In her seminal 1985 essay ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, Donna Haraway defines cyborgs as ‘post-Second World War hybrid entities made of, first, ourselves and other organise creatures in our unchosen “high-technological” guise as information systems, texts, and ergonomically controlled labouring, desiring, and reproducing systems’. It is a convoluted sentence to describe complicated beings. Haraway identifies the decomposition of the boundaries between human and machine in the late twentieth century, giving rise to a speculative state which has been termed ‘post-human’.
The American artist Josh Kline has taken up Haraway’s symbolic figure in his own work. Working in the intersection between technology’s synthetic sterility and the primordial messiness of bodies, Kline creates abject objects – the debris of this collision between ‘Big Tech’ and base humanity. The artist’s 2016 show Unemployment (presented at 47 Canal in New York, and the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin) is concerned with how the technological economy renders human labour obsolete. Set in 2031, another US presidential election looming on the horizon, Kline creates a dystopian nightmare straight out of the movies. A whole generation is washed up, the promises they were made as children of Reaganite capitalism and free market euphoria revealed to be broken and empty.
The fluidity between (wo)man and machine is not a source of radical optimism as it was for Haraway and the wave of cyberfeminists whom she inspired; in Kline’s hands it is transformed into a way for humans to be further broken. Co-opted by the juggernauts of the sharing economy (just as they have co-opted everything from wellness to feminism) the shiny potential of machines is fed back to us as bitter medicine. Kline’s Contagious Unemployment sculptures hang from the ceiling; the glass shapes (redolent of viruses) encase the possessions of those laid off, transported in standard cardboard boxes, which have become the sign of redundancy. Sickness is transformed as gross bodies give way to slick technology, however, the epidemic of unemployment is no more appealing for this make-over.
The irony of corporate packaging is central to Kline’s exhibition. As the press release for the New York show jovially announces, ‘this is your going-away party!’ In the future unemployment is packaged as retirement. Universal Early Retirement (spots #1 & #2), the seductive language of advertising is employed to this aim. These fake commercials for universal basic income rehearse a cloyingly optimistic future where the fruitless hours of forced redundancy are cast as quality time spent with family and friends, and in harmony with benevolent technology. That this shiny façade of digital simulation is a sham, another promise of late capitalism to be shattered, is revealed in a floor piece just outside the screening room. Made of patchworked carpet and Amazon boxes, its pragmatic aesthetics remind one of the actual consequences of mass unemployment: the homelessness and precariousness that was the preserve of the working class since the 2007-8 crash now affects even white-collar workers. Its knowing title (They’d put you out to pasture but it’s cheaper to send you to the woodshed) is an ominous harbinger, capturing the sick irony of late capitalism.
The whole exhibition trades in this irony: the haves have become the have-nots and are unable to deal with it. The professional class are used-up and left to rot – ‘sentient garbage’ of human capital. Kline cast unemployed workers from the Baltimore area, 3D scanned and printed them life size. Curled up in the foetal position and bagged in clear polythene, they resemble the plastic waste piled into the shopping trolleys near where they lie. They are titled with their name and occupation, accompanied by a vapid epithet such as ‘thank you for your years of service’ or ‘aspirational foreclosure’. As the press release for the New York show makes clear, in 2031 Kline’s generation are ‘too old, too expensive, too obsolete, and too set in their ways’. It is a chilling reminder of how capitalism makes even the middle class expendable.
Kline has taken the paradox of capitalism to its logical and terrifying conclusion. It has consumed itself, destroying the promises which it always knew were false. In exposing this destructive side, the dark underbelly of the commodity fetish, Kline takes a different tack to his other future-oriented contemporaries. Collectives like Dis, K-Hole and Jogging weave the enchantment even tighter, smoothing surfaces, polishing the shiny façade. Kline however seeks to disturb this, showing the abject physical terror of a population infested by machines and eventually replaced by them.