Natty Brings Her ‘A’ Game
Guy Rundle and I were drinking. Social interactions are my studio. About three drinks in, conversation strayed into the pseudo-philosophical terrain so beloved of the half-cut. Guy wanted to know if I was a pessimist or an optimist. I said it depended on how I’d woken up, how my body and brain felt that day. My answer wasn’t cutting it with Guy. He wanted it one way or the other, so to speak. He pressed on: capital ‘P’ pessimism or capital ‘O’ optimism he coaxed, like an upper-case letter changed everything. I couldn’t answer then, but, like with all the best questions, a kernel of it remained, haunting the frontal lobe, like an insolent teen refusing to locate the stench within the hidden recesses of their room.
Optimism is stereotyped as the foundation on which life’s winners build their wins; pessimism is the countenance of losers. But I’m not sure that’s right. There’s a nagging suspicion that in today’s mess of a world, optimism isn’t even a sane response to life’s unfolding horrors. Optimism is part of the essential arsenal leveraged by the snake-oil salesmen, grifters and con artists who utilise the full power of the ‘hope’ narrative to sell us stuff.
Mostly I’m optimistic about my pessimism, but it can slide into pessimism about my optimism, depending on the variables, of which there are many. I’m a moody bitch, a resistant stance one works hard to maintain. Argumentative, willfully disobedient women play so counter-intuitively within patriarchy. So that’s good. Society prefers everyone to be bright and cheerful. But why bother faking it? Ambition and drive are boring if everyone is doing it.
I’d be a better person except I can’t be fucked. Self-help and I don’t see eye to eye. I’m too lazy to invest what I could (what I should) in my personal development. The self-help industry creates a problem (that being you) then sells you the solution (that being them). In this it shares many of the characteristics of religion/spiritual guidance from the unqualified, sold with a moral authority that saves customers the burden of thinking for themselves.
The basic idea, the main premise on which the behemoth personal-improvement scam of an industry is based, is that you are deeply flawed and underperforming, and if you do what they say and buy what they’re selling you can put yourself on the road to living your best life. So, the appeal is obvious: who doesn’t love a make over?
The self-improvement industry sets us up to fail, so why not beat them to it? Will reading ‘The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Self-Actualization’ or ‘Personal Growth for Dummies’ really help? If you’re super busy playing on one of your many electronic devices, super-condensed listicles provide rapid-response solutions to life’s obstacles: ‘Three ways to improve your mental wellbeing in under five minutes’, ‘Powerful mind hacks that really work’, ‘10 research-backed ways to beat procrastination for good’!
The simple answers to life’s problems take many forms. There are brand-new magical pills, herbs and potions to detoxify our bodies, doing the work traditionally left to the liver and kidneys. There are motivational speakers, courses, master classes, seminars and stress-management techniques; books, podcasts and therapies to lift our spirits; life coaches, mindfulness training, mystics, personal trainers and boot camps. If you’re feeling inadequate there’s good reason: you’re supposed to be feeling inadequate. Our weaknesses and our desires to succeed are carefully manipulated and then we’re sold false hope.
For Australian artists it’s easy to be lazy. There’s not enough work to go round. The energy that laziness saves us can be redirected towards competing for the scarce resources on offer. Laziness is also an effective counter to false hope. Inertia and a natural disinclination towards unnecessary exertion conserves energy. Laziness is in fact the smarter option. Neoliberalism, the mutant spawn dreamt up by patriarchy, is the penultimate organised-crime racket. It benefits members at the expense of non-members. The arts industry is a near perfect neoliberal model, efficiently channelling vast resources and opportunity into the hands of the mighty few. It is a system of exclusion whereby spurious claims of artistic excellence are used to justify totally weird decision-making.
Laziness is intrinsically associated with poverty and failure. There is a presumption that poor people are lazy, no matter how hard they actually work. Instead of talking about casualised workforces, the ‘precariate’ (the precarious proletariat), under-employment, wage stagnation and wage theft, mainstream conversation is dominated by talk of dole bludgers. It’s textbook victim blaming: non-achievers fail because they haven’t tried hard enough. It’s lazy not to consider how the corrupted systems we attempt to exist within leave most people failing.
