Vincenzo Estremo

Universal washing cycle

“Concerning that about which one cannot speak, one must remain silent”
Ludwig Wittgenstein

In chapter ten of Das Kapital, Karl Marx explains the methods that capitalist societies and nationalist institutions have elaborated to prolong the working day. For Marx, extending the working day was equivalent to a quantifiable increase in exploitation of the workers. A subsistence salary, according to Marx’s economic theories, is earned by a limited amount of work. All the remaining work done during the day serves only to produce an economic surplus for the benefit of the employer, not the worker. Workers have fought to reduce working hours and, with respect to 1800 when the working hours were sixteen, first they obtained a shift of twelve hours, then ten, until they finally arrived at eight, which is characteristic of modern industry. Those struggles, which ended with the institution of the International Workers’ Day on May 1st, 1889, changed the situation radically. Today, for example, workers’ rights are eroding, a phenomenon that has also made inroads into the timing of work as well. Deregulation is a policy strategy that, as working conditions have been revised, has re-modulated the time that workers spend on their productive activities. It has become impossible to calculate the productive time of an employee so salary is an equally uncertain quantity and the term itself is hardly significant any more.

If we want to consider the changes to the notion of time as a component of work, I believe it is important to start from the concept of leisure time and its expression as a ratio of time dedicated to work. Every year the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) prepares the Better Life Index, a ranking that, right from the name, makes no mystery of the intention to examine the ratio between the time/work factors in the countries that belong to the organization.[1] If we observe the geography of this list, it is very clear that the Work-Life Balance perceived in the new economy countries including Turkey, Mexico and South Korea, occupies the lowest ranks of the classification. These countries have a good employment rate, but offer a minimum level of labour rights. Observing the historical evolution of the time/work ratio reveals some keys to the formal interpretation of important contemporary social factors. Historically speaking, the synoptic time-production-reduction-increase relationship can be defined as a directly and inversely proportional quatern. In fact, in the history of labour, the quantitative extension of the working day is associated with increased production and reduction of rights. On the other hand, the quantitative reduction of working time corresponds to decreased production and a significant increase in the workers’ quality of life. The functional relationship among the factors has changed in our time mostly because of mutated production conditions. We will examine, in the course of these considerations, how the fracture of the bipolar time/labour dialectic is slowly breaking down other factors of the productive system. Above all, we will focus on some of the critical strategies we can implement to oppose this drift.

