Work at the margins

When biographical circumstances are taken as the point of departure for the work of an artist, the public risks being subjected to a series of painfully intimate confidences, more or less explicit, which would be better addressed to a psychoanalyst. Fortunately, Iratxe Jaio (Markina-Xemein, Bizakaia, 1976) and Klaas van Gorkum (Delft, The Netherlands, 1975) know how to succesfully resist this temptation. The two projects they present here connect with each one's family history, but it is to serve as an intersection of social practices, rather than to be conceived of as an emotional burden.

On the one hand appears Klaas van Gorkum's grandfather, a former worker at a factory for ship's propellers, who dedicated a large part of his retirement to carving wooden objects. He used a woodturning lathe for this, that was welded together by his fellow workers at the factory. Jos van Gorkum gave the resulting pieces away to family and friends, or sold them to supplement his pensioner's income. At his death he left his son, Klaas van Gorkum's father, a box with magazine clippings, drawings and patterns that made up the references for his hobby.

On the other hand, the starting point is a scene set in the childhood memories of Iratxe Jaio. For years, women in Markina have been gathering in small groups to finish, by hand, the parts produced in nearby rubber factories. The pieces come off the machines with rough edges, which have to be trimmed off manually. Since the cost of processing this in the factory would be too high, it is entrusted informally to women - mainly immigrants nowadays – who complete the job out of sight, in the homes and garages of the village. This is unregulated work, monotonous and poorly paid, to which the immigrant women dedicate the spare moments afforded them by their main occupation as caregivers or house cleaners.

The box of clippings and childhood memory are here but the triggers of Iratxe Jaio and Klaas van Gorum's artistic work, which in both cases brings a diversity of forms of production to light. The heavy imagery of industrial machines working at full capacity acts as a centre of gravity from the shadows: it isn't the factory itself that is of interest, but its margins. Both the informal work of Markina's women and the leisure time of the pensioner Jos van Gorkum are conditioned by the presence of a factory that extends its quiet efficiency into time and space. Indeed, the lathe that Jos van Gorkum used was welded in his old factory and, more importantly, his free time was won in compensation for his productive years. In the end, retirement is to the whole of individual life what leisure is to the day-to-day distribution of time: a kind of extension of the time located at the margin of productive labour, in which the individual may enjoy a well-deserved rest.

Industrial society has attributed a compensatory function to this temporal margin. Thus, for years Jos van Gorkum's activity was destined to the production of commodities, and therefore, according to classical Marxist analysis, subject to the alienating logic of capitalist surplus value. After retirement, he regained control of his own work, dedicating it to the production of handcrafted pieces in which he could recognize himself. These were utilitarian objects (lamps, music stands, bowls...) which, in some cases, he sold. Their entire purpose, however, lay in the pleasure of the work invested in them, rather than in their supposed use value (often merely in appearance) or the meager proceeds they provided him with. It wasn't about creating commodities, nor useful things, but about a private search for self-expression and a happy life in retirement's blissful margin of time.

In contrast, the women who toil in the workshops of Markina occupy a position that is doubly marginal. Their work takes place at the margins of the factory, effectively, but also at the margins of the labour rights one is entitled to there. This unregulated practice of piecework, devoid of any administrative control or social protection whatsoever, is the paradoxical reverse that the factory needs in order to sustain its established regulation of time and rights at the desired level of profits. Seen from the informal workshops of Markina, the position of workers in the rubber industry, and by extension that of Jos van Gorkum, appears to be marked by an exclusive privilege. The free time that they enjoy at the margins of their day, or in their working life, reveals itself as a concept tailor-made for the European wage worker: migrant women without regular employment do not possess free time, but rather dead time, destined to piecework. While Jos van Gorkum could devote himself to the satisfactory practice of woodcraft, Markina's women are pushed towards a monotonous and alienating occupation: they can't recognise themselves in the pieces they helped produce, nor do their abstract forms even permit them to imagine the concrete use they will have in the automobile industry.

In addition to industrial production, piecework labour, and the activity of the hobbyist, the fourth form of production present in these projects is that of the artists themselves, which maintains an ambivalent relationship with the others. At times, Jaio and van Gorkum approximate the other forms of production to the point of incorporating them in a most literal fashion, adopting their characteristic routine movements with their own hands. But at the same time, the use of video allows them to show the production processes (including their own) as something external, objectifiable, given. They respect the specific nature of each process and exploit it for their own purposes: a veiled reference to the language of the ready-made shines through here, which is subverted at the same time that it is being cited. The ultimate goal is not the artistic appropriation of objects by removing them from their context of production, but precisely the exhibition of such a context, of the processes that bring it to life, and of the contradictions that traverse it. Extracting the diverse forms of production from the fabric of life in which they are practiced and displaying them side by side, in the most dispassionate way, they themselves reveal the relations that link and oppose them. Artistic activity operates here at the margins of the amateur work of Jos van Gorkum and the piecework carried out by the women of Markina – both, in turn, at the margin of the factory – and in doing so questions its own form of production.

Precarious and privileged at the same time, it is precisely from marginality that the position of the artist can render legible the social context; however, the value of this very gesture of exposure would be compromised if the – political – conditions which make it possible didn't come to light. This is what Jaio and van Gorkum have understood in these projects, where the work ultimately consists of bringing to light and questioning a series of production processes, and not in the glorification of the concrete result of such processes. In opposition to the aestheticization of politics that the latter would entail, Jaio and van Gorkum propose a politicization of aesthetics, which does not travel along the easy path of the ideological harangue, but through a critical reflection on the conditions of the activity itself. Their strategy reveals a fertile avenue for the separation of art from the spectacular and phantasmagorical logic of the commodity, linking it to social research and, at the same time, vindicating what is intrinsic to art itself: to open our minds to the unknown, the marginal.

Jaime Cuenca

Published in: Réinventer le monde - Catalog published by Sala Rekalde Erakustaretoa