Remote studio dates is a series of conversations with artists, curators and researchers to document and explore coping mechanisms for isolation in the current health crisis. Each date focuses on one work, project, concept or dream, with digressions and slippages, without the need of ending somewhere but with the desire of opening something up.
I first met Charlotte in 2015, on the occasion of a six-month residency project I co-curated at the Window Space Gallery, in London, where she was the invited resident artist. The project comprised a series of four chapters exploring the themes of accessibility, privacy, freedom and space, in relation to the gallery’s position within a neighborhood that was progressively trading its multicultural identity with real estate gentrification. The conversation below touches upon Charlotte’s latest work and one of the installations of the 2015 project, whose narratives interweave with a key element of her artistic research and practice: gold.
M: Let’s begin from your biggest artistic crush—that is also the thread that runs through your PhD at Kingston University. Where does your interest in gold as a both aesthetic and political symbol come from?
C: I’d say my interest in gold as a material first surfaced about 12 years ago when I was at Goldsmiths, and was seduced by its aesthetic qualities. I started to play around with gold leaf, gilding directly onto drawings and collages, and enjoying its material qualities. This soon led to fascination with how just a tiny amount of gold (gold leaf is made by rolling out the metal so that it is just an atom thick) can instantly transform something from mundane to spectacular. And I began to understand that gold operates simultaneously as so many different things in many different circumstances. I love its slipperiness, the way it appears solid and certain, but is in fact shifting and superficial. So its material properties have an agency which is very different to its understood symbol as a repository for permanent and fixed value (ie that it is a noble inert metal that will reliably store value and not be corrupted by other materials). More recently, I have become interested in examining narratives about gold, which allow it to operate in the realm of fiction and myth, again undermining its apparent solidity.
I’m also interested in gold as an entity which exists as both culture and finance in its own right. Gold has a shared history with money (or certainly coinage) and is closely linked with historical economic theories. For example the Classical Gold Standard of the Nineteenth Century, and the Bretton Wood system of 1944 both tied the value of currency to the quantity of gold held in the vaults. But once Nixon removed the dollar from the gold standard in 1971, gold lost its role as a standardising agent under the Bretton Woods Agreement, marking a shift away from gold as the ultimate money-commodity (in Marx’s terms).
In contemporary financial systems, gold occupies a confused middle ground. Like any other scarce commodity it is valuable, but despite the cessation of the Bretton Woods system, it is still held in reserve by national banks, allowing for speculation that some sort of gold standard might yet come back into play. The idea of gold as a solid and safe investment is clearly enduring. During 2020, the price of gold rose rapidly, exceeding $2000 per ounce on 5th August – its highest price ever, and a 34% rise since the start of the year. Ruth Crowell, chief executive of the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), states: “I can think of no clearer demonstration of gold’s role as a store of value than the enthusiasm with which investors across the world have turned to the metal during the unique social and economic turmoil of the past few months.” Yet alongside this runs the so-called paper gold market, the term used to describe all the gold trades in which gold is not actually physically delivered to the buyer. “The market for paper gold is actually much much bigger than the market for physical gold” according to The London Bullion Market Association, with over 100 times as much paper gold traded as physical bullion that actually exists. Simply put, if all those holding paper gold decided they wanted their gold bars, there would be in effect, a run on the bank. This demonstrates how gold manages to be simultaneously a commodity of fixed value, and an agent of financial speculation.
M: You have recently shown your latest work made during lockdown. New labour (2020) is a film that combines BBC footage of the daily coronavirus updates, subtitled with a personal narrative, with close-up shots of a mouth holding a gold coin while pronouncing motivational sentences. What brought you to develop this film?
C: I made this work at the height of lockdown in May-June 2020, and it was a response to the profound anxiety I was experiencing during the initial period of the Corona crisis. Combined with the obvious stress caused by the catastrophically mismanaged pandemic and the daily onslaught of bad news, along with an unfolding family health crisis, I found myself acutely aware of how much extra work it was to be immersed in all this anxiety, whilst also suddenly and unexpectedly being forced to shift my life online. It felt like this new way of working was compounding my stress. I wanted to reflect on and articulate these feelings, and that’s how this work came about.
