Symposium: Art, Labour and the Future of Work

March 03, 2018

March 3–4, 9:00AM–5:00PM, Room 470, Morris J Wosk Centre for Dialogue, 580 West Hastings St

Co-sponsored by SFU's Institute for the Humanities, SFU Public SquareUNIT/PITT Projects, SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement, and SFU's Labour Studies Program

One of the key distinguishing features of Western modernity is the image of the human being as animal laborans (Hannah Arendt). From Machiavelli’s idea of virtu or exemplary activity as the historical process of “forming of matter,” Kant’s notion of the “Understanding” as the active synthesis of “sensuous manifold,” and Hegel’s dialectical invocation of the “labour of the concept” through Marx’s differentiation of concrete and abstract labour, the distinctive activity of labour has always been at the heart of Western humanity’s self-understanding. For the Conservative Revolutionary theorist, Ernst Jünger, writing in the 1920s, technological developments in this time augured what he called the “total mobilization” of the worker. The Nazis idealized the worker at the very moment that they destroyed the proletariat. Through the trials and tribulations of the 20th century, the question of the employment or unemployment of labour was the key question of social policy. And, under neo-liberalism, the individual labourer, differentiated and isolated from her peers, faced with generalized precarity, stagnating wages, zero-hour contracts, and diminishing expectations, finds herself under distinct pressure to become her own entrepreneur: seller and sold in one, as Walter Benjamin once characterized the prostitute.  Marx had summoned the notion of “universal prostitution” as early as the Manuscripts of 1844, and in the Grundrisse states that: “To adopt working time as a standard of wealth is to base it on poverty; it is to reduce the whole time to the only time of work and to degrade the individual to the exclusive role of worker, of working instrument.”

Now, in the midst of catastrophic climate change and on the verge of massive automation of work that, the sociologists tell us, will lead to the elimination of 80% of the jobs that currently exist within the next two decades, it is necessary to imagine the possibility of a post-work future. Will such a future lead to the implementation of Universal Basic Income (UBI), the expansion of “free time” to be spent with friends, family and lovers? Will it afford the concrete possibility of the utopic transition from the “governance of people to the administration of things” (Engels)? Or, does a more dystopian future beckon, the contours of which we can already discern, in which ever larger portions of the population are reduced to a condition of animality (zoe), deemed surplus and, therefore, disposable or what Cameroonian philosopher Mbembe calls the “becoming Black of the world”? Or, does the future of labour augur the possibility of transforming labour into play? Does the future of work entail the transformation of homo laborans into homo ludens, the labourer into the player? What role does art and aesthetics play in thinking about the future of labour? How is abstraction in art and philosophy related to the “real abstraction” of the commodity form?  With the radical transforming of socially necessary labour power, how is the very understanding of the human being, as such, tied to the idea of a homogenous socially necessary labour? What is the relationship between labour and the “aesthetic forces of production”?  How does the artwork exemplify the collapse of people and things in the social replication of work while simultaneously posing an excess and even a form of interruption and autonomy?  What is the specific labour, entailed by aesthetic judgment, in “producing” universals out of mere particulars? Will automation in the realm of production further diminish or will it bolster the dignity accorded to the sensuous realm of social reproduction and emotional labour? These are among the questions that our Symposium will pose. 


Saturday, March 3rd

Coffee and pastries 9:00 – 9:15

9:15: Welcome and Opening remarks:
Dr. Samir Gandesha, Director, Institute for the Humanities, SFU

9:30 – 11:00: Panel: Producer as Author

  • Mark Nowak, Director, the Worker Writers School, “Social Poetics and the Worker Writers School”
  • Alessandra Capperdoni, Lecturer, Department of English and Humanities, SFU, “Poetic Work as Labour: Value and Aesthetics for a History of the Present”
  • Chair: Jeff Derksen, Professor, Department of English, SFU

