nathalie koger

No More Time for Ability – Strategies, Breaks, Resistances

On the Work Für das müde Material (For the tired material)
as part of: Master in Critical Studies for "BUSY. Exhausted Self / Unlimited ability", 21er Haus / Vienna

Jan-Hendrik Müller

In the summer semester of 2012, in the context of a project seminar, Master students of critical studies at the Akademie der bildenden Künste Vienna worked on diverse and intervening approaches to the present-day diagnosis that our lives are increasingly vacillating between creativity and depression. In addition to selected catalog contributions, the students conceived a supplementary program for the exhibition Keine Zeit. This program functions as an arena for the most diverse strategies and discourses encouraging one to respond to this paradigm of contemporary capitalism. Creating new forms of practice, conceiving a new definition of ability, perhaps offering an alternative to the exhausted self – these could all be options to evade the governmental practices of the society of control. One of the aims of the heterogeneous performances, texts, and interventions is to provoke reactions to the discourses manifested in the museum and to go beyond them.

Alain Ehrenberg’s diagnosis of an exhausted society of weariness as the result of the increasingly stronger imperative to identify in the world of work is taken up by the performances and projects of Ilona Braun, Martina Kigle, Nathalie Koger, as well as Nina Prader and Maria Rodriguez: “At our house, a part of it has always been to burn off oneself on stage.” This comment on the death of an actress at the Berlin Volksbühne offers the projection screen for approaches to the topic of exhaustion, depression, and the term “burn-out,” which is used in an inflationary manner nowadays. A stage built by Martina Kigle in the 21er Haus becomes a careerist stake [German: Scheiterhaufen] symbolizing the over-affected attitude of creative subjects toward their own work and providing a platform for the subsequent performances. Kigle takes up the metaphor of failure [German: Scheitern] in the form of an intervening, associative narration that generates a difference to the other contributions in the catalog. Nina Prader, who designed the book mark of the publication, publishes and reads from a new zine that by paraphrasing a fairy tale promises a “burn-out revolution,” while in Ilona Braun’s lecture performance, the state of stress is made productive. A torrent of exhausting words, images, and associations will overtax the audience and take them to their physical limits. Nathalie Koger and Maria Rodriguez, on the other hand, make a relaxation offer. Mental and bodily fitness seems to provide help against the state of exhaustion, yet it also fits in well with the practices of styled bodies obliged to productivity in an achievement-oriented society. Massages for the enervated audience could be understood as a reaction to exhaustion. But they can equally experience an ambivalent reinterpretation as a biopolitical strategy to increase productivity. This is contrasted by the term well-being. The massage reveals itself here as a way to “decipher” the relations of exploitation in the form of tenseness in one’s own body and trigger a learning process. Since a public problem is turned into a private one here, the method is still a part of capitalist emotional mechanisms: On the one side, self-responsibility and the feeling of having failed, on the other, the resulting sense of guilt. What is revealed here is the difficulty of responding to the power of the new forms of immaterial labor that permeate everything.

Ana de Almeida, Anke Dyes, and Julia Tirler organize a team-building dinner for precariously employed cultural workers. The interns of diverse Viennese cultural institutions are to exchange the experiences they have made with the employment relations in the culture industry within the frame of a dinner and an accompanying workshop, and “network” them to form the basis for possible joint action. This project not only links the space of the museum with concrete political and structural problems of the culture industry, it also occupies the institutional space to perhaps even extract political action from the discursive ethos of the museum.

The text “When the soul goes to work ... and the woman boss is no longer there” reports from the inside of a cultural institution by juxtaposing vivid experiences of a precarious employment relationship with theoretical fragments. An existence between temporary and permanent employment means entering into relations that are determined by rivalry, austerity measures, and “intrinsic” motivations. At this point of one’s own entanglement, a decisive question is formulated vis-à-vis the exhibition: Who is actually speaking here? Isn’t it once again the curators, artists, and scholars generating a discourse that addresses their own personal circumstances, but perhaps lacks a view from the outside? Wouldn’t this imply that one makes use of all those fluid relations of immaterial labor, thus feeding them into the exploitation mechanisms of the institutions?

Can reverting to past forms of labor be a productive strategy for cultural workers here? The pre-Fordist concept of handicraft is reintroduced by the construction of a roof truss under the artistic direction of Nathalie Koger. Does the return to the trained skills of a craftsman also bear a potential for the field of culture in order to assume a new work ethos at a distance to market-based over-identification?

A similar idea is carried out by the project of Kai Maier-Rothe and Jan-Hendrik Müller. A lecture and a sound performance put up for discussion how the Fordist labor paradigm of repetition in the factory can be transferred to art production. To producing a form of subjectivity through repeated actions, which make it appear possible to evade the exhaustion in face of what is impossible and the imperative of being able to perform more, is an opportunity to gain something positive from life in the loop.
A female student and kindergarten worker decides to become a collector. For the equivalent of fifty euros, Claudia Sandoval Romero commissioned various artists to produce works for a collection, and thus came upon the absurd mechanisms of the art market. On the one hand, the artists are torn between their abstract cognitive work and the simplified activities of a side income, while on the other hand, institutions and the art market representing well-heeled collectors transform the materialized labor time of the artists into marketable portfolios and investments. Sandoval Romero will additionally draw attention to this contradiction in the life of artists during the opening ceremony by cleaning the 21er Haus. The agony arising from the failing resource of time for activities that go beyond work is the theme of Maria Rodriguez’ catalog contribution, which in the form of a crossword puzzle features interviews with people from the most varied contexts about their relation to everyday work processes. Drawing up lists and plans, not to support work but to shape the remaining leisure time, functions as a strategy of regaining everyday life that has been stripped of its borders through work and expresses the wishes and hopes of living beyond formalized “time management.”

While the developed positions and projects at first appear diverse and ambivalent, their approach to the theme of a limitless creative subject and its contemporary social symptoms draws from an inherent notion of an “other.” Despite the difficulty of repeatedly becoming part of institutionalized processes through one’s own entanglement in forms of immaterial labor, its processes of social control and the unavoidable problems it entails, this “other” lies in the awareness that one cannot simply not act. What is revealed in the projects is the attempt of a reflexivity that does not play off the evident contractions against each other, but instead seeks to make them productive and endure them.

Text first written and published on the occasion of the catalogue of the exhibition "BUSY. Exhausted Self / Unlimited ability", 21er Haus, Vienna. Curated by Bettina Steinbrügge, adapted to an idea of Cosima Rainer