October 9th, 2005


The ever-changing relationship between kunst and fabrik

Yesterday I went to see Produkt und Vision, an exhibition at the Kunstfabrik in Kreuzberg. "Product and Vision explores the relationship between economy and art," explains the catalogue. Kunstfabrik is the perfect place for the show, because it literally means "art factory", and the show, strung out across two beautifully patina-ed ex-industrial workspaces, is all about ways art might intervene in factories.

"What happens if a corporation opens its doors to a group of artists? Can artists or the corporate sector in general learn something from each other, or will their autonomy be questioned? The participants of Product and Vision have studied, amongst others, the finance structure, the identification of the employees with the company, and the organizational structure. This exhibition presents the results of this artistic process in installations, videos, pictures and performances, together with other works from the field of art and business."

This seems to be a trend at the moment — at the top of a rickety stepladder in the lower loft I found the catalogue of Cittadellarte, the Venice-based organisation whose members I interviewed extensively last week for my Wired column. And I found myself asking again whether what's going on in this kind of enquiry isn't a fetishization of both creativity and production now that globalisation and outsourcing have separated them (creativity becomes the focus of life in the post-industrial nations, while production moves to developing nations). To someone formed in the Marxist tradition, like myself, creation and production ought to go hand in hand; labour should not be divided. When we separate the conception and the making of a product by several thousand miles, no amount of well-intentioned exhibitions in which artists collaborate with business can mend the rift. Then again, perhaps exhibitions like this are part of the Slow Life movement, a way of slowing industry down, dethroning the shibboleth of efficiency, bringing some of Josef Beuys's ideas into play (and play is an important part of the Slow Life theme).

Beuys introduced art to business by proposing everyone as an artist, proposing manufacturing as something mystical (when I heard him lecture he made some connection between some striking aerospace workers and Irish mystics, and his interest in rituals involving wax, felt, and fat prefigure Matthew Barney's interest in the weird rites of freemasons, whalers, air hostesses and other working people). If in Slow Life business is play, in Performance Art business is rite; the important thing is that both propose a new conception of economics.

At the top of the same ladder I found another interesting way to collide art and business in the form of a Book Works book published in 2003, Audit by Lucy Kimbell. This beautifully-presented little book lays out the results of a series of questionnaires which ask people to audit their own lives. The probes go into much deeper and more quirky areas than most audits, though, resulting in something much bigger than a cost-benefit analysis. Kimbell quotes Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf:

"The core notion in economic analysis is the notion of value added — the difference between the monetary value of inputs and outputs. There are questions about how much those monetary values give you the true value of a product or service, which gets into the whole area of social benefit analysis, but economists try to avoid those questions if they can. There is no concept in economics that there exists some intrinsic value that is different to the value added. This was an important part of the history of the subject. Your value from an economic point of view is what people are prepared to pay for what you provide."

This made me think of Bataille's weird economic ideas in The Accursed Share, and I vowed to put the book on my Amazon wish list. Its thesis is, apparently, that "if being useful means serving a further end, then the ultimate end of utility can only be uselessness... it is not necessity but its contrary, luxury, that presents living matter and mankind with their fundamental problems." If you want to buy me the book as a gift, you'll be interested to know that, according to Junk for Code, "givers affirm their power as sovereign subjects, the ability to give, to expend in excess, to enjoy in luxury and leisure their wealth. This takes them beyond the domination of rational economic necessity that would make them objects. Subject-hood is lost in an economic system of production and consumption since a market economy does not allow for the kind of expression of personal power and subjecthood found in the gift." (Amazon might disagree.)

I want to leave you today with a recommendation of some interesting podcasts about design. Live Language is a new site set up by the Limited Language people. Design Criticism in the UK is a discussion featuring my mentor Rick Poynor, Marcus Fairs, editor of Icon magazine (those two spar a bit), and Vicky Richardson, editor of Blueprint magazine. During the course of the discussion, on what separates design criticism from mere journalism, Rick recommends a writer he likes a lot, Sam Jacob. I googled him and indeed his stuff reads well; here's an article he wrote about WHY ARTISTS WON’T LEAVE ARCHITECTURE TO ARCHITECTS (apparently artists aren't content not leaving economics to economists), and here's his piece about the aesthetics of my own particular work environment, my own kunstfabrik, Mac OSX Panther.