The Serpentine Minute (A brat’s guide to the discourse)
Ella Plevin reports from the Serpentine Work Marathon 2018
07:49 The day before the marathon I work a thematically appropriate 62 hour week just in case a full day of people talking about work isn’t enough of a story about the indomitability of the human spirit. I wake up and check twitter. Everything is interesting, nothing is interesting. All the fires are burning. I’m so tired.
So much of what people mean is in what they don’t say and I have 12 more laborious hours of this before me. But this is the Enfer I have chosen, and these are my Other People. Welcome to the Serpentine Marathon fellow misanthrope babies. Abandon all hope ye who enter here or watched the livestream at home.
I clock in late and head to the ladies before the auditorium where two members of ticketing staff are slouched over sinks:
“Are you on your break?” one says
“Just a bathroom break”
“But you need a moment?”
“Yeah. I’m so tired.”
Into the auditorium. Some French dudes are talking about “ongoing technological upheaval” while failing to operate their powerpoint. Beloved trope. I don’t count the number of times the words anthropocene or negentropy are used but it’s discourse jazz, trop scoopity de woop. One of the monsieurs is saying we have to struggle against entropy but doesn’t say why.
12.50 Monsieur puts on a video in which a talking head version of himself says exactly what he’s just told us in person about pharmakons, which is their definition. Later in the green room they bustle in to sit close to my French psychologist friend and me visibly disturbed that the bar was sans pharmakon of choice which is vin rouge. It is almost impossible for French people to stop being French, my French friend says solemnly.
12.51 the note I have made for 12.51 just says
‘literally dgaf about robots #dataguele’
12.57 I’m not really listening but he’s saying “we could” and “we must” a lot as well as “socio-economic”, “automatization” and “anthropocentric” again. It’s urgent, he says. The girl in front of me is reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring on her laptop.
13:01 I wish I was high
13:17 I get a notification HUO has Started A Livestream just in case I can’t see 6 meters away from me.
13:23 I tune back in to find I’m still not paying attention. Someone says “suicide of colonisation of consciousness”, aptly.
13:35 Now Daniel Ross is talking about art as transformative ritual: “Art and work and technology are really the same thing” he says and starts talking about multiple localities being transformed into one locality through courtship as ritual. My suspicion that all of this, the whole marathon, is really much more about leisure (and eros) than about work (and thanatos) raises one slutty eyebrow.
13:43 It strikes me that Rikrit’s Ikea palms look so sad up there.
13:44 I try to pay more attention to the plants but find to my dismay that I’m rapt with interest in what this man is saying about the Bikini Atoll and Kurosawa and fear eating the soul but then he asks if Elon Musk is an artist and I sigh with relief and write Oh No in my notes and then he says we need to reexamine Beuys’s proclamation that everyone is an artist and we will do that in this afternoon’s panel and I think Nice Try and also No We Won’t.
13:55 Guy pronounces Uber “hugh-bah” and I go back to thinking about the plants. There’s something truly gross about them up there in their pots behind people talking about networks and the problems with anthropocentric attitudes. They look like trophies on the wall of a hunting lodge hosting a summit about survival. I think about how they can’t talk to each other through their mycelian internet and wonder if they’re all screaming HELLO? HELLO????? Can anybody hear me?
I zone back in and someone is saying bifurcation a lot. I really should have started a count for trending buzzwords. Or a drinking game. Maybe I would have been better prepared to do so if some guy had told me I needed to fight the negentropy sooner in my life. Oh well maybe after lunch.
14:09 My friend arrives and I am furious to note she didn’t think to bring any pharmakons with her either. She asks if anything has been good. I make a face. Another friend texts a response to the suicide note I sent earlier. She says she’s on a sustainable farming march in Westminster, wracking me instantly with jealousy and despair.
14:10 Guy says Tim Berners Lee was the founder of the internet. I go on the internet.
14:11 Social systems evolve after technological systems claims Anne Alombert who is now on stage. I imagine the plants with their tongues cut out shimmering with rage at this.
14:12 I feel guilty for noticing Anne’s sexy accent. It’s like she’s spread honey in her nostrils. I try to calm myself down by flicking through the program. ‘No to the ego’ jumps out at me. I imagine getting up on stage and telling everyone to listen then giving them the beautiful gift of dead air. What an asshole move that would be. I bet it’s been done. I’m busy enjoying this image of all the other minds in the audience churning away in the silence like an unhearable orchestra when it’s time for another Very Warm Welcome.
It’s GCC! Fatima read my palm once and told me I’d never have to work after the age of 30 so I spent half of my twenties wondering if I would be crippled, dead or a lottery winner by now. It turns out she was talking about a completely different kind of wealth.
Cheese and bread triangles go around as GCC walk in and sit with their backs to the audience in silence as they screen ‘Lunch Break’.
