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Arbitrating Attention: Paid Usership

12/11/2014 - 02/01/2015 (tz: Europe/Amsterdam)

The key concern for what can by some be termed ‘Web 3.0’ is the giving of data freely and the debate over control of public time and space. With the increasing loss of state and public monies, privatization is becoming more prevalent and almost an accepted means of replacement within neo-liberal governments. How does this affect cultural practitioners working in an expansive sector that is increasingly incorporating other fields of inquiry, along with its financial systems and structures of support in processes of art-related activities? One draws on one’s network to find and invite collaborators, participants, partners, and contributors to projects without necessarily having allotted funds for honoraria. In the cultural sector money isn’t readily available and the most common way, in many non-wage sectors at least, is to be paid with attention as return. This payment is measured through visibility politics, quantified by social media, e-flux mailings, list servers and printed matter, which then accrue and gain value, resulting in social capital.

Why do some artists/cultural producers not demand to be paid for their endeavours? Even more than for reputation economy or attention economy they do this for ‘self-actualisation’. Through their work as artists or in cultural projects, activism, ecologies, etc. they engender a sense of community, provide mutual support, obtain personal growth, create readership and potentially, inplement ‘paid usership’. For some cultural producers, time is money, gift economies are reciprocal and attention economies fulfilling. Yet if we spread our data, give our time, remit our rights of privacy and right to remuneration, how can we create other systems of negotiation and payment? This forum will bring together a range of positions that address economies that are all in use or are being used: attention, reputational, gift, debt, community, informal, collaborative, performative, post-industrial, human, sharing, etc.

This online forum was presented at Digital Labour 2014 (#DL14) and has been partially supported by Leuphana University's Digital Cultures Research Lab. Please sign up as a user if you wish to comment.




Initially the sheer immensity of the dataset rendered it incomprehensible. Mirroring the pipe they captured such vast quantities of information that new algorithms had to be written to process it. Vast cold storage facilities were established in the desert, refrigerated mausoleums of causality. These installations were each devoted to disentangling the tsnunami of data provided by the swift fibre optic knots and splices created by crack teams of blind surgeons sworn to secrecy and silence. Could the epidemiologists of the plague, counting corpses and creating their taxonomies of death, have ever imagined this? It was, after all, their disease model. Clusters appeared. Excitations in the dataset. The quants were called in and patterns emerged.

From weather models to crime and astrophysics, the statisticians applied their granular analysis to everything from individual traits and foibles to geological processes and market trends. The decision theorists systematically eliminated all of the options. The system refined itself, each iteration promising greater precision. Across Gaussian curves points were plotted and dots joined, optimised for search. The police swooped on pedophiles and terrorists and the public applauded. If, in the process, a stray fourteen year old writing love sick Jihadi poetry got swept up then the granularity had merely to be adjusted. The story handled. Diffused.

This erasure was now easily accomplished. The algorithms had long since controlled all narratives and news cycles. The content creators had retired to their terminal beach in 140 words or less, as the algorithms chased their tails in an increasingly vicious cycle: Analysis. Production. Analysis. Each iteration increasingly sensitive to the future, the immensity of the dataset eventually achieving if not 100% accuracy then, at least, a predictive edge. If the universe was indeed a simulation then perhaps the dataset held the key.

Curves and spikes appeared on the graph with sufficient regularity that correspondences began to be observed, even anticipated. Extrapolation revealed glimpses of future events, or at least their statistical likelihood. In fields where any kind of an edge was still an edge an amoral few got rich, the kind that gamed the casino. A few used it to manipulate the economy and succeeded, managing to siphon wealth from the 99% with ever more catastrophic gambles completed in a nanosecond in the dark. Truth be told, they thought they were playing the long game but the algorithm predicted their downfall as well. Events at the subatomic level would yet prove catastrophic. It was an actuarial certainty. All plots leading inevitably toward death. For the rest of us there was no question of renumeration or exchange value. We were born indentured to the aggregator. A double helix of data points. A sum forever greater than its parts, the endless recalculation of which providing the only prospect of employment.

And yet the phases of the moon continued unabated. Plankton densities increased and decreased in Arctic waters. Remotely operated cameras captured time lapse images of glaciers calving. There were explosions in Cairo, radioactive plumes in the Pacific. The world grew preoccupied with catastrophe and eschatology, counting the bricks in the great pyramid as the oil slowly ran out and strange correlations appeared. Old Bull Lee’s Word Virus somehow loose and actualised as code. There were beheadings and earthquakes. At a certain moment everything became simulatable, became plastic. Politicians blamed catastrophe on its unrepentant victims. Victims of God or the Market. Victims of the elective constant. Bystanders. Collateral damage in a bid to seize authorship of the coming imaginary. All the cards coming up blank again.

There was, of course, noise in the system. The data was prone to rot, to entropy. Even as the transition between analogue and digital began it was clear that the bandwidth was insufficient. The past must disappear. The ontological umbilical chord that held the image fast, though endlessly reproducible, at least implied some notion of an original. Now the past had to be erased with certain finality. Nitrate stock was left to rot in fire proof vaults, celluloid recovered and repurposed, tape slowly demagnetising. The artifact was discarded and only its digital revenant remained if deemed noteworthy by the algorithm that fed the dataset. The past must disappear in order to make way for the future. The preferred sample size had to be managed in term of processing efficiency and buffer capacity. Anything that could not be reduced to either a one or a zero was considered inadmissible. The dataset was so vast that its processing would take longer than the lifetime of the universe. The metadata alone amounted to more than the stars in the sky, an infinity of information vectors.

A sweet spot was found. An apparent compromise. The exponential growth in processing power predicted by Moore’s dictum would have long since run into a wall unless the mathematicians had fashioned an algorithm further refining the mesh of the net. They found an elegant compromise and figured what to let slip as much as what to catch, a means of reducing and refining the coincidences in the metadata. Dissent was swiftly targeted and terminated. Synaptic transactions carefully monitored. Outside of the asymmetrical arms war of advertising, supersymmetries were soon observed. Deep in an Arctic lab, 86 holes were drilled to define a square kilometre of pristine ice and record the infrequent blue flares of neutrinos as they left their occasional trace.

A few began to dream themselves free. It was a strange disembodied freedom where they merged with the dataset and left the world behind. They left, or dreamt of leaving, the analogue. They dreamt of abandoning themselves to the digital realm where subject and object were becoming interchangeable in a simulacra of the collective unconscious. A cascade of pixels was all that they left. Reincarnated as firework screen-savers they dissolved into unfixed data points in a seething cascade of zeros and ones. Disembodied consciousnesses indistinguishable from and interchangeable with their multiple simulations. Data suicides.

Their dreams seemed millennial. Apocalyptic. Something presaged by Heaven’s Gate or Jonestown. The fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in the depth of the Guyanese jungle, translated somehow in correlation to psychic coup d'état and the pristine images of the digital inferno. As predictable as the return of a comet, they inhabited a vortex of half-erased holiday video come suddenly, horribly, to life. The digitised secrets of actors in pornographic movies and the remnants of the Mayan codex. The Timewave had crashed and now the confessions of the stars could be heard amidst its detritus. All hail the new flesh, ripped straight from the jump cut to the digital ether. Only the flotsam and jetsam remained.

Somewhere in the vicinity of the Planck scale, as zero and one became interchangeable, became the same or neither. Elsewhere, in some dreadful arc of unknown symmetry where reality and magic become indistinguishable, a hundred million computations are as trivial as one. The future is rendered transparent. Each subsequent action, unchained from its sequence, becomes known but uninterpretable, the answer simultaneously, “Yes” and “No”. Here, in the eternal present, there is only repetition - the next moment and the next.


Paid Laziness

A strange delusion possesses the working classes of the nations where capitalist civilization holds sway.  This delusion drags in its train the individual and social woes which for two centuries have tortured sad humanity. This delusion is the love of work, the furious passion for work, pushed even to the exhaustion of the vital force of the individual and his progeny. Paul Lafargue, The Right to be Lazy

Maurizio Lazzarato's small pamphlet, Marcel Duchamp and the Refusal of Work (semiotext(e), 2014), was for me the most interesting product of the 2014 Whitney Biennial. It was produced as one of a series of 28 pamphlets that comprised the independent publisher's participation in the exhibition. In its 48 pages Lazzarato uses the figure of Marcel Duchamp to argue for a revolutionary politics based not on Marx but on Paul Lafargue's 1883 essay, “The Right to be Lazy.”

“Duchamp,” Lazzarato says, “encourages us to conceive of and exercise a 'refusal of work' which constitutes an ethical-political principle that goes beyond work, which frees us from the enchanted circle of production, productivity, and producers. This stands in contrast to the communist tradition, in which the notion of work has always been at once the strength and weakness. Is the objective emancipation from work or emancipation through it? Nothing has resolved the confusion.”

Lazzarato emphasizes that it is not so much Duchamp's evasion of ordinary employment that interests him but rather Duchamp's withdrawal from artistic work. This refusal is not a renunciation of effort: Duchamp puts considerable energy into his multi-year attempt to become a chess champion. It is, however, a refusal to allow effort to be integrated into the monetary economy, in other words it is a refusal to be paid.

“More generally,” says Lazzarato, “the refusal of ‘artistic’ work means refusing to produce for the market and collectors in order to meet the aesthetic demands of an ever-expanding public. It means refusing to submit to their standards of evaluation and their demand for ‘quantity’ and ‘quality.’”

Lazzarato admires Duchamp’s resistance to the integration of the artist into the ordinary division of labor because it is also a resistance to what he sees the kind of subjectivity produced under capitalism: “Integration into capitalism is also and above all subjective. Even if the artist, unlike the factory work[er], has no direct boss, he is nonetheless subject to apparatuses of power which do more than merely define the space in which he produces, they determine the composition of subjectivity.”

Duchamp’s resistance isn’t pure. He did sell work from time to time and found other ways of bringing in money including advances on an inheritance. When he married Teeny Matisse (the former wife of Pierre Matisse), they were able to live in part off of the sale of paintings from her collection. He survived within a capitalist economy and the money that supported his life always came from somewhere. Nevertheless, Duchamp had enough freedom from the situation of work for hire that he could consider alternatives. What seems to fascinate Lazzarato, and what seems particularly at odds with life at this moment, is Duchamp's refusal to value work.

