Jasmine Guffond

Muzak for the Encouragement of Unproductivity

Books For Earworms, 2021

Zabriske Bookshop, Berlin 2021 + Woolahra Gallery, Gadigal Land / Sydney 2023

Sound installation and reading as part of Books for Earworms curated by Felicity Mangan at Zabriske Bookshop, Berlin, 7th October, 2021.

Inspired by food and wine pairing, composers were asked to select or ‘pair’ themselves with a book from Zabriske bookshop. I chose David Graeber's Debt, the First 5000 Years and composed a Muzak for the Encouragement of Unproductivity which played in the background while I read excerpts from Graeber's book. Muzak for the Encouragement of Unproductivity is a poetic inversion of Muzak's traditional role in stimulating seemless productivity in the workplace and pays hommage to Graeber's praise for the "unindustrious poor".

Books For Earworms, 2021

Books For Earworms, 2021

Books For Earworms, 2021

Books For Earworms, 2021

Books For Earworms, 2021

Muzak for the Encouragement of Unproductivity is a poetic inversion of Muzak's traditional role in stimulating seemless productivity in the workplace. An initial version was diffused over a multi-channel sound installation at Zabriskie Bookshop in Berlin. Since it’s first incarnation I have scored for Hilary Jeffrey to play trumpet and trombone. 
 Muzak started as a music distribution network, and not unlike the Internet was meant to be at once ubiquitous and invisible, always present yet easily ignorable. The aim was to capitalise on the potential of music to have a psychological effect on listeners and was employed primarily as a sonic disciplinary force in the work place. This poetic inversion is not meant as a kind of melodic control but rather a reflective, restful space in which to consider the benefits personally and environmentally, of slowing down.

The Artist and the Un-working of Work (Review - edited excerpt)

Jasmine Guffond’s ‘Muzak for the Encouragement of Unproducivity’ was produced out of a collaboration with Zabriskie Bookshop in Berlin. Invited paricipants were asked to select a book from the Zabriskie collection to respond to. Guffond chose David Graeber’s ironically titled Debt: The First 5000 Years. During his career, sadly curtailed by his premature death in 2020, Graeber, a renowned anthropologist and outspoken anarchist strongly attached to the Occupy Wall Street movement, directed much debate to the centrality of work in capitalist societies. As he and an ever-increasing panoply of contemporary critics of neoliberalism’s mantra of endless production, endless competition, have pointed out, much of what passes for waged work these days is in fact, ‘bullshit’. Graeber’s equally ironically titled book Bullshit Jobs, deploys a wealth of research including numerous primary case studies, to illustrate his thesis that capitalism’s obsession with work is largely a ruse: many workers today are employed to do tasks they feel are meaningless and contribute nothing to society. Waged work, even highly remunerated at times, simply becomes a means of disciplining individuals, keeping them in their place day in and day out in order that they don’t find better (re: potentially subversive and/or creative) things to do.

Doubly ironic about our society’s fixation with productivity and work is the fact that with the massive financialisation of the economy, most profits now are derived from rents and debt, with genuine production contributing a lamentably low percentage. This variety of capitalism favoured by the neoliberal markets that dominate global exchange, has rightly been referred to as ‘rentier capitalism.’(1) It is a system that channels ever greater profits to an ever-concentrated minority of the ultra-wealthy (around 0.01%).(2) Of course, those with the means to profit via these means, effectively doing nothing except mobilising their existing wealth, have no problem with this situation. In fact, it’s likely they see this as evidence of their natural superiority, their role as modern-day feudal lords assured.(3)

If rentier capitalism is ‘socialism for the rich’(4) why, beyond the epidemic of precarity foisted on workers by economic elites, would workers not want to do less and actually enjoy their lives, “why do people fight for their exploitatioon as if it was liberation?”(5) Moreover, it is a basic fact that democratic principles of equal representation do not pertain to the fundamental reality of the wage relation in which bosses have all the power and the final say. ‘Non-work’ does not mean the disappearance of all work (a ludicrous notion) but having the genuine option to choose meaningful work. It also means a situation where less pleasant but necessary work is shared throughout society and not just dumped on under-classes.

The paradox of Guffond’s ‘Muzak for the Encouragement of Unproductivity’ is the fact that the artist’s own productive labour created it. Unforced creative labour for ‘no other reason’ however seems to escape the bondage of mere work. Indeed, the fact that art is a job that isn’t one(6) has the potential to provoke resentment and jealousy in others. This is because for some, particularly certain varieties of conservatives, art is not ‘real work’ with the artist portrayed as just ‘mucking around’, a privileged timewaster with pretensions particularly within Anglocentric cultures. Yet this ‘timewasting’ aspect is also part of art’s power to provide alternative models for work that are affective, engaging, not only life-altering but life-affirming. Art as work is demonised by those who diminish its value for its unreliable profitability and lack of statistically quantifiable outcomes (beyond onerous neoliberal- induced accounts of ‘best of’, ‘most liked’, or ‘most profitable’, in the end the only thing that system can comprehend). At the same time, paradoxically, art’s singularity is what entices collectors who want some of the (in)action: if you are wealthy and still feel burdened and unfree at least you can buy representations of freedom.

Guffond’s ambient ‘muzak’ with its drifting horn and harp modulations interweaving foreground and background, is just too down-tempo for upbeat spending. Unlike ‘official’ muzak too, which is unerringly static in its feigned optimism, Guffond’s piece rises and falls in melancholic strains, expanding and contracting and broken occasionally by subtle discordant interruptions that momentarily puncture its overall organicism. If this is muzak it is possibly muzak for the end of the world, thoughtfully seeking transcendence through implied questioning after all avenues for shopping have been exhausted.

Alex Gawronski, Oct 2023

  1. See, Brett Christophers, Rentier Capitalism: Who owns the Economy and Who Pays for It? (Verso, NY/London), 2020.
  2. See, Mariana Mazzucato, The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy, (Allen Lane/ Penguin Books, London/NY), 2018.
  3. Yannis Varoufakis, Techno Feudalism: What Killed Capitalism, (Penguin, London/NY), 2023.
  4. See, Yannis Varoufakis, ‘Is This the End of Socialism for the Rich?’, The Atlantic, 10/10/2022.
  5. Baruch Spinoza quoted in Jason Read, The Double Shift: Spinoza and Marx on the Politics of Work, (Verso, London/NY), 2023.
  6. Art is “like a phantom profession, one that permits the artist to simultaneously work and not work, to have ‘real’ job, and a fictional job. And nothing is more subversive than showing other workers the pleasure of not engaging in productive labour”, Jacques Rancière quoted in Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, (Pluto Press, London), 2011, p-152.