Ned Rossiter on Fri, 30 Apr 2004 17:20:27 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Report on Creative Labour Workshop

Report: What's to be Done? Activism Today workshop & screenings
Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), Melbourne, 10 December 2003

By Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter

In Florian Schneider's documentary The Unorganisables (2002),[1] Raj 
Jayadev of the DE-BUG worker's collective in Silicon Valley 
( identifies the central 
problem of temporary labour as one of time. Jayadev recounts the 
story of "Edward", a staff-writer for the Debug magazine: 'My Mondays 
roll into my Tuesdays, my Tuesdays roll into my Wednesdays without me 
knowing it. And I lose track of time and I lose hope with what 
tomorrow's going to be'. What concerns temp workers the most is not 
so much a $2 an hour pay raise or safer working conditions. Rather, 
they want the ability to create, to look forward to something new, 
and to reclaim the time of life. How does this desire to create 
intersect with the experiences of other workers who engage in 
precarious forms of labour?

With the emergence of new forms of labour made possible by 
contemporary information technologies, there has arisen a 
proliferation of terms to describe the commonly experienced yet 
largely undocumented transformations within work practices. Creative 
labour, network labour, cognitive labour, service labour, affective 
labour, linguistic labour, immaterial labour; these categories often 
substitute for each other, but in their very multiplication they 
point to diverse qualities of experience that are not simply 
reducible to each other. On the one hand these kinds of labour 
practices are the oppressive face of post-Fordist capitalism, yet 
they also contain potentialities that spring from workers' demands 
for flexibility. Demands that in many ways precipitate capital's own 
accession to interminable restructuring and rescaling, and in so 
doing condition capital's own techniques and regimes of control.

The complexity of these inter-relationships has amounted to a crisis 
within modes of organisation based around the paranoid triad: union, 
state, firm. Time and again, across the 1990s, we heard proclamations 
of the end of the state, its loss of control or subordination to new 
more globally extensive forms of sovereignty. Equally, we are by now 
overfamiliar with claims for the decline of trade unions; their 
weakening before transnational flows of capital, the erosion of 
salaried labour, or the media spin of neoliberal politicians. More 
recently, the firm itself is not looking so good, riddled with 
internal instability and corruption for which the names Enron, 
Worldcom, and Parmalat provide only the barest index. But it is not 
these tendencies themselves as much as their mutual implications that 
have led to the radical recasting of labour organisation and its 
concomitant processes of bargaining and arbitration.

The ::fibreculture:: workshop held on 10 December 2003 at the 
Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, sought to ask 
whether organising the unorganisables was the right or only strategy 
to address capital's insatiable hunger for values appropriated from 
the labours of care, connection and creativity. Academics, students, 
and political activists met to discuss the themes of autonomists, 
multitudes, youth labour, the new media industries, the role of 
unions, and local possibilities of political organisation in relation 
to the Net. Panel speakers included Alex Kelly, Angela Mitropoulos, 
Brett Neilson, Steve Wright, Petra Andits, Camille Barbagallo, and 
Ned Rossiter.

Following brief introductions of the 25 or so participants, 
Schneider's A World to Invent (2002) was screened. This documentary 
interlaces politico-philosophical meditations by Michael Hardt, 
Antonio Negri, Saskia Sassen and Franco "Bifo" Berardi on the 
Leninist problematic "What is to be done?" with snapshots of 
activists doing what they do. The documentary sets up a dialectical 
tension between these thinkers conceptualising the multitudes, 
networks of multiple connections between organisations and places, 
the invention of unforseen possibilities within auto-organisation, 
and the creation of relations of friendship with the pragmatic 
undertakings by activists in their local communities. We see the 
inspiring work of educators at the Saria media lab in Delhi, the 
community and business development projects in Macolvio Rojas (a land 
squat of 10,000 people on the outskirts of Tijuana), and activists in 
New York and Seattle offering free health tests and mobile education 
to non-unionised migrant day labourers.

In Negri's terms, the capacity to create is interior to the 
multitudes, 'a quality of individuals that become common'. The common 
is a singularity with the potential for transformation. As Hardt 
notes, its political logic is not one of coalition or solidarity but 
rather one of networks that allow for the transformation of groups 
working in common. In this light, the provocation "what is to be 
done" raises the question of how to make the common emerge - a 
problematic that demands both an interrogation of potentiality (as 
intrinsically linked to action - the Aristotelian problematic on 
which Giorgio Agamben and Paolo Virno have eloquently written [2]) 
and corporeality (understood as the very capacity to speak, 
communicate, or labour).

