LIMITACTION is a collaborative art project, developed as a curatorial and artistic residency, taking place in the Window Space Gallery at the Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design, London Metropolitan University, from January to July 2015. The project unfolds through the exploration of four distinct limitations of the window space, namely: accessibility, privacy, freedom and space. These chapters form the overall structure of the project, progressing as a series, with each culminating in a preview event on the First Thursday of the months March, April, May and June.
For the third chapter of LIMITACTION, Freedom, artist in residence Charlotte Warne Thomas presents the installation Working isn’t labour. Freedom investigates the concept of labour, its meaning and implications, whilst questioning the relationship between aesthetics and activism in art. Moving on from the phenomenon of privatisation of public outdoor spaces in London, the work explores ideas of political engagement and social responsibility, in relation to notions such as freedom of expression, freedom of speech and freedom to protest. Taking advantage of the general election happening on the same day as the opening, the installation reflects on the current situation of politics in the UK, addressing issues concerning political action, the act of making and the artist’s labour; yet taking into account the context of the Window Space and its present function as a place for both production and display of art. Working isn’t labour is on show from the 7th to the 13th of May 2015 at the Window Space.
Below is a conversation between Miriam La Rosa, curator of Freedom, and artist Charlotte Warne Thomas.
From Accessibility and Privacy to Freedom
Miriam La Rosa: In the previous two chapters of LIMITACTION, you have been investigating the phenomenon of accessibility and privatisation of public outdoor spaces in London. How does this lead to the issues you are exploring in Freedom? Meaning: what are the links between the concept of privatisation and the current political situation of London?
Charlotte Warne Thomas: Well, in a sense, I would say that all the research that I have done so far, and that I have been doing during my residency in the Window Space, is leading up to that question. It is basically what Anna Minton is talking about in her article Common Good(s) – Redefining the public interest and the common good, where she explains the history of enclosure – with the Enclosure Acts in the 1700s and how the Victorians reversed this, by making the streets public again. So, there are legal rights of access to public streets, and it is about the law, i.e. about legality. Minton kind of explains this story quite nicely, but what is interesting is that this goes hand in hand with the idea of freedom, for example; the idea that you can access the streets and you can protest, so when you walk in a public place, like a Common or a street that is publicly owned, it is not a private piece of property. In certain areas – squares and some streets – in London it looks the same but the space is not public. It is actually private. So, in those places you cannot do certain things; whatever they decide you cannot do, like taking photographs, filming, protesting, sleeping on the street, skateboarding, whatever it might be. So, I think that it is a very interesting point with the general elections around the corner; in terms of freedom, there is this idea of who owns what, the sense of public place and public sphere. So, if something is in the public sphere what does that mean? Where is it? – Physically, I mean. We have been talking a lot about this during the development of the previous chapters, so I think it becomes now a natural progression into the ideas around freedom.
What about social responsibility?
MLR: The term ‘freedom’ carries an ambivalent connotation. On one hand, its meaning refers to concepts such as liberty, independence and rights, almost automatically suggesting connections with the notions of freedom of expression and speech, i.e. with the political sphere. On the other hand though, the term nowadays suffers – if I am allowed to use this expression – from a sort of abuse of its function and role. Think of, for instance, the fetishisation of free speech; our society has developed the tendency of making a fetish out of freedom. I remember that in a previous conversation we had, you told me that “freedom (and freedom of expression) has become equated with freedom to express yourself, which in turn manifests as freedom to say what you like, do what you like, wear what you like, date/marry who you like, buy what you want etc.”. In other words, with the risk of a lack or even a denial of social responsibility. How does this discourse manifest in the installation you are currently building in the Window Space?
