APR 2019

All Issues

BRETT WALLACE with Andreas Petrossiants

Rethinking artistic production to build cooperation and new models to reclaim dignity in work

Portrait of Brett Wallace. Pencil on Paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of Brett Wallace. Pencil on Paper by Phong Bui.
On View
March 16 – April 14, 2019

Last November, when Amazon decided to split their second headquarters between New York and Washington D.C. artists and cultural workers had to contend with the complicity of the culture industry in displacement and gentrification, and also shoulder the hardships from the exacerbation of these already disastrous crises, characteristic to all large “development” projects, which only redistribute wealth upwards. Simultaneously, our “creative capital” is traded against our scapegoating by a rapacious developer class in artwashing campaigns. Many of us began to mobilize against the deal; I began work with a group of cultural producers under the banner Bad Barcode, in coalition with Fuck Off Amazon.1 When I mentioned this to my good friend, and Brooklyn-based painter Adam Simon (who has been exploring the representations of corporate logos in his work for many years), he mentioned that I should meet with an artist named Brett Wallace. I was told we had much to discuss on the topics of immaterial labor, Amazon, the gig economy, and so on. Both Adam and Brett opened solo exhibitions on March 15th, at Studio 10 and NURTUREart respectively.2 During our first meeting, Brett and I shared our admiration for Allan Sekula and the history of documentary workerist photography, and discussed how the grassroots opposition to Amazon was developing. By the time of our second meeting, now recording to register our conversation, Amazon had abandoned the deal. The below is the conversation we had at NEW INC, an art, design, and technology incubator inside the New Museum, edited for length and clarity.

Brett Wallace, Working Conditions, Installation, NURTUREart Gallery, New York, 2019. Performers: Mischa Ipp and Ben Dawson. Photo: David Riley

Andreas Petrossiants (Rail): Regarding Amazon HQ2, it’s clear that very few people, if any, thought the grassroots would win so quickly, in three months’ time, more or less.3 My feeling is that the fight worked so well due to the scale of solidarity. As always, part of the work the grassroots carried out was in a productivist and documentarian legacy that you’re also working in: i.e. in this case, uncovering the tarps that shroud companies behind a veneer that’s infantilized (in their logos, let’s say) and made “personal,” to show what’s going on behind the scenes. Amazon’s heinous working conditions, selling facial recognition tech to ICE, their implication in the carceral state, how the development would displace communities of color and working class folk were made clear to many, and contextualized in a history reaching back to Robert Moses, redlining, disastrous rezoning policies, and so on.

Brett Wallace (Wallace): It was inspiring to see the solidarity from unions, neighborhood groups, activists, students, and others. It looks like our fight against HQ2 may not be over given the open letter that was signed by Governor Cuomo and many business leaders.4 I felt as though Amazon tried to move into Queens, one of the most diverse places in the world, with a top down plan mirroring the same control and speed of their operations. The solidarity amongst the opposition gained steam as more and more people caught wind of Amazon’s poor labor record, anti-union stance, and their work with ICE. This is combined, of course, with the fact that they were offered $3 billion in corporate tax breaks, structured as job creation incentives.

Rail: And the three billion doesn’t even include hidden subsidies paid out via welfare programs to an underpaid workforce.

Wallace: Yeah, and who were those 25,000 jobs over 10 years for? How many people in the Queensbridge Houses (across the street from the proposed site) would have access to those jobs? The average wage was estimated by Amazon at over $150,000 ($48,000 of which was tax incentives). The only number I heard was 30 planned jobs for Queensbridge residents. There was no independent study on the implications of this deal onto rising housing costs, overcrowded schools, crumbling NYC subways. It’s also worth noting that Amazon still operates in NYC with existing centers in Staten Island and they are expanding in the Bronx.

Rail: That brings us to a point which is evident in much of your work: that big tech monopolies like Amazon are threading themselves into every industry one can imagine. So, they start out with books, and then CDs and DVDs, but now that’s no longer important. Their sales are almost irrelevant—what matters is their cloud computing, their software, their massive supply chain.

