Manifesta, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art, is a migratory biennial which aims to reflect critically on Europe‘s changing cultural DNA. The eleventh edition of Manifesta, located in Zurich and titled What People Do for Money: Some Joint Ventures, has been curated by German artist Christian Jankowski. Manifesta 11 is composed of various parts: the 30 new projects in the satellites as well as in Löwenbräukunst and Helmhaus, which are the result of encounters between artists and their ‘hosts‘ (people from different professional fields); The Historical Exhibition: Sites Under Construction, also in the art institutions; the Pavillon of Reflections, where the entire project will be reflected in a filmic form; and Cabaret der Künstler – Zunfthaus Voltaire, a stage for joint-venture performances and home of the newly founded artists‘ guild.
The host city Zurich offers the necessary points of friction for Manifesta to explore current issues facing modern Europe in a specifically urban context – just as it is said in its mission statement. Although the city on the Limmat river is not, like many of its predecessors, on Europe’s periphery, this leading European and international financial and business hub is located in a country which, with its isolationist policies, represents a political island, in the core of Europe – of all places, at a vital interface between North, South East and West.
But what exactly are the characteristics of a city society marked by these parameters? It is exactly here that Christian Jankowski’s artistic-curatorial concept begins its approach. It addresses the various professional groups in Zurich and facilitates encounters and collaborations (Joint Ventures) between artists and these occupations. 30 international artists were invited to embark on a process-like dialogue with their chosen professions. The historical department presents works by both classic and contemporary artists that reflect the development of work in the mirror of art. In the Cabaret der Künstler – Zunfthaus Voltaire, the traditional idea of the guild is rejuvenated by the foundation of a new guild, the guild of artists, with membership and hence admission extended only to those who can articulate themselves artistically as part of a performance. And the Pavillon of Reflections is not only a hedonistic open air swimming area in the proud in outdoor Badis in Zurich, or public baths, it is also a stage, a platform, on which the whole process is reflected and “processed” cinematically.
The subject of work remains especially relevant in Zurich to this day. In accordance with the Protestant work ethic, pursuing a vocation became a religious obligation around the beginning of the modern era and thus an identity-building force – especially in a Switzerland reformed by Zwingli and Calvin. Even today, “guilds” still in existence continue to confirm professional life as the basic structure of urban life – the annual spring festival of Sechseläuten (when the clock strikes six) is a ritual that celebrates the working day every year. The guilds thus mark the crucial interface at which people’s individual identification with their profession, the internalization of their vocation, meets the social view from outside on specific occupational groupings, also known as status – and the simple act of earning money becomes a higher calling.
Hence, in the context of Manifesta in Zurich, questions about the current meaning and the future of work automatically arose.
What does the work of today and tomorrow look like, when a modern working world devotes itself to new working methods involving independence and self-determination, the creative economy and other precarious ways of working – and at the same time, turns exploitation of others into the exploitation of the self?
What if work – in the throes of the fourth industrial revolution – itself becomes a thing of the past? Currently, the phenomena of digitisation and automation suggest a new, flourishing freedom of the individual but in reality, they have long since been engineering its substitute. Although still regarded as a service-oriented prosthetic of humanity, the machine or the computer has long since become the better half of the human (brain). Already, robots drive cars, serve in restaurants or play with children. But what form is appropriate for an automated society, in which people can no longer define their value, identity and status through work, can no longer barter with other people via the money they earn through work, can no longer invest the resources of their intellectual and physical abilities or can no longer allot the appropriate amounts of time using organisational software or time clocks? One question that is currently a burning issue in Switzerland, went to a vote here on 5 June – just before the opening of Manifesta 11 – an unconditional minimum income for citizens – whether they work or not.
What role can work continue to have for each individual, when, just as they earn money, the macrocosm of national and global business and the microcosm of the single household become enmeshed, penetrate each other, even, and through the expenditure of time and resources as a monetary performance, put simply, the earning of money, ultimately becomes a decisive (power) factor – in the relationship between genders and the relationship between generations.
How can a city even function if the balance of work and service is out of kilter? For the human being does not just perform work, he or she also creates it. Thus, the modern urban society of the Swiss financial metropolis has developed into a perfect maintenance and disposal society which eliminates whatever could contaminate human interaction in the most professional manner possible. Excess becomes a daily phenomenon, excess becomes waste – and is discreetly removed. From annoying faecal matter, through the dangers of fire and violence and bodily fragility caused by disease, pain, and deth to the excessive libido. It is no coincidence that many of the artists chose to address professions that tackle exactly these issues.
And what do these current developments in working life mean for art itself – in an art world increasingly marked by mercantile necessities and trends toward professionalization? The artist’s profession has always belonged to the more eccentric callings in the spectrum of possible occupations, yet it seems to remain connected to the notion of individual labour and handcraft – the term of ‘the artwork’ as work, laboured as it is, clearly demonstrates this. (KL)