1 DO ONE THING
AT A TIME
The story goes that the Swiss artist duo Peter Fischli & David Weiss found this list of pithy instructions hanging in a ceramics factory in Thailand and replicated it for their piece How to Work Better (1991). These ten curious steps have been muraled over and again. Postcards and posters of it dangle from packing tape on splattered walls in countless studios and hang pinned from the carpety partitions of office cubicles – all with just a whisper of sarcasm and more than a little affection. The deadpan layout, the assertively wonky sans-serif all-caps lettering: a bit of halfway serious, self-helpish sloganeering in the annals of art. There’s something both funny and truistic about the list, a set of relatively bland common-sense rules that most everyone can agree with. “I like it quite simply because it acknowledges their awareness of the idea of practice rather than production, which indirectly points to the main aspect of what they do that I find really endearing,” wrote Ryan Gander in Tate Etc.
Best known for their jokey poetics of the everyday, Fischli & Weiss concocted magical Rube Goldberg devices for their most famous video The Way Things Go (1987) and stacked common objects into precarious sculptures that only lasted long enough for a photograph in Equilibres (1984/86). In their work, the tension between sincerity and irony reveals how much each depends on the other. One favorite is a 2013 commission made for the Serpentine, titled Rock on Top of Another Rock. Completed shortly after Weiss’s death in 2012, it’s exactly what it calls itself: “balance is most beautiful just at the point when it is about to collapse.” In other words, here are a couple of clowns of the highest order.
When Fischli & Weiss were given a retrospective at the Guggenheim a couple years ago, How to Work Better lent its name to the title of the exhibition. Chief curator Nancy Spector explained, “Since Fischli and Weiss’s work circulates around the diminishing differences between labor and leisure or work and play, we decided that the wonderful adage ‘How to Work Better’ and its slightly ironic message would perfectly represent the exhibition.”
2 KNOW THE PROBLEM
So often the diminishing difference between work and play involves labor bleeding into leisure: the gamification of work, toiling for free and calling it fun, clocking out after your day job to spend a few hours polishing Facebook’s share price. Just as often, this spurious wisdom lures us into trying to turn what we love into a money-making enterprise. There’s nothing wrong with this of course, but it’s all too easy to lose love in pursuit of profit. The longer I look at How to Work Better, the more I wish to do the very opposite. This “slightly ironic” turn is perhaps one the artists want me to feel.
I don’t want to be Tony Robbins, I want to be Bartleby. I want to stop working better. I feel the signs on factory walls beaming at me, posted by management in an attempt to increase productivity. From stacks of best-selling self-help books preaching their gospels of success, easy money winks with a toothy smile and the ten easy steps to make millions: as if your poverty was simply a failure of initiative. Living through a presidency built on the long con of being a successful businessman, I feel the urge to be less productive. I find myself attracted to all those actions that manufacture nothing, that fail to bring anything into existence. To waste time dreaming is a privilege few can afford, but nevertheless I consider it a human right.
One could argue that all actions produce something: a nap produces rest, the right kiss produces a blush of pleasure, eating a bucket of fried chicken produces slightly queasy fullness. It’s an argument that narrows all activity into various modes of production. If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The language of commerce and labor have infected the way we talk about facets of life that have nothing at all to do with work. I remember hearing an intellectual once describe prisons under capitalism as “storehouses for excess labor” and it hurt all the way down. The language of efficiency, of higher productivity, of “working better” can, with a turn of phrase, steal away our humanity. “Arbeit Macht Frei” reads the wrought-iron over the gates of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. “Work Sets You Free.”
