Useful Work versus Useless Toil – William Morris

As part of my research into ‘work’ I chose to read this paper by William Morris. I am becoming concerned about our relation to work and how the nature of jobs and employment is changing or how it is not. I have looked at some specific examples from the local area and I wanted to look at the history of different points of view on work. William Morris I knew as a designer, craftsperson and socialist as leading member of the British Arts and Crafts Movement, I remembered visiting the museum dedicated to him in Waltham Forest when I lived in London. This is in fact a transcription of a lecture he gave in 1884 to the Edinburgh University Socialist Society.

Morris begins by challenging the widely held notion that all labour is innately good. Morris establishes, in common with other authors on the subject, that labour in some form is necessary for human survival. Although all work requires effort and may not be pure pleasure he believes that there should be the potential (he calls this hope) for pleasure in the work. This is something he feels has been lost. He observes that many late 19th century workers do not have the expectation that work could be rewarding in any way. He outlines 3 ‘hopes’ 2 of which he feels are common to socialists and the third may differ:

Hope 1 for fair recompense for work (money)

Hope 2 for sufficient rest (and leisure)

Hope 3 for pleasure (job satisfaction)

He stresses the importance of the worth of the product (here we are not talking of a given economic worth). Any work that does not produce this is, he feels, meaningless.

Morris sums up the class system in this way: – ‘a class which does not even pretend to work, a class which pretends to work but produces nothing and a class which works but is compelled by the other two classes to do work which is often unproductive’. (he has identified two types of production – unnecessary items for the richer classes and substandard production for themselves).

So what is different about Morris’s arguments?

Most of the arguments do not differ greatly from standard late 19th century socialism – the abolition of the non working class; community ownership of the means of production and the hopes of fair wages and hours of work for everyone. I shall focus therefore on where he may differ.

Useful Work

Most of the paper is about work and although it is not very good at defining how the ‘new order’ would work Morris does define how he feels work should be. If one can ignore the sexist tone of the writing and some of the vocabulary many of his ideas are quite reasonable although his ways of presenting them is not particularly clear. Morris believes in the pleasure of work being defined through variety and usefulness. He also believes that through the pleasure of work we produce what is not only necessary but also that which is beautiful. In his argument adornment comes from the pleasure of making. Variety in work could mean for example: working indoors and outdoors; using ones physical skills and intellectual skills. The most unpleasant tasks could be done for shorter times and mixed with more rewarding activities. He emphasises working on the land and contact with nature and beauty as a reward for labour. One suggestion is that any necessary evil of factories could be short shifts combined with intellectual activities. Morris lists various products that would be obsolete in his utopia.

Morris’s arguments can be seen as nostalgic and backward looking as they tend to blanket criticism of technology and focusing on its repetitive nature (although he does admit that the machines could perform unpleasant tasks at some point). At times he seems to ignore the harsh reality of many workers under the pre industrial system, he doesn’t mention their living conditions or the feudal class system at all. The fact that women are totally absent from the paper is also a major problem.  Morris’s own pleasure in making probably outweighed his dedicating time to developing these arguments. It is also true that the subsequent centuries’ socialist revolutions largely ignored this type of argument against the capitalist model of production. Lenin, it seems, embraced it.

In relation to our own world of work many of his criticisms seem to remain true 130 years later. Capitalism is global, working conditions have improved somewhat for many but certainly not all. Large corporations may have largely replaced the idle rich and much political business. We no longer believe in the Utopias of the 19th and early 20th century and the reserve army of capitalism is huge in places like Spain or Greece.

However if we just focus on the 3 hopes. Many countries have a minimum wage and many people working illegally surviving underneath it. Women have equal pay legislation which has helped in many places. There is an enormous difference between rich and poor which is growing at the moment, I don’t know how this compares to 19th century figures but the trend is very negative especially as social mobility is also declining. Hope 2 – in spite of large unemployment there are very few part time jobs and most people are working longer hours usually for less money. This is true of traditional working and middle class occupations.

Most important for Morris is hope 3. so what of job satisfaction? In Europe we manufacture very little anymore we are more involved in ‘service’ industries do they offer us more satisfaction? I believe this is very difficult to quantify and varies according to country and culture in spite of globalisation. I strongly suspect that there is a limited amount of variety and creativity. There are certainly long hours and insecurity. Of course there are people who opt out and set up alternative economies. Nevertheless I don’t feel able to build a serious argument without more concrete data. I will continue reading from more recent sources.

How would  Morris feel about the explosion in design and visual culture? ikea as an example of a global corporation purveying 21st century adornments. What does it sell? it is an excellent example of commodity fetishism unleashed on a huge global scale in identical stores all over the planet. Undercutting all the local carpenters, upholsterers – these trades barely exist. How would poor Morris cope with ikea? He talks about the pleasure of creating the individual designs through the process and pleasure of working.

