Gig Economy Art and Its Dark Matter

Hyperemployment, ENG, Essay, 2020

Hyperemployment, 2020, cover

[This essay is included in the reader Hyperemployment: Post-Work, Online Labour and Automation, edited by Domenico Quaranta and Janez Janša.]

Management can be done away with only by eliminating the machinery that makes it necessary and, therefore, the demands for output that give it sway. — Ivan Illich, 1973

Did László Moholy-Nagy come up with gig economy art back in the 1920s? The story is known: the Hungarian Bauhaus professor ordered a series of enamelled porcelain paintings via the telephone, instructing the artisans at the laboratory on the composition. One can rightly object that mentioning the gig economy is anachronistic.1 But there are a couple of aspects central to this mode of production that were already present in Moholy-Nagy’s EM series, whose items were unofficially entitled “Telephone Pictures”. As in the current definition, the commission was a “gig”, a one-off collaboration. It was technologically mediated (instead of an online app, the telephone was used) and remotely performed. Finally, Moholy-Nagy did not have to meet the workers he instructed.

The truth is, the company he contacted was a local one: he could have well gone there in person, and probably not all communication took place via phone. So, why did he feel the need to pump up the remoteness and technological mediation involved in the process? Because he wanted to assert a specific image of the artist: one that is busy with ideas (and supervision) rather than craftsmanship.2 Bertolt Brecht once wrote: “Who built Thebes of the seven gates? / In the books you will read the names of kings. / Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?”3 The question is, of course, rhetorical. The point is that generally, we do not know much of makers. Until up a certain point in history, art was an exception to this: the artist, maybe with the help of assistants, was the maker. Moholy-Nagy wanted to break this obsolete association. It made sense: the Bauhaus philosophy privileged mass production, and that requires a radical separation between the design phase and the production phase.

This divorce logically suggests a division of roles. And it is exactly on the basis of a role division that I would like to discuss art production here. The roles I will consider are: the artist, which is what László Moholy-Nagy was trying to change to better fit the times; the art director, a role somehow implicit in our anecdote, which would again be Moholy-Nagy as the one who instructs and supervises; and finally, the art worker, in this case, the faceless local factory craftsperson.

I do not need to spend too many words on the artist: we all have a more or less shared idea of this role, one that is ironically more precise to non-artists. Particularly sensitive if not tormented, able to condense the Zeitgeist into a body of works, detached to some extent from standard social dynamics, lonely. But most of all: recognised as an artist. Being “the artist” today is mostly a matter of acknowledgement: the artist is the figure one aspires to appear to others. The artist is generally thought to be more creative than other people, but that is just a cliche, for nowadays creativity permeates any kind of work. As much as we aim to get rid of this romantic notion of the artist, we are still stuck with it. It might not be true, but it is real.

Art directors are found in advertising agencies and film sets: they are the ones who hold the vision and make sure it is properly executed. They are in touch with illustrators, designers and so on to produce a cohesive whole. More or less the same happens in contemporary art, where media-specificity has become rare: the artist might work with a programmer, a dancer or a mason to produce their installation, sculpture, workshop or performance. This organisation of labour has been legitimised by artistic movements and currents such as Pop Art, Conceptual Art and Instruction Art.

The art worker is not just the one who materially executes, performs or documents the piece, but also the person who works in the supply chain of the art system: the museum attendant, the cafeteria waiter, the gallery technician, etc. This broad understanding of art work comes from the realisation that there is no art world without art workers: no biennial without pavilion builders, no festival without cleaning staff, no gallery without interns. Activist movements are reasserting this, and not just within the arts: the Tech Workers Coalition, for instance, was founded in 2014 by a cafeteria worker, a labour organiser and an engineer. Among the groups focused on art and culture, there is the recently born Art Workers Italia and the Rotterdam-based Cultural Workers Unite. All these groups advance, we can say, a non-romantic understanding of, respectively, tech, art and culture. They lobby for fair pay, actual diversity and ethical work relationships.4The roles I just described often blur. The aspiring “proper” artist might work in the museum restaurant; they might help with the set up of exhibitions or be the assistant of a more famous colleague. After getting some private or public funding, they might act as an art director by commissioning a song or a book cover to a friend. Or, they will never get the chance to do so. These practitioners, together with art hobbyists, form what artist and writer Gregory Sholette dubbed “dark matter”:

What about the dark matter at the heart of the art world itself? Consider the structural invisibility of most professionally trained artists whose very underdevelopment is essential to normal art world functions. Without this obscure mass of “failed” artists the small cadre of successful artists would find it difficult, if not impossible, to sustain the global art world as it appears today. Without this invisible mass, the ranks of middle and lower level art administrators would be depleted, there would be no one left to fabricate the work of art stars or to manage their studios and careers.5

