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Embedded Practice and the Future of (Art) Work - Andy Abbott Part 1

My Journey to the Future of Work

I ended up becoming an artist by accident through my attempt to escape the world of work. When I was eighteen I moved to Leeds to pursue a dream of being a musician and ended up working a series of repetitive and soul-destroying jobs in warehouses and call centres. I had no energy or will to be creative and made no music in this time.

I applied to go to art college reasoning that there must be some sort of grant or financial support available to someone in my position and with an ability to paint and draw. This was in 2000 and, lucky for me, there was. I was set on a path to become an artist. It never crossed my mind that I would actually become one but the scholarships, grants and student loans I received meant that in the meantime I could work less in call centres and bar jobs with free time to spare to do music with my friends.

Perversely, I used my time in the art college and university studio to replicate the experiences I had working what the sadly recently deceased anthropologist, writer and activist David Graeber would call ‘bullshit jobs’. I made sculptures out of cheap materials using repetitive and labour intensive production line techniques. I meticulously categorised and catalogued my record collection as an exercise in pointless and endless admin. Even when I started to dip my toe into the world of participatory, relational and socially engaged art, a lot of the techniques and methodologies I deployed had been learned through cold calling people to sell them mortgages, 0845 numbers or high-end beds (or ‘sleeping solutions’ as the script suggested we called them) for hours on end.

Andy Abbott: Half Scale Card Maquette… 2005

In my academic art practice I was able to get some critical understanding of what made activity ‘work’ as distinct from labour, leisure or even play. I investigated how alternative forms of work can be a force for change at an individual and social level. This research has underpinned practically all of my subsequent art projects, from creating a series of ‘Festival of Pastimes’ events in post-industrial cities in the North, to a crowd-sourced ‘post-work’ utopia called Erewyrehve during a residency in Istanbul, and mapping and re-presenting the creative and cultural ‘dark matter’ (Gregory Sholette’s term for the hidden mass of culture) of places like Bradford, Wakefield and Leeds using interactive sculptures and Augmented Reality.

Key Factors in the Future of Work and Post Work Futures.

As associate artist for In-Situ I have been researching and developing a project around the Future of Work in Pendle which has encouraged me to refresh my thinking around work and familiarise myself with current discourse on the subject. I found there has been an explosion in critical thought and writing around work in the last few years with an overwhelming amount of literature, film, and discussion dedicated to the question of its future. The perspectives contained within this speculative mass are diverse and often competing - ranging from dry pragmatism to the fantastic utopianism. There are, however, recurring themes and which we can take as commonly agreed factors affecting the world of work over the coming decades:

Future of Work infographic:

Technology is developing at an exponential rate; its growth is accelerating. This is illustrated by ‘Moore’s law’ which shows that computer processing speed, measured by the amount of transistors which fit into a microprocessor, doubles approximately every 18-months. This leads a number of technologists and futurist thinkers to conclude that we are on the brink of creating real machine and artificial intelligence, which will represent a paradigm shift in the way society operates, and potentially its complete collapse.

Even if the immanence of this real-life science-fiction scenario is exaggerated, there is plenty of evidence that robotics and automation are having real impact on the world of work, how we do work and the sorts of jobs available. It’s hard to imagine that some of the warehouse and call centre jobs I was doing twenty years ago being readily available now when a lot of the manual labour in Amazon ‘distribution centres’ is carried out by robots, and you expect to hear an automated computer voice on the end of a phone when calling up a bank or phone company.

At the heart of this issue is anxiety around technological unemployment, that is, the worry about robots taking our jobs and leaving us - especially those without skills and training - without any work to do. There is a long history of jobs once carried out by human hand being replaced by machines and robots. Places like Pendle were the birthplace of the industrial revolution where the invention of the Spinning Jenny and the mechanical loom made the work of hundreds of hand-weavers redundant. There was resistance to this, chiefly from the Luddites, who wanted to protect the livelihoods of workers from this displacing technology. In the end, however, the march of progress was inevitable and the way in which many of us spent our daily lives was transformed forever: standardised by the rhythms and tempo of machines and industrial production.