In 1999, I got my first paid job with a regular labour contract. I had been hired by a home appliances firm in my city. After a training period, I was assigned to a production phase on the assembly line where I was supposed to mount washing machine drums. For eight hours a day, I shot plastic dowels into specially shaped holes between the steel or plastic drums and the eyelets of two hydraulic piston supports. Work proceeded at the speed of the conveyor belt, which allowed me to complete the phase in less than forty seconds for an output of 512 washing machines per shift. At that time (end of the 1990s), some appliance firms were developing other forms of timing, while existing systems were still in function, where the worker established the time to do the job instead of a timer. The time that a piece remained on the assembly line was determined by the worker who used a series of buttons to advance each piece along the line. Mysteriously, given the possibility to choose their own speed, workers accelerated and hyper-produced. These new methods led to a significant increase of industrial production. In some cases in Poland and Turkey, there were single circuits that succeeded in turning out 5000 product units in an 8-hour shift. I never had the opportunity to work personally on the experimentation with the new assembly lines, my contract was not renewed and the factory director encouraged me to continue my university studies. However, for the whole time I was working in the factory, I continued to think about the reasons why a human being would over-produce if given the opportunity to decide on the speed of the work. It is interesting to note that in Turkey, a country where the hyper-efficient single cycle represents the key to the productive system, the level of exploitation is very high and positioning on the Better Life Index is substantially the lowest. This functionalism produces unilateral benefits and makes a critical observer suspicious. In 1966, in a comment on man’s attempt to conquer space, the philosopher Martin Heidegger revealed his wariness of the danger that technical efficiency can represent, “Everything works. This is what is so disturbing: that it works and that functionality pushes on to another sort of functionality, [...] man is already practically uprooted”.[2] Heidegger’s long lesson about technique has clarified the motive of why functional modernism has substituted utopian modernism and how this process has climaxed, at least for now, in the digital revolution. Novelty necessarily accompanies dematerialization: new job specific skills and new timing for job execution, while maintaining exploitation at the constant values prior to the modern era. Today intellectual work is exploited and workers themselves foment this exploitation. The class of the so-called cognitariat, as defined by Franco Berardi (Bifo), is a stateless proletariat that works independently on highly precarious temporary projects. In my opinion, a number of contingent factors played the key roles in the affirmation of this class of workers, the most important of which is undoubtedly the universal diffusion of technical instruments.[3] In an inversion that was perhaps foreseeable, the original objective of the Marxist-Leninist practice, meaning the workers’ struggle for the means of production, today reappears in a capitalist version to exploit a group of workers who are weak and have little to shield them from capitalist coercion. Accessibility of digital means of production mixed with self-determination of working time produces the highest level of exploitation. The overturning of Marxist thought is merely an auxiliary failure of labour rights. As Eric Hobsbawm sustains, Marx’s analytics are systematically applied for capitalist and liberal purposes.[4] The great contradiction is evident in the curious inversion of the Marxist perspective on the creation of value, in which the expanded working time of the cognitariat class enters into a power relation among the sage, the merchant and the warrior.[5] Flexibility, in the form of re-timing and de-localizing work, is an instrument of modification of the productive structures, created and promoted by reformist politicians in favour of deregulation. In neo-liberal theories, application of flexibility is the only possible system of regulation or, rather, coercion of the sages - according to Bifo’s definition - by politicians and entrepreneurs, in order to maintain a high level of competition in the world economy. The timing of flexibility transfers the costs and liabilities of the labour relations to the workers themselves by making them responsible for the productive process.

We have thus caught up with a nomad worker who alone decides the rhythm of his time, a monad entrusted with the entire production process. These workers are progressively more involved with the new media, in which time is not just one of the constitutional elements but is also an institutional object. The idea of starting from video as the object of reflection on the reconfiguration of working time in the contemporary world derives from some characteristics of video itself, which Frederic Jameson claims is a “most distinctive new medium, a medium which, at its best, is a whole new form in itself”.[6] The classification and definition of video must account for the polysemy of the medium. The term, video, in fact, in a form of temporal coincidence, indicates both the method of cultural production and the cultural object itself. The image/time synchrony gives us an idea of how critical the time factor is in this medium and how reprogramming the timing of production work, where each process may be handled by a single individual who has the roles of producer, director/artist and editor, accentuates the importance of this development. Contemporary artists who do videos, when in condition to produce – availability of the means of production and expansion of the support itself – work with time and on time. The effects of this self-reflection often go beyond formal results to include politics and protests. To follow the tracks of these changes back to their origins, we must go back to the 1960s when contemporary art regenerated itself by means of linguistic hybridization in which the technological factor became decisive. The time of art coincides with the time of life. Video offers means of formalization that have developed and changed over the years. The artists Vito Acconci and John Baldessari, for example, consider the possibility of a very long video and therefore accept the inorganic restitution and eternal time of the present in a performance registered on a magnetic tape. The artist Albert Serra is also interested in the possible time that he can obtain with a video. When he began to work with video, the artist made maximum use of the possibilities to record and save the medium in digital format, to take very long master shots that were then composed into monumental productions.[7] The acquisition and possession of the means of production, reversing the Marxist perspective, represented the first true condemnation to a system of hyper-production of the image. Even if the parallels drawn between industrial and iconic hyper-production seem to fit and the consequences also appear to resemble one another, I believe that the problematics of both processes also reside in the temporal hypertrophy of such a process. The existence of exploitation and the programmed increment of such exploitation is the outcome of an unbalance between life and time. The resulting borderline situations, such as erosion of workers’ rights on the one hand and weak images on the other, are the outcome of exasperating this dualistic relation. Not granting oneself time because of a personal ambition to achieve productivity allows us to reach an egoistic satisfaction and on the other to underwrite our own self-exploitation. This laceration of time, if applied to artistic production, is a perfect partner for the synchronicity of digital systems and generates a cage trap from which it is difficult to evade.