CWT: This is a very good point and yes, something we already discussed. I think that often there is a misinterpretation of what genuine freedom is. The commonly held idea of freedom as that of dyeing your hair, dating who you want and being who you are, do what you want to do – even to be an artist; ‘I want to be free’ etc., that has become a sort of substitute, “standing in” for genuine freedom. Genuine freedom is not about that. If you go and talk to someone in Cuba or Eritrea, and talk to them about freedom, they would have a completely different opinion. Then, if you go and talk to a teenager around the corner here, they might say: ‘Yeah, I hate the way everyone says you can’t do this, you can’t do that’. What they mean is social pressure; they are not talking about freedom. They have no idea about real freedom, compared to somebody in Eritrea, for instance. On the other hand, this appearance of freedom, which has become completely co-opted by the market – so we are sold the idea of freedom through, for instance, hippie clothes – does not even have to be what looks alternative, although it could be. So for example somebody that is really aware of these things tends to have a particular look, because they are buying to an idea of freedom that has been corporatised. And here I do not think it is just Western; it is capitalised, commoditised, and you will find it everywhere and it is the same in Russia – and there they do not have real freedom. If someone wants to be gay, they are actually risking their life, if someone wants to be protesting against Putin, they are probably going to get shot or murdered.
Of course, linked to that there is the idea that with freedom comes responsibility, you know the freedom to vote, for example, it means that you should vote. There was this article that I found the occasion of a show at Raven Row a few years ago. One of the exhibits was a piece of work by a duo called Learning Site; the text by Jaime Stapleton that accompanied the sculpture has what I think is a really great explanation of the way the 1960’s freedoms were a genuine attempt by the counter culture to change the status quo. You know, when my parents grew up it was really socially unacceptable to have multiple sexual partners, or women having a child outside of marriage. There has been a huge change in culture and society in that way, which is really good, but also those genuine movements of deeply rooted political consciousness have been totally co-opted by the market and this article [by Stapleton] really underlined this for me. How does this discourse manifest in my installation? I don’t really know. Probably it is quite likely that this piece of work won’t address these concerns specifically, but what I think, in a more general sense, is that this idea of what looks like freedom is really important for art. A lot of people believe that art and artists think that freedom is just liberty to express yourself. It is not.
Consumer freedom and appearance of freedom
MLR: Another interesting aspect linked to the concept of freedom, and something recurrent in your research and practice, is the issue of consumer freedom/consumer choice. This is often resolved in an appearance of freedom rather than in a concrete possibility of exercising it – here I am thinking of both the market and the erosion of political rights. Is this something you are also interested in exploring, in this chapter of LIMITACTION? How?
CWT: The issues around consumer freedom and the appearance of freedom are something I really noticed when I lived in Russia a few years ago. It really shocked me and I think it planted the seed of noticing it here as well. I realised that people all complained: ‘Oh, when there was communism it was so monotonous, everything was so grey and the clothes were shit and the food was really boring. You could not listen to rock records, you could not play guitar. You could only watch Soviet TV. We had no freedom’. Then, things changed and the iron curtain came down, people had no immunity and no cynicism to advertising, marketing and stuff like that. Immediately, instead of real freedom, which they did not get at all, they got McDonalds and fashionable clothes, i.e. consumer capitalism, and they absolutely love it. Because they have got what looks like freedom. Yes, they have got freedom to travel internationally now, and certainly more rights than during Soviet times, but it is not democracy – it is not real freedom. I am sure the members of Pussy Riot would agree. This is something I really noticed there and I think in many ways it is the same thing here.
