MANAGERIAL AUTHORSHIP: APPROPIATING LIVING LABOUR was commissioned by Binna Choi and Axel Wieder for Casco Issues 12, Utrecht (NL) in September 2011. It was written by Mattin in May 2010 with thanks to Anthony Iles, Lisa RosendahlBinna Choi and Axel Wieder.


When working with noise and improvisation in the context of concert and performance situations, I am interested in the division of labour between performer and audience. Historically, this division presupposed a relation between these two positions in terms of active and passive. In contemporary capitalism, this division is problematised through the recuperation of leisure time and the valorisation of what seems to be unproductive labour. Mirroring this expansive tendency in capitalism, more and more artists are using audience interaction as material for their work, blurring the boundaries between producer and consumer. This way of working, where the artist appropriates intellectual contributions made by others but where the interaction is still framed under the artist’s own name, has a strong relationship to the logic of management, as it has developed from the division of labour into an organisational theory of business. In this text I will explore, through an examination of Karl Marx’s concepts of living labour and the general intellect, a way of working used by artists that I propose is a form of managerial authorship.


Management guru Peter Drucker identified two characteristics of management: innovation and marketing. Innovation does not necessarily need to come from the manager, but he or she is the one who must make sure that it can be marketed. As we can see with intellectual property, an innovation needs to be framed in order to be marketed and given a value. In capitalism, value can only be assigned to that which is measurable or countable. As Alan Badiou has said of today’s configuration of the world as a global market:

Everything that circulates falls under the unity of the count, while inversely, only what lets itself be counted in this way can circulate. Moreover, this is the norm that illuminates a paradox few have pointed out: in the hour of generalized circulation and the phantasm of instantaneous cultural communication, laws and regulations forbidding the circulation of persons are being multiplied everywhere.(1)

Marx’s concept of living labour goes against the idea of countability and generalised circulation. By living labour, Marx meant our potential for creativity; that labour capacity which is not yet tamed, measured and framed by capitalism. Living labour is that subjective ‘flame’ which capital, in order to accumulate surplus labour, seeks to objectify through exchange. However, from today’s perspective it has become clear that capitalism’s ever expanding drive has found multiple ways of framing what Marx understood as living labour. Within the post-Fordist condition, centered around a regime of creativity and flexibility, this expansion can be better understood in relation to another Marxist concept: the general intellect.

In his Fragment on machines Marx discusses how, with the development of technology, workers would increasingly have access to more time to develop and educate themselves through expanded leisure time. Since machines would produce the work that was previously done by the workers, the workers would gain the time to generate social knowledge, referred to by Marx as the ‘general intellect’. This general intellect becomes sedimented in the machines owned by capitalists as fixed capital. By fixed capital Marx meant the capital that is not in circulation, that which is constantly present in the form of means of production such as tools, land, buildings and vehicles.

There has been a lot of discussion around the notion of the general intellect, mostly coming from the so called autonomia or post-autonomia thinkers like Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno, Christian Marazzi, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi and Maurizo Lazzarato. For the autonomist, the general intellect has some of the qualities of living labour; it is self-reflexive, affective, cooperative, communicative and creative. For them, these qualities can also be applied to politics, and can therefore produce self-organisation antagonistic to capital.

Responding to this line of thought in her text, ‘Living Labour, Form-Giving Fire’, Katja Diefenbach points out some of the problems of romanticising living labour by incorporating not only our creative capacity but by also making it intrinsically political.

Thus, an effect of the political can dangerously consist of subordinating revolt and dream to the economic primacy of effective doing. The organisation which we are able to give to ourselves would have to do both: coordinate and keep a distance to the process of a radical break; it would have to reject the romantic tradition, by not equating the political with the living and a common to be produced. (2)

Nevertheless we can agree with Paulo Virno when he argues that Marx was wrong to see the general intellect as fixed capital, since now increasingly humans are becoming the machines themselves, the general intellect is not fixed capital but living labour before it is objectified. The general intellect is not value itself but the potential to produce value:

They are not units of measure; they constitute the immeasurable presupposition of heterogeneous effective possibilities. (3)

As human creativity is more variable and heterogeneous than a machine, the framing of it and the production of value through it is more complex. The manager appropriates life processes that he or she might not be able to evaluate immediately, but when the potential of our living labour is realised he or she knows how to define, measure and market it.