3 LEARN TO LISTEN
“How to Work Better (1991) is a manifesto comprising 10 persuasive but empty sentences, each with the aim of improving workplace productivity and morale … .”
from David Weiss’s obituary by Hans Ulrich Obrist in the Guardian
4 LEARN TO ASK
What does it mean to display the dictates of a factory in an impoverished country upon an office building in a wealthy nation with the most restrictive immigration policy in Europe? As John Kelsey writes onHow to Work Better: “the text becomes an ironic reflection on the way things go for commuter drones within a productively mobilized post-society, some of whom happen to be artists and curators: ‘SMILE’.” Who are the workers? Who benefits from the work? What’s work and what’s a hobby? Who gets to ask the questions and who gets to answer them? Who has the authority to speak? Are the answers good ones? What does it mean that we’re convinced by empty but persuasive sentences? Is their bland acceptability actually acceptable? Is it also kind of sinister? How often do you work? Are you paid enough to live? Do you think everyone feels the same? Is that fair?
Thirty years beyond How to Work Better, most everyone self-brands, working for hours paid only in clicks and views, the question looms: are these questions so well-known and their answers so defeatingly self-evident that nobody cares?
5 DISTINGUISH SENSE
Everything – even our attention – can be a commodity.
Though the post-work Utopia lies far beyond the horizon for most, I think we should resist the colonization of all of life by labor: for humans to be reduced solely to workers, to let everything have a price. Perhaps late capitalism has already won so completely that it’s just totally uncool to keep moaning about it. Given that most of us are forced to work, we might at least try to find something worth smiling about.
“Love what you do,” goes another work-y cliché, but look enough at this anodyne adage and you might see the trick. Even (perhaps especially) our love can be exploited. So fuck it: don’t love what you do. Hate it, fight it, wrestle it, push back, be fired against injustice and exploitation, go to work everyday because you despise poverty and despair, hate your shitty job all the more so you can find the force to quit it and find something better.
Nobody’s hates the actual act of writing more than writers. Celine wrote because it was the only way to get his nightmares out of his head. Thomas Mann once wrote, “Writers are a class of people for whom writing is more difficult than it is for others.” But for many writers and artists, dancers and dramatists, there isn’t that much of a choice. We have to do it. (“Everything is free now, that’s what they say. Everything I ever done, gonna give it away Someone hit the big score, they figured it out. They were gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay,” sings Gillian Welch.) Though I’m sure the question for some is how to make money from art, the question for many others is “how can I just keep doing this?”
Maybe this is simply another way not only to stop working better, but stop working. “Love what you do;” then the saying continues, “and you’ll never work again.”
6 ACCEPT CHANGE
“How to Work Better” inevitably foregrounds the question of work: the how and what of labor, artistic and otherwise – from the information navigation that now constitutes so much artistic and salaried labor to the materiality of industrial production that continues to prop up the global economy (as in that Thai ceramics factory) … And is the list itself an inspiring distillation of timeless wisdom or a depressing exemplar of patronizing corporate platitudes? “Accept change as inevitable” intones the sixth instruction – which can be read positively or negatively. Either way, it’s a maxim for surviving in today’s neoliberal economy.
Claire Bishop in Artforum, April 2016
7 ADMIT MISTAKES
Sometimes I want there to be only mistakes. Sometimes there are no such things as mistakes. If this “how-to” (or any of the “how-to’s” I’ve ever written) has any actual instructive use, the message is simple: there is no right, or “better” way. There’s never an easy solution to difficult problems. Refusing to “work better” is asserting my will to work any damn way I want.
8 SAY IT SIMPLE
I would prefer not to.
9 BE CALM
Looking at the ten steps of Fischli & Weiss’s How to Work Better, I can easily, happily, joyfully do the opposite. I think the artists would approve. I want to do a hundred things at a time. I want to set off into the unknown, having no idea what the problem is or what I’m going to discover. I want to forget things I learned, to lose the difference between sense and nonsense. Some things – good things – don’t ever change. Some things that are terrible also seem never to change. (“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept,” says Angela Davis.) Sometimes things can never be said simply and require whole books, entire lifetimes to articulate. I don’t always want to be calm, and there are many things I refuse to smile about. And in the end, like so many other refusers, I don’t want to be told what to do. Not by a sign.
How do most women feel when told by strange men to smile?
And if I smile at “How to Work Better,” it won’t be because they told me to.