Here is Duchamp's vision of a post-work society, as related to Calvin Tomkins in a 1964 interview:

God knows there’s enough food for everybody on earth, without having to work for it. [ laughs ] Who made all those little rules that dictate you won’t get food if you don’t show signs of activity or production of some kind? No, I mean the give and take, for me, is a very amusing problem. I’m not talking about money now; I’m talking about barter or even the exchange between mother and child. For example, a mother generally gives and never takes from her child except affection. In the family there is more giving than taking. But when you go beyond the concept of the family, you find the need for equivalences. If you give me a flower, I give you a flower. That is an equivalent. Why? If you want to give, you give. If you want to take, you take. But society won’t let you, because society is based on that exchange called money, or barter. But I don’t know where it originated, as far as plain living is concerned. And don’t ask me who will make the bread or anything, because there is enough vitality in man in general that he cannot stay lazy. There would be very few lazies in my home [for lazies], because they couldn’t stand to be lazy too long. In such a society barter would not exist, and the great people would be the garbage collectors. It would be the highest and noblest form of activity. And since the garbage collectors would do it out of pleasure instead of being paid for it, they would have a medal that would correspond to being the Duke of Windsor today. [ laughs ] I am afraid it’s a bit like communism, but it is not. I am seriously and very much from a capitalist country.

Duchamp is joking around here, and his position is not what you’d call fully thought, but I quote it at length because we have so few such imaginaries.

Contemporary possibility doesn't look much beyond the notion of a society organized around wage labor, despite our knowledge that there have been many such societies in other times and places. What Duchamp questions in this passage is the whole idea of exchange, in particular equal exchange, as the only basis of economic life. Duchamp points out something we have almost, as a society, forgotten: that there are other reasons to do things besides the promise of payment or equal exchange.

Given the current conditions, conditions that will extend into the foreseeable future, how could one argue that people shouldn’t be paid for as much of their work as possible? Of course users of social media should be paid, in the way that we would say of course artists should be paid: both exist as the motive force at the center of a vast system of economic activity. Money changes hands all around them, and all of that financial value is directly dependent on the work that artists and users do for free. Similarly, as feminists have long pointed out, the entire economic system depends on the unpaid work taking place within households. By all means, let whoever washes the dishes and changes the diapers be paid.

And yet, our society is so deeply committed to paidness that our imagination in relation to alternatives has shriveled. Why do anything if you're not paid for it? How would we even get a cup of coffee if without a chain of paidness from grower to middleman to hauler to distributor to roaster to trucker to espresso bar?

It is tempting to imagine that what predated paidness was some kind of brute struggle for survival - I shoot that deer because if I don't, I starve - but even a cursory familiarity with the anthropology of societies that exist or have existed without money economies shows an intricate mix of activities undertaken for innumerable reasons. In the category of our own unpaid actions we find a treasury of such reasons.

“Lazy action is incomparably ‘richer’ than capitalist activity,” says Lazzarato, “for it contains possibilities that are not based on economic production (on surplus value) but open to an indefinite becoming which must be constructed, invented, and cultivated. Lazy action does not derive from aesthetics, it is part of an existentialist pragmatics. Duchamp demonstrates that in order to act differently one must live differently and that in capitalism to do so doesn't depend on work but on its refusal, one which belongs to a different kind of ethics and a different “anthropology.”

What is this lazy action, and what would it mean to extend our imaginations towards it? N.E.W.S. has put forth the idea of paid usership as compensation for the effort of creating content online, and even paid lurkership, compensation for the effort of reading. I would propose that we expand our social imaginary to include paid laziness. In so doing we may begin the gradual undermining of the the idea of paidness itself.


Paul Lafargue, The Right to be Lazy, First Published: Charles Kerr and Co., Co-operative, 1883, available at http://www.marxists.org/archive/lafargue/1883/lazy/

Maurizio Lazzarato, Marcel Duchamp and the Refusal of Work, semiotext(e), 2014

Calvin Tomkins, Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews, Badlands Unlimited, 2013



Re: Paid Laziness

Thanks, Sal, for bringing Maurizio Lazzarato's pamphlet to my attention – enjoyed your text too. A couple of things: First, was struck by a fragment of the Duchamp quote from the Tomkins interview: “And don’t ask me who will make the bread or anything, because there is enough vitality in man in general that he cannot stay lazy.” Er…seriously? There may well be enough vitality in “man” but I think we have a pretty good sense of who will make the bread, no? Do you know of any texts about laziness (your own not withstanding, of course) that are written by women? I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, only that this whole discourse is ripe for gender-based consideration. Sigh.

The other thing I wanted to ask about relates to your observation that, “Contemporary possibility doesn’t look much beyond the notion of a society organized by wage labor, despite our knowledge that there have been many such societies in other times and places”. This interests me a lot…and especially in light of recently hearing about the Pierre-Michel Menger controversy in France. (I learned about this at Free/Slow University Conference in Warsaw—snaps n claps, BTW, Michał Kozłowski, Jan Sowa and Kuba Szreder.) Basically (and this is cribbed from Isabelle Bruno’s abstract, as she spoke on the issue in her presentation) “[Sociologist Menger’s] main thesis is that creative work is governed by uncertainty, and that it is this very uncertainty which ultimately makes self-realization and creative innovation possible. Hence the need for techniques helping to manage this uncertainty and build career opportunities for artists.”

It’s not exactly straightforward, but if I understand correctly, Menger’s thesis is now informing employment-related policy in France. The idea: to embrace uncertainty as the norm—not just for artists but rolling this out beyond cultural production, making it a structural shift—so solidifying short-term/zero-hour contracts as simply the way things are, in contrast to the exception. I know you’re more alive to this in the US where there are so few social services that provide continuity. But in Europe, the idea of uncertainty (and here I mean serious uncertainty) comes as a final shock as the post-war consensus dissolves. Anyway, Menger's thesis seems to manifest Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s thinking related to "Artist Critique," which identifies "the artist" as the new model for hyper-flexible and non-waged work beyond the realms of cultural production. All this is really to say that I’m wondering if we can’t think of our situation as actually the inverse of how you’ve described it in your post: In fact, “Contemporary possibility doesn’t look much beyond the notion of a society organized by non-wage labor, despite our knowledge that there have been many such societies in other times and places”. No doubt this stems from my own perverse hankering for waged labor, as it might at least provide some kind of boundary between what is and is not work. (I should clarify that draw a .5 salary but most of the work I do is unpaid.) Thoughts?

Marsha Marsha Marsha


Re: Paid Laziness

Hi Marsha,

Thank you for your very thoughtful comments and questions. I think you are quite right that a feminist perspective on work and laziness is critical. I am currently looking at the work of Kathi Weeks, in particular her book The Problem with Work, which does try to bring feminist thought to a conversation about "postwork imaginaries." I also take your point that precarity comes into all of this in a very visceral way. A recent survey of that topic might be e-flux journal's Are You Working Too Much? Post-Fordism, Precarity, and the Labor of Art. And yes, Duchamp is being more than a little flip; he is provocative - provoking - when he waves his hand in the air and imagines all the hard work done by... someone. Part of what I've been thinking about is the way in which fear (fear of unemployment and underemployment, fear of crushing debt) has cramped thinking about other ways that economic life could be organized. My own current interest is in the areas of time, value, and unalienated life. One of the things Lazzarato points out in passing is that the contemporary life of the artist is in no way exempted from what he calls the "chronophagic" (time-eating) quality of capitalism. If the figure of the artist still collects some of our culture's dreams of what unalienated life might be like, the experience of most contemporary artists is of precarity and chronophagy. I've come to feel that the primary thing we have become alienated from is our own time, in part because of the enormous urgency of being paid for it. And yet, even within that urgency and fear there remains a rich reservoir of unpaidness, of things we do for reasons other than wages, including from time to time baking bread. Indeed, it may be that the domestic sphere is precisely the location of possibility for understanding economies not based on money and what they might feel like to experience. We are so used to valuing paid activities more than unpaid ones, giving them more attention, esteem, and social status. What if we flipped the equation?


Re: Paid Laziness

A conversation about laziness and I wasn't invited? As Sal mentioned the Weeks book is quite good, but that e-flux piece (like just about everything they publish) uses a lot of words to say very little. As far as Duchamp and laziness, here is a piece (by a woman) that delves further into it: Work Avoidance: The Everyday Life of Marcel Duchamp's Readymades - Helen Molesworth I would note though, that like Marsha, Molesworth appears to conflate work, labor, and effort and that can lead to all sorts of confusion. As Sal notes, the economic cage we are in says that value is largely arbitrated by wages and thus one line of feminist critique is spot on to say that (within the cage) all this "effort" we are expending in the domestic sphere should receive compensation. But if one wishes to make a systemic critique (leave the cage), it might be better to focus on those post-work imaginaries... On a less radical note than Weeks, there is Hilkka Pietilä. She talks about three economies - the market/industrial, the household, and the cultivation. Obviously, the latter two are subordinated to the first, which she argues is *exactly* the wrong way to organize things. A woman that does deal explicitly with laziness and not just post-work thought is D. JoAnne Swanson. She founded why work? and has this page on faceboook. I could go on and on with this, but will note another woman. She deals with "the areas of time, value, and unalienated life" as Sal puts it - Wendy Parkins


Re: Paid Laziness

Randall: Please consider yourself automatically invited to everything lazy! Thanks so much for all of those useful links & references. I'm gathering them and gradually making my way through them. Your leisure artistry (http://leisurearts.blogspot.com/) and lebenskünstlering (http://randallszott.org/) are an ongoing inspiration & point of reference for all of this thinking.


Flexploitation Redux

I would like to diagram how specific forms of de-valorisation contribute to overall systemic stability.  Here with 'de-valorisation', I am referring to the economic techniques which can renew and stabilize capitalist accumulation by lowering the costs and risks associated with enterprise, such as investment, fixed capital and labour power and re-distributing them across a society envisioned (and actually transforming into) as composed of atomised entrepreneurs and their assets which can be connected and flexibly exploited by means of proprietorial digital technology. These techniques are inseparable from the rhetoric of 'sharing', hence the rubric 'sharing economy' – what was once a society polarised into property owners producing and a mass of undifferentiated consumers or property-less workers becomes a society of people whose economic transactions are always at the same time social exchanges, where businesses become friends and friends become occasional service providers. Reversing Marx's trajectory, we leave 'the hidden abode of production' and firmly locate the economy again in its natural site of supply and demand, the market: 'where everything takes place on the surface and in full view of everyone' and everyone leaves ratings and feedback. The spread of the 'gig' or 'sharing economy', as in companies such as Taskrabbit, also indicates that the algorithmic management of this labour needs to dissimulate it as anything but labour. Such management forestalls any considerations of social and individual justice which might arise in the capitalist labour market with the warm glow of communal exchange and affective ties unmediated by abstractions such as wages, regulations and contracts. The start-up entrepreneurs are, of course, valorised in the usual way, drawing their rewards from the ATM and not from the reputation economy. In other words, while the 'reputation economy' is a vital networked source of cash flow both for enterpreneurs who seek to attract venture capital and those who want to just make a survival income from the work they find on micro-tasking platforms, the class relations at work here, and the different ways they inscribe necessity on these enterpreneurial bodies, are what is at issue. The fact that 'self-employment' is often enough a status imposed on workers by thrifty employers well demonstrates that entrepreneurship exacerbates rather than resolves the asymmetric fallout of capitalist crisis. Evidently, capital needs to break its own baseline conditions – in this case, free labour as a contractual relation between individuals - now as in all times of crisis, in order to valorise itself, rendering the majority, now surplus to those prospects of valorisation, as variantly successful entrepreneurs.