Have you ever wondered if never trying is better than trying and failing? Sure, you won’t find schools admitting they teach students the principles of never trying, but rest assured, it goes on. With a stiflingly disproportionate focus on exams and league tables, assessment results and comparisons, students are shit-scared of what they haven’t yet learned. Teachers are shit-scared, too. Teachers get assessed by their students, even the ones they failed. Now that education has mutated into a big, expensive, user-pay industry, there’s no room for failure. People don’t buy failure. They buy success.
Failing is a key to learning. Traditional educational models, with their bells and assemblies and announcements and supervised revisions, prepare students for the rigours of a nine-to-five working life that doesn’t really exist anymore. And when the computers take over for real, many more of us will be freed from the strictures of full-time gainful employment. Then, many more of us will be free to explore what boredom and laziness can contribute to a day. Most people can’t handle unrestricted time and nobody telling them what to do. That’s why retirement is the beginning of the end for so many.
In our house we like to say: why do today what you can put off till tomorrow. It’s a strategy that really takes the pressure off. Procrastination is now an invaluable part of my creative process. It’s my subconscious saving me time and effort. Laziness, rather than manifesting as a negative coping mechanism, creates the space needed to imagine change.
Laziness gets a really bad rap. Laziness has been stereotyped, and we’re too lazy to challenge the misconceptions that have it wrongly misconstrued. Why focus on your productivity, when being unfocused is the more creative choice? Most people bounce from one novel distraction to the next, performing jobs that don’t really need to be performed. Doing nothing is just for holidays.
Many jobs serve no real purpose. In his book Bullshit Jobs, A Theory, David Graeber, anthropologist and professor at the London School of Economics, develops his idea that there are five basic types of bullshit jobs. These are most prevalent in sectors that include public relations, human resources, academic and health administration, telemarketing, corporate law, financial services and the arts industry.
You can tell who the flunkies are because they excitedly follow the boss around, making them feel as important as they are. Rich, powerful men and women have always surrounded themselves with entourages of underlings, paid to enable the boss to be the very best boss they can be. Flunkies are often younger members of the ruling class, learning the ropes on their ascent to, one day, being the boss themselves. Flunkies are privy to many of the dubious decisions being made in the name of progress, so a key characteristic of an efficient flunky is knowing when to keep their trap shut. Which is always.
Duct tapers work to make two systems that don’t work together, work together. Duct tapers fix problems that shouldn’t exist but have most probably been created by senior employees. Duct tapers clean up others’ messes. Within heteronormative nuclear families, the mother often orders the chaos, soothes the egos, calms the nerves and finds solutions to the problems created by the father.
Box tickers create work to prove to everyone that something is happening—even if not much is happening. For instance, large organisations produce in-house magazines and online video content supposedly to keep audiences informed. This shiny, glossy content more often serves to provide senior executives with the warm cosy feelings of workplace pride they so crave.
Taskmasters create work for other people to do, and then they oversee the work. Often the work would get done regardless of the boss overseeing it, but don’t tell them that because they’ll get really pissed.
Goons are confident extroverts born with the gift of the gab. Goons work to grow the business that employs them, through sheer force. If the goons didn’t exist we’d be better for it but their numbers keep multiplying regardless. Soldiers, telemarketers, lobbyists, think-tank employees, public relations departments, corporate lawyers, private-sponsor-relationship advisors are all goons.
Hard work (even when it serves no real purpose) is romanticised. Hard work is intrinsically linked to virtue and the Church, and we don’t believe in all that make-believe God crap. Why not investigate pessimism, vice, apathy and despondency instead? Resist making plans, because chances are they won’t work out. Be inert and indifferent, study idleness, save yourself the bother and outsource your work to some other poor sucker. Swap independence for dysfunctional codependence, and then there’s someone else to blame. Fall guys are invaluable, and they’re why artistic collaboration is so popular.
Natty brings her ‘A’ game
One of the many appeals of being an artist is that it doesn’t necessarily get better the harder you work. Sometimes it gets decidedly worse: over-laboured, over-conceptualised—the spontaneity and life literally laboured out of it. Sometimes, even as you’re doing something, creating something, you’re not sure what you’re doing. This manner of making is in direct opposition to those artists who design a successful rarefied commodity and continue to churn it out until it is no longer in fashion.
