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Andrew Clifford on Dugal McKinnon's Popular Archeology

Giovanni Tiso on Tao Wells' The Beneficiary's Office

Heather Galbraith on Kim Paton's Free Store

Richard Meros on Bronwyn Holloway Smith's Pioneer City 

Martin Pattrick on Colin Hodson's The Market Testament

Hannah Zwartz on Suburban Floral Association's Shopfront

Emma Willis on Mark Harvey's Productive Bodies

Mark Amery on Dance Art Club and radio

Cathy Aronson on Julian Priest's Free of Charge 

Sally Blundell on the Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa 2013

Kerryn Pollock on Projected Fields

Reuben Friend and others on the Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa 2015

 

ESSAY

ECONOMIES OF HAPPINESS

EMMA WILLIS ON MARK HARVEY'S LETTING SPACE COMMUNITY PERFORMANCE PROJECT PRODUCTIVE BODIES


 

In March 2012, performance artist Mark Harvey staged a project called Productive Bodies [1]. Performed over five days in Wellington New Zealand, Harvey and a team of volunteers carried out a number of public actions that playfully interrogated what it means to 'be productive'. Using a blend of pragmatism and sometimes absurd creativity the project asked how people could strengthen their sense of community and engagement with their city as a public space, outside of their work environment and expectations of a labour contribution.

I arrived at Mark’s project initially as a writer and observer and then as participant. I listened to him speak about the work, participated in conversations about its political context, joined in workshopping ideas and eventually ‘hit the streets’ with other performer-volunteers.  

As part of Letting Space’s 2012 programme, Community Service, a series of commissions featuring, "artists working with people and communities to engender social change", [2] Productive Bodies positioned itself as a politically engaged aesthetic project. As with the broader series, it evoked Joseph Beuys’ concept of ‘social sculpture,’ a term Beuys used in the latter part of his career to describe the application of his theories of form creation (notably concerning generating warmth, transformation of physical states and so on) to social actions. The aim of this highly participatory mode of aesthetic engagement was the creation of "a new democratic society" [3]. Productive Bodies did not wear its politics on its sleeve however – it was not street theatre. Instead its central forms expressed ideas of happiness and helpfulness, the premise being that the happier you are the more productive you are. 

The hypothesis was playfully explored through a variety of actions: lines of defence were created to protect people as they crossed the road; people were carried across the street; a healing circle was held in the foyer of the Ministry of Health and Treasury; workers were collectively applauded as they entered and exited their workplaces; protective human shields offered to protected people as they went about the city. Surveys were also conducted that asked, ‘how could I look more productive?’

Some activities unsettled ideas of useful labour through absurd imagery. In workshops we rehearsed the lifting and movement of inert bodies as a kind of human cargo. This action was performed on the steps of Parliament on the last day of the work. The image emphasised the human, in all its frailty, materiality and vulnerability, as being at the centre of all political transactions.

Overall the actions emphasised collective engagement that generated good feeling to subtly promote an alternative economy of values. Underlying the actions was an emphasis on dialogue and conversation, on non-hierarchical structures and the development of forms (circular forms in particular) which enacted an ethics of care-for-the-other. 

While the work drew on elements of theatre, dance and figurative public sculpture, for the most part it invited a different kind of audience engagement than those forms normally elicit: that is, the work was created in conjunction with the participating members of the public. The ‘productive bodies’ were those of both initiators and responders. In this sense the sculpting that was going on was the creative alteration of social terrains; a reconfiguration, albeit temporary, of landscapes of person-to-person interaction.

 

Ideology of privatisation

Although grounded in playful and non-didactic forms, Harvey’s work immediately positioned itself firmly within the social and political context of Government public sector job cuts. Press material for the projected stated:

“Using group movement and humour Productive Bodies examines the usefulness and workfulness of individuals and groups in society. It explores what it means to be productive, equating community service with civil service, acknowledging the significant redundancies occurring in New Zealand at present” [4]. 

In an early meeting of Productive Bodies, a performance volunteer and former Government policy worker commented she has left her job because, “I wasn’t making a difference.” She felt that Government decree and bureaucratic acquiescence meant her proposed contributions, based on research, were under-valued.

Her situation illustrates a problem and internal contradiction within the function of public service. While its role is to serve the public without political bias (in the Government’s own words, the Public Service is “politically neutral, professional and permanent” [5]), at the same time it is the instrumental arm of government. The policy worker’s attempt to serve the public was at odds, she said, with the Department’s need to serve the Government, and thus her proposed contributions ignored. 

