During the days of 8th and 9th of January 2016 a 48-hour dock workers performance took place at Kunstkraftwerk in Leipzig, Germany, as part of the Keep Frozen series.
Kunstkraftwerk is a post-industrial space, a 19th century power station situated in a derelict former industrial area of Leipzig. The performance dealt with the invisibility of manual labour within contemporary western society and the dismemberment of urban industrial landscapes and their social histories. When real estate developers take over and renovate industrial spaces that have lost their original functionality, as in the case of Kunstkraftwerk, culture and art often become tools for increasing the value and attractiveness of the properties. While artists play an important role in that process, their work tends to be under-compensated. The performance thus also became a contemplation on the implication of the artist in urban development processes as a highly visible, yet under-recognized labourer.
The performance took place in collaboration with five dock workers from Reykjavik harbour that the artists had been working with on location in Reykjavik for few years and that were directly involved in the making of the documentary film Keep Frozen. After having been invited into their world at the harbour where they are the experts/workers the artist now invited the dock workers to her world of the 'art space' where she was the expert/worker. In the art space they were asked to perform the same movements and tasks that they usually do when they are given 48 hours to unload a factory freezer trawler of 25.000 frozen boxes, each weighing about 25 kilos. They worked from 6:00 until 19:00 both days with short breaks for eating as is the way on the dock itself. Thus the documenting of the performance of the workers moved from one medium to the other.
In Reykjavik harbor a group of dock workers work together. The job hasn´t really been mechanized. They have to endure this task using almost only physical power in an endless repetition of movements where they move the boxes from one place to the next until the freezer compartment is empty and the container trucks full and gone away. The workers work without contracts and get paid for how fast they are which means their skills in working as synchronized machine is really put to the test.
The art piece evokes thoughts of the relationship between artistic creation and labour and the job of the manual worker but also questions in a specific way the act of showing labour or in generally anything that can be considered 'exotic' from the perspective of the viewer. The viewer is usually a well educated middle-class/upper-class person with good intentions similar to the profiles of funding decision-makers. Decisions of which stories have to be told, due to their invisibility, relevance or non accessibility, is paradoxically also a placement of a certain point of view as the universal point of view. This point of view is echoed in the mainstream media or vice versa.
The workers had behind them a long history of working together as one synchronized machine, moving box after box in endless repetition. It is easy to see the work as a self-choreographed dance, a performance piece in itself, where everything works in circles in a very meditative way.
For 48 hours the artist and the workers collaborated in appropriating the dock movements to the qualities that the space offered to the task. The workers participated as experts in a physical labour task; as real people but not actors or professional performance artists. The motivation of the artist was to show something that is increasingly becoming invisible in the mainstream society which celebrates 'creative classes' as the future and CEO's and marketing people as value-makers. In contrary to what has happened in alternative socio-economic structures the voices of labour workers are undermined together with their contribution to society. The undermining mechanisms cleverly hide the fact that it is manual labour that is creating tremendous value for the economy.
The first day of the performance filming took place focusing on documenting what was going on in a specific, experimental and playful way that would feed into a 3-channel synchronized video installation work. The motivation was to move towards representation again and closing the circle and at the same time creating a dialogue between the cinema documentary format and the video installation format and question assumptions of reality and fiction in documentary and video. This moved the project to yet another medium. For more information about the filming, that also took place in front of audience, please refer to the text about Labour Move.
The performance was open to the public for the entire duration. For many in the audience, it became highly questionable to take the position of the voyeur sipping their wine and tasting the delicacies that are routinely served at such occasions. What is going on? Are the workers part of the artwork? Or are they perhaps the artwork itself? In the hands of the artist they certainly become artistic material or more precisely their work, their movements, their gestures, their sounds. What position does the artist and the audience take in relation to what is taking place and to the workers themselves? In the end the artist and the performers invited the audience to break the glass wall and participate in the performance of moving extremely heavy boxes.