The 1950’s and 1960’s in Europe and America saw a huge cultural revolution, where the strict expectations and social pressures to conform of the past were overcome. For example, divorce became much more common, abortion and women rights gained importance, the right to stand up to politicians and say no to the Vietnam War, to march and have long hair; all these anti-establishment kind of things. I think that amongst the “establishment” – politicians, the BBC – white middle class men – there was a genuine fear that the youths were going to become uncontrollable and take over. Fear of anarchy and fear of revolution. However, what actually happened is that the genuine passion fuelling those big and genuine revolutions, got co-opted and became, you know, hippie clothes and incense; by the 1980s it became a lifestyle choice rather than a genuine political endeavour. For example, in this country real and genuine freedom has been eroded even recently with new terror laws. For centuries, you know, you could not be detained, arrested or put in prison for more than 24 hours without charge, but now you can. I think now it is 31 days. Even a couple of years ago, it was up to a year or something if there was a suspected terrorism charge. Then, you get something like Guantanamo Bay where America has quite high standards of legal, you know, you cannot legally detain people without charging them, but they do in Guantanamo Bay. So people in Guantanamo Bay have been there, charged with no crime, but they have been there for 10 years and they are not guilty, they are not innocent, they are just there. Western governments are eating away at the edges of our freedom with the passport of ‘don’t worry, we are the government, we are taking care of your freedom, by making it safer because we arrest terrorists’. The Edward Snowden revelations really showed it. Plus they really are taking liberty on the Internet with your personal information. If you ever send intimate pictures, it is guaranteed that the government would have looked at them. So it is like an erosion of freedom, I think. It is obviously a very complicated situation; the appearance of freedom has come to stand for something, or the appearance of freedom is not the same as actual freedom. To the actual question, I would say that these concerns are kind of key to what I do but, again, I’d be very hesitant to say that this is what the installation is about. When I make work, I have an idea of what it is going to look like and usually it does that, but often it does other things as well.
Contemporary freedoms: the notion of labour and the issue of site-specificity
MLR: Talking about your practice, this encompasses the inclusion and questioning of power structures, often resulting in a direct reaction to the architectural elements that surround you. In our specific case, to the Window Space. In this respect, two projects for buildings can be interesting to look at. One is the Phalanstère, or Phalanstery: a building designed for a utopian community by Charles Fourier in the 19th century and apparently taken as an inspiration by Le Corbusier. Its goal was to encourage the progress of gender roles in a community environment, where 500 to 2000 people work together for mutual advantage. The second one is something that came to my mind as a contrast to the former, namely the Panopticon, designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century and never realised. In particular, what interests me is Foucault’s interpretation of it as a metaphor for modern disciplinary societies and their inclination to observe and normalise. This strategy, in fact, generates a consciousness of perpetual visibility as a form of power, where domination is allowed in the easiest way possible, i.e. through the fear of being watched. Hence, the Phalanstère and the Panopticon mirror two different aspects of your work for Freedom; from one side, your interest in the significance and implications of labour and from the other side, the configuration of the Window Space (its exposure and visibility) and your relationship with it. Would you like to elaborate on these two points and contextualise your position towards them/share your opinion about it?
CHT: Regarding the parallelism between labour, in general, and artistic labour, in particular, I think there is a link here in terms of the privatisation issue. One of the things I was thinking right at the beginning is that, with the crazy property prices, there is the matter of artists’ studios. Having the space – a studio – but also the time to be an artist – because most artists have to balance a job with an artistic career, which generally does not really pay you in a city where half of the money goes on rent and transport is very expensive and everything else is incredibly expensive. It is only getting worst because of this issue of investment capital flying into London and prices rising with property speculation. So these issues are really tied in with what makes it possible to be an artist and a lot of people I know are completely fed up with London. Many artists from London have gone to Berlin and Brussels, because it is untenable to have a low income in London because housing costs and studio rents are so high. So, I think that survival of artists is really on the edge in London and then you get this horrible situation where the only people who can survive are from wealthy backgrounds, especially with education being so expensive now. There is a sense that London is becoming more untenable for artists and low paid workers – because artists are essentially low paid unless they become really successful which happens to a tiny minority. Then the other thing is that big developers make use of artists and you get this artwashing phenomenon that you can see in Shoreditch and Hackney, where creative industry and graffiti and the inner city’s cheaper area is colonised by artists. As Richard Florida identified, the cultural capital is then gradually turned into speculation capital and the area takes off and then the artists can’t afford to live there anymore. So, gradually, the area is becoming more sterile. I do not think artists are responsible for this, but they are protagonists – or pawns perhaps. So, for instance, with the Balfron Tower, which is now being rented out on the cheap to artists as that kind of artwashing exercise, the artists who are there are not complicit – is not their agenda, but they are taking advantage of cheap rent while they can and they will eventually get kicked out. But they are also being used to gentrify these areas, basically. So yeah, I think there is a situation with artists being low paid and all low paid people being treated badly. This is a bad situation, especially in London.