I have absolutely nothing against appropriation or plagiarism, especially if it helps us to counter notions of authorship, copyright and individual creativity. As the Comte de Lautréamont wrote: “Plagiarism is necessary. Progress demands it.” (4)  But there are different types of appropriation. Appropriation of works of art and music can help to transgress established notions of originality, ontological conceptions of the artwork and what it means to be an artist. In other words, it can help to challenge notions of quality, taste, craft and individualised production. Nonetheless, the key form of appropriation is that which the capitalist exacts upon the worker by appropriating his or her labour capacity.

In some instances, the two forms of appropriation are combined: in the name of the critique of authorship, and as a way of questioning the passive condition of the audience, the managerial artist appropriates the audiences’ general intellect by giving them the feeling of possessing a certain subjective agency (living labour that is yet to be objectified). However, beyond this appearance of agency, the artist’s framing of the situation generates surplus value for his/herself – in the form of cultural capital etc. – which far exceeds the benefit to the audience.

In an early proto-example of this managerial authorship, when David Tudor performed John Cage’s 4’33” for the first time on the 29 August 1952 at a concert recital in Woodstock, New York, all the sounds produced in the room were proclaimed equally valid as music. Nevertheless, most of the audience did not realise they were making music. By having control over the conceptual discourse underpinning the project, the managerial artist can make sure that everything can be incorporated into their work, in a manner that can only be valuable in such a specific way under the banner of his or her own artistic career. This does not mean that the audience gets nothing out of it, of course one can learn a lot through participating in these types of situations but contrary to the liberating appearance of these events the division of labour between artist and audience remains unchanged.

Today we see artists like Anton Vidokle and Tino Sehgal working according to a managerial logic, albeit in very different ways from each other. During 2008-2009, Vidokle produced Night School, a temporary school at The New Museum in New York. The project involved artists, writers, curators and diverse audiences. Presentations, lectures and workshops were held by people like Martha Rosler, Maria Lind, Liam Gillick, Tirdad Zolghadr, Paul Chan, Natasha Sadr Haghighian and Raqs Media Collective. Later on in Museum as Hub: Six Degrees group show at the New Museum, Vidokle presented an installation called Night School, 2008-09. (5) The installation included a monitor, a DVD player, and a book case with DVDs documenting lectures and workshops that had happened at the night school. Suddenly, through its documentation, all the content produced by the various presenters and audiences during the presentations and workshops held in the name of education became Anton Vidokle’s artwork. To what extent can one appropriate someone else’s activities? For what reasons? What does it produce?

In the work This Progress by Tino Sehgal, staged at the ICA in London in 2006, one entered the gallery to be confronted by a little girl asking you to reply to the question “what do you think is progress?”. Related questions were then put to you by different people of increasing age as you walked through a succession of exhibition rooms. Placing the spectator in a tightly constructed situation in which little room was left for transformative interaction, Sehgal instead gave you the feeling of being part of an assembly line of knowledge production. Contrary to Vidokle’s practice, Sehgal does not allow his work to be documented, placing the emphasis instead on the moment of experience. This means that unique and individual experiences are not only produced by the work but, more importantly, they produce the work. Taking Comte de Lautrémont’s quote about plagiarism to a new level. This Progress shows us how the general intellect can be used artistically: real life process as constituent content of the artwork.

