Anna Ihle on the revaluation of time during corona - 'Free time is very class-specific'- Berichten uit een andere wereld #4

Issue no5
Oct-Nov 2021

Slowing down to think about free time. Anna Ihle, a former resident at the Jan van Eyck Academy who recently presented an inspiring view on the life and work of an artist by adopting the free time of her friend, talks about how corona can trigger us to consider anew the way we live our lives.

‘Finally read that book you got for your birthday’, ‘try out new recipes’ or ‘plant new seeds’: these are just some of many advices that can be found online on how to spend your ‘free time’ during times of corona. The many advice-articles and people who follow up on them seem to indicate a general shift in focus from work time to free time.

This revaluation of free time is, however, tied to specific social-economical positions: in order to be able to think about how to fill up your free time, you need to be in a position where you have free time. It begs the question: what is ‘free time’ and who is able to claim it? And how could corona affect the way we collectively think about labour and leisure in the long term?

At this year’s edition of Jan van Eyck Open Studios –the last public event I attended before corona truly kicked in- I sat down on a couch in the studio of Norwegian artist Anna Ihle. On show was a reality-TV kind of documentation of Ihle spending six weeks in Los Angeles, living the ‘free time’ of her friend Catherine who worked long hours as a music editor in the city. During that stay-at-home situation, Ihle took on those activities her friend did not have time to do, and that many people now claim to be rediscovering during corona. The way in which Ihle deals with questions of work time and recreation time throughout her artistic practice led me to believe she could offer interesting insights regarding the current situation, and its possible future consequences. Her home in Stavanger, Norway, appears on my screen and we have a video-conversation about how this weird and upsetting time asks for us to take time. Perhaps when we slow down, corona can trigger us to consider anew the way we live our lives: both individually and collectively.

—Marsha Bruinen Before we start talking about work time and free time during times of corona, I think it’s good to define these terms. How do you define and frame your ‘free time’?

—Anna Ihle There are varying ways to define ‘free time’, but at a certain point I have taken a pragmatic approach towards it and decided that my free time consists of the hours that I’m not at work. I see the typical Scandinavian 8-to-4 job as my guideline, and use it to make space for different things in life.

How do we make sure that hours after work are not only rehabilitation until tomorrow, but actually function as recreation time? How do we make free time into something that is good and healthy for ourselves?

—Marsha Bruinen Especially as an artist, or as someone involved in the arts, this division between work time and free time seems hard to maintain. Much of one’s free time –spent reading books or going to exhibitions- somehow contributes to one’s work time as well: it functions as inspiration for it.

—Anna Ihle In a sense, artists, creative producers or musicians are the ‘ideal workers’: these are people who work constantly, get low payment, have high energy and produce a lot, because they love their job so much. For me, maintaining working hours functions both as a way to criticize this idea of us ‘creatives’ feeding into this system, and as a way to keep sane.

—Marsha Bruinen People are used to divide work time from free time by means of change in time (working 9-5, having weekends off), but also by means of change in space (leaving the office/studio and going home). Which methods do you normally use, and can you still apply them during times of corona?

—Anna Ihle I’m used to maintaining this division in both ways, by setting up regular working-hours and using my studio as workspace. Right now I notice that it is especially important to maintain a rhythm myself. With everything else being out of rhythm–my neighbours being home all the time- things easily get confusing.

—Marsha Bruinen Did you change some things at your home, to make it more suitable as a workspace?

—Anna Ihle I actually built a bed! I lifted it up, so that I have more floor space and can do more stuff from home. I actually planned to do this in August, because I knew that I would be here for a month then and would be able to prioritize home. With corona, I shifted August to now.

—Marsha Bruinen There seems to be this idea that many people are prioritizing home right now. People take on gardening, fix their bathrooms, start reading books, bake cakes and let their dogs out more often. How do you feel about the claimed revaluation of these activities?

—Anna Ihle Myself I started obsessing over plants for the first time when I was quarantined in my home in Stavanger for two weeks after having been to the Open Studios. I wrote to my neighbours: ‘I am going crazy, I need to do something, does anyone have seeds?’ I never had a plant ever before, and now my window is filled with spinach-plants. But I think that this lifestyle obsession was already there before corona. People do not only use their jobs to present themselves, but also many other things, such as the food they cook or the plants they have on their shelves. One thing that might change now, is that people have more time to actually think about what kind of life they want for themselves, or even what kind of interior they want. Rather than holding on to the most immediate ideas that appear on platforms such as Instagram, you get the chance to really question this plant-thing, or life in general, more slowly.

—Marsha Bruinen What are you up to in your work right now?

—Anna Ihle I’m in the artist union in Norway, where we’ve had many board meetings that were focused on corona, to try and figure out how to work with politics and all that is happening. The Norwegian artist union is quite strong and funding for artists is quite good: right now I’m communicating to artists all the social settlements and funding they can apply for to get through this time. But it feels more important to me to work for a general basic income at this point in time. It is strange to say ‘we artists’ need help, when it’s so obvious that so many people need help. So now I’m trying to figure out if there’s any way in which we can connect our work to bigger political movements.

—Marsha Bruinen Instead of thinking of short-term effects corona might have on different types of jobs or groups of people, we should think long term, and collectively?

—Anna Ihle Exactly, that’s what I’m thinking. It is a time where middle- or upper class people can see that ‘fuck, we’re fucked’. Maybe now is a moment when people with more power or more privileges can also see that this is not working.