11:15 – 12:45: Panel: Free Associations

  • Johan Hartle, Professor, Philosophy, University of Amsterdam, “Labour Associations”
  • Duane Fontaine, PhD Candidate, SAR Program, SFU, “The UBI-subject: The New Proletariat or Forgotten Rabble?”
  • Philip Wohlstetter, Co-founder, Invisible Seattle, “Robinson at Work: Life as a Non-Value Creator”
  • Chair: Samir Gandesha  

12:45 – 2:00 Lunch

2:00 – 3:30

Lecture:  Samir Gandesha, “The Aesthetic Politics of Hegemony: Machiavelli/Nietzsche/ Gramsci”
Chair: Am Johal, Director, SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement

3:45 – 5:15

Lecture: Jaleh Mansoor, Associate Professor, Art History, UBC, “Readymade or Made [to be] Ready: Social Reproduction and Autonomy in 21st Century Art”
Chair: Sanem Guvenc-Salgirli, Emily Carr University

Reception (Snacks and Cash Bar) 5:15 – 7pm

Sunday, March 4th, 2018

12:00 – 1:30: Panel: Art, Labour, Utopia

  • Andrew Czink, PhD Candidate, SFU, “What Labour Musicking?”
  • Morgan Young, MA Student, SFU, “On a Road to Nowhere: Reconsidering Utopia” 
  • Ed Graham, PhD Candidate, SFU, “Mapping Artistic Labour in Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?
  • Chair: Hilda Fernandez, Lacan Salon

1:30 – 2:30: Lunch

2:30 – 4:00

Lecture: Anita Chari, Associate Professor, Politcal Science, University of Oregon, “I Am Your Voice: Aesthetics, Politics and the Materialization of Critique”
Chair: Jaleh Mansoor  


Alessandra Capperdoni teaches modern and contemporary literature, literary theory, and critical theory in the Departments of English and Humanities. Her research focuses on avant-garde poetics and experimental writings in the context of the nexus space/nation/culture, gender and sexuality, and subjectivity and desire in relation to larger social imaginaries and practices.

Anita Chari is a political theorist, somatic educator, and vocalist based in Portland, Oregon, and is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Oregon. Her scholarly work focuses on the significance of aesthetics and embodiment for critical theory and practice. Her first monograph, A Political Economy of the Senses, was published in 2015 by Columbia University Press, and recent publications include pieces in The Hysterical Material (2017), New Political Science (2016), Theory and Event (2015), and Philosophy and Social Criticism (2016). You can read more about her work at and

“One of Canada’s most imaginative musicians” (Craig Harris, All Music), Andrew Czink is a composer, pianist, audio engineer, and educator based in Vancouver. He is co-director of the CD and concert producer earsay productions. His primary instrumental training was of a classical bent, with excursions into jazz and popular forms early on.  Along with exposure to, and study of, various Asian and African musics (particularly Javanese Gamelan and Japanese Taiko Drumming), this suite of influences continue their hold on his musical thought. He has also been playing the lap steel guitar for the last few years and has integrated it into his musical practices. His music has been performed and broadcast throughout Europe, New Zealand, Australia, the USA, and Canada where he has received numerous awards, grants, and commissions. He is a music and audio instructor at LaSalle College Vancouver, and has completed an MA in Liberal Studies at SFU, with his research focusing on the development of an embodied epistemology of auditory experience. He is a PhD Candidate at Simon Fraser University, studying the philosophy of musical experience as a situated, embodied, cognitive, sonorous, and prosthetic practice from the perspective of the composer/improviser/performer. He has been composing, improvising, and creating both live and acousmatic forms of electro-acoustic music in both stereo and multi-channel formats for over 30 years.

