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Embedded Practice and the Future of (Art) Work - Andy Abbott Part 4

Conclusion: The Future of Work is Now

The three previous parts of this article were written in April 2020 as my R+D as Associate Artist for In-Situ drew to a close. Reflecting on the process allowed me to consider what had been learned, what had been done well, and what could be done better or developed in future.

Through these reflections I hoped to illustrate that the content of the project was relevant, if not urgent, and that taking part in discussions about the Future of Work could be of wide benefit. ‘The Future of Work’ is a lens through which we can explore identity, place and the potential for people-led change – all of which are recurring themes in In-Situ’s organizational practice. Likewise the context for the project, Pendle, provides a perfect backdrop to these conversations; both because of the historic, social and environmental resources, and because of the infrastructure that In-Situ is plugged into. Finally I felt that the method of using art – specifically a co-produced artwork with a focus on virtual engagement and digital technology - was appropriate and timely.

In April it seemed that questions around the future of work were drawing ever closer and a lot of the factors and qualities of work in the future – remote working, digital tools, the requirement of greater state intervention and support in the form of Basic Income or Universal Services, postwork and postcapitalist futures, and even virtual engagement and immersive technologies - had been pulled sharply into the present through the then-emerging global coronavirus pandemic, its subsequent lockdowns and social distancing measures. Now, in October I can offer a few additional ‘post-lockdown’ reflections.

For some the pandemic has thrown up new possibilities. For others it has simply accelerated existing trends. Either way, the lockdown measures have offered practical experiences and dialogue that has moved the conversation about work into new territory in a variety of interlinked ways:


1. It has demonstrated the potential for remote working. When reading this article back the mention of ‘Skype’ marks it out as being from a different era. In just a few short months many (but crucially not all) of us have been naturalised to ‘Zoom meetings’ both for work and socialising. So-called ‘smart-working’ has shown that a lot of the time we were spending in centralised workplaces previously, and the accompanying commuting time, was unnecessary – and perhaps more a disciplinary or surveillance measure than one of related to efficiency or productivity. For many of course the environmental and personally liberating benefits of this form of remote working are offset by the poverty of experience of working via screens. Many complain of Zoom and/or screen-fatigue and the generally draining condition of working from home; not least those that have also to share that working space with children or family that demand care and attention. Likewise, it’s important to keep in mind that many jobs are impossible to do remotely and as such this has highlighted inequality in the availability of ‘flexible’ (and in many cases therefore safe) work.

Photo of Sunday Times article, courtesy of Mothership. 2020

2. Related to the above is the reassessment of the value of work, and specific forms of labour, that the pandemic has prompted. It is well documented that the lockdown measures brought to light the essential, even heroic, nature of previously considered ‘low-skilled’ jobs from delivery drivers to care workers. On the flipside the ‘usefulness’ of high-status jobs in management and – less positively in my opinion - culture and the arts has been brought into critical light. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, the pandemic has irrevocably altered the manner in which we understand the value of labour and those who perform it. It should also be noted that, to quote again from the recently deceased David Graeber, the ‘bullshit’ nature of a lot of work has been shown up. We can live without a chief brand analyst for a few months, but not the supermarket worker who packs our Sainsburys click and collect order, the frontline health worker, or the creative workers that produce our Netflix content. Likewise, those of us that thought making our own sourdough or cutting our own hair was just a matter of time rather than skill or training may have also had a rude awakening.

3. Many workers, especially those placed on furlough, have for the first time experienced an enforced and unexpected increase in ‘free time’. I have written elsewhere on the disappearance of spare or free time in late-capitalist neoliberal society so it is exciting for me to think that for a few lockdown may be the first taste of ‘boredom’. In fact, if it weren’t for the very real fact that simply stepping outside of your door could put yourself or someone else at risk, boredom may have replaced anxiety as the ‘public secret’ of lockdown life. Instead many of us have existed in a limbo state of listless restlessness: the worst of both worlds. On a more positive note, the formation and development of mutual aid networks, ‘neighbourly’ behaviour and acts of solidarity, and even increased engagement with the natural world around us – has demonstrated that as a society we are able to use ‘free time’ in a socially beneficial, rather than purely self-interested, manner. This, combined with the looming economic crises and the appearance of the ‘magic money tree’ that paid for our furlough and ‘Eat-Out-To-Help-Out’ Monday meals, has brought conversations about Universal Basic Income into the mainstream. More people have had a small taste of a ‘postwork’ future that would help them to ground previously abstract discussions about what we would do in a world without work (as we know it) in personal experience.