Brett Wallace, HQ2, 2019, still from video. Courtesy the artist.

Wallace: That’s right. And, in the advent of AI, data-driven companies are taking over. Data powers companies from the supply chain to the consumer experience.

Rail: They have an incredible amount of real estate, both virtually and brick and mortar. So, I wonder how you first approached researching something so large?

Wallace: In the summer of 2016, I visited an Amazon fulfillment center on the outskirts of Baltimore. These are highly secure areas, so you can’t just walk in and roam around, but I was able to peek in. I could hear the whizzing of the algorithm-driven bots. At the main entrance, there was a security gate where workers were checking in their keys and their cell phones. The walls of fulfillment centers are lined with euphemisms such as “work hard, have fun, make history.” What hit me was the demonstrable dissonance between the presentation of an idealized work environment and the material realities of workers within it. While that tension has been around for a long time, the experience of that center resonated with my experiences growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood outside Boston. It felt both like a look into the future and a setback to accelerated methods of Fordism and Taylorism—a forgotten factory space that was buzzing with activity.

Rail: Elsewhere, you call it “Fordism on steroids.”

Wallace: Yes. It’s this accelerated model of human structure and repetition. Workers sprinting down aisles to pick hundreds of goods off the shelves per hour. Workers become cast as “conscious linkages” within a much larger machine, as Marx writes in the Grundrisse. Seeing that center was a reminder that late-stage capitalism is not just immaterial or digital work—it’s feeding off new low-wage labor jobs, and the fulfillment center, with its drudgery, is an exemplar of that. So, for my show [“If This Then What”] at Silas Von Morisse gallery in 2016, I launched an exploration around the fulfillment center itself, coded with rules, processes, technologies, and human labor. I shipped and installed boxes in the gallery laser cut with euphemisms from Amazon’s corporate strategy and things I was hearing from Amazon workers. I used CNC machines to mirror the scientific management systems and carve pathways into material substrates. The work was reviewed as occupying the “gap between lived experience and digital immateriality that these workers inhabit daily.” 5My show at SPRING/BREAK Art Show 2018 is where I formally launched AMAZING INDUSTRIES, a research-based startup project, to explore the business model of a mega-corporation. As you said, Amazon’s model goes beyond packing and shipping goods for digital commerce but has spread into low-wage labor on the Mechanical Turk platform, and has pushed to become embedded into companies by selling cloud storage. This company has gained so much wealth that it is collapsing the corporate and political nexus and using its power to influence politics. They turned HQ2 into a bidding war between mayors and probably gathered a lot of economic data along the way.

Brett Wallace, AMAZING INDUSTRIES, Installation, SPRING/BREAK Art Show, New York, 2018. Courtesy the artist.

Rail: Well, it’s not an accident that they chose NYC and D.C., right?

Wallace: Exactly.

Rail: They chose NY for the creative capital and the attraction of “influencer culture.” And DC because they’re vying for a $10 billion defense contract (JEDI). There was an interview a few weeks ago in which Bezos said that any startup that doesn’t want to get involved in the defense of the United States will be left behind, or something to that effect.6 That’s absolutely terrifying. But to your point, this notion that the concern is not just changing work but the change of the politics of working. This is one dominant tendency in neoliberal post-Fordism based on outsourcing and subcontracting (or even sub-subcontracting) labor, eliminating benefits and worker protections. But there’s also the creation of this entity that’s more than a company or a political structure. It’s so large that it checks, magnifies, or in some cases challenges state power. There is also a foundational mythos that Amazon projects. There’s a famous example, discussed in Heike Geissler’s Seasonal Associate, that in every fulfillment center there’s a wooden door on a sawhorse because supposedly when Jeff Bezos first started the company, that’s all he could afford.

