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An interview with Maja Cule

, 4 November 2014

When I first met Maja Cule I already knew who she was from the days when she was part of the duo Dora&Maja (with the artist Dora Budor), but I tried not to act like a fanboy. It’s hard not to be one: she is well-versed and articulate about everything including alternate economies, women issues, queer issues, Eurocentric issues, the rigidity of the social structure of the art world, time poverty, salad, horror movies, and how to survive. Those are some of the main threads running through Maja’s practice, which takes a lot of forms, though it could be said that her main work is building fictional narratives that are often only a slice away from reality.

A few weeks ago she emailed me a version of her new video ‘Facing the Same Direction’ (2014), which is the centerpiece of her current show of the same name at Arcadia Missa in London. The video is about “Doing What You Love” (DWYL), the culture of not only working your ass off to support yourself, but also smiling and making friends while you do it – and then capitalising on those smiles. The video’s main character is Alex, a woman who starts an IndieGogo crowdfunding campaign asking for $80,000 to “pursue independent interest in projects” rather than working for wages in the typical sense. Alex’s campaign launched on IndieGogo the day of the exhibition opening.

Maja Cule, 'Facing the Same Direction' (2014). Film still. Courtesy the artist.
Maja Cule, ‘Facing the Same Direction’ (2014). Film still. Courtesy the artist.

With other works in the show including a book of user comments taken from the “BIC pen for her” on Amazon, and large-scale prints of a clichéd yet unrecognisable live/work space, the theme of the crumbling work/life divide via systems like IndieGogo and Airbnb is a strong one. The so-called “sharing economy”, which has quickly become a fact of life for those in the creative industries, has also become enacted as content for various projects – from the recent Airbnb pavilion in Venice to Constant Dullaart’s purchase and distribution of instagram followers to others in the art world: “Hitching a ride is Uber, hospitality is Airbnb, and when you are interested you are a follower”.

I loved the way Maja’s video likewise became a performative intervention. When I saw it I wrote back to her, and then she wrote back too, and then I decided that in the spirit of the sharing economy we should capitalise on our relationship and turn our conversation into an interview. So we relocated the chat onto Google Docs to make it seamless – though it was actually cobbled together during breaks from ‘real’ work, whenever Maja could find wi-fi while traveling (she was in London, Serbia and New York during those weeks). And why do so many of us likewise spend our break time talking about work? Because we love what we do.

Maja Cule, Facing the Same Direction (2014) @ Arcadia Missa installation view. Courtesy the artist.
Maja Cule, Facing the Same Direction (2014) @ Arcadia Missa installation view. Courtesy the artist.

What do you expect or want to happen with the ‘Facing the Same Direction’ campaign?

Maja Cule: The campaign extends the life of Alex as a fictional character, as she interacts with Indiegogo visitors, who have mostly so far been prosumers and spammers. This is one of the comments from a visitor: “Thinking about hitting full funding? Make it count. I will market, promote, review and revise your campaign giving you my expert opinion which will boost your GoGo factor.”

In a sense Alex is more real than her online audience at the moment. The comments are kind of an SOS to Alex, to help her become more of a product than she is at the moment. Obviously the goal of this campaign is not to raise the funds – the problem is that no one is interested in interaction unless funding is the goal. There are perks and rewards for backers though. One of them is to book Alex to do a lecture, and the highest reward is to take over Alex’s highly-rated Airbnb account.

So are you compensating Alex for being part of the project? Or is she taking part because she Loves What You Do?

MC: Alex will of course receive the proceeds from the Indiegogo campaign. It was very important to me that Alex would like what we did together. I didn’t do casting calls or look for an actress, because I thought this role should be played by someone who has her own ideas about work and finds DWYL culture to be an oppressive ideology. Anna Khachiyan [a writer and illustrator] who plays the role of Alex was the only person I could imagine to do this without acting. I also love what she does.

Maja Cule, 'Facing the Same Direction' (2014). Film still. Courtesy the artist.
Maja Cule, ‘Facing the Same Direction’ (2014). Film still. Courtesy the artist.

The character asks for “the greatest number of people to participate by making the lowest possible contribution” to her campaign. What do you/ does she mean by this?

MC: That line in the script is referring to Alex’s desire to participate, she believes that if the higher number of backers would support her campaign with the smallest possible contribution would be a greater success than to have one backer support the campaign.

The main theme of the video is DWYL: that it’s somehow a shortcoming if one doesn’t embrace and feel passionate about the wage labour that one is forced to engage in to survive. Is art just like any wage labor, or is the pressure to LOVE MY WORK even higher for artists?

MC: Um, it’s more about how the idea of DWYL produced an oppressive ideology, where passion and emotion are supposed to exist 9 to 5, and success is measured in positive feelings during work hours. It’s impossible to always love what you do and it’s really not possible to be able only to love what you do. Everyone dislikes what they do at least for some period of time. I think that there is no difference between art and any other wage labor in the amount of emotional involvement and energy being put into it; it depends on the person, and their capability to be emotionally distant.

