Neighbourliness as ‘work’

Following the ‘Who do you work for?’ symposium in Lublin, researcher Ben Dunn reflects on the Meet the Neighbours project in the relation to ‘work’.

17 December 2018

We are sitting in a circle talking about work. It’s the 13th of December 2018 and the Museum of Housing Estates in the Lubelska Spółdzielnia Mieszkaniowa (LSM) district of Lublin, Poland, has kindly hosted a discussion for Meet the Neighbours (MTN) partners and other invited organisations. This is the first day of a four-day symposium and partner meeting organised by the project’s Polish partners, Grzegorz Reske and Marta Keil, and most of us spent the morning taking a tour of the Osiedle Słowackiego estate, an experiment in architectural utopianism designed by Zofia and Oskar Hansen. On the day we visit, a thin layer of snow covers the frozen ground and the sky is a heavy grey that matches the concrete balconies and uncoloured harling of the estate’s apartment blocks. Warmed by a lunch of soup and dumplings, thirteen of us are gathered in a small, brightly-lit room in the museum to talk about who we work for and why we work.

To begin the conversation, we are asked to go around the circle and each give a response to the question: “Who do you work for?” We learn that in England, arts organisations work for their boards; that artists from ACT in Bulgaria work for the freedom of other artists; that at Bunker, in Slovenia, artists work for their local community; and in Marrakech, artists from Qanat work against the privatisation and exploitation of water rights. When my turn comes, I explain that I work for the University of Manchester as a researcher. That I work for Quarantine, who engaged the University of Manchester as a research partner on MTN. That I also work for Quarantine as a freelance administration assistant. I don’t explain that my partner works for Quarantine. That, directly or indirectly, the company has been central to my life in Manchester almost since I moved to the city six years ago. That when I talk about work in this room, with these people, I am also talking about my social and political relationship to the world. And so the conversation moves on.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about work and not work. About productive and unproductive time. Theatre scholar Nicholas Ridout writes about this relationship from a capitalist or, more accurately, anti-capitalist perspective. He suggests that in the context of contemporary capitalism we are always working, to the extent that all of our activities – work, recreation, self-expression, cultural practice and experience – contribute, in some way, towards the production and accumulation of capital. As he suggests, work is both the practical and philosophical basis of capitalism, and so I wonder what it means to define our contribution to MTN as work: what we accept when we consider our relationships and activities through this lens, and what we might exclude or forget. More specifically, if MTN is about neighbourliness – between countries, between organisations and between artists and communities – then I wonder how much of this practice is or can be work?

In Commonwealth, political philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe capitalism as a social relation. They suggest the fullest and most powerful expression of capitalism is manifested in a way of understanding and engaging with the world, practiced by and between people in their everyday lives – rather than simply as a set of values embedded in government and expressed through economic practice and policy. Although Ridout doesn’t refer to their discussion directly, it is in relation to this idea that we might suggest ‘work’ begins to become a problem for notions of neighbourliness, as a way of being and interacting with the world that informs the political voice and value of social practice.

In his own writing, Ridout suggests that the imperative to work – to demonstrate productivity through our actions and relationships – not only serves to embed capitalist values in otherwise social activities but, in much more intimate terms, interrupts our attention to and our interest in one another. In these terms, while we might continue to construct neighbourhoods, communities and other social networks, the extent to which these structures might be seen to express the politics and interests of the people who create them is continually brought into question. For Ridout, then, the only radical position left is one of ‘unworking’, of non-productivity beyond the reach and interests of capitalist production, and I wonder, too, if neighbourliness, as it is represented and demonstrated by MTN partners and artists, might rely on a similar philosophy.

In Lublin we had many productive conversations. We learned about projects that had already taken place and heard more about the contexts in which each MTN partner was working. We talked about the different methods that artists had used to engage specific communities or publics, and discussed data collection and crediting guidelines. Beyond or between these moments, however, we spent time together that was also not work. When we were not working we were making our way home through the snow. We had dinner together and visited the market. We met for breakfast and drunk vodka. At the symposium, in the time between presentations, we talked about what we thought and felt. While prepared statements and formal conversations about the relationship between cultural practice and urban contexts usefully develop the intellectual and methodological framework of MTN, it is in these moments that I felt I learned the most about the project and what it meant for these people and these organisations to develop the project together.

This is, of course, a bit of a fiction. We were always working. However, in the context of a project that suggests that neighbourliness might be political, it at least proposes a register of being and interacting with one another that is not exclusively governed by the logics of work and production. Over the course of our time in Lublin, conversation frequently returned to the notion of a ‘common space’, somehow beyond the interests and politics of city planners, that might provide a resource for unexpected or unexplored practices of meeting and neighbourliness. In the context of the cities and projects involved in MTN, the need for this kind of environment was linked to the organisation and management of physical space and, at a local level, was illustrated by discussion of front gardens that can’t be changed because of developer guidelines, city squares that are owned and policed by private companies, and new build estates that attempt to dictate where residents go and how they spend their time and money. In this context, common space is a necessity because the material world is already mapped out and organised as a reflection of economic and political powers that always operate beyond our influence and control. In response, however, to Ridout’s interest in unworking, I wonder if the non-productive time the partners spent together might suggest a different kind of common space that could emerge even as our time and practices are in other ways dictated by work. This would not be a common space marked out in a square or on a city street, but as a social practice that takes place within and between narratives of order and productivity as they are embedded in physical space, disciplinary convention, or organisational aims.

Beyond a concern for work, therefore, I wonder what other questions we might ask about what we do that could help illuminate or give voice to forms of common space and common practice that are not required to be productive. More specifically, if, in relation to MTN as a whole, the idea of neighbourliness is seen to represent a response to urban environments as they are shaped by local government, global capital and corporate interests, I wonder if it is here, in a common space of actions and words that are not entirely work, that it might be explored as a social reality.

Ben Dunn
University of Manchester


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