I choose to work as an artist. If I wanted to be a professional I would have gotten a real job. Being an artist isn’t a real job; it’s more like a real joke. I can’t be more professional until someone pays me properly. There’s a problem to this logic, but I’m too lazy to challenge my own brain and change my mind.
I do take my art career seriously. I work diligently between 10am and 2pm three days a week before downing tools from the sheer strain of it all. The physical and psychological exhaustion involved in pretending to nourish a burgeoning art career can get the better of you. Each afternoon I take a well-earned nap. Sleep is the simplest, cheapest and most effective way to drastically improve your quality of life. Most workers are too busy, too professional, too ambitious to factor into their days the type of sleep durations I take for granted. Twelve hours each night and a two-hour power nap most afternoons: that’s the secret to my stalled art career. Sleep results in razor-sharp receptiveness to facial cues. This comes in handy when I’m meeting with a curator who doesn’t like me or my work, but doesn’t mind wasting my time. Then I can wrap up the whole meeting super fast by pretending I’ve another, super-important, super-exciting commitment to attend.
Devoted sleep regimes come in handy in other ways too. The well rested have an increased ability to handle problems: like the big problem of calling yourself an artist when you can’t get an art exhibition. That problem takes some very creative thinking to work through. Artists do have the capacity to create their own platforms through which to present their creative impulses, but most don’t. Most artists are too busy becoming institutionalised to think outside institutionalised boxes.
I used to spend a disproportionate amount of my time trying to maintain the illusion of being a ‘professional artist’. I was always busy applying for art prizes, exciting exhibition opportunities and government funding only for it to end badly, with heart-wrenching, soul-destroying rejections. I was trapped in an endless cycle, pregnant with possibilities but without fixed realities. I was always thinking into the future, explaining now what I wanted to do next year, if my application was successful. It was doing my head in. The system puts the cart before the horse and it was stymieing my creativity. Now I know my best work is more impulsive, more spontaneous, just like me. Justifying to boards and panels of ‘leading industry professionals’ why my project might be a better bet than my peers’, that’s emotional work. I got sick of explaining to everyone how good I was only to be assured that no, you’re not that good after all: ‘We received record number of applicants of a very high calibre this funding round. Unfortunately, on this occasion your project has been unsuccessful in attracting funding. We wish you every success with future projects.’
I no longer submit. I don’t care for begging. Now, I use all the energy I’d wasted in applying to be an artist on being an artist. I’ve created the space I need to build a healthier relationship with the process of making art. Without all the submitting I used to do, I’ve time to burn. It took me ages to work it out, to jump off the treadmill of my own ambition and reframe what success might look like for me—what it might feel like. I had to undo a good deal of what I’d been taught about being a professional artist. Making art is enough of a job. Now, I’m a better artist. Poorer, sure, more unprofessional, yes, but I’ve bought back my time and my independence and I’m free now to follow my instincts and impulses. I concentrate on saying and doing whatever I like.
There’s nothing like the threat of looking stupid to challenge one’s inherent knack for laziness. That’s the best thing about work deadlines. The worst thing about deadlines is in how they change art from being something you want and choose to do for yourself into something you’re not getting paid enough to do for other people.
My personal motto is: work less and sleep more. Listen to your body’s natural rhythms and go to bed and stay there. The overall cognitive performance of people who indulge all their sleep impulses is enhanced.
Sleep, sleep deprivation and the rise and rise of endurance performance
Sleep deprivation is a torture technique everywhere except in the art scene. In the arts, sleep deprivation is lauded. Hans Ulrich Obrist doesn’t sleep: too professional, too committed, too ambitious, he is, to program sufficient shut-eye into his daily schedule. In H.U.O.’s hands, sleep becomes a signifier of the weak-willed, the half-hearted and the lazy, rather than a daily necessity. If everyone worked as long and hard as Hans and Mariana we could all be that successful.
