The View from the Scales
the work is called 35G. G stands for grammes. the creator of the work, Aleksander Komarov, tossed his Belarusian passport on the scales and thus established its weight, the 35 grammes mentioned above. this work of art appropriately reminds us of a parascientific experiment, in which, more than a century ago, an American doctor had tried to find proof for the existence of the soul. Weighing people at the moment of their deaths, he established that they lost a certain amount of weight. According to Dr. Duncan McDougall measurements, the average weight loss was 21 grammes or, to be more exact, between 8 and 35 grammes. As a result, he concluded that this must be the weight of the human soul, which, as we know, is supposed to be immortal. the soul must then have a material dimension, it must, therefore, also be quantifiable. His hypothesis was, of course, quickly discredited; the recorded difference in weight, which could also be measured in animals, for example mice, was traced to a banal, yet completely rational, cause, namely the loss of fluid that happens at the moment of death. Water, and not the soul, weighed 21 grammes.
Nevertheless, it still makes sense, even today, to remember this “experiment”. despite its miserable failure, it was guided by logic; by a blind belief in rational, scientific jurisdiction over not only everything that exists, but also over everything that can be conceived or imagined. the idea that we could take the soul, that most sublime part of a human being, and toss it on the scales like a piece of meat, was far from being just the fantasy of a freak. The hypothesis, that the soul possessed materiality and could be mechanically quantified, was absolutely in tune with the spirit of the time. this was the epoch of the first great upsurge of industrial modernism, belief in its unstoppable progress had not yet been tarnished by global crisis or world war.
At approximately the same time, also in America, Frederick Winslow taylor formulated his PRINCIPLES OF SCIENTIFIC MANAGEMENT (1911), the bible of industrial rationalisation. His vision was the complete standardisation of physical movements, with the aim of increasing the productivity of industrial labour. this idea has a long history, reaching back into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when, with the introduction of accountancy for the management of both material and spiritual goods, the secular trend of rationalising every domain of human existence began. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, this trend continued with the intensification of disciplinary measures and surveillance methods in prisons, hospitals and military facilities (famously described in Foucault’s DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH), leading to various practices for the self-control of temporal and physical behaviour1 by the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The best example of this is the regulation of physical movements in gymnastics. to quote a standard work on the theme of “hygiene”, published in France in the 1880’s: “every musculoskeletal system can be trained; every pattern of movement modified, regulated”.2 In Taylorism, on the other hand, the rationalisation of physical movement is applied to a particular realm of commercial life - that of industrial labour. Taylor wanted to create a system, or rather an organisation, “in which man and machine are merged into a unity of maximum output and efficiency”.3 In short, he wanted to increase the productivity of the workers.
Seen from the perspective of the working class lobby, however, the intention was the optimisation and maximisation of the worker’s exploitation. their physical movements were “scientifically” measured, with the aim of establishing a norm for the “appropriate daily output”: “... one measures with a stopwatch the time required for every single operation/working procedure, to then try and establish the fastest method for performing it”.4 this rationalisation of work met with resistance, however. According to Taylor, it was sabotaged by the unions, they were responsible for all the wasted energy and squandered working time. For Taylorism, therefore, the class lobby is implicitly irrational or in other words, unscientific. In the same historical context, i.e. also in America at the end of the nineteenth century, and also in pursuit of a radical rationalisation of industrial work, Fordism was developed. Henry Ford, who incidentally shared taylor’s animosity towards the unions and banned them in his factories, standardised the physical movements of his workers not at the level of the individual body, but in relation to the manufacture of the final product. He divided the requisite labour into simple, discrete, single movements which were performed by several workers in series. Thus, the modern factory was born, which so decisively shaped the historical world of the twentieth century beyond any ideological or political divisions. Millions of people worked in Fordist factories in Detroit and Turin, in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union, in metropolises and colonies, under liberal democratic and real socialist regimes. Regardless of how much, or how little, political, individual or cultural freedom they otherwise enjoyed, at work they were not master of their physical movements. these were alienated from them by a hegemonic rationality, quantified as units of energy, time or money, then standardised, to be ultimately reimposed onto them in the objectified form of mechanical labour.
This is the real historical context in which Komarov’s 35G both makes sense and speaks to us as art. If we ignore this context, we only see a familiar cliché; with 35G, Komarov is protesting against the injustice of the contemporary world. He draws our attention to the situation of the excluded, to the fate of all those who are not in possession of a “first-world travel document”, meaning that their freedom of movement is extremely limited and made more difficult - as documented in 35G - by every reproduced and annotated page, together with all the visas and stamps of other countries, in the artist’s (Belarusian) passport. seen in this light, it seems as if his work wants to say to us: look at everything that I have to put up with in order to be allowed to move around in the world. As if the work was complaining about a denied right, the right to free movement, which was a major motivation in the fight against communist totalitarianism. We only have to think about the image that stands symbolically for the defeat of communism - the image of the masses who, in 1989, scrambled over the Berlin Wall to freedom. In this context, 35G seems to be the artistic processing of a personal trauma - if not a private resentment — in spite of which everything, follows a completely objective aim, namely the completion of the fight for freedom and democracy. More accurately, as an excluded subject (a “frustrated East European”), Komarov speaks to the western public and demands his inclusion - a classic case of the fight, well known since Hegel, for recognition. seen like this, the political relevance of Komarov’s work exhausts itself in identity politics, articulated by the discourse of human rights. In short, his work wants more justice for the excluded and disadvantaged. If this were its only political meaning, however, then this work would be not only politically irrelevant, but also artistically uninteresting. With 35G, Komarov has already gone a decisive step further. He reflects up on and documents the conditions of his own work as an artist. More exactly, he assesses it using the tried and tested criteria for the rationalisation of industrial work, the time wasted and the money squandered in obtaining residency permits and transit visas - in order to expose the control mechanisms to which his movements, the movements of a working artist, are subjected. Taylorism rationalised and standardised the movements of individual workers; Fordism did it on the level of the organisation or factory. In the world of post-industrial, post-Fordist production, the movements of working bodies are now globally regulated, but undoubtedly for the same old purpose, of optimising exploitation and maximising profit. this is what Komarov talks about in 35G. He doesn’t toss his passport on the scales just to present his identity - and a passport is, after all, the ultimatedocument of identity - in all its material nakedness in order to demonstrate the utter arbitrariness of its imaginative and cultural, that is to say political, character. Komarov doesn’t show us identity in the lie of its existential pretensions, but in the truth of its capitalistic utility. He doesn’t scream: “the emperor is naked!” More then this he is saying to us: “the naked one is in control!” In other words: “My identity may be more than these 35 grammes of paper and ink, but it still essentially determines my entire life”. 35G isn’t, then, a demand for a more inclusive and democratic identity politics, but it exposes how contemporary identity politics are deployed as a regulatory mechanism of post-industrial and post-Fordist exploitation. Ultimately, with his work, the artist is exposing himself as a cognitive proletarian in the global art and culture market, bound by the chains of its identity-based control mechanisms. Artist at work: that is what 35g is actually showing us.