For the first time ever, the Italy Pavilion will present an installation by a single artist, Gian Maria Tosatti, who has created a sort of site-specific Land Art work on a major issue. Actually, two big issues. The first is the role of culture in this complex contemporary contingency when so many crises are taking place: the environmental one, certainly, crossing the whole planet; and now, obviously, also that of war, very close to us all. The second question he poses is on a historical level: what allowed the self-deception that the West has perpetuated for so many decades, implementing a model that, while on the one hand had the obvious merit of improving the living conditions of many people and bringing well-being, on the other has polluted, without ever paying for this, basically because clear policies were never put in place that would allow compensation, at least monetary, for the environmental damage that was being done?
Act I: the body
[Luigi Cerutti]: We are going to have a brief conversation in two acts: the key word of the first act is “the body”. A word you have obviously used very often and is very often referred to, both in an abstract sense and in reference to the “body as machine”. In the central exhibition of this Biennale, curated by Cecilia Alemani, there is a capsule dedicated to the Post Human, a key word with Jeffrey Deitch in the art of the 1990s, when the world experienced artificiality, plastic and the changing body, at a time when there was the conviction, and perhaps the hope, that science would save the planet, despite all the abominations of which man was capable. So, in response to that capsule, the first point of reflection is precisely that on the body. In a context like the current one, which still sees the centrality of the body in the production of work and wealth (because it is through this that much of the work is manifested, especially in a system like the Italian one, still largely manufacturing and poorly digitised compared to the other great powers of the G7), in a world that has created the metaverse, where this body does not exist as a physical fact but as a pure projection of the self, what role does the body still have?
[Christian Marazzi]: So the body. The problem with the body is that over time it has undergone a denial due to digitisation and obviously also globalisation, all exacerbated by the development and explosion of the pandemic crisis. The body has thus undergone a removal. During the pandemic, the question was posed: where has the body gone? We wondered about its destination, only to find that the real issue was not its disappearance, but its modification, its reconfiguration within this great digital network. First of all, it must be understood that the war has brutally and dramatically brought the body back to us. It has put it back at the centre of our lives, of our gaze. And so questioning ourselves about the body seems to me at the same time to be questioning ourselves about work, about how it has changed in all these years, and about the processes of re-signification of the body. I think that these two things are what the concept of the body imposes on us today. We may start with work. In the last decade, since the beginning of the 1980s, work has been modified, in the sense that it has become heterogeneous, its forms have multiplied. Today we have a multiverse (and no longer a universe) of work, marked by an increase in fixed-term work, part-time work and on-call work. These are all characteristics, let us say vectors, along which the world of work has been modified and transformed, leaving behind permanent employment, which from the point of view of centrality was always representative of the twentieth century, though not statistically the largest. Permanent employment has always served as the reference model for constructing the welfare state, occupying the collective mind. Even today, these parameters are so engraved on our minds that a fixed-term job is considered, as an occupational psychologist used to say, a subtraction, a minus compared to a full job that in fact no longer exists. This is the first consideration that seems to me important for our subject of the disappearance of the body and its pluralisation at work. The other issue related to the body is digitisation, and its effect of hiding the body, which is always seen mediated by a screen. Digitisation is therefore itself a gymnasium for construction of a metaworld, which has accelerated over the last two decades and naturally exploded during the pandemic and with remote working. This idea of disorientation, of the disappearance of the body and, perhaps better, of its removal, raises some central questions. Digitisation is based on the concept of digital work. In turn, digital work is based on the digitus, the finger, a precise organ of the body. As Antonio Casilli said in his Schiavi del clic (Feltrinelli, Milan 2020), although we may try to deny it, digital work is in any case work that has to do with the body, with physicality. And this poses a problem that alludes to another question. If the economy has to do with defining the theory of value, what is value today, what is economic value when work is so digitised and distanced? The other issue is precisely the disappearance of the body. But this is a partial disappearance. Indeed, behind the networks there are bodies, many many bodies. There are millions of bodies. Such as those of network maintenance workers and managers; of those who fix bugs, or the network sweepers, who help to keep it, so to speak, in order; of those who find themselves working behind the big platforms, and who do so from their own little room, in the basement. There is, in short, an economy of bodies at work behind the immaterial. The same bodies that we see in the streets of Mariupol perhaps, and which then come back to us in all their force. The body is always there. We have to understand that this twentieth century seems never-ending, it seems that our feet are snared in this short century (which is by now very long) and we cannot free them. We also think about the body and man’s relationship with raw materials: today there is talk of natural gas, oil, even coal. All this helps define our time as an interregnum, where the old dies but the new is not born. The body is therefore the place where this tragic situation is condensed, but it is also hope, the possibility of recomposing what has been pulverised through a change in the way of working and producing. At the same time, within this return of the body, I also wanted to introduce the phenomenon of the Great Resignation that has characterised the post-pandemic United States. A sort of exodus from liberalist work, as it has been defined in the last thirty-five years: a hyper-productive, hyper-stressful, demotivating job with little gratification or recognition. After the pandemic, everything seemed to start again, and indeed, compared to the lockdown period, everything has started again. However, for many who had stayed home, particularly in the US, and also received benefits, it was impossible to simply accept going back. Hence the great refusal. The Great Resignation is a phenomenon affecting something like ten percent of the employed workforce in the US in terms of absolute numbers. It is a phenomenon that has affected an average of 4.2 million people as of July 2021. And it continues to be an important phenomenon. Why? Because the pandemic was the moment when many people understood, or asked themselves, the question: “Should I continue to live in order to work, or should I give new meaning to my life? In other words, do we live to work or do we work to live?”