Obrist’s favourite word is ‘urgent’. The basis of his brand as an uber-curator of repute is that he doesn’t sleep—too busy travelling across international time zones collecting the unfinished or unrealised dream projects of artists and cultural figures, and then sharing them with followers on his Instagram feed. H.U.O.’s job is in deciding who is hot and who is not. As he travels, meeting and interviewing artists, he records these interviews so nothing is lost, later becoming books. There are 45 volumes of interviews, 200 published catalogues accompanying exhibitions, and Obrist’s compendium, aptly titled dontstopdontstopdontstop. In 2006, H.U.O. founded the Brutally Early Club, a meeting of other possessed leading industry professionals who conduct meetings at 6.30am. He has organised a program of 24-hour seminars in London’s Hyde Park, discussing all manner of art-related thinking. Not all of the sessions were well attended. Following the 2006 marathon seminar, Obrist had to check himself in to the hospital to recover. That’s how competitive it is being a world-famous curator today.
If we don’t sleep we can’t dream. Endurance performance is so hot right now. It’s a trend through which artists and arts professionals can differentiate themselves from their peers/competitors, with well-publicised, lengthy, public demonstrations of enhanced dedication to their ‘craft’. Endurance performance aligns with neoliberalism in that suffering is elevated into an art form. The media loves it and so do the other bosses. Artists stay up all night and all day, performing their performance to illustrate their resolve to succeed against all odds no matter the personal cost. Yawn.
Marina Abramović loves endurance performance, and everyone loves Marina. We love her success. We hang on her every word, even when they’re not that good. ‘Artists should suffer for their art’, proclaims Marina from the tranquility of her New York loft apartment, high above reality. She inflicts pain on herself, her performers and her audiences, but there are so many flashbulbs going off everywhere Marina goes that nobody notices that a rich famous woman performing pain might be a bit weird. Getting famous performing pain is even weirder. Celebrity is funny in that it trumps logic. Celebrity is emotive and emotions are not always rational.
Marina Abramović has commodified contemplation. In Marina’s hands contemplation becomes spectator sport. Seventy-five-thousand people stood in line for Marina Abramović’s MoMA retrospective, The Artist Is Present. The audience waited for the chance to sit across from the artist (who was present) and communicate with her non-verbally. Everyone was very excited. People are the ultimate spectacle. A type of media-led hysteria surrounded The Artist Is Present, fed by the public’s appetite for what Andy Warhol long ago identified as everyone’s 15 minutes of fame.
Once the rent is covered, people don’t spend money when they’re sleeping. The push towards 24-hour cities—cities that never sleep, cosmopolitan cities, the sophistication of accessing anything you want at all hours of the day or night—is peak neoliberalism. Sleep should not disrupt the economy.
Appropriation is the basis of much culture. At its core, appropriation willfully complicates the complexities in and around intellectual property and ‘fair use’ laws. The reason I like appropriation is because it’s easier to build on existing excellence than to start from scratch. And art historical precedence tells us it’s OK, which is considerate. Why think up your own original idea when you can just riff off someone else’s? Are there original ideas even left anymore? Or is that a flawed premise on which to begin? Does a belief in originality merely reveal that the maker hasn’t yet acquainted themself with the relevant art-historical thread?
In my work Man Cleaning Up (2017–18), I appropriated the iconic series Maintenance Art Works (1969–80) by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, especially her washing of the staircase at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Connecticut in 1973. My work is an act of homage, but updated to deal with women’s frustration at working harder for less money than everyone else. Whereas Ukeles performed menial tasks such as cleaning the stairs outside a museum, I thought, well, I’m too lazy for that, I’ll suggest to men that if they want to be feminists, they perform my performance for me. My work took the form of a ‘Help Wanted’ advert:
– Are you a white man born to a privilege you didn’t ask for?
– Have you assumed power because you never questioned you’d have it?
– Are you a boss who earns an embarrassing amount more than your dedicated female-dominated workforce? [Women continue to be paid a significant amount less than men but the pay gap is narrowing.]
– Are you a man feminist wanting to work towards gender equality but don’t know where to start?
– Are you tired of being emotionally complicit in maintaining a status quo that works for the few but not the many?
– Are you a beneficiary of the unpaid and underpaid labour of women? [Women are still disadvantaged by the amount of unpaid housework they do.]
