Value is malleable. Almost nothing has it intrinsically, which makes it an irresistible subject for artists who constantly feel at the mercy of vast and insidious structures of economy: recipes for sleepless nights. Understanding the neoliberal debt economy in relation to the creative industries seems as though it’s an attainable goal, and the desire to do so means that niche publications such as Fulcrum’s Real Estates: Life Without Debt become best sellers. If enough theorists can lay out the reasons that you’ll never be able to afford your own home in a stylishly minimal, yet expensively tasteful book, maybe everything will be okay?
By contrast the release of the first issue of Volume 2 of quarterly e-journal General Fine Arts, published by Version House, is part of an obsession with the competing forces of work and labour in relation to its title-theme ‘Values’ in art. In his editorial for the online publication, editor Tom Clark notes that the contributors address the inadequacies in systems that they repeatedly come up against. Though the compilation has no ‘specific alternative’ to the questions it raises around ‘the value in crisis’, we’re presented with a collection of writing, audio and illustration that thinks diversely around autonomy and commodity, ethics and debt, labour and work, with all the messy facets of self-esteem, privilege, and self-censorship alongside.
By breaking down the disclosure of mass surveillance programmes by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden as a matter of encryption/decryption, John Hill’s ‘Value’ delves into the dichotomies of public/private within the arts and the relationship between different players in the network. Following this with a mockup of a Snowden fanzine by Karisa Senavitis and Kevin O’Neill of Will Work for Good, the craftily re-purposed GCHQ-branded paper is a bright spot in terms of curation. Only Josefine Wikström really brings up the idea of privilege in the art world –a subject so toxic and nefarious that it fuels endless rumours. It seems like an issue smoothed over by others, where in fact it complicates their otherwise delicate points about the trading of one’s own worth in an unfair labour market. Marina Vishmidt’s ‘Anti-Work, Anti-Art’ asks what the unseen side of production means in the labour-politics of the arts, thinking around the inadequacies of working conditions for people in the industry. Her feminist analysis contours the chasm in-between the conditions of production and sale, and she urges for a radical solution that goes further than the Wages for Housework campaign by Silvia Federici. This also seems to be the subtext behind Beatrice Loft Schulz’s ‘Routine 4’, which addresses the oikos –housework –that makes artistic work possible. The problems around structuring your day like the ultra-successful artist she references are particularly jarring to any precarious worker, turning her meticulous performative tone into critique itself.
Even though many contributors offer opinions and experiences around exchange value, the ideas around what does not just stop at the notion of stable ownership falter against the idea that ownership and agency today is constantly in flux. By thinking around the ideas of value and values in the abstract, tensions between waged and unwaged labour, and the effect of affective labour are drawn out in less essayistic ways.
Poems by Imran Perretta and Kalliope Maria Nagy breathe a sigh in the face of performance and the self, neatly following Vincent Para’s ‘A Transcription to a Center’ –a disturbingly terse portrait of a patient with an unnamed mental health disorder. manuel arturo abreu’s ‘Untitled (Labor)’, a litany of tweet-length epiphanies (read in a slow New Yorker drawl in a recording played at the launch), and Laura Guy’s ‘I want a President/I want a Prime Minister’ (opening line: “I want a dyke for president”) are manifestos, invocations of a desire for change. They address a void at the centre of an imagined Venn diagram of the nonexistent intersectionality of those in power. Lists like Adam Gallagher’s untitled piece work in the digital format —here it’s accompanied by a field recording, a slow in-situ narration of a street. I’m reminded of French experimental writer and Oulipian George Perec’s obsession with exhaustively describing a Parisian apartment block; listing leaves for the reader to draw connections between observed objects, telling more about the world around you than any essay, typified by the quote used at the beginning of his 1978 novel Life: A User’s Manual: “Look with all your eyes, look.”
Another form of writing that is tricky to pull off is the open letter: you risk sounding holier-than-thou (Sinead O’Connor’s misaligned letter to Miley Cyrus, for example) or explaining too much that the ‘recipient’ would already know. But Martin Kohout’s ‘Dear Muell’ gets the balance right with increasingly clumsy prose; a scrawling inexpressibility of rage that goes hand in hand with slight incoherence, and is all too relatable for it.
The balance is not always measured, though. Although William Kherbek’s ‘Don’t touch your friends’ lights upon methodologies of resistance to those with power by those without it through the metaphor of contagion, the self-reflective tone at the beginning and end doesn’t fully realise the two-sided ‘truism’ that “[C]orporations are people now, but cities have always been people.” Rather than capturing a state of anxiety that leaves you feeling alienated by being an encrypted anonymity we are just left with those on the wrong side of language: “I wasn’t a ‘refugee.’ Nor was I an ‘asylum seeker’, nor a ‘migrant.’ I was, at best, a tourist —or more likely, just another alien in a city of aliens.”
The one stability that the journal posits is that value is always a question, or indeed always in question. Previous issues of GFA seemed like more random collections of texts, and assigning a theme to this issue means that it becomes more politically engaged, more urgent. The bare-bones design of the magazine is a refreshingly simple reading experience to arrest the click-bait flow of publishing on the internet. Whether it is working with or against the rubric that publishing itself is under question, General Fine Arts presents a simple equation; no one is making money from this, and it asks nothing from you but your attention.**