Since the impact of the pandemic on the world of work, a new term entered the digital-public debate in late 2022: Quiet Quitting. Originally emerging from TikTok, “quiet quitting” describes service by the book, with no unnecessary effort expended and low identification with the employing company.
The attention this term has received is testimony to a new shift away from work. It describes the attitude of younger, privileged people towards their professional activity, while less privileged workers, who never started out with such a quest for meaning, require other words to describe the current upheavals in the work environment.
New words for and linguistic developments within work are at the heart of the lecture-performance series 100 Neue Wörter (“100 New Words”), which has been taking place at the Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus since 2022. Pulling from themes that change annually, five artists use this framework to explore new words, vocabularies, and perspectives to confront a speechlessness resulting from a rapidly-changing world. Central to this is the understanding of language as an instrument bound to power, one that also opens possibilities for action. Wherever experienced reality can be put into words, the world becomes describable, negotiable, and thus also changeable. Using the linguistic means of art, the participating artists describe, decompose, overwrite, or subvert current working realities. They unmask the supposedly neutral concept of work, and conceive alternative ways of rendering the realities of the world of labor verbally describable.
As a hybrid format between theory, literature, and performance, the lecture-performance focuses on the artist and their language. It thrives on the direct encounter between artist and audience, offering the possibility of total aesthetic exchange. At the same time, the lecture-performance functions as an interface and meeting point for artists and audiences from different disciplines, from visual arts and theater to literature, film, dance, and net art.
This year's edition, 100 New Words for Work, opened on May 3, with all participating artists offering initial insights into what these neologisms could be. On May 4 and 5, Ho Rui An presented his lecture-performance Factory Film: in it, he compares and connects cinematic motifs showing workers leaving factories, from the Lumière brothers’ iconic images to Harun Farocki's 1995 Workers Leaving the Factory, to surveillance footage of the factory gates of Chinese companies that had been recently listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Additionally, Andrew Norman Wilson's film installation Workers Leaving the Googleplex has been on view since his lecture-performance on May 5. To conclude the evening, Diedrich Diederichsen, Ho Rui An, and Franziska Pierwoss spoke about the ways in which work can be verlassen: vacated; left behind; abandoned.
The artistic search for new words and perspectives as part of the series 100 New Words for Work is kicked off by the Singapore-based artist Ho Rui An. Referring to Farocki's Workers Leave the Factory, An has developed a lecture-performance in which he presents various genres of factory film. The artist demonstrates how these genres express the changing historical relationships between labor, technology, and capital, asking, “Why don't there seem to be enough workers leaving the factory?”
We sat down with the artist to discuss the lecture-performance as art form, the history of film and the factory, the future of work, and more.
AWC: Lecture-performances are hybrid monologues that share their frameworks in both contemporary art and literature, oscillating between these worlds. What’s striking to you about the unique capacity of the lecture-performance format?
Ho Rui An: I see my practice as a form of public pedagogy that uses the space of art to construct narratives and make arguments that speak to our political realities. I’m personally not very attached to the term “lecture-performance” as a way to describe my work, because I think lectures are already performances. For me, the more precise question has always been what it means to present such performances in the space of art, as opposed to other spaces.
A lot of my work involves researching socio-economic phenomena that are quite abstract and expansive, such as financial crises, or more recently, the so-called socialist market economy in China. I’m always thinking about how to talk about these subjects that returns them to our lived experiences, while also allowing us to better understand the structural conditions at work that exceed the agency of any single actor. For me, art is the ideal space for me to do this work insofar as its public sphere is articulated around sensuous experience. By this token, my lectures are almost singularly focused on the work of figuration: on deconstructing figures within hegemonic narratives, as well as producing new figures that can articulate an alternative reading of history and the present.
In the lecture that I will present at Brecht-Haus, I’ll approach this task by looking at one particular set of figures: workers (not) leaving the factory.
AWC: How did you approach the task of developing 100 new words for work, factories, and their intersection with film?
Ho Rui An: Virtually all of my work comes out of a sustained engagement with cinema in the expanded sense. I’m inclined to read cinematic idioms in a Hollywood film as much as in, say, recordings made by dashboard cameras that are uploaded onto YouTube. The starting point of the current piece, Factory Film, for instance, comes from a collection of surveillance footage of a factory gate in China that I found out about after reading a report that was investigating potential fraud between hedge funds on Wall Street and Chinese companies listed on the New York stock exchange.
