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Notes on Slack, or, A Declaration of Uselessness

Slack is extra—extra line in the rope. Slack is not keeping things tight. It means not pulling, or at least not pulling so much that you use up all the slack.

In animal training, slack is a reward. When a horse does what you want, you give it slack in the reins. You release the pressure, and that release is pleasure enough. This suggests that slack itself, having a bit of extra in your rope, is something to value.

If slack is extra, it is linked to waste. Bataille suggested that what we do with our waste, our “extra,” is what defines us. And he reminds us of the (problematic) relationship between excess, waste, and sacrifice.1

The kind of slack we’re talking most about here is the slack that means wasted time. And wasted time means time not given to the future. Time not put to use. To waste time is to be present. To simply be present is to waste time. If enough time is wasted in this way, (as Prayas Abhinav said) you are a buddha.2

At work, to slack is to strike. It is an act of refusal—the refusal to be used. Here I think you can find some of its political sting. Slacking is a kind of sabotage, like those dutch workers throwing their wooden shoes into the machines that enslaved them – wreckage as resistance. Slacking subtly wrecks the productive machine of work life, it slows it down, gums it up.

I met a poet in Prague once. He told me that before the revolution, writers and philosophers tried to get work tending the boilers in big buildings. They could sit in the basement, quietly reading and writing subversive tracts, shoveling coal from time to time as necessary. They sought out the work with the most slack, and with that slack they made their revolution.

This is another bit of the sting—people with some extra in their time might spend it thinking and talking. Slack time is free time. And any kind of freedom can be habit forming.

Time is the one kind of economic capital that everyone starts out with (though of course we never quite know how much we’ll have). Industry (and industriousness) puts time to “good” use. You spend your time, trading it for a skimming of the monetary capital it turns into. The present is traded for a future (even if that future is only dinner).

To deliberately waste time is to critique the value of that exchange.
I keep thinking of that old Aesop fable about the ant and the grasshopper. The ant spent its summer hard at work, preparing for the winter. The grasshopper spent its summer slacking and singing. In the Aesop story, the grasshopper dies of hunger, filled with regret.

But I wonder. Even the Christian bible gives us a bit more slack: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”3 Slacker manifestos go way back.

Stephen Wright has claimed slacking as performative—does that make it like street theater?4 Agitprop? A (lazy) protest march? Sit-in? Bed-in? Die-in?

If slackers are performing, who are they performing for? It seems they must be performing their slack for workers, for people who take work seriously (too seriously?). They (we) are performing against the work ethic, against the exaltation and valorization of work for work’s own sake. Against the use of that work ethic to justify what is often a kind of enslavement.

Tom Lutz (in his book, Doing Nothing) notices that slackers make people angry.5 And it seems to me that (much of the time) it’s fully intended. Slacking gives the finger to working. It’s a rude gesture. Slacking mocks. It makes the worker look and feel a bit ridiculous (of course slacking is mocked too—workers often go all out in trying to shame a slacker).

Performing slack is performing protest, refusal, demonstration, ridicule. It is performing critique.

So it seems to me we have two slacks going at once. Performative, critical slack on the one hand, and on the other something more like free time, emphasis on the free—slack as leisure, playfulness, ease, autonomy, desire. This is slack in the sense of what Henry Flynt coined the word “brend” for: “everything done entirely because you just like it as you do it.”6 If slack is a play, in the sense of theater, slack is also play.

It seems to me that these two slacks need each other, that they are intimately bound up together like sides of a piece of paper. If I go out and play while you work, even if I do it out of simple desire, it functions as an implicit critique. My play looks better, at least to me, than your work. If I act out an ostentatiously empty slack, doing nothing to the point of boredom, depression, self-destruction, still there is an element of pleasure locked inside it—a communication that even emptiness or nothingness is better than the self-negation of work-slavery. In critique and mockery there is also a kernel of play and intrinsic motivation.

This strikes me as exactly the same paradox that art inhabits. There is the pull on the one hand of intrinsic factors of art, its free play, its autonomy, its pleasure and desire (often quite perverse pleasure and desire). On the other is the push of protest. Refusal, demonstration, critique. Art’s declaration of autonomy is a kind of freedom, and at the same time it’s a kind of art strike, a rejection of obeisance.

Or maybe paradox is the wrong word. The two aspects of art, like the aspects of slack, can’t exist without each other. The intrinsic and the critical each implicate the other. My artistic “brend” implies a critique, my artistic critique implies a vision of “brend.” Art has this quality because, like play, or sex, or slack, it’s something we might actually do for its own sake, quite apart from its status in the commercial and institutional art world.

Let’s invoke Alan Kaprow and his rather prescient call for artists to withdraw from “art.” He wanted artists to let go of art’s autonomy and gain some of their own. And tried it out himself. His own art strike was a somewhat gentle one: He melted away from the art world for a decade or two or three, carrying out small activities alone or with a few friends or students — some almost imperceptibly ordinary, like brushing his teeth.