“What are your demands?” demands a negotiator on screen. A group of terrorists look amongst themselves. “We want kebab for dinner. El Kebab! El Kebab! El Kebab!” Everyone chants, united in a common goal. It’s very funny and easily the most lucid response to the marathon’s format and theme so far.
14:34 Hetty Douglas, one time viral class warrior, ‘artist’ and Stanford Binet Class: Dull walks in, I think. Is she going to give an unplanned talk on labour castes and education? I don’t stay to find out, going for lunch instead with fellow writer friend to watch hordes of people file past a window which shouts THE FUTURE STARTS HERE as we eat quiche. Even windows are in on this racket.
15:34 We walk back in as the panel I wanted to catch ends. Helen Lewis asks Jack Self what he wants to finish with and he says don’t ask people what they do, ask them how their day was. Can’t understand why you wouldn’t give someone the chance to tell you how they’ve decided/ended up spending their scratch of time between cradle and grave. Asking the right way means not asking someone to limit their identity to work, sure, but I think it does mean asking, somehow. Maybe what’s really eating me is a dude prescribing caregiving as duty here and wondering how personally duteous a dude he is. Nick Srnicek says we’re living in a time when an elite few have all the power. Yup.
15:37 Totally unbearable puppets manned by XL personality theatre kid people in black. I squirm in my seat and watch as far too much emotion twists the faces of these strangers like balloon animals. Puppet shows are grotesque and frightening and should be banned for obvious reasons but then I remember I chose this journey and must forgive the creatures I find within its depths. Perhaps I’m just jealous because I bury my own considerable emotions in deep depths too. Anyway Marx jumps out of a hammer and sickle cake and and a musical bit says we’re all slaves which is fair.
15:50 Oscar Murillo. Refreshing to hear something I don’t entirely understand (Spanish) and not aspiring to more than clean-speaking atmosphere.
16:07 ‘For those of you who haven’t seen those films it’s very urgent’ urges HUO as Uncle Dad Adam Curtis takes to the stage for his specialist blend of smug provocation. Last time I saw him speak was with Mark Fisher who looked visibly distressed throughout and I’ll never forgive this pompous ‘did you know I’m friends with BURIAL’ twat for that. And for deigning to participate in ‘Adam Curtis Wochenende’ back then and having the nerve now to sit here and tell us the problem with our current moment is that everything is done for gravitas. Fisher cared. This guy’s selling dick.
Your real job is to go shopping he announces like some beef-necked MTV messiah. And then calls some bankers creeps. I don’t even disagree with most of what he says tbh. We’ve all been known to lean over conspiratorially and say ‘well you know what the problem is’. But talk like this usually stays in the pub whereas he picks up a cheque for it sober and deserves a little ire when he says the problem with our current state is an abundance of self-expression. No, Uncle Dad, that’s YOUR problem. He says the system is a happy cage and I make a note to ask my psychologist friend (who has just arrived) if she thinks he’s talking about his mind or body here.
16:15 Adam Curtis asks us if we know what a ouija board is and writer friend and I absolutely lose our shit. Yes babe but we call it a C-O-M-P-U-T-E-R. I use mine to talk to Brecht and he says: The silly talk about the barbarism that comes out of barbarism is also of this kind.
16:25 Journalist James Harding asks the audience if we think people in positions of authority should be allowed to tweet unfiltered, splurge style like Elon and the baby president or should be vetted (through other people/software). I’m one of two people with hands up for yes, splurge. I wish I was just being a troll but actually it dismays me to know that the 200 or so others in the room are not prepared to entertain the idea that fallout prevention systems should be internalised and think the task falls to other people/code. Also, nobody on this hell-chewed planet needs a twitter account. No one! If anyone tells you that’s an absurd thought to have in 2018, run from them. TIME ISN’t REAL.
16:27 JH makes the point I was trying to about Uncle Dad via a story about what-is-to-be-doneing over sushi. I wish we had a word for this kind of problem. Maybe something in French beginning with B, idk. He says “we live in a moment where we feel powerless” as if the human condition ever lived outside of that moment but sneaks Wordsworth in from time eternal to offer a choice between being bewildered and furious or happy warriors as we climb that great Moore’s Law of journalism, the content mountain. Not everyone feels powerless of course. But then I bet Putin has never seen Meet The British Designer Whose Silver Hair Streak Is Worth a Double Take! in HIS feed. Still, he does have a mortal human thorax.
??.?? I give up with timestamps and scribble two pages of notes I can’t read on design discipline conjecture. Feel like it’s quite rude for RCA design students to make silkworms toil for them as some pseudo comment on the [redacted] (my fingers bleed harder each time I’m required to type the A word) by calling it a “multi-species collaboration”.
17.ish Brilliant presentation by hunky pastoralist. “To say I am alive is to say there’s bread on the table” he says and then “the robot smells the breath of the cow”. He doesn’t use the A-word and he doesn’t have to. Hot.