—Marsha Bruinen Perhaps being forced to stay at home might enable those with steady jobs people to relate to the less fortunate ones. To make some effort and try to get a feeling of what it does to your state of mind and your sense of belonging not to have a job to go to everyday?

—Anna Ihle Yes, and from that perspective this revival of ‘home stuff’ and home-activities is also strange and one-sided. If you need to work long hours to keep a living you can’t afford to be at home now; if you’re undocumented you can’t afford to be at home now.

—Marsha Bruinen It’s a privilege to even think of ‘free time’ and how to spend it.

—Anna Ihle It’s very class-specific, which I think is important to look at. With my work I have been continuously trying to look from these different class-perspectives and privileges: they all become very visible in this current situation.

—Marsha Bruinen When did you start to become interested in these questions of work and recreation?

—Anna Ihle Starting point for me was trying to understand the Scandinavian Protestant work-ethic. I’m from a religious family myself, and have always had a very strong impulsion to be busy: if I was inactive I’d feel guilty. Being active is part of the Norwegian/Scandinavian religious philosophy, and I decided that I wanted to explore this philosophy for myself. I started woodcarving a religious sculpture, an angel that was based on the church where my grandfather was a minister. I hadn’t done anything crafty before so I thought: ‘this is going to be horrible and it’s going to be painful and that’s why it will be the real Protestant experience’. Unfortunately, it was really, really pleasurable: when I started I was like: ‘oh fuck my project is failing this is so satisfying!’
Since then I’ve continued making these sculptures, and started to wonder: how can I make a sculpture that reflects contemporary work life? One morning I removed this bite guard I have, because I grind my teeth at night when I’m stressed. I was interested in the object as something that removes symptoms, but does not resolve the actual problem: the stress and anxiety produced in work life. I decided that I wanted to make this bite guard in the size that I could sleep in, which resulted in the work Grinding.

—Marsha Bruinen The work you showed at Jan Van Eyck this year explores similar themes, but in a different way. Can you say something about this work and how it was brought about?

—Anna Ihle I went to my friend in Los Angeles for six weeks to ‘do’ her free time: together we came up with things I could do there. In her house I noticed all these books she hadn’t read yet, all of this branded kitchen equipment she hadn’t used, and even an expensive rowing machine she only used once. All these home-objects in her home sent out instructions to me for use; they signalled some kind of activity. In the end, the weeks felt like a drag: it wasn’t really exciting to walk the dog again at some point. But my time there added a lot to some questions and concerns I had for a longer time. Such as: how do we make sure that hours after work are not only rehabilitation until tomorrow, but actually function as recreation time? How do we make free time into something that is good and healthy for ourselves?

With my work I have been continuously trying to look from the different class-perspectives and privileges and they all become very visible in the current situation.

—Marsha Bruinen How was it for you to see your friend so occupied with her work all that time: seeing her coming home late, often tired? Were you ever worried?

—Anna Ihle Yes, I found it very difficult and tricky. Part of me thought: am I being moralising? But I also realised that we were worlds apart: myself I live in a country where I have funding, and can enjoy state artist pay for three years. I am ‘poor’ in relative national standards but I have so much freedom, which is a privilege. My friend makes (or made; she lost her job now of course because of corona) perhaps ten times more than me, so she can buy anything she wants, which is another kind of privilege. These different privileges are not individual: mine is based upon the fact that I am Norwegian and have access to education and funding; hers is embedded in a whole other system which requires a whole different set of work hours: she worked really hard and was able to get a job she wanted.

—Marsha Bruinen Your friend couldn’t just say: I am going to escape this lifestyle.

—Anna Ihle Well, where could she go then? Where would she go and get her health insurance? These things are sad, learning about the United States was sad. Many of the books she had that I read were feminist and great: I thought: she did buy them, she just hasn’t read them. One of these books that has been important for me is by Kathi Weeks, called The Problem With Work. Weeks argues for a six-hours workday; for more time for free time, especially for women. Since women generally have to do more stuff at home, their time off work is not necessarily recreational time. Taking this in mind, it is even more important to have less work-hours and more time to reflect: doing so, you might even awaken your political heart of something like that.

—Marsha Bruinen Could you also have done the ‘free time’ of someone else than your friend?

—Anna Ihle Possibly, but the fact that we are friends is important to me in the work. I wanted to have this relationship to make the waters muddy, and make sure the work was not strictly conceptual, but also involved love and care. What I very much noticed was that our extremely different lifestyles made it really difficult to meet: both emotionally but even time-wise. Having been around home all day, I was often excited to see her at night. But the would have been working all day: when she would come we were not in the same space.

—Marsha Bruinen How do you reflect on the work during these times we’re in? Did your time in Los Angeles ‘prepare’ you in some way for this time?

—Anna Ihle I’m showing the work again for a solo show at an artist-run space called Podium in Oslo at some point in autumn. I am still wondering what this period of corona does to the work: will some parts of it make more sense? Or maybe less? For now I am leaving it for a bit. Everything is happening so fast right now, and I generally work so slow… To truly find a place where you can think ‘what do I want’ takes a lot of time. I was in Los Angeles for six weeks, and now I have been home for another six weeks: all together I have experienced around three months of this type of stay-at-home ‘free time’ and only now are things getting more clear. It is not like all of a sudden those who still have some money and can stay at home and take on gardening will realize what they want in life. That takes time.


All images Anna Ihle, Grinding, 2019, video, courtesy the artist

Marsha Bruinen
is web editor at Metropolis M

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2021