One of my favorite lines in the video is: “It’s enforced to love what you do. If you want to disagree, then that’s work too.” This makes me think that maybe we’re all too occupied with crap and constant updating for actual dissensus; do you think that the lack of unoccupied/unproductive time could explain the lack of a certain critical attitude? Distraction=capitulation?

MC: That is an interesting way to put it, as being distracted is an intensely passive state and offering a disagreeing position is the extreme opposite. Also, to be able to dislike something takes a lot of preparation, and at least 10 times more arguments than to simply like something. To dislike something is considered to be unacceptable, it’s taking up too much valuable time, it’s unproductive, unpredictable, it’s what makes a bad product. This is an example of how interaction is influenced by economy and production and its efficiency, demand and functionality.

Maja Cule, Thinner Barrel 640 pg book consiting collected user comments from “BIC for Her” Amazon page site. Courtesy the artist.
Maja Cule, Thinner Barrel 640 pg book. Courtesy the artist.

In the video there is also a reference to Airbnb. Like IndieGogo, I see a techno-utopian aspect to Airbnb — wellness, aspiration, safe adventure, and economic gain via community-building. Both websites represent the confluence of social networks with economic transactions. What interests you in particular about those platforms?

MC: I don’t think there is a utopian aspect to Airbnb that lives beyond the advertising campaigns the company makes. Community building with Airbnb is similar to that of a workplace: it’s regulated by universal politeness and financial obligations. I think that Airbnb provided substantial support to people who were renters and couldn’t afford not to work. But Airbnb in that sense is a temporary solution.

Here’s a fake slogan for Airbnb: “What difference would a 30,000 yearly grant do for an artist in NY?” The discussion about sharing economies and Airbnb always skews in this direction; while hosts are earning money, they are also raising the value of real estate and causing greater inequalities in housing market. I feel the company’s argument is like placing responsibility for climate change on a consumer. The effects Airbnb has on the housing market are tiny in comparison to a legal decision that would limit annual rent increases…..

The “universal politeness” in sharing economies that you mention reminds me of some of your projects focusing on health and well-being — like your DISLaughing Alone with Salad‘ stock image collection (2013), or the video ‘The Horizon’ (2013) where a woman dangles off a building, suggesting precarity in physical and economic wellness. How does DWYL connect to the idea of “achieving” health?

MC: The ‘laughing alone with salad’ photo series was a meme that identifies code in stock images that is not true to our experience—false representations of happiness, health, gender and pleasure. I think of these images when someone says ‘health’, at the same time I know that the image has absolutely no connection with the feeling of being healthy.

In a similar way, in the ‘Facing the Same Direction’ video, Alex is not trying to do what she loves – she is just not working. All the other characters who appear in the video, are working, from the journalists to the Apple store staff to the people waiting in the line for an iPhone 6.

Maja Cule, 'Facing the Same Direction' (2014). Film still. Courtesy the artist.
Maja Cule, ‘Facing the Same Direction’ (2014). Film still. Courtesy the artist.

Your press release for ‘Facing the Same Direction’ includes a provocation to “Fail harder”. How does the idea of capitalising off failure fit in?

MC: The phrase “Do what you love” is apparently assigned to Confucius, and it meant finding pleasure in work or any activity in a balanced way. But DWYL is the mantra of an oppressive ideology, where professional identity is the only identity, and work is the only way to experience time. The idea of love and work just shouldn’t be together. In Steve Jobs’ commencement speech he says: “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life. The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” That sounds so tragic. It leaves no space for experiences outside of work.

Failure, like DWYL, is a term that got appropriated: at first it represented a basic negative result but is now often used to mean a risky action with a lot of creative potential. “Failing harder” and “learning from your mistakes” are new strategies that create attitudes towards work that are advertised as products via these mantras.

Do you ever feel like you fail?

MC: I feel freedom in doing work where it’s hard to decide if something is a success or a failure, and results are often unpredictable. If I don’t work for a while because I’m doing something else, that feels like a failure of time.

That sounds like one of the lines from the video: “Work takes up 80 per cent of your time. Every day you go and plug yourself in at the office, and yet you’re never fully charged”. I wrote you in an email that this reminds me of Jonathan Crary’s recent book 24/7, where he talks about the fact that we are never fully “off” and that that sleep is our last bastion of non-commodifiable, opaque time. What do you think? Are you ever really at rest?

MC: The line from the video that compares the body to a phone charger is an extremist view of productivity, which is completely divorced from feelings and the human capacity for different experiences. Jonathan Crary’s view of sleep as a territory that hasn’t yet been touched by markets is really interesting. I feel like the polarised view of body being in sleep/wake state is missing gray areas, the empty gaps that are necessary for processing experiences. If the human body depends on blank states to process experiences, rest, and prepare to be able to participate in new ones, that means that busy people grow to be close-minded. ‘Work less’ is the new DWYL. **

More stills and exhibition photos, top right.

Maja Cule’s Facing the Same Direction solo exhibition is on at London’s Arcadia Missa, running October 11 to November 15, 2014.

Header image: Maja Cule, ‘Facing the Same Direction’ (2014). Film still.Courtesy the artist.