Decommodified Labor

by Leigh Claire La Berge, critical theorist

Adapted from Wages Against Artwork: Decommodified Labor and the Claims of Socially Engaged Art

An international network of schools in which anyone may take classes by bartering with teachers, in which any collective may start a branch in their own town or city; a barter network for artists to offer and receive skills, materials, and labor; a café installed at the Museum of Modern Art where visitors are invited to invent the value of their own currency on notes provided and to use this currency to purchase tea; an artist-run think tank centered upon the political economy of art education; a real estate investment cooperative that aims to remove land from market-based circulation and place it in a community land trust. Each of these works is a project started by the artist Caroline Woolard with a range of interdisciplinary collaborators, and in each we notice a particular orientation toward the construction of value: how we value, why we value, and for whom. The first,, conflates the act of trading with the language of craft but also with the commodification of education; the second,, makes a public claim to utility in the face of the more common assignation of value to the individual possession of talent; and the third, Exchange Café, see chapter 4, asks its visitors to reimagine the act of using money within the defining experience of a museum-based café, itself so often the place to find respite from whatever artwork-viewing opportunities the museum has on offer; the fourth, BFAMFAPhD, see chapter 5, investigates the political economy of arts education; and, finally the NYC Real Estate Investment Cooperative aims to suspend the commodification of a piece of urban land. (Images and descriptions are available at; see also;; and Exchange Café at “MoMA Studio: Exchange Café,”. For an in-depth look at Woolard’s work on the Real Estate Investment Cooperative, see Art21’s documentary production, “Caroline Woolard Flips the Real Estate Script,” Art21, July 31, 2015.

we notice a particular orientation toward the construction of value: how we value, why we value, and for whom.

Beginning with the 2007–8 credit crisis, which coincided with Woolard’s graduation from the once-tuition-free art school Cooper Union, Woolard began constructing what she now understands specifically as “institutions,” what I will call “institutions-as-art.” Woolard’s institutions comprise shifting coalitions of artists who devote themselves both to making art and to making it possible for other artists to make art. For Woolard, the institution concretizes and navigates a space more capacious than the individual—thus institutions-as-art mitigate against being reduced to the artist’s ego, to the artist’s oeuvre, or to some potential canonical assignment; rather, the institution remains open to change but also simply remains as a form of duration. Yet the institution-as-art must avoid the well-known temptation of focusing on its own duration over the ends it supposedly serves. According to Woolard, if an institution can maintain that nuanced space, it may exist as both an art form and as a social form for artists.

Each of the above “institutions-as-art” might be seen as an answer to a question about how artists can sustain their practice in an age of decommodified labor. Where do artists go after school, if they want to continue their education? They go to, that is, they learn to continue their own schooling through nonmonetary exchange. How do artists make artwork after being displaced from their studios, and if they don’t have the resources that art school had afforded them? They use to find a network of like-minded practitioners with whom to exchange skills and materials, time and space. Where should artists work and where should they practice? They might join the Real Estate Investment Cooperative in an attempt to create permanently affordable space or to find others with whom to share a space. What do they do when they realize that their art education has seemingly no better prepared them to be a working artist than had they not gone to art school, particularly if they are a woman or a person of color? They might join BFAMFAPhD, a group that investigates the political economy of arts education and arts professionalization.

Taken together, these questions continue an investigation into the transformation of artwork and artists’ work under conditions of the decommodification of their artistic labor.

Yet the institution-as-art must avoid the well-known temptation of focusing on its own duration over the ends it supposedly serves.

If decommodification allows for the removal of land, labor, or money from market-based circulation, then many artists, socially engaged or not, are already working within its historical ambit. Like deindustrialization, decommodification moves in a cyclical fashion, and for labor to be decommodified it must first have been commodified. Our current moment of the decommodification of artistic labor follows, as both Sharon Zukin and Donna M. Binkiwicz have detailed, a 1950–60s expansion of “artists’ ability to claim their art as a career” through the proliferation of artist’s agencies, granting bodies, foundations, universities’ arts programs, and so on. This was an economic moment when, as Binkiwicz recounts, New York Senator Jacob Javits could suggest that “since the principle of government subsidy ...[is] well established with many industries .... why could this same principle not be applied to the arts?” (Donna M. Binkiwicz, Federalizing the Muse: United States Arts Policy and the National Endowment for the Arts). And yet, simultaneously with this flourishing of an artistic life as a possible professional life, a foreshortened labor market for artists appeared on the horizon. Zukin notes that by 1963 the US Labor Department was already producing “gloomy projections” about art-based employment. Furthermore, she qualifies the kind of workers sociologists and government officials believed artistic work would engender: “Expanding jobs in the arts could be expected to produce a fairly amorphous and relatively quiescent labor force.” (Sharon Zukin, Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change).