The cutting of the research functions of the public service illustrate a behind-the-scenes ‘back office’ shift away from a public service that thinks and acts for the good of the public, towards one that serves a political end.  While the observation may seem naive it points to a steady erosion of an ideology of care concerned with public welfare. 


This erosion of government ‘care,’ reflects what Zygmunt Bauman in his essay, ‘Happiness in a Society of Individuals’ calls an, “ideology of privatisation”. This postmodern Western paradigm shifts the responsibility of care away from government as representative collective and back to the individual, positing each person as responsible for their own circumstances and survival. 

“This ideology proclaims the futility (indeed, counter-productivity) of solidarity: of joining forces and subordinating individual actions to a ‘common cause.’ It derides the principle of communal responsibility for the wellbeing of its members, decrying it as a recipe for a debilitating ‘nanny state,’ and warning against care-for-the-other on the grounds that it leads to abhorrent and detestable ‘dependency’” [6].

Paradoxically governments harness this liberalist ideology in a centralised manner in order to undermine plurality and diversity and strengthen their own power. In the anecdote above ‘thinking’ is done by the Government of the day, not by impartial researchers. 

Bauman’s description of a society in which collective responsibility and action is not only derided but the target of aggressive attack certainly seems an unsettlingly accurate description of New Zealand’s current social, economic and political climate. One need look no further than the industrial disputes of port workers, meat workers and care workers, to identify precisely the ideology in action that Bauman describes. 

Collectivism is perceived as an affront and threat to economic growth, despite its clearly beneficial value to human growth and protection. In a recent article for the New Zealand Herald, journalist Dene Mackenzie noted of the lockout of Affco meat workers that the company had stated that a return to the negotiating table with the Meat Workers Union was unlikely unless the union had a "significant change in philosophy (emphasis mine)" [7]. 

That the value of collectivism is defined as an obsolete philosophy reveals the entrenchment of privatised ideology. The invocation of ‘privatisation’ by Bauman is of course particularly apposite in the New Zealand context given not only the explicit moves by the Government to privatise public asserts, but equally the efforts to prune/cut/slash/scale back/reform and ‘modernise’ the public service. The gradual erosion of public service, behind the veneer of cost-cutting, signifies a more profound disestablishment of an ethos of care-for-the-public (also reflected in welfare reform).

 

The value of collectivism was most clearly articulated in Harvey’s project through the use of circular forms.  In the guidelines set up at the beginning of the work he emphasised the importance of consensus. The circle was the starting point for the performance-week discussions and preparations, and the form that the group returned to while on the street in moments of hiatus between actions.  

As well as establishing a space of collective decision-making that generated knowledge and creative capital, the circular form helped facilitate the development of the performance collective: that is, the work built a temporary community that valued equally each of its members.

The circle was given most significant public expression in the form of  the protective shield, which enacted a reversal of the backdrop of work place exclusions (redundancies). While it was functional in one sense – it was designed to allow its participant to ‘move freely’ by protecting them from obstruction – at the same time it provided both a public spectacle by drawing attention to itself as it moved through the space and a metaphorical stage upon which the discursive concerns of the project were played out. The protective shield placed its object in the middle of the circle in a gesture that, rather than negatively singling out that person made them the focus of concern: to be placed in the centre meant to be esteemed, protected and cared for. 

    

The Consequences of Privatisation

Whereas the protective shield staged an image of inclusion, the worst outcome for individuals that live by the terms of an ideology of privatisation is social exclusion, principally through exclusion from work. This can take one of two forms: to have one’s labour excluded from the workforce, either through redundancy or failure to gain employment; or to have one’s labour considered as economically valueless. The Ministry of Health v Atkinson & Others case illustrates the plight of those who have had to battle to the High Court to gain acknowledgment of their full-time care for family members as work that deserves remuneration [8].  Sophie Jerram, co-curator of Letting Space, commented on the problem of valuing people according to the value assigned to their work. “[With] people pushed out of jobs, what we're exploring is whether your worth has been reduced just because you haven't got a job," continuing, "we need people who are working on a part-time basis, because they're people looking after children and elderly residents.  These people are contributing as much to society” [9]. 

What Jerram’s comment points to is a market-based valuation of individual worth. As Marilyn Waring commented at the Artist Talk for Productive Bodies, "There continues to be the assumption that the only way in which work can be visible or valuable is if you treat it as if it were a market commodity or a market service and you attribute a value to it" [10]. Part of the work of Harvey’s project was to reverse this ideology by bestowing esteem and appreciation on those not usually recognized with public accolades. 

