Towards a Post-Fordist Shop Floor Ethic or, ‘What the Fuck Was That?’


The publicity suggested the event would focus on a project that works off of notions of antiwar activism and media. The expectant crowd was hungry for something. When the artist playfully shared candy as part of a pre-screening quiz, it seemed curious. But by the time the self-indulgent reel began playing, the audience saw clearly that they’d been had.

I left early mumbling under my breath, “what the fuck was that.” I was angry because I had the sense that I’d been robbed. Not only was my time stolen, but also a little of my capacity to make meaningful anti-war artwork, to do detailed and philosophical media projects.

This essay is not about cultural criticism. Instead of looking at what is, this essay leans forward to posit what could be.

We should demand more from our scenes.

Often, when we go out to an art event, we are going to work in the office known as “our scene.” Our scenes gather around public wellsprings of ideals. Though impossible to specifically define, I do know that I’ve meditated with 200 people around the possibility of expanded human consciousness and more just and pleasant societies at the Hammer Museum. With 1000 others, I have gazed upon the collective expression of the desire for borderless states – on display at a Culver City gallery. In Chinatown, I joined a small group of thinkers drinking from the fountain of liberatory possibility for intellectual culture when tied to criticism of specific capitalist regimes.

And though each instance draws from its particular tap, I am pretty sure that our scene’s visionary infrastructure is broad and finds release at multiple spigots. This water metaphor is useful – our scene is constructed from pre-histories (extant water sources and geography or general wider social histories) infrastructures (aqueducts or funding sources and venues) and distribution points (spigots or exhibitions).

Like water, the greatest constituent parts of our scenes are made of elements whose real ownership is next to impossible to define (imagine clouds as social history, cultural formations, and socio-political archipelagos). Secondarily, water like our scenes are a large public work (remember, water is serviced by the historic social movement known as the DWP.)

The scenes we participate in are our public resources. The accretion of intellectual dialogs and practices are among our finest collective tools.

Inside urban planning, cartography, public practice, sociology, cartography and curatorial studies, the nature of our scenes are generally discussed in terms of “public space.” Through these disciplines, we say that public space is in crisis within the current regime of the neoliberal “creative economy.”  This economy hungrily searches for previously public or non-valued resources to privatize and or/monetize. Our scene – this public space – is in crisis when its constituent balance between private and social interests gets tipped too far towards the private.

When “blue chip” artists sell the image of collective history without giving back, this is theft. When theorists publicly poo-poo our collective potential to give comfort to power or stasis, this is a theft of our potential for collective dreaming. When academics sell radical theory while being complicit in structurally conservative departments they sell all our radicality short.

Our scenes are our collective resource. They generate continuing streams of potential. Yet in our neoliberal economy, the scene works double. It is now even more – both a collective dream and a mundane workshop floor.

We use our public space to forge new identities and to egregiously crowdsource for cheap labor

Our scenes are public space. Yet in neoliberal economies, the scene has become a human resource office. From networking with peers to find exhibition spaces to procuring space for employing (often younger, often less-educated) skilled laborers to work as assistants.

Our scenes are public space – a location to present and discuss meanings. Historically, the role of discourse served public ideals. Either as a space of presentation at a project’s fruition or as an ongoing discourse. Yet in this neoliberal economy, public space has also become our propaganda office. Here I use the balanced definition of propaganda – the act of spreading a message as advertising or overt political messaging.

When our art scenes are overwhelmed by these (often necessary) neoliberal realities, that public resource, our scenes, are threatened. When the participants on a panel are chosen for institutional networking potential instead of the ability to hold a meaningful conversation, our scenes are threatened.

Today, more than ever, art and cultural workers do have the ability to harness institutional voices to raise the social and philosophical questions at the hearts of our scenes. The (collectively forged) language and rhetorics, iconography and social practices we employ around our works have the potential for deep resonance within a broader society. Amid collapsing social systems, we stand on stage – for the possibilities that our scenes maintain.

So the quite common act of drawing from the scene without paying back is unfortunate. Employing popular ideological aesthetics and rhetorics (“collaborative”, “activist”, “socio-economic”, “critical”, “open sourced”…) to sell their work. Employing historic strategies collectively scripted behavioral patterns, etc… without crediting the history and legacy in order to individually “advance”. These actions poison the well.

Let me be clear, I am not specifically focusing on artists with “successful careers.” Collaboration with capitalist institutions is an unfortunate necessity for many people. Collaboration with institutions currently provides a louder tool for propaganda, access to social relations, etc..

Our scene imagines itself as an autonomous sphere that can balance mutual collaboration and mutual aid with individual expression. Our scene desires us to actualize this potential. It calls upon us to imagine what is possible when we devote enough time and love to its beautification and adornment.

But Los Angeles doesn’t look like this today.

The ethical worker in Los Angeles’ art scene – no matter where they operate (within or outside of capitalist institutions) – protects the interest of the scene first. The ethical artist understands that the scene’s idealisms are their source of real value. The scene drives them to work and compels others to get to know the work. It messages desire. It provides meaning. The ethical worker does not fuck with this.

Protecting our scene from undue privatization has parallels with the struggle of the Bolivian people in protecting their water from privatization.

Hyper-capitalism wants our meaningful symbols to be emptied. But our strength as individual workers lies in our collective struggle – in our collective attempts to maintain meaning and to construct a collective legacy. Our scene is a non-human accretion – a highly socialized aggregate of collective anger, collective history, collective understanding that beauty (or ugliness) does matter. That which provides for what we call LA’s art scene – this is our strength. When someone empties this out for a byline in some lame blog, they cheapen our resource. This is serious business.

