In Modern Times, Jacques Rancière addresses the organization of temporalities that underlies the present order of society. He suggests that some socio-economic roles have their own temporal profiles, with distinctive schedules and cadences, their own patterns of stress and release—this is what he calls the ‘partition of times’. Modern Times emphasizes both the naturalized character of this organization of time and its stratification by class and occupation, determining who can do what and when.footnote1 But Rancière is primarily concerned with efforts to resist the reigning partition and bring about a ‘redistribution of times’, by instituting other rhythms or re-assigning intervals to other activities. Here he is characteristically ecumenical, touching on both practical and literary resistances, and forms of redistribution both personal and collective. Cultural products are read as potentially significant interventions in the politics of time. So, for instance, Rancière sees Virginia Woolf’s critique of the plot-driven novel in her essay ‘Modern Fiction’ as a revolt against the subordination of narrative to an inevitable climax or dénouement—and so, by extension, a rebellion against instrumentalization as a principle of cultural and economic life.footnote2 Protest movements offer another example of temporal subversion: protesters occupy time as well as space, subtracting it from work and producing time spent together.
Today’s precarious labour has its own highly fragmented temporality: periods of inactivity, retraining, part-time and multiple employment. When precarious workers take to the streets, they turn this discontinuous time into an interval of assembly, recasting the struggle over time in new terms. Rancière focuses on the revolt of the intermittents du spectacle, cultural workers, many of them in the performing arts, who protested in 2003 and again in 2014 against proposed cuts to the benefits supposed to compensate for the sporadic nature of their work. The intermittents plainly identified their problems with those of precarious workers everywhere and saw their protests as the construction of ‘a common time’, within a new war on temporal partition. In presenting time as a crucial site of conflict, Rancière is of course building on a long tradition rooted in disputes over the length of the working day. This line of thought received a powerful impetus in the late sixties from the work of historians such as Edward Thompson, who saw the rise of ‘clock time’ and the imposition of ‘time-discipline’ as pillars of industrial capitalism, alienating workers from their own labour.footnote3 Rancière adapts this argument to current conditions and gives it a dynamic inflection, repositioning cultural production and cultural labour at the centre of the debate.
The questions that animate Rancière’s text are of course live ones in the art world. They have been addressed by organizations such as New York-based wage (Working Artists and the Greater Economy), which has sought to highlight and counter the reliance of art-world institutions on unpaid labour. They have also been tackled in artworks such as Maria Eichhorn’s Spring 2016 project for the Chisenhale Gallery in London, 5 Weeks, 25 Days, 175 Hours. As a placard fixed to the gallery’s locked front gate announced at the time, the gallery staff stayed away from work for the duration of the show. On the day of the opening the gallery held a symposium at which Eichhorn’s gambit was discussed by the artist, Chisenhale Gallery staff, commentators and members of the public, and the catalogue included an earlier conversation in which gallery staff spoke to the artist about their work—about the pace of it, the time spent fundraising, the pressure to respond to emails and maintain the institution’s social-media presence, and so on.footnote4 Over the following weeks, as the gallery remained closed, emails and calls met with automated responses and social-media feeds were frozen. Eichhorn’s gesture was configured in the catalogue as a gift. She was, she said in an interview with the Chisenhale curator Katie Guggenheim, ‘giving time’, but in its orientation to the public the show was also, as Guggenheim pointed out in the same conversation, a denial of service and hence an action akin to a strike.footnote5 In Eichhorn’s project, as in Rancière’s essay, protest and labour were viewed together through the prism of time.
Eichhorn’s intervention is one of a number of artworks in recent years that have examined labour in the art world. Another is Intern vip Lounge created by Ahmet Öğüt at Art Dubai in 2013. Accessible only to interns, it was a well-appointed space where they could go to chat, play ping-pong, help themselves to refreshments and attend a dedicated programme of talks and screenings. The installation parodied devices used to flatter and entice sponsors and collectors at art fairs—exclusive pre-openings, invitation-only events and spaces, including vip lounges—while drawing attention to the use of unpaid labour and alluding, more obliquely, to the appalling conditions of migrant labour in the Gulf States. Though it was on the face of it a less austere project than Eichhorn’s, it anticipated certain features of 5 Weeks, 25 Days, 175 Hours. Like the later work, it took the form of a gesture of assistance to art workers while denying access to the art-viewing public.
In one sense, though, Eichhorn’s project for Chisenhale Gallery was unlike Öğüt’s Intern vip Lounge, for it drew heavily on earlier art projects and art-world initiatives. Artists have long resorted to acts of withdrawal: Marcel Duchamp claimed (misleadingly) to have given up art-making for chess in 1923, the Dutch conceptualist Stanley Brouwn consistently turned interviewers away and withheld biographical information, the American artist Laurie Parsons turned her back on the art world in 1994 to become a social worker.footnote6 Eichhorn’s work in London loosely recalled these gestures and others like them, but it referred more pointedly to various projects undertaken in the aftermath of the 1968 revolts, a period she had already mined in an earlier work.footnote7 It is in the work’s backward glance, the way it made the interval between that time and its own resonate in its imagery and organization, that its significance as a reflection on contemporary labour can most clearly be seen.
One vital precedent is Robert Barry’s Closed Gallery Piece (1969), for which the artist issued invitations to galleries in Amsterdam, Turin and Los Angeles, each invitation indicating that the gallery would be closed for a period of time. Barry stayed away from the galleries involved, later stating, ‘the people were so nice, but partially I would say that [my motivation] was a kind of independent anti-establishment streak.’footnote8 The same sentiment, nourished by the 1968 protests and the antiwar movement, powered a number of other projects of the time. During a 1969 residency at the rand Corporation in Los Angeles, John Chamberlain proposed various actions, one of which was to cut off all their phones for a day.footnote9 Here was another artist who, like Eichhorn in 2016, offered an impediment to work as his contribution to the functioning of an enterprise. Also in 1969, Takis took down one of his own works at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it had been included in a show without his consent, and distributed a flyer in which he stated that his gesture was ‘the first in a series of acts against the stagnant policies of art museums all over the world.’footnote10
So it turned out. Takis’s intervention was one of the triggers for the formation of the Art Workers’ Coalition, a group of artists, filmmakers and curators who together lobbied museums to bring in free admission, show the work of black artists, involve artists in the curating of shows, and introduce other democratizing measures. The group, which included figures such as Carl Andre and Hans Haacke, wanted to develop new forms of protest, not only against exclusionary art-world practices but also against the Vietnam War. In April 1969, the awc held an open hearing at which participants discussed a range of issues, from artistic labour to sexism in American society. There the artist Lee Lozano declared, ‘For me there can be no art revolution that is separate from a science revolution, a political revolution, an education revolution, a drug revolution, a sex revolution or a personal revolution’—‘I will participate only in a total revolution simultaneously personal and public.’footnote11 This statement anticipated her General Strike Piece (1969), which announced that she was quitting the art world and documented her final visits to various institutions.footnote12