Further, the project also performed its own unpaid public service through its acts of help and assistance: helping people across the road, reading out Radio New Zealand and TVNZ schedules, for example. What made these acts so pointed, despite their absurdity at times, was the very fact that they were being performed within the context of the hollowing out of the service aspect of public service. The increasing burden placed upon voluntary community organizations to take up the role of caring for the most vulnerable members of our society reflects this transfer of responsibility.

 

One of the consequences of an ideology of privatisation where responsibility for the other is abrogated is the generation of personal and collective anxious self-interest where the other becomes a figure of threat. Rather than an ethos underpinned by the belief that, ‘your gain is my gain,’ ‘your gain is potentially my loss’ comes to take precedence. This mindset is most obvious in the rhetoric concerning ‘angry taxpayers’ and ‘ordinary hardworking New Zealanders.’  Bauman notes that, “Exclusion is in the nature of things, an un-detachable aspect of being-in-the-world, a ‘law of nature’ and so to rebel against it makes no sense. The only issue worthy of being though about – an intensely – is staving off the prospect of myself being excluded in the next round of exclusions.” [11]

The paranoia and distrust that this creates is divisive and undermining. The implications of this erosion of an ethos of collective wellbeing are alarming: the subprime mortgage saga in the US disturbingly points to what happens when individual vulnerability becomes a tradable commodity.

How then did Harvey’s speak to the ideology that Bauman describes? As noted at the outset, Productive Bodies framed productivity – usefulness, workfulness – within an economy organised around happiness. Importantly, happiness was both generated and shared (received) collectively. The performance actions that offered applause illustrate this dynamic.

The most spectacular example took place at Te Papa, where about 10 participants were standing outside the main doors, applauding those who came and went. A large group of school children observed with interest. Harvey invited them to be part of the action, and around 70 children joined in. The applause created by the large group was a joyous chorus, and met with delight by those who, rather than escaping by the side exits, decided to walk down the aisle of applause.

The spectacle of applause demonstrated a politics of collective affirmation that was significantly a-material. Just as within an ideology of privatisation, just as unhappiness comes from exclusion, happiness comes from inclusion, primarily material inclusion. It seems reasonably clear that happiness that is a by-product of a society focused on public good, public care and public service, takes an entirely different form than that depicted by models of material consumerism.

Significantly, happiness is not a product, but is a process of doing. This seems to be the greatest value in Harvey’s work. Its focus on process, beginning with information meetings at Toi Poneke Arts Centre through to the engagement of participants in decision making to do with actions being performed, the work’s focus on the generation, as noted, of social warmth and good feelings. It therefore seems there is an important link between creative action, an emphasis on presence and collectivism, and efforts to unseat the hold that an, ‘ideology of privatisation’ has on society. 

Harvey’s work performed an ideological shift in a way that was both demonstrative and inclusive, augmenting and subverting familiar social forms – such as applause or handshake – and creating others. Through emphasising the generation of human warmth, it enacted small scenarios that championed surprise, laughter, affirmation and acts of engagement divorced from a normative socio-economic context of valuation.

 

Aesthetics and political effect

The question that follows is whether such generation might have a significant social or political effect.  Are temporary good feelings enough?  Did the work need a more forceful articulation of its politics?  Here it is useful to turn back to Beuys. Of his work, he remarked: “Although these products may not seem suitable for bringing about political change, I think more emanates from them than if the ideas behind them were directly revealed.” [12]  Beuys’ comment points to a subtlety of approach the characterised Harvey’s methodology. From the beginning of the project he sought to distinguish the work from political street theatre or protest action. Rather its strategy was concerned with the deployment of an affect of engaged caring to create small shifts in social interaction. 

Responses to the work that centred on the political efficacy of the performance actions sparked some vigorous dialogue. Tao Wells was invited by both Harvey and Letting Space to offer a response to the work, which he did at Enjoy Gallery the Friday that the project concluded [13]. Whilst acknowledging the genuine good feeling that the work generated, Wells contended that its politics were blunted by the fact the Harvey did not foreground his status as a University-paid artist. Wells’ reasoning was that the work needed to have been placed in the context of being initiated and carried out by someone who was a taxpayer funded, state employee whose core job description was to be the ‘critic and conscience of society’ [14]. How much does this point matter? 

To answer it is useful to return to the initial impulse for the work, which was the interrogation of what we considerto be productive and valuable labour. It seems therefore important to acknowledge that the work was not primarily concerned with the role of the artist, but rather, in a ‘Beuysian’ sense, with the democratic distribution of aesthetic labour. In this sense, whilst Mark steered the project, there was a displacement of the usual economies of art-making.

