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J.K. Bergstrand-Doley »

In a perhaps false comparison, the desire to get out of the commodity, or rejecting commodity logic parallels the oft-desired exodus from capitalism. If only we could clamber beyond the apparent pervasiveness and all-powerful nature of capital there'd be a chance, in the revolutionary turn, for an art-practice beyond the commodity, whatever that might mean. In agreement with the partially-late writer-duo J.K. Gibson-Graham,[1] we can belittle Capitalism, we can minimize its capital C, we can semantically reduce its power by talking about it differently. It’s also important to repeat, capitalism does not have an outside, it isn’t possible to ‘get outside’ of capitalism in the sense of leaving because if we look within it and ask what its content is, what comprises its body, we have to recognize that it is produced by labour, all we will see is the antagonistic labour-capital class relation. Going with the partially forgotten autonomist and Italian Communist Party Senator Mario Tronti, in real terms we do not live in a ‘capitalist society’, we live in a society produced by work, a “civilization of labour” [thus ‘workerism’ in place of capitalism]. What has become pervasive in the era of the social factory is work, it isn’t possible to escape capitalism in the simple sense of workers leaving a factory, because there is more work waiting outside. So to begin these notes towards getting out of the commodity, whatever that might entail, we will firstly take a step back in.

Back inside the commodity and within the multi-faceted aspects involved in its production. No commodity is isolated from production as a whole, because with global capitalism our existence is predicated upon the activities of a global workforce, and our direct environment is therefore haunted by living and dead labour, it floats around us and within us, it produces our own production. So the artistic commodity, like any other – and despite its often-anomalous character – cannot be separated from production generally. Self-designated ‘slave’ workers who produce vegetables for Northern Europe in the south of Spain, child labourers who used to mine coltan in the Congo, the multiple suicides at Foxxcon factory campuses, our own depression, unemployed status or precarious work conditions, and a million other lesser known pieces of production are just a fraction of the elements that haunt, for example, the production of the words here in this text, us sitting here typing in the eerie glare of the laptop, you sitting in the dim light of whatever device you are lucky enough to be reading this on. So to talk about getting out of the commodity involves first of all a material engagement with our surroundings, to discuss and recognize labour where we used to only talk about capital. In the contemporary edu-factories, where most of the discussion about capitalism takes place, this is easier said than done. Without wanting to go too far down the path of academia’s reflection of and role in the division of labour (cf. Stewart Martin’s ‘Pedagogy of Human Capital’), the fact that educational institutions are mostly populated by ‘students’ – a figure which now for capital simply means easily exploitable and mostly free labour [2] – means that any real engagement with labour politics there would have to begin by recognizing that, in more ways than one, students are already workers (cf. Mark Bousquet ‘Students are Already Workers’) and by recognizing what that entails for the divisions of labour that casually flow into and through academic institutions to the worlds outside them.

To zoom in on a very specific but also fundamental art world example, most art educational institutions have entrance procedures whereby the high-cultural wheat is sorted from the bacterial chaff. At the Viennese Art Academy for instance this takes the form of a three-day entrance exam, where from around 400 participants 60–80 are accepted. Of course it’s one of many initial stages in the construction of an elite system but more than that, from a labour perspective we have 320–340 free workers whose 3-day labour provides the basis of the value of every artist who goes on to ‘make it’ as a commodity producing commodity on the global art market. The losers are component parts of the value of those who succeed, revenants haunting success through their failure. [3]

Another stage is the residency system whereby thousands of aspiring artists apply for residence, sometimes with a form of payment that is below the poverty line, and mostly with a studio and equipment for producing new work. We recently completed our first residency, a place we obtained after a process where four applicants are chosen from around 200. We made it, to an ongoing precarious and exploited existence, on the backs of many other precarious, exploited existences. In the face of this absurd situation we have been trying some things out.

One step is the rejection of the CV as a commodity that should be sold as our ‘Human Capital’ – something which, to paraphrase Marx, can only be attributed to a slave as their labour power is not theirs to sell for a wage, it is their owners and so therefore it is a form of ‘capital’ that is also human. As an affront to the human capital CV we would like to propose a broader process of writing Labour Power CVs, whereby all the shitty jobs you have done, all the free work, all the work-related fights you’ve had with those close to you, all your debts, and so on, are clearly listed. A dirty list of lost labour power, a politically emotional outpouring, a manifestation of your dead labour.