Woolard’s practice, including her work on Artists Report Back with the collective she founded, BFAMFAPhD, might be understood as a contemporary, artistic response to the kind of social history of the professionalizing and commodifying art world that Zukin and Binkiwicz provide. In Zukin and Binkiwicz’s respective histories, the Kennedy administration inaugurates the National Endowment for the Arts; in Woolard’s public presentations of the barter network, she notes the fiscal decimation of that agency. In Zukin’s history, the federal government expands arts funding through universities in the form of student grants; in Artists Report Back, funding sources are understood to have been converted from grants to loans. After school, artistic careers are still possible in universities, but those careers will be restricted to a few, while the majority who attempt them will become part of the contingent academic labor force. Such facts must be read as a reminder that much as commodification famously delivers what Marx calls the “double freedom” of a waged life — you’re free to sell your labor to whomever you choose; you have to sell your labor — so does decommodification: you’re free not to sell your labor; you can’t sell it. Woolard’s works respond to this situation with nuance and pragmatism, and the tenor of their responses derives in part from their institutional forms. Indeed, they insist that artists will keep working, even without a wage, that artists refuse not to work, that even as they are deprofessionalized, they will remain professionals.

What I claim is the need for artists to secure their own forms of labor exchange outside of the strictures of the art institutions of the waged world, Woolard sees as “a need to make both artistic objects and an institutional context in which those objects can meaningfully circulate,” because artists’ lack of a wage will limit their ability to circulate in formal art spaces. (In conversation with the artist). When Woolard graduated from the Cooper Union with her own Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, she emerged into the 2007–8 credit crisis and subsequent “Great Recession.” She supported herself by continuing to work at Cooper Union and then by collecting unemployment, an allowance she lists on her cv under “grants and funding sources.” It is fitting that being compensated by the government for not working provided the time, space, and the decommodified freedom to develop two institutions that both respond to and allow for a (partially) decommodified artistic practice. And it is more fitting still that Woolard made the decision not to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in her twenties, but rather to develop her own artist-run institutions of education and resource sharing, which she conceived of as crucial parts of her practice.

If decommodification allows for the removal of land, labor, or money from market-based circulation, then many artists, socially engaged or not, are already working within its historical ambit. and are two barter-based networks that Woolard organized with collaborators who included grant writers, computer programmers, graphic designers, and a range of visual and performing artists. is a web-based network for individual barter, whereas provides a similar web-based network for group barter; groups of students barter for classes with instructors. We might understand the second as an expanded application of the first. Founded in 2009, had at its peak seven thousand members, most of whom were based in New York City. Members create a profile detailing what skills and materials they have to offer and what skills and materials they need for their own artistic projects. They communicate how any barter will be incorporated into their project or practice. “I need translation services for an art poster,” one profile might say, for example, or “space for an event.” The benefit of a single barter is that one agrees to trade what one has. The disadvantage is that forms of socially accepted measures of equivalence, time for money, still obtain here as members decide how or whether to trade a higher income-generating and often masculine skill, say web development, for a lower, often feminized one, say childcare. Yet unlike the similar, short-lived artist-run institution Time Bank by Anton Vidokle of eflux, does not enforce such a form of equivalence, that is, you put in an hour, you get back an hour. Rather, members negotiate these exchanges on their own.