Thinking about the labour of the artist, there is something a bit magical about it. If you think of labour in terms of Marx, you have got alienated labour and I think that artists are slightly outside that system, or the idea has always been that they are outside this because, in theory at least, the artist is in control of their labour; they do not have to sell it, they do it for themselves or for their own gain and if they are successful artists, their labour produces fantastic gains For example, Damien Hirst, his labour is more like branding, isn’t it? So I think there is something about this that is very specific and different than the alienating labour of other workers. But it is also not quite the same as the entrepreneurial or small business owners, but it is similar. It is a really good case for artists being the ultimate neoliberal subject, because their entrepreneurialness is all they have got, in a way. Then, there is a contradiction because the state of the artworld at the moment means that most artists are not able to sell their labour as an artist – and I do not even try, to be honest. I put my labour into the creation of my work, but because I rarely make saleable commodities, it is effectively valueless. This to me raises the question of what is value? In a sense my work is kind of an opposite capital; I am investing capital in something that is almost definitely going to be financially value-less.
So going back to the issue of labour, there is the slight connotation – when you are talking about labour – that you refer to manual labour, like a physical trade. I think there is a really strong feeling in this country of snobbery against manual labour. The education system is focused on people going to university and it is not at all focused on people doing engineering and high technical skills; manufactory and industry are not highly regarded, they are kind of felt like dirty. There is a real snobbery about manual labour; you notice this in the artworld too, where technicians’ skills are often disregarded, despite the fact that a lot of artists work as technicians. There is hierarchy in the artworld and society, where someone that works in a bank, for instance, gets paid a huge salary and somebody like a nurse who works really hard and is highly skilled is terribly badly paid. This is somehow acceptable. Yes, there is this kind of snobbery and I think that the artworld repeats that situation in itself. Artists can be treated like royalty but if they’re behind the scenes, then they become manual labourers and are completely overlooked.
Regarding the second point about physically being in the window space, at the beginning especially it was quite weird, when I was doing my research and using my laptop, I felt really vulnerable sitting there; that was quite odd and unexpected. I hadn’t really pictured it. How this influences the work that has been made and the project as a whole, I do not really know, because it has got to the point now that when I am in the Window Space I am building something. Certainly, the last few weeks have been about doing the stuff that needs to be done in there rather than using it as a studio space to conceive the works. So it hasn’t felt like such an issue anymore. At the beginning, we discussed how the process – and physically occupying the window space – was going to be really important and I am not sure how much that has really been the case; there is not enough time to stop and think like at the beginning. It has become less about process and more about deadlines. The process here is about showing what happens for real, the production aspect of making work, which is rarely seen, but which is actually 90% of the work – the labour – itself. People walking by the window in this past week have seen us taking apart the scaffolding and removing the wallpaper; all things that belong to the de-installation of the previous work and preparation for the new one. I always feel like if you make site-specific work you often do not spend much time in the studio. However, in this case, the studio is the site of the display. And this is a really difficult way of being an artist, because it puts a lot of pressure on you and it is a lot of problem solving all the time. Another aspect of site-specific work that is difficult is that your work tends to change quite a lot, in response to the architecture, the surroundings and the space you are responding to and, by its very nature, if you work like that it is a nightmare for marketing and stuff like that; selling your work. Commercial galleries are, in general, not particularly interested in it. So, it is a really difficult position to put yourself in. But it definitely is an interesting situation to be in, full of problematics, but at the same time full of potential and possibilities – and certainly never boring.
To find out more on the project, please visit http://www.limitaction.co.uk
You can download the full essay on Freedom at
Miriam La Rosa