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Networks of col(labour)ation: Hyperlinking to profound connectivities?


Digital labour

Gift economy

Personal economies

Open-source creativity



Terranova's tendency

Roy Ascott’s networked consciousness


Art Work: A National Conversation About Art, Labour, and Economics. Temporary Services: Brett Bloom, Salem Collo-Julin and Marc Fischer, eds. Chicago, IL: Half Letter Press, 2009.

Terranova, Tiziana “Free labour: Producing culture for the digital economy” in Social Text, 18.2:33-58. 2000.

“The work of imagining future possibilities, now more than ever, requires self-directed experiments in autonomous action and voluntary association"

- Dan S. Wang, “Justseeds: Collectivism in a Culture Machine”, Art Work: A National Conversation About Art, Labour, and Economics, 2009.

Temporary Services is a collaborative arts research and presentation collective that started in 1998 as an experimental exhibition space in a blue-collar neighbourhood of Chicago. Since then, the group has taken up a more moveable feast of collaborative activities and actions, many of which are productive dialogue-starters with a lens for social contexts in which art is created and received. The group works collaboratively to mount exhibitions, events, projects, and publications. They do so out of a desire to be “experiencing art in the places we inhabit on a daily basis…(which) helps us move art from a privileged experience to one more directly related to how we live our lives.” (web)

In 2009, Temporary Services launched Art Work: A National Conversation About Art, Labour, and Economics, a newspaper/exhibition call-to-action for the proliferation of discourse on the state of the arts economy in the United States, in light of the 2008 economic melt-down. TServices distributed their broadsheet newspaper—filled with essay contributions from members of arts cooperatives, independent authors, labour and culture scholars, and artists—for free online (in a variety of formats for ease of access) and as well as in cities like San Francisco (where I picked up my copy in December 2009). The publication included instructions on how to use the content as a starting point to host an exhibit or event and discuss the themes within, and covered, in a nut shell, pertinent questions of agency for artists as cultural workers, in times of economic hardship:

“Now is a perfect moment to push for new ways of doing things, developing better models, and to question commercial forms of art making and the commodification of human creativity and significance. It is also an excellent moment to look backwards at old models that might be ripe for reworking, and the myriad strategies and support systems that artists have invented in order to survive creatively and economically. It is a time to fight for a different future(…)”

- THIS IS OUR REAL JOB, by Temporary Services

The project website has, since 2010, served as a location for archiving and discussing a theme of arts labour within depressed economies. On the About page the activities of the project are contextualized, and it is apparent that this discussion about labour is not only shining a light on questions about labour in the artist economy, but also inadvertently on the role of volunteer labour in the digital economy, as well. In light of the various elements involved in the mechanics of the project, and in consideration of notions of labour as discussed in Tiziana Terranova's paper “Free labour: Producing culture for the digital economy”, I present Art Work here to discuss whether the project harbours a progressive discourse, or if it is essentially begging the question: repurposing existing models of labour in art-making in the hopes that a discourse of resistance will emerge through reflection on how the economy impacts valuation of artistic labour, and doing so through the use of volunteer creative labour. Perhaps a circuitous tension, at least.

To break it down: Art Work involves activities that exist in what Terranova would call the “real” space / the Outernet: an old-fashioned newpaper publication, the mounting of conventional ‘art on walls’ style exhibitions of the newspaper as material/ephemera, and organizing of town hall-style discussion forums. Then, or rather, in tandem to the publication, we have activities of representation and contextualization of the project and its satellite emergences in the Outernet as an archive on the Internet for the project’s extensive website (example:

We can see that the project is funded as a non-profit affiliated with SPACES – with support from The Cleveland Foundation; Cuyahoga Arts and Culture; The George Gund Foundation; Donna and Stewart Kohl; Kulas Foundation; Toby Devan Lewis; National Endowment for the Arts; Nimoy Foundation; and the Ohio Arts Council, and partly funded by Lauren Rich Fine & Gary Giller and the John P. Murphy Foundation. This information alludes to a context of employment, presumably paid labour, for workers of the project proper.

Through the site we are able to observe how the initiative makes use of volunteer labour for the project, both physical labour and knowledge labour, intersects with personal-economic assertions of agency in a capitalist economy, and is essentially an example of a gift economy (the paper is freely available to the public, who then are asked to exchange the offering by hosting an event informed by the publication, and (ostensibly) provide content for use on the website). Open-source creativity has a role in calling for collaboration by hosting an event or mounting an exhibit, which is embedded in the spirit of distribution for the paper, as is the contribution of documentation for the project website. As an archive located in cyberspace, I suggest it is an interesting example of privileging the record of labour over the labour itself—the streaming of content from a variety of sources and hosting it on one site, as opposed to hyperlinking from the project site to the sites of all the collaborating venues and institutions. This choice is not without a tension of authorship, but is, nonetheless, subsumed by what Terranova has referred to as the tendency of the Internet to consume the labour offered and relate it's relevance to the overarching diatribe of capital and economic phenomenon within which the labour is irrevocably embedded.

“The qualitative difference between people’s shows and a successful Web site, then, does not lie in the latter’s democratic tendency as opposed to the former’s exploitative nature. It lies in the operation, within people’s shows, of moral discursive mechanisms of territorialization, the application of a morality that the “excessive” abundance of material on the Internet renders redundant and even more irrelevant. The digital economy cares only tangentially about morality. What it really cares about is an abundance of production, an immediate interface with cultural and technical labor whose result is a diffuse, nondialectical contradiction.” - Tiziana Terranova

Perhaps what makes Art Work such a compelling and fraught experiment in Outernet/Internet distributed collaborative labour is its insistence on appearing first as a material object, and asking that its questions of labour be objectified in forms of presentation of the literal document of labour within cultural institutions. In his keynote address at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1996, New Media thinker Roy Ascott spoke about the role of institutions as distributing sites of networked engagement. In his talk entitled "The Mind of the Museum" Ascott outlined his theories concerning the significance of the Internet as a site of transformation for forms of networked engagement, whereby everything from the body – collaborative relationships – institutional frameworks – society on the whole, can be held in trust by the networked system, and serve as a repository of a collective memory. In seeking the telecommunications network as a space of spiritual sharedness that can contain the capacity to overcome the values of the “old industrial culture” (2003:341). Ascott argues, and quite assiduously and compellingly, that what he hopes is to “…evoke the new society, the society of connectivity, open-ended creativity, collaborative consciousness, which celebrates the very opposite of paranoia, what I call “telenoia,” from the Greek roots tele, “far oª,” and nous, “mind,” or consciousness-at-large.” (2003: 341).

I raise this rather complex argument in relation to Terranova and the Art Work project to point to a desire to refigure perspectives on values of labour, and point in earnest to alternative frames of analysis that allow a metric of labour performed by artists to operate in a framework of uncertain and subjectively qualifiable worth. The precarity of advocating such a seemingly parallel affective economic model of value potentially abstracts and detracts from the questions that Terranova and others since her have called out. But it nonetheless pervasively presents itself in the rampant and progressively ubiquitous presence and expectation of contributions to online forms of interaction, a.k.a labour. In an increasingly plugged-in global technoculture with a digital economy at work and embedded within the contemporary everyday, these questions of engagement and perspective will no doubt continue to raise flags for consideration in the public and private sphere. There are just too many curious questions and conduits for human energies to do much other than engage / plug-in.


Ascott, Roy. "The Mind of the Museum." Keynote address for “The Total Museum: An Interactive Multimedia Conference” at the Art Institute of Chicago (Oct 1996), published in Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003. 340-55.

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