. Because the fact of having to stay home, with their children, with their partner, allowed them to understand that there are other things in life besides work, outside that typically liberalist hysteria. So this resignation could be a re-signification of the body and of work. A survey conducted by Microsoft showed that in the last quarter of last year people who gave up their jobs returned to the professional world with higher salaries, as if they had been able to exert more bargaining power than those who had remained loyal to their original jobs. Therefore, in a certain sense, exodus and resignification were more rewarding than loyalty, in precisely the terms of the “Exit, voice and loyalty” theorised by Albert Hirschman. There is no doubt that the pandemic has brought the body to the centre of our hearts and thoughts. A body both removed and cared for. Indeed, the pandemic has definitively established the word “care”. We have become, willy-nilly, a society of care. We care for the bodies of the injured, the bodies of the dead, the bodies of the living, the bodies of the elderly, the bodies of children, the body of the environment, the home, the land. In short, it is all care. And it all starts from this awareness of regaining our bodies. Finally, it is clear that the body has strength when it is collective. A body alone is a body that lives in solitude and isolation, it is a poor body. Whereas a collective body is a revolutionary body, without any ideological connotation, but in the sense that it is capable of revolutionising, of re-transforming. Art has an enormous role in this. Art must in some way represent this revolution, this logic and this process of bodies in transformation, of bodies in nature that have all this within them.
Act II: the environment entering the workplace
[L.C.]: You touched on a subject that is also central to the Italy Pavilion, which is that relating to the evolution of work caused by the revolutions, also environmental ones, that are taking place and the new policies that will be adopted by countries. We can see this now in Italy with the car market, which has to convert to electric cars, a necessary phenomenon but one with serious repercussions for industrial models, national collective agreements and employment. This phenomenon also encompasses the “bottom-up” need that seems to be emerging, and which the pandemic seems to have made more urgent, for flexible working hours, working from home and a four-day week. In all this, nature and the environment seem to suggest a way forward. But how should we go about it?
[C.M.]: I would start by saying that I was very struck by what recently happened at Amazon’s Staten Island branch, where after last year’s defeat over the possibility of having a trade union, this has now been implemented. The most striking thing is that after that heavy defeat, in order to have a union within Amazon, the ultimate symbol of the digital economy, the organisers drew inspiration from the written manual and the model of the American steel industry in the 1930s. This is an interesting example of the forms of self-organisation, inspired even by this seemingly never-ending century. It is a rethink, I would say, also of the methods of national bargaining, a rethink of the past. As an old economics professor used to say: “It is better to discover old truths than invent new nonsense”. The second thing that comes to mind is that the labour transformation processes, from relocation to the concentration of capital, risk more and more affecting a whole range of small and medium-sized enterprises and start-ups that are the biological wealth, the biodiversity, of a widespread economy. New habits and different policies have an impact on small and medium-sized enterprises, which are not always able to shoulder radical changes when they are not the main players. And this has economic impacts on communities, just as there have been impacts on the relationship between work and work time, which has much eroded the boundary between work and life. Always being online is a subject taken too much for granted. In the book Radical Markets [by Eric Posner and Glen Weyl, published in 2018 by Princeton University Press, ed.] there is a chapter that pays particular attention to the fact that data are work. “Big data is labour”. All the data we produce are a value, the result of work and then used by other workers to make up the base of big data put to use by companies in a variety of ways. The starting point for all this is our own individual production as workers on the network that unites us, as producers of data. I think this should also be kept in mind in collective bargaining, linked to the question of productivity. We are productive. And we are increasingly so in ways that are not accounted for, statistically intercepted. We buy a train ticket at the station using a smartphone and we produce data, and at the same time allow the transport company to save, so to say, the salary of a ticket seller, who is in fact disappearing. And how am I reimbursed for this production of data that will be used, on the fact that I go to the beach at the weekend? There is no monetary trace of all this work and not leaving a monetary trace means that our actual and effective contribution to the creation of wealth does not appear in the product quantification definition and therefore does not appear in the calculation of our productivity. Productivity is actually GDP, the product divided by the number of hours worked. If part of the numerator disappears, the result is clearly that productivity is flat, as has been statistically the case for the past twenty-odd years, with disastrous effects on the calculation of wage increases. I say this because it is an issue that is almost never discussed in bargaining. Why not? Because it is restricted to outdated parameters. The second thing is that, for example, as mentioned, digitisation and being constantly connected mean that even in part-time jobs there is total presence and participation. This, especially after the pandemic, should impose in collective bargaining a right, but perhaps an obligation, to disconnect, both for human and salary issues, because in this case the employment rate is actually full-time – you are guaranteeing your availability (and woe betide if you don’t!) – but the contract is part-time. I think we all agree that we have to carve out and regain some space, some time for living, in which we can re-signify our life, our body and our work itself.