Wallace: As Jenny Holzer said, "You live the surprise results of old plans." One thing I remember from my research is that Jeff Bezos harps on “Day 1”—a kind of thinking to keep things alive and moving. He defines “Day 2” as “stasis.” He continues: “Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death.”7 It’s a method to foster the speed, determinism, and mysticism in tech. But it makes me want to counter the speed and paranoia, and ask what is the counterpoint to a warehouse built on speed? Speed can create unintended consequences, like HQ2.

Rail: Also like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook.

Wallace: Right, technology has an increasing presence in our lives, so I think it’s important to think critically about it. This is what I think Paul Virilio meant when he famously wrote: “When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution... Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.”8

Rail: This gets at your research into the patents companies like Amazon are securing at breakneck speed—claims on future innovations that may or may not exist.

Wallace: One way to glimpse a company’s strategic direction is to look at its patents. Amazon has thousands of them listed on the United States Patent and Trademark office website, one of which (Patent #US9305280B1) led me to make the piece Floating Factory, a virtual tour through an imagined floating warehouse. I think about Amazon as an extension of Taylorism’s scientific management techniques, but in an accelerated way. There is a race to privatize innovations.

And, at the same time, the model is broken for working people. There was a New York Times article two years ago that described how a janitor at Kodak fifty years ago could afford to take a vacation, had great benefits, and a job where you could work your way up.9 The article contrasts that story to a janitor at Apple today, who is an independent contractor. This traces back to the rise of the Nike model in the 1980s: keep the marketing in house and outsource all the production labor to lower-cost sectors. This is precisely what I think Allan Sekula was referring to in The Forgotten Space (2010). Global labor, seen via the shipping container, will find the lowest-cost port and set up shop there. A company like Amazon accelerated and globalized that model in new ways. We see the Mechanical Turk model in which labor is atomized, for cents on the dollar, and how many gig workers in the Global South support the North.

Rail: In the two of your zines, Inside the Automaton and Futures of Work, it seems like you’re pointing out a trend that may be exemplary of something like a “post-Taylorism,” in the sense of individualized “managers” managing themselves. It’s like a very perverse form of self-management, which is only an illusion, where workers are rather controlled by a series of algorithms and data chains. This is the antithesis of organizing labor collectively, and of course we know that Amazon is one of the most prominent union-busters around. It’s a “self-management” of one’s own debts.

Brett Wallace, Working Conditions, Installation, NURTUREart Gallery, New York, 2019. Photo: David Riley

Wallace: I think the dimensions of work continue to shift in the digital age under the dominant neoliberal ideology based on individualized productivity. We are seeing the rise of freelance work and labor platforms like Uber, Upwork, and Fiverr. Technology has allowed for more remote work, whether you’re coding or driving for Uber, but it has also led to increased worker surveillance on platforms, and stagnating wages. And, at times, we can apply that surveillance to ourselves as a form of “self-management.” In the case of Mechanical Turk, most workers I talked to love the freedom to work from home, but they are incredibly frustrated about the lack of voice they have, hidden management decisions within the platform, and the low pay rates. So, at times, the “gig economy” falsely promotes freedom. And, the concept of “do what you love” can be mistaken for unpaid or underpaid labor. It’s important we keep educating ourselves about those pitfalls and build collective worker power.

Rail: Right, David Graeber talks about this in his book Bullshit Jobs (2018), where he wonders at one point why it is that we’ve all accepted the idea that people who make music and poetry “naturally” must struggle and be precarious just because they enjoy the work they do.

Wallace: There is a strange love affinity with certain work in the digital age. The swim lanes between life and work have collapsed. Franco “Bifo” Berardi talks about the “soul at work”—how the factory once ran on bodies but has now consumed the soul and runs on minds and emotions. And, since the whole production process is buzzing with so much speed and complexity, there is widespread workforce depression and alienation.10 Tech campuses are constructed to promote this energy and happiness with free lunches, gyms, and incentives to keep people on campus. It’s common for food service workers at these companies, many of whom are independent contractors, to be left out of the same amenities given to software engineers.

Rail: Meanwhile Uber drivers are working ten or eleven hours a day, and six days a week to make a normal wage.

Wallace: With no benefits.