This anxiety about technological unemployment is countered with an argument that points out that historically, technology has always created new jobs in place of those that it eradicated. The jobs of the future will need to encompass specifically human skills such as problem-solving, creativity, care and empathy. In Pendle employers predict continued demand for skills including programming and coding in advanced manufacturing, and growth in the creative sector and hospitality industry.

In the longer term, however, as technology evolves and automation creeps into areas that were once the preserve of humans – transport and logistics through self-driving cars, the service industry with self-service tills and robot chefs, medical and legal advice from self-learning machines, and even artificial artistic creativity - it feels like there could be less space from which specifically human work can emerge.

Climate Change is forcing an immediate switch to a low carbon economy and a shift in the way in which we resource and carry out our work. Individuals, organisations, businesses and governments recognise that immediate and decisive action needs to be taken to counteract the effects of global warming. This will play a huge role in the Future of Work.

We can predict a growth in sustainable technologies. Hope Technology based-in Barnoldswick, for example, predict a higher demand for the sustainable transport solutions they manufacture. Renewable energy sources will expand with the development of wind, solar and other alternative forms of power and off-grid and independent energy sources will become more commonplace. There will be a growth in the economy and jobs in this area. More adventurous thinkers like Aaron Bastini even see us mining asteroids for fuel and resources in the not too distant future making ‘Off-Earth Miner’ a potential future career choice.

Closer to the ground and to home, the way in which we get to work will be changed. Public transport and cycling will be encouraged and where this isn’t possible self-driving cars powered by electricity will allow us to work on the move. It may be that the idea of travelling to work at all falls out of favour as technologies like conference call software and better broadband connections make remote working a more practical, attractive and ecologically sound alternative. Working from home, or from a virtual office will become the new normal further, decentralising work and removing inner city offices and industrial estates from the urban landscape. This would have a sizeable impact on the way we develop and make use of our cities and town centres. New consumer habits are already forcing the reimagining of town centres including Nelson’s, and as such we must think through questions about the Future of Work and the Future of the High Street together.

Demographics are changing. The future workforce will comprise new generations of ‘digital natives’, those that have grown up in a truly connected environment aided by advanced communication technology. Not only do these (post) millennials have a much more global - and arguably more empathetic – outlook, the skills that they possess are markedly different to those of their parents and grandparents. The ability to intuit or ‘just get’ procedures, especially those that make use of digital technology, is apparent today as toddlers show their elders how to work an iPhone or browse youtube. Application and demand for such skills in the workplace will grow, shaping the type of jobs and work are available and facilitating a more self-directed, independent and entrepreneurial approach to work.

The idea of a job for life is becoming a thing of the past. Staying in one role within one company for the entirety of your working life before retiring with a reasonable pension seems absurdly outdated, even now. Today and tomorrows’ workers are forced to accept precariousness as an underlying condition of work. Likewise, it is common to have a number of ‘side hustles’ - economically active versions of what previous generations would have called hobbies – or self-describe as a ‘slashie’: for example, the freelance creative producer/blogger/landscape photographer with a side hustle in selling fermented treats at the Barrowford pop up food and craft market on Sundays.

Related to this, as people live longer - due to advances in medical technology and health care - working age will increase, resulting in a more diverse workplace where three or four generations work alongside one another. Skill development and life-long learning opportunities, then, will be crucial aspects to what we consider to be healthy and desirable workplaces. Career decisions and the choices we make around the work we do will be based on personal development and spiritual fulfillments as much as a promise of financial security through a wage.

It is true that what we consider work to be, how and why we do, and who does it, has always evolved and changed with society. By outlining three key factors that will shape the Future of Work, however, I hope to have shown that the transformations that are on the horizon will represent a step change, a paradigmatic shift even, in how we relate to our selves, one another and our environment.