The site does not track the actual barter exchanges to which members agree. Rather, members engage in these exchanges in real time and space, trading messages through the portal. This individual correspondence doubles as a limit on how barter is represented in a manner reminiscent of the challenges of performance art and its documentation. Much like a performance never happens the same way twice, barter has an improvisational quality. Unlike performance, however, there are no spectacles here: one doesn’t get to watch others barter. To watch, you have to do. Woolard has compared barter acts to storytelling and oral traditions in which the same story produces different effects when told or enacted by different tellers and listeners. I want to follow the project’s own literary language and think about how, when read as art, the barter-based transactions facilitated by may be seen as a kind of metaphor in that word’s historical sense of being a vehicle for conducting meaning. “Metaphor” etymologically breaks down to mean “to carry over”; it denotes a movement in which meaning is transported from one object to another in speech and writing. Barter structures a specific type of metaphor, perhaps akin to what David Halperin calls a practical allegory, in that it is instantiated through activity. (Richard Halperin, Shakespeare Among the Moderns). The barters performed through metaphorize what an other, new economy would look like while simultaneously constituting that new economy. If I barter two hours of my editing skills for one hour of soundtrack-laying ability, our exchange represents a mode of economic transformation. It also constitutes that mode. The representation and its efficaciousness become one. follows the movement that Shannon Jackson describes as a transposition from a “discrete notion of the work of art to a process-based notion of the work it takes to make art.” (Jackson here is discussing Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s “maintenance artwork,” which finds an easy aesthetic correlation in what it takes to maintain both an individual art practice (a wife) and an art institution and art world.) Why do artists barter? They barter because they have potential artistic labor but no market in which to sell it. Why else do they barter? Because they need others’ potential artistic labor but have no money with which to purchase it. Their labor and consequently their potential to earn a wage have been decommodified, and now each will find another in a scene of decommodification in which the definitional properties of commodification as such — “made by waged labor and sold on the market” — will not be brought to bear. instead offers the chance to work for one’s self, but not through a conception of the kind of neoliberal self-capitalization. Rather, one works through a different form of being “a partner in exchange” in which another is required for mutually enhancing but not profit-generating reciprocity.

being compensated by the government for not working provided the time, space, and the decommodified freedom to develop two institutions that both respond to and allow for a (partially) decommodified artistic practice

The potential trades facilitated by may expand ad infinitum, even as each individual trade will never be represented to others and composes a niche economy scaled at two. It was the limitation of the one-to-one scale of that laid the foundation for the next collective, similarly decommodifying institution, This web-based platform may be downloaded by any individual or group, can be translated into multiple languages, and has spawned “schools” as local as New York and Indianapolis and as international as Quito and Glasgow. In narrating how the project came to be, Woolard herself makes frequent recourse to the availability of time and space that are one possible result of decommodified labor. Writing in Social Text, she explains: “On February 25th to March 1st, 2010, we ran [the first] ... Over the course of 35 days, more than 800 people participated in 76 single session classes ... In exchange for instruction, teachers received everything from running shoes to mixed cds ... We ran out of time slots for teachers to teach and classes filled up so quickly that we had to turn people away. [Thus we reopened] ... in an empty school, paying rent with the support of charitable donations and running on donated time from 8–20 volunteers.” (Caroline Woolard, "Dear Potential Trade School Organizer"). is a web-based network for individual barter, whereas provides a similar web-based network for group barter; groups of students barter for classes with instructors.

The converse of “having time” to give, of course, is that such projects “take time” to run — Antonio Negri’s “tautological time” seems apt. (Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics). Barters reclaim the tautological time of real subsumption; Negri asks, “When all life is work, who measures whom?” “We will introduce our own measures,” Woolard seems to respond. Both and require time for planning, for engaging, and especially for communicating. Before any given class, teachers agree with students on what their recom- pense will be. The institution operates through given time and given space, what we may understand as decommodified time and decommodified space. As of 2019, Woolard estimates that around twen- ty-three thousand students and teachers have participated in the project. Barter remains the currency. Anyone may propose a course (for barter) and anyone may take a course (for barter). Different schools will develop different local cultures; for example, in Glasgow has a mental health and senior care focus, whereas in New York is more arts-focused.

