Whereas most of us will have a relatively clear idea of which aspects one might subsume under ‘lives’, it is all the more difficult to define what an artist does when he is working. What sort of activity is comprised in this ‘works’, and how does it relate to other activities and forms of work?
One can interpret the relationship between art and work on the backdrop of the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere’s aesthetic-political concept of a “distribution of the sensible”. Ranciere’s concept defines a system of self-evident sensible facts that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and delimits both the parts that remain exclusive and the distinctions defining the respective parts and positions within what is in common. In Plato’s Republic, for instance, artisans cannot participate in public life due to the simple fact that they do not have the time to devote themselves to anything other than their work: they just cannot spare the time because their work will not wait for them.
In the work of artists relying on mimesis, however, a stage of the communal common is created that makes use of what in fact should have determined the confinement of each person to his or her place. In the words of Ranciere: “artistic practice is not the outside of work but its displaced form of visibility.”
Artistic practice, however, adds something to the notion of work (which traditionally is pursued in the obscurity of privacy, for mere sustenance): the act of manufacturing comprises the notion of production, which makes art visible as practice, thus defining a new relationship between creating and seeing. Only in production can art be deemed an exclusive form of work, not in the autonomy of art for art’s sake. It is under this premise that one can raise the question about the “ordinariness” of work and the “exceptionality” of art. And what is more exclusive and ordinary at the same time as: Lives and works?
In the spring of 2009 I was invited for a public studio talk with the artist Pol Matthé within the framework of his residence at Lokaal 01. Apart from a few painting utensils, the artist’s studio was empty. Because of the emptiness, the architecture of the interior and the still discernable traces of prior use revealed the original purpose of the space: a former car repair workshop, the studio now was a “locale of the communal” and a public stage for the “private principle of work”.
What I encountered in the different rooms of the studio was an architectural intervention by the artist. Matthé had removed the glass of one part of the double wing entrance door and replaced it with a custom-fit plywood box. Towards the street this box was armed with a shutter and hence could be opened by anyone, even if the studio itself was closed. Via an improvised but sophisticated mechanism the shutter was connected to the inner door leading to the artist’s studio in such a way that if the outside shutter was opened the door on the inside would be closed. This setup proved an intricate game and a fine reflection on the boundaries between inner and outer space, on the studio as a locus of production, on public vs. private space – on life and work.
On the day of our talk it was early summer. In the plywood box there were chairs for us and the audience, but the artist requested that the talk took place outside, in the street, on the pavement in front of the residency. In the course of our conversation our voices, questions, talk and thoughts little by little fused with the surrounding sounds: traffic, passersby, playing children, people on their way back home from work, maybe hastily getting some groceries – they passed us by very closely, but took no further notice.
Clearly distinguishing between foreground and background, between context and form proved to be impossible. The setting had transformed into an empty stage, on which two different contexts framed one other. These contexts, which simultaneously overlapped and brought out tone another, became closely interwoven, with the cityscape’s warp thread moving on the vertical plane and art’s filling thread moving on the horizontal plane – together creating a socio-cultural fabric of the sensible, one possible form of lives and works.