Sholette hints at the fact that a copious crowd of art workers and redundant aspiring artists is sustaining what we could call, paraphrasing French philosopher André Gorz, art labour aristocracy.6 Now, the gig economy complicates these relationships even further. At a basic level, the gig economy and, in particular, online marketplaces for freelancers like Fiverr and Upwork, offer artists a convenient way to delegate production tasks: graphic design, video-editing, proofreading, etc.7 Couple this with outsourced manufacturing and print on demand services and you get Moholy-Nagy’s art director on steroids. The art directing artist could well spend most of their time on screen, ordering stuff, managing communication, asking for modifications, approving or rejecting commissions. They might even ship a piece straight to the gallery, a piece that they have not even directly seen or touched. As the Telephone Pictures show, this was not impossible in the past, but the internet made the process seamless and, thus, accessible to the many.

What I just described is the purely productive adoption of the gig economy and remote manufacturing for art-making. But how do artists respond to this logistic shift within their work, as a topic in itself? A common strategy has to do with the manifestation of technical mediation and the portrayal of remote workers. This strategy is behind several of the works discussed by Domenico Quaranta in the essay included in this reader.8 Next to these, I would like to mention DullTech™. In 2015, Dutch artist Constant Dullaart launched a Kickstarter campaign to create a media player “that just works”, a campaign that turned out to be successful. The project touches upon many layers of the global economy of delegation and outsourcing: financed through crowdfunding, the player is conveniently manufactured by a company based in the Shenzhen region. Its promotional video was commissioned to remote workers through Fiverr and cost around 200 dollars. Here, Dullaart goes beyond the role of art director and becomes a start-up founder.9 These artworks might present themselves as critical or appear ambiguous. Nonetheless, they mobilise the three art roles I listed: the artist, who explicitly acts as an art director, and the gig workers who materialise the work of art. In some cases, the gig art workers are physically present in the piece, their various performances (reciting a slogan, making a dance move, writing a short story) assembled into the concept-filled cohesive whole envisioned by the artist.

Shall we then consider, following Sholette, gig workers and remote manufacturers the dark matter of online powered art-making? And are the resulting artworks able to shed light on such an opaque substance? Even the most critical works towards the gig economy produce distinction, that of the artist from the art workers, that of the idea from the thing and who makes this thing. This distinction occurs even when the artist takes up the role of the gig worker, being this often a temporary, touristic condition. Dark matter, once again, is displayed indirectly: through the prism of the piece of art.

With his Telephone Pictures, Moholy-Nagy consciously disassociated the artist from the art worker, contributing to the invisibility of the latter. Artworks engaged with online-mediated production do the opposite: often presented en masse, art workers, both gig workers and dislocated producers – their hands, their face, the colour of their skin, their rooms, their gestures – are made hyper-visible, but only as the content of an art idea. Their symbolic production, which exceeds the money they are paid for, is appropriated by the artist. Here, a double capitalisation is often at play: first, on the actual labour for which the artist pays; second, on the surplus symbolic capital possessed by the art worker. This scheme remains mostly hidden, implicit. Thus, while the artwork might be able to display dark matter, it does not reveal it.

I myself have created a piece about crowdfunding that operates in this way. Crowdfunding is a form of entrepreneurial labour: it takes time and effort to produce a campaign. And the return of investment of such a campaign is not guaranteed. It is a big, time-consuming bet. However, crowdfunding has been presented as an easy, seamless way to launch one’s venture. To make it, if you will. With the aim of injecting a pinch of realism into the dominant narrative, I created Kickended, an online archive of Kickstarter’s $0-pledged campaigns which looks exactly like Kickstarter.10 Since many of these failed campaigns were amateurish, the allure of the piece was a voyeuristic one: to “spy” on their makers (who would often show themselves in the campaign’s promotional video), to revel in their epic failures. In fact, the word frequently used to describe the piece was Schadenfreude. Of course, this was not my intention. But does that really matter? At the end of the day, there was an artist with a smart idea and the ability to realise it, and an army of workers that brought such an idea to life. The contacts between these workers and the artist were sporadic and anyway organised according to the predetermined roles set by the artwork. In this sense, Kickended was a case of hyper-visibility that conceals dark matter while displaying it.

