by Bettina Steinbrügge, Halle für Kunst Lüneburg
WORK LIFE BALANCE
Why are human beings standing on a motorway bridge watching the interminable flow of this river of metal? Why is a man wearing an elegant business suit sitting next to a river staring at his feet? Why is there a look of emptiness and hopelessness, instead of fighting spirit, in the eyes of the demonstrators? What does the reserved smile of the two ladies at the info point mean? Approaching the photographs by the Dresden group of artists REINIGUNGSGESELLSCHAFT, their surface becomes a kind of Denkbild that asks to be deciphered. At first glance, they seem to be expressions of a mundane, ordinary surface initially hiding their deeper meaning. Kracauer declared in his work Das Ornament der Masse (The Mass Ornament) that the surface is a society's dream which it dreams about itself, and which makes it interpretable.1 If the masses dream about themselves in their ornaments, the content of these dreams is their social motive. But what are the current needs of society, or rather, what are the needs of the single individual?
The balance between work and life has been out of joint for a long time already. The ever available human being staggering from one job to the next does not really have a chance to become aware of his needs. Superficially, the photo series seem to characterise exactly this phenomenon. They depict an indifferent openness, which is a perfect description of the current situation. In his work The Corrosion of Character Richard Sennett delivers an appropriate description of what happens to a flexible human being who became lost in economising all living spaces in the attempt to collect the various facets of his self - without ever being able to turn them all into one greater picture again.
collapse of New Economy at the latest, the structure of our society's façade
has become frail. For a number of years it had seemed that the capitalist working
society was in the position to offer human beings access to an individualised
culture of self-fulfilment. However, this brave new working world did not live
up to its promises. And what is left of it is the individual, removed from social
space. The line dividing the work world and leisure time does not exist anymore,
the (work) team replaces traditional social relationships, and leisure serves
more and more as a performance-orientated self-optimisation process in order
to be prepared for the new challenges of tomorrow. Work is becoming theatrical,
and it is differentiating in a surface culture - thus, work becomes the real
reward and investment itself.2 The outline of the modern human being's life
was focused on the unity of life or on the development of one's personality,
whereas the post-modern human being is characterised by breaks, new beginnings
and flexibility. There is no longer a central subject, no centre of life, no
predetermined aim, no fixed starting point. Consequently, social relationships
and social structures were lost, which led to an individualism without individuals.
It is necessary to reinvent ourselves constantly. At the most the question we
can ask is whether an identity can still grow under these conditions, and what
potential resistance exists. It is a fact that conforming and adjusting powers
have been working for a long time already behind the façade of modern
reforms and liberal democratisation, powers which constantly expose the individual
to an enormous pressure to perform. The freedom which is invoked often has turned
out to be a lie.
Getting back to the starting point: the restructuring of the work world and community generated a paradox which is hard to cope with. On the one hand, there is the dream of self-fulfilment of a human being reinventing himself constantly, and, on the other hand, there is the archetype of a displaced person characterised by a futile search for an own identity and a deceptive self-dramatisation in a role play.
Instead of a steady work biography, today we have a patchwork of different tasks and different jobs interrupted by phases of no work at all. Thus, the ground is cut out from under traditional identity models' feet. Traditional ideas about identity, stability and personal integrity do not work anymore in a world which constantly forces us to internalise changes. The individual needs to find answers to this, and, usually these answers do not go beyond marketing and theatricalisation of the own individuality. Any single individual begins to tinker with his own identity - resulting in a personality type which some decades ago was considered to be a personality disorder. Today it is mutating into a role model which is even required by our society: the multiple personality.3 Meschnig furthermore explains that the proteic human being - who is guided from the outside reacting flexibly to expectations, changes and possibilities and adjusting his identity to current conditions - is the embodiment of today's ideal.4 Proteus was the sea god in Greek mythology who was always transforming himself and who is a paragon of the dream of a self-fulfilled human being always reinventing himself. At the same time, the mythological character of Proteus stands for the archetype of a displaced person who never finds himself.
In the project "Work Life Balance", which comprises a series of photographs and a video installation, the REINIGUNGSGESELLSCHAFT tries to find out in which way human life leaves its marks in efficiency-orientated, flexible structures. They explore living spaces beyond economic pragmatism, and they show traces of civil life mingling with standardised spheres of life. They show pictures of work as well as of leisure time, or just of "non-work". In a society which has made work its lifestyle, it is, of course, impossible to look at these pictures showing human beings who are not working without perceiving or thinking of work. This leads us to two different points: first, these pictures are a paragon of the functionalisation of leisure time. Second, they show the loss of this very work, thus, they are focused on individuals who are not working. This second idea causes much anxiety, especially in Western society. The REINIGUNGSGESELLSCHAFT shows pictures which make the world of work transparent and measurable. The pictures are also telling something about the time without work. They are not telling anything about identities of the people depicted, thus they refer again to the deep rift between the unity of work and the formation of identity.