Rail: Paying for their own gas, and cars, and repairs.

Wallace: The other point I wanted to bring up is with regards to a proposed “post-Taylorism” is that Taylor’s model, as we know, was all about management science. With algorithm-driven management, one person can now manage thousands of Uber drivers in a city. One of the problems with that is that a company can distance itself from its decisions by saying: “Well that’s the outcome of the algorithm. We’re not responsible for that.”11

Rail: It’s like what you mention with regards to Mechanical Turk in Inside the Automaton. If one does some labor for MTurk, even if it’s just for fifty cents, and you don’t get paid because they’ve deemed it unsatisfactory, there’s no way to dispute that.

Wallace: In many parts of the app economy, the power is on the side of the requestor or consumer. The worker can be unpaid for their work and rated. Mechanical Turk workers describe in the interviews I’ve conducted that they don’t have a voice. They have a worker ID number. They don’t understand how the ratings work. The system is not transparent to them.

Rail: How many workers did you survey for the zine about MTurk?

Wallace: I surveyed 600 workers through a paid task. For the project, I also gathered 1,000 photographs submitted by workers of their home offices and about 3 hours of interviews with workers.

Rail: Right, with regards to AMAZING INDUSTRIES, I wanted to tell you about a meme. I think I first saw it posted on McKenzie Wark’s Facebook page. The form is a common and simple one: the before and after schema. On one side, it is the 1950s and a worker can support a nuclear family on factory wages working a forty-hour week—which of course comes with its own very malicious problematics that we can’t forget: this was true only for white men for the most part, and predicated upon low- and un-waged labor by women, especially women of color.12 On the other side is a worker today who says: “My boss is an app and I owe it money.”


Brett Wallace, Working Conditions, Installation, NURTUREart Gallery, New York, 2019. Photo: David Riley

It seems to me that if one brings together a protestant work ethic, a false but nonetheless venerated meritocracy, and these app bosses, you get our hyper-atomized consumer-driven identities. The way that you’ve engaged with this is through AMAZING INDUSTRIES. How would you describe this project?

Wallace: Joel Kuennen called it a research engine, which I think was spot on.13 I refer to it as an ideological R & D startup (which is also an ongoing artwork).

Rail: Is this meant to be a parody? A form of infiltration of the codes of the business? A mirroring strategy?

Wallace: I have explored several models for it, and how I show up in the work as an artist or spokesperson at various times. It has become a research platform and a way to amplify the voices of workers. It has traces back to Boris Arvatov’s theory of art-as-production which called for the fusion of art and life outside the formal gallery or studio. John Roberts has linked Arvatov’s ideas to the “community-based, post-object” practices we see today.14 Arvatov was critical of how formal artistic production, which was built for the bourgeois commodity economy, and which decorated or depicted life could benefit the working class and enable social evolution. He was interested in deskilling the specialized artistic skillset so that the artist could enter production, reverse alienation, and combine aesthetics with practical applications such as transportation. AMAZING INDUSTRIES has been a way for me to research, resist, infiltrate, operate, critique, and present work in different horizontal modes both within and beyond the institutional structures of the art world. For example, AMAZING INDUSTRIES was invited last year to collaborate in an economic event in Amsterdam called Reshaping Work. The event was also attended by Uber, Care.com, and other gig-based companies. So, the project fit in as a company, but with the sole agenda to demystify the labor platforms themselves.

As I was researching labor as a concept, I found that the dominant questions around the future of work were not very centered on the future of workers—the questions were being framed in a narrow way excluding the voices of marginalized workers. What is the opposite position of that? Well, to me, it is a platform that contributes to researching working conditions, amplifying workers’ voices, building worker power with those whose working conditions are being reshaped by technology they do not own.

Rail: This is the documentarian “impulse.”

