The gig economy is perhaps the natural progression of our digital world, forcing a race to the bottom of values, rights and respect. As a major new exhibition at FACT looks into its pitfalls, Elliot Ryder uncovers some of the unheard stories from one of the artists behind it.
Since the turn of the 20th Century, the dominant political class of western nations has taken ownership of the terms of purpose and social contribution. Owning the definition of work has proven just as important as work itself when it comes to sustaining power. In Britain alone, socialism, liberalism and conservatism have all captained the working wheel to varying degrees, deciding its speed, direction and which hands are best for the job. Yet, not every idea of work is a battle between the deregulated liberal sphere and a monolithic socialist heave.
With the conception of the World Wide Web, these malleable perceptions of work and employment stand more blurred than ever, more open than ever, less regulated than ever. And with it, ideas of freedom and fulfilment have been altered to the point where one has come to reflect the other in terms of discourse.
In line with the growing unpredictability of work, one half of FACT’s REAL WORK summer exhibition focuses on precarious work, primarily the digitised and unregulated online gig economy – a platform for creatives to find and secure income for their particular skill set. IN REAL LIFE is a brand-new commission by American visual artist Liz Magic Laser which follows the stories of five online gig workers applying their trade across the four corners of the world. The piece takes a reality TV format, showing in five different character-led episodes, focussing on the stories of each participant as they use online gigging sites such as PeoplePerHour, Upwork and Fiverr to find paid freelance creative work. Sites where users will have a profile and scoring system which dictates access to higher-level contracts and commissions, all the while providing the notion that they work for themselves and have an unmatched agency over their bodies and workplace.
“I definitely came at [In Real Life] from a journalistic, exposé sort of angle,” Laser tells me, as we meet the morning after the first viewing of the exhibition. “The project was about unearthing the lives of mostly anonymous workers, in a field of online work that is proliferating at a really accelerated rate, that’s reducing our personal contact with others.”
Laser’s previous work has sought to intervene in semi-public spaces, with her more recent projects exploring the efficacy of new age techniques and psychological methods active in both corporate culture and political movements. This latest intervention offers a stark portrait of the working from home fantasy. “There’s no overarching feeling that I’m attempting to draw out of the viewer. It’s more individualistic to each person,” Laser replies, when asked if her new work has a particular aim or could be considered as campaigning. “I would love for a lot of gig workers and a lot of freelancers to see this work, and hope that they have empathy, sympathy and introspection about their trade. On the other side, I’d like tech entrepreneurs to view it and see how it compares to their more positive, utopian view of the internet as a place for upward mobility.”
Since 2010 – importantly, pre-Brexit – the gig economy has been one of the key duelling podiums of a general election campaign. TV debates often scoured over accessibility and flexibility versus unpredictability and lack of certainty. The key offenders being zero-hour contracts that swept people into work with Uber, Deliveroo and Sports Direct.
But Laser’s exhibition proves compelling in its focus on much more applied skill sets, where the apparatus of the gig economy is proving just as present – namely, creative work. The five films follow a screenwriter, social media content creator, graphic designer, whiteboard animator and voiceover artist, all of whom are dispersed across Europe, Asia and Africa. Each participant’s story details their profession, their chosen gigging platform, their tribulations when it comes to securing a steady workflow – and their eventual revaluation of themselves. Metrics, measurement and self-analyses are prevalent throughout. Each is also gifted with a range of ‘biohacks’ throughout their journey, technologies picked out to add a dimension of ease to their labour. “The biohacking is almost like fighting fire with fire. You can use tech to diminish its hold on you. Use it to augment and seize agency over your own mind and body,” Laser explains. These biohacks range from heart beat monitors to a wristwatch that applies low level electrocutions when procrastinating. It’s easy to observe an imbalance of expectation and stress throughout the display. But just as with the opposite spectrum of the gig economy, unpredictability, and the negative effect this can have on a creative practice, stands out. The biohacking is put in place earnestly, but you can’t help but sense the sinister atmosphere the gigging world creates if a heart monitor is required to calm the body into a creativity-ready state.