As Bifo explains in Schneider's film, the work of creation (or the 
unforeseen capacity to invent) remains outside of the capitalist 
disaster and its incessant demand for innovation (really just a code 
word for more of the same). This is to say that capital feeds upon 
the common capacity to invent but cannot control or contain it, 
neither in the practical nor the ontological sense. For Sassen, this 
is evident in the dependence of global capital upon specific 
geographical places and the dense patterns of human cooperation that 
cluster around them. She suggests that a new political architecture 
will emerge from the production of narratives and images that make 
legible this dependence of capital on place and connect in networks 
the diverse struggles that unfold in place. Common to these positions 
is a backing away from modes of labour organisation built upon 
relations of hierarchy and delegation (the shadow of top-down 
corporate management) and an emphasis on principles of networking, 
autonomy, and self-organisation that make real the common capacity 
for creation. This involves a movement between potential and act that 
in no way replicates calendar time (or the tired plod of innovation) 
but itself founds the temporal order-the reclamation of the time of 
life through the express desire of the multitudes. Thus Hardt 
provides a provocative response to the "what is to be done" question: 
'Do what you want! Follow your desire!'

The panel discussion that followed the screening comprised responses 
from Steve Wright, Angela Mitropoulos, and Brett Neilson. Through a 
careful mapping of the history of Italian operaismo, Wright situated 
Schneider's talking heads within a larger political-intellectual 
formation. [3] Stressing issues of class composition, he asked 
whether the emphasis on the creative, cognitive, or semiotic 
dimension of contemporary labour truly delineates a space of the 
common or merely highlights a privileged stratum of labour (what 
might be called the cognitariat). Wright's response was marked by a 
distinct preference for the maverick theorisations of Bifo and others 
(such as Ferrucio Gambino) over the more globally enthused 
interventions of Hardt and Negri. Above all, he suggested that 
attention to other forms of labour (such as the "unemployed" sellers 
of the Australian street newspaper The Big Issue) might interrupt the 
seamless talk of auto-opposition through networked cognition.

Mitropoulos stressed the link between the growing precariousness of 
labour and the global mobility of labour power in the form of 
undocumented migration (a theme she has explored extensively on the 
x-border site: Her comments joined the 
issue of freedom of mobility (or what Italian theorist Sandro 
Mezzadra has called il diritto di fuga, the right to escape [4]) to 
the creative capacities of the common. In this sense, Mitropoulos's 
emphasis on labour power (as a form of potential) articulated 
strongly to a discussion of contemporary forms of border control - 
the efforts of states (and supra-states) to contain mobile 
subjectivities within the cages of identity and locality. This lead 
to an analysis of Australia's migration detention and excision 
policies (the exclusion of island territories to the north from the 
national migration zone) in terms of the state of exception and the 
changing forms of state sovereignty in an era of permanent global war.

Neilson extended on these themes, emphasising first that all forms of 
labour (even the most menial forms of physical exertion) involve 
cognition. This means that semiotic-linguistic-communicational 
dimensions of the new forms of networked or cognitive labour can by 
no means be opposed to manual work by virtue of some mind/body 
dualism. At stake in the informatisation of labour is not a 
qualitative difference in the act of labour as such (the ascendance 
of symbolic analysis or the "creative class") but a different set of 
social-political technologies for actualising the potential of labour 
power (whether this involves bodily exertion or linguistic 
mediation). In other words, what has changed about labour in the 
information age is not merely the kind of tasks that workers are 
asked to perform (marked most dramatically by the expansion of the 
service sector) but the general shift from salaried to precarious 
forms of employment, including the new forms of indenture imposed 
upon undocumented migrants. This poses challenges for labour 
organisation, not least because the demand for the restitution of 
salaried security can brush against workers' own demands for 
flexibility and mobility. Indeed, the unprecedented mobility of 
precarious labour in the era of globalisation points to difficulties 
with place-based notions of resistance or interruption. The 
subjective urge to get out-of-place (which cannot be reduced to 
economic push-pull factors) relates intimately to the struggle to 
reclaim the time of life. And, for this reason, the notion of the 
common must be dissociated from any retreat to local municipality, as 
sometimes implied by the Italian word comune.