Wallace: Yes, it’s a continuation of the type of work by artists and filmmakers like Allan Sekula, Agnès Varda, Harun Farocki, and Robert Smithson. I’m embracing the method of “critical realism” that Sekula coined. I find this to be my preferred method for documenting and trying to grasp the speed and complexity of the digital age. Farocki pointed out in Workers Leaving the Factory (1995), that the first film ever made using the cinematograph was centered on workers (Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon by Louis Lumièrein 1895). Sekula’s Untitled Slide Sequence (1972) follows the logic of this early film work by capturing workers leaving the General Dynamics Convair Division aerospace factory.

Rail: The images of the MTurk workspaces that you included in the zine are shocking in their simplicity.

Wallace: Simple, but filled with signifiers. The range of images, computers, and resolutions was really interesting to me. There is a huge spectrum, from an expensive gaming station to an old laptop on an ironing board. The videos interviews I collected reveal the facial expressions of invisible, digital workers that their AI model replacements are trying to recognize. Many people were doing this work part time to make ends meet. Some people were home taking care of a sick parent, and they didn’t have the ability to work a full-time job. Or they were sick themselves.

Rail: Sure, but we’re fighting for a future in which we are freed from the need to work to survive at all, especially if one is ill or caring for someone else, which of course, is yet another form of un- or low-waged, precarious labor. I recently saw documentary films put together by folks working with the Ain’t I a Woman Campaign, which discussed care workers in NYC that work 24 hour shifts, sometimes four times a week, but are only being paid for just over half of their hours.15 Its beyond criminal. The absolutely incredible thing is that notwithstanding 96-hour work weeks, withheld wages, precarious working contracts, and isolated work environments, many of these women are organizing—we have no excuses.

Wallace: No excuses. On the MTurk work, the idea that they are able to log on and log off embodies the limits of “freedom” that the current system can provide. In a way, the technology has created a remote form of work that workers actually seem to enjoy. The downsides to it are the low wages and asymmetry within the system. So, if we can fix the wages and asymmetry, that would go a long way for the workers, for now.

Rail: Right, if we could imagine some sort of scenario in which these gig platforms are redistributed as a series of worker-owned cooperatives with all value collectively owned rather than hoarded by individuals, which is not such a radical conception when you think of it. Automation is not going anywhere, and neither it seems is the work that feeds it, but there are different ways of imagining the contracts underpinning this work.

Wallace: Trebor Scholz talks a lot about the idea of cooperative ownership of digital platforms.

Rail: If what you want is to follow the documentarian lineage of Dorothea Lange and Sekula and others, we would have to imagine that the research startup as artwork is a parallel to the camera which “uncovers,” to take the language of muckrakers let’s say.

Wallace: The research-based documentarian model works for me to expose power structures, capture nuances, build direct relationships with workers, and to document in a way that treats workers with dignity. I think Smithson said it beautifully when he said: “I’m just interested in exploring the apparatus I’m being threaded through.”16 The startup as artwork hinges on the fact that it’s an ideological startup—its goal is not to produce a commercial product. While much art circulates as a commodity, art does not have to operate in that function. Although, it’s important to find ways to sustain any practice. I’m actually just getting it trademarked right now. . .

Rail: Congrats!

Wallace: Cheers.


Rail: Negri pointed out some years ago that if the post-war moment gave rise to immaterial production, now we may have reached a moment of biopolitical production (following a Foucauldian framework), in which our bodies are quite literally threaded through our work—in line with your reference to Bifo.

Wallace: With regards to Negri’s ideas on biopolitics, I think of an industry like trucking where companies are building AI into the cabs and bodies of the 1.8 million long haul truck drivers in the US, a clear example of human-machine coalescence. The bodies of truck drivers have been infiltrated by technology, which track both the driver and allow the truck to see and react to the road conditions. Furthermore, there is no real proof yet that driverless trucks would be any safer than human drivers. Many of the driverless truck tests have been done in ideal driving environments on open roads. Experts like Karen Levy, assistant professor of Information Science at Cornell, believe we are likely 30-40 years away from trucks making autonomous dock to dock runs.17

Rail: “Safety” is a way to justify that sort of surveillance, in effort to maximize efficiency, and this profit.

