Hold Me

Telstra Touchfone TF400, custom hacked telephone media player, dibond photographic print dimensions 2400 x 1200mm, audio duration 00:12:20sec
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Photography by Sam Noonan
courtesy Samstag Museum of Art 2020
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00:00 / 00:00
Hold Me complete sound work

Thanks to Pix and the team at Hackerspace Adelaide for assisting with the production of the artwork.

Catalogue essay

ANDY BUTLER

2020

NOTES ON MEASURING VALUE, PROGRESS AND PRODUCTIVITY

The architecture of bureaucracy choreographs our lives. Hold Me is the hold music of Centrelink on repeat, an endurance test that’s a testament to the countless hours of labour spent tethered to a system designed to remove people from a social safety net and to discourage those in need of financial assistance from seeking it out in the first place. In the same way that the physical architecture of a building or space is instrumentalised to direct the way we experience the world, the structure of governmental bureaucracy is orchestrated to turn people into the most efficient capitalist subjects possible.

The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is an economic formula that we use to tell ourselves about value, progress and productive labour. It’s how we measure the worth of human activity and then develop governmental policies around it.(i) While it’s a seemingly dead-boring and cold concept, its functions and outcomes – and their associated emotional resonances – are at the heart of Hold Me.

For the past few decades feminist economist Marilyn Waring has famously been considering what counts and what doesn’t when we measure the health of a nation’s economy and its GDP(ii), and her work has been fundamental in driving the process behind Hold Me. GDP is the sum market value of all goods and services produced within a specific timeframe (quarterly, yearly, etc.). All the things that we do or make as part of an economic transaction are counted.

The things that aren’t counted in the calculation of GDP are important. Unpaid work isn’t counted—things like emotional labour, caring duties, family, artmaking, any form of cultural production whose outcome can’t be wholly measured by a financial transaction. The International Monetary Fund gives the following example to demonstrate the difference between counted and uncounted labour: a baker who produces a loaf of bread and sells it to a customer would be classified as contributing to the GDP, but if he baked a loaf of bread and then gave it to his family, it would not be counted; no financial transaction has taken place (although the action of purchasing the ingredients would be counted).(iii)

Marilyn Waring notes that a lot of labour exists outside of the logic of the GDP’s measures; through its usage as a measure of productivity, we draw distinct lines between productive and unproductive labour. Parenting and “women’s work” are obviously counted as unproductive if they’re unpaid. Our environment also exists outside of the boundaries of valuable production if it is not being used to produce commodities with a market value. So too does the distinction relate to happiness, relationships between people and communities, human emotions and more; if it isn’t sold on the marketplace, it isn’t worth anything in the story of our nation’s progress and growth.

Hold Me is based on Centrelink’s bureaucratic architecture, which is almost farcically wrapped up in the logic of progress, economic value and productivity at the expense of all else. Pick up the phone installed on the side of the Samstag building and you’ll hear a snippet of Centrelink’s hold music. Around it, in the background, Darkson and his partner nurse their child while waiting, waiting, waiting to resolve the debts they’ve been told they owe to our national social safety net.

Darkson has been on and off Centrelink for some time while building a career as an artist. Alongside his creative labour, he has been a sessional teacher at a university and a freelance sole trader. Much of his labour would count for nothing when measuring its productivity within the marketplace, and the labour that does have a market value is sporadic, undervalued. There are anecdotal stories everywhere of artists still being on Centrelink even while having a significant cultural value ascribed to their labour. (Cultural value can’t be measured as “productive” if it can’t be ascribed a market value.)

Universities are not innocent in all this. The building that Hold Me is tethered to gestures towards the role played by the bureaucratic infrastructure of higher education institutions in the precarious labour conditions of artists and sessional academics. The punitive bureaucratic structures of welfare and the neoliberal structures of universities are wrapped up in each other. Both are embedded within a broader logic that strives towards economic growth, where growth is only measured in contribution to the marketplace. Many artists are employed on twelve-week rolling casual contracts with no security, no sick leave, no annual leave, no benefits that contribute towards stability—all in the name of economic efficiency, cheaper costs, increased productivity.

Then what of the labour of waiting for Centrelink? Of meeting “mutual obligations” that include attending a Jobactive provider or applying for twenty jobs a month to be paid an allowance, in that time between semesters when you’re paid nothing? What value is this sort of labour being ascribed under the governmental mantra of “jobs and growth”?

When Darkson was approached for this exhibition, he was in the throes of resolving a robo-debt he’d received from Centrelink. The now-condemned program—currently the subject of a class-action lawsuit against the government—was a punitive structure intended to shore up the budget by some $2.1 billion dollars(iv), a “productive” scheme when we measure our progress through Gross Domestic Product.

