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Interview: Liz Magic Laser; Real Work at FACT

Interview: Liz Magic Laser
One half of FACT’s latest exhibition, Real Work, open until 6th October 2019

Real Work is an exploration of incredibly personal, and incredibly general working practices, and how that plays out with the individual. The exhibition is the culmination of over two year’s work on FACT’s part to answer a question or what the Future World of Work might look like.

The story, told entirely by freelancers highlights one of the hardest structures to keep up, through two entirely different worlds work. On the one hand, Candice Brietz presents a series a films where sex workers tell their stories. Largely undirected, the films are a framed on their mouths, and draw you in to a verbal illustration of their reasonings and justifications of their jobs. Alongside that is an inescapable defensiveness hidden under a tightly controlled confidence and self-awareness that keeps them driven and able to work. On the other, is an equally intimate but far more directed reality show focussed on online gig-workers who keep themselves in work through digital platforms like Fiverr.

The artist behind the latter, Liz Magic Laser, spoke to Art in Liverpool about her experience of making the work, and the reality that lies beneath her reality show.

Real Work Exhibition

Can you tell me about future world of work – the project that led to this

I was contacted by Anna Botella [Head of Programme at FACT] in 2017 and I invited to submit a proposal. It was a targeted call commissioning around ten artists, a few hundred pounds, to come up with a proposal. FACT had already done quite extensive research in the field, and there was a fascinating write up of the different areas of research. The eight category was the gig economy, which immediately sparked my interest because I’ve used Fiverr and TaskRabbit myself over the last five years to get video transcribed to subtitles.

The first time, I was looking for a child’s voice over for a film I had made about the imposition and the future of the child, and future rhetoric. So my first engagement over Fiverr was really odd, because it was parents whose amateur actor children I was having to communicate to, with directions about intonation. It became clear pretty quickly that it wasn’t going to work, and this façade of maximum efficiency towards creating creative content wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. But still quite fascinating and bizarre, so I went down rabbit holes of seeing what other services you could buy per unit of labour on the site.

It sparked an uneasy consumer fetish, and I looked at, over the years, for transcription or audio mixing, or documentation of a performance. I just became really interested in these sites and what this was doing to creative professionals work.

So this cross-wired with a pipedream I’ve had of doing a reality show, and I felt like I could relate to this professional freelancing, because I do that, from a more privileged position, but I still have to reckon with the ailments of not having healthcare because I adjunct as a professor, and commission hop.

But then I’m also in the power position in the dynamic of requesting and buying services on these sites, and as the customer you can very easily say you don’t like what someone did and not pay for it. So on the one hand this is really insidious and exploitative, and of course, there are the workers.

What’s the dynamic then, between you and the other freelancers?

For example, it’s perhaps a cheapening of the craft of say graphic design in some cases because there’s someone who has access to a library of clipart and is appropriating creative components, and in some cases they’re putting a lot of creativity into it, while others are incorporating a very corporate aesthetic of remixing these existing elements.

For instance, I commissioned some music for the episodes on Fiverr, and he did not make original compositions, he drew on a sound library. And the same is true of these whiteboard animations, they are not original drawings, they’re a montage of existing elements being retooled. But the other freelancers are very goal oriented creative artists. That’s what’s being deployed to allow greater access to online business and becoming an entrepreneur.

So it’s all quite a meta system already. I became interested in looking at people’s platforms where they had commissioned one and other to creative their profile pages and market their skills on the sites. And there’s a lot of subcontracting that takes place as well.

How much of a part does the lack of human connection play, that digital override? Alabi [one of the film’s subjects] – you look at his response, or the others to an extent, but the support they’re given really excites them, but with him there’s a defensiveness to the human support.