The emergence of the 'sharing economy' is almost too symptomatic of crisis economics that transvalue instability into sustainability through a Silicon Valley theodicy of popular entrepreneurialism. conditions of crisis management. 1 The reputation market which codifies the transactions in a sharing economy, sees the abstract discipline of money, and the relative freedom it brings, shift to more personalized forms of affirmation and control. This results in a sort of regression from the abstraction of the 'general equivalent' back into forms of social discipline more characteristic of pre-modern times, albeit one which, unlike in pre-modern times, mediates an ever more powerful rule of abstract value on a systemic level (Marx 1973: 164). The 'sharing economy' incorporates phenomena such as Air BnB or Lyft or Task Rabbit, as well as 'crowdfunding' mechanisms such as Kickstarter or distributed digital labour which takes place online such as Amazon Mechanical Turk. It's an increasing informalization of the economy which seems technologically driven, i.e. if the technology is there, the labour practices and service provision it makes possible will also shortly arrive on the scene, long before regulation, public debate or forms of organization catches up or makes an impact. Established groups of workers and sectors of the economy suffer, in a classic case of 'creative destruction', as the lawsuit from the Hotel Association of NY against Air BnB or the taxi drivers' protests against freelance taxi driving app Uber show. Existing investments and regulatory burdens become a massive disadvantage in a marketplace suddenly rendered more agile and low-cost by businesses subject to none of these constraints.

However, I'm also interested in how the 'sharing economy' mirrors tendencies developing for a while in the art field, where emancipation, altruism and exploitation have also uneasily co-existed, both in the expansion of socially-minded or collectively-driven art projects and institutions modelling alternate forms of welfare provision, political organization and education, for example, as well as in the discussion around artistic labour and cultural work as the arena where undefinable, creative and hyper-exploitative forms of activity are normalized, and come to diffuse through standard labour practices elsewhere. While this is a discussion that has been going on for quite a few years using categories such as 'post-Fordism', 'multitude' and 'precarity' to signify a shift towards contingency as the ontological and economic reality for many, and also a lot of sociological and empirical work has been undertaken to try and flesh out the implications, I think it is with the 'sharing economy' that we finally start to see much more concrete ways in which altruism and exploitation combine to provide economic models predicated on a creative use of assets and which eliminate contradictions of class and labour entirely from the equation, thus clarifying the proximity between the characteristic social and value relations of art production and those characteristic of social entrepreneurialism. So we can think of the e-flux Time Bank project as a good example of this. If the problem with the analogy between art and labour as a way of politicizing cultural production was always that people engaged in the cultural field partially to dis-identify with waged labour, especially the regimentation and submission associated with waged labour, the emergence of the 'sharing economy', where labour never comes into the equation because it has been re-configured as an intelligent use of existing assets and spare capacities (a house, a car, time spent on the internet, friendship networks), as the intelligent use of human capital, in other words – not an expansion of production or employment but simply a more intensified exploitation of dead labour as living enterprise – this allows us to frame some relevant questions. Some of these might be about how stable or systemically influential the mode of accumulation represented by the sharing economy might be and what forms of resistance or regulation might evolve in response to it; whether its intensification of exploitation mediated as freedom from exploitation, from subjugating and alienated waged labour as it is commonly understood, can be understood at all without articulating it with 1/ the evaporation of social safety nets and labour rights; 2/the expansion of forms of digitally enabled policing, competition and exclusion in low-wage employment, increasingly absorbed into the privatised and punitive management of populations surplus to capital's needs at this moment; and 3/the continued existence of absolute surplus value extraction globally, i.e. cheap industrial labour working long hours occupying the lower rungs of trans-national manufacturing value chains. Finally, returning to the field of art, I am interested in seeing how the gestural transcendence of the labour-capital antagonism (or better the contradictory relations between art and labour in capitalist society or even art and society more generally) via the discourse of the 'commons' in contemporary art resonates with its gestural transcendence in the sharing economy, with its emphasis on social relationships over profit: in both scenarios, social relationships become a source of profit given the kind of social relationships that are actual in the situation, namely relationships of private property – authorship in the first case, a corporate entity in the second – and class relations which are masked in the principles of the project, say between the artist and institution to participants and workers, or a digital co-ordinator of services with its service providers. In the final analysis, I am interested in how the relationship between de-valorized labour and fictionally inflated 'asset-values' (such as one's spare room or minutes of spare time, but also more internalized and mystified assets such as the asocial sovereignty of the art sphere) give us an idea of how the value-form historically develops through its outsides and exceptions.

'During periods of tranquil expansion, profit-seeking financial institutions invent and reinvent "new" forms of money, substitutes for money in portfolios, and financing techniques for various types of activity: financial innovation is a characteristic of our economy in good times'. Hyman P. Minsky, Stabilising an Unstable Economy [1986]

So what forms of financial innovation are characteristic of an economy also in the bad times? And why does it become difficult to tell the difference between the good and the bad times once certain kinds of economic innovations take hold in the social field? I am thus trying to unpack both the value structure and temporality of 'crisis' as a punctual or periodising category, and trying to emphasis the side of 'crisis' which means turning point or shift, a re-composition, rather than something (a system, a historically developed set of relationships) coming to an end, fatally undermined by its own contradictions.

The sharing economy can initially be seen as a response to economic crisis, a crisis experienced both in commodification and in de-commodification. Commodification because a depressed job market makes it harder and harder to sell your labour power, or to sell it for enough to service the debts that make up a large part of many people's household economies these days. De-commodification because 'crowdfunding', for example, often comes into play when there's no public or private funding available, that is, no money that has been rendered relatively autonomous from purely utilitarian ends, for the production of cultural projects (and increasingly, with state cutbacks, crowdfunding is also used to address shortfalls in budgets to pay for e.g. legal fees, which would have once been a de-commodified, i.e. state provided resource). The crisis is turned into an opportunity: with air b&b you can rent out parts of a domestic unit you actually live in, you can use your car as a taxi with Lyft, with Taskrabbit, you can hire an unemployed person for a few hours to run the door at at an event or do your shopping. From the other side, you get cheap and available, (just-in-time) services; both agents get a chance to benefit from the precarious economy of time and money they are otherwise unwillingly subjected to. From the side of the managers, shareholders and investors in these companies, most of which have hardly any overheads since they are programming ventures, apps whose main infrastructure is algorithmic, it's a great deal too, not least because, as Lukas Biewald the CEO of CrowdFlower, winner of the “’Netexplorateur’ prize,” said in a talk delivered to a group of young tech entrepreneurs just four years ago:
Before the Internet, it would be really difficult to find someone, sit them down for 10 minutes and get them to work for you, and then fire them after those 10 minutes. But with technology, you can actually find them, pay them the tiny amount of money, and then get rid of them when you don't need them anymore.
'The power of the crowd', exemplary in projects like Amazon Mechanical Turk, where people are paid several cents per minor digital task (the Mechanical Turk metaphor comes from a 18th century chess playing automaton who was discovered to be actually manipulated by a small person hidden inside the fabrics concealing the supposed machinery; thus some online tasks actually cost less to be performed by intelligent human labour than by algorithms), is here evidently the power of an enormous, unregulated, unorganized - structurally compliant - mass of people who don't generally believe themselves to be working when they are executing these tasks. In many cases, it is an extension of the familiar forms of exploitation in the culture and media industries, not to mention in the art field, where a normalized entrepreneurial winner-take-all mentality ensures that it's considered okay, or at least unavoidable, to labour under conditions where hundreds of entrants work to fulfil the client's brief but only the chosen entry is paid for, such as the site 99Designs. The payment is less than half of what the agency earned from the client. However, in many other cases, such as the aforesaid Mechanical Turk or CrowdFlower, the tiny increments of money are actually income-generating for people who have no other earning possibilities, and similar perhaps to the rest of the field of waged employment nowadays, though maybe more extreme, they have no legal protection or collective organization to counter the conditions of the market. Finally, we can also think of the digital sweatshops of the 'goldfarmers', the people who sit in internet cafes in China most fanously, doing endless repetitive tasks in World of Warcraft to create the valuable objects used for in- and out-of game market positioning by players.

However, the ideology of the sharing economy is perhaps cultivated most emphatically in the sites and scenarios where economic relationships are portrayed as no longer economic insofar as they are social, profoundly so, thus realizing the profound naturalness of the capital relation as an enriched social, human interaction between people with money and people with time (or other unused capacities which can become assets) a meeting between entrepreneurs rather than between owners and workers. Looking at 'Game Changers' a trend report prepared last year by the celebrated brand agency Wolff Olins, 'a new relationship between people and brands' is the tagline. The main proposition here is that the economy is being redefined, as I noted earlier, from one based on producers and consumers to one which is populated by creators. They write:
People are reshaping their relationships with companies. And it no longer has to be a fight. New opportunities are opening up for companies to make much richer, more human and more multidimensional relationships with individuals. These relationships will give customers more than just products, and customers will give more than just money.

And in these new relationships, brands are centre stage. We believe the new role of brand is to create relationships of fair exchange, where consumers and companies meet as equals, where each contributes, where everyone gains.
These new relationships are contextualised as part of a generational shift where people are no longer content with established power relations and established authorities, with the Arab Spring and Occupy used as examples. The reciprocity demanded by people from their governments is reflected in what they expect from companies. Businesses able to read the wind of change realize that to compete they have to be able to enlist consumers as co-creators, and that this ultimately amounts to a new vision of what constitutes an economy. This approach is epitomised by companies such as Air BnB and Task Rabbit, an app that matches people who need to hire someone to perform an errand with people who are qualified and available to do it. Task Rabbit is especially interesting from the standpoint that it's a flexible and friendly digitally enabled return of the neo-feudal relation of domestic service, but emptied of the feudal component of mutual obligation: the website is exclusively addressing the bourgeois service user to sell its 'time management' product, assuming that economic necessity is enough motivation for the Rabbit herself. The trend report also cites a Chinese search engine called Human Flesh, which apparently harnesses the commitment of anti-establishment crowds to root out information that the state has succeeed in censoring from the mainstream search engines. Here we could maybe also return to the idea of 'real subsumption' in Marx – the re-organization of the production process along specifically capitalist technological and managerial lines - and ask whether a crisis of value production can be mediated or deferred by this intensified absorption of 'screen time' into working time for digital corporations, whose business model is already predicated on the harvesting and deployment of users' data. We would have to ask this question cautiously, without assuming that this is simply a manifestation of a pre-existing tendency of 'social factory' or the ever-productive multitude, since in those scenarios we are always productive anyway and capital just finds more and more inventive ways to capture that value. In this situation, we could think about 'real subsumption' more in the sense of whether the persistence of some not obviously productive or capital-expanding forms of capitalist valorisation (which proceed precisely through de-valorisation) do instead strengthen capital in other ways, by intensifying the subordination of people to their economic need and making that subordination ever more seamless and self-evident in experience.