– Do you want to confront cultural norms and help clean up the mess that is gender discrimination?
THEN I’VE GOT A JOB FOR YOU!
Man Cleaning Up is a durational performance work. The real work of this work is about who can be convinced to address their privilege by dressing in a hi-vis vest (so we won’t miss this small public gesture), getting down on your hands and knees and scrubbing the floor clean.
Each shift will be 30 minutes, unless you really were born to rule, at which point you might like to commit to a longer stretch of grunt work, but I’ll leave that up to you. You will not be required to speak, but to reflect on gender politics within society today and how we can work together for more equitable life outcomes.
Like many gender role expectations, sexism is a problem left to women to solve. Dissolving sexism in turn becomes more unpaid labour for women. We’re sick of solving problems men benefit from.
WHO’S IN AND THANKS IN ADVANCE.
My artistic career is a vanity project. I still pay to play. When I was a disillusioned woman in my 40s, I liked to kid myself that value in art is assigned as arbitrarily as purchasing the winning ticket in a chook raffle down the local RSL club. Now I know that is a lie that artists rely on to justify not selling shit.
The idle rich are lazy but you can’t tell them that because you’re too busy trying to sell them your art
Art fairs are speed-dating-style retail-shopping events for time-poor art lovers. For those at the top of the wealth spectrum, for whom time is scarcer than money, art fairs provide excellent bang for buck; you can see an awful lot of merchandise quickly before hitting the check-out. Art fairs are spreading fast. We didn’t even know there were enough punters buying art to justify the spread of art fairs, but art fairs reckon there is. Art fairs collect rich art collectors.
I love art and I love shopping, so you’d think I’d love art fairs. Back in the days when I was still trying to grow up, Mum, Gran and I would hit a shopping centre every Thursday night for a dose of quality family time in a retail setting. Even when we didn’t have two bob between us, we’d still get all dolled up and religiously stride round Toombul or Chermside, occasionally even venturing over to Indooroopilly to lust after all the things we couldn’t afford to buy. Then we’d round out our cultural evening with dinner at the food court, piling mountains of all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet onto plastic plates, a careful balancing act back to the table without a spill, then returning home sated like the committed consumers we aspired to be.
At art fairs it’s hard to look through the performance of people shopping for art to see the actual art. But then maybe that’s ok. Most art at art fairs isn’t any good anyway. And maybe shopping for art is art, a performance artwork of the highest order. This work paints (in broad, expressive brushstrokes) a self-portrait of a cultural sector that’s feigning confidence, as it edges ever closer to the complexities of a Westfield Shopping Complex. Improvisational, collaborational, durational, relational, locational, the ‘shopping-for-art-at-the-art-fair-artwork’ is the dominant performance work of our times. And critically important work it is too: the performance of culture as it is hollowed out, commodified and rendered meaningless plays out before our very eyes. You buy a ticket to watch.
Art fairs sell the idea that you can buy class, and let’s face it, art provides a quieter sense of luxury than a Ferrari. You can buy class now. It’ll cost you a motsa but it’s tax deductible.
As an idea for sustaining an artistic career, selling art to eager investors is a real goer. The chances of success might even be better than entering government funding lotteries. At art fairs, gallerists are the store managers, gallerinas are the shop assistants, attractive and well-coiffed to a fault; on entering their shops, I mean booths, you are surreptitiously sized up for your potential spending power. Just like at Gucci. The business of art fairs is in how they elevate art to an alternative asset for wealthy individuals looking for asset protection and diversification, as well as for emotional and social returns on investment. Bless.
There’s no better place to see the creative industries’ numerous stakeholders working out their private–public partnerships than at an art fair. These exciting relationships play like a scene from District 12 in The Hunger Games. All our key industry professionals from cash-strapped arts organisations round the nation fly in to the art fair host city to go shopping: the major institutions; the minor institutions; the award-winning architects, who think they are artists or have been commissioned to design the next exciting new museum extension or ‘house museum’; the commercial galleries; the collectors; the Eftpos machines; the university thinkers, educators and stalwarts; the publishers and printers; the developers; the art-transport providers; the wine sponsors and other benefactors. Artists, conveniently cast by this behemoth industry as charity cases (rather than as the primary producers on which the whole industry/circus is based), we’re there too, dressed in our Sunday finest, eyes expectantly scanning for those who might fall for us and what we do.