René Pollesch's main characters onstage says, "I never know whether
or not I am working. And what is working inside of me I can - in the majority
of cases - merely guess." This evokes a scenario outlining a situation
which has become commonplace long ago, beyond the disjunction of work and leisure
time, of residence and workspace as it used to be typical of the Fordist production.
The antagonism between work and leisure does not exist any longer; instead we
now find a coexistence of both that comes closest to the concept of "being
active" (Tätig Sein) as strikingly referred to in an exhibition by
the NGBK (New Society for Fine Art) in Berlin in 2004. "Being active"
occurs in the work world as well as during leisure time. In this connection,
"interpretation by activity" is the highest maxim. This situation,
however, turns out to be the more precarious the less work is available. As
leisure has increasingly been negated in favour of work, it is today determined
by the absence of work. Leisure time means "non-work" and is, accordingly,
accursed.5 How is the "self" feeling during this "downtime"?
And is there downtime at all? The self is supposed to be newly configured (and
one hour of Tai Chi should be sufficient!). It is supposed to recharge its batteries,
supposed to be rapidly restored, to limber up and to be powerful. Even the unemployed
are provided with a completely fulfilling day: "soft skills" have
to be augmented as well as "hard skills", job applications have to
be written, one receives training and is sent on coaching workshops.
The video production "Work Life Balance" juxtaposes the working world and the leisure time world in a most appropriate way. Takes of automated motion sequences in production plants and service firms do not consider the human being who is meanwhile demonstrating his physical potential of movement within the ritualised sequences of Tai Chi and has thus displaced it to the area of leisure. Inevitably this makes us think of a culture of self-awareness where individuality has to be picked out as a central theme, recognised and advanced. The individual here, who is no more able to resurrect identity within society nor by society, obtains meaning and orientation. However, the question remains whether this culture of self-awareness is not increasingly serving a flexibility of the self not only including awareness but also the body. In the age of Post-Fordism our bodies are economically disposed in public and in private institutions. And this does not only happen during the working hours but as well within the instrumentalisation of leisure. Thus the body remains on the surface - omni-visual - constantly trimmed by fitness training and cosmetic surgery to achieve the society's ideal. To what extent our psyche follows the physical changes remains to be seen.
By playing with the surface structure, the series of photographs of the REINIGUNGSGESELLSCHAFT consequently seems to deal with the conflict between delusion and reality. Obviously the artists' intention is to make the existing protest potential a subject of discussion. If you take a look at the photo of a trade-union demonstration, you would rather see a farewell to the fighting spirit. Looking at the "Motorway Bridge Watchers" we may also be insinuating that they prefer to escape, and the young man in his business suit does not look as if he really wants to break out. Possibly this is just a matter of recapturing subjectiveness which does not immediately define itself explicitly. The new construction of the subject under economic principles is to be put into question.
Everyone is talking about work, although, or, just as there is less of it available, and accordingly, it is emotionalised and privatised. If "being active" is, however, so engaging, boredom almost seems to be tempting. This is exactly the association that comes to mind straight away upon asking why human beings stand on motorway bridges staring down. It is absurd and there is no room for absurdities in times of efficiency. Kracauer significantly refers to the term of boredom in an interesting context:
"Then boredom becomes the only proper occupation, since it provides a kind of guarantee that one is, so to speak, still in control of one's own existence. If one were never bored, one would presumably not really be present at all and would thus merely be one more object of boredom, as was claimed at the outset. One would light up on the rooftops or spool by as a filmstrip. But if indeed one is present, one would have no choice but to be bored by the ubiquitous abstract racket that does not allow one to exist, and, at the same time, to find oneself boring for existing in it."6
Amidst the pleasure-seeking, the risk and work society boredom occasionally emerges as an intelligent reply to an overstrained incentive system. Or, it might also be a loophole to reflect one's own reality. This evokes the feeling of an inane time within which any content has suddenly disappeared. Is it really that unusual to be standing on a motorway bridge to indulge in the movement, to dream and to allow for doing nothing? It might, however, be significant to learn to deal with boredom in one's own life as well as in the community and, at the same time, not to make the alleged or real motionlessness disappear by made-up activities and hustle; not to travel, for instance, but to have the scenery in front of the window or the landscape of one's own life approach oneself instead. It is not the intention to decry the concept of "work", but to lead it back to a non-destructive perception. In their enquiries the works of the REINIGUNGSGESELLSCHAFT place the human being in a most good-natured way. It becomes clearly obvious that the "human being factor" refuses total functionalisation and, possibly we are able to find the protest potential here the artists are looking for. It seems hardly feasible to functionalise the individual in perpetuity as an encumbering expense factor or a compliant consumer and to rely on maintaining the system by either imposing pressure or promising self-realisation. Just like the motorway bridge watchers may be dreaming of mobility and vastness, the man in the business suit might recover by having some downtime. These photographs seem to show the "rushing standstill" publicised by Virilio. The everlasting progression does not happen after all due to the lack of time.