Petra Andits' documentary, Globalize it!, was then screened. 
Globalize it! sets out to document the heterogeneity of people and 
their opinions at the European Social Forum held in Firenze, 2002. 
With the camera meandering through the crowds, the video adopts a 
vox-pop style, allowing the protestors to speak relatively unhinged 
from the interests of Andits, who holds a kind of na´ve faith in the 
genre's capacity for objectivity. This was picked up in question 
time, with various participants objecting to the way Andits sets up 
the participants as a horde of freaks and whackos. As unfashionable 
as it's become, disputes of this sort are about the problem and 
challenge of representation, or what Alex Kelly referred to as 
strategies of articulation - which involve both modes of expression 
and fields of association. Drawing on the legacy and conventions of 
mainstream journalism, Globalize it! shows what has for a long time 
been the lite establishment view of protestors-colourful, marginal, 
faintly exotic, vague enough to be harmless, and in need of 
spokespeople if their message is to have any purchase as a sound 
byte. But, in so doing, it also picks up on a much-commented point 
about the contemporary global movement-that is, the way it rests upon 
a contamination of biology, lifestyle, language, and action. While 
this interpenetration can be toyed with to reduce political activity 
(whether conceived as exodus or voice) to just another consumer 
choice, it is also the source of the movement's strength-the 
precondition of action that avoids the depoliticising split between 
violence and non-violence, a flexible means of struggle (commonality 
without unity) that moves beyond the models of the party, the 
faction, or the vanguard.

Schneider's The Unorganizeables (2002) nicely complements the 
intellectual-as-spokeperson, as seen in A World to Invent. Charting 
the strategies of organisation undertaken by migrant garment workers 
in California, the Justice for Janitors movement and temporary 
labourers in Silicon Valley, The Unorganizeables is a tribute to 
precarious, non-unionised forms of labour and their creative capacity 
to address their political situation-one that holds little interest 
for established labour unions. Education and training, collaborative 
publishing, mobile workshops on political campaigning, business 
development, and health services were some of the key initiatives 
undertaken by these movements. These are all fairly unremarkable 
activities, but they point to the importance of basic infrastructures 
for the development of social life. As the impressive Raj Jayadev 
puts it, the concern here is not so much with political ideology but 
rather 'a faith in a capacity' and the 'ability to create, to look 
forward to something new'.

Kelly continued this theme on life in her presentation, noting the 
enabling force that friendship plays amongst activists. Media and 
cultural theory has still not really grasped the force of affective 
communication in shaping socio-political relations and cultural 
practices. Kelly also stressed the need to develop new ways of 
communicating beyond the frequently self-valorising ghetto of 
activism. This, of course, is not exclusively a problem for 
activists. But given their default location on the margins, it is one 
that campaigners for political justice have to address if their 
message is to have purchase on the mainstream. Focussing on the 
common experiences of precarious labour is one obvious starting point.

Rossiter spoke about a recently completed study of the role that IP 
plays in organising creative labour. [5] One thing that was clear 
from that study is that unions hold little appeal for young people 
(around 20-35) whose use of new communications media is integral to 
their work (understood as a creative activity that may or may not 
attract a wage). Intellectual property, for the most part, was 
accepted as something one signs away or manages in a precarious 
manner. While IP was generally opposed, outright militancy against IP 
- particularly copyright law - was the exception rather than the 
norm. Payment for work frequently occurred as a one-off commission, 
resulting in the alienation of labour from its creative capacities. 
It would seem that such a common experience of IP as a restrictive 
architecture could become a basis from which to organise new 
political forms within the creative and new media industries. Yet 
various obstacles undermine the possibility of organised networks 
amongst creative workers. The abstraction of IP from labour and the 
accompanying legalistic discourse diminishes the sense of engagement 
many workers have with a system that shapes the economic value of 
their labour. Then there are all sorts of internal divisions within 
the new media industries that make the formation of a common 
experience a difficult one. Rossiter referred to the comparative 
research in Europe by Rosalind Gill, [6] noting how the politics of 
gender has reproduced inequality within the new media industries. 
Class, ethnicity, age and geography are also going to be key factors 
of incommunicability amongst creative workers. These are all issues 
of scale that result in workers becoming situated in vastly different 
ways within the economies of creativity. How, then, might these sort 
of factors be overcome if labour is to become organised in meaningful 
ways? And how might self-organisation through the use of ICTs and 
affective networks traverse the diversity of creative labour in such 
a way that exclusion and emphemerality are minimised?

Barbagallo completed the presentations with a discussion of her work 
as "youth" network co-ordinator at the Victorian Trades Hall Council. 
She emphasised the need to interrogate the category of youth - 
typically "youth" consists of an age bracket (e.g. 15-25) conditioned 
by industrial interests associated with wage rates and conditions. 
Unions frequently adopt a reactive position once these stakes have 
been established and differences of class, age, ethnicity and gender 
are extricated from what is assumed to be a common situation. For 
many young people in the hospitality and service industries the 
question of the role of unions is premature and more often undesired. 
Barbagallo expressed scepticism toward translating the "organisation 
model" of labour action promoted in The Unorganizables into the 
Australian context. As an example she explored the recent UNITE 
campaign on Brunswick St. (one of Melbourne's principal service 
industry arteries, located in inner-city Fitzroy and a magnet for 
precarious youth labour).

