“To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.”1 Oscar Wilde
“I don’t think necessity is the mother of invention – invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness. To save oneself trouble.”2 Agatha Christie
The Sloth Section
Sloth, in the sense of a listless ennui, is a vital part of the creative process. Existential fatigue, combined with a despondent alienation from the rigorous regulations of the social realm, and its relentless demands for compliance and productivity, are essential in achieving a useful, unimpeded introspection. From this melancholic state, with its own internal temporality, the artistic imagination is free to wander, restlessly ambling from one distraction to another in a rambling promenade of free association until it happens to alight upon an interesting thought-formation, robust enough to generate a subjective reality that can stand up to the rigors of human relations and social reciprocity. One has to wait for this to happen. It cannot be manufactured, like a product of the so-called “creative industries” (although experience does make the creative process ever more productive). All one can do is to create the conditions, a state of reverie or “in-between-ness” (what Emmanuel Levinas describes as “dead time,” a cornerstone of the thinking process, that gives one a chance to take stock of our “hesitation to live”3), out of which can emerge a fully-rounded idea, seemingly imbued with a life force of its own, born of existential doubt, social vulnerability and ontological fatigue. Free time, with its associated hazards of boredom and depression, is thus a pre-condition of artistic invention.
Of course one has to pass the hours while one is waiting, in this Beckettian limbo, for a good idea to take form. In her free time, the fabulous Cosima von Bonin likes to watch television. Along with the kids’ cartoons, such as Daffy Duck, or the low-budget horror movies of George Romero, which regularly cross over to populate her aesthetic realm, the artist is partial to Anglophone TV drama serials, sometimes viewed as intensive, uninterrupted box-set sittings, over several days. Such mainstream leisure fodder, in the parallel world of CvB, is a useful aid to contemplation: la dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing).
Paradoxically, in Bone Idle for Arnolfini’s Sloth Section, Loop #2 of the Lazy Susan Series, the outcome of the artist’s vita contempliva is a kind of sweatshop of intensive over-production. An art warehouse packed to the rafters with over-sized soft toys; stuffed cartoon animals, grown fat, fluffy and fatigued, hanging from hooks, sat astride mock missiles or slumped across makeshift plinths, surrounded by the paraphernalia of the leisure industry: beach huts, sun-shades and parasols. Goggle-eyed “Fruits de Mer,” with imploring, anthropomorphic features, are scattered about the place, like lost extras from The Little Mermaid. A giant silken octopus, clams, crabs; the molluscs’ hard, protective shells re-produced in soft and vulnerable flannel, and an array of alluring colours. Central to this episode of the Lazy Susan Series is a clapped out stuffed rabbit with big floppy ears, all black, flat on its back on a mechanized rotating disk (or Lazy Susan), lazing under a placard that declares, “Art is not a natural science,” listening to a dub techno soundtrack of Moritz von Oswald. On the soles of its fabric feet, in homage to the Button Donkey,4 are stitched the letters SL and OTH.
The derivation of the word “sloth” can be traced back to an ancient Greek term, acedia, meaning lack of care. In contemporary English, sloth has tended to be bracketed alongside a long list of vaguely homogeneous terms, chief amongst which are laziness, idleness, apathy or indolence. However, in its antiquated usage, as it was first adopted in Latin, it had a precise ambivalence. As Daniel Rosenberg comments, “historically, sloth is a bipolar concept, signifying a kind of dissatisfaction that may be expressed equally through immobility or restlessness.”5 The fourth-century monk, Evagrius Ponticus, identified sloth as a profoundly debilitating psychological condition, “the boredom of the cell,”6 which specifically affected the ascetic in his monastic life. The combination of an entirely pre-determined daily routine with the lack of any genuinely “free” time led to an existential malaise, driving the monk to distraction and, ultimately, a loss of caring. Alongside feelings of sadness, apathy or restless impatience, sloth might equally manifest itself as a manic hyper-activity, extreme verbosity, paranoia or idle curiosity, as much as a paralytic inertia: essentially, an allergic reaction to the monotonous regularity and boredom of a life of contemplation.
By the time of the Renaissance, the precise ambivalence of sloth had already begun to be lost, with much of its particular meaning transferred across to the complex condition of “melancholia.” With the rise of a powerful ideology of productivity in the eighteenth century, actively displacing the ideal of a vita contempliva, sloth became equated with simple laziness. The roots of our contemporary obsession with work are usually traced to this period, and the new social and philosophical project of the Enlightenment, founded on rationalism, which coincided with the emergence of a capitalist economic system based on maximizing efficiency and productivity. Under this new regime, unproductiveness became a major vice, and clock-watching a way of life. The secular gospel of work that still prevails today, “I exist because I work,” proposes that freedom and work are in fact equivalent, and that free time, or more precisely “leisure time,” must be earned through labor, as “time is money.”