I have so far been skirting around, without exactly invoking or addressing, the figure of 'commons' as a loose set of strategic, theoretical and political concepts and practices which has 'sharing' as its core principle. The ‘commons’ has become a compelling theoretical, socio-economic and aesthetic paradigm, leading to a conception of practice which is immanent to its field and not locked-in to a vision derived from an abstractly political paradigm of a better society to come but one that instead tries to develop prototypes of that society in the existing situation, thus evoking an earlier terminology coming from the anarchist lexicon: ‘prefigurative practices’. It is mainly a vision of social organization geared towards the common – the social body in a delimited time and space – and the commons, that is material and immaterial, so to speak, resources whose use is collectively governed by that social unit. It envisions property relations and economies founded upon production for use not exchange and whose main horizon is reproduction of the community rather than production. The commons, of course, have been discussed also critically, as an aspect of the 'sharing economy', and have in this respect been shown to be functional to the reproduction of capital as well as community (with community also being part of the reproduction of capital, in this sense). The 'peer production' of digital commons has been a great boost to digital media oligopolies in the world of free and open source software, while with 'the sharing economy' or 'Web 3.0', the commons of spare capacity in time, housing or vehicle use – spare life - is monetized as assets for a more intensified exploitation of oneself and others by means of social media apps in an increasingly dead-end, over-leveraged economy, with the profits raked back to sharepreneurs such as Taskrabbit or Air BnB, as I've already discussed. Even while property ownership concentrates, in Britain for example, at one end of the market, the democratic promise of mass property ownership now a thing of the past, an economy re-configured or re-ideologized as a sharing one drives towards a re-definition of property as a contingent and occasional relation. Maybe the sharing economy is the next stage, with people being encouraged to have a stake in the system through the exploitation of different kinds of assets which suddenly have a value they did not previously, or at a scale beyond friendship networks, entering into a system of abstract value characteristic of capitalist profit. This actually fits in with the concentration of wealth and assets at one end of the class spectrum, if within the increasingly impoverished rest, the same ideological relationships of entrepreneuriality are a/applied to a new set of objects and situations accessible to the impoverished many – as we saw with air bnb in the Rio favelas during the world cup just now and b/rebranded as social and communal rather than predatory and possessive.

Moving on, I again want to think about what kind of structural and ideological affinity already holds between the discourse of the commons and the field of art practices which take up this discourse insofar as both are committed to change in the here and now through the means available, which often means the use of interstices and spare capacities, i.e. 'making do' (just like the 'sharing economy'), especially in situation of cuts in funding or dips in the art market ('recessional aesthetics', as in the theme issue of October in 2008). Like with the sharing economy, the embrace of the commons in artistic ideology is a response to a de-valorisation: of labour, of assets, or of the exceptionality of culture in bourgeois social democracy, as in the NL for example, where the commons discourse meets a lot of enthusiasm. Initially, we could identify a shared emphasis on plurality, experimentation, pragmatism, and a certain ‘soft utopianism’ which animates many variants of the political and the aesthetic approaches to the discourse of the ‘commons’. The centrality of J.K. Gibson-Graham’s [date] book Capitalism (As We Know It) Is Over to several of these platforms of debate would seem to point to the voluntaristic roots of this attitude as they cut across art and politics, present and past, performance and mobilization: one which sees a change in behaviour (one might well distress this by renaming it ‘consumer preference’) as the driver of social change, rather than in a reciprocal and historically determined relation of behaviour and cognition to its material conditions of possibility. The structural affordances that promote such voluntarism, never dissociable from a moralizing, if at times perfectly relevant, insistence on ‘doing something’ as counter to the academicist and often priggish emphasis on ‘rigor', can be evaluated with reference to the mix of pragmatism and idealism characterizing the historical and current bourgeois class character that cuts across the sphere of art and the post-political and localist organizational roots of projects informed by discourses of the commons. However, this would be of limited interest, because the ‘commons’ is not a phenomenon whose appeal can be captured in sociological, or even ideological, terms. The ‘commons’ and ‘commonizing’ is primarily an attitude to time: it is an attempt to eradicate the social abstraction of capitalist life, its ersatz community of money and preference, in the now, without a perspective on the future or the totality which capitalist civilization has likewise ushered in through modernity, and is now busy obliviating entirely.

To conclude, we find that when it is objectively almost impossible, and perhaps subjectively undesireable to collectively engage in 'a massive assault on the very existence of class society, individual proletarians have to try to find jobs or to keep them. […] It is because workers are vulnerable, now more than ever, that capitalists and their representatives are pressing their interests; they are defining what it will take to restore the system to health in ways that directly benefit them … As long as workers accept the terms of the class relation, they find that their lives (even more than those of capitalists) depend on the health of the system'. (Endnotes, 2013). We see that the 'sharing economy' is a symptomatic manifestation of an economic and social crisis which is both the engine and the scene of a re-composition of capitalist society on capital's terms, and, for its advocates, it is a manifestation of that crisis as a crisis of social relations to be resolved by harking to a more ethical capitalism of the past or the future; or re-embedding capitalism in each individual as a friendly asset owner rather than an economic victim looking for a job or victimised by the job they have, or as we heard yesterday, priced out of the property market though for various 'moral' reasons, as Marx would say, the large-scale accommodation of low paid or unemployed workers in stacked cages, as in parts of East Asia with great property market bubbles, has not yet taken off in Europe. It is a crisis of separation -between producer and consumer, between asset and money – and in the art field it is a crisis of separation between the reified instances of art institution and the community. If separation is the problem, alienated labour is part of that problem, and we can only resolve it by overcoming separation and becoming empowered members of the community of capital.


From cruel economy of art to artistic, curatorial and authorial interdependency

Let me start with a basic assessment. Social, economic and symbolic capitals are both stakes and tools in the competitive struggles that perpetuate artistic networks. Artists, curators and authors compete in order to accumulate social and symbolic capital, while their already acquired reputations and position in the network determines their chances of acquiring access to future opportunities, reputations and connections. Such competition operates according to a winner-takes-all principle, generally characteristic of what Hans Abbing calls the 'cruel economy of the arts'. In the cruel economy of art a tiny minority of art celebrities monopolise access to opportunities, resources and other forms of capital, inducing precarity and exclusion on the vast majority of 'losers' in the reputational struggles. The resulting inequality has a tendency for reproduction and further polarisation. As a result, reputational hierarchies stratify the field of contemporary art into the tiers differentiated by varied levels of prestige, social status, wealth, and access to opportunities.

 For a neoliberal subject, whom Paolo Virno calls a cynical opportunist or who for Michel Foucault is an 'entrepreneur of himself', reputations, social connections and opportunities become objects of investment and competitive acquisition. However, the ideology of individualistic entrepreneurialism obfuscates the existence of the collaborative structures that underpin both reputations and social connections, crucial to maintaining and reproducing the cruel economy of art.  There are two kinds of social cooperation exploited in the process of competitive acquisition, the first is related to collaboration within the perimeters of particular projects; the second unfolds on the general level of the network.

An accumulation of social, cultural and economic capital, and hence future access to the flow of opportunities, depends on the success of any given curatorial, artistic or authorial project. The completion of a project depends on the close collaboration of the temporary teams of project-makers involved. Such teams include not only artists, curators or authors, but also who Howard Becker calls as 'support personnel'. The term 'support personnel' is Becker's ironic denotation for all those people whose labour is socially necessary for the execution of any artistic endeavour, but who are not regarded as authors of a given project or piece of art (i.e. technicians, assistants, editors, proofreaders, etc.). We could call the type of labour specific for support personnel after George Yúdice as a 'labour of love'. Yúdice points out the fact that the role of support personnel is never solely limited to administrative or technical tasks. In contrast, he emphasises that support personnel, equally with artists, curators or authors, partake in the creative processes that form the final shape of any artistic or curatorial endeavour, thus significantly contributing to the success of any given project. Such labour of love encompasses the emotional care, personal devotion and creative inputs invested collaboratively in any artistic, curatorial or authorial undertakings.               

 Additionally to what happens 'inside' the artistic, curatorial or authorial projects, the intensive social cooperation unfolds also in the systems of relations linking projects, clusters and individuals, i.e. on the level of a network. Only due to the continuous, yet diffused social cooperation curators, artists and authors are able to undertake anything, assemble their projects and distribute their effects. This kind of networked cooperation not only leads to the activation of reputational profiles, but also to the creation of new symbolic content, which result from what Louise Boutang calls 'pollination'. Boutang compares contemporary cultural producers, who operate in cognitive capitalism, to bees. He argues that as the main economic importance of bees does not relate to the production of honey, but rather to pollinating crops, also 'social pollination' has a tremendous economic function in network-related business models. Consequently, we could think about 'labour of pollination' as a kind of diffused social cooperation that 'pollinates' networks, spreads concepts, maintains connections and mediates the flow of opportunities.

Despite the socially necessary character of these two models of social cooperation, the effects of collaboration underpinning the networks of contemporary art are not distributed equally. Some artists, curators or authors gain more than others from participating in cooperative systems. There are two forms of competitive acquisition of the effects of social cooperation crucial to the cruel economy of art:  'networking' and 'authorial attribution'.

We could understand networking after Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello. Discussing contemporary forms of networked production in their seminal oeuvre New Spirit of Capitalism, they describe the networker as an ethically compromised person, who 'seizes on all the actually or potentially useful connections (...) in order to divert them to the end of personal profit'. A networker is a cynical opportunist, because s/he uses networks solely for egoistic reasons, instead of propagating common good by sharing connections and expanding networks.

