Work Marathon

The Work Marathon was a 12-hour event convened by Serpentine Galleries in collaboration with Professor Bernard Stiegler, who gathered artists, sociologists, anthropologists, writers, musicians, architects, scientists and philosophers to address the complex and timely questions of work, labour, automation and leisure. In a parallel moment of intense labor, I watched on and responded to the day's happenings as they unfolded via a "live blog" published on the Serpentine Radio website. It consists of some 4,000 words spread into 7 posts, and addresses topics like: the anthropocene, astrology, nap pods, night shifts, techno, and real estate dreams. The first post is below; you can read the rest here.


Although the term ‘Anthropocene’ has permeated mainstream media in recent years, the muddled birth of this equally ambiguous term can be traced back to the mid-1970s. But it was artists, not scientists, who were toying around with the idea. (Fig. 1)

I’m thinking specifically of Richard Lowenberg, who worked with artists, musicians, and technologists in the ’70s and ’80s to put out an uncanny body of work that doubled as a sort of interspecies love manifesto. With a doting ear to ‘amplified plant energy’, Lowenberg hyped the idea of ‘environmental monitoring, sensing and transducing’ as a means of crossing the wires between the plant and human worlds.

It was a trippy project without any explicit agenda and predominantly driven by aesthetic curiosity: searching for that strange and ecstatic noise when worlds collide, or perhaps the inconceivable sound of new worlds being born. Backdrop: post-war avant-gardism, from performance art to Rock ’n’ Roll; followed by the collective hangover of Reaganomics and Thatcherism. Sure, there was a looming sense of disaster, panic, even; a dark cloud on the horizon of humanity—but without the facts, and impossible to gauge at a distance, who was going to take the blame?

In the ’90s and early 2000s, acceleration-driven optimism bounded in, masquerading as a sense of clarity. The combined forces of climate change and globalisation—even if we couldn’t quite call it that yet—stream-rolled together as our first reckoning with the anthropocene, formalised by Nobel-prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen: Earth in the age of Humans, and what sort of irreversible disasters that entailed. Deaf to the cautioning words of scientists, our planet’s leading politicians had a clear, rational solution—just as we were commodifying the skylines of others, with the first tourist in space in 2001, followed by the first commercial orbit by SpaceX in 2010—an exit strategy for anyone who could afford it. (Fig. 2)

Meanwhile, back on Earth, shit hit the fan: the post-recession global economic crisis fed into the sensation that it was too little, too late. Big Data boomed, providing boundless evidence to the cause of environmentalism and climate change, while also starting to partition and monetise every aspect of our lives, leaving us more powerless, distracted, and paranoiac than ever.

In a sense, the excess of information surrounding the Anthropocene today—unfurling through a single directional of more explanations than questions, more questions than propositions—has bred a sort of philosophical, existential, and creative glut, a data swamp seemingly impossible to wade out from with an explicit agenda. Tempered by guilt, fear, willful ignorance and a touch of nihilism, our survival tactics are divided—exit strategies for the 1%; theoretical call-to-arms circled in the hallowed halls of academia; ‘do your part to save the burning cesspit of our planet and inevitable near-future demise’ as seen in the proliferation of commodified environmentalism in late capitalism, like reuseable straw start-ups marketed on Instagram. Post-apocalyptic survival strategies underscore the resurgence of interest in sci-fi ideologies; our turning to the mystical, to horoscopes and astrology and object oriented ontology, to AI and machine learning and other forms of consciousness when we can’t figure it out; it bubbles over in dumbfounded amazement when every year, the weather does something it shouldn’t.

Meanwhile, in our everyday lives, we feel the pressures of this failing system at work: sweating on the train stuck melting on the tracks, a foreign heat for both bodies and machinery. Uber driver falling asleep at the wheel after 24-hour shift; the perils of the gig economy. The permanent cross-over of office and domestic space, the erasure of private space. Data-harvesting toothbrushes and smart toilets. Amazon delivery drones. Our distraction through the excess. Golfers in Oregon ambling around on the 9th hole as angry red flames rage in the backdrop, looking photoshopped into reality. The slippage of Photoshop and reality. Post-truth nihilism, the booming resurgence of Animal Farm and postmodernism and know-your-memes collaging into a single, grinning, gyrating disaster economy. (Fig. 3)

It is easy to look back on the early engagements with the Anthropocene in the 70s and 80s with a sense of envy—when the human population is expected to top 9 billion by 2050, the strange artistic experimentation of yesteryear carries the nonchalance of all the time in the world. It was a world pre-Internet, pre-War on Terror, pre-recession, pre-fake news, pre-Trump. But it is precisely due to the fractured, panic-stricken, indeterminate reality of the present, where truth and fiction so readily meld, that this marathon has been organised.

Now is the time to ‘watch the unruly edges’ of reality, as the anthropologist Anna Tsing suggests in The Mushroom at the End of the World. Acknowledging and building from the precarious and contaminated Earth is the only means of survival. Similarly, this marathon is an attempt at alchemy—of concentrating a diverse batch of artists, philosophers, musicians, economists, scientists, architects, and anthropologists in a room for 12 hours and watching the pressure drop: seeing what emerges when mediation and advanced preparation and a neat partitioning of perspectives all falls to the wayside, and new, contaminated ideas are allowed to take shape. It is an attempt at slowly undoing sanity over an intensified 12 hours, adopting, in part, the grotesque logics of overproduction and welcoming the impact of those stresses upon the body in the hopes that something will emerge when the smoke clears. It is a collective foray into the dilated work day (and night) of the present, because we don’t know what will be here the morning after.

(Published on: Serpentine Galleries )