Moving Forwards On the Spot
By Stefan Wagner
Translated by Jen Calleja
To say that someone is going in circles doesn’t usually mean anything good. Standing there, stepping on the spot, not moving from your mark. Stagnation. One such figure who struggles and who must constantly start again from the beginning is Sisyphus. Not much of a winner, Sisyphus doesn’t find it easy to pocket the prize. Hardship. His destiny symbolises the human struggle for survival. Sisyphus’s narrative stands out on account of its situational hopelessness. A dialectic of the insignificant. A persistence in the moment, a treading water. But not at a standstill. By moving forward on the spot, Sisyphus makes progress faster than some may think.
JocJonJosch don’t descend into the Underworld. Nevertheless, one can find motifs in their work that resonate with the story of Sisyphus. The repetition, the singlemindedness, the starting-over of apparently futile endeavours. JocJonJosch shovel earth back into recently self-dug pits. They go round in circles in their performances. They dig holes in parks, in places that make them seem absurd. They row simply to rotate in place. This is hard work. Muscle is required. At times what they perform in their work seems almost archaic. They usually end up where they began. They perform repetition in the reiteration and circling of conceptual spaces. Their actions themselves become a form of thought.
Perhaps a line needs to be drawn through the history of art in order to better understand why JocJonJosch’s works are effective and in what way they’re appropriate for the present day. The artist collective performs a meaningful transformation exercise of present-day society, which takes on the concept of work and of what is meant by the activity of sub-contractual labour. The Stone Breakers (1849) by Gustav Courbet gives the idea of labour and its associated hardship an image within the history of art for the first time. Courbet didn’t capture the rural ideal of harvest as in previous centuries. Labour becomes a dominant motif for Courbet and it becomes plain to see in his work how strenuous and repetitive such an activity can be. This was a great rupture in art history and shows how industrialisation through the means of the division of labour changed people’s lives. To call on the work of a stone breaker today would either be amusing or hopelessly romantic as this process can now be done by machine in a fraction of the time workers needed in Courbet’s lifetime.
The twenty-first century poses different questions, and JocJonJosch find a key to circling the theme of work through the archaic nature of their performances. Where industrialisation transformed the world and achieved increased efficiency, we have again and more recently, in the twenty-first century, experienced a rise in productivity through digitalisation. The concept of work changed all over again. Optimistic minds say that digitalisation allowed up to a forty percent rise in performance. Perhaps the dream of work exclusively done by machines will soon come true. The digital working society, which functions in a highly networked and mechanically efficient way, releases itself more and more from the domain of manual labour. Programmed machines and computers replace the human standing at the conveyor belt. Cognitive labour. When we shop on the Internet, we are relieving salespeople of their work. Consumption is the new labour of the twenty-first century.
Within such (admittedly highly speculative) considerations of the development of work and productivity, the work of JocJonJosch appears in a different light. Their collaborative performance ‘Footfall’, which they enacted during their exhibition ‘o o o’ in the Manoir de la Ville de Martigny, can serve as an example. A group of naked people smeared with soil step around inside a circular mud-covered area for two hours. Time and time again the performers get in one another’s way, they walk on the spot, you hear how the mud presses between their toes. Not a word is spoken. Through the silence they communicate with one another with looks and gestures. The trampled mud provides the unorchestrated soundtrack to the piece. This arrhythmic ‘mud music’ spits out an entirely senseless set of tones that would be impossible to link together in a harmony.
So what makes a dirt-smeared mob, reminiscent of a prehistoric tribe participating in a ritual, so appealing for an interpretation of a concept of labour in the present day? Perhaps it’s the exposure of that which makes us social beings and first leads to the emergence of labour as a concept. One is as individual within a group as the group allows one to be; one is not free within the space of action. A concept of work can only be created as part of a community, one which can be read within this performance. The power of the performance, however, doesn’t emanate from some kind of achievement or the creation of a product – rather, the audience is encouraged to consider it an accomplishment of thought and collaboration. Cognitive labour. This is one idea connecting the mostly process-orientated works by JocJonJosch, pieces which require a high degree of negotiation and reflection. In ‘Minor Hell’ (2016), the three artists grow their hair over a long period of time; a process that requires no conscious action, but demands equanimity and a multilateral belief in the transformation of their appearance.
In order to close the circle, to connect to the initial thoughts about Sisyphus or the image of labour in Courbet’s The Stone Breakers, we may suggest that JocJonJosch don’t consciously intend to depict a motif; they don’t allude to facts. Rather, one must read their work as an exploratory search, as a process-oriented procurement of knowledge, a performative thinking that has no beginning and no end and which always questions its own assumptions. It is in this way that they take up the characteristics of present-day working society. In a sense they provide an abstraction of what can be understood by the concept of labour through new explanations and with a new openness. They refresh the present through artistic means and question social and economic structures without making value judgements. This requires patience and openness from members of the public, but in exchange offers them the opportunity to find their own ways, their own ways towards answers, and maybe even a new approach to orientating the present.
The future may be hiding in the shadows, and the answers are only speculative. Art is only able to supply reflections that are not scientifically founded or dogmatic. However, it always reflects the world we live in. JocJonJosch’s performances radiate the power of this world and our position in it, while also providing an impetus for thinking performatively.