Sustainability of Labour in Organized Networks

Paper delivered as part of Networks and Sustainability stream at the 6th European Meeting of the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts, 15 – 19 June 2010, Riga, Latvia. Soon to appear in a publication edited by RIXC The Centre for New Media Culture.

Rossiter (2006) claims in his book that organized networks have the capacity to organise labour and he places this “capacity” in direct relation with the problem of sustainability for organized networks. In this paper I want to consider these issues through the example of playing practice – a curatorial project which I co-initiated, which is formed as a small socio-technological network and based on collaborative research. I will engage in this task from the position of a curator of playing practice, performing what Joasia Krysa terms “immaterial curating” (2008b) thus recognising the problems and tensions exposed by this concept, namely ‘the existing tension between the “’collectivity’ of the production process and a tendency to preserve ‘control’ over it” (2008b, p. 92). Such an understanding of this type of curating as situated in the context of immateriality is useful in bringing the attention to the labour involved in the curatorial process and labour “invested in the works themselves” (2008b, p. 92). Consequently, my aim in this paper is to think of sustainability in relation to the labour that constitutes organized networks, thus proposing that it is through sustainability of labour that the organized networks can be sustained.

Organized networks, as Rossiter declares, are the new organisational forms which respond to the changing conditions of life and labour in network societies. They are “co-emergent with digital communications media” and created through the process of self-organisation. One of the characteristics of organized networks is their immanent relation to what he calls “constitutive outside” which is a concept that goes against the claims that there is no outside or that information is horizontally organised. There are three forces which Rossiter claims influence any media-information system and which comprise constitutive outside: “material (uneven geographies of labour-power, disjunctive social-technical systems, and the digital divide), symbolic (cultural capital and a-signifying semiotic systems), and strategic (figures of critique, situated interventions and permanent collaborations)” (Rossiter, 2006, p. 101). Rossiter’s critique of creative industries is based on establishing the necessity of acknowledging the power of constitutive outside and its role as the “’limit’ – within the plane of immanence” (2006, p. 103). He recognises how the labour-power is “situated within the social-technical and discursive system”; however, as he argues, it should be considered “as a constitutive outside for the creative industries” (2006, p. 107). In other words, the concept of constitutive outside is held as already constituting labour conditions within the creative industries. Any activity within the system is conditioned or even limited by those forces. If this argument was to stop here, there would be very few if any conditions of possibility for agency of organized networks. But Rossiter’s discussion of constituent outside is developed together with the notion of immanence. And it is this linking of immanence and constitutive outside that introduces the opportunity for considering labour-power of living labour as the force of constitutive outside, which at the same time is/has potential to act upon the conditions of labour – its own conditions.

The socio-technological conditions which are associated with emergent organisational forms are also recognised as influential when considering changes in curatorial practice. Krysa makes that point when she proposes to think of curating in open systems and as open system (Krysa, 2008a). Such an understanding of curating includes “continuous interaction with the socio-technological environment” (2008a, p. 3) of which elements are users/audience, machines, software, artists and curator. Krysa recognises the conditions in which such a system(s) exists and overtly situates curating in the context of immateriality referencing changing conditions of labour and production in network societies as theorised in particular by Italian Autonomists. “Curating in (as) open system(s)” references also systems theory and second-order cybernetics “to understand some of the nodes of power and forms of control therein, as well as the importance of feedback loops and self-organisation” (2008a, p. 50). In parallel to considering power and control in open systems Krysa also introduces the concept of agency in open systems and in curating. The basic understanding of agency as the “ability of humans to act autonomously or independently and to make interventions” is noted as important and it is from this basis that Krysa considers other forms of agency: from the Marxist tradition of agency as “a collective and historical dynamic”, more contemporary notion of agency that takes into account the engagement of subjectivities and collective subjectivity invested in forms of labour and production, and finally to the claims of agency of software. The aim of such an approach is to show how agency is distributed between humans, machines and software in a similar way that control is distributed over the system. It also indicates complexity in relation to the issue of sustainability of such a system, as it is too distributed among all elements of the system. Perhaps it is at this point that thinking of curating “in terms of distributed management system” as proposed by Krysa (2006, p. 14) is more clear. It stresses its transformative implications for cultural work which is “(reorganisation of control) in relation to changing technologies” (2006, p. 15) and consequently require operating with “a broader understanding of power and control in open systems” (2008, p. 23). This broader understanding should, I would argue, entail recognition of a need for continued sustainability of open systems; a kind of sustainability that is already produced as part of our desires thus can ‘engender the conditions of possibility for the future’ (Braidotti, 2006).

Before I move on further I would like to introduce a curatorial project 'playing practice' (2009) in the context of “immaterial curating”. I will concentrate on the description of 'playing practice' as social-technological network engaged in practice of co-producing knowledge, affects and social relations. However my attention here is on two things: 1)
considering the forces of constitutive outside that “limit” the project, and 2) the immanence or the agency generated by 'playing practice' understood as a system.

