Steyn Bergs

Nothing/Doing:

On Visitors of an Exhibition Space are Suggested to ‘Do Nothing

published in TIM Magazine #2, 2021

on the performance Visitors of an exhibition space are suggested to ‘do nothing’

download the pdf here

For all its deadpan self-explanatory qualities, the title of Katya Ev’s Visitors of an Exhibition Space are Suggested to ‘Do Nothing’ (2020, henceforth Visitors) does not mention what is in fact a crucial aspect of the work: that it employs legal means to explicitly frame ‘doing nothing’ as productive labour.1 A participatory performance piece, it indeed invites visitors to do nothing, but not without first meticulously spelling out the conditions that ‘doing nothing’ will be both subject to and enabled by. Upon entering the exhibition space, visitors first encounter a reception desk where they are explained the parameters of the piece. If a spot is available, it is possible to take part and ‘do nothing’ for any amount of time, and to be financially compensated for every full hour spent in and on the performance. Before commencing, visitors sign a contract that was developed by Ev in close collaboration with a lawyer, and which is legally valid and binding. Afterward the performance, they are remunerated and receive a proof of payment. They are reminded that, since they have sold their time and labour-power to the artist, they are responsible for paying any applicable taxes and social contributions.2

The ‘act’ of ‘doing nothing’ itself takes place on a chair placed in the exhibition space and can consist of anything, insofar as the contradictory and ultimately impossible proposition to ‘do nothing’ must be interpreted and navigated anew by each visitor, as they see fit. Nonetheless, some instructions are given: visitors are invited to be attentive to themselves as well as to their surroundings, to try to be fully ‘present.’ As such, the performance is supposed to facilitate and foster a pleasant, positive experience of ‘doing nothing’ as—again, contradictorily—a kind of plenitude. According to the website for the work, ‘doing nothing’ will therefore reveal “its generative emancipatory potential.”3

In these notes, I want to begin to rise to the challenge not only of taking this claim seriously, but also of thinking it together with the work’s emphatic equation of ‘doing nothing’ with productive labour and its concomitant, and acute, emphasis on legal regulation. Evidently, the putatively emancipatory ‘act’ of ‘doing nothing’ here is compromised and contaminated from the outset by capitalist relations, and is threaded through state and legal apparatuses that enable and reproduce these relations—most conspicuously, the labour contract. What to make of this simultaneous foregrounding of the work’s reliance on legal regulation and of the emancipatory potential of its experience? And how to conceptualize this emancipatory potential when it is so clearly entangled with precisely those things we need emancipating from? These contradictions in Ev’s work strike me as especially fruitful for attempts to move beyond a simply and straightforwardly oppositional understanding of emancipation, and for thinking how it might currently be achieved through artistic and aesthetic practice.

 

I have asserted, but not yet demonstrated, that ‘doing nothing’ in Visitors is in fact enabled by the legal framework and conditions advanced in and by the work. Consider this particularly delicious mobilization of the perverse poetic pleasures of legal-administrative language: “In whichever way ‘doing nothing’ is enacted concretely, the contract signed by participants formally recognizes that what they are doing is what ‘nothing’ is.”4 The pragmatic solipsism of contractual and legal circumscription here substitutes for rather more lofty meditations on the ontology of ‘nothingness’. At the same time, however, it is also what makes ‘doing nothing’ appear as available and practically realizable. This recalls the example of the perception or experience of the absence of a friend in a café, which Jean-Paul Sartre famously uses in Being and Nothingness to demonstrate the dialectical entwinement of appearance and non-appearance, and ultimately of being and nothingness.5

But Visitors is also, and perhaps more significantly, reminiscent of Cressida J. Heyes’s interest in a particular kind of liminal experience that, in her recent book Anaesthetics of Existence: Essays on Experience at the Edge, she terms anaesthetic time. The experience of anaesthetic time is liminal not only in that it mediates between different states, but also because it itself teeters on the edge of what can or cannot be accounted for as experience. Sleep, passing out, and the self-administration of anaesthetic drugs (both licit and illicit) are all phenomena that Heyes discusses at some length in this regard, but one example she discusses seems particularly valuable in relation to Visitors.

