Clint Burnham At Work 2

In 1983, shortly after Laiwan founded the Or Gallery, Ian Wallace, in Christos Dikeakos’s words, used “the gallery context as a mediator (between the viewer and the work) or an arbiter of the work itself … tak[ing] on a conceptual strategy that positions the gallery as a stage for the representation of the working processes of intellectual art. In At Work Wallace converted the gallery space, which is the place of exhibition, into a studio, the place of production, thus displaying himself in the activity of artistic and intellectual work. The studio within the gallery thus collapsed the contents into one, encouraging the viewer to question the role of the artists as a producer of ideas in the context of public display” (Dikeakos 1988, p. 14). The documentary photograph of this performance shows Wallace at a sawhorse table in a white space, the door open to a black rectangular void behind him, Wallace in a white dress shirt and black pants, evidently “thinking” (head on fist) as he peruses books, manuscripts, and rolled up drawings.

In re-enacting this performance twenty years later at another Vancouver artist-run centre, the Western Front, I am interested first of all in how the artist as intellectual has been represented, as well as the changing political economy of art, writing, and teaching. For what At Work 2 seems to promise first of all is a discontinuous theory of history (and of art history). In many, if superficial, ways, so much has changed: furniture, clothing, urban space, art institutions, and of course art and the writing about it: perhaps one lesson from the “return” of retro (which used to be called “being oldfashioned”) is not merely that history is cyclical but that there are certain determinate reasons for this. Or consider the conceptual dimensions that Dikeakos outlines in his introduction to Wallace’s VAG show: using the gallery or exhibition space as a space of production. While this strategy was hardly new — surely the emergence of artist-run and parallel spaces in the 1960s and 1970s was as much about ridding the hegemonic institutions (“on the museum’s ruins” as the title/slogan went) of their (economic + aesthetic) value-adding — which is to say that the institutional critique of that era — immediately predating Wallace’s At Work — wanted to evacuate the white cube of its commodifying power and to turn the gallery as space into a more heterogenous site. Hence punk rock shows in galleries, artists living in galleries, and so forth… back, Bourdieuesque pessimism! (But even here we have to note the continuity between the institutional critique and simple philistinism — only if the institutional critique is dialectical are we saved from that fate). And in the immediate, which is to say national, context, the rise of artist-run centres following so closely on the rise of conceptualism can make us think of a certain compensatory or return-of-the-repressed logic at work here: for while on the one hand artists were turning away from actually making objects in favour of just thinking of them (in this sense, Wallace has argued that Socrates, “he who did not write” [Derrida], was the first conceptualist), they were, in the guise of “seizing the means of production”, becoming administrators (see also Buchloh).

Wallace’s conceptualism in At Work has itself been historicized in the growth locally and globally in the specific gambit of gentrification known as “live/work studios”, or a way for real estate dealers to sell residential spaces in industrial neighbourhoods (including the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood in which the Western Front has stood for its 30 year history). This real estate strategy, of course, allows bare-bones rooms, often without drywall, to be marketed with the allure of the urban loft, with the added “lifestyle” aura of being an artist. Art=life just means being able to write everything off! And thus what was once an avant-garde means of breaking down the barriers between commodified art and artless life is now a postmodern lifestyle, a furnishing option.

Thus my recounting of the changes in aesthetic conditions between At Work and At Work 2 has led us unexpectedly into connections with economic and social changes. These historic and aesthetic differences, then, suggest that history progresses or procedes not in a linear or uninterrupted fashion but with discontinuity. Now, it may appear on the surface that this discontinuous model is suspect: for surely in our local context, political systems replicate themselves via electoral changes, educational institutions continue to produce accredited students, and so on. But such “everyday” examples might make us think that the discontinuous is a rare or marginal model of history: nothing could be farther from the truth. In reality, discontinuity reigns supreme in the post-theoretical, post-identity milieu of the present day.

