The Labour of the Multitude?
Conference at Free/Slow University of Warsaw

Issue no4
Aug - Sept 2020

At the Free/Slow University of Warsaw - a network of initiatives that live by the motto ‘Freedom through slowness’ - a three-day conference was organised on the political economy of social creativity.

Lately one can observe an increasing visibility of research and events related to the Italian post-operaist thought in the Netherlands and beyond. The concepts of precarity, the common and immaterial labour pervade art theory, media studies, urban planning, activism and many other fields.

It was interesting to see how the talks given at the conference The Labour of the Multitude? The Political Economy of Social Creativity, that took place in Warsaw (Poland) between the 20 and 22nd of October, could comment on the changing, economically growing Warsaw. I was curious how the context of Poland could inspire different readings of the ‘blockbuster’ concepts. How specific, still rather unknown case studies could bring the theory into different trajectories of interpretations?

More than twenty speakers from different fields – Martha Rosler, Diedrich Diederichsen, Gigi Roggero, Matteo Pasquinelli, Hito Steyerl and Marina Vischmidt among many others – came to Warsaw. The conference started with a keynote lecture by a French sociologist Luc Boltanski. In his lecture Boltanski laid bare the institutional and semantic mechanisms such as attribution, valorisation, qualification and capitalist regime of circulation that turn an object into an artwork. Boltanski made clear that the originally art historical methods of valorisation have become a common strategies to bring a work into an artistic but most of all economic modes of circulation. The problematic issue of complex interrelations between art, art market and mechanisms that in fact make the artwork aligns well with some statements of the Institutional Critique movement in 1970s.

Later on, various topics were raised ranging from the capitalist interpretation of the concept of creativity; benchmarking and neoliberal governmentality; social media and the community; art market and systems of valorisation to the antagonisms between feminism and the writings of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. Despite the obvious differences most of the presentations mapped out the effects of the multifaceted process of colonization of culture (and its sociality) by the flexible and semi-visible mechanisms of new forms of capitalism. Interestingly, the speakers did notice during the discussions the importance of thinking about agency and possible modes of resistance or struggle. It was indeed needed because one could get an impression that we were falling into a trap of having a totalizing and deterministic view on the current state of affairs.

The Italian theorist Gigi Roggero addressed an important issue about how the precarity is usually being presented. Roggero pointed out that a specific scheme of recognition that frames the discussions on precarity excludes possible modes of struggle and supports dis-identification with the worker’s identity. The precarious workers are presented as victims, and precarity as a social phenomenon is presented as a form of identity in itself. As a result of victimization of precarity the experience and performance of being a precarious worker does not motivate to look for modes of struggle for change. Moreover, as a constructed identity built on one’s functioning in a specific overwhelming working culture and conditions, precarity becomes a replacement of the worker’s identity. Roggero’s suggestion hints at the necessity of challenging theory through concrete social action.

Although a lot attention was paid to the notion of precarity I missed the anthropological, cultural, racial and postcolonial perspective on the affective power of new forms of labour. As if we have forgotten, that precarity is a social phenomenon occurring in specific material and existential conditions such as (illegal) migration.

The discussions that tended to be focussed on specific readings and interpretations of Marx were a puzzling moment during the conference. Such detailed analysis usually ends up being an internal dialogue between the specialists on Marx rather than an open discussion where the audience feels welcomed to join. The discussions simply become less accessible.
At the end of the conference Hito Steyerl gave a refreshing, inspiring and generous talk about art as a mode of occupation. Steyerl stated that the occupation happens not only on the squares but most of all beyond them, in the everyday life. Art as occupation is a way of engaging and appropriating the spatiality of life that is already being colonized by various forms of labour.

The conference had a very diverse and ambitious program. The range of topics together with the inspiring research and initiatives presented at the conference made it a special, if not a ‘must-be’ event. Yet, I have a feeling that it was rather a missed chance than a successful attempt to create a reciprocally generous relation between the specific, demanding context of Warsaw, and the stimulating set of theories.

The Labour of the Multitude? The Political Economy of Social Creativity
20 October - 22 October 2011
Warsaw (Poland)
Organized by: Free/Slow University of Warsaw (WUW), Bez Zmiana Foundation
Conference’s curatorial team: Micha? Koz?owski, Agnieszka Kurant, Jan Sowa, Krystian Szadowkski, Kuba Szreder

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19 November 2011
Nguyen Vu Thuc Linh

I would like to correct some small mistakes made by me:

  1. Photographs were made by Ewa Dyszlewicz
  2. Kuba Szadkowski is a member of conference's curatorial team.
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