Heyes analyzes an advertisement for a float tank—or sensory deprivation tank, where one floats in salted water in complete silence and darkness—that promises the possibility of experiencing nothing while also, ironically, stressing the productive dimension of the experience.6 For Heyes, the float tank demonstrates not only the possibility of withdrawing from experience, but also the ambiguous political import of such forms of withdrawal. It is clear that the float tank is not only a characteristic product of the so-called experience economy, but is also valued precisely to the extent that the experience of ‘nothing’ would enable productivity. At the same time, insofar as it offers some refuge or respite from what Heyes calls postdisciplinary time—characterized by an excess of stimuli, a proliferation of demands and tasks, and a general sense of temporal fragmentation—anaesthetic time for Heyes is supremely political. If withdrawal into anaesthetic time falls short of qualifying as emancipatory in any immediately recognizable sense, and is likely to be perceived instead as mere escapism, then this is because it troubles the understanding of political agency as the exclusive domain of fully autonomous and self-sovereign individuals.

 

Heyes’s discussion of the ambiguous political valences of anaesthetic time is instructive for Visitors as well, since the work not only centers around the similarly liminal experience of ‘doing nothing’ but also expressly valorizes this experience. Not only is ‘doing nothing’ claimed to have emancipatory potential; this potential would also reside in its capacity to activate “an inner space in deep connection to the self.” While Visitors was a rich and rewarding work for me, I remain largely skeptical of this use of therapeutic-meditational rhetoric, and indeed of any appeal to the virtues of supposedly direct and unmediated corporeal experience. But then it is certainly crucial that this use and this appeal in Visitors are complicated by the explicitly avowed intrusion of political economy and the juridical system alike. The work seems to insist on having it both ways—emphasizing the positivity and fullness of the experience of ‘doing nothing’ while also indexing its imbrication with capital and law. Somewhat analogous to Heyes’s treatment of the sensory deprivation tank, then, it engages the political character of contemporary experience—including aesthetic experience—in its complex ambiguity.

As such, the work poses some pressing questions for critical cultural theory—which, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has argued, is often disproportionately driven by a ‘paranoid’ hermeneutics of suspicion and is therefore likely to be impatient with political compromise, complicity, and ambiguity, favouring strategies of critical distantiation and determinate negation.7 Yes, the experience of ‘doing nothing’ is compromised and contaminated by capitalist relations, as I have written, but does that automatically mean that one should disregard or dismiss its potential emancipatory yield? Should consciousness of the capitalist nature of ‘doing nothing’ be seen as necessarily foreclosing politically desirable (side)effects in advance? And if some visitors do experience something they want to describe as a deep connection to the self, then is this experience or its significance qualitatively lessened because of its subsumption by the juridical-economic complex? The knee-jerk response of the critical critic would be a resounding “yes”; I am no longer quite so sure.

 

While I hope already to have shown how ‘doing nothing,’ in Visitors, is not at all tantamount to mere passivism, objections might still be raised about the apparently individualistic nature of the experience the work affords. Considering that this experience is so explicitly personalized and premised on interiority and a depth model of subjecthood, one may well wonder about how, if at all, it might become communicable—how ‘doing nothing’ might provide common ground for political action. But while individual experiences with Visitors may all be unique, they are also likely to be considerably similar. It is rather improbable, for instance, that someone would not experience and make sense of the work as a more or less determinate and strategic retreat from what Heyes terms postdisciplinary time.

Recall, also, that this supposedly unique and intimate experience is both preceded and followed by an entirely standardized administrative procedure—the signing of the contract—and therefore emphatically conditioned by the impersonal mechanisms and procedures of both the juridical system and capitalism. It remains, at root, an economic transaction. Rather than subvert, transgress, or destabilize the legal and economic frameworks that increasingly regulate life, Visitors works to rule. In so doing, it tests the limits of these frameworks, probes them for inconsistencies, and evaluates what emancipatory experiences are residually possible—or may indeed be newly available. In its affirmation of an outspokenly immanent form of emancipation, Ev’s work attests to an arguably less dualistic, but certainly more realistic, understanding of the ambiguous political valences of both artistic production and aesthetic experience at the present time—when compromise and contamination by law and capital cannot be phobically avoided, but need unfortunately to be recognized and reckoned with as the everyday normality for most of us, most of the time.