'playing practice' is at the same time a form of socio-technological network organised as a series of curatorial events. It uses online technology (wiki, Skype and doris) to explore collaborative and co-operative ways of working and their potential to form distributed communities of interest and knowledge producing commons. It was initiated in 2008 as a part of a research led collaboration between Sönke Hallmann from Department of Reading and myself. 'playing practice' uses a particular working method developed by Sönke and other researchers at Jan Van Eyck Academy associated within Department of Reading (DoR) (2006). DoR is another network and self-organised project which was devised to facilitate “a common use of text” within a context of online reading group which used wiki and Skype. Since 2006 when DoR was initiated, a method of ‘communicating’ with the use of text, wiki and Skype has emerged and led further to developing another tool which has been facilitating the sessions. Department of Reading internet system (doris) is a piece of software which when logged into a Skype chat, listens to this chat and relays all its messages, their ID tags and timestamps to a database. This database is located on a public server and doris communicates with it by XML-RPC interface available in Python. The database provides the chat messages for different visualisation, which are accessible through the web and thus publically available. So simply, what doris facilitates is the input of messages from Skype chat directly into a wiki and vice versa.

The Department of Reading method has been used in three of the four of the 'playing practice' sessions which have taken place since April last year. 'playing practice' was proposed as “a space of encounter, experimentation and intervention” (Hallmann & Tyżlik-Carver, 2009). This suggested a particular approach and engagement with its content for everyone involved participants and curators, and set out an initial framework which organised this temporary network of people, online tools, machines and online and offline spaces.

The project was motivated by interest in exploring and experimenting with the use of the DoR method in a curatorial context. So the 'playing practice' was organised as series of events taking place online as well as in the gallery, where people were invited to bring quotations and excerpts from texts on the subject of play, playing and toys, in order to use them as ‘toys’ – so as to play with them. Curating here should be considered in view of what Krysa terms as “immaterial curating”. What is acknowledged by this term is in particular “an inherent change in the relations of production in the curatorial process and in the understanding of curating as a cultural practice” (Krysa, 2008b). As well as being interested in this organisational/curatorial aspect of the events the project has been also driven by the idea of “sharing textual fragments as tools and toys”. Thus playing practice “suggests a space where text becomes a matter of playing, and playing a practice that allows for reading and writing to coincide” (Hallmann & Tyżlik-Carver, 2009). It can be said that 'playing practice' is driven by the practice itself as well as the results of the practice. For me what might be produced and how it is produced as well as the relations and dependencies that exist in the process are central. It is also interesting that in the consequent sessions we used the results of previous sessions as basis and material to use for play. This led to conceptual complexity of what was produced as well as to developing a practice based on agency of people, software and machines.

This might be a moment when we can start to recognise the constituent outside in immanent relation to the information produced by 'playing practice' that is the result of labour of people participating in playing practice, and recognise how it then shapes and influences the sessions. The question of what is produced is exactly the issue here and relates to “expanded curatorial production” (Krysa, 2006, p. 14) which includes “the technical and conceptual properties of what constitutes the curatorial object” as well as “the physical site of the computer and the network”(2006, p. 14). The process which led to creation of wiki pages filled with texts, images and poetically organised words is not represented. The labour, that of individuals and collective, is not visible in the ‘objects’ it created. At the same time this invisible labour shapes the conditions of future 'playing practice' sessions.

The first and second sessions were similar formally though the differences were in the number of people participating, number of texts in the session, and the different gallery space. These elements as well as part of constitutive outside can be also considered constitutive of the 'playing practice' itself. The internet connection, texts, number of participants and their ability to engage with the tools or their frustration or boredom with the process are in immanent relation to each other. So the constitutive outside in immanent relation to the information, affects it produces is, I would say, that force which acts from within the 'playing practice' session. This allows me to think of playing practice as a form of agency and also as a location: ‘a materialist temporal and spatial site of co-production of the subject’ (Braidotti, 2006, p. 199).

This might be even better explained by describing in more detail the method used to produce the third and forth articulations of 'playing practice'. Both were driven by an invitation from a curator at Canzani Centre in Ohio to participate in the exhibition project Agency for Small Claims (2009). For Agency, four participants of playing practice prepared a wall newspaper and paper toy based on a tangram, a puzzle consisting of seven flat shapes. Each flat shape was filled with textual fragments from previous sessions to allow for puzzle-like play with the texts opening them to various, though limited combinations of figure and text. The title of the project turning language into object (2009) is metaphorical and literal description of the process which produced its object – a toy, hardly a representation of the method at work during the previous sessions. The toy on one hand makes invisible the labour which led to its construction, and becomes detached from it(self). On the other it might be considered “a condition of potential for social relations, consumer dispositions and labour practices” (Rossiter, 2006, p. 119). And I would argue it functions as such in the final
session of playing practice, when the toy is translated back into a wiki page thus creating puzzle-pieces of texts open for editing, moving, exchanging, and rewriting in order for “different figures to appear through entering into new combinations”.