Wallace: I met with Dr. John Aiello at Rutgers some weeks ago, and he talked about how organizations now have the capabilities to conduct surveillance in many forms, whether you are in an office or out in the field in a truck. The rise in surveillance has increased stress for workers and may even result in performance losses. As AI grows and jobs change, it will be increasingly hard for workers to navigate both the surveillance and change in their work habits.18

Brett Wallace, Working Conditions, Installation, NURTUREart Gallery, New York, 2019. Photo: David Riley

Rail: There was that great piece in n+1 that we talked about last time we met, “Code Red,”(2018) [by Alex Press] about workers in tech organizing vertically to include outsourced labor in the mess halls, the cleaning staff, and so on. Furthermore, look at Fuck off Google in Berlin, the Somali Amazon fulfillment center workers in Minnesota who organized a walk out, movements building in Western Europe, and so on. On surveillance, I’m reminded of Eyal Weizman’s description of how the logics of international privacy law are used to obscure the satellite imagery that civilians have access to. Conveniently, the “threshold of detectability” is such that civilians cannot see the digital representations of U.S. drone strikes. Or in the way evictions are forced by developers and landlords who claim they are either renovating the building or making it more “sustainable” in line with capitalist green economics. Once its renovated, the rents have doubled or tripled. That’s why the success of the 83/85 Bowery struggle in New York last August was such a momentous one. Those tenants were kicked out of their homes in the winter because the building was conveniently deemed “unsafe” only once market rents were skyrocketing. On the topic of surveillance, maybe you could speak a bit on the show you’re putting up at NURTUREart?

Wallace: The show is titled Working Conditions. I have created a series of five “workstations”, each of which includes video essays comprised of both documentary and archival footage, to explore the ethics of the working conditions in the digital economy. The first station is a video of home cleaners that plays on a mobile phone resting upon a cleaning bucket. It encourages a closer look at the organization of labor behind cleaning services ordered online. The cleaners were hired to an apartment via an app. There’s a narrative overlaid while these folks clean an apartment, in which the app is recruiting the viewer to work while framing the work parameters. The language was taken from recruiting advertisements and mirrors how this language is seductive and structured around the power of the consumer. For example, only top-rated cleaners are kept on the app and you can know exactly what your cleaner is doing, track them, rate them, and so on. The next station explores digital labor and will include the projects I’ve been doing around Mechanical Turk. 

Rail: Are you going to invite a Mechanical Turk Worker like you did at the SPRING/BREAK show?

Wallace: I’ve stayed in contact with that person. We built a good relationship during that show! For this show though, I have organized a performance that will occur during the opening where two workers were given instructions to activate the five workstations, drawing attention to the invisible, material, and immaterial human labor that drives technology and is being reshaped by it.

Rail: Of course, Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s works at the Wadsworth (1973) and A.I.R. Gallery (1974) are an influence here. Is this a way of taking some of the many avenues of critique her work addresses from unwaged domestic labor to atomized gig work? Many autonomous feminists associated with the International Wages for Housework Campaign weren’t arguing for wages per se, but rather using the wage as an abstraction to consider how unremunerated work is still subject to capitalist labor agreements. I think of Silvia Federici’s landmark “Wages Against Housework” (1975)—against being the operative word. In fact, gig apps, such as those that allow one to hire workers to clean their homes, are perfect examples of the pitfalls that agitating for the wage carries. There is nothing liberating about the app’s labor agreement, only a more surveilled and alienated way of subjugating.

Wallace: We have to consider invisible, affective, and asymmetrical labor. I am interested in how the digital sustains such labor practices and increases surveillance and alienation. This work draws inspiration from works by Ukeles and Martha Rosler. In “Wages Against Housework,” Federici writes that domestic housework is not even considered work at all, preventing women from struggling against it.

The second station in the show includes a stand in desk for a Mechanical Turk worker. The desk includes two monitors playing video interviews with workers and the types of tasks they are doing to train their AI replacements.