***

1 In the Marxist critique of political economy the definition of productive labour does not hinge on the quality, character, or content of the labour performed, but rather by the social relations it is embedded within. Roughly speaking, labour is considered productive when there is a more or less formalized relation between a seller and a buyer of labour (a worker and an employer), and surplus value is created—and is appropriated by the buyer of labour. The latter criterium is obviously absent in the situation staged by Visitors. Karl Marx, Capital Volume I (London: Penguin Classics, 1990), 1041-1044.

2 My description and discussion of Visitors is based on my own experience with the work within the context of the group exhibition In a Long Blink of an Eye (HISK Gosset Site, Brussels, 17 December 2020 – 31 January 2021), which is where the work was first shown. It is important to mention, however, that Ev has enabled for up to 2000 “delegated enactments” of the work to take place. This means that anyone interested in (re-)staging the work can do so, on the condition that they sign a legal agreement developed by the artist and her lawyer. This agreement stipulates the minimal terms (such as instructions relating to the exhibition space and the performance’s set-up) for delegated enactments, which can therefore take place without further direct involvement on the artists’ behalf, and can be developed in a multiplicity of ways as long as the agreement is respected.

3 “‘doing nothing’,” Visitors of an Exhibition Space are Suggested to ‘Do Nothing’, accessed February 18, 2021, https://www.doingnothing.website/doing-nothing.

4 “‘doing nothing’.”

5 “I have an appointment with Pierre at four o’clock. I arrive at the café a quarter of an hour late. Pierre is always punctual. Will he have waited for me? I look at the room, the patrons, and I say, ‘He is not here.’ Is there an intuition of Pierre’s absence, or does negation indeed enter in only with judgment? At first sight it seems absurd to speak here of intuition since to be exact there could not be an intuition of nothing, and since the absence of Pierre is this nothing.” Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness (Washington: Washington Square Press, 1993), 9.

6 “On a street corner near my urban home, a young woman hands me a small folded card. ‘EXPERIENCE NOTHING,’ it declares on its face, over a simple graphic of a supine human body against a blue field. The card is advertising a ‘float tank’—the sensory deprivation experience that is all the rage—and it touts the many benefits of floating, which fall under the headings of relaxation and meditation, broadly construed. Some people, we learn, have ‘drafted whole portions of books while floating.’” Cressida J. Heyes, Anaesthetics of Existence: Essays on Experience at the Edge (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2020), 8.

7 Concomitantly, and importantly for my discussion of Visitors, what Sedgwick terms paranoid readings also tend to be especially reluctant to ascribe significance to (aesthetic) pleasures and the forms of betterment and relief they might offer. “Reparative motives, once they become explicit, are inadmissible in paranoid theory both because they are about pleasure (‘‘merely aesthetic’’) and because they are frankly ameliorative (‘‘merely reformist’’). What makes pleasure and amelioration so ‘‘mere’’? Only the exclusiveness of paranoia’s faith in demystifying exposure: only its cruel and contemptuous assumption that the one thing lacking for global revolution, explosion of gender roles, or whatever, is people’s (that is, other people’s) having the painful effects of their oppression, poverty, or deludedness sufficiently exacerbated to make the pain conscious (as if otherwise it wouldn’t have been) and intolerable (as if intolerable situations were famous for generating excellent solutions).” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2003), 144.

Bibliography

 

Heyes, Cressida J. Anaesthetics of Existence: Essays on Experience at the Edge. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2020.

Marx, Karl. Capital Volume I. London: Penguin Classics, 1990.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Washington: Washington Square Press, 1993.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2003.

Visitors of an Exhibition Space are Suggested to ‘Do Nothing’. “‘doing nothing’.”

Accessed February 18, 2021. https://www.doingnothing.website/doing-nothing.

Steyn Bergs TIM Magazine#2 Nothing Doing
Steyn Bergs TIM Magazine#2 Nothing Doing