Authorial attribution relates mainly to the reputation of curators, artists or authors. Because of authorial attribution, certain ideas, trends or notions become attributed to individuals as their exclusive property. Curators, artists or authors acquire reputations as experts in different fields, creators of ideas or representatives of certain trends (such as an expert in public art, scholar in immaterial labour, relational artist, etc.).  For an idea to be attributed to an individual, somebody needs to be 'seen on the scene' (to use a notion of Pascal Gielen).The networked acknowledgement confirms a reputation, which starts to serve as a key to secure future opportunities. Obviously, authorial attribution is based on conventions and automatisms firmly entrenched in artistic tradition. Nevertheless  of the well aimed critique, such as the one of Roland Barthes, Pierre Bourdieu or Michel Foucault, authoring remains one of the cornerstones of reputational hierarchies in arts, both stake and tool in competition perpetuating the global networks of contemporary art.  

As a result of networking and authorial attribution, vast parts of 'labour of love' and 'labour of pollination' remain unremunerated and unrecognised, contributing to the exclusion, precarity and poverty of significant numbers of people involved in artistic circulation. As 'winners' of competitive struggles acquire individual reputations and social connections, 'losers' of cruel economy of art receive an unequally small share of the outcomes of symbolic production, to the maintenance of which their contributions are indispensable.

In order to revamp such a situation collective forms of resistance are required. In fact, many collectives and individuals already operate in various artistic scenes and networks to placate the cruel economy of arts and alleviate some of its impact. After feminist economists J. K. Gibson-Graham, I propose to consider interdependency as a key economic category that enables us to deconstruct and act against neoliberal forms of acquisitive individualism. The programme of interdependency in curating, authoring and art is founded on the recognition of the fundamental interdependency of everybody involved in the processes of authorial, curatorial or artistic production. In other words, an interdependent author, artist or curator acknowledges the creative contributions of labourers of love and labourers of pollination. The appreciation of interdependency prompts collective experiments with egalitarian forms of production-distribution-usership that deconstruct authorship and revamp reputational hierarchy characteristic for the networks of contemporary art. How such experiments unfold is a topic for yet another (and much longer) presentation.

This comment is based on my arguments from another published paper On cruel economy of authorship (published in the book Undoing property edited by Laurel Ptak and Marysia Lewandowska) and on my doctoral thesis Politicising 'independent' curating under neoliberalism: on critical responses to the social pressures of project-making, submitted in November 2014 to Loughborough University School of the Arts.



Reversal of Fortune: Gardens of Virtual Kinship and Desiring Plants


A few years back while conducting online research on economic development a website called Kiva.org came up in my search. For as little as $25 USD I could empower a poor woman in Bolivia to empower herself. By contributing to her microloan of $250, I could help her purchase a cow for her farm and jumpstart her life as a global entrepreneur. Curious, I clicked on her tentative but hopeful image that led me to more details: her finely crafted but succinct profile shed just enough information about her life to pique my empathy alongside a selection of shocking economic statistics for her country. This information was juxtaposed to a list of lenders, complete with snapshot selfies and a personal blurb as to why they donate. As I scrolled down the list, I encountered an amalgam of responses that ranged from the banal to the self righteous to the downright erratic: I donate because giving to others in need is good; I donate because I’m a post human; I donate because it’s sexy.

The Kiva.org website is part of a larger financial system called microfinance – the supply of small “micro” loans and other financial services to the poor who are unable to obtain loans through conventional banking systems in both the developing world and in redeveloping economies in the West. Heralded as the solution for alleviating global poverty in the mid 2000s, microfinance for economic development has experienced a drastic shift in the past 5-7 years with the advent of crowdfunding.

Based in San Francisco, Kiva has taken the lead with their popular website that could be considered a Kickstarter for the developing world. Founded in 2005, they claim to have raised through their website over $605,592,375 in microloans to support local, small-scale civic and personal projects that include retail businesses, farming, transportation and health needs. The website states that 1,218,000 lenders donated directly to over 1,403,980 borrowers in developing countries. A large animated text box on the homepage of their website shuttles through additional figures: “2,718 new lenders joined this week”; “29,253 lenders made a loan this week”; “6,421 borrowers funded this week”; “$2, 619,400 loaned this week”; “98.77% repayment rate to date”; “462 Kiva Cards purchased this week”; “8 seconds between loans.”

Quite impressive figures, as the total amount donated by individuals, roughly $6 million, is equivalent to the amount of money allocated to some government funded development projects.  These large-scale initiatives take a great length of time to complete, often failing even after they are realized due to political corruption and resource mismanagement. Lacking local knowledge, these funding agencies don’t often support existing grassroots efforts or individual projects and are notorious for not actually benefitting the environment or community.  

The global financial collapse of 2008 greatly impacted foreign aid for development and it continues to dwindle. Crowdfunding platforms have enabled NGOs stranded by the absence of government monies to find new revenue streams and philanthropic resources. Over the past few years, there’s been much debate about crowdfunding more broadly and specifically with respect to creative industries, but very little attention has been paid to the popularity of charity-based crowdfunding for foreign economic development.

While Kickstarter and related creative industry platforms have been used for socially responsible projects, crowdfunding websites specifically designed for microfinanced economic development are on the rise. What becomes interesting is how these websites and their social media siblings (Facebook, Twitter, etc) leverage and co-opt the underlying mechanisms of the crowdfunding apparatus to produce a perpetual cycle of user affect in the name of charity. Viewed in parallel, the technologically enhanced intermingling of agency, obligation, and guilt that promises all participants the warm glow of “doing good” is made visible.

It is in this paradox, that the ethos of the first world entrepreneur – a self-starter, who draws on the resources of social networks, technology, and skills at self-promotion to “bring creative projects to life” [Kickstarter] is seamlessly mapped onto the world of online charity. Microfinance websites present the borrower as an empowered “entrepreneur” in charge of both their own destiny and their community’s future. On the surface, the hundreds of borrowers’ webpage profiles appear as potential success stories and a remedy to some of the problems with large-scale funding. Yet there is an underlying subtext to these narratives whose parallels in the frame of creative projects raise questions about who this model actually serves.

Counter Cartographies: Reversal of Fortune

“Reversal of Fortune” is a series of interactive data visualizations created with live and virtual gardens that examine these intersections between affect, economic forces and technology. Using the metaphor of a garden and its struggle to survive, the garden inherently maps and exemplifies the complex dynamics between the cultural and the organic, between economic development and human life. Providing a counter cartography to Kiva’s narrative, the project attempts to make visible the underlying mechanisms that enable these new networks to emerge and the way in which these platforms shape the affective dimensions of empathy-at-a-distance.

The project extrapolates on the pioneering telerobotic artwork entitled “Telegarden” created in 1995 by Ken Goldberg. Goldberg’s garden enabled a global community of online users to “telematically” care for a live garden through a web interface that utilized participatory models of online interaction and social engagement to meet a shared goal. By collectively “investing” in the future of the garden combined with the “outsourcing” of labor to perform tasks to maintain it, “Telegarden” foreshadowed new models of labor, production and dissemination that now comprise the familiar modes of crowdfunding and crowdsourcing that the “Reversal of Fortune” series investigates. 

Garden of Virtual Kinship


The large-scale installation “Garden of Virtual Kinship” takes the form of a global map with the plants residing in small pill sized containers within a dot matrix grid. Each plant correlates to a micro loan borrower on the Kiva website requesting funding. An overhead computer controlled automated watering system is connected to the Internet.  The amount of water the plants receive is dependent on investment information data collected from the Kiva website. Successful entrepreneurial ventures will trigger appropriate nourishment while failed ventures may lead to dying plants. The excess water symbolizing the high fees and interest rates microfinance borrowers pay slowly drips down into the pool below, feeding a representation of the utopian global city.

Desiring Subjects, Desiring Plants


In her book “Poverty Capital: Microfinance and the Making of Development,” scholar Ananya Roy stresses how the alleviation of poverty has been inserted into our everyday acts of consumption, a “politically correct” consumption.

For Roy, microfinance is celebrated as the people’s economy, democratized capital, and through social media the microcapital of the poor is converted into new financial global flows. Roy explains: “On Kiva.org[…]users can integrate such conscientious practices with the techno-social rhythms of their daily lives. Kiva ‘lets you browse loans on Facebook, and show off your loans in your Facebook page.’ There is Kiva for the iPhone, which ‘lets you get your Kiva fix from anywhere you bring your phone,’ and Kiva Tweets, which ‘automatically posts new loans to your Twitter account daily or weekly.’”

The techno-social rhythms of social media and philanthropy are animated in “Desiring Subjects, Desiring Plants.” In this interactive installation grow lights immerse the viewer in a garden of illuminated hanging planters constructed from clear plastic tubing. The effect is suggestive of a strange bio laboratory setting.

Each hanging planter is equipped with its own wifi-enabled automated watering system – an IV bag holding water along with a small LCD screen and audio speaker. As in the larger installation, plants are symbolic for borrowers of micro loans. Yet this time the data is collected from Twitter hash tags relating to Kiva and microfinance. When a comment is tweeted with the appropriate tag, one of the hanging planters is activated. The IV bag releases a drip of water. The screen displays text from a lender’s profile page as to why they donate. The audio speaker speaks the message such as “I donate because it’s sexy”, “I donate because I’m a post human”, “I donate because I’m luckier than most”. The result is a real time cacophony of scrolling messages and synthetic voices emoting the feelings of lenders from around the world – or rather the Global North.


References (direct and indirect)

Andreoni, James. “Philanthropy”, Handbook of the Economics of Giving, Reciprocity and Altruism, Volume 2, (2006): 1202-1266

Goldberg, Ken. “Telegarden”, http://www.ieor.berkeley.edu/~goldberg/garden/Ars

Kiva, http://www.kiva.org.

Kiva Statistics, http://www.kiva.org/about/stats.

Moodie, Megan. “Microfinance and the Gender of Risk: The Case of Kiva.org”, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 38/2 (Winter 2013): 279-302.

‘Muhammad Yunus’. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad_Yunus.

Roy, Ananya. Poverty Capital: Microfinance and the Making of Development, New York: Routledge Press, 2010.

UN Millennium Project, http://www.unmillenniumproject.org/goals/index.htm.



Paying (with) Attention: A note about forms of reciprocity in the sharing economy

Following industrialization, a divide emerged between the public sphere represented as the aggressive, impersonal world of paid labour and the ‘private’ domain of the family and intimate relationships. Here, “the home has become portrayed as a place of security and control over one’s environment, one of warmth, comfort, creativity, and freedom” (Lupton 1998, 152).

Couch surfing, car-sharing, and short-term rental platforms like Airbnb have created spaces for sharing one’s resources with others offline, creating what is termed the “sharing economy” (Sacks 2011) or mode of “collaborative consumption” (Botsman and Rogers, 2010). Yet as new technologies are popularizing new forms of exchange, somewhere along the way – places that were free of paid labour such as the home and all the practices of coziness and comfort packed into it, has become commodified.