The third then includes a split screen video installation, flanked by 80 shipping boxes. The video contrasts the HQ2 protest, giving voice to the labor of resistance, with the second public hearing between Amazon and the New York City Council Finance Committee.

Rail: The one with the spectacular banner drop.

Wallace: Right!

Brett Wallace, Girl and Alexa studying, Brooklyn, New York, February 2019, 2019, Archival Pigment Print. Courtesy the artist.

The fourth station includes a video essay playing on a trucker bed, the kind you see in long haul trucks. It comments on how truckers aren’t in control of their leisure time, nor their work time. They’re on the road and their time is highly regimented and increasingly surveilled.

For the fifth station, there are photographs and a video of a ten-year old girl talking to Alexa. The video, playing through a live Alexa device, shows her peering into a portal in the ground in Anable Basin where Amazon was planning to build HQ2. I was thinking about Smithson’s land-reclamation proposal in Bingham Copper mine, the largest man-made mine in the world. Alexa, for example, is built on a largely invisible supply chain of human labor and extracted materials.

From home cleaning to gig labor to trucking, the thread in the show is the ethics around the increased surveillance and invisible labor we see in the digital economy.

Rail: I brought these questions from Kathi Weeks’s superb book The Problem with Work (2011) for us to consider: “How might we expose the fundamental structures and dominant values of work—including its temporalities, socialities, hierarchies, and subjectivities—as pressing political phenomena? […] How might we conceive the content and parameters of our obligations to one another outside the currency of work?”19 It seems to me that the show at NURTUREart you’re preparing attempts to respond to some of these questions via visual culture. What does it mean to engage in the work of building solidarity, in immaterial and material production, in teaching AIs how to see, and so on?

Brett Wallace, Girl talking to Alexa in Anable Basin, Long Island City, New York, February 2019, 2019, still from video. Courtesy the artist. 

Wallace: I think it starts with redefining the idea of the “future of work” as a future for workers. We are now living an era where technology has so much collective promise, yet we see stagnant wages for working people, growing income inequality, and an erosion of collective bargaining power. I think we need to keep rethinking artistic production to build cooperation and new models to reclaim dignity in work. The art world has its own relationship to these dilemmas. I am reminded of Ian Burn who said “Not only do works of art end up as commodities, but there is also an overwhelming sense in which works of art start off as commodities.”20 Hito Steyerl wrote about the forms of tax evasion and real estate speculation that sustain the art market. It also runs on lots of unpaid labor. I have a lot of compassion for any workers in the art world given the situation. W.A.G.E. has done a great job demystifying art world fees, or the lack thereof. As tough as it can be, it’s important for artists to push back against unpaid work or low wages—that helps all of us in the ecosystem.

Rail: There are new and old models here, right? We’re sitting in the New Museum. It’s fantastic that workers here have unionized! Then there are newer models among art workers like WAGENCY, which is a way of creating something resembling an artists’ union, but that is self-regulated by the artists themselves. This news just broke the other day, but this year every artist in the Whitney Biennial will receive an artist fee. Following WAGENCY’s metrics, the fee is the minimum number they recommend the Whitney pay to artists given the museum’s revenue. What are the benefits then of approaching the many questions we’ve discussed as an artist or as an “institutional” structure?

Wallace: The benefit of being an artist approaching these questions is the agency to explore the issues in unconventional ways and direct my work towards building support for working people. John Roberts pointed out the questions Arvatov wrestled with are the same that contemporary artists face today: “In what sense is the artist a ‘collective worker’, in the same way that the labour-power of workers is organized collectively? How might artists contribute to a collective product or process? How might artistic creativity, then, be directed to the transformation of social appearances and the built environment?”21 In this way, while my work circulates in the institutional structures of the art world, I think of my work in wider economic and social structures. What energizes me is meeting with workers from all walks of life and the collective possibilities they inspire.