4. On the other hand, but with similar consequences, lockdown has highlighted and exacerbated existing inequalities. The local lockdowns in Pendle and Bradford targeting ‘BAME’ communities in urban areas have shown that those areas with high levels of poverty and deprivation, multiple occupancy housing, and where people who have no option but to travel to work in hazardous conditions will struggle to shake-off the virus in the same way more affluent and rural areas might. We can, therefore, imagine a scenario in which these areas are unable to recover from the real and perceived ‘health hazards’ without economic intervention and additional support. This again shows the need for a socio-economic policy that allows people to social distance and work remotely, and that can support them fully in times where work is not possible. Again, Universal Basic Income, or a Universal Basic Services provision the like of which is outlined by authors in Part One of this article seems to be a viable, if not necessary, solution.

Embedded Arts Practice in a post-pandemic Future

So far I’ve offered a few thoughts on how the pandemic has created or accelerated new trends regarding the Future of Work in general but I would like to conclude this article with some observations on its impact on embedded arts practice and the project I was using to drive the research for In-Situ.

As written about previously I had already begun to tackle the conundrum of the socially-distanced-engaged artist through the research, primarily as a way to address time and budget constraints. I believe that whilst socially-engaged art is a ‘slow practice’ that benefits from an open-ended and responsive methodology, we – as artists and organizations that support such practices – are almost always dealing with a finite amount of time and resources for projects. As such efficient ways of using the time available are required and ‘digital tools’ such as those used for smartworking, and even for remote engagement can help with this.

Building Bridges Covid-19 Response in Pendle 2020

The pandemic and lockdown, however, introduced a whole new set of challenges, parameters and restrictions for socially-engaging practices, not least the social distancing measures that made bringing together anything more than small groups of participants impossible. Some organizations specializing in this type of face-to-face, intimate community engagement - In-Situ include - used the time to take stock but also to test and trial other methods of engagement. For example they adapted The People Speak’sTalkaoke methodology to a digital format, and created art packs for young people to do at home. At the same time partner organisations like Building Bridges took the opportunity to get involved in even more direct engagement with their audiences/communities by becoming local ambassadors for Covid-19 response, as well as trialling online artistic showcase.

South Square Centre ‘Thornton by Post’ 2020

South Square Centre in Thornton, Bradford were one of the ‘grassroots’ organizations for whom shutting down completely during lockdown was not an option. They used the opportunity to shift their artistic programme from the gallery to a mixture of online activities including a month of digital activities about mental wellbeing and health, local community engagement that involved the production of zines and publications with content gathered by post and mail, and targeted activities like music performances for residents of care homes whose social contact had otherwise completely disappeared. Through these responsive strategies they have engaged a whole host of new audiences, participants and partners.

Elsewhere, Deveron Projects, an embedded arts organization in Huntly in rural Scotland, hosted a talk on the future of socially engaged art with artists Suzanne Lacy, Babak Fakhamzadeh and Director Claudia Zeiske that highlighted the challenges, and opportunities, of doing this type of work in a purely virtual field. Through this they also discussed remote and digital versions of usually physical projects.

In terms of the impact on my own practice the pandemic opened up an opportunity to explore the Future of (Art) Work in an international context via an invite to curate the UNIDEE Residency Programme for Cittadellarte Fondazione Pistoletto in Biella, Northern Italy. As mentioned in part two of this article this was a residency that Yvonne Carmichael and I completed in 2006 and so the opportunity to bring back some of my research to that context has particular resonance for me.

UNIDEE Residency 2020 Open Call

The residency brings together more than fifty participants from across the globe to collectively explore the theme of Embedded Practice in a Post-pandemic Future’ through a mixture of individual and collective artistic action research, mentorship and group discussion. The challenge set to me was to design and deliver a residency that allowed a large group of participants to work together at a distance, whilst still retaining the valuable ‘informal’ aspects of being together in a different place that underpins the UNIDEE experience. I am happy to say that we were able to arrive at a format that, so far, is working well and embraces the hybrid virtual-physical spaces, tempos and approaches common to both the Future of Work and post-pandemic life.

With regards to my research for In-Situ and Dreamwork:Pendle I hope to be able to continue to develop the project as part of a wider body of research that, using creative digital tools and socially-engaged art methods, explores the Future of Work against the backdrop of post-industrial cities and towns. For me it is from these places - the fractured spaces created by the uneven development of capitalism and seismic shifts in modes of production - that a brighter, fairer and more sustainable Future of Work may emerge.

This is Part four of a four-part article. You can read the rest of the series HERE


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