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The Ruins of the Eight-Hour Workday

Essay
Essay
(In)dependence
888
Aphids
Easy Riders
Eugenia Lim
Freedom
Ian Burn
Ian Millis
Maintenance Art
Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Monuments
Sarah Jaffee

“Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” – this maxim proclaimed in the early nineteenth century by Welsh reformer Robert Owen has been both a utopian thought as well as a call to action for the labor movements of the past two centuries. But if you look at the working and living conditions of many so-called “freelance” employees, artists, and creative people today, this neat division of time might strike you as unrealistic today as it was back then. One must also ask, what exactly is included in work? Or, who carries it out and who defines the conditions under which it is carried out? Above all, whose work is being ignored? Australian curator and author Amelia Wallin explores these questions in her consideration of the work Easy Riders by Melbourne-based artist Eugenia Lim. It draws on the legacy of 1970s Maintenance Art, as she argues, but it also shows how working conditions and employment have changed for artists and the workers with whom they collaborate. Wallin makes clear that we have to devote ourselves more to those conditions and the (in)dependencies that they produce, especially in view of the consequences of the recent global crisis—and we will need to do it collectively.

Text Amelia Wallin

Encircling a golden globe atop an obelisk on a street corner in Melbourne are the words ‘Labour, Recreation, Peace,’ below them a number: ‘888.’[1] This is a monument erected to commemorate the state of Victoria’s unprecedented success in establishing an eight-hour workday for workers in 1856. It is located opposite an imposing neoclassical stone building, the world’s first Trades Hall (1859).[2]

In the preceding decades, the building had been expanded from a modest timber structure into a grand stone hall, rivalling in grandeur Parliament House and other nineteenth-century government buildings. Built and financed by the workers themselves, the building symbolizes the power of the labor movement throughout this century. Since the beginning Trades Hall has housed artist guilds and art schools that aimed to bring the arts to the working class. It continues to be a meeting place for over 400 trade unions with over 4000 members, and increasingly it is a place where local contemporary artists and collectives invite the public to engage with the present conditions of work and its intersections with artistic labor.

Notably, the independent contemporary arts organization 1856 takes its name and mission from the building’s history of class struggle and its long-term engagement with the arts. Aphids, another independent organization, is using Trades Hall as a setting to examine contemporary working conditions through the performance and video work, Easy Riders, which has been devised in collaboration with so-called ‘independent contractors’ of the gig economy: service providers for Uber, Deliveroo, Easi, and Airtasker. As a performance, Easy Riders mimics the conditions of the eight-hour day for a live audience. While the audience is free to leave at the end of each hour-long cycle, the worker-performers reset their props, repeating the performance for the duration of eight hours.

Projects staged by both Easy Riders and 1856 coincide with the rising interest in artists’ unionism and collectivism, both local and international. The Australian conceptual artists Ian Burn and Ian Millis were instrumental in putting together an artists’ union in the late 1970s in Australia, and the interest in the potential of unionism has continued in the organizing of contemporary collectives, such as the artists’ boycott of the Sydney Biennale in 2014 and the Artist Union. COVID-19 exacerbated this need, the redundancies and furloughs of artworkers highlighting the lack of a safety net for artists and the closures of public spaces for art. In response, artists and arts workers organized, practiced mutual aid, enacted social economies, and spoke out against harmful institutional practices and the generalized precarity of the cultural sector. In parallel, the global pandemic focused attention on the gender and racial dimension of care and service work, exposing the precarity of workers in these fields. Aphids’ performance explores the intersections of these forms of labor, drawing uncomfortable parallels between independent contractors of the gig economy and service workers and unsalaried artist and arts worker. Both sectors participate in systems of exploitation and non-unionism, working outside of a standardized contract that would protect their rights and working conditions.

The promise of eight hours’ work created the illusion of rest and leisure beyond the shift. Yet eight hours of recreation per day evades many of us, as do eight hours of sleep.

