Shift/Work | 2011 Edinburgh Art Festival, Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop
CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 August 2011 Curated by Neil Mulholland Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International
CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 August 2011 Shift/Workshop 1 by Keith Farquhar Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International
The first shift of Shift/Work was supervised by the Edinburgh-based artist Keith Farquhar:
The participants in this exercise are placed in two groups, in this case the Green team and the Blue team. Each team is then split in half. Each group is given an initial word and a camera phone. Half of each team is then asked to take a photo that they think corresponds to this word and email it to the other members of their team. Collectively, these other members attempt to find as-close-as-possible a match from the entire available images on the web. When they are satisfied that they have the best match (aesthetically, formally and/or conceptually) they should take a note of the website containing this corresponding image. A relevant word is chosen from the website’s title page and is texted back to the awaiting members with the camera phones. These members in the field then take another photo illustrating this word and once more email it back to be matched to a web image. Another word is procured in this way and texted back and so on and so on. The exercise forms a loop which can be continued indefinitely to generate images that evolve and mutate from each other in ways which stimulate creative decision-making and group discussion.
This first shift foregrounded the post-Fordism’s romance with information technology, applying an allegedly defunct technology (SMS/MMS) to creative ends. The continuing popularity of SMS over automatic geolocation-based messaging is related to a need to find a sensorial dimension for immaterial experiences. In this light, Farquhar’s shift functioned as a ‘ham radio’ of the semantic environment, using SMS and MMS rather than more recent and much more accurate geolocation devices such as RFID and WiFi, technologies that are posterboys of the creative economy. A deliberate attempt to simplify geocaching parlour games, this shift was a good example of ‘hypo-technology’, a mix of anachronistic and new technologies applied to minimal compositional play.
The groups worked quickly in relay to generate a series of images that were iterated by the decisions of each group. Three participants would debate the choices on each occasion that they were required to send or receive data. The shiftworkers just as quickly started to find ways to increase the ambition of the challenges they set each other, playing a game of brinkmanship. The two groups generated their own mnemosynes of their image-texts, finally deciding to compile them into two rival books and publish them through ESW as Green and Blue. While it began with no particular end in sight, Farquhar’s shift found its own conclusion in the production of a non-repeating pattern. The publications produced through the workshop always have the same catalyst (a photograph of stone sculpture of a sleeping lion) but would generate different narratives in a garden of forking paths. The publications that ensue form part of a series, but no two will ever be the same.
In making explicit causal relations between online and offline environments, shiftworkers engaged with the consequences of working in a virtual world. Information sent out the field was returned filtered through the field. In this sense, the invisible labour that belies the web was made a little more opaque. The time taken to relay data from and to the base station creating a sense of the time and effort involved in producing what otherwise is quickly and easily consumed. Discussion among the shiftworkers on this point encouraged the idea of running the shift in a variety of ways to calibrate these relations of production, distribution and consumption. Obviously, moving the base will change the nature of images that are returned to it.  Extending the distance between the base station and the field workers will slow the relay further while creating a greater sense of detachment between the two groups of producers.
There were a few things to be learned from this experience. Participants engaged with relations between on and off line environments, command and control that were multidirectional and deschooled. It wasn’t clear who occupied the position of producer or consumer, the shiftworkers and supervisor at the base station or those out in the field. The shift foregrounded and maintained the significance of self-learning, the democratic exercise of power wherein every participant's contribution was important and valued, all part of a shared ontology of practice. There remained a strong sense of the shift’s deliberate overidentification with neoliberal flexible specialisation. The images generated during the shift were cyphers of post-Fordist ‘creative’ practice, specialised products generated by consumer choice, a manifestation of the mass customisation’ maker-culture popularised by Pine and Gilmore.