By shifting the work away from an interrogation of the political role of the artist, the project offered a more subtle exploration of social exchange that was effective precisely because of its de-politicisation and emphasis on person-to-person relationships. That is not to say the work was not politically informed – it was – but it sought to explore those politics through reflecting on the most basic of human needs – care and protection – and giving these primary status within social transactions: it foregrounded a for-the-other ethos over selfishness. The political contribution was perhaps small and subtle, but one which elicited moments of happiness, however fleeting, that defied prevailing ideologies, esteeming a different kind of labour.  Thus while Wells’ critique merits consideration and reply (more fully than I have offered here), in its emphasis on the artist it attaches itself to a politics that Harvey subtly rejected. 

Rather than asking what the artist might contribute, Productive Bodies explored how artfulness and creativity might be given and received collectively. In order to subtly redefine social relationships the work foregrounded the role of ‘everyday’ and ‘ordinary’ creativity.  Rather than making political statements, it attempted to institute an alternative politics of social interaction. 

In his book, The Moral Imagination, Paul Lederach, a leader in the field of peace-building, insists on the importance of making social spaces for creative acts and suggests that small moments of transformation, resonance and connection, which he likens to haiku, are vital in enacting what he calls an ‘aesthetics of social change’:

The aesthetics of social change proposes a simple idea: building adaptive and responses processes requires a creative act [15].  Productive Bodies engineered such acts. Some succeeded, others failed. But in the process of constant recommitment to the task the collective of ‘productive bodies’ asserted ways of being that modestly, and for a brief duration, created sincere spaces of resonance and connection.

I return finally to the question of happiness. In an interview with Cathy Cavanugh Marilyn Waring commented that:

“There is a fundamental question in economics about what we value and how we value it. It's a fundamental ideological question. If you ask people what they value most in life, they will say my children, my partner, my health, my religion. Usually, it's something that can't be bought” [16].

Productive Bodies’ labour was a process-based work which quietly suggested that any assessment of productivity needs to acknowledge the significance of a wide variety of social contributions. Capital was generated through acts of esteem and care. What was exchanged between parties was human warmth. Through performing its acts of service the project offered both a critique of privatised ideology and, as an artwork, a playful model of an alternative economy that placed care for the other at its centre.

 

 

Emma Willis is a lecturer in theatre at Massey University Wellington.  She has a background in creating performance, mostly recently collaborating with Malia Johnston on body / fight / time (2011) and Dark Tourists (2007-8).  Emma recently gained her PhD from the University of Auckland, an interdisciplinary study of dark tourism, theatrical performances and the theatricality of memory and ethics.

All images: Gabrielle McKone

 

Notes

[1] It was programmed as part of the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts visual arts programme and affiliated with the City Gallery’s The Obstinate Object exhibition.

[2] http://www.lettingspace.org.nz/community-service/

[3] Temkin, Ann, et al. Thinking Is Form: The Drawings of Joseph Beuys. London: Thames and Hudson in association with Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1993. p. 18-19.  Print.

[4] http://www.lettingspace.org.nz/productive-bodies/

[5] http://www.ssc.govt.nz/sscer

[6] Bauman, Zygmunt. "Happiness in a Society of Individuals" Soundings.38 (2008): 19-28. p. 21.  Print. 

[7] Mackenzie, Dene. "Unrest Has Unions Looking to the Future." New Zealand Herald. 10 March 2012. Online.  http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=10790999

[8] For recent article on this case see: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10805814

[9] Jerram, Sophie quoted in, Talia Carlisle.  “A creative space for the unemployed.”  The Wellingtonian.  27 February 2012.  Online.  http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/news/local-papers/the-wellingtonian/6488157/A-creative-space-for-the-unemployed

[10] Waring, Marilyn, Susan Guthrie, Mark Harvey, Sophie Jerram (Chair).  “Being Productive.”  Festival Club, Odlins Plaza, Wellington Waterfront.  14 March 2012.  Panel discussion.   

[11] Bauman p. 21.

[12] Beuys quoted in Temkin, p. 20.

[13] Tao Wells recently made a thematically related work as a Letting Space commission called The Beneficiaries Office, which ‘argued that the average unemployed person causes less harm to others and the planet than many employed people.’ http://www.lettingspace.org.nz/tao-wells/

[14] Education Act 1989 http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1989/0080/latest/DLM183668.html

[15] Lederach, Paul. The Moral Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. p. 73.  Print.

[16] Waring, Marilyn.  Interview was conducted by Dr. Cathy Cavanugh.  Athabasca: Centre for Work and Community Studies, Athabasca University, January 1998.  Online.  http://aurora.icaap.org/talks/waring.htm