Risk plays centre stage. Commercial galleries double down on the rent they already pay to sustain their galleries, investing in exorbitant art-booth real estate. It’s a pay-to-play scheme where even the shoppers, I mean art collectors, pay to shop. What a circus.
Sure, there’s an art in backing a winning horse (I mean artist) when so many retire lame each season. You can tell how well dealers are selling by the extent to which their usual demeanour of carefully controlled boredom morphs into chirpiness. If a dealer starts ruminating on ‘covering costs’ you know they haven’t sold shit.
The commercial imperative has morphed arts journalism into advertorial. Not a critical word is afforded. Arts writing works so effusively, hard selling us the idea that everything is very exciting now, that you’re left wondering where’s the knob to turn the bullshit down? Arts journalism has absorbed the ‘don’t judge me’ vibe so beloved of teenagers. Criticism is cast as an unnecessary downer: ‘them haters always be hating’. Criticism, though, is the basis of a healthy culture.
Postcards from the Edge
Potential has a shelf life. There’s something terribly romantic about thwarted possibility and budding promise amounting to nothing and turning to ruin. Audiences have always been hungry to watch the demise of talent. Many a cultural icon’s appeal is based on what could have been but never was (because of the fast car/cocktail of drugs/vomit). Creative genius struck down in its prime; that’s a whole art movement and a couple of subcultural genres.
Don’t worry if you’ve become self-absorbed. So has everyone else. We live now in the Great Age of the Individual, each of us isolated within our own screens. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and competition is reframed as a motivational tool bringing out the best in us all, one ‘like’ at a time.
‘It’s a disease of critics that once they’ve labelled someone, it’s very hard to change their perspective. It’s laziness.’ -Michael Haneke
I like to think about the art of acting because I think most of us are acting. An actor’s work is to pretend to be other people. If an actor is any good at acting (and very lucky) then we want to get to know the ‘real person’ behind the character. Off-screen actors perform versions of ‘themselves’, or perform the role of how others see them, because how other people see them will affect their future career of pretending to be other people. Actors are at the forefront of creating and maintaining illusion, an act that can so easily slip into delusion. This is what I learned from Postcards from the Edge, by Carrie Fisher, along with how much I revere bravery in artists.
Naomi Klein said, in 1990, that in the future we will all be brands. And we are. We’re all now very busy creating, maintaining and developing our own brands. Through social media we construct, represent and manage our self-image, performing our self for our followers. We share ‘our self’ with our friends, colleagues, acquaintances and strangers, even when they didn’t ask us to. We feed the ever-hungry image machine, even when it’s not hungry for us. Maybe now, like actors such as Carrie Fisher, we act out versions of our self in public for ‘our public’. On a good day this is fine, but on a bad day it can feel like you’re dangling from the edge. Attempting to manage the pressures of typecasting, pigeonholing, stereotyping and misreading of our private/public selves.
Through writing, Carrie Fisher graduated from the psychological prison of being typecast by the preconceptions of others. There are few artists brave enough to give audiences access to the ‘backstage’ of their human frailties, failures and fears. But this is the fodder of so much of celebrity culture, gossip columns and women’s magazines. The public has an insatiable desire to know about famous people’s struggles, and perhaps through their stories we contextualise and act out our own.
I’m looking round for women writing their own parts
Art is a funny game. Often, it’s not in the least bit funny and there is reluctance in even calling it a game. Now it’s called a creative industry. But art is a game, not so much in it’s making (that’s work) but in the opaque process of who gets a gig and who doesn’t. You can call that either a game or a circus.
Laziness is linked to ideas about failed potential, but how can you ever know what you’re ever really capable of? Think more about what you could do, but do less. Make kicking back and editing out the superfluous noise a big part of each day. That’s your ‘A’ game.
Chapter from: The Art of Laziness: Contemporary Art and Post-Work Politics
Edited by: David Attwood and Francis Russell