For the western participants, the online gig work follows a similar process of freelancing – albeit the platforms are used by those in need of work, rather than those who’ve taken the personal decision to operate as a freelance creative. But while participants all share a sense of restrictive demands, elongated hours and oppressive availability, it is the participants from Nigeria and Pakistan that present online gigging in a different light. “I am very much a freelancer myself, a gig worker or sorts, so I came at it subjectively, but my opinions changed over the course of the project,” Laser starts. “I came to see it as more of a leveller between the first and second world, more than I was ever expecting.” Laser admits she initially saw the gig world as an extension of class oppression, a means to outsource menial labour, the type that would evoke imagery of call centres or industrial size warehouses. “But while I could see there was an element of creatives losing out, or having their work reduced in value in the first world, the gig economy was spawning a sort of millennial, creative professional in the second and third worlds.”
Alabi, a Nigerian whiteboard animator, and Zahid, a Pakistan-based graphic designer, could use Upwork and Fiverr to secure a wage that is much higher than their average rate. Whereas, in the UK, screenwriter Cardy, operating on PeoplePerHour, sees the value of his work decrease in the online gigging sphere, even losing out altogether as the platform does not cover costs for pitches. It’s a situation that grows more straining when hearing of his redundancy as a screenwriter – leading him towards online gigging as a freelancer, rather than through choice. For both Alabi and Zahid, the improved levels of creative work is a positive, but the apparatus that sets the demands is far from compassionate. Both must be prepared to work at any moment on the client’s timescale. Without this compliance their online profile will suffer, and the increased wage contracts will be out of their reach. What we see is a full-scale perforation of downtime. “In this side of the gig economy, the internet, or the web, is in effect your boss and your manager that’s holding you accountable. There’s never going to be any understanding there.” As Laser’s films demonstrate, these free, stay-at-home workers are under constant surveillance by their internet connection, beholden to the four walls where they are the most connected.
“The regimentation and militarisation of work has grown massively due to the online gig economy,” Laser argues in relation to the eradicating space between work and freedom. The mechanics of the workplace, according to Michel Foucault, borrow from a corrective system developed by the military and a ubiquitous sense of surveillance developed through prison. What emerges in the online gigging sphere is the transfer of agency over control of work, and the shifting position of work-based surveillance.
Foucault’s examination of the Panopticon, the central observation tower within a prison that can view every cell and prison, designed by Jeremy Bentham, underlines that a constant state of surveillance is the best means of correcting inefficient work practices. But whereas in a factory this might be carried out by a supervisor, for online creative gigging, the eyes of surveillance have grown internally, to the point where a constant tentativeness to an internet profile has produced a panopticon of the self. The freelancer is corrected in accordance with their own stresses and reflection of their online score, constantly watched by a demand to be available, or risk their gigging score deplete. What we now see in these lines of work is complete borderlessness between home and work, labour and freedom. The two come to overlap to produce highly efficient, intensified workforces – the exact model required for a chaotic neoliberal state perforating since the financial crash of 2008.
Laser observes how the open-source accessibility of the internet has lurched from a utopian, post-acid test dream to come under the influence of corporate ideals. “I’ve been more focussed on the role expanding consciousness has played in counterculture, and how it is now more present in corporate culture. All of these are methods, and they can be deployed for either purposes,” Laser informs me when discussing a thinning differentiation between work and freedom. “Practices that were once thought of as being anarchist are now being put in the position of corporate interest. Freedom is essentially being manifested within productivity. A medium or a language is never beholden to one agenda; it can be quite easily transported into another.”
The laptop lifestyle and freedom to clock in and clock out is the cornerstone appeal of the creatives’ online gigging world. Of course, experiences can differ, but the films by Laser show recurring themes of invasiveness. Life is denied the space to exist beyond commitments to being creative and selling this product. Surveillance of the self is essentially a derivative of a hyper-deregulated strain of neoliberalism that has expanded post-2008. We now live in a paradoxical reality where freedom is reliant on work and jobs are sought on a corrosive, emotive loaded basis. These so-called lives – or real life – now shroud what appears to be real work. Now, the bright, forever daylight horizons of the internet can stretch a working day across an illusory night, well into the unarrived morning, with no promise of rest on the other side. Freedom makes you work.
Real Work is showing now at FACT, and runs until 6th October. Featuring In Real Life (2019) by Liz Magic Laser and Sweat (2018) by Candice Breitz.