Real Work: Liz Magic Laser/ Candice Breitz, FACT, until 6th October, free
When my commute got longer last year, I started listening to a lot of podcasts. At the start I wanted shows about how to be well and ‘balanced’, because those qualities had been somewhat lacking before. But I’m now breaking away from these, because they’ve become unhealthy for me. I find myself worrying about far more things than I thought I had to before from sitting (literally an unavoidable part of my job) to even being unable to just enjoy a cup of tea. There’s always something to improve, apparently – but what does better even mean in these cases? Who benefits from me being worried about a cuppa?
I reached a point where a bit of self-improvement tipped over into just becoming more productive, to the extent of no longer being of any personal benefit. But this is more and more the way of the world, as things like this tweet of a WeWork water cooler show…
Big shock that @WeWork are promoting burnout culture. pic.twitter.com/ZBcamKRRhg
— Stevie Buckley (@StevieBuckley) September 13, 2018
All of this came to mind when I was watching Liz Magic Laser’s In Real Life, showing downstairs in Real Work. FACT’s newest show is pretty minimalist – two multi-channel film pieces which are linked by being about precarious workers. In Real Life stars people working in the “commercial” gig economy – specifically in jobs where they’ve actually been able to contribute to the production (more on this later). It plays like mini episodes of a reality show, where each participant documents a 30-day “biohacking” challenge to make them better at their jobs. Better, of course, meaning more productive.
Now, addressing the issues in this sphere is in theory a good concept, because these are increasingly common and damaging ways of the world which are still met with indifference from people who either haven’t been there, or it doesn’t politically suit to acknowledge. In Real Life does let you listen to what the workers themselves say they’re struggling with. It’ll take you the best part of an hour to watch all five films, but if you do you notice the same issues come up repeatedly. Lack of sleep, lack of routine, over-demanding clients bearing threats of no pay and bad reviews. Always, always, the need to be more productive, that better version of yourself.
Pointing out issues is one thing: but what then left me feeling like In Real Life didn’t quite work is that it’s then mostly ambivalent about them. The “biohacking” suggestions made to the participants range from the mostly-fine (Fitbit) to the utterly fucked up. Who on earth voluntarily wears a device that gives them electric shocks for procrastination – and then becomes so conditioned that they voluntarily give themselves electric shocks when they notice their behaviour gravitating that way? But it’s kind of treated as not really a big deal by the film, which is troubling. There’s no irony or cynicism to how these techs are introduced; they’re sold as beneficial things and accepted as such. And of course, there’s some truth to this – a smart watch alone does not a robot make. But when the participants start talking about setting their entire lives by them, it’s a worry and should maybe be flagged as such?
All the participants are pretty happy with the changes that get made, so good for them. But this implies that success really does lie in becoming the “most productive” versions of selves to serve this gig economy. It doesn’t really address any of the issues of precarity or wellbeing except to offer ways of fitting into it. In fact, Liz Magic Laser has needed them to fit in to make the film in the first place – everyone has pitched in with their skills, sourced off freelancing websites. And of course it’s being shown in FACT which is heavily dependant on volunteers. And you might know that I’ve been a volunteer and it certainly had its place, but it is a little eyebrow-raising to put on a show about dubious work conditions when you’re not actually paying the staff monitoring it…Basically, a lot of the interest here seems to be in maintaining gig precarity. I can’t help but find it a bit off to point out how stressed people are by the lifestyle within an artwork and, arguably, setting which encourages adaptation to it.
Far more successful is Candice Breitz’s work upstairs, Sweat, about the most precarious and politicised work there is. It’s quite intense to be greeted by so many talking mouths and such a cacophony of voices, but it’s fascinating to walk around and get to know these stories of Cape Town sex workers. Productivity in the gig economy is one issues, but the entire world has a hypocritical blind spot when it comes to the status of sex workers. This is a cacophony that is claiming a place to speak for itself away from other agendas.
When you focus in to each story, you realise how diverse they are. Focusing on their mouths is a neat way of communicating. It’s often a really stylised decision, but this is people speaking naturally and you get a relationship with the speaker that feels right. In the way their mouths move and tones of voice you get hints to emotional states which reinforce that their stories are their truth. You focus on their stories and the diverse, layered attitudes to their occupation. You hear how they each respond differently to race and class and other social attitudes, and get a more nuanced picture than would be conceivable in any other media.
That the meaning of “work” is changing and expanding is incontestable, but it’s a change the world at large is struggling to understand. Who gets what rights and who is treated well are topics that need to be discussed. Real Work understands this, but doesn’t quite know what to then do about it. Breitz does: listening and dialogue are the first steps to making changes people can actually benefit from. But when half of your message is to conform to the structures instituted by power, you have to wonder what purpose the dialogue has. Maybe I should get back on those podcasts after all…