This management of peoples’ creativity, ideas, personal tastes and lives, is similar to the operations we see happening within social networks, where people express themselves through the use of tools like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, creating hits for network sites. Guy Debord’s dream and worst nightmare has become true: spectators are emancipating themselves from their passive condition, but at the price of feeling empowered by a system that produces, on the one hand, the feeling of self-agency and on the other hand that productive power which appears to be living labour: as if one were in a hamster wheel which is just pushing capitalism forward. At some point, under all the layers of different networks, somebody is converting these activities into exchange value. In a brilliant paper titled ‘Forking Free Sofware’, delivered at the Make Art Festival in Poitiers last December, Simon Yuill explained how the free software community was being recuperated by a neoliberal logic. Yuill quoted Charles Leadbeater, British futurologist, management consultant, and one-time adviser to the Tony Blair government:

“The avant-garde imagined that spectatorship would give way to participation permitting people to become more social and collaborative, egalitarian and engaged with one another, to borrow and share ideas … Mass participation, Debord’s antidote to the society of the spectacle, has turned into YouTube and social-networking sites on which we can all make a spectacle of ourselves.” (6)

We have to be clear about the relations put to work within the production of the managerial artwork, as well as on the social networks. What for us, as audiences, seems to be the expression of living labour, for the managerial artist becomes productive labour. The conceptual framing works as the means of production: the audience/worker is distanced from the bigger picture – the knowledge, connections and conditions that allow the work to happen and the distribution of its effects. The maintenance of this distance reproduces relations as they stand, the audience is reproduced as audience at one remove from the means of the artwork’s production.

While it is true that as an audience we may be able to express our living labour capacity (not yet objectified and certainly not remunerated), at the same time we are also productive labour. We are producing the work of another artist and we are producing ourselves – depending on living labour capacity – as an innovative audience, which also means achieving the valorisation of the artist and the institution in which the artwork is taking place and the funding behind it. Marx explains what he means by ‘productive labour': “a relation that has sprung up historically and stamps the labourer as the direct means of creating surplus-value. To be a productive labourer is, therefore, not a piece of luck, but a misfortune.”(7) In order for this to occur, a division of labour is necessary.

By being productive labour we are also producing surplus labour. In the Grundrisse Marx explained how this surplus labour under capitalism is constantly split in two (8):

1 – The objective conditions that can allow for a new realisation of labour for its own self-preservation and self-reproduction.

2 – Living labour in the realisation process is estranged from itself as it is reproducing the conditions that makes it alien. Surplus labour reproduces the conditions for the future extraction of surplus labour.

By constantly recreating the conditions for the accumulation of surplus labour we not only recreate the conditions of our self-preservation but also the self-preservation of capital.

The ‘flame of living labour’ necessitates the capitalist material conditions for its realisation (technological, artistic context, musical context), but by reproducing capital in the act of reproducing itself, this living labour alienates itself from its product.

As long as we persist in our condition as audience, we will reproduce the division of labour in which it is the artist and not us, in the last instance, who has the final decision of how the overall activity might be represented.

This instrumentalisation is produced by the artist applying the managerial logic of framing.

What is left of our own subjective agency if our experiences have been appropriated by capitalism at the most sophisticated level? Where are the capacities of our living labour today? What creative act can exceed this commodification of experience? It seems too optimistic to invest faith in living labour, while the current flow of capital is creating already new flexible regimes of subjectivation and an accumulative future for those who are able to invest in these new kinds of creative capital, while the rest are sinking into oblivion. What for one feels like a unique moment is, for another, a link in the chain of a speculative post-Fordist assembly line, where every little interaction can add ‘something’. Whatever this something might be will be decoded in the future and if more value can be extracted all the better, but it already has fulfilled the first purpose: to keep the ball of innovation and activity rolling through exchanging ideas, knowledge and experiences.

Unless this accumulative chain is disrupted, the surplus labour will be continuously reproduced, and in doing so also our own constant penury. Experience has been commodified, and it seems impossible to combat this fact with ideology, not with discourse, nor by self-aggrandising our potential living labour. Instead what seems more urgent is to create situations for ourselves that challenge the very notion of production, and the way we our subjectivities are produced. There is no return to a generic essence of self or a pure subjectivity. We seem to be in irreversible times, disturbed and damaged forever, pushing ourselves further in our own alienation, as if we were walking blindly within the conceptual parameters of the managerial logic, thinking that we are going towards our own individual liberation, but we are, instead, constantly reproducing the distance between our actions and our control over the conditions of the context that we inhabit. Liberation does not come from this type of realisation process, but from a distorted self-realisation process that goes against our own conditions and even our subjectivity itself, producing instead an anti-self. The anti-self destroys its own position by nullifying the attributes of accumulation that shape our subjectivity today, such as confidence, contacts, recognition, and attention. Being no one, being nowhere, being nobody, definitely not an artist, certainly not an audience, producing nothing that separates us from our objective conditions, having nothing to exchange because there is nothing to count that someone else can frame.