As a curator I return here to the question of labour and its sustainability in the context of curatorial events which are based on co-working and which result in co-production of knowledge, affects and information but also which generate symbolic imagery and value. I would like to base this problem in the context of an argument made by Vandana Shiva who recognises the rhetoric of “improvement” that is used as a motivation leading those processes which tend to naturalise labour. She says:

"To define social labour as a state of nature is an essential element of this ‘improvement’. This achieves three things simultaneously: 1) it denies any contribution by those whose products are appropriated, and by converting their activity in passivity transforms used and developed resources into ‘unused’, ‘undeveloped’, and ‘wasted’ resources; 2) by constructing appropriation to mean ‘development’ and ‘improvement’, it transforms robbery into a right with the claim to ownership based on a claim based on improving; and 3) and relatedly, by defining previous social labour as nature, and thus not conferring any rights, it transforms people’s assertion of their customary, collective usurfructory rights into piracy and theft." (1993, p. 32)

The symbolic value produced by attention, participation, affective labour is of particular importance in the context of organized networks and “immaterial curating”, as there is a danger that ambition for an “emancipated spectator” (Rancière, 2009) in contemporary art might turn into a situation of exploited spectator whose participation in the (art)work (but also in sites such as facebook, twitter etc.) is made passive. The labour producing the “symbolic value” might be and often is defined as non-labour and what actually is valued is a kind of virtual ‘real estate’ generated by the attention economy, and governed by intellectual property regimes and copyright. The basis of the symbolic and indeed material value which galleries, exhibitions, artworks and curatorial project require to build their capital (also cultural), is rooted in “surplus value imagery” (Pasquinelli, 2008, p. 125) produced by human and in the case of playing practice, non-human elements of the system. Pasquinelli in his recent book develops this argument when he points to “the role of social subject” and “social factory” (2008, p. 110) in producing the value. We can think of similar process in the context of knowledge production and co-production. Various forms of knowledge generated through participation in social networking sites and cultural and creative activities are devalued and atomised into information and data which is mined, analysed and used for the purpose of the market and only as such is acknowledges as valuable. This problem has been recognised already by activists and academics in universities across Europe and North America. Anomalous Wave or other research and actions undertaken by Edu-Factory collective, as one example, pose the problem of university as a factory and propose forms of resistance to such a devaluation of knowledge. But even before this colonising process of capital has become a real threat to the knowledge production in Western universities it obviously has been long at work in other spheres of our lives, societies and various geopolitical contexts as voiced by Shiva.

Shiva’s statement is important here as, I would argue, it captures very well the conditions of labour at stake in organized networks. To sustain labour as labour in organised networks is a question of control over the processes of production through the agency generated and distributed between humans, machines and software. And if indeed such are conditions of labour in organised networks perhaps the strategy for curating for networks is to constantly flee by acting upon the conditions that establish what curator is and what he/she does.

Agency for Small Claims. (2009). Retrieved June 6, 2010, from

Braidotti, R. (2006). Posthuman, All Too Human: Towards a New Process Ontology. Theory Culture Society, 23(7-8), 197-208. doi:10.1177/0263276406069232

Department of Reading. (2006). Retrieved June 6, 2010, from

Hallmann, S., & Tyżlik-Carver, M. (n.d.). Department of Reading | Main / playing practice. Retrieved May 16, 2010, from

Krysa, J. (2006). Curating Immateriality. Autonomedia.

Krysa, J. (2008a). Software Curating. The Politics of Curating in/as (an) Open System(s). University of Plymouth. Retrieved from

Krysa, J. (2008b). Distributed Curating and Immateriality. In C. Paul (Ed.), New Media in the White Cube and Beyond: Curatorial Models for Digital Art (1st ed., pp. 87-105). University of California Press.

Pasquinelli, M. (2008). Animal Spirits a Bestiary of the Commons. NAI Publishers.

playing practice. (2009, since). Retrieved June 6, 2010, from
Rancière, J. (2009). The Emancipated Spectator. Verso.

Rossiter, N. (2006). Organized Networks: Media Theory, Creative Labour, New Institutions. NAI Publishers.

Shiva, V. (1993). Reductionism and Regeneration: A Crisis in Science. In Ecofeminism (pp. 22-
35). Halifax N.S. ;London; Atlantic Highlands N.J.: Fernwood Publications; Zed Books.

turning language into object. (2009, July). Bureau for Open Culture. Retrieved June 6, 2010, from