tips for Binge-Watching During a National Lockdown
Written by Maja Klaassens
As the world retreats inside, social media is quick to inform me I’m doing it all wrong. There are many Tips and Tricks for Getting Work Done during the Covid-19 pandemic. Updates from the government and related memes are paralleled by a strange influx of information about all the new skills I could be picking up in my extra ‘downtime’, fertilizing intellectual nest eggs for future ventures on the free market. Before you know it, the self-care cavalry moves in: Netflix, online shopping, meditation, and Yoga, Yoga, Yoga. The appropriate way to deal with the stress of a global pandemic is not only to keep performing, but to also remember to make space for wellness™. Neoliberalism is in the house, and one thing is clear, saying I can’t isn’t easy.
The unfathomable speed at which capitalism absorbs a public health crisis is astonishing. It feels too early to even reflect on corona themed products and discounts. The blissful escape of binge watching is understandable given the circumstances, but I’m curious as to how many people are quietly radicalizing in the privacy of their homes. Of all the people consuming audiovisual content during lockdown, what’s the ratio of cooking shows and reality TV to emotionally consuming YouTube videos on Marxist theory? Could ‘Imaging Dissent: Towards a Common Subject’, Werker Collective’s contribution to Art and Education, function as a niche Netflix for those of us more prone to getting angry? If so, am I indulging in self-congratulatory consumption, or does their online project offer the potential of mobility beyond the digital?
Werker Collective is a project started in 2009 by Marc Roig Blesa and Rogier Delfos. Focusing on self-representation disseminated by worker-led organizations. In ‘Imaging Dissent: Towards a Common Subject’, Werker operates within the ‘classroom’ section of Artforum and e-flux’s joint venture platform Art and Education. Here, they have presented a selection of 10 embedded videos accompanied by an essay. Werker start their essay drawing parallels between the invention of photography and the Industrial Revolution. Immediately instrumental to the bourgeoisie in developing “an archive of ‘truth’”, photography later became a tool available to the working class in the 1920s, when reduced working hours allowed time and energy for self-organization. Werker track the different ways hidden truths emerged through photography and later film, adopted by worker groups for the purposes of documentation and dissent.
Werker state: “extraction and exhaustion must be replaced by an ecosystem of respect and care in balance with other forms of life.” Aligning with this ecologically focused conclusion to their essay, Werker share one film by Barbara Hammer and another by Marine Hugonnier, which deal with issues such as sexuality, nature, ecology and anthropocentrism. In this way, Werker draw tidy parallels between their essay and video selection, but refrain from getting too illustrative, instead coupling each video with shorter descriptive captions. Another video documents Marisa Begonia lobbying for the rights of domestic workers in the UK, and its caption links us to her organization and related photography archive. In tandem, their essay states: “potential alignments between the bodies that do cognitive cultural work, the “gig” economy, and visa-tied domestic work have yet to be mobilized.” I immediately feel Werker’s eyes upon me. Are they mobilizing me? And if so, why can’t I tell if I’m being mobilized or not?
Despite their accurate and depressing reminder that social media has “rendered life an advertisement and capitalized on every aspect of our individual bodies,” Werker do seem positive about the potentiality of social media to “mobilize the collective body.” With many people inside during lockdown, social media consumption has shot up according to recent studies. But Art and Education isn’t exactly Instagram; it has a very specific and — I’d hazard a guess — small readership. Do Werker intend to mobilize this readership to connect with organizations such as that of Marisa Begonia?
I am a cognitive cultural work body, and so are others in my circle. As a result, I’ve seen a lot of petitioning for state financial support of culture during lockdown, as many self-employed people in the arts live hand to mouth. Even if precarious work and financial struggle bring groups closer together and offers the potential for such alignments, from where I sit, I can only see people sticking to their bubble. Maybe the current circumstances are just too overwhelming for anything beyond making rent. As Miya Tokumitsu puts it, “Capitalism will deplete you, while letting you think you have the means to improve your lot.” She also says, by the way, that neoliberalism “turns us all into paranoid, jealous schemers.” Not the best energy for uniting.
It seems Werker are activating cognitive cultural brains, but not yet bodies. Perhaps this has something to do with they way they offer up too many paths of interest, resulting (in my case) in many, many browser tabs. In one, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s book Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, another, the London Community Video Archive, and another Google searching an obscure Japanese commune from the 70s. I’m moved by the films and documentaries. I get totally sucked into the amateur film clubs of the Enthusiasts: archive. Eventually, laptop overheating, I bookmark my own selection with future plans of returning and send out links to a few friends who are also keen to mobilize their estranged beings. Maybe Werker’s approach results in an information overload; maybe it’s a pandemic.
Just like in the real world, algorithmic flaws obscure important untold stories within the great archive of the Internet. Good Shepherds of data, Werker collect and bring forward voices and expose historical bonds of the cultural and political that surprise and intrigue. In their essay, they show us how historical movements of dissent have grown from the inspirational discovery of even earlier amateur archives. And, they remind us that we too can access this “collective memory that shapes our individual and communal body.”
On the one hand, I have the feeling Werker Collective have contributed something which at this moment has poignant relevance, on the other, it feels as if I have to put action on ice while marinating in (their) TV. In the meantime, I pass my conclusion over to Jan Verwoert, so he can read us a little bedtime story from Exhaustion and Exuberance: ways to Defy the Pressure to Perform:
“What can make us utter the magic words I Can’t? Does it take a breakdown to stop us? Does the utterance of the words I Can’t already constitute or confirm a breakdown?, a failure to perform, justifiable only if our body authenticates our incapacity by refusing to function? How could we restore dignity to the I Can’t? How could we avoid becoming backed into a corner where the I Can’t would merely be perceived as a passive-aggressive stance of denial? In other words: How can we embrace the I Can’t without depriving ourselves of our potential to act? Could we unlock the I Can’t as a form of agency?”