Cultural movements like San Precario have struggled to successfully socialize a post-fordist ethic of values. People have rights that lie outside of day-to-day income. San Precario holds this knowledge together as the source of strength, as a fountain of the possible.

The Escrache Movement in Argentina hold tightly to the collective ideal of justice outside of history. Justice is the driving force in Escrache’s workers’ attempt to return Argentina to history.

The Anti-Deutch autonomist-Marxist movements in Germany hold on to a post-humanist ideal of anti-Semitism as a necessity outside of rational discourse from which to anchor their actions.

In this globalized capitalist world, I am astounded that so much writing on public space does not hold out for a pragmatically ideological construction of public space. No, much of the writing does one of four things- 1) It usefully critiques the traditional notion of public space as innately exclusionary 2) It naively imagines the possibility of escape from a public, as if there was another space for pure interaction 3) It strategizes (in curatorial studies or business classes) ways to best reach and use publics 4) It acknowledges public space to be a complicated subject and makes nothing of it.

What the hell!? As our agency, health and security go down the tubes, is it too much to ask for a useful and reasonable fiction? A collectively narrated fiction that imagines our collective responsibility to nurture our ideals?

Through the socializing of our scene, we begin to gain practical political agency together. By expecting one another to respect the highest (or lowest if you’re a pagan) spirits of the LA Art Scene in a workerist mode, we will find a political language that amplifies even our most abstract projects. Our scene can discover ways to materially, aesthetically and intellectually support it and us.

What does this look like? It would start with a clear statement of expectation – to be treated fairly – in the way that Wage Artists and others articulate.   But beyond this – into speculative economies – it is the honoring of the scene by publicly and privately holding true to ideals in thought and action. Ones work (paid and especially unpaid) as fabricator, designer, theorist, curator, organizer, participant, viewer will not be sold out. We will not be ignored, fail to be credited, gloss over each other’s labor and legacies for a cheap capitalist buck. We must honestly assess our work and use appropriate language to characterize it, avoiding outrageous claims when outrageous goals are attempted. We will honestly appraise our work and how a given project’s dance between the scene and the institutions affects its reception. Ethical workers do not allow institutional desires to recklessly muddy the scene’s ideals for the institutions private profit.

This is not a call for infighting. Instead, I see the potential for socialization of the scene. I understand that this involves a lot of conscious (and half-conscious) socializing. This sensibility takes its time to build.

We cultural workers have far bigger issues.

What I am proposing is that through a collective raising of expectations and a socializing of the spheres of our production and reproduction, our hand as workers will be improved.


Thank you Michael Wilson, Christina Ulke, Cara Baldwin, Robby Herbst, Temporary Services and many others for inspiration and energy in writing this essay. I’m done now.

6 Responses to

  1. Marc

    I think you misunderstand me.
    I am not surprised at recuperation.
    I’m surprised that we can imagine the ability to recuperate things back.
    In this context, Debord offers very little.
    Provo’s used imaginative tactics to re-imagine and re-appropriate definitions of a public in an the very active sense.
    The fact that Debord can explain the capacity for power to steal from us is only 1/4 of the work we need to do.
    What I and others propose is to actually imagine that we do have agency despite all this recuperation and posit our agency in a non-human collective ideal that is impossible to own and is always contested… and then to vigorously contest it.

  2. ben

    i apologize for the flip comment…

    “to actually imagine that we do have agency despite all this recuperation” — that’s well said.

  3. Brian Holmes

    This is one great kick-ass text. Also the Debord debate above is perfect, wraps it all up in very short form. The thing that kills me in the US is how damn passive people are in general, and how low the expectations are among artists, critics and theorists in particular (since that’s my niche in the great scheme of things). Why people do not see the autonomous potential in their urban scenes and also in the national networks of friends and publications and collaborators and projects is just beyond me, because the potential is huge, even if the reality is currently stunted. One thing is clear: the academy drains off four-fifths of that potential, artists, critics and theorists combined, and inside the academy the subordinated worker is professionally neutral and chained to a hierarchy. The there’s also the ambient anti-intellectualism that makes it so hard for people to even dare to articulate three ideas in public – without which you can’t begin to get a handle on the complex society we live in. Throw in the art world’s subservience to a few taste-makers and trend-setters with small amounts of money and fame to dole out to large crowds of fawning beggars, and you end up with a whole cultural circuit that is seemingly unable to even perceive the immense turmoil in the world right now – let alone make any contribution to the possibility of surviving with solidarity and human decency over what is obviously going to be an excruciating decade. Oh well, resistance is the secret of joy, as a friend of mine likes to say. My perspective is that change is coming, it’s already here, this fact can be confirmed every day despite the newspapers and the magazines. Just act as though others were ready to take you seriously and generously and were going to respond to whatever you do far beyond your expectations and capacities, and then – it happens. Not everywhere but in the scenes you manage to co-create on collectively idealized and practically instituted terms. Yes, it happens, even way out here in the Midwest where it is commonly believed that nothing happens at all… “A collectively narrated fiction that imagines our collective responsibility to nurture our ideals?” Sounds excellent my friend and comrade, go Marc go!

  4. marc herbst

    “One thing is clear: the academy drains off four-fifths of that potential, artists, critics and theorists combined, and inside the academy the subordinated worker is professionally neutral and chained to a hierarchy. ”
    I wonder if the schism that we saw at the drift2.0 in LA rests on this exhaustion, that outside of these institution, we can understand an ideal much more deeply because we don’t see the daily discourse being used cynicaly to generate accademic capital? Instead, we can understand what tools ideas and rhetoric can be without the baggage of having to tie them so much to our own or our group’s own arrival into capital.

    “Just act as though others were ready to take you seriously and generously and were going to respond to whatever you do far beyond your expectations and capacities, and then – it happens.” Dig.

    Thanks for the compliment.