Those of us who today have any job satisfaction are really lucky. If we have holidays and leisure time and can afford to not only pay our bills and eat but have a surplus for books and travel. Which brings me to the final point. I think I am a product to a certain extent of these utopian dreams of the past. I was allowed a free education for educations sake as Morris describes it unfettered by the money making necessity. I was able to work as little as I could for most of my life and therefore even when I have to do work I do not like I have nearly always had the great luxury of time. I appreciated his education for educations sake like ‘l’art pour l’art’.

I want to investigate how deep this idea that all labour is good still runs within different cultures. Especially as there seems to be an increase of unnecessary production and therefore more meaningless work. There is an enormous difference in the narrative on news programmes in Spain and the UK for example where I hear the ‘working families’ line spun out repeatedly. This is to suggest that the non workers are unworthy and suggests the all labour is good belief is intact. What exactly are those working families doing? and would it meet either Morris’s or our criteria for meaningful. How is it benefiting society? This could not be said in Spain as it would be such a huge insult to so many unemployed, (as I am sure it is to the English) here the reserve army is overflowing with members.

experimentation with found objects

FullSizeRender       FullSizeRender (1)


continuing to work with tools and equipment from disappearing skilled trades – also making the objects disappear literally under layers -separatedness of history.

IMG_0311         DSC_0034

this is my piece of tarmac from Clarence road also lost to me

IMG_0314      DSC_0029


stolen piece of artwork from Ciempozuelos

Importance of collaboration with local people

This article was really interesting for me not only as it deals with local collaboration but also the artwork they are protesting about is by a group known as NLE (no longer empty) which uses abandoned buildings. according to the article the group were engaging with the local community but are coming up against some serious long term issues. From this article it is difficult to judge how serious the collaboration actually was and suggests that the protestors were justified in being indignant. The building a courthouse disused for over 35 years had been contested for a long time within the local community and although the NLE is a non profit group they were themselves it seems being used for some kind of real estate game. This is just one blog’s viewpoint but given the information here it is hard not to be skeptical. It appears that art (and furthermore community based art) is being used to boost the local economy and the locals are at risk of being excluded. Its a tricky question as artists tend to be a trigger for this type of gentrification. We tend to move to cheap areas to live and make work as we are not generally high earners. We hope to have a positive effect on the environment, we open studios, galleries, and if this is successful the neighborhood becomes fashionable and the prices go up. The Bronx could be East London, East Berlin or any of those places which were cheap and are now too expensive for ordinary people or artists to live in. I don’t have a solution. I lived in Hackney in the 1990s and my neighborhood in Madrid is definitely positively influenced by artists – although maybe the economic crisis has saved it somewhat.

nos quedamos

Whatever way it serves as a reminder or how you work with other people’s stories. One thing from the top of my head is to involve people literally in making or showing the work in some way. Even not for profit organisations pay out for some work. Is that money going to locals? As artists we tend to be drawn to more interesting areas we must maintain sight of what it is that interests us.

protest on opening night

video of opening

La Corrala

outside       through gate

I went to visit La Corrala this morning and found out about the process of exhibiting. I then had to call for more information. Unfortunately they say it is impossible to exhibit in the patio which is what I really wanted to do. They also say the downstairs gallery is pretty booked for next year. What I need to decide is what proposal to present. I need to decide what I really want to do (as opposed to what might be ‘safe’, a ‘good idea’ or what I expect them to want). My original plan was to make an installation in the patio of fabrics – like sheets or clean washing – painted with images of madrid from when the corralas were full of life as people came to the city from the countryside looking for work and more ‘freedom’. I wanted to investigate this change in society and try to reflect on it. The downstairs exhibition space is well renovated and includes original beams and a variety of small spaces. I have visited before but it is currently closed so no photos for the blog. This space is less interesting and I am also considering alternatives. However, I would like to make a proposal of some sort as this is literally in my street and will at some point be available. I am also starting to feel bad as during the first year of the MA I didn’t exhibit at all and I both want to exhibit and be able to reply to that question.

One of the best experiences of the last year was the exploratory project and that was because I decided off the top of my head to write a proposal of something I really wanted to do. Of course in spite of the seeming spontaneity I had spent months thinking about what my practice was and audiences etc so it was spontaneity arising from reflection and thinking. I also decided in doing the MA that I have always made art and if I am continue for the rest of my life I should try and make it meaningful and not dependent on expectations. As decision making is so stressful and time limited I need to hone it to my criteria.

I could present 2 proposals including a photoshopped patio (and just ignore that I know this is ‘prohibited’.