To generate robo-debts, an automated algorithm would match the fortnightly reported earnings made by a Centrelink client against their yearly earnings reported to the Australian Tax Office, averaged over 26 fortnights in the year. If there was a discrepancy between the reported earnings and the calculated averaged amount earned at any point in the year, a debt would be generated. The algorithm didn’t account for the fact that workers without the safety net of fixed hours earn different amounts fortnight to fortnight.(v)

 

This process seems farcical in its punishment of those whose labour isn’t ascribed its due worth. The rollout of robo-debt occurred at the same time as the hold times to talk to a person at Centrelink grew. In 2015-2016, out of 68 million attempted calls, 28 million received the busy signal. Of the 39 million that got through, more than 7 million were abandoned before the issue was resolved. In 2016-17, the number of calls met with a busy signal practically doubled, blowing out to 55 million.(vi)

These countless hours of waiting appear to be a punishment for those who require a social safety net because their labour falls outside of our understanding of productivity. This imposed state of helpless uncertainty is seemingly aimed to scare people off this safety net, to direct them towards different forms of activity that are more economically sound within the narrative of the GDP and progress.

‘FUCK’ is etched onto the brickwork out the front of Job Prospects, the Jobagency provider that Darkson previously frequented. This is a place where you come up against the full force of a bureaucratic system, of institutionalised walls that block you from doing work outside of the labour deemed valuable within its normative logic. You’ll be starved out if you don’t do what they say, and, from reports from the inside, it’s a ruthless process of cutting people off payments, whatever their circumstances may be.

Sara Ahmed writes cogently on the ways we experience institutional structures as walls.(vii) For those for whom an institution wasn’t built, our experience of coming up against walls is different to those who manage to easily pass through these spaces. For many who are seen as a recalcitrant entity within a system of bureaucracy – those who exist outside of its values – existence could be defined as constantly banging your head against a brick wall. For those whose labour is viewed as unproductive and who require the assistance of a governmental bureaucracy, there would certainly be a lot of head-on-brick-wall-banging.

The signs that we leave on the walls we encounter can be wayfinding points or signifiers that others have trodden these paths before. Making visible the stories of those who navigate these spaces reveals the hidden dynamics of power that lie at their foundation. It is an important element of building resistance, of working towards a point where the brick walls and barriers that define how many inhabit bureaucratic and institutional spaces might shift. Darkson read the word ‘FUCK’ on a brick wall out the front of his Jobagency provider and felt like there was the sign of a person who’d come before who understood.

Listening to Hold Me, installed as it is on the side of the Samstag Museum – itself embedded within an architecture of bureaucracy – , is a way of listening to the kinds of hidden stories that permeate these spaces. Precarious work conditions of artists and academics are well-documented through the labour of organisations such as the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEA) and National Association of Visual Arts (NAVA). We know that the welfare conditions within these industries are unsustainable, that the welfare of artists needs to be discussed out in the open.

 

Andy Butler is an artist and writer, and Program Curator at West Space, Melbourne. His writing has appeared in The Saturday Paper, The Monthly, Overland, Runway, Art+Australia and more. He has recently exhibited at Bus Projects, Firstdraft, the Substation and Footscray Community Art Centre. In 2019 he undertook an Asialink residency in Manila, Philippines, and in 2018 a WrICE (Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange) residency in Jogjakarta, Indonesia. He has read, performed or appeared on panels at Melbourne Writers Festival, Emerging Writers Festival, Jakarta Writers Series, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Buxton Contemporary, Monash University Museum of Art, The Wheeler Centre and more. In 2018 he received two robo-debts.

 

i Anne Manne, ‘Making women’s unpaid work count’, in The Monthly, May 2018 <https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2018/may/1525096800/anne-manne/making-women-s-unpaid-work-count> [accessed 13 February 2020]

ii Marilyn Waring, If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics (Harpercollins, 1988{

 

iii Tim Callan, ‘Gross Domestic Product: an economies all’, International Monetary Fund, 2018 <https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/fandd/basics/gdp.htm>, [accessed 13 February 2020]

 

iv Katharine Murphy, ‘The robodebt horror was all about boosting the budget. That’s the brutal truth’, The Guardian, 29 Nov 2019, < https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/nov/30/the-robodebt-horror-was-all-about-boosting-the-budget-thats-the-brutal-truth>, [accessed 12 February 2020]

v ‘The issue’, Not my Debt, 2020. <https://www.notmydebt.com.au/the-issue>, [accessed 10 February 2020]

 

vi Paul Henman, ‘The truth about Centrelink’s telephone wait times’, The Guardian, 20 March 2017, <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/mar/21/the-truth-about-centrelinks-telephone-wait-times>, [accessed 11 February 2020]

 

vii Sara Ahmed, On Being Included: racism and diversity in institutional life (Duke University Press, 2012)

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In 'Hold Me', audiences listen in on a frustrated phone conversation between Adelaide-based artist Brad Darkson and a Centrelink worker trying to unravel the ramifications of a robo-debt, interspersed by the relentless sound of the hold music. While we're all working from home due to COVID-19, Samstag curator Gillian Brown discusses this eerily prescient work with Darkson, over the phone.

 

Bold, creative and responsive to contemporary visual art, Samstag Museum of Art is one of Australia's leading university art museums. For more, see unisa.edu.au/samstagmuseum.

 

Recorded remotely in Tarntanya/Adelaide by Denam Moore of the Message Pod in April 2020.

Curatorial statement

G

2020

 

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