As such, we can talk of a ‘post work’ future. This does not necessarily mean a future in which there is no work - or where all traces of work have been eradicated and everyone enjoys (or endures) a state of permanent leisure - but rather a future in which work as we have known it has been irrevocably transformed. Moreover, transformed to a degree that necessitates our subjectivity to be formed around a new socio-economic structure.

What’s the Use in Talking about The Future of Work?

There is of course, no one agreed vision of the Future of Work, and the exact repercussions of the key factors outlined above are unknowable. Amongst the immense body of expert analysis and informed speculation nobody is able to predict the future. All that we can be sure of is a coming disruption in the world of work that will require us to adapt in as yet inconceivable ways. Despite this open-endedness, there are benefits to thinking through and engaging in questions around the Future of Work today: it can help prepare us for the future and the present as trends unfold; it can help us to gain some critical distance from current concepts of work (as well as the labour it excludes such as housework and reproductive labour); and it can help facilitate open dialogue.

On this last point, a positive aspect to the uncertainties about The Future of Work is that it puts everyone on a more level playing field. Certainly, there are people who have read more or less, researched more or less, thought and talked more or less about it, but the future of work remains an open book. Accordingly conversations between young people, workers and potential workers, past workers, employers and businesses, policy makers, politicians, local authorities and other stakeholders take on a more democratic and open character when framed around the future, rather than the past or present of work.

This can be a sharp contrast to the conversations about work that are normally had where the employers or work experts hold all the cards and hidden agendas are at play. When talking about the future of work, the sheer scale of the shared challenge can build solidarity between participants no matter what position of power they hold. This was demonstrated well in the Pendle 2050 Future of Work event held at ACE Centre, Nelson in 2019 where the conversations - facilitated using ‘world café’ and open space technology techniques - were engaged in equally by all participants. Not only did this generate some interesting and new collaborative ideas to take forward, the exercise itself built trust and a shared sense of purpose between a diverse group of people with a shared stake in the place they are in.

Pendle 2050 Future of Work Event

A further benefit to engaging in conversations about the Future of Work is the insight it can offer into the structural change required to adequately prepare for the future of work. Whilst the various scenarios that future of work theorists and experts are putting forward vary wildly they are generally agreed in the urgent need to provide security for those that will be left behind by the developments in the world of work. There will less jobs than people to do them in the future, and those jobs that do exist will require ongoing investment in training and skills development for those that do them. It is likely that the vast majority of people will have multiple extended periods where they are, in today’s terms, ‘economically inactive’.

A question remains over how this work-reduced world will function and whose responsibility it will be to fill the gaps, voids and cracks created by the shifts in landscape. Writers including Daniel Suskind, Aaron Bastini and Melanie Simms, see the only solution as a larger role for state intervention whether this be through the provision of a Basic Income or Universal Basic Services policy that would essentially provide a floor for all citizens working or otherwise, or variations on this such as Suskind’s Conditional Income and Leisure Policies that would encourage or ensure people spend their newly found free time contributing usefully to society. These are policies that currently in the margins of the agenda of political parties that more discussion about the Future of Work will bring into the mainstream.

At a humbler level conversations about the Future of Work highlight need for revisions in education, building a case for the continued provision of art and creative and social subjects in schools being that in the future all jobs are going to require some level of creativity, empathy or care.

The benefits of engaging in discussion and thinking around the Future of Work are manifold and far reaching. We should not write off discussions about the Future of Work as futile due to their speculative nature. Rather, it is precisely because of their openness and potential for diverse interpretation that they can build confidence, social solidarity and inform actions that can be taken in the here and now. The question, then, is how to facilitate these conversations, where, and what role art plays in this.

This is Part One of a four-part article. Part Two, in which Andy discusses the 'creative case for the future of work' and embedded arts practice, will be published here on 3rd Oct 2020


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