??.?? Enspiral lady talks about what sounds like a co-op or a holocracy but calls it “a total unleashing of collective intelligence” instead and I brace myself for an inevitable ‘What if we could…’. She seems keen for us to know she studied biology (catalyst, catalyst? catalyst!) and that she has Silicon Valley CEO friends that have it all and are miserable. The inevitable What If… arrives: “Imagine if our workplace could be a place for self-development!”. I know what she’s implying but it was the really shit jobs that taught me what’s up, not the ones with smoothies and gurus. She says Secret Sauce and my ears go on mute.
17:26 I don’t wanna drop the F-bomb but I’m surprised Michel hasn’t been mentioned yet.
17:32 Wilson Oryema says Nothing out of order / Nothing out of place and apologizes a lot and I don’t understand why.
17.?? Algorithm guy explains that algorithms are just maths (aren’t we all) and shuffles people up on stage to show as much. He finishes with the Douglas Rushkoff quote “Program or Be Programmed”, which could be the Marathon’s official vision statement.
18:35 Another notification that HUO has started livestreaming while he’s practically still on stage offering the next Very Warm Welcome. Nevermind AI or automation imagine if they figure out cloning. Imagine the art world as an army of HUOs chanting warm welcomes at institutions all over the planet. Imagine a Serpentine on Mars.
18:43 Artist Anna Bella Geiger. Absolutely furious that my phone doesn’t capture her rack slide as she says “trabhalo” which is Portugese for work and comes from the word for a torture device. Oh fortuna! This is the first time that work as a physical stress on physical bodies is explicitly considered and I’m feeling it.
18:56 At this point a robot has taken over my job. I’m just scribbling down whatever anyone is saying in fairly manic style. HAPPY BIRTHDAY PANEL PRINCE i write in all caps.
19:15 Artist Josh Kline reads a spec-fic reverie press text for his show Unemployment – wicked dark, funny. He asks what is to be done (classic), but more importantly what is to be done with you? Where do all the horses go? They trot into automated oblivion he suggests, and perhaps they shoot them, don’t they. He says he strongly believes one can’t just offer dystopian imagery (hot if true) but must also spread political doctrine among the polis. Is Josh Kline Lenin?
Doctrine comes for us in the form of a video advocating UBI and JK notes that based on interviews he’s made the most resistance to UBI comes from an older demographic alarmed by ‘other people’ getting ‘money for nothing’. I hope all the avocado and lack of mortgages keeps our own millennial hearts soft as we wait for the die-off. I think I notice mention of defining fable of our age Shrek on a kindle read by one of the in-vid happy beneficiaries of UBI but can’t be sure. One day bröthers, the world will be DTF w UBI.
19:39 Rana Dasgupta runs through a neat and necessary history of the symbolic power of labour, different means of production and the connected relationship between state and citizen before getting his teeth into the spiritual waste laid by the workplace of today, the libertarian fantasy of clean capitalism as fantasy of transcendence (I’m almost whooping at this point) and the personality of Silicon Valley CEOs dedication to megalomania and world destruction. He offers some possible scenarios for the future and floats “a dramatic return of the real”, whoever she is.
Next, Emily Segal reads extracts from her new book. She’s all Donna Tartt glamour but you can tell her prose is tight even through her expertly husked drawl. ‘Anorexic eyes’ I catch and ‘every journalist knows what he does is morally indefensible’. In ‘Y combinator fashion fantasy’ the narrator takes black cabs on the company account to the job she’s only going to in order to one day write this novel she’s reading. This was the artist’s prerogative she says, Use the company as it was for found material. I think about the K-Hole trend reports she had hands in. Normcore = camouflage, mimicry, shapeshifting. The one about magic was about transformation too. I’m into Literary Emily as much as Evil Genius Emily but I wonder if this is her final form.
Last for me is Venkatesh Rao and ‘Archetypes for the [redacted]’. He asks what kind of cyber-paleo trigger puller we are and I’m torn somewhere on his scale between Hacker and Contrarian, duh.
I want to stay for the rest but I have worked myself to death, or a glass of it at least at the nearest pub. “Exploitation must be explicit!” my psychologist friend says. Toil today is relentless, inescapable, incoherent, exhausting. Like the discourse, like the marathon. Like life. But that’s not all! Work is more than just land, labour, capital and entrepreneurship; more than any factors of production it is mental health, identity, the industrious body. Work is leisure, work is time, work is purpose, work is you. It was all there today and it wasn’t either. I didn’t learn much I couldn’t have learned staying at home weeping into my fists with Nadine Coyle singing out from her own prison of measured time and my ouija board happy cage (the one designed by Apple in California). But I do wonder what happened to those plants.
Serpentine Work Marathon
22 September, 10am-10pm
ELLA PLEVIN is a writer and contributing editor for Spike based in London. She writes an online column for Spike called "Escape from Prison Island" that is published every last Wednesday of the month. For her September column she looked through the fables we tell as she went to the office, took a late night run and raised the dead.