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Nice Work?


Audio Collage, by Jack Saturday


Extraordinary Discourse

reviewed by Edward Picot

The World Owes You A Living is a vast sequence of audio clips on the subject of work, mostly culled from radio programmes from the 1980s to the present day, and put together by the Canadian audio and new media artist Jack Saturday. The collection, which runs to 6 CDs, starts with the familiar proposition that new technology is "eliminating people from the process of production" across the globe, and that this effect is likely to become more widespread and profound as the years go by:

The International Labour Organisation... announced after a study [in 1986] that the world will have to create 47 million new jobs every year for the next 40 years to overcome unemployment.

Why is new technology, with its potential for producing more and decreasing the burden of work, being used so often to the detriment of ordinary people rather than their benefit? According to the evidence Saturday has assembled, the world already has enough food and produce to go round - the problem is one of inequitable distribution - so why are people being made redundant, why does redundancy still mean poverty, why are the inequities of the system being exaggerated, when if things were reorganised effectively not only the need to work, but poverty and starvation too, could be abolished for the vast majority of the world's population?

Question Authority imageThe World Owes You A Living attempts to answer these questions in a number of different ways. In terms of class conflict, the starkest and simplest answer is that the people with power and money simply want more power and money, and they don't care about the price the rest of society has to pay in order for them to get it. Saturday's sound-bites certainly deal with this aspect of the problem in some depth: there is a wealth of testimony here about the widening gap between rich and poor, both in Canada and worldwide. But there is also an attempt to examine the psychological and philosophical issues involved: to explain how the concept of work has come to be so central to our way of life. As the argument broadens out and becomes more complex, it carries us into some surprisingly diverse territory. Discussions of child abuse, sexism, racism, militarism, the competitive nature of our society, the difference between a market and a community, the Protestant work ethic, the creation through social engineering of the present-day American middle class, Darwinism as a projection of British Victorian social values - all of these and many more are touched on. The way our society is structured, and the importance we attach to work, Saturday's material seems to suggest, reflect our beliefs about human nature, and ultimately these beliefs need to be traced back to religious paradigms.

The last two CDs in the sequence attempt to convey what a society without work might be like. Again the tone is often philosophical rather than political. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, we are reminded, instructed us that we should abandon our toil and self-reliance for the sake of a more direct relationship with God:

No man can serve two masters... Ye cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for the body, what ye shall put on... But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Statue of Liberty imageIn a properly-organised society of the future, Saturday's sound-clips suggest, the place of work could be taken by more spiritually-enhancing activities such as art, philosophy, nature studies and gardening. In view of the evidence from the most "developed" countries over the last twenty or thirty years - evidence that obesity, weight-induced diabetes, drug-abuse, alcoholism, broken homes and middle-aged depression are all becoming major problems as affluence increases - we might be forgiven for wondering if the human race is really capable of handling such a Utopia. But it could be contended that since our present method of upbringing is designed to equip us for work, not for a spiritually fulfilled life, many of these problems would be minimised or even cured if people were brought up and educated differently. Be that as it may, Saturday's audio sequence certainly makes a powerful case to the effect that the work-based society is probably now in its last days, and we therefore have to think about ways of rebuilding our social structures; and it also argues convincingly that the foundation-stone of any new society ought to be a guaranteed minimum income, so that all citizens, whether employed or not, could share in the commonwealth of the country.

It must be admitted that The World Owes You A Living is not flawless: in fact it is open to criticism on a number of levels. For one thing the sound-quality is shabby enough in places to make it really hard to decipher what is being said. This is largely down to the fact that Saturday has been assembling his material for about twenty years, which means that much of it was originally recorded from the radio onto cassettes, and only transferred to digital media more recently. The two additional CDs - "Happiness" and "The Great Work" - which comprise material recorded digitally from the Internet, are of much better quality. Nevertheless, moments of inaudibility are a big problem in a work which is almost entirely based on the spoken word.

Secondly, there isn't very much in the way of navigational assistance. Each CD comes with a contents-list - "More on Social Fabric", "Overwork", "Drugs" and so forth - but when you listen to the material, it isn't always clear where one section ends and the next begins; and if you want to find a particular sound-bite again, there's no way of doing so other than by trying to remember which CD it was on, and then searching for it.

Thirdly, most of the speakers whose voices we hear are uncredited. Since The World Owes You A Living is clearly pushing a certain point of view, and almost all the speakers have been selected because their utterances support that view, you sometimes find yourself reflecting that another voice or collection of voices could just as easily have been chosen to support the opposite case. The fact that we don't know the status of the speakers - they could be political radicals, academics talking about their specialist subjects, minor celebrities recycling information they've picked up from the press, or members of the public calling a phone-in programme - makes this problem more acute. Furthermore they sometimes come out with statistics which are so astonishing that you find yourself wondering whether they can really be trusted. As Saturday comments, however,

My point isn’t carried in verifiable stats - the entire picture ought to be recognizable, however questionable any individual item. The picture I paint does not hinge on any individual “fact” or statistical claim.

