Denying the Pyramid: Artistic Labour and Self-Actualisation in Leila Houston’s Encrypted Sounds of Wellbeing-by daniel kelly
Leila is a studio-mate of mine, and this text arises following a mentoring session and more informal studio conversations and group critiques where I have seen the project and its concerns evolve over the last year. ‘Studio-mate’ is a funny term, but feels the right one for co-habitants of artist studios, which at their best are real world spaces of community, of physical co-location and chance encounter - a relationship somewhere between friend, colleague, comrade and house-mate. In a year in which offices and schools have sat empty, where you work and who you work alongside have become intensely political questions - lifting the veil over any pretense that those who work in what David Graeber pithily termed “bullshit jobs” (1) are serving any economic purpose greater than buying sandwiches and filling rented office space.
Art is and isn’t work. In the week in which the chancellor Rishi Sunak said that artists and creative industry professionals hit by a lack of work following the COVID-19 pandemic should simply retrain, to suggest that art is not work might be unhelpful. But art is work and also something better. Artist studios and other sites of independent creative endeavour are more than just workplaces - they are sites of ‘Self-Actualisation’, the term that sits atop Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs - the pyramid diagram from which this project springs. The theory proposes that once we reach this level we are able to be creative, empathetic, spontaneous and achieve our potential. Self-Actualisation is the galaxy brain level for Maslow’s protomeme, a pinnacle of human fulfilment that is only reached once we are able to go beyond base bodily function, have silenced the everyday rumbling of hunger and chronic pain, met our needs for shelter and loving relationships, and attained self-esteem. You might be able to tell, this diagram makes me suspicious.
Sure enough, the levels on Maslow’s pyramid are the things humans require to live fulfilled lives, and which we are summarily denied by a societal order that privileges economic growth above all else - it's the schematisation that irks me. Can this neat structuralist triangle really encapsulate the mess of complex and contradictory desires and impulses that make up a person? Can it categorise the range of experiences we see documented in Leila’s film Encrypted Sounds Of Wellbeing, such as the abandon and joy of bombing-it through town on your bike, ‘There’s No Business Like Show-Business’ played on a Wurlitzer organ ringing in your ears? Where do the new relationships with neighbours in lockdown sit? Those with whom we might have fundamental political differences but who have offered us companionship in a time of pronounced isolation. What about the compulsion to keep scrolling on news feeds, or stay glued to 24hr rolling news coverage that offers only more anxiety and uncertainty?
To me this pyramid is compatible with a worldview in which artists desperate for work and following Sunak’s advice, can answer 20 questions in the National Careers Service retraining quiz (2) only to be told they are best suited to a role in the ‘Creative and Media’ sector. All of the algorithm’s outputs are either numbingly mundane (‘Horse-Groom’ seems to be a top suggestion) or naively unaware of the entrenched social hierarchies that obstruct meritocratic ambition (my results included both ‘Actor’ and ‘Newspaper or magazine editor’). The quiz’s ranked statements such as “I like to see the results of the work I do” and “I like working with my hands or tools” are a painfully unintentional pastiche of Marx’s theory of alienation, in which Capital separates us from the products of our labour, the processes of work, our fellow man and ultimately, our species-being, a phrase that perhaps encapsulates the kind of self actualisation Maslow envisaged. Marx’s ideal unalienated labour sounds most like that of the artist, who creates “an object corresponding to the need of another man's essential nature” (3)and “so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature,” the kind of labour which the National Careers Service will never be able to quantify or recommend.
The pyramid also puts me in mind of David Cameron’s 2010 ‘Happiness Index’, the statistical accompaniment to that administration’s ‘Big Society’ scheme - at face value a pseudo-anarchist reversal of Thatcher’s “No such thing as society” line, seeking to place power in the hands of engaged citizens, but ultimately amounting to an erosion of state support and increased reliance upon charity and Noblesse oblige. Such projects are a small-statist perversion of projects like Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics that would seek a genuine replacement of GDP with categories including Gender Equality, Social Equity and Political Voice as metrics for societal success in the face of impending ecological catastrophe.
If the contemporary era can be characterised or classified at all, it is perhaps as an unclassifiable age of uncertainty, of a complexity that denies structures, schema, pyramids. This is nothing new - the world has always been messy, it’s just that we are living for the first time on a global scale, connected on platforms that place harrowing world news alongside essential communication with loved ones. This complexity is exaggerated in contrast to our position at the tail-end of a project which taught us to establish facts and truths and to trust diagrams and structures above all else (i.e. modernism).
To deny the power of a diagram does not necessarily serve politically Left-wing aims - ambiguity and relativism have become the favoured weapons of a conservative politics that exercises its authority by stealth. Constantly shifting lockdown rules have placed responsibility on the shoulders of individuals, the scrambled texts and mixed messages akin to those scrolling across the screen in Leila’s film, making dyslexics of us all. As Eyal Weizman chronicles in The Least of all Possible Evils, the notions of objective truth and fact were contested ground throughout the 20th century. Originally the project of Left-aligned postmodernists, the practice of questioning the social constructions upon which society is founded has become the primary weapon of authoritarian states trying to get away with murder, often through the two word phrase “fake news”.
Encrypted Sounds of Wellbeing, Video stills
This project has culminated with a mass act of colouring-in, whereby a favoured childhood activity becomes a method of data collection and processing, each coloured page a diagram charting a participant’s agreement with 19 more nuanced and subtle needs from Maslow’s research including ‘Good Sleep/Rest’, ‘Financial Security’ and ‘Moments of Joy’. Whilst adult colouring became an offshoot of the contemporary wellness industry a few years back, (the kind of self-care practice that is prescribed as a sticking plaster over the stresses caused mostly by the hell of work) this gentle act of communal labour has offered a moment of reflection and the chance to regain a small semblance of the sociality that is not being met elsewhere. With this in mind, I propose an alternative National Careers Service. The quiz will be undertaken by colouring-in, and will have only one answer: “Artist” - that's the kind of work most worth doing.
Leila Houston (London, 1977) is a visual artist whose work investigates the social, political and historical aspects of a place.