Looking out from the camera’s point of view, I was immediately transported back to the beginning; to what is often recounted as the first cinematic image, the Lumière brothers’ film of workers rushing out of a factory gate. I was thus compelled to resituate this image of the factory gate in cinematic terms, to understand how it is that, after over a hundred years of cinema, we are somehow still stuck with this same image. This was, of course, the question first formulated by the filmmaker and theorist Harun Farocki over twenty years ago, when he probed the relationship between cinema and industrial labor. Farocki’s question remains as pertinent as ever in our contemporary context, where so much of the discontents of late capitalism can be said to have arisen from the structural untenability of the image of workers moving freely between the worlds of production and consumption, as the Lumières tried to depict by pointing their camera at the factory gates.
AWC: How do you respond to the idea of diversifying the understanding of labor?
Ho Rui An: While you can say that labor is a thread that runs through all my work, I started being interested in the more specific question of industrial labor a few years ago, partly because I realized how little I understood it, despite having been raised in Singapore—which, at least going by prevailing international perceptions, is the quintessential post-industrial financial hub. Since then, I've been looking into the industrial history of East and Southeast Asia, especially that of the so-called “Four Asian Tigers” (Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore) as well as China in the Reform era, all of which pursued a model of state-led export-oriented industrialization to different degrees, which allowed them to climb the developmental ladder through their participation in global markets.
There is a sentiment that I've often encountered within my networks, which is that industrial labor as we know it is disappearing. I think that that really depends on where you are located within the global chain of production. Insofar as capitalism remains the dominant mode of production, the factory will remain a pivotal node within this chain of production, though its location may have shifted from one part of the world to the other. That said, some have suggested—quite accurately, I believe—that the platform economy that we see taking hold, especially in metropolitan centers across the world, portends an end to capitalism as we know it, and the rise of something more akin to digital feudalism. This has made me reflect on the ongoing efforts at reshoring made by some governments—most prominently the Biden and Macron administrations—that speak to the incapacity of our current systems of governance, which have mostly been shaped by the legacy of industrial capitalism, to deal with anything other than the disciplined, wage-incentivized workforce of the factory at the core of the economy. For all of the structural contradictions of the industrial wage economy, it appears that these are at least contradictions that prevailing macroeconomic policies are capable of alleviating or, more often, displacing elsewhere or deferring to the future, albeit a future that we are currently living through. This attachment to bringing back “good old” industrial capitalism is only a sober reflection on the inability of governments to imagine a world after the end of capitalism.
AWC: How did you arrive to the questions you have towards labor, and how did that lead to you to the subject of this specific work? What key takeaways can we glean from the question of who gets to “leave” the factory of production?
Ho Rui An: This current work is an extension of my ongoing research into the political economy of Reform-era China, which focuses on the transition from the command system to the so-called “socialist market economy.” What's fascinating about this transition is that, by observing its development, you can see quite clearly how the market is something that has to be quite actively constructed by different actors, as opposed to a natural condition of things, which is how it is posited by liberal economists. My task in the current project is to attend to how this historical trajectory is articulated in cinematic terms. It's important to understand cinema here not just in the sense of post-facto representation, but as something deeply implicated in the shaping of collective desire, which, in turn, produces the history we are talking about now.
Ironically, the problem today is not that the people cannot leave the factory of production, but that, having been displaced from the factory, many have decided that they still prefer the comfortable old hierarchies of industrial capitalism to the scary new networks in a world of increasing automation and accelerated global flows. Perhaps cinema, for all its entanglements with industrial modernity, can be that space to address this urgent lack in our political imagination.
May: Ho Rui An (Lecture-Performance), Andrew Norman Wilson (Film screening), Ann Cotten (Opening Talk), Anta Helena Recke (Opening Talk), Heike Geißler (Opening Talk), Damian Rebgetz (Video in Opening Talk), Diedrich Diederichsen (Talk on 5.5.), Franziska Pierwoss (Host Talk on 5.5.), Cornelius Puschke (Host Opening Talk)
September: Heike Geißler, Damian Rebgetz
November: Ann Cotten, Anta Helena Recke
Formats: Lecture-Performance, Film Screening, Workshop talks, Panel talks
When: 3. - 5. May
Where: Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus
More info : www.100neuewoerter.de
- IMAGE CREDITS
Cover: Ho Rui An, Credit Eike Walkenhorst.
fig. 1: Szenografie, credit Marc Jungreithmeier.