The Refusal of Labor
[10am, 10 October 2010 (Cologne): in the front yard of the CvB Factory (studio) hangs a sign, “Hippies use side door.” CvB wears a Hermès flat cap made of fine gray Cashmere wool; otherwise she is dressed all in black, with gold trainers and spectacle chain. Inside a team of highly skilled seamstresses are sewing together a small zoo of stuffed animals, surrounded by dark brown Majorcan blankets, inscribed with stitched line drawings and white thread lettering. A headless Geisha stands in a chicken-wire cage, next to a bright pink Toyota pick-up truck.]
As an allergic reaction to the monotonous regularity and boredom of a life of work, the nineteenth-century figure of the dandy was a walking spectacle of neurotic anxiety and obsession, raised to the level of an aesthetic principle, rejecting the prescribed schedule of productivity and labor either by withdrawing entirely from the world or by flaunting his idleness in public in the manner of the flâneur, parading through the streets of Paris. Giorgio Agamben has explicitly linked the figure of the dandy to that of the medieval slothful monk, both dedicated to the “epiphany of the unattainable.”7 Complementing this elision of malingerer and aesthete, a tendency towards hypochondria also grew apace, with high profile figures such as Marcel Proust, Florence Nightingale and Edgar Allen Poe regularly taking to their beds for long periods. In his lecture, The English Malady, Brian Dillon describes the hypochondriac’s travails as “a way of asserting, against the interests of a productive chronology, a series of over-lapping alternative time scales. In opposition to the diurnal round of industriousness and inaction, of labor and compensatory rest or entertainment, the hypochondriac posits the time of extreme anxiety, of tormented hope and of certain decay.”8
[11am, 14 February 2011: CvB arrives in Bristol diagnosed with swine flu, despite few outward symptoms of ill health, and is consequently banned from entering the Arnolfini to install her exhibition as several members of staff are pregnant. CvB enjoys the novel status of temporary exclusion from her own installation, standing outside the building, giving orders and smoking.]
Capitalism’s riposte to the refusal of labor in the last century was an ever more puritanical work ethic. Henry Ford declared, “Nobody can think straight who does not work. Idleness warps the mind.”9 The industrial production lines of “Fordism” completed what Karl Marx had described as the “machinic re-composition of the labor process”10 by concentrating low-skilled workers in large factories, mass-producing standardized merchandise for mass consumption. The in-built contradiction of Fordist mass production was that it tended towards a crisis of overproduction if it could not create a consumer demand that corresponded to its output. It depended upon constant growth. Thus fetishizing consumerism, hyper-stimulating the desire for ever more consumer goods, was integral to this regime of intensive accumulation, based around Ford’s principle that “our workers should also be our customers.”11 Leisure time became structured as a strict timetable of consumption, feeding the workers’ earnings back into the economy, with no real “free” time left at all.
According to Guy Debord, the “society of the spectacle” would be fully instated, “when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life.”12 His strategy for resistance to this process of commodification, détournement, was to employ the semiotics of spectacle culture but to turn it back upon itself. On first sight, CvB’s fabric works appear to parody the mass-production of cheap toys, fabricated in the factory-towns of Taiwan and China. These giant relational objects bear a superficial resemblance to the commodities mass-marketed to children, with their cartoon-like, humanoid features and appealing, asexual bodies covered in fake fur, only now bloated and gone to seed. However, on closer inspection, their careful crafting alludes more closely to collective art making, collaborative activities such as quilting and sewing circles, exactly opposite to the impersonal de-skilling instigated by the mechanisation of production. These are unquestionably art objects; hand-made, albeit by many hands; only with the prevailing severity of sculptural language de-bunked and made self-consciously “friendly” (in part, perhaps, in ironic recognition of their commodity status for the art market).
The Parallel World of Cosima von Bonin
In the classical distinction between two ways of life, a vita contempliva and a vita activa, the traditional assumption was that contemplation was of a higher order than labor, and that the ultimate goal of human activity was to provide the peaceful conditions necessary for the quiet contemplation of matters philosophical or spiritual. In her book, Vita Activa, Hannah Arendt reflects upon the modern glorification of productivity, and in so doing differentiates between “labor,” “work” and “action.” Arendt distinguishes the relentless physical activity (labor) that provides for the vital necessities of life and the human body from the craft (work) of the hands, fabricating use-objects and a man-made world of things. “Action,” by contrast, she says, exists within “a web of human relationships … woven by the deeds and words of innumerable persons.”13 To act means to take an initiative, to start something new, which is the basis of the principle of freedom. An action is irreversible, and has social consequences.