I spend years ethnographically researching sharing platforms – or more specifically, online-offline social networks like Couchsurfing.org or carpooling.com – in order to understand how social aspects of trust, intimacy and sharing are being reconfigured through new technologies and practices.

Take the practice of Couchsurfing – where strangers across the globe offer free accommodation in their private homes to members of the network. Today massive amounts (8 million?) of strangers are meeting, trusting and collaborating. Sounds nice doesn’t it? But what I began to understand after studying this website for 6 years, is that technologies of hospitality like Couchsurfing demand explicit and implicit reciprocity. Coziness doesn’t come for free.

I will draw from an example used in my doctoral work. Often prior to meeting the host, the Couchsurfing guest will contemplate their method of reciprocity. There are explicit and implicit forms of reciprocity within technologies of hospitality. For example, an explicit reciprocal act can be a buying a small gift for their hosts, oftentimes something with higher symbolic value would be a specialty from their home country. When guests have been traveling for some time, and do not have the means of bringing a gift from their home country, reciprocity is expressed in the form of cooking or cleaning – and when the guests are creative, they make their host a present, leave a photograph, take them on a picnic, or take them out for a meal. In the past, a French group of guests made me a cake according to their family’s traditional recipe, another French group put “thank-you” letters around the house, a photographer from Los Angeles took some professional head-shots of me, a student from Philadelphia vacuumed my apartment, and a Danish film maker gave me a film she made. Couchsurfers are encouraged to foster this type of reciprocity through a built-in design feature on their online profile – a small box titled “Teach. Learn. Share: What Can You Give back to the Community”? This is a section on each user’s profile, which is visible to all users. Filling out this section is not mandatory, but it in essence encourages a guest to share something with their host, and vice versa, while also could be seen as allowing instrumental undercurrents to the encounters.

Implicit forms of reciprocity are when a host becomes a listener, almost adopting the role of psychotherapist, or becomes the speaker, and adopts the role of story teller. Adam, a 24-yearold Polish Couchsurfer stayed in Geneva for three days with a middle-aged journalist. His host had a “desperate need to talk about himself,” and for the three days when Adam visited him, he “stayed up almost all night to talk about his life, and was less interested” in what Adam had to say. Adam was a listener, and as a guest, felt that he could not avoid the conversation.

Because Couchsurfing functions on a system on a non-monetary form of reciprocity – this “reciprocity” can often be vague and implicit. Engaging in conversation often becomes a form of payment. Many of my respondents expressed the fact that as hosts, they felt their visitors were using them as a hotel if they didn’t “stick around and chat” to them.

As a contrast, money itself absolves the guest of this type of implicit reciprocity. The obligation that Adam felt to listen to his host in Geneva is eliminated when money is exchanged – as for example, in my study of ridesharing websites or Airbnb. Payment changes the role of driver-passenger/speaker-listener to simply that of payee and service provider. The passenger can fall asleep in the backseat, listen to their iPod, read, or speak on their mobile phone if they want to and not feel a sense of obligation to converse.

“There is a taboo of making things explicit. To say what it really is, to declare the truth of the exchange, or as is often said, 'the truth of the price' (before giving a present, we remove the price tag), is to destroy the exchange” (Bourdieu 1998, 94).

Botsman, Rachel, and Roo Rogers. (2010). What's mine is yours: The rise of collaborative consumption. New York: HarperCollins.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1998. Practical reason: on the theory of action. Cambridge: Polity Press. Lupton, Deborah. 1998.

The Emotional Self. London: Sage Sacks, D. (2011). The sharing economy. Fast Company, 155, 88-93.


Wages for or against Usership?

The provocation under the term ‘paid usership’ immediately reminds us of one of the most important historical struggle for wages for unpaid labour: the ‘wages for housework’ movement. Comparing that movement to a campaign for paid usership, some rather stark differences immediately emerge. Presumably an argument for paid usership could draw on two strands of theory: the ‘audience commodity’ perspective developed from the work of Dallas Smythe, and the ‘social factory’ thesis developed from Italian workerism. Lets look at both closely to see whether either of them makes a strong claim for paid usership.

Smythe offered a Marxist analysis of the role of communication for Fordist capitalism. His argument was essentially that, if we look at the function of mass media and the role of advertising, we must conclude that whenever those who watch TV, listen to the radio, or read newspapers consume advertising, they are effectively working. That is because, in doing so, they are producing the ‘audience commodity’ – their attention is being sold to advertisers, and the function of this attention is central to the workings of mass consumption and production. Smythe didn’t go so far as to suggest that this audience labour should be remunerated, but opened up a ferocious debate not only within Marxism and communication studies about what constitutes labour. While many, most notably Christian Fuchs, have reworked this perspective and applied it to social media and the production of a ‘user commodity’ if you will, what is largely missing from these arguments is an account – in parallel to Smythe’s – regarding the general function of this user (or produser) labour for post-Fordist capitalism.

Many, such as David Hesmondhalgh, are rather sceptical about this centrality, and note that much of the kind of digital labour that provides content and data for social media is performed by those already paid and employed elsewhere. If we are then to make a case for paid usership, we could start by providing an account of its function within post-Fordist capitalism, and that requires a broad account of the social relations of production to which it contributes and in which it is embedded. To put the question succinctly (and not disregarding the problem of the rise of unpaid labour, as for example outlined by Andrew Ross): why should we understand usership as labour and why does it deserve critical attention, considering all other forms of exploited digital labour and unpaid material labour?

The ‘social factory’ thesis provides another impetus for an argument for paid usership. The argument, most famously proposed by Mario Tronti and developed in much of operaist and autonomist work, is that all of society is now becoming a factory, since it is social relations themselves that are becoming productive. A key part of this argument is to understand the wage as a political tool through which labour is ruled by division: only that labour which is waged counts as labour, and many other kinds of activity (and in particular those related to reproduction) are discounted as labour. Where capital has always relied on the unpaid labour of reproduction (largely performed by women), as the ‘wages for housework’ movement convincingly claimed, more recent arguments propose that there has been a proliferation of unpaid kinds of labour, and that capital is actively pursuing a strategy of expanding the realm of unpaid labour.

We can witness this for example in the rise of unpaid internships, of ‘prosumption’ where consumers are made to work, and of course in various forms of unpaid digital labour (see Ross, 2013). The conceptual and political difficulty here is whether the appropriate strategy is really to ask for all labour to be paid, that is, to demand that labour is again (or more so than before) tied to the wage. If all of life is labour, how are specific instances of labour to be paid, and is there ever a line (to be) drawn? The way out of this conundrum has been to demand a social wage, which would mean that everyone gets paid, but that this payment is not in the form of a wage tied to labour. We would then not have paid usership but unpaid usership supported by a social wage.

That is not to say that demanding a wage is a futile endeavour. On the contrary, the lesson of wages for housework is that the demand for a wage is a political demand; in the case of wages for housework the solution was not to be husbands paying their wives for homework, but rather those working for social reproduction demanding a wage from the state, ultimately challenging the imposition of the wage-relation completely. In that way the movement was also for ‘wages against housework’ as Silvia Federici puts it – the aim was not (poorly) paid housework within a functioning capitalist system based on the wage-relation, but rather the abolition of housework – and the wage. The question for a campaign for paid usership in this vein must also ask itself whether payment for individual parcels of digital labour is the goal (would Amazon’s Mechanical Turk serve as the negative example here?), or whether in some way this demand is already seen to be impossible to fulfil and therefore aims at a broader reorganisation of labour and pay.

Yet, there an immediate difference between housework and usership becomes apparent: where the labour of social reproduction is a fundamental component of capitalism (certainly more so than the audience labour discussed by Smythe), and both its withdrawal and the demand for it to be waged fundamentally threaten capitalist social relations, can one make a similar claim regarding the digital labour of users? Most probably not, unless one sees usership as one type of social labour performed in the social factory, and such political struggles for a wage align many kinds of digital and social labour.

There is another insight to be gained from the wages for housework movement, one that leads me to briefly consider a different example of an economy built on free labour but in a quite different context, from which lessons might be drawn. The demand for wages is of course only one strategy that seeks to oppose the subsumption of free labour within capitalist relations of production. The other horizon that structures much of theoretical debate and political action in this regard is that of the commons. The commons, as collectively produced resources for shared living, potentially promise that free labour contributes not to capital’s expansion but rather to the expansion of a realm which supports life independent of capital. Federici notes that the ‘creation of the common/s, then, must be seen as a complement and presupposition of the struggle over the wage’, and this is particular so ‘in a context in which employment is ever more precarious, in which monetary incomes are subject to constant manipulations’, and so on (Federici, 2012: 12).

There is certainly a danger that these commons become subject to capital’s calculations, and George Caffentzis has cogently argued that the commons are becoming ‘neoliberal’s plan B’. This is extremely evident with regards to digital labour and the strategies associated with social media and the so-called web 2.0. The promise of commons as for example expressed in the open source and peer-to-peer production movements is far too often subsumed within capitalist circulation, with digital labour then contributing to a commons enclosed rather than to a counter-enclosure, as Massimo de Angelis calls protected commons. A campaign for paid usership finds itself right at the centre of these struggles, yet how can it also contribute to or be complemented by a campaign for digital commons?

While such questions are often discussed, also on N.E.W.S., with regards to the art or sharing economy, I would here like to conclude by briefly considering the economy of academic publishing as an example of a different kind of economy also involving much free, digital labour but at the same time characterised by some succinct features which might shed a different light on the question. Briefly, the call for open access within scholarly publishing has produced an extensive debate and brought forth a number of new practices of independent publishing. Central here is the question of labour involved in publishing. Commercial publishers reap massive profits, often in the region of 30-40% margins, and thereby extract wealth from the university system supported by public funds and student debt.

Yet at the very same time these publishers rely on the free labour of academics: academics provide not only content for free, since academic writing is hardly ever remunerated, they also provide labour for peer-review, and increasingly they are also expected to perform free labour previously paid, such as that of desktop publishing. This odd situation, where academics see their work copyrighted for commercial exploitation while they are expected to continue to provide free labour, has led to an uproar and a call for open access. While part of open access merely involves making research available for free at the point of use, it has also spurned more radical demands and actions challenging the current publication system.

Here one demand put forward has also been to be paid for free labour, in particular the free labour of peer review (see Beverungen et al., 2012). However, this has not been successful and instead a more fruitful strategy has been to withdraw labour and invest it in other endeavours. (Since academics, or at least their institutions, are paying heavily for reading published scholarly work, and even though a sophisticated system of the valuation of academic work through metrics such as citation indexes, journal rankings etc. exist which relies heavily on user input, it has not occurred to anyone in academia yet that we could demand to be paid for our usership or readership of published scholarly work.) At the same time there is a new industry besides publishing emerging, which encourages and draws on the free labour of academics.