:casa_di_ringhiera   images

A typical Corrala

The Museum of Popular Arts (UAM) Madrid

patio 3    patio 2

patio   patio 4

As you can see the building is renovated and there are wires and cables for the sun shades they sometimes pull across when they use the patio for events. Proof in fact that the space has in fact been used for concerts or markets in the past. My idea was to use this space. The main consideration in presenting for the downstairs gallery is whether to relate the work to the idea of the corrala or document my previous work or something else? I feel it should be related but it loses a lot downstairs.

through entrance    patio with hangings



In some ways these videos made on my phone are more successful that the ones I made using a DSLR – the video camera has disappeared. Because of the floor it was impossible to use a makeshift dolly and a tripod so I was holding the camera by hand and although I was doing so from underneath not the lens it was still quite shakey. I also moved too quickly at times as it was heavy and uncomfortable that way. My phone being a lot lighter was far more comfortable. It is difficult to transfer longer segments from the phone so I have included 3 relatively short ones here.

What I liked about this segment is the way the sheet moves in the wind and managing to capture this, I think I could slow it down if I could import it into imovie.

This is a movement from a group of men via the same sheet as before to a group of women workers I was quite pleased witht eh sheet as I caught it as I went past from good angles. Being able to see the drawing, if not the subject, adds to this. There is also an interesting contrast with the wall work and we end with someone else’s wheat paste.

Here we see practically the whole space rather too quickly. I needed to slow down. It is also unusually calm and there is much less noise than in the previous recordings. There is also the issue of the lighting and I am not sure how this can be helped  with the strong sunlight outside when I pass windows, the camera automatically compensates. At times this works quite we but at others things I want to be seen remain invisible.

This afternoon I saw ‘The way things go’ The Fischli and Weiss video on you tube. I wanted to see how they documented their work and remembered it as being in this type of room.  Of course it is very different, apart from being focused on carefully controlled movement the light is also controlled and they have some kind of a dolly. They also have a whole crew. Still the pacing in my case is something I need to think about and although I don’t have a dolly I can cut and make shorter segments and edit them. I really like the sounds in their video and when I managed to get this in mine.

Nearly the end of Term

I realised that at the end of term – ie when I can become a full time artist this blog doesnt exist (no July and August) so I am starting to collect reading material and plan for July and August’s reading and making. With only 4 more teaching days this year I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I will also try to negotiate some public space in which to make work at the beginning of the year, in addition to reading and experimenting. This month has been lost to catchup at teaching job so far but I am beginning to feel the mental space to reflect on which way I am going. One of the first things that I realised was that although I want to continue drawing and do some printmaking in paper, I am not drawn to continue painting on canvas for now. This is a big shift for me as I have been making ‘paintings’ on canvas or board: objects. As I travel around, especially on the local trains I see potential sites everywhere so I think I will start July in this way with a balance of academic reading/ material investigation and local research.

I am collecting a variety of papers and articles to read and websites such as this one which I find potentially very exciting.

And now I am ordering the books from the reading list.

Looking Forward – work

As I am completing my reflection of the Exploratory Project I have identified my interest in work. In my tutorial with Stewart Geddes he had an issue with my use of the workers as a way of describing my subjects. He said it sounded very dated. I find this really interesting. It might be partially related to the language issue, I still read ‘trabajadores’ in Spanish news, or do I? What then or who are the workers now? With huge unemployment there is a lower percentage of the population in employment but how are we employed? I have realised that these issues matter a lot to me. Having completed the essay and sent off and uploaded my work for assessment I feel I have the opportunity to research new areas. I was not able to put all the issues I wanted to research in 2000 words. Various subjects I wanted to include and which I want to relate to my work had to be edited out. I also realise that I started so late that I don’t think I had a good approach the essay was just me surveying some theories and practices which relate to mine in a relatively superficial way without much of a critical edge. At the time I just wanted to meet the deadline and keep up with my other work.



It is clear that my work in Ciempozuelos not only relates to social changes in communities but also fundamentally to the work place and labour itself. Over the past few months the change in the way prostitution is ‘sold’ has become more and more visible in my daily life. Every day these small flyers (usually about 6-8cm) are left on car windscreens. I first noticed these walking around in Southern Madrid neighbourhoods but gradually they got to more central areas. In some ways it is shocking and saddens me on the other hand maybe this ‘industry’ should not be hidden from us. I was shocked by the prices ‘anti crisis’ how little they were asking and the supermarket style special offers. This makes me question not only how women are used in the sex industry but also how this is part of a huge change in the way work is defined and our relation to it. I am not sure what I will do with the flyers for now I am collecting and I am reading about how we define work.

Some references:

Braverman, H. (1974) Labor and monopoly capital: The degradation of work in the twentieth century. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Reflection so Far

MA1 Visual Enquiry

Exploratory Project Plan & Evaluation

Name: Alison South Date:             23rd February 2015


Project Plan. 1 to 2 pages.