Of course the art world has reclaimed him, most recently in a series of retrospectives, reenactments, and critical volumes. Art loves to eat its own critique. But the very subtle and private work has come closest to being ignored.

Here’s Kaprow in “The Education of the Un-Artist, Part II” from 1972:

“Only when active artists willingly cease to be artists can they convert their abilities, like dollars into yen, into something the world can spend: play. Play as currency. We can best learn to play by example, and un-artists can provide it. In their new job as educators, they need simply play as they once did under the banner of art, but among those who do not care about that. Gradually, the pedigree “art” will recede into irrelevance.”7

He goes on: “Replacing artist with player, as if adopting an alias, is a way of altering a fixed identity. And a changed identity is a principle of mobility, of going from one place to another. Art work, a sort of moral paradigm for an exhausted work ethic, is converting into play. As a four-letter word in a society given to games, play does what all dirty words do: it strips bare the myth of culture by its artists, even.”8

But Alan, I keep wanting to say to him, you’re just trying to make art useful again. And when art becomes completely, unambiguously socially useful, it’s just another kind of work. Educational work. Therapeutic work. Political work.

Kaprow wanted artists (un-artists) to slip into life with just a memory of the idea of art to keep an element of criticality or autonomy or playfulness alive in what they do.

“Of course, starting from the arts means that the idea of art cannot be easily gotten rid of (even if one wisely never utters the word). But it is possible to slyly shift the whole un-artistic operation away from where the arts customarily congregate, to become, for instance, an account executive, an ecologist, a stunt rider, a politician, a beach bum. In these different capacities, the several kinds of art discussed would operate indirectly as a stored code that, instead of programming a specific course of behavior, would facilitate an attitude of deliberate playfulness toward all professionalizing activities well beyond art.”9

This isn’t so different from Stephen Wright’s artistic strategy of redundancy. He calls for artists to leave behind the word “art” and slip into the world, not just in the disguise of some other activity, but with a kind of dual citizenship—they act genuinely in the world but keep an infra-thin double identity. “So, what is “redundant” art?” he asks. “It is not possible to define it by what it looks like—it doesn’t look, or not look, like art. It looks like what it is: the redundant thing or action. Redundancy ends the charade of artistic autonomy. It is neither more nor less creative or expressive than whatever it also happens to be. Redundant art covers all those activities and passivities, enterprises, initiatives and pursuits, which, though informed by art and an art-historical self-understanding, are in fact just what they are and what they appear to be. They are redundant only as art.”10

or

“A new status for art means that art not appear as such. Art is, but not as a distinct and autonomous category.”11

As Kaprow might put it, “Where art is only one of several possible functions a situation may have, it loses its privileged status and becomes, so to speak, a lowercase attribute.”12

I’m a fan of these strategies (and sometimes a practitioner of them) but I find myself still interested in the word “art” and its thorny problems. Honestly I welcome that thorn in my side. It’s like a hair shirt – a reminder. “Don’t get too comfortable,” it says.

Maybe it’s the slacker in me that wants to keep art from being too wholeheartedly useful. Art’s autonomy isn’t just a strategy we can abandon as historically exhausted, though people keep trying to do that. It’s a declaration of uselessness. It’s art performing slack. Sure, we might want art to get up off the couch and actually do something for a change, but it may well be one of those cases where we should be careful what we wish for.

January, 2009

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Notes on Slack is adapted from my part of the conversation on the N.E.W.S. forum Cutting Slack: Paradoxes of Slackerdom

Notes

[1] Georges Bataille, Accursed Share Volume 1. Zone Books, New York, 1989.

[2] Prayas Abhinav, “The Tao of Slacking,” from “Cutting Slack: Paradoxes of Slackerdom” http://northeastwestsouth.net/cutting-slack-paradoxes-slackerdom-0#comment-472 1/3/2009 .

[3] Matthew 6:28-29, King James Version

[4] Stephen Wright, “Cutting Slack: Paradoxes of Slackerdom” (introduction) http://northeastwestsouth.net/cutting-slack-paradoxes-slackerdom-0 1/3/2009.

[5] Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York, 2006.

[6] Henry Flynt, “Brend” in Against Participation; A Total Critique of Culture, http://www.henryflynt.org/aesthetics/brend.html 1994.

[7] Alan Kaprow, “The Education of the Un-Artist, Part II,” Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1993.

[8] Kaprow, “The Education of the Un-Artist, Part II.”

[9] Alan Kaprow, “The Education of the Un-Artist, Part I,” Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1993.

[10] Stephen Wright, “Sweet Fuck All” from “Cutting Slack: Paradoxes of Slackerdom” http://northeastwestsouth.net/cutting-slack-paradoxes-slackerdom-0#comment-617 2.3.2009

[12] Wright, “Sweet Fuck All.”

[13] Kaprow, “The Education of the Un-Artist, Part I.”