After Open Engagement happened, a few people asked me if I had gone. I hadn’t; I didn’t. I kept on reading write-ups of what happened, some of which were great, but I kept on not caring at all about what was being said, what was being talked about, or what had been done. Finally I texted a friend that maybe Open Engagement serves a branch of social practice or socially-engaged art that I just don’t care about, that I don’t identify with, whose goals are not my goals, and which to me often seems silly, handwringing, and/or naïve.
Writing in Artforum in 2011, curator Chús Martínez described Antonio Vega Macotela’s then-current project Time Divisa as follows dodged the trite naïvete that sullies much participatory/exchange-based/socially-engaged art by occurring through interactions already mediated by “a system that is already governed by mutual instrumentalization: prison.” His current exhibition at Galería Labor, Filipídicas, manages the same dodge, this time by focusing on a different system already governed by mutual instrumentalization: capitalism. Moreover, Vega Macotela’s work describes grinding social inequity without the misguided presumption that art, one of the ultimate luxury commodities, plaything of wealthiest, can do anything about it. This is socially-engaged art without aspiration, without a future—as it should be.
Filipídicas, Vega Macotela’s first solo show at Galería Labor in Mexico City, consists of five Studies of Exhaustion, each derived and produced either in collaboration with exhausted persons or using materials from them or close to them. The pieces themselves describe very different things: the ghastly, trinket-like Number 3, The Flesh, describes the patio process, a particularly lethal historical method of producing silver developed in the then-colonies of New Spain; the sodden, barely-visible sheafs of Number 5, The Invisible Encyclopedia, describe the bleak lives of service workers; while the cascading bulls of Number 4, Speculation, describe the aggressive futility of the financial industry.
None of these pieces offer a solution; they are, as their titles make plain, studies. They are recombinant objects—depersonalized human material mixed with inorganic materials—that describe the impossibility of survival in an ancient recombinant economy. In After the Future, written in the near aftermath of the 2008 recession, Francisco “Bifo” Berardi describes recombination as “the technical form of the labor process in the digital environment,” the transmogrification of the corporeal body to an abstract unit of time, able to be pooled and reproduced as needed, in total disregard of that body’s needs. Berardi describes this process as a contemporary development, something associated with cellphones, online labor, and so on. However, as Vega Macotela’s recent body of work reminds us, this process is not new at all: it goes hand in hand with capitalism, and always has.
The process Study No. 3, The Flesh describes could be argued as one of the starting points for globalized capitalism. In the mid-16th century, silver production increased manifold after the discovery of in Europe, and the implementation of in the colonies of New Spain, the patio process, a process that required both an enormous amount of physical labor and an emormous amount of mercury. Essentially, pulverized silver ore was put in a vat with a bunch of other metals, including mercury, and churned like butter by horses for weeks. After being churned and baked in the sun, the silver would form an amalgam with the mercury and rise out of the muck as a salable, precious metal. In the high steppes of Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico, where the Spanish built the mines, the labor was quickly killing European horses, suited to churning mills unsuited for the climate. The Spanish figured perhaps the indigenous populations were better-suited to the task, but, while they were suited to the climate, the labor killed them. Viewed as subhuman in South America and of the lowest caste in imperial Mexico, this was more of an inconvenience than anything; but when reforms passed in New Spain barring or making more difficult the enslavement of native populations, the Spanish empire had to purchase slaves from Africa, who fared no better than anybody else.
The increased production of silver allowed for the worldwide dispersement of silver goods and currency, throughout Europe, across Asia, and to China. Silver forks, silver knives, silver coins, silver trinkets—the items that separate the luxurious from the upper-class, the upper-class from the middle-class, the middle-class from the lower class. These objects acted, and continue to act, as props for the mise-en-scene of capitalism, the material support of a narrative of constant aspiration, permanent fetishization of that which is just a little nicer. The Flesh, can be wound with a key and played like a music box, the bone horses gliding placidly between huge grinding gears, suspended on their too-thick bronze rods, caged by imperial columns.
Study Number 5, the Invisible Encyclopedia, describes the labor of more contemporary human cogs in the machinations of global capital, skilled workers who provide improvements for the upper classes: a carpenter, a seamstress, a makeup artist. Vega Macotela asked these workers what they anticipated leaving to their families, what images or items sustained them, and so on. The three could not imagine leaving more than their tools for their families. They provided images of previous work, famous actors or actresses, family members. The workers were then asked to donate sweat, which was used by Vega Macotela to print the images on paper. The resulting images, frail and ever-so-faint, barely visible even with Labor’s elaborate UV-lighting, are reminiscent from afar of tears on a handwritten letter, tragic and desolate arrays of needles, nails, hammers, sponges, brushes. If these images are an encyclopedia, the describe and demonstrate the futility of labor, the total pointlessness of working one’s life away, of acquiring “useful” skills, of holding a job. What these workers have earned is not access to the proximate class in the stratum; they have earned only their memories, disappearing as sweat and tears on rumpled pieces of paper.
A few weeks ago, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development published a study of international labor data: average hours worked per year, average wage per year, workplace in/equality, and so on. Workers in Mexico work an average of about 2300 hours per year, more than anywhere else in the world, for a paltry annual wage of about $9800USD. Minimum wage in Mexico is about $3.25USD per day, or about $860USD per year, assuming minimum wage workers in Mexico are working every day of the year, which they most likely are—as maids, as tortilla makers, as teachers, and so on. Capitalism depends on an aspirational narrative to fool workers into destroying their lives for the benefit of capital: the “future” that Berardi hopes we have moved past. Perhaps what the OECD data shows is that it may indeed be possible soon to move past the future, because it is increasingly obvious that hard work and ambition accomplishes nothing at all.
In Studies of Exhaustion: No. 4, Speculation, 3D printed models of the Wall Street bull tumble, hurtle, crush, fall all over each other, varying looks of joy, rage, or pleasure on their faces. Their horns are sometimes longer, their balls are sometimes bigger, but they are always uselessly, forcefully caterwauling towards nowhere in particular. There are several Speculations, and they are all striking, perhaps the most immediately accessible work in the show. Their futility, the way they grapple and tumble with each other, suggesting no other future other than violent death.
The future is the aspirational opiate of all of us, the narrative construct that justifies working impossible hours for little to nothing, that glorifies ambition and hard work. Adopting an oppositional stance to the murderous machinations of global capital, as the worldwide left has been trying to do since at least the 60s and perhaps for hundreds of years, has not and will not work, for it abides by the same belief structure: work hard, make a better future. We exist within a stratified class structure with little to no hope of social mobility, one that closely resembles the class structure in place when the Spanish built the silver mills in New Spain, grinding the local population to a pulp to send shiny trinkets worldwide. Today, hapless workers still die in silver mines in Bolivia; but perhaps a more accurate analogue are the hundreds of thousands dying the Democratic Republic of the Congo, mining for coltan, a metal vital for the production of smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, and such devices. There is no reason to believe any amount of opposition, especially that from predominantly upper-middle-class artists in the First World, will change that situation. Utopia is just a dream.
What Bifo proposes instead are “zones of human resistance that act likes zones of therapeutic contagion,” areas wherein dehumanized, pulverized populations might begin the task of reclaiming their time, their bodies, and their sensitivities, beginning with an abandonment of work. If art can serve a role in this, I imagine it would be through actions and objects that speak to giving up, disbelieving, stopping—not to utopia, aspiration, or goodwill. While it would be outrageous to say that Vega Macotela’s current exhibition at Labor is either a zone of resistance or a zone of therapeutic contagion, it is perhaps a step in the right direction.