Noise exacerbates the rift between knowing and feeling by splitting experience, forcing conception against sensation. Some recent philosophers have evinced an interest in subjectless experiences; I am rather more interested in experience-less subjects. Another name for this would be ‘nemocentrism’ (a term coined by neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger): the objectification of experience would generate self-less subjects that understand themselves to be no-one and no-where. This casts an interesting new light on the possibility of a ‘communist’ subjectivity. (9)

There is a growing emphasis in contemporary capitalism on individual experiences in production and consumption. In a given context, when we experience our living labour being realised, the potential of our subjectivity, of our intellectual and affective capacity, we feel empowered, we feel that we can and that we are a constituent part of the context that we are in. We don’t have an overview from outside, we are inside.

As we said before, this feeling of self-empowerment is used by capitalism in its creation of a framework where a valorisation of whatever activity that occurs within can be realised a different points and moments. While we gain unique experiences, momentarily feeling happy about ourselves, a capitalist logic expands deeper and deeper into our subjectivity.

In his text, ‘Genre is Obsolete’, Ray Brassier has pointed out how the commodification of experience has not only happened at the ideological level but at the neurophysiological level. (10) Therefore the production of aesthetic experiences does not seem to be enough for us to challenge and understand our contemporary condition. Noise does not work well at the level of either aesthetics or experience, in fact its qualities radically challenge both of these notions. Rather than trying to reconcile knowing and feeling, noise can help us to dissociate the notion of living labour from subjectivity in a way that exceeds the logic of framing, by either being too much, too complex, too dense and difficult to decode or too chaotic to be measured. One cannot have mastery over it, it is a kind of useless general intellect that suspends values of judgement such as good or bad or right or wrong. To think of it in moral or ethical terms seems ridiculous. Noise with its epistemic violence, counters the division between activity and passivity. By making us aware of our impossibility to decipher it, noise alienate us. We all are no-one in front of it. We cannot find reaffirmation of our accepted positions (either as audience or performer).

Unfortunately in practice, noise has become just another musical genre and many people could predict what a noise concert might be like. In noise concerts the performer/audience division is reproduced as it is elsewhere and players rarely deal with it. Rather than trying to perpetuate noise as musical genre, I would like to think through how noise as it carries qualities such as chaos, density, saturation, precision, intelligibility … can be executed in order to dismantle the frameworks that so often shape the way we behave and how we relate to each other. Perhaps by putting ourselves through the grinder of noise we may destroy our internalised managerial logic.

1  Alain Badiou, Ray Brassier (Trans). Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003. p.10.

2  Katja Diefenbach, ‘Living Labour, Form-Giving Fire’, in Gal Kim (Ed). Post-Fordism and its Discontents, Forthcoming, Berlin: B_books, b_books, Maastricht: JVE, Ljubljana: Peace Institut.

3  Paolo Virno, The General Intellect,

4  It is interesting to note that even if Guy Debord used to cite this quote, he terminated his relationship with Henri Lefebvre and     accused him of plagiarising the text ‘Thesis on the Paris Commune’ which Debord co-wrote with Attila Kotanyi and Raoul Vaneigem.


6  From Simon Yuill’s public talk at the Festival

7  Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, London: Penguin Classics, p.644.

8  Karl Marx, Grundrisse, translated Martin Nicolaus, London: Penguin Books, 1973, p.454.

9  Ray Brassier, Against Aesthetics of Noise,

10 Ray Brassier, ‘Genre is Obsolete’ in Anthony Iles & Mattin (eds.), Noise & Capitalism, Donostia/San Sebastián: Audiolab-Arteleku, 2009:

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.