The UNITE campaign invited Brunswick St. business owners to sign a 
pledge agreeing to comply with workplace laws (guaranteeing payment 
of award wages, maintenance of health and safety standards, etc.) in 
return for the issue of a window sticker identifying them as a "good 
employer". At the same time, interviews with precarious service 
workers would reveal employers who did not abide workplace laws and 
these would be issued with yellow (questionable) and red (grub list) 
cards, before being "outed" in parade up Brunswick St. itself. As a 
result of this exercise, a variety of "illegal" employment practices 
were (unsurprisingly) discovered: unpaid employment trials, payment 
in cash (to avoid tax), payment in drugs, unsafe conditions, and the 
employment of undocumented migrants. The problem with these tactics, 
which sought to bring employment practices under the surveillance of 
the law, was that they ignored what might be called a "demand for 
flexibility" from the workers themselves. Many of the service workers 
on Brunswick St., for example, are also students and thus 
under-the-table payments allow them to earn without endangering 
payments they may receive from the government. Similarly, the 
"outing" of undocumented workers could make Brunswick St. a target 
for DIMIA (the federal Department of Immigration, Multicultural, and 
Indigenous Affairs), resulting in the imprisonment of these people in 
detention centres. As an alternative, Barbagallo suggested strategies 
that would create a site on Brunswick St. for workers to interact 
before and after work, exchanging knowledge and tactics, and 
organising autonomously to act in their common interests, which are 
not necessary congruent to work practices sanctioned by the law (and 
upheld by unions and the state alike).

Overall, the workshop affirmed the possibility of a relationship 
between people with considerably different backgrounds. Yet the 
temporality of the occasion also signalled the fleeting tendency of 
some coalitions. Ongoing exchange is most likely to occur through 
common projects and debates. The relationship between politics and 
communications media such as the Internet is one that is perhaps best 
realised around particular events and issues - the no-border 
campaigns of activists and the anti-corporatism rallies assembled in 
various global cities are testament to that. The documentaries by 
Schneider and others demonstrate that sustained organisation requires 
quite a different approach. Certainly communications media play an 
important role in facilitating organisation, but it would be a 
mistake to focus exclusively on the technological form itself.

More vital are the sort of questions, interests and desires that are 
expressed as constituent power and which have the capacity to 
organise socio-political relations in a sustained manner. As Hardt 
and Negri have noted, the activity of labour is a cooperative one 
that is underpinned not by the force of capital - at least not in any 
exclusive sense - but rather by 'linguistic, communicational and 
affective networks'. [7] Thus the potential for organisation is 
common to the instantiation of cooperation. The extent to which 
labour is able to express itself as a creative force will invariably 
determine the strength of cooperative relations. In order for 
creativity to be unleashed, resources are required and part of this 
involves the invention of new institutional forms. But this is not a 
project that should be taken as an end in itself. Rather it is a 
fluid process of repositioning, a point of departure and relation 
that must resist the iron-cage logic of institutionalisation (and the 
attendant modern fetish of political representation). In as much as 
the multitudes are an emergent, mutable socio-technical expression of 
life, such a renegotiation of the relations between the social and 
the political must be central to the ongoing potential and 
manifestation of life as a creative force.


[1] For more information on the What is to be Done? series and 
related media projects, see

[2] Giorgio Agamben, 'On Potentiality', in Potentialities: Collected 
Essays in Philosophy, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999; 
Paolo Virno, Il ricordo del presente: Saggio sul tempo strorico, 
Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 1999.

[3] For a more extended version of this history see Steve Wright, 
Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomous 
Marxism, London: Pluto, 2002.

[4] Sandro Mezzadra, Diritto di fuga: Migrazione, cittadinanza, 
globalizzazione, Verona: Ombre Corte, 2001. See also Sandro Mezzadra 
and Brett Neilson, 'NÚ qui, nÚ altrove - Migration, Detention, 
Desertion: A Dialogue', Borderlands Journal 2.1 (2003), 

[5] Ned Rossiter, 'Report: Creative Labour and the role of 
Intellectual Property', Fibreculture Journal 1 (2003),

[6] See Rosalind Gill, 'Cool, Creative and Egalitarian? Exploring 
Gender in Project-based New Media Work in Europe', Information, 
Communication & Society 5.1 (2002): 70-89.

[7] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge, Mass.: 
Harvard University Press, 2000, p. 294.

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