M: The narratives that overlap in the film—i.e. news briefings, personal reflections and motivational speech obstructed by the presence of the gold coin—lead to concepts, such as labour and crisis, that you address from a political (public) as well as an emotional (private) perspective. Can you elaborate on the interrelation between these two registers, the public and the private and the different connotations of labour addressed in the work?
C: Yes, the relationships that I wanted to examine concerned the labour of anxiety—of being so powerless in the face of a global health pandemic, the labour of worry that comes with caring for loved ones, the labour of self-improvement and self-branding that comes alongside precarious working practices (such as the one we, as artists, always face). I felt that all these forms of labour had something in common.
I was re-reading Mark Fisher’s prescient essay Deprivatizing Anxiety from 2017, and was struck by his delineation of how anxiety leads to additional labour: “The consequence of the normalization of uncertainty is a permanent state of low-level panic.” And while this of course describes the pandemic-induced stress, he goes on to outline how the use of digital technologies intensifies this state of anxiety. Online platforms motivate us to undertake self-surveillance, populating our online profiles, making constant status updates and seeking more ‘likes’ on social media. This leaves us feeling always ‘on duty’, and subject to a permanent state of anxiety. Engaging with Webinars, email, video conferencing and social media all day is genuinely more draining than face-to-face interaction. Just the act of being online so much more does indeed create additional anxiety, and in fact itself constitutes a form of additional labour. In answer to your question, the level of self-surveillance induced by technology in the homeworker muddies the distinction between the public and private realms such that they can no longer be separated.
M: Absolutely! These feelings of dependence (on the online world) and anxiety (of being hyper productive and constantly ‘out there’ while ‘stuck inside’) have increased so much during lockdown. So back to New labour (2020), both the title and content connect to the work you realized for the Freedom chapter of the Window Space residency, i.e. Working isn’t labour (2015). To give some context to our readers, the installation comprised a sculptural piece inside the gallery window space spelling out the word ‘labour’ in scaffolding poles, juxtaposed with a gold-plated scaffolding joint installed in the street outside, plus a film detailing the process of this joint being electroplated. The exhibition opening coincided with the eve of the UK general election and the whole building was covered in scaffolding—since the university (that housed the gallery) was about to leave their East End location and sell to a real estate company. Questions on political engagement and social responsibility were raised in that project, in relation to freedom of expression, freedom of speech and freedom to protest. Would you say that New labour (2020) is also a progression of your work at the WS residency?
For example, as you mentioned before, those ideas about self-branding, how artists must constantly undertake unpaid labour to maintain their careers was something you were already thinking about in the 2015 Window Space project. In our recent conversations, you’ve mentioned how you perceive this in relation to Marx’s notion of fictitious capital—can you expand on this and on how the two works may relate to each other?
C: It came from the sense that there was something in common with the labour of feeling constantly ‘on duty’—exposed to scrutiny via the online platforms embedded in our work and social lives—and the additional labour that has always been performed by the precarious worker, in terms of building and maintaining their brand. Whilst this form of additional (and always unpaid) labour will be very familiar to freelancers, it has intensified during this pandemic, with working-from-home and the pressure of burgeoning unemployment on the horizon.
Questions about the value of labour, and specifically surrounding the idea that different types of labour have different values, were central to Working isn’t labour (2015). With the film of the scaffold joint being electroplated (separately titled The alchemists), and the inclusion of scaffold poles themselves into the installation, I was seeking to highlight the traditional, more industrial idea of labour – of ‘an honest day’s work’. The use of gold, a precious commodity and ultimate symbol of value sought to underline this, whilst the inclusion of the word ‘labour’ was a provocation to consider the idea and assumptions of labour, that all is not what it seems. That work and labour are not the same thing. And of course, the title of the work played on the slogan from Saatchi & Saatchi’s infamous billboard campaign for the Tories in 1978-79 – a nod to the general election that was taking place the day the show opened (7th May 2015).
Questions about the value of labour were again at the heart of New Labour (2020), but this work articulates more specifically the idea of unpaid labour, particularly the labour of caring – both physically and emotionally. Care work has traditionally been overlooked, deemed a ‘soft skill’ associated with the domestic realm and women’s work; it remains chronically undervalued. I wanted to contrast the labour of familial caring, with the labour of shadow work undertaken by the precarious worker, exploring their intersections and overlaps.