As well as her close attention to the poetic (and political) associations of materials (described by Diedrich Diederischsen as the material’s “charisma”), CvB famously inhabits a small world of close collaborators, fashioning her practice as a collective enterprise. The Lazy Susan Series, for example, is co-created by Moritz von Oswald, with contributions by Frances Scholz, Mark von Schlegell and Dirk von Lowtzow, amongst many others. There are references throughout to the work of fellow artists, pre-cursors and contemporaries, usually from the Cologne art world in particular. Not only does this shared ownership act to subvert notions of authorship, critiquing a particular mode of artistic sovereignty, but it also provides a short-cut to creating a social space, the “world of CvB,” in which to perform her artistic “actions,” or interventions. Diederischsen interprets this strategy of referencing other artists as deftly resolving the issue of legitimation, “neither in order to do without it, nor to really be able to trust the results of the act, but actually, for now, to declare the production of legitimacy to be the most important – completely unresolved – task of art.” Diederichsen continues, describing this as “a trait that Cosima von Bonin once called her ‘cowardice’: the wish not to have to express or answer to what the ultimate reason is for the functioning of poetic postulation … but to leave this to the farce of traditionality.”14
The aesthetic realm of CvB, therefore, is not a private institution. It is a social space or, more precisely, a world. Stephen Wright has written, “like languages, worlds are collective, inter-subjective undertakings, and though they are constructs, they are not the product of any individual consciousness or subjectivity – and this is precisely what gives them their ontological consistency and resilience.”15 Responding to Alain Badiou’s assertion, in Logics of Worlds, that we live in a social space that is increasingly “worldless,” Slavoj Zizek concurs that one of the main dangers of capitalism is that “it sustains a ‘worldless’ ideological constellation in which people are deprived of their ways of locating meaning. The fundamental lesson of globalisation is that capitalism can accommodate itself to all civilisations … capitalism represents truth without meaning.”16 In the post-industrial, post-Fordist, twenty-first century information society, there is a necessity to assert alternative realities and parallel worlds, as well as different versions of the past and possible versions of the future, other than the prevailing narrative described by the dominant interests of the present.
[1am, 29 April 2011 (Bristol): outside the Take Five Café, where Moritz von Oswald and Tikiman performed a heavy dub set on the opening night of CvB’s Bone Idle for Arnolfini’s Sloth Section in February, a second round of riots break out on Stokes Croft, protesting against the opening of a local Tesco mini-supermarket. Later that day, the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton occasions an unprecedented run of four Bank Holidays in two weeks.]
In his late work, The Three Ecologies, Felix Guattari argues that, as well as social and environmental conditions, our own subjective, mental health is threatened by the forces of consumerism and globalization. Neo-liberal capitalism produces a combination of mental dulling, social homogenisation and conformity, as well as ecological destruction and crisis. There is a need to recover “intensities,” to re-claim “existential Territories,”17 through the particularity of the subjective, a politics/poetics of heterogeneity and dissensus. As an allergic reaction to a life of standardized mass consumption, we should turn to the uncompromising subjective world of the creative imagination, for which we require “free time.”
== Essay by Tom Trevor, first published in Cosima von Bonin, The Lazy Susan Series, Rotterdam – Bristol – Genève – Köln by Museum Ludwig and DuMont, Köln 2011, ISBN 978 3 8321 9433 8, with Witte de With (Rotterdam), Arnolfini (Bristol) and MAMCO (Geneva) ==
1 Oscar Wilde, Intentions, 1904
2 Agatha Christie, An Autobiography, 1977
3 Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other, 1947
4 A brand of cuddly toys
5 Daniel Rosenberg, The Young and the Restless, Cabinet Magazine, Issue 29, 2008
6 Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos, 390, translated by John Bamberger, 1980
7 Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas, 1978
8 Brian Dillon, The English Malady, lecture given at Arnolfini, 19 February 2011
9 Henry Ford, My Life and Work, 1922
10 Karl Marx, Capital Volume 1, 1867
11 Henry Ford, My Life and Work, 1922
12 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 1967
13 Hannah Arendt, Vita Activa or The Human Condition
14 Diedrich Diederischsen, Material and Poetry, 2000
15 Stephen Wright, Betwixt Worlds, 2011
16 Slavoj Zizek, Shoplifters of the World Unite, 2011
17 Felix Guattari, The Three Ecologies, 2000