What once stood as an aspirational symbol for workers’ rights has slowly been eroded. Fought for by unionists and labor movements through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the eight-hour workday was considered a working-class triumph. The promise of eight hours’ work created the illusion of rest and leisure beyond the shift. Yet eight hours of recreation per day evades many of us, as do eight hours of sleep. Instead, the neat division into thirds is generally undermined by longer working days and then occupied by feeding, cleaning, and self-maintenance. This is the work of keeping one’s body, or another’s, healthy to support waged work.

The family wage, first implemented in Australia in 1896, was almost exclusively available to white men, as Sarah Jaffee points out.[3] If the waged worker enjoyed eight hours of recreation, traditionally, this was thanks to his unwaged housewife. Although this is less common today since few workers and their families can afford to survive on a single wage, the key difference between these two types of workers is that one kind of work is contained and remunerated with reference to a shift and a wage, whilst the other is wrapped up in affective and physical care that has no fixed time and therefore cannot be measured or adequately remunerated. The continuing, uneven and gendered distribution of domestic work today means this disparity continues.

Located on the corner of a major intersection at the edge of the city, the monument to the eight-hour day persists as a powerful reminder of which rights workers have been losing over the past fifty years. “Monuments,” writes Anne Boyer, “are interesting mostly in how they diminish all other aspects of the landscape.”[4] Monumentalizing the eight-hour workday continues to hide the un(der)paid work that occupies the other 16 hours, and it ignores those responsible for performing this work. This ‘other’ work includes ‘reproductive labor’ or ‘social reproduction,’ and it is gendered and often racialized. Increasingly, the work of social reproduction has been outsourced, by and large, to people from the Global South, exacerbating already inequitable social relations. While the work remains, the person responsible for it has changed. Capitalism’s ongoing viability is structurally dependent upon the necessity of invisible, un(der)paid labor performed mainly by women and people of color. To put it another way, if you are not performing this work of maintenance yourself, someone else is performing it for you.

If the eight-hour workday indeed is a monument for workers, then it is a monument in ruins.

A notable feature of monuments is their affinity to ruin. In a material way, they are subjected to the circumstances of their place in the landscape, with visible and invisible creatures, such as the weather, degradation, and erosion, all compromising the condition of their materials.[5] But another compromising factor of the monument is its political vulnerability: monuments are often uprooted, toppled, and sanctioned. If the eight-hour workday indeed is a monument for workers, then it is a monument in ruins.

Back to Melbourne’s monument for the eight-hour workday and its ghosts, back to the context of Trades Hall and Easy Riders. Under the artistic direction of artist Eugenia Lim, Easy Riders has been co-created by service workers. Lim performs alongside the on-demand workers: precarious laborers within a neoliberal system that has left them without a union, dispersed, decentered, and always working. For workers in the gig economy, the hourly wage and the eight-hour workday are simply non-existent. This is also the case for artists, freelancers, caregivers, and so many others whose work can hardly be measured in terms of an hourly wage. The ‘worker–performers’ are remunerated with an hourly wage, plus superannuation, for their role in Easy Riders. The fee was calculated based on the Live Performance Award pay guide. What equivalences of value are produced between different forms of work? Why does one industry have unions, standardized pay, awards rates while others do not? It is the unequal divisions of labor, remuneration, and value that form the central tensions of Easy Riders, which are further highlighted by the performance’s very setting within Trades Hall and the pay structures that underwrite the performance. 

Operating from an intersectional feminist position, Lim’s previous works register an attention to outsourced labor and collective action. From ‘on demand’ video art that requires pedal-power to operate, a collaboratively constructed floor-based sand sculpture of the ‘Palm Jumeirah,’ to porcelain-cast bootleg iPhones and fake currency, Lim’s artwork critically considers the racial, gendered, and class dimensions of exploited labor.