At this point, a worrying question for the gig economy artist emerges: is the artwork, given its ability to abstract living labour, the best means to question or even address the hierarchies of art production (which are not dissimilar to more standard forms of production). Let us consider Art Workers Italia. Many of its members are artists, but they voice their demands within a structure that resembles a union. They do not create artworks or performances, and yet they try to expose, “make things visible”, raise awareness, subvert … all features generally attributed to political art.

Amidst the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian theorist Max Haiven wrote an inflammatory essay in which he contested artists’ strategic disassociation from the rest of society when it comes to raising welfare demands. That is, artists coming together as artists instead of forging alliances with broader worker movements. Being such a strategy fuelled by the idea of art as unalienated labour, he wonders “[…] how we can sustain this illusion in an era where art stars employ legions of precarious mini-makers in factory-like studios is a bit rich, if you’ll excuse the pun.”11 We might add that it is not just about art stars: the young, precarious European artist employs other, more precarious global art workers. The gig economy and remote manufacturing have partially democratised delegation and outsourcing, turning most artists into mini-art directors. This shift is part of what I call entreprecariat.12

According to Haiven, the demands of the artistic dark matter (which forms the vast majority of people directly or indirectly involved in the art world) are in no way different from the ones of workers in general. Furthermore, art should not be that kind of liturgy exclusively celebrated by a clergy of artists, curators, gallerists … Therefore, the ultimate goal of the struggle should be an abolitionist one. The artist as an economic figure should die out, Haiven insists. And whereas the artwork, as we have seen, operates within the art system as a distinction device, a truly labour-oriented critical practice should go towards indistinction.

Indistinction does not coincide with the immediate disappearance of the roles I described. That would merely be wishful thinking. The artist and the artwork are here to stay, their necessity unquestioned, their superfluousness sensed but neglected. The art director is not necessarily an oppressive, exploitative role but a frame that allows identifying clearly who manages and who is managed, who supervises and who is supervised (especially within platform-mediated labour, in which the platform itself co-manages and co-supervises).

A notion can manage to shift our perception of reality, but alone it is not enough to change this very reality. “Art worker” is one of these notions. It is useful because it broadens our understanding of art-making, but it can easily become the material for more art “concepts”. It does not take much to envision an Abramovich-style performance entitled The Art Worker is Present. Instead, art workers are to be found beyond the artwork, beyond the conceptual abstraction of their labour, beyond the hyper-visible display of their symbolic production as content.


Brecht, Bertolt.Questions From a Worker Who Reads.” 1935.

Gorz, André. Critique of Economic Reason. London: Verso, 1989.

Haiven, Max. “No Artist Left Alive.” Arts of the Working Class: Faux Culture, No. 11, 23 April 2020.

Haugen, Anton. “It Doesn’t Just Work: DullTech on Kickstarter and Shenzhen.” Rhizome, 29 September 2015.

Kobie, Nicole. “What is the gig economy and why is it so controversial?” Wired, 14 September 2018.

Lorusso, Silvio. Entreprecariat: Everyone is an Entrepreneur. Nobody is Safe. Eindhoven: Onomatopee, 2019.

Sholette, Gregory. Dark Matter. Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture. London: Pluto Press, 2011.

1 According to Nicole Kobie: “The gig economy gets its name from each piece of work being akin to an individual ‘gig’ – although, such work can fall under multiple names. It has previously been called the ‘sharing economy’ – mostly in reference to platforms such as Airbnb – and the ‘collaborative economy’. However, at its core are app-based platforms that dole out work in bits and pieces – making deliveries, driving passengers or cleaning homes – leading some to prefer the term ‘platform economy’.” “What is the gig economy and why is it so controversial?,” Wired, 14 September 2018,

2 EM 2, one of the telephone pictures, is on view at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York. Cf., in particular, the gallery label from the exhibition Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925.

3 Bertolt Brecht, “Questions From a Worker Who Reads” 1935,

5 Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter. Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (London: Pluto Press: 2011), 1–2.

6 André Gorz, Critique of Economic Reason (London: Verso, 1989).

8 Domenico Quaranta, “Hyperemployment. Post-Work, Online Labour and Automation,” in Hyperemployment Reader, eds. D. Quaranta, J. Janša (Ljubljana: Aksioma 2020).

9 Anton Haugen, “It Doesn’t Just Work: DullTech on Kickstarter and Shenzhen”, Rhizome, 29 September 2015,

11 Max Haiven, “No Artist Left Alive”, Arts of the Working Class: Faux Culture, No. 11 (23 April 2020),

12 Cf. Silvio Lorusso, Entreprecariat: Everyone is an Entrepreneur. Nobody is Safe (Eindhoven: Onomatopee, 2019). In particular, Chapter 3.