Work

In a Gespräch über die Zukunft, between Enzensberger Rudi Dutschke in the autumn of 19671, the latter formulated the case that a new subject was required for revolutionary change. He argued that this goal could only be attained through a universal, social self-organisation that could be effected by abolishing the division of labour. Every member of the commune would be a politician and “also tend toward being […] an artist.”2.

On the other hand, artists demanded that art be realised in life, which would lead to a removal of the limits of the work of art and to a great number of new formats. Beuys swept canvasses, rather than painting on them and Valie Export integrated her body in art, which earned her allegations of pornography in the early 1960s. Talk was of “working” rather than artwork”, as Peter reported in the catalogue Faktor Arbeit that accompanied the eponymous exhibition at the nGbK in 1997. “With Beuys, I learned how closely art ought to be connected to its own demands of life, demands for an everyday life, for its process, formation and improvement.”3 The production of art assumed the character of manufacturing, being active and acting and, thus expanded, became work on people, an action, or as is the norm today, a project.

The direct comparison between art and wage labour always drew criticism with regard to the question of whether art’s promise of autonomy could withstand the principle of utilisation. In 1975, the working group Theorie und Praxis demokratischer Kulturarbeit, used an eponymously titled text book in an attempt to oppose the pessimistic interpretation of culture of the Frankfurter Schule4, which considered culture as a good and a fetish. In his essay Demokratische Kulturarbeit – Ansätze und Möglichkeiten, Klaus Betz argued that “democratic cultural work in the Federal Republic and West Berlin [could] represent a contribution to the transformation of society in general.”5 Betz described cultural work as a possible reshaping of the capitalist system, in which culture would no longer be regarded as “beautiful art” but as an area “in which the alliance of the working class with progressive sections of the middle classes has an objective basis, especially in terms of intelligence.”6 It was not art’s daily functional determination but its changed content that would offer a political value with which to oppose its economic usefulness. In the nGbK, especially in the 1970s, workers’ conditions of life were addressed, as the many projects on Realist Painting demonstrate (link). To mark the centenary of the introduction of the Labour Day (May Day) holiday, there was an exhibition in 1986 entitled Mein Vaterland ist international, which showed exhibits from forty countries. The preface of the catalogue accompanying the exhibition read: “Beyond individual national conditions, May Day has always reflected the state of the internationalist consciousness of the workers’ movement”.7

With the increase in unemployment in the 1990s and the social welfare and labour market reforms of the Social-Democrat/Green coalition in 2010, there were more projects at the nGbK aimed at resisting the social stigmatisation of those who could not find work, could not work or did not want to work. The Vienna-based group of artists WochenKlausur had been conducting social interventions since 1993. At the invitation of the nGbK and the Kunstamt Kreuzberg, they set up an information centre entitled workstation – Ideenwerkstatt Berlin e.V. in order to “counteract the lack of information, the helplessness, the isolation and [the] accompanying loss of self-esteem”8 of those people who had no job to go to. The WochenKlausur explained what motivated them in a piece entitled Kunst?: We “understand art as a bearer of social responsibility and a motor of change.”9
In 2008, workstation − Ideenwerkstatt Berlin e.V. marked its tenth anniversary with the project /unvermittelt and launched a new campaign for an understanding of labour going beyond overwork, scarcity and the consumption of life energy. In an accompanying text book, Joseph Vogl used an exaggerated formulation: “Those who work in an economically productive manner must inevitably fool themselves about what they are doing. […]Work, which began to become economically virulent around 1800, this work is always work on one’s own death.”10 After several decades of the dislimitation of art as work, this formulation once again demanded that new limits be set.

The turn of the century also resulted in changes to how the topic of work was approached. For example, the project Nichtstun … in der neuen Gesellschaft addressed the possibility of constructive refusal with aim of effecting an “interruption of everyday life itself”11. Treatment of the status of work in society once again demonstrated “the need for an appropriation that was not finite and could not be controlled by any apparatus, be it that of a state, party or trade union”.12

After reading works by post-Fordists and post-operaists like Paolo Virno and Maurizio Lazzarato, the working groups Office Hours, Tätig sein, Prekäre Perspektiven, fast um$onst and Die Irregulären addressed the conditions of immaterial work, the changing of the service sector and the accompanying imperative of creativity. In contrast to the projects in the 1970s and 1980s, there was no more talk of a working “class”. The progressive precarization of workers’ situations was ascribed to a knowledge proletariat, independent of social affiliation.13 In her piece for Glossar inflationärer Begriffe, prekär, Judith Siegmund noted that successful emancipation, which has to do with self-determination, always comprises uncertainties. Autonomy, she writes, becomes a hollow demand if “no substantial social room for manoeuvre remains”14, which can make a decision meaningful.

Sara Hillnhütter

Translation: Don Mac Coitir


  1. Kursbuch 14. August 1968, Kritik der Zukunft, Hrsg. von H. M. Enzensberger, Westberlin 1968. Vgl. Gerd Koenen in: Das rote Jahrzehnt, Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 2001, S. 53. 

  2. Ebd. 

  3. Peter Funken: Arbeit spielen, in:Faktor Arbeit, NGBK, Berlin 1997, S.9.. 

  4. Vgl. Adorno, Theodor W.: Résumé über Kulturindustrie. In: Pias, Claus u.a. (Hrsg.): Kursbuch Medienkultur – Die maßgeblichen Theorien von Brecht bis Baudrillard. Stuttgart: DVA, 4. Auflage 2002. S. 202-208. Jürgen Habermas, Notizen zum Mißverhältnis von Kultur und Konsum, in: Merkur, X Jg., Heft 3 (März 1956), S. 212. 

  5. Klaus Betz, Demokratische Kulturarbeit, in: Theorie und Praxis demokratischer Kulturarbeit, NGBK, Berlin 1975, S. 155.  

  6. Ebd. 

  7. Vorwort, Mein Vaterland ist international, Asso Verlag, Berlin 1986, S.9. 

  8. Handout Workstation, September 1998, S. 1.  

  9. WochenKlausur: Eine konkrete Intervention zum Thema Arbeit und Arbeitslosigkeit, Broschüre zu Veranstaltungen in der nGbK und dem Kunstamt Kreuzberg, Berlin 1998, S. 3. 

  10. Joseph Vogl, Die Arbeit, der Tod in: /unvermittelt. feiert 10 Jahre Ideenwerkstatt e.V. mit der Kampagne für einen Arbeitsbegriff jenseits von Überarbeitung und Mangel, S. 33. 

  11. LIGNA: Der wilde Streik der Repräsentation. Das performative Hörspiel Odyssee N&K in: Nichtstun, Berlin 2008, S. 40. 

  12. Ebd. 

  13. U.a. Oliver Marchart, Kreativität als Kommando in: Tätig sein, ohne Seitenzahl, grüner Deckel. 

  14. Judith Siegmund, Prekär, in: Glossar inflationärer Begriffe. Von [dilettantisch] bis [virtuos], S. 112.