The Future of Work, The Dowse Art Museum, photo by Shaun Matthews, 2019
The Future of Work
03 August 2019 — 17 November 2019
The Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt
Featuring Liz Allan, Berwick Street Collective, Bruce Connew, Harun Farocki, Kauri Hawkins, Fiona Jack, Darcy Lange, Elisabeth Pointon, Public Share, Deborah Rundle, Allan Sekula & Noël Burch, John Vea, Peter Wareing
The Future of Work looks at the changing nature of our working lives and the impact of ever-increasing automation and globalization. The exhibition includes archival material about industry in Lower Hutt and features a range of artists whose practices address labour, work culture and collective action.
Lower Hutt is a working class city, a place with a long history as a site of trade and manufacturing. In the nineteenth century, three industries in particular came to drive the local economy: the woollen mills, the meat works, and the railway workshops. Alongside these, in the twentieth century factories such as Unilever, Griffins and Ford blossomed, employing many thousands of local workers. Following the closure of the majority of these businesses, the focus in recent times has shifted for the city towards light industry, research and innovation.
In conjunction with burgeoning industry over the years, Lower Hutt led the way with demands for workers’ rights. It was Petone carpenter Samuel Parnell who fought for the 8-hour working day, and several moments of union action in Lower Hutt have been critical, such as the Petone Woolen Mills strike of 1890 – the most prolonged to have occurred in New Zealand at the time.
Today, the world of work is vastly different to the past era of businesses founded on manual production processes. The impact of the digital age and potential for automation has significantly altered the way that we communicate, live and work. Coupled with this, ever-growing globalization and the accelerated flow of capital, products and labour has led to unpredictable and unstable markets.
As our working conditions continue to change rapidly, workers are under greater pressure, working under precarious contracts that claim to provide flexibility yet offer little security, and an expectation that we are available 24/7. This has resulted in an expansion of inequality and escalating health, housing and social issues.
The Future of Work presents a context for labour and activism through the history of Lower Hutt. It provides historical material and narratives as a way to understand the practices of contemporary artists who are concerned with aspects of work and how these shifts impact on individuals, families and communities.
Text courtesy of → The Dowse Art Museum
Campfire cognitive dissonance, 2016
Digitally printed cotton applique on wool
This blanket includes emblems, icons and symbols commonly featured on trade union banners. These images often have a classical origin, such as the phoenix, gavel, torch, or beehive, and were used by these groups to represent their ideal virtues: even if sometimes culturally conservative values co-exist with radical politics.
Fiona compiled a list of symbols and iconography, taking many from the book The Art and ideology of the Trade Union Banner by Annie Ravenhill Johnson, then entered the list on Google as a copyright free image search and the first result for each was appliqued on this blanket. Many of these images have complex histories and associations. The ‘fasces’ symbol is a tightly bound bundle of sticks that came to symbolise strength in unity, as opposed to a single stick which could be easily broken. It has been used by trade unions to represent their collective bargaining strength, but can also be found on the arms of the US presidential chair, the emblem of the US police force, and was strongly associated with the fascist movements led by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. A set of scales embodies justice and fairness (but for whom?); the torch is a common emblem of both enlightenment and hope; and the beehive is considered a symbol of industry and cooperation.
We are less likely to join a union today than in previous times with more freelance and individualised contracts making collective agreements difficult. However, recent union bargaining in disputes for better conditions and pay within the medical and education professions in Aotearoa shows the power of having a collective voice within the work place.
Mum, Helen and me, 2018
Artist book, hardcover, limited edition
This publication documents the process of the artist’s mum, Beryl Jack, transcribing the 400-word unpublished autobiography of Scottish suffragette, radical communist and workers’ rights activist Helen Crawfurd (1877–1954), Fiona Jack’s Great Grand Aunt. The work begins with Fiona’s request to her Mum via email, and their personal communication is scattered throughout the book, alongside the words of Helen that have been diligently typed out from a hand-typed manuscript over several months. Fiona says, ‘my Great Aunt’s unwavering commitment to the struggles of the working classes is so inspiring to me, and I love her pragmatism and use of language.’ Transcribing Helen Crawfurd’s autobiography was the first step towards publishing this manuscript as a collaboration between Fiona, The Marx Memorial Library (London) and The Glasgow Women’s Library, scheduled for 2020. Mum, Helen and me documents the labour and networks of support that rest behind any work, the roles that family and friends play to assist and encourage a practice.
Linen applique on cotton
Across her wide-ranging practice, Fiona Jack has maintained a longstanding interest in community, unions and collectives. For a number of years she has been making banners for groups she admires as a way of supporting their kaupapa – their practice, principles and work. Banners are a way of communicating an issue in simple, concise language. When held aloft as part of a protest movement or parade, these words galvanise the crowd who gather around them and support the collective call for action.
The text for Tiresome was copied from a nineteenth century handwriting practice book found in a junk shop in Hawera; a personal response from the artist at the time as she reflected on life, politics and work. Yet the banner also suggests how many protestors or workers must feel about systems that are slow, cumbersome and resistant to change; how tiresome the constant repetition of a work task, or demand for better conditions, can be.