Most notable here are social media platforms geared at academics for sharing their work, collaborating on research, or for simply managing citations. The most prominent examples here are ResearchGate, Mendeley and Academia.edu. Their function according to very similar logics as those found on general social networking sites: they provide platforms ‘for free’ and then rely on users to produce content, create attention for others, and leave data traces. While business models are not quite worked out yet or are still in the making, selling advertising here plays a role as much as the commercial exploitation of copyrighted content, which in the case of academic research perhaps promises more revenues than elsewhere.

This landscape is however marked by an important difference to those discussed above, producing a very different effect. Even though there is certainly ample scope for a struggle over wages, particularly considering the rise of unpaid or low-paid work in the academy e.g. in the form of graduate labour as forcefully uncovered by Marc Bousquet and others, by and large academics are already waged before they are made to work for free. Waged labour might be dependent in all sorts of ways on sacrificial labour not only for publishing, and certainly we are not in a situation where a social wage already ensures the social reproduction of the life of academics. Yet the fact that many academics do receive half-decent wages allows them to pursue strategies other than demanding wages for their free labour – namely, contributing to scholarly commons. Shockingly, as Florian Cramer pointed out at a conference on The Post-Digital Scholar in Lüneburg this week, academics are blindly offering content for Academia.edu without paying attention to the terms of service and business models involved. Yet elsewhere, in publishing, a lot more free labour is given not to commercial publishers or social networks for academics, but to independent and radical forms of publishing.

We have ‘feral publishers’ such as Elsevier and Springer, but we also have a plethora of open source independent journals and publishers such as Open Humanities Press or re.press, working with Creative Commons or even more open licences. We have Academia.edu and various platforms through which commercial publisher sell content (such as Ingenta or Scopus) or collect content (such as the research database Pure), but we also have arXiv.org and other non-commercial research repositories as well as pirate digital libraries such as Library Genesis, Monoskop or Aaarg.

Moten and Harney argue that, considering that not only publishers but universities themselves make scholarly and intellectual work next to impossible, we should dwell in the ‘undercommons of the university’ and steal from it – also in the from of giving our labour away for free for building, extending and protecting scholarly commons. How could such a strategy built around the centrality of practices of ‘commoning’ address issues that paid usership seeks to deal with, perhaps complementing paid usership and offering more productive political strategies? Are there spheres of usership where a similar structure (of free labour being given by labour employed elsewhere) is at play and where similar strategies could thus be pursued?



Beverungen, A., S. Böhm and C. Land (2012) ‘The poverty of journal publishing’, Organization, 19(6): 929–938.

Bousquet, M. (2008) How the university works: Higher education and the low-wage nation. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Caffentzis, G. (2010) ‘The future of ‘the commons’: Neoliberalism’s ‘plan b’ or the original disaccumulation of capital?’, New Formations, 69: 23–41.

Federici, S. (2012) Revolution at point zero: Housework, reproduction and feminist struggle. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

Fuchs, C. (2014) Digital labour and Karl Marx. Abingdon: Routledge.

Hesmondhalgh, D. (2010) ‘User-generated content, free labour and the cultural industries’, ephemera: theory & politics in organization, 10(3/4): 267–284.

Moten, F. and S. Harney (2004) ‘The university and the undercommons: Seven theses’, Social Text, 22(2): 101–115.

Ross, A. (2012) ‘In search of the lost paycheck’, in T. Scholz (ed.) Digital labor: The Internet as playground and factory (13–32). London: Routledge.

Scholz, T. (ed.) (2012) Digital labor: The Internet as playground and factory. London: Routledge.

Smythe, D. W. (1981) ‘On the audience commodity and its work’, in M. G. Durham and D. M. Kellner (eds) Media and cultural studies (230–56). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Tronti, M. (1966) Operaie e capitale. Turin: Einaudi.



Easy Reading: Is it just me or is peer review _ _ _ _?


For the past year and a half, I’ve been working as a post-doctoral fellow at a large monotechnic university in the UK that’s focused on teaching and research in art and design. Through this position, I’ve come to appreciate various “institutional responsibilities”. These really are fascinating things, raising a number of intriguing issues, especially for the newly initiated.

Surprise, surprise there is more to my fellowship than being paid and validated by a university to pursue research—both of which are truly great, I hasten to add. This short-term and entry-level position is also an apprenticeship in the dark arts of institutionalization. I’ve joined committees, published journal articles, delivered lectures and conference papers, written grant applications and collaborated in other weird and wonderful ways. I’ve completed health and safety and other paperwork by day and networked on and offline late into the night. And because I’m a practice-based art researcher, I’ve also realized events, exhibitions, publications and other projects above and beyond fulfilling the institutional responsibilities that make me a good fellow in my community of practice.

This résumé doesn’t come with bragging rights, though. In fact, drawing attention to all this labor is a bit embarrassing. These days no one wants to be known for their commitment to toil and complicity in hyper-production. An ethos of effort is now so passé that even Protestants have stopped flaunting it. I presume this has something to do with the dual action of ever-rising expectations when it comes to many kinds of work-related delivery: do more but make it look easy. Never let them see you sweat. There are, of course, limits to what we can respond to (response-ability) or be coerced into taking on. But like you say in your column, Abby, no matter the field of work, your personal performance depends to a large extent on how you “play the game”.

The evidence—viz. the fact that “playing the game” of research involves adroitly dribbling many and varied commitments in addition to researching—suggests that of all the things that you might usefully gen up on your readers’ behalf, institutional responsibilities are probably not one of them. People who work in and with institutions do generally seem to know what (hidden) expectations their contracts entail and why fulfilling these is important. You won’t, of course, be surprised to learn that in the sectors of culture and education, this doesn’t always include being paid. It’s tough, isn’t it, to make a living in your line of work too.

As a professional columnist, Abby, how do you feel about the millions of DIY therapists, citizen journalists and others finding their voice and giving advice through content they write for “free”? In principle, providing easy access and distribution to these diverse perspectives, information and other materials is a good thing, right? Yet there is still so much to understand when it comes to accounting for what the real costs of this involve. For sure they outstrip the personal sustainability of the Internet’s users whose unpaid content relies on subsidies from other aspects of their lives. Think also of the environmental sustainability that’s sacrificed for the Internet’s infrastructure—the routers, cables, towers, programs—all the hardware and software systems that make it work. The slickness of the Internet denies the material conditions of its own reproduction. And then there’s the obvious but also infinitely complicated consideration of the value of authorship in an age of liquid legislation. Ever-changing copyright and other policies make it tough to determine who owns what. Can you see where I’m going with this? Something in my subconscious has done this equation: peer-to-peer authorship = (un)known cost/benefit.

I’m absolutely not saying that authorial compensation—money for the people who create culture—shouldn’t be central here. And thank goodness that talking about this in the arts is less taboo these days. In fact, precarity, as the “new normal” for those of us in the 99%, is a regular topic of conversation, a bit like the weather. And this discourse can be very therapeutic—productive, even, right? Yes, I know what you’re thinking and it’s a valid concern. Talking shop--worrying about where your next paycheck will come from--with your colleagues is a-okay—so long as you agree that what’s said by the water cooler, stays by the water cooler. In the economy of cultural production where reputation is king, it’s so easy for harmless griping and gossip to be taken out of context and manipulated with devastating effect. This is all the more reason why we need zones for tackling working conditions head on. I’m thinking about the practice of institutional critique, new forms of workers’ inquiry and of course, union and other types of labor advocacy. And because these depend on participant observation for insights that are often only available to those embedded in the field, I say bring on the reflective narratives and consciousness raising. Empirical research could be the material substrate for widespread action and change, social justice for the greater good.

But then again, what do I know about using research to galvanize political will? As a newbie I still have so much to learn about what the potential praxis of this knowledge production entails. Yet there is something that’s already become clear: one of the most mysterious and least discussed responsibilities in the vocation of research is that of peer review. Earlier I said that people who work in and with institutions do generally seem to know what (hidden) expectations their contracts entail and why fulfilling these is important. But peer review is the exception that proves the rule when it comes to “proper research,” at least in universities. Things may, of course, be different in non-institutional and other forms of independent inquiry.

Richard Horton, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet provides useful insight into why peer review is so fraught: “Editors and scientists alike insist on the pivotal importance of peer review. We portray peer review to the public as a quasi-sacred process that helps to make science our most objective truth teller. But we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish and frequently wrong.” (As quoted in Wikipedia’s entry on peer review, which seems entirely apt to reference in this letter for reasons that should become increasingly clear.)

Of course Horton is writing about peer review in science, where it’s the key mechanism through which editors, experts and other gatekeepers work to police and expand the field. But with the rise of research in art and design, peer review is proliferating in cultural production too. Would you believe it, Abby, artifacts are increasingly accompanied by written exegeses! Tissues of quotes, these texts are spawning an economy of academic citation that many fear will soon eclipse the tradition of art historical reference that has long been the norm. (See, for instance, Douglas Gordon's Self-portrait as Kurt Cobain, as Andy Warhol, as Myra Hindley, as Marilyn Monroe.) In many universities, the maxim of “publish or perish” is second only to “find funding or you’re fired,” added to which, these things are increasingly entwined. Cuts in public support mean that researchers must become more entrepreneurial and find grants, sponsorship, crowd sourcing—anything that pays cold hard cash. The problem, of course, is that securing this depends on your research profile, which in turn depends on your research outcomes, which in turn depend on your success with funding campaigns. Whether virtuous or vicious, this cycle turns on luck and connections too. Sigh.

It’s against this backdrop that the complexity of peer review as an institutional responsibility begins to come to the fore, Abby. And it’s really with this in mind that I’m writing to you today, to ask your advice on some issues I’ve been struggling to address. But let me prime this request with a few words about the local context of my correspondence from the field. This letter comes to you through a forum on (un)paid usership in cultural production, a sphere where, and to repeat, far too much labor is done for “free”. I’m pleased to say that contra this trend at least some of us are being financially compensated for our contributions here. (Apologies to those who aren’t.) And I should also mention this forum is part of a larger project called N.E.W.S, which is exploring, among other things, the conditions of possibility for paying a wider ranger of authors for the value (content, attention, etc.) they produce. The mere thought of raising a budget that accounts for the full economic costs (FEC) of this proposition makes my head hurt. And, as we know, that's still only a fraction of the real costs involved. What about the psychic, affective and other expenditures? These don't show up on metrics like FEC.  There’s a risk, of course, that money is becoming the axel around which cultural production, be it peer-based or otherwise, gets wrapped. Like Isadora Duncan’s scarf, it can choke the life out of other economies, like gifting, sharing, reciprocity, collaboration, collectivity, cooperation, commoning, etc. But then again, who are we kidding?! There will never be enough money to pay everyone what they’re worth, what they want, what they think they deserve or even a living wage. We’re doomed to doing complex calculations as we broker a mixed economy that combines different types of value into a messy process in constant flux. Rather than less important, non-financial economies can only become more important, don't you think?