I have to credit Phil Jones with the term shadow work, which he describes as the unpaid work on self-branding—working on a CV, updating Twitter or a LinkedIn profile or posting on Instagram outside of office hours (See Working to Labour: self-branding in an uncertain economy, Autonomy, 2019). Jones describes how self-branding has invaded our consciousness, even altering our identities. “What you say, do, wear, consume, as well as who you spend time with and the events you attend, all go toward your personal brand… (Even) leisure time should be spent focussing on activities that maximize our opportunities.” So self-branding becomes truly embedded in the worker’s psyche, an inescapable element of their self-identity.
As every freelancer knows, inherent uncertainty causes anxiety for the precarious worker, who is unable to financially plan, as future income is always unpredictable. While the worker cannot control much about their future, one thing they can take control of is their brand enhancement. This is, by its nature a limitless task—there is always more that one can do to increase online exposure, network, improve the CV etc. As Jones states: “Self-branding… makes a promise to the worker: that the good life is still possible; you just need to work harder.” It goes without saying that all this additional labour will take a mental toll on the precarious worker, who must put in the hours to build their brand, with only the promise of speculative future gains in their sights. The unceasing, all-encompassing labour of self-branding shares parallels with the unceasing and all-encompassing labour caused by the anxiety of being constantly online, and the two are linked by their embodiment of the concept that upfront investment creates future value.
It goes without saying that all this additional labour will take a mental toll on the precarious worker, who must put in the hours to build their brand, with only the promise of speculative future gains in their sights. The unceasing, all-encompassing labour of self-branding shares parallels with the unceasing and all-encompassing labour caused by the anxiety of being constantly online, and the two are linked by their embodiment of the concept that upfront investment creates future value.
“Indeed, the very definition of self-branding could equally articulate the promise made by a stock or security: invest and you will receive value at a later date.” Here Jones aligns self-branding with Marx’s notion of fictitious capital, which describes an economy driven not by wage labour, but by financial speculation—the promise of future returns. Thus we can say that the material conditions of the online home-worker, like those of the precarious worker – both obliged to engage with endless self-branding activities – function as fictitious capital.
The term fictitious capital is a bit awkward, as it is not concretely defined by Marx, but he uses it in reference to profit gained on the promise of future returns. For my purposes, I like the allusion to narrative that it implies—of course, financialisation, like any political science is based on stories and fictions, rather than empirical evidence, and this is where I believe gold fits in, with all its different guises and meanings.
M: What are your plans for 2021?
C: At the end of 2020 I started a new role as a Placement Researcher for Autonomy, an independent think tank focussing on the changing nature of work and labour conditions in society. I’ve spent the last few months undertaking qualitative research into how Covid-19 has affected the Arts and Culture sectors, specifically the Visual Arts. So far I’ve interviewed over 20 artists and key stakeholders, seeking to add nuance to the unfolding situation for artists and the organisations that employ and represent them. Central to the research has been an emerging picture of the pre-covid landscape of precarious working practices and exploitative labour relations, which highlight that artists are some of the poorest-paid workers in society, whilst frequently being highly qualified. I hope to publish the research in Spring 2021.
I’m also working on other projects, including an exhibition in support of the NHS at the Elixir Gallery in Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Woolwich and continuing to work with footage and sound material that I shot before lockdown at a gold foundry, combined with personal narratives that address some of the concerns outlined above.
Charlotte Warne Thomas is an artist, researcher and fine art PhD candidate at Kingston University’s Contemporary Art Research Centre, funded by Techne (AHRC). She lives with her family and has a studio in South East London. She graduated with an MFA in Art Practice from Goldsmiths in 2009, and has exhibited nationally and internationally including: Atlas House (Ipswich, UK – solo); David Roberts Art Foundation (London, UK); Fundación Santander (Madrid, Spain); Studio X (Mumbai, India); Artplay (Moscow, Russia); Frans Masareel Centrum (Kasterlee, Belgium); Chelsea Space (London, UK). She has undertaken residencies including: The Object of Research (RCA/University of Cumbria, Carlisle 2018); Window Space Gallery (London Metropolitan University, London 2015); Treignac Projects, (Treignac, France, 2012). Her performance readings and sound works have been presented at: Focal Point (Southend-on-Sea, UK), Dekalb Gallery, Pratt Institute (New York, USA) and Stanley Picker Gallery (London, UK) with the research collective We Are Publication.