For Woolard, the representation and self-constitution of artistic labor should transpire on a plane of some mutually recognized equality. The institution, not reducible to any individual, should enable that equality by providing a platform in which artists can encounter each other through the exchange of their decommodified labor. In that temporal constitution of the barter, there must have been, however brief, a recognition of reciprocity. The point is not to assert that the commodification of labor is bad and its decommodification is good — a fundamentally facile claim — but rather to show the course that labor takes in its various forms in the aesthetic realm. The labors of Woolard’s institutions do not assume reified status because they are continually called on to circulate intersubjectively, to be exchanged from one position to the other. Crucially, the focus of the barters remains the relationality of the artistic laborers to each other, not the relationality of the object produced by such labor to the viewer. Here we find ourselves quite close to the claim made by Nicholas Bourriaud in his foundational Relational Aesthetics — namely, that what distinguishes socially engaged artwork is that its “substrate is intersubjectivity.” (Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics). Yet that intersubjectivity must itself have both a material and an affective form. We may say that the likely form of that intersubjectivity in socially engaged art derives from the content of its decommodified labor.

In the larger discussion of the divaricated theoretical trajectories of the real subsumption of labor and the neoliberalization of the economy that structures my argument, the necessary questions for Woolard’s institutions remain: Do they produce value for others (real subsumption) and/or do they necessitate that the artist assume the subject position of “entrepreneur of herself” (neoliberalization)? Which is the more appropriate framing of the decommodified labor that structures these artworks? Answering these questions will help us to explore another—namely, the fluid boundary that critics have suggested is the sometimes muddled difference between “socially engaged art” and “socially engaged business,” a tension helpfully grouped under the rubric Marina Vishmidt has called “social practice [art] as business model.” (All citations to Marina Vishmidt, “‘Mimesis of the Hardened and Alienated’: Social Practice as a Business Model,”). Vishmidt is concerned that the most successful social practice artists engage in what she memorably calls “shovel-ready” art practices. She quite rightly asks, “Isn’t it the case that the [art] practices viewed as most successful [have been] the overtly entrepreneurial ones ... because they occupied both the community-facing and business-minded ends of the relational [aesthetics] spectrum?” Vishmidt continues to claim that such art illustrates “how entrepreneurialism and autonomy conjoin in a resolutely post-critical and results-oriented agenda,” similar to an NGO or a nonprofit.

there are no spectacles here: one doesn’t get to watch others barter. To watch, you have to do.

To support her claims, Vishmidt provides the example of one of the most well-known, certainly protocanonical, socially engaged artists working today, Theaster Gates. Gates refers to himself as a “hustler” and calls his art practice an “insurgent business”; the New York Times has designated him “Chicago’s opportunity artist.” (That the University of Chicago itself has been partly responsible for the decimation of black areas of culture and business development is an omitted part of this narrative.) Consider Gates’s Dorchester Projects on Chicago’s impoverished, mostly black, South Side. Partnering with his employer, the University of Chicago, Gates has built community centers, libraries, a cinema, and the like. (Ben Austen, “Chicago’s Opportunity Artist,”). Vishmidt writes: “Gates’s entrepreneurial outlook — promoting the virtues of labor in social change, preferably the labor of others, while he interfaces with real estate developers, art institutions, and ngos — is resolutely and unapologetically ‘post-political.’” (An example similar to Gates may be found in the work of the Houston-based artist Rick Lowe, whose residential development, Project Row Houses, is, by its self-description, “founded on the principle that art—and the community it creates—can be the foundation for revitalizing depressed inner-city neighborhoods.” Cited in Finkelpearl, What We Made, 132.)

Some of Vishmidt’s criticisms could be applied to and Indeed, and have not been consistently legible as artworks, but as something more like a community partnership. Woolard herself is more agnostic. During their making she didn’t necessarily refer to them as art. Now she understands them as institutions for artists that double as art. One the one hand, Woolard herself explains of, “We didn’t want to call it a work of art because then people wouldn’t use it. They would feel as if we were using them for our own performance.” (In conversation with the artist, 2013). Yet, these works have been presented at canonical institutions of art including the Whitney, MoMA, and the Brooklyn Museum, as well as less canonical but still important venues like Creative Time’s summit, Living as Form. And many artists who make similar work do call them art, appealing, for example, to Joseph Beuys’s notion of “social sculpture” to anchor these kinds of works in an art historical trajectory.

The barters performed through metaphorize what an other, new economy would look like while simultaneously constituting that new economy.