Lim’s work harks back to the projects of pioneering American artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Ukeles is renowned for her long-term collaborations with non-artists, such as the maintenance staff of the Whitney Museum, or the sanitation workers of New York City. Ukeles famously aligned the artist-mother with the maintenance worker in her Manifesto for Maintenance Art (1969), where she declared “my working will be the work.” Invited to present work at the Whitney Museum in 1976, Ukeles turned her attention to the Whitney offices, at that time located within a 53-story skyscraper in downtown Manhattan. “Given the site, the abundance of maintenance workers, instead of making a work in the museum, I proposed a work with all the workers in the building.” Ukeles collaborated with the three hundred maintenance staff who were tasked with keeping the building running and secure, the architecture gleaming, for 24 hours a day over three eight-hour shifts. Not only is this particular kind of labor invisible — performed early in the morning, late at night, behind closed doors — it is also ceaseless, the same tasks are required to be performed daily or hourly.

Casualized labor shifts what was once the responsibility of employers back on to the individual.

Comparing the two projects four decades apart underlines just how significantly the conditions of work have changed for the workers with whom Lim and Ukeles collaborate, a testimony to the deliberate and sustained dismantling of organized labor under neoliberalism. Whereas Ukeles’ collaborators were unionized, centralized, and protected, Lim’s are dispersed, without direct access to co-workers, centralized meeting spaces, and safety nets. Casualized labor shifts what was once the responsibility of employers back on to the individual. As unionist Imogen Beynon puts it, “Neoliberal rhetoric has been remarkably successful at developing the notion of flexibility as a freedom, whilst concealing its function as a device to push risk onto workers“.[6] Gig workers, like artists, have internalized neoliberal rhetoric that equates flexibility with freedom; however for Lim’s collaborators, like the artist herself, this supposed freedom comes at a cost. The eight-hour workday and wages commensurate with hours are merely aspirational. For the gig worker, payment is dependent on speed, efficacy, and unrealistic levels of productivity and service.

Working outside of union protections, once the domain of artists, freelancers and caregivers, today affects everyone employed in the ‘gig economy’ and beyond. If the exploitation of the industrial revolution brought about the struggle for the eight-hour workday, what new systems of remuneration and imagination can we propose in order to reclaim our time, our care? Easy Riders draws attention to the eight-hour day as a monument in ruins and makes clear that the current conditions of labor require our urgent attention. The eight-hour monument and the performance’s setting within Trades Hall acts as a reminder of the hard-won achievements of unions and the power of collective bargaining in shaping conditions of work. Drawing equivalences between service workers of the gig economy and unsalaried and un-unionized artists makes evident the exploitation at the heart of neoliberal work life. Insecure work makes unionizing challenging, however finding lines of solidarity between precarious workers across industries holds radical potential for collective bargaining. Freedom does not look like flexibility. Instead, freedom for workers may be experienced when individuals are valued and protected, endowed with the tools to take charge of their working life through collective action.

[1] The 8-Hour Day monument is located on the corner of Russell and Victoria Streets on the border of the CBD and Carlton.

[2] The monument was moved from its original location outside the Treasury at the top of Collins and Spring Streets in 1903 to be prominently displayed on the route still taken during workers’ marches from Trades Hall through to City’s central thoroughfare of Swanston Street.

[3] Sarah Jaffee, Work Won’t Love You Back, London: C. Hurst & Co (2021).

[4] Anne Boyer in conversation with Amelia Wallin and Alison Karasyk, https://accessions.org/article4/accessions-issue-4-translation/anneboyer-inconversation/  

[5] Boyer continues, “We know what is around a monument—plants, air, rain, heat, humans, animals, insect life—is what threatens a monument’s deceptive singularity and reveals it to be multiple and surrounded, subject to the same processes that ruin everything else.”

Essay
(In)dependence
888
Aphids
Easy Riders
Eugenia Lim
Freedom
Ian Burn
Ian Millis
Maintenance Art
Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Monuments
Sarah Jaffee