What do you want to explore? Be specific.

Making a piece of work which is temporary and site specific relating to an abandoned building. I will seek advice from friends to make contacts in different areas and negotiate with those responsible. My preferred sites are abandoned factories, institutions such as hospitals, schools, prisons etc. If possible I would like to be able to open the work up to the public as some kind of an exhibition even if only for a short time.

What is your personal challenge?

    1. Negotiate with people and having to defend my ideas to strangers.
    2. Adapt my way of working to a specific space.

What methods will you use?

  1. talk to as many people as possible to find a good space as quickly as I can.
  2. analyse the space in terms of past function and physical properties
  3. investigate the history of the space, develop new research methods. Through communication with people, archives and technology.
  4. adapt my way of working in the studio and possibly on site in response to the space and the stories
  5. collaborate with people and environment

Plan an outline programme over 12 weeks; build in time for reflection.

wk 1 find a space and a back up plan B.

wk 2 investigate the site and its stories (the history – oral history)

wk 3 consider materials and begin to play with them on site and studio

wk 4 experimentation on site and in studio

wk 5 experimentation and documentation of progress

wk 6 reflection

wk 7 more experimentation according to the outcomes of the reflection

wk 8 making

wk 9 making

wk 10 working in the space

wk 11 photographing and documenting the event

wk 12 reflection

What challenges do you anticipate?

Finding a space and getting permission

Legal challenges – permission to use the site

Lack of personal negotiation skills and having to keep going with them.

What could you do when you get stuck?

go for a run /read a chapter of a novel.

pick up the phone and call someone to ask for help

Project Evaluation

16th May 2015

  1. What went well and why?

The working on site was generally successful it freed up my process as I had to strip back to essentials and plan carefully. I could not take a wide variety of equipment with me so I had to choose what to use carefully. Sometimes this was more successful than others. For example I did not dilute the paint enough but in the space this was more effective than in the studio. The figures needed to exist and they were not over powering.

2. What did not go so well and why?

I am not as well organised as I need to be. I took the wrong ladder with me to the site once and could not reach the beams. On another occasion I charged the DSLR to go and take photographs and left the battery charging in my kitchen. When I arrived at the site I had to take photographs using my phone which are not very good but are the only documentation I have of this phase of the project.

3. Comment on what have you learnt about:

  • Your making process

I found it difficult to make the figures the size I wanted them to be: a little larger than life size. This might be as this year I have done less drawing than usual but also because I was working outside my comfort zone in a public space and never knew who may arrive. In fact the only people who came whilst I was there (some runners) were more frightened of me than I of them and ran away when I said hello. Painting on the walls was difficult especially at first and very different to walls in the studio but I really liked how the mark interacted with what was already there. I was more comfortable in the studio and enjoyed the sensuality of the paint on calico, but both felt right.

  • Your use of resources

As mentioned previously I needed to select carefully and be organised before driving a 60 km round trip to the site. I would like to use more from the site in future and find a way of integrating the supports I took with me (card and fabric) into the site more effectively. Working without water or electricity was a challenge which I got better at dealing with. I also felt several times that this would have been an excellent type of project for some kind of collaboration.

  • Your capacity to take risks

Throughout this project I felt a bit like I did as a child entering forbidden territory. I feel I took the biggest risks in articulating my project within the local community, some of whom frankly thought I was crazy and the local culture councillor offered me a nice new gallery space in which to exhibit. I did meet some very helpful people too who I think will be mutually useful in the future. Although my best sources for images in the end were online scanned analogue photos.

  • How you cope with problems

When I took the wrong ladder and forgot the camera battery I felt very frustrated. I tried to reschedule the tasks but in one case I got sick and some phases are not documented.

  1. How could you take forward what you’ve learnt?

I intend to document the project using digital and analogue photography. I like the idea of going back into analogue as I used found analogue images as sources. I will use this documentation when I approach the Ciempozuelos town hall about exhibiting either in one of their institutions, possibly in the patio. I will also use the documentation to seek the use of other sites.

Through this project I have identified my interest not only with institutions and the narratives of those who inhabited them but also a concern for the changing labour relations and ways of working. I can continue to work in abandoned spaces to build up a portfolio whilst trying to take the work into more ‘official’ sites where I will need permission for access.

I also had the idea of using this work in an educational way if I can get a voluntary job in a young offenders center in the summer I would be able to develop what I have done into a project

references – Santiago Sierra relates to Santiago Sierra’s workers in boxes press release in English by the ivory press: about the national art prize which I think he turned down – por sentido común – but I have to find the reference.

In English from the Guardian – lisson Gallery Adrian Searle

Interview with Teresa Margolles in Bomb –  translated in English – Tate shots after he exhibited there 5mins video – tve 2 documentary (in Spanish)

In Lisson Gallery in English – 2012