Alabi surprised me in a lot of ways. As I interviewed him more and more, I realised I had preconceptions that this must not be making him happy, to be so atomised and to spend so much time alone at his computer. And the more I pressed him the more I had to check myself and realise I was projecting a lot, saying, ‘you must want to be outside and playing football with your friends.’ You know? And he’s like ‘yeah I go out at night, but I prefer not to see my family as much and I prefer to play real-player video games and use my leisure time to maybe go to the movies now and then.’ He identifies and somewhat of an introvert and this is allowing him to embrace his proclivities.

And what about the others? How important is that lack of human contact with customers?

Well I’m interested in it because I see it as a way of circumventing the accountability and responsibility to others that you get as an employer. There’s not sense of responsibility to one another. These services are being marketed as something that using a very humanesque, utopian, vision of the interweb as the great commons that connect us all and allow us all greater access to upward mobility and wealth. So I came up with a very critical view of it and had to realise that at the end of the day, whilst its quite insidious in many ways, these platforms are more of a leveller between incomes in the first world and second/third world than I had expected, so even with all the exploitative dimensions it is also allowing access to higher incomes and allowing a whole new field of creative professionals to emerge.

In terms of the participants that were working overseas, how important is the platform, or the project even, to them? Was there a lasting impact on the participants from the project?
Well it’s really just so fresh, so only today, I was just replacing some animations upstairs before this interview, you know, thinking ‘that should be in dollars or pounds, it really has to be the currency that’s on their profile page, not the same one for everyone.’ It’s all very fresh and immediate as much as any journalism is.

How important is journalism to it?

For my practice it’s very important. I’m often looking to journalism as a methodology that I’m drawing on and allowing myself to pervert it and to work with it in another way that doesn’t have to subscribe to the same rules as a journalist does. And the video editor I worked with on this was a French journalist herself so that was a big part of the conversation. Like whether this does or does not subscribe to the ethics of journalism.

Has there been a transformation in the project, since the Future World of Work pitch up to now?

Definitely. I became more allegiant to a reality show premise than I expected to at first. At first the plan was more loose, for it to be more of a round robin where I was going to have the whiteboard animator paint the portrait of the psychic, and the psychic would paint the portrait of the telecoms voice of someone who records customer services automatic response messages. So each one helps to map it; so everyone would meet with the biohacking coach; everyone would fill out lots of questionnaires and forms and all of this data would be collected; then tracking devices would be given to another gig worker to do the portrait of another.

Aside from that I stuck pretty closely to the original inception, but it became pretty clear that I wanted it to be more of comprehensive portrait of the individuals through the direction and manipulation that a reality show director would use. However, in this case I was asking the participants to be complicit in that so it wasn’t exactly.

It was collaboration and willing distortion. And its performance of self, asking them to perform themselves, and that is not always the full story, it’s always a slant. So as a journalist you have to come up with a clear message. You can’t tell all dimensions of the story. It became clear that I wanted everyone to participate in the portraits of everyone else which was more complicated and ambitious.

The coaching of the host fed into the lives of reality show contestants. And it needed to be gamified a bit more so I came up with the 30 day challenge, so I sent everyone devices really targeted to their issues, that had come up in their life coaching sessions.

And with it being a joint show between you and Candice Breitz, how do you feel about that dynamic between your works?

I was excited to be side by side with her.

The first time I saw her work was in 2005, in Venice, and she had this mother-father piece, which I think was two three channel works that appropriated clips from films. It was a masterful, structural, film piece where she re-presented these constructions of gender and parents that really stuck with me, so I was a fan of hers. I wasn’t familiar with this piece and hadn’t seen it ‘til I was here so I has to just imagine it but it was really different to the work I’d seen of hers, so in a similar way both of us had a foray into a more documentary mode than we generally work in.

I think there’s a really nice dialogue between the works. I had one moment where I read the description when I felt a little uneasy equating sex work with gig-work because it’s not – I don’t think that’s the point of putting these works side by side though. There’s a more nuanced parallel thinking between it. I think there is exploitation in both cases and they’re both equally human, and both struggle with control and their own perception of that.

Liz Magic Laser. image credits: Rob Battersby