Duane Fontaine is a professional accountant and is currently a PhD student in SFU’s interdisciplinary SAR program. He is studying the nature of work in contemporary society and is contrasting it with an examination of alternative visions for the future of work. The widespread application of robotics, automation and artificial intelligence into the productive economy threatens the future of work. Duane is revisiting the utopian quest for an Aesthetic State and how its emancipatory potential, combined with such transitional solutions as Universal Basic Income, might present an opportunity to redefine the very nature and purpose of work in a way that enhances meaning and freedom.

Samir Gandesha is an Associate Professor in the Department of the Humanities and the Director of the Institute for the Humanities at Simon Fraser University. He specializes in modern European thought and culture, with a particular emphasis on the 19th and 20th centuries. His work has appeared in Political TheoryNew German Critique,  Constellations Logos, Kant StudienPhilosophy and Social CriticismTopia, the European Legacy, the European Journal of Social TheoryArt Papers, the Cambridge Companion to Adorno and Herbert Marcuse: A Critical Reader as well as in several other edited books. He is co-editor with Lars Rensmann of Arendt and Adorno: Political and Philosophical Investigations (Stanford, 2012). He is co-editor (with Johan Hartle) of Spell of Capital: Reification and Spectacle (University of Amsterdam Press, 2017) and Aesthetic Marx (Bloomsbury Press, 2017) also with Johan Hartle. In the Spring of 2017, he was the Liu Boming Visiting Scholar in Philosophy at the University of Nanjing and Visiting Lecturer at Suzhou University of Science and Technology in China.

Ed Graham is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University. He holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Amsterdam, and a BA (Hons) in English from the University of Warwick. His research explores the contemporary significance of cultural theorist Fredric Jameson.

Johan Hartle studied Philosophy and Political Science in Marburg and Frankfurt/M. Currently he teaches Philosophy of Art at the University of Amsterdam, Aesthetics of the Political at the University of Arts and Design, Karlsruhe, and Art Theory at the China Academy of Arts, Hangzhou. He held research fellowships at the University of Amsterdam, the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, the Universitá Roma Tre and taught at the Rietveld Academy, Amsterdam and the Academy of Fine Arts, Münster/Westphalia and several other art schools.

Jaleh Mansoor is a historian of Modern and contemporary cultural production, specializing in twentieth-century European art, Marxism, Marxist feminism, and critical theory. She received her PhD from Columbia University in 2007 and has taught at SUNY Purchase, Barnard College, Columbia University, and Ohio University.

Mark Nowak is the author of Shut Up Shut Down (Coffee House Press, 2004), a New York Times  “Editor’s Choice,” and Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press, 2009), which Howard Zinn called “a stunning educational tool.” He is a 2010 Guggenheim fellow, a recipient of the Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism from Split This Rock (2015) and a Lannan Literary Fellow (2015). A native of Buffalo, Nowak currently directs the Worker Writers School, in collaboration with PEN America and the Worker Justice Center of New York.

Philip Wohlstetter is co-founder of Invisible Seattle, a loose group of actors, artists, dancers, and writers specializing in demystifications-to-order (trials of the enemies of civic life) and strategic interventions (the first novel written by an entire city). He is currently producing Red May, a month-long festival in Seattle with two rules: first, riff on red; second, assume that the market is not the solution for the problems the market creates. He was at Columbia University during the exhilarating days of the 1968 takeover and in Santiago, Chile on September 11, 1973 for the last moments of the Allende government. He has translated Regis Debray and has been working for forty years on a book called Valparaiso, which he will probably never finish.

Morgan Young has an interdisciplinary background, mostly in music, anthropology and philosophy. She is currently an MA Student in the Department of Humanities at SFU. She is interested in the Frankfurt School and related theorists on art and critical aesthetics. In particular, she is interested in the utopian dimension of the Frankfurt School, and the Romantic critique of capitalism. She is exploring the idea of art as transformative experience and as site of resistance. Her thesis is focused on developing a critical theory of fantasy as a part of a broader category of theory for radical speculative fiction. Morgan also enjoys singing, writing, and cuddles with her cats.