One day, as I was thinking of Hélio Oiticica[8]– someone had said to me that observing the movements of his Parangolés had led toward comprehension of the time structure in his almost-cinema – I began to stare at the universal washing cycle of my washing machine. That afternoon I believe I began to comprehend what I have written in this form, but above all to have identified the alternative weight of time in the form of moving images. The temporality to which I refer is that which the artists’ group Superflex consider instrumental: Tools.[9] While the washing machine continued its washing cycle, I was thinking of how that time that I considered lost could help to free me from the exploitation in which I was knowingly encaged. I believe, but do not believe that I am the only believer, that our capacity not to make use of time is the source of much of our struggle. So it is that the Superflex lesson in The Working Life[10] tells us that blocking the flow of activities destroys the time/hyper-production link. It returns, appropriately, in video form and, appropriately, from a group of intellect workers. Superflex suspends time and suggests we do the same everywhere: in bathrooms, in the offices where we do our jobs every day and even in museum rooms. The discourse of The Working Life is structured like a video image, synchronic but not complex, but most importantly it uses its time – 10 minutes and 51 seconds – to push us toward the shutdown of the virtual time-product system. The lack of collective productivity becomes, contemporaneously, struggle and negation of the efficiency mentality that underlies neo-liberal ideology. In the meantime, the washing cycle had absorbed almost all the time of my afternoon, so at the end of the cycle I went out on the terrace, found the sun waiting for me and finally hung out my laundry to dry.

Vincenzo Estremo is a doctoral candidate under joint guidance of the universities of Udine (Italy) and Linz (Austria), conducting research on the historiographical value of video after the September 11 attacks. An author and curator, he directs the Drost Effect Magazine online review.

[1] [10/08/2015]

[2] The declaration was originally issued to the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel on 23 September 1966 after the Sputnik launch and published in 1973, Martin Heidegger, “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten” in Der Spiegel 30 (May, 1976). Italian translation, Martin Heidegger, Discorsi e altre testimonianze del cammino di una vita 1910-1976, Genoa, Il Nuovo Melangolo, 2005, p. 597. English translation, Only a God Can Save Us in Id. “The Man and the Thinker (1981)”, pp. 45-67.

[3] “If we want to use the words of the twentieth century, the triumph of the multitude poses the great theme of self-awareness to the wandering neo-proletariat, the creatives employed by the society of entertainment, the General Intellect and the stateless, flowing neo-middle class. In fact, without self-awareness, the proletariat does not form a class, the owners don’t become middle class as was once said, and the creatives set to work mingle in the midst of the cognitariat (Franco Berardi - Bifo) rather than forming a creative class (Richard Florida)”. See also Aldo Bonomi, Sole 24 Ore, 31 October 2010, p. 31.

[4] Eric J. Hobsbawm, Il Secolo breve, 1914-1991: l'era dei grandi cataclismi, Milan, Rizzoli, 1995.

[5] Franco Berardi, Il sapiente, il mercante, il guerriero. Dal rifiuto del lavoro all'emergere del cognitariato. Derive e Aprrodi, 2004.

[6] Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, p. X

[7] The Three Little Pigs by Albert Serra, produced for dOCUMENTA (13) of Kassel, a video of 101 hours.

[8] I want to thank Hugo Canoilas for telling me about Hélio Oiticica and for telling me about the use of time in his work. I took Hugo’s point and made something different of it, so I ask his forgiveness if there is room in the text for my washing machine.

[9] Tools are instruments of contemporary society that Superflex prepares to enable us to recover conscience of ourselves in our society and to reconstruct what our rights are: [21/08/2015]

[10] The Working Life, Superflex (2013). [21/08/2015]