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Labour, Leisure and Low-Carb Beer

“Sometimes I sit and think, and sometimes I just sit”

A retired builder philosophised this quote. At the time, he was sitting on a boat starring out to sea, drinking a low-carb beer. While its not exactly high-flung stuff, it doesn’t need to be. There is plenty to be gleamed from folk wisdom – a working class proverb crafted at the end of the working day. Thinking back, it was a distinctly kiwi scene – not something I’m usually drawn too – so why, years later does it still hold an impression on me?

One week into January and already the year’s expectations are beginning to stack up. When can you finish that article? Have you been to the refuse station? Can you take on extra shifts? Leisure is one of the most vulnerable things in this economy, and while it is constantly marketed to us, contractually promised to us, we seem to very rarely experience it.

It’s a common misconception that doing nothing is easy. It’s not. While doing nothing has many names (laziness, sloth, and idleness), all are thought in terms of passivity, they are useless to the world of work. A protestant work ethic is deeply ingrained in New Zealand society, and as God put it, “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop”. In our society, work has a moralising character, and doing nothing takes guts.

Could doing nothing be a form of protest, a colloquial resistance? Seems reasonable enough. People fought hard to occasionally do nothing, shouldn’t exercising those rights be political? Clocking-off at five and heading to the beach isn’t such a treat after-all, it’s a hard won right.

Amongst the union movements of the early 20th century, a distinct split of demands emerged. The socialist unions sought a greater share of the productive system they labored under, whilst the anarchistic unions primarily fought for time. Time off work. It’s no accident that holy days (holidays), are days where you don’t have to work.

It is assumed that work is necessary, and that those unwilling to partake are undeserving and immoral. There is in fact plenty of work done in this economy that we would be better off without. Maybe what the world needs now is not more work, but less? There are certainly a few Wall Street bankers we would benefit from seeing on a permanent vacation.

In the world of work, artists are the ultimate anomalies. No contracts or timesheets – or indeed any regular income at all – artists determine their own relationship to time, labour and leisure. The artist’s studio sits suspended between these worlds. The usual regulators – weekdays, weekends, and working hours – are indistinguishable, as time-off, invariably becomes time-on.

Why Work? –exhibited at Artspace – is a brazenly lazy argument by the artist Liam Gillick. The article speculates on whether or not artists are capable of escaping the “capitalization of the mind”. For an argument advocating artistic agency, Gillick chooses some sluggish lines of enquiry, primarily ‘Doing Nothing’ and ‘Leisure’. The artist life is described as role-play in the leisure zone, an alternative life-style to those of the productive economy. In these models of leisure, dignity resides outside a productive identity.

The artist Mladen Stilinovic perfectly illustrates these ideas in Artist at Work, which ironically shows the artist in state of non-work. The artist is presented still in bed, his expression as vacant as the artists CV. Stilinovic’s piece describes an exercise of self-design, one in which art practice prompts new life-styles. Here, laziness is the key tenant. Stilinovic perpetrates a conscious rebellion against every professional and productive expectation placed on the artist.

Despite this talk of agency and self-design, the artistic life is a cautionary tale, an uncertain and tumultuous state of being. For many, artistic labour is the same as unemployment. Try explaining your art practice to WINZ, and many of the finer points above will be made crystal clear.  It is an experience no artist should miss – and not many do.

When I applied to go to art school, my mother pleaded with me to become a doctor, a lawyer, a garbage man, anything else. Her plea was earnest; she would have preferred me to work in sanitation than be subjected to an artist’s life. All I remember is “not an artist darling, anything but an artist”.

Emil Dryburgh



Image: Mladen Stilinovic, artist at work, 1977

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