We were also looking for a material approach to our surroundings that encompasses the spectral side of the commodity, i.e. the fact that every product is also a representation of the dead labour of the workers who produced it. The idea behind this was that by entering into this spectral plane we could somehow connect with a disgruntled global workforce and revive the idea of the global working class. What we found was ‘ectoplasm’, the pink slime in the Ghostbusters’ movies. In Ghostbusters II, some years after the New York fiscal crisis and what David Harvey refers to as the dismantling of working class New York, the negative emotions of the city’s inhabitants have manifested in the sewage system as a giant river of pink slime; ectoplasm. The river actually leads to a museum and to a particular painting of the film’s villain ‘Vigo the Carpathian’, who, when the river of slime reaches a climax, begins to emerge from the painting, an image perhaps of the politically emerging artist, escaping from their commodity status. Ectoplasm is the emotional residue of the production process, all the stress of work life squeezed out into a paranormal substance that can give rise to all kinds of rebellious specters. This ghostly substance then is a kind of metaphor for a collective dissent born of frustration and rage within a clearly dysfunctional system.

So we started working with what we now call ‘rejected material’. [4] It’s a sort of return to trash art, using throwaway materials, but with an ectoplasmic twist whereby the materials are infused with the spirits of what we can no longer see, all the invisible elements involved in their production. Moreover, the spaces the materials are in, the gallery or residency for example, also become other commodities with invisible exploited workforces. What we end up with is a kind of impossible phenomenology whereby an attempt is made to trace absolutely everything that the artwork is made of, it’s a focus on that little tag you find beneath paintings, but disregarding the title and focusing on expanding the list of materials to go beyond oil on canvas, to the huge nexus of productive processes that flow into any commodity, including any art commodity.

Basically we want an art practice [said as broadly as possible] that does not exclude or hide the capital-labour relations that are involved within it, so recognizing the commodity as dead labour, stripping it of its power to obfuscate where it came from. It also means a refusal of the elite art-system ladder, instead of sucking up to powerful curators, or chasing big biennales, we can recognize that the majority of artists today live in poverty (cf. ‘Why are Artists Poor?’ Hans Abbing), a status they share with a large chunk of the global workforce. So the rejected material perspective should entail a throwing away of the art-system ladder. The aim of this is to be part of something like a workers’ movement again, one that begins from the myriad forms of invisible labour that produce production. In that sense it is not a productive way out of the dilemma of the commodification of artistic practice but an anti-productive one. Maybe it is something like the workers trapped in the ubiquitous factory as it burns down, looking for an emergency exit, or more systemically for an emergency ectoplasmic exodus.


[1] J. K. Gibson-Graham are the economic geographers Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson, who wrote important works of feminist political economics under that name: The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy (1996) and A Postcapitalist Politics (2006).
[2] See most recent Foxconn news: “The manufacturer of iPads and PlayStation consoles said that in 2012 an average of 2.7 per cent of its 1.2m employees – or 32,400 students – were interns.”
[3] And to paraphrase Beckett’s oft-quoted line “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter, fail again. Fail better.” It is a non-business logic kind of failure, one that is perfect enough to allow no attempts at failing better. [4] Freely adapted from the Economist glossary entry on ‘productivity’, see a-to-z/p#node-21529473
[4] See the work ‘Dirty-Abstract-Body’ and ‘Rejected Material’ – part of the ‘Collectivity Matters’ exhibition at the Kunstpavillon – and made during the residency at the Künstlerhaus Buchsenhausen.

Short bio

J.K. Bergstrand-Doley born on a flight between Dublin and Stockholm in 1987. Worked for six years in a supermarket, also butchery, teaching, office work, translation and work as a janitor. He has a student debt of £53,000 and rising. He spent a lot of time in unemployment offices, claiming to be an artist, no-one believed him, he no longer believes it much himself. He recently completed his first, and probably last, residency in Innsbruck, which was like a holiday from unemployed life with reduced wages. He hates the way he is slowly breaking up with his partner, how they never see each other and that work forces them apart. He has developed an intense aversion to work, and a rampant joy towards laziness. He has decided to no longer strive to take part in an art world that does not seem to want him as its guest, and instead shift his focus towards rejected material, rejected people, and things that tend to disappear from view. He is generally in a state of emotional and political disarray – no longer even able to discern between them – but remains optimistic and hopes to concentrate efforts on unionising as a form of therapeutic empowerment using an ever-evolving suitcase of psychological artifacts that has thoroughly been rejected by every possible funding body.

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