Take our peer-to-peer exchange in this forum as a case in point. It doesn’t pay much but that’s okay because implicit in the invitation’s Ts&Cs is that other types of remuneration will supplement our fee. When, for instance, greater visibility garners more attention en route to peer esteem, invitations to contribute to journals, conferences, exhibitions--peer review--and other forums can result in turn. Or at least that’s the carrot for a researcher like me but it’s also the stick.

This brings me back to peer review as both a rite of passage for researchers in general and an institutional responsibility for the those working in universities, colleges and so on. I’d like to believe the half-a-dozen requests that have come my way recently reflect my growing reputation in the field of social practice—that they evidence my expertise as an artist-researcher of dialogic art beyond any shadow of a doubt. But declaring this doesn’t, of course, make it so. Similarly, transmuting the act of peer review (either giving it or getting it) into symbolic and financial capital is not something that’s easily done. I’m hoping, Abby, that you can help me figure this out? I have many questions, comments and concerns about peer review but will limit my request for feedback to just three. I know you’re busy and don’t have much time. Do, however, flag things I've missed or ommitted in your response. It's a big topic, I know. Any comments would be very much appreciated.

1. Changing Authority: Journals, grant applications and decisions about advancement and tenure are just some examples of areas where peer review can be applied and often is. Historically, it’s been a form of self-regulation used by the experts in a field of knowledge to determine what new contributions, and which author-scholars, make the cut. But with the advent of digital networks where expertise is highly distributed, does it really make sense to concentrate this authority in the hands of a select few...gatekeepers? You’ll recall there was nothing short of moral panic when Wikipedia appeared. It did not, it so happens, mean the end of scholarly rigor as so many feared. In fact, entries are regularly scrutinized and contested by experts and others who are knowledgeable on the subject in question. It’s a heck of a lot more dynamic, transparent and open to wider contribution than, say, the Encyclopedia Britannica for sure. This comes onto my question about specialization, which I ask as both an emerging researcher, operative in the specific field of social practice/art research, and as an artist who values the extradisciplinarity of cultural production.  What role is there for the non-expert in peer review and other forms of evaluation? Should requests for reviews in my field be the only ones I accept? If, however, I should be broadening my scope then how do I approach peer review with this in mind, as a kind of non-expert?

2. Appropriateness for practice-based art research: Peer review comes in different shapes and sizes, depending on its purpose. Scholarly review provides the main model for practice-based art research. This means an outcome is subjected to scrutiny by someone—the author’s peers—who are well placed to make value judgments as to whether the article, application, artwork and so on is good enough, or significant enough, to make a contribution to the field. In the dominant art world, though, this vetting isn’t done by peers but by critics. This used to be the case, in any event, before art criticism gave way to PR as a main mechanism for visibility. It was a critic’s connoisseurship that mattered, not the insights of an artist's peers, or at least not really, not for the artwork's reception. Though of sure, artists have always valued--or at least been affected by--their peers' opinions and this starts early on.

Peer review is, of course, the cornerstone of art education. But then again, the group crits that anchor this are different from scholarly review in at least two respects. First, feedback through art school crits can be formative and typically foregrounds practice. Art students often receive critique on work in progress, whereas journal articles are only reviewed as an outcome, once done. Crits in art schools are also frequently group affairs. Peers discuss their views with the recipient in an exchange unfolding in real time. By contrast, scholarly reviews favor a page or two of notes made by an anonymous reviewer or two or three and then passed to an editor, who sends them to the author in turn. Nothing, in other words, happens face to face, in part because it's anonymized, and with good reason (see below). Written feedback like this can be very helpful, of course. But it’s also slow and isn’t nearly as easy to clarify in the event that something is unclear. Writing to the reviewers by way of the editor is, frankly, a pain.

And then there's the whole question about how to evaluate art writing and/as art research. It's often eccentric and three cheers for that. But what consequences does this have for peer review? When the discourses of art don't aspire to the same content/form as academic ones, what alternative to subjective judgement do reviewers of practice-based research have?

All this leads me to wonder if, when it comes to the peer review of practice-based research, isn’t there a better way? Maybe something closer to the face-to-face crits featured in art schools wide and far? I have colleagues who simply won’t engage in scholarly-like peer review in art research on the grounds that it’s, well, just not fit for purpose. Of course, being tenured means they’re in a position to not only refuse but also influence alternatives. By I agree with them it’s worth considering what kind of peer review would best suit practice-based research. It’s unsurprising that this particular kind of knowledge enterprise chafes against the model of scholarly review. The latter may be perceived as prestigious but what does this matter if it’s not up to the task?

What about something like N.E.W.S. as an alternative? I like the idea that as a kind of gray zone, our peer-to-peer exchange here is neither informal and off the record nor overly structured and anonymous. Texts invite comments with these inviting comments in turn. My hunch is this makes for a richer dialogue for all those involved. With the text already in the public domain, its publication status isn’t in question, which is really what's at stake in peer review. While reviewers' feedback aims to commend a text or recommend improvements to make a submission publishable, editors just want to know whether or not it passes the test. My point is that it's refreshing that N.E.W.S. is focused on the validity of a text's significance instead of being worried about its acceptability as a new finding that may or may not expand the field. These are, of course, diferent things. Any thoughts on this, Abby? It would be good to hear your views.

3. Anonymous, invisible and unremunerated labor that takes reviewers away from their research and other work: Blind peer review--ideally double-blind peer review--is festishized in academia. (Or at least in journal publication. It's liable to be different with work evaluations for promotion, i.e. tenure, etc.) When the review is double-blind, neither the reviewers nor the recipient know who is involved. An editor or administrator operates as an interposition between them. Single-blind peer review means that one party idenity is known to the other but not vice versa.

Sure, there’re good reasons for this anonymity in peer review. It creates a perception of objectivity on behalf of the reviewers and, by extension, fair treatment of the author-recipient. But it also renders the labor of peer review completely invisible. To cut to the chase, this is an institutional responsibility that although expected of researchers, goes largely unrecognized. Occasionally a recipient will offer thanks in their acknowledgements but to be frank, this doesn’t count for much. Anonymous regard has no currency in an economy of citation where being named is a symbolic form of capital that may or may not result in financial return.

It’s ironic, don’t you think, that while peer review aims to shepherd new knowledge into a field by way of publication, the system largely denies the collaborative authorship upon which it so clearly depends. Simply put, a reviewer’s say so valorizes a text by nominating it as part of the field. This is structurally akin to an artist’s nomination of a readymade as their artwork and hence art. Yet while there is continued debate over the artist’s appropriation of the other authorships producing said artifact, this is a non-issue in peer review because the reviewer’s signature never publically appears.

We’re led to believe this lack of visibility and recognition is recuperated through the gift economy of peer review as a self-regulating system. I’ll review his stuff and he’ll review your stuff and you'll review hers. All good! This could, perhaps, work if there was only reciprocity at stake, and if those involved were called, on occasion, to account for their contribution to the community. But truth be told, there is actually big money to be made through peer review. Academic publishers like Intellect cash in on pricey subscriptions for articles. Or they charge an upfront fee to make them publically accessible online. And the cost? £750 + VAT, purportedly to cover production. And who pays? Why it’s the author personally or their institution. And who pays the peer reviewer? Well, no one, really. Like so much invisible labor, this type of work is largely unpaid—or it’s differently paid as an institutional responsibility, one among many that researchers are expected to assume as part of their position. Sigh. I’ve heard rumors there're a couple of journals in Poland that pay for peer review, and there's money for this in scientific research too. But I know for a fact the UK's Arts and Humanities Research Council doesn’t pay a penny for this evaluation—unless, that is, you include those managing the process. They're paid for sure.

Finally, Abby, what to do about the opportunity costs of peer review? In addition to being unpaid and invisible, it can also be time consuming and labor intensive—resources that could be spent on doing other work, my own research in particular. I'm also wondering if it's one of those very rare institutional responsibilities that if you don't fulfill it, no one will notice? It wasn't as if I ever received training or mentorship in peer review and, by extension, my contribution is being formally, or even informally, monitored. I've just been told that researchers employed by institutions are expected to peer review; it's an institutional responsiblity but not an obligation, and it's worth acknowledging the difference between these things.

I peer review to extend my knowledge base. And, of course, I'm reciprocating for feedback I've received in the past and “paying it forward” too. That may strike you as a bit base but it’s also the honest truth. Listen, I’m happy to do my part. Though truth be told, because the process is anonymised and varies a great deal from request to request, it's difficult to determine what this means. You know, I’d just like to better understand the expectations/benefits/alternatives when it comes to peer review so I can make better decisions about where to focus my energy and attention and support my peers in doing the same.

Based on everything I’ve covered here, I’d be most grateful, Abby, if you could offer any tips or tricks for self-actualizing as a researcher through peer review as the sine qua non of knowledge production in academia and, increasingly, in art too. How do I account for the range of values accrued, depleted, indebted and otherwise evaluated through an economy of accountability that, weirdly, is often impossible to track as it patches and punctures the boundaries among diverse knowledge fields? I’m hoping, Abby, these are things you can help me to better understand. According to your website, “The most widely syndicated columnist in the world and a true household name, Dear Abby is well-known for sound, compassionate advice, delivered with the straightforward style of a good friend.” The truth is that a “good friend” would be much appreciated right about now. But a “knowledgeable peer” is actually what I need. Is this someone you could be to me and others wrestling with peer review and peer-to-peer exchange too? And if not, is there anyone in your network you could recommend? I'd tap my own but the truth is that most of my people are broke and exhausted. So if you or someone you know could help, Abby, that would be great.

Yours sincerely,


P.S. No doubt you’re aware that sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has theorized something like what you call “playing the game” as “habitus”? So acquiring habits, skills and dispositions through which we develop a “feel for the game” as we negotiate the patched and quilted fabric of our lives. It’s a process, as they say, as well as easier said than done.

P.S.S. You know, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that peer review is like the blood bank of research. You give blood based on the potentiality of your own need but with the knowledge this will, in all likelihood, be more or less than your own contribution. Know of anyone who has explored the relationship between blood banks and peer review before, Ally? Please let me know.


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