Nonetheless, you can’t have discontinuity without continuity, the bête noire or secret sharer of the pomo hegemony. And what seems to be the biggest continuity in this enterprise, no doubt, would be that we are still, after all, in the realm of art making, of the art world, of art production and documentation. Now, this may be too global a continuity for some — for indeed how is it we can still know that this action, this re-enactment, the art-as-work-as-life pastiche is art? Is this a totalizing, structuralist defeatism akin to Althusser’s argument that the overdetermination of the social structure means that while the economic is one realm among others, under the capitalist system the superstructure is still determined, in the last instance, by the economic (reification)? Then, does this structural continuity trump the discontinuous?

The historical, the global, and the aesthetic then can be complemented by the private, the subjective, the existential. For what this project — in its practice – entails is a certain charged awareness of what surrounds work itself — both ideally and in its practice, in the everyday. (I’m thinking, as a counterpoint to these meditations, of Laura Kipnis’s essay on adultry, where she talks about time and how when one has to “work at a relationship” it’s probably doomed.1) For the ideal of work, of “getting some work done” is presumably without interruption, “I’m going to work now, I’m getting down to work, I have to get some work done before the end of the day” — these vernacular instances all point to a practical (in the Gramscian sense) difference between being “at work” and “actually working.” Think of “nice work if you can get it”, or “good enough for government work,” and the Tom Wayman “work” poetry collection A Government Job at Last.2

That is — and this would vary from office jobs to manual labour, from surveilled factory work to “freelancing” — if one is “ at work ” — meaning the work place — one may not necessarily be working, be at work. This disjunction, this radical opening of what goes on at work – from office politics and people gossiping by your work station when you’re trying to get to work to all the de Certeau-esque and Processed World -inspired pilferings, sabotage, and poaching that we indulge in w/r/t our workplace — indicates at a semantic level what is proceeding at a practical level.3

But the ideal of what work entails — in its utopian sense of nonalienated labour — then must also be subjected to a material critique. My ideal of work has to do with my social situation — as a teacher and writer and also lover and father. Thus when I am working “at home”, it’s sufficiently difficult for my girlfriend to ascertain that I am working — whether I’m banging away on the computer or sitting w/ a book that she will joke I should put up a sign “Clint at work”. And, indeed, I am often not sure myself, and will start doing something and suddenly realize that I am, indeed, at work and will say “I’m working for the next hour” etc. This existential hangover that I drag into this gallery then is in many ways an affect from the borderblur one feels now, moving from job to job or house to house or girlfriend to boyfriend or project to project: it is my argument here that this affect is as historical as are the changes in the urban that have spread the live-work studio as a strategy of gentrification.

I should add by way of conclusion that my own subjective-existential sense of this process began with a feeling like I’d imported a bureaucratic/office affect — the trumping of capitalism over art in the very space devoted to critique. This is due in part to the supposed growth/institutionalization of the ARC’s (what I, in 1996, called the “ruins of the alternative gallery”) but also to the utopian collectivity of the Western Front Gallery — still very much present in the comings and goings of the place. Thus the most bitter pill to swallow is the realization that the gallery’s acquired casual business environment (although with all kinds of deviance never far from the surface), present-day manifestation of the 70s utopia, brings about in my own psyche a simulation of my office psychology of a decade ago. But if also, work has been done: then that simulated anxiety and historical context is most efficient after all! Adorno’s administered world is never very far away, is it?

This essay was first printed as poster project curated by Tim Lee for a series of artist’s posters developed by Jonathan Middleton at the Western Front, Vancouver


  1. 1. “Adultry”, in Critical Inquiry 24:2 (Winter 1998), pp. 289-327.
  2. 2. Vancouver: MacLeod Books, 1975
  3. 3. See also James Rinehart’s The Tyranny of Work: Alienation and the Labour Process, 2nd Ed., Toronto: Harcourt, 1987, for the argument that an overeducated workforce often has jobs with the aura of professionalism but little of the autonomy (p. 78).


Buchloh, Benjmain H.D. “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions”. October 55. Winter 1990. 105-143.

Dikeakos, Christos. 1988. “Ian Wallace: Selected Works 1970-1987.” In Ian Wallace: Selected Works 1970-1987. Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery. 6-19.

Wallace, Ian. Interview with author. June 13, 2003, Vancouver.

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