In an early manifesto from 1922 Dziga Vertov makes this astonishing statement:
"Our path leads through the poetry of machines, from the bungling citizen to the perfect electric man.
In revealing the machine’s soul, in causing the worker to love his workbench, the peasant his tractor, the engineer his engine
we introduce creative joy into all mechanical labor,
we bring people into closer kinship with machines,
we foster new people.
The new man, free of unwieldiness and clumsiness, will have the light,
precise movements of machines, and he will be the gratifying subject of our films."
The poetry of machines has already given birth to a new human in the 20th century in Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto but this older sibling of Vertov’s man experienced a haphazard and dangerous delivery. Marinetti pierced his baby’s heart with the white-hot iron of joy of the car crash, the random encounter with a malfunctioning technology. Vertov went a step beyond that. The romantic machismo of the Futurists who adored cars, airplanes and bombs in the name of “the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness” was in fact an expression of the bohemian bourgeois desire for liberation from the mundane world of work where men and women are actually bound by the machine and by its ruthless pace, scale and indefatigability. A dangerous, alien and unpredictable technological landscape already existed in the factories and mines of industrial Europe when Marinetti declared in 1909 that it is to be the future. But Vertov is not interested in the bohemian artist. He is asking for much more than that: for the machine to be loved by all and mostly by the workers who toil under its gigantic shadow. Vertov calls for a new psychology fitting to the age of the machine to emerge not through an escape from work but through a perverse identification with it.
At first glance Alma Alloro’s series of hand sewn quilts might seem to share the language and concerns of contemporary artists working under the ‘post internet art’ banner. These artists are engaged in thinking about the mediation, circulation and valorizations of images and other coded signs that flow between physical and virtual spaces, social media platforms and traditional art markets. In some way, many post internet artists continue the Futurist line of thinking where technology is encountered through velocity (here, algorithmic), the accidental (glitch) and is set against new emerging Fascist political discourses (4chan pol). And like much Futurist art post internet too has often relies on conventional modes of exhibition, despite its interest in new technological platforms.
But Alloro’s work, as the title “Big Screen” suggests, is clearly more invested in the aesthetics of the modernism’s prime mode of cultural mode of production, the cinema. Instead of photoshop swatches, clipart or pop-up windows, film strips, fuzzy signals and analogue colour test patterns populate Alloro’s hand sewn quilts. The image is produced, like cinema, in a particular direction: line by line, frame by frame, from top left corner to the bottom. And because of this it asks modern questions not about circulation or exchange value but about production and labour value, about how to resist technological alienation and allow the machine to become an extension of the eye and the hand.
This does not mean that Alloro’s work is irrelevant. On the contrary: when these questions are transposed to the present they reveal serious tensions at the heart of artistic (and non-artistic) labour. What does it mean to “love the workbench” under post Fordist conditions of production, where labour is not mechanical anymore and where, at the end of the workday, the labourer has produced mainly herself as human capital rather than an object that is external to her?
Writing about the Bauhaus textiles workshop, T’ai Smith describes the way in which weaving was configured as a feminine labour contrasted with the worthier medium of painting: “The particular relation between the weaver’s body, the loom apparatus, and the physical labor of the process, threatens the ‘transcendental’ or spiritual position of art that the early Bauhaus painters sought”. Smith goes on to cite Weber describing weaving as a prime exemplar of alienated labour, relying on a separation between the worker’s body and her means of production. At the same time, this work is classed as part of that realm of maintenance to which household chores belong, a work without the kind of ends or goals that give meaning to those toils gendered as masculine.
In an age where these separations - means and ends, body and machine, work and worker – are everywhere threatened by an economy premised on the self as product, such practices can no longer be understood in the same way. Choosing the laborious process of quilting as a process, rather than as a hardship borne of necessity, begins to expose these shifts in the meaning of work today and the new hierarchies created under the aegis of this new age. Of course working as an artist after the internet, one knows one’s work is always doomed to collapse into the digital, inevitably seen by more online than it will ever be seen ‘in the flesh’. But Alloro’s insistence on returning the gif to the materiality of the handicraft thwarts this neat elision of labour within the production of the seemingly weightless contemporary image.