It should also be added that towards the end of the suite, many of the sound-bites take the form of people quoting other people's theories about work and society, and at this point we are given plenty of names: Hugh Kenner, Herbert Marcuse, Bertrand Russell, R Buckminster Fuller and so forth.

In the final analysis, as Saturday says, The World Owes You A Living owes its success not to this or that aspect of its argument, but to its vision of humans and human society. It succeeds, in other words, as a work of art. On those terms, considering its size, two of its greatest virtues are its stylistic unity, and the firmly-drawn lines of its thematic architecture. It never feels muddled or diffuse, and Saturday always seems to know where his sound-sequences are heading. Interestingly, he describes his own artistry in musical terms. He calls The World Owes You A Living a "symphony" woven from 36 distinct themes, and he adds that

To me in a way it’s all musical composition.... There is an ongoing attention to elements familiar to musical composers, specifically rhythm, timing, tension and resolution.

He often uses ironic contrast between one passage and the next as a means of throwing both into relief - moving, for example, from an item about the huge earnings and luxurious lifestyles of those at the top of society to a painful interview with a homeless man who is dreading the winter because his shoes are falling apart. On a larger scale, he moves back and forth between passages of political outrage and more wide-ranging, philosophical and reflective discussions. What this means is that The World Owes You A Living encompasses a considerable variety of moods. Again, Saturday describes this in musical terms, as "Emotion and intellect working together sequentially in the same direction, not just one then the other, but, like a concerto, incorporating a variety of alterations and changes in emotional tenor and intellectual assertion."

Authentic Delights imageBut perhaps the most significant of Saturday's artistic techniques is the most obvious: the fact that he has composed The World Owes You A Living from the utterances of other people, rather than writing and speaking it himself. To explain this, he quotes a passage by the Canadian writer and critic Northrop Frye, from The Great Code:

Literature continues in society the tradition of myth-making, and myth-making has a quality that Levi-Strauss calls bricolage, a putting together of bits and pieces of whatever comes to hand. Long before Levi-Strauss, T.S. Eliot in an essay on Blake uses practically the same image, speaking of Blake's resourceful Robinson Crusoe method of scrambling together a system of thought out of the odds and ends of his reading... I soon realized that Blake was a typical poet in this regard.

Eliot himself, of course, argued in favour of an art which was open to the utterances of others rather than purely based on the artist's personal beliefs or concerns - see his famous essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" . He also used the technique of bricolage in his own poetry, most notably in The Waste Land, where he described human knowledge as "a heap of broken images", a phrase which summarises the mood and method of the poem as a whole. So by making this connection with Eliot and the idea of bricolage, via Northrop Frye, Saturday is placing his work in the tradition of modernist art, which tends (amongst other things) to exchange the more purely and intensely personal insights of the Romantics for a fragmentary arrangement or collage of disparate voices, viewpoints and styles. But he also offers another quote, from the politically radical "news dissector", television producer and independent filmmaker Danny Schechter, who in turn quotes the Canadian filmmaker Peter Wintonick:

Filmmaker Peter Wintonick (Manufacturing Consent and other films) calls on all media workers to promote the new digital revolution. He calls for a fight against the "apocalyptic, mega-media locusts; old Hollywood; old Fictive Fantasy; Old Reality; Old News: Old World, Old Vision; Old In-humedia: Old Disembodied corporate dreams." He wants a "multi-logue" not a monologue. And so do many of us.

The implication of these lines is that "the new digital revolution" represents an opportunity not only to extend the bricolage technique pioneered by the Modernists ("a 'multi-logue' not a monologue") but also, and simultaneously, to democratise the arts, to deconstruct the monolithic, handed-down-from-on-high, "product" model which has come close to emasculating them in the era of mass marketing, and to open them up to a multitude of new voices. Saturday himself, describing the new possibilities he discovered when he made the move from analogue to digital technology, suggests that the latter is inherently more experimental, less linear, and therefore more democratic:

The range of intercession in digital audio collage composition is a quantum leap, since I didn’t cut and splice tape before. That meant that there was only one growing tip... It created a body as wake but there was no accession or intercession into that body. Now the entire piece consists of entry points, of potentially budding tips. “Innovation at every growing tip,” was the way I heard trees described — this pleases me, bringing in the holistic metaphor of the arborescent (Whitehead: “trees are democracies”). Instead of intercession at one point, I have intercession at all points, so that the thing can grow from all points within. Liberation from wage-slavery would liberate the populace at every point to grow, whereas under present job-system market capitalism, there is less chance for growth but at the one growing tip — the rich who have found a way out (yet it turns out they are as trapped as everyone else).

The radicalism of The World Owes You A Living, then, is artistic as well as political: and in Saturday's mind, at least, the two things are intimately associated. He may have gravitated towards digital media primarily for practical reasons, but the move has come to mean more to him, in artistic terms, than simply a new and better way of splicing together tape excerpts. A visit to his website demonstrates that he has acquired new media skills in many areas other than audio work. As with many artists self-publishing online, the digital revolution has given him both a new way of working and access to a new audience. In this way it has allowed him, at least to a limited extent, to experience the creative Utopia he would like to envision for all of us.

© Edward Picot, June 2005

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