  1. See the coalition members here: https://fuckoffamazon.org/the-coalition/.
  2. One of the paintings in Adam Simon’s show includes (part) of an Amazon logo.
  3. In November 2018, Amazon announced that they would be splitting their second headquarters (HQ2) between Long Island City, NY, and Crystal City, Virginia. The decision, which would only exacerbate existing crises of displacement, brutal over-policing, violent anti-immigrant policies, crumbling public housing and infrastructure, and upward wealth redistribution, became a central issue amongst community organizations across all five boroughs. Amazon announced they would abandon the deal in February 2019, rightly seen as a major victory against neoliberalism’s rapacious destruction of public housing at the behest of inflating the price of land.
  4. In February 2019, Governor Cuomo released a letter, signed by corporate CEOs, some university presidents, and business owners supplicating Bezos to reconsider. Within 24 hours, grassroots organizations assembled a counter-letter signed by over 90 parties including immigrants’ rights groups, autonomous anti-gentrification organizations, tenants’ unions, cultural workers, and so on. This response showed who the HQ2 deal was for: corporate interests, and who it would impact adversely: most New Yorkers. Cuomo’s letter can be accessed here: https://int.nyt.com/data/documenthelper/641-read-the-open-letter-to-amazon/0a112e77301026beb86d/optimized/full.pdf#page=1. The response letter by grassroots organizations can be accessed here: https://medium.com/s@hq2scam/new-yorkers-must-oppose-economic-development-policies-that-give-more-power-to-billionaires-and-c930f462f397?fbclid=IwAR08LpvRzfR1MfivJMeeoG5RSOKNPw-iodfs_92tdXnqUZ9BRj3BE2xSCio.
  5. Roman Kalinovski, "Fulfillment Centers: Brett Wallace at ART3," artcritical, November 14, 2016, www.artcritical.com/2016/11/14/roman-kalinovski-on-brettwallace/.
  6. See: https://www.wired.com/story/amazons-jeff-bezos-says-tech-companies-should-work-with-the-pentagon/.
  7. Day One Blog, Amazon, April 17, 2017. https://blog.aboutamazon.com/company-news/2016-letter-to-shareholders
  8. Paul Virilio, Politics of the Very Worst (New York: Semiotext(e), 1999), 89.
  9. Neil Irwin, “To Understand Rising Inequality, Consider the Janitors at Two Top Companies, Then and Now,” New York Times, September 9, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/03/upshot/to-understand-rising-inequality-consider-the-janitors-at-two-top-companies-then-and-now.html.
  10. Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Soul at Work (New York: Semiotext(e), 2009).
  11. Aiha Nguyen and Alexandra Mateescu, “Explainer: Algorithmic Management in the Workplace,” Data & Society, February, 2019, datasociety.net/output/explainer-algorithmic-management-in-the-workplace/
  12. See: Melinda Cooper, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism(New York: Zone Books, 2017).
  13. Joel Kuennen, "The Marginal Labor Left for Humans: Brett Wallace's AMAZING INDUSTRIES," ArtSlant, March 7, 2018, www.artslant.com/ew/articles/show/49231-the-marginal-labor-left-for-humans-brett-wallacesamazing-industries.
  14. Boris Arvatov, Art and Production. Edited by John Roberts and Alexei Penzin. Translated by Shushan Avagyan (London: PlutoPress, 2017).
  15. See their website here: https://aintiawomancampaign.wordpress.com/about/what-is-the-aint-i-a-woman-campaign/.
  16. Robert Smithson, interview with Bruce Kurtz, “Conversation with Robert Smithson, ” in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), 262.
  17. Karen Levy, interviewed for “Truckers,” Brett Wallace, 2019, vimeo.com/305863909 (accessed February 25, 2019).
  18. Dr. John Aiello, interviewed for “Truckers,” Brett Wallace, 2019, vimeo.com/305863909 (accessed February 25, 2019).
  19. Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 35–36.
  20. Ian Burn, “The Art Market: Affluence and Degradation” (New York: Artforum, Apr. 1975), 34.
  21. Arvatov, Art and Production.


Andreas Petrossiants

ANDREAS PETROSSIANTS is a New York-based art historian, and a frequent contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.


APR 2019

All Issues