Nonetheless, while Woolard herself has been identified as the artist, and the institutions she has helped create have been identified as artworks, and have — perhaps suspiciously — garnered attention from members of the world of so-called social entrepreneurship and the recently anointed “sharing economy.” Such a sensibility was on display when Levi Strauss and Co. offered to purchase and franchise (which Woolard declined), and when the real estate developer Ron Spurga sought to organize a monetization of’s database of members (also declined by Woolard). The intimacy of an opposition often creates opportunities for radical misidentification, and that was the case when’s and’s scene of almost totally decommodified labor was interpreted as a site for the possibility of their complete commodification.

So-called sharing economy companies such as Lyft or Airbnb truck in the fantasy of being able to commodify all personal time and space while simultaneously “not working.” It’s not really “work” to drive someone in your car via Lyft (after all, you’re not a taxi driver) or have them sleep in your home via Airbnb (nor are you a hotel proprietor). You’re just doing what you would be doing anyway — driving, sleeping, cooking, being in your home, and so on — but now you are “sharing” with others and you are making money while doing so. Here we note one example of how the neoliberal disappearance of the concept of labor takes daily, ideological form: Airbnb and Lyft eagerly suggest that their users’ activities, those that make money for the company and the individual through the allotment of time, should not be understood as work.

Woolard’s collective projects provide the precise refusal of this logic. While engaged in a barter-based transaction, you’re doing what you’d be doing anyway and you’re still not making money. and insist that such activities are serious, real, professional, even; they become a kind of work but without the wage. With Lyft you set your own schedule, but not your own wage. With Woolard’s institutions, you enter into a mutual time/space in which your artistic labor may be recognized and evaluated according to new, if nonwaged, metrics.

These aspects of Woolard’s projects finally allow us to make a link to the neoliberal claim — articulated most clearly in Foucault’s famous reading of the Neoliberals — that our contemporary economy has undergone “a breakdown of labor into capital and income.” (Michel Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979). What we can affirm here through a reading of Woolard’s institutions-as-art, is that the neoliberal, post-labor declaration is essentially a descriptive claim. The activities remain the same only to be conceived of and narrated differently. Thus we can affirm Jason Read’s crucial suggestion that “neoliberalism is the ideology of real subsumption,” and we can demonstrate its truth in the field of cultural production. (See Jason Read, “A Genealogy of Homo-Economicus: Neoliberalism and the Production of Subjectivity,”). This demonstration should help us to clarify the relation between a change in economic organization and a discourse about that change.

My contention in this essay — indeed in my book, Wages Against Artwork — is that a change in the value composition of capital will necessarily result in a change in how labor is valorized. In our contemporary moment of finance’s ascendance and labor’s degradation, “precarity” has been suggested as an appropriate descriptor. The problem with this suggestion is that “precarity” does not index a change at the level of the labor commodity; rather, it only indexes a change in the social reception of that labor. By using the term “decommodified labor,” I hope to isolate a change in the composition of labor and how that changed labor takes an aesthetic form.

In the work I have discussed, the labor that renders the art is not a commodity, nor is the art object that emerges from it. There is no ethical claim to be made here. Nor do we need to turn to the imposition of finance or regimes of accumulation for our heuristics; here, those become too abstract. Rather, we should return the critical paradox set out in Stewart Martin’s perspicacious work on art’s commodity status. Martin suggests that “within a society in which commodification is dominant, everything that is external to this commodification becomes marginal, liable to be socially irrelevant or merely yet-to-be-commodified.” (Stewart Martin, “The Absolute Artwork Meets the Absolute Commodity,”). Art cannot be a commodity because if it were, it would forfeit its critical power. But art cannot not be a commodity because were it external to commodification, it would also forfeit its critical power. This paradox presents the balance of the socially engaged art that derives from decommodified labor: namely, that it may be worthless in more ways than one.

If a socially engaged artist like Theaster Gates avails himself of both gallery-based commodification and nonprofit-based infrastructural support, then Woolard’s two institutional platforms, and, reached neither of these pivot points precisely. Remainders of or were not sold off in a gallery, nor were the institutions in their entirety given over to a nonprofit, as in the case of Gates’s Dorchester Projects and its association with the University of Chicago. They did not offer themselves up to corporate “sponsors,” as did socially engaged artist Rick Lowes’s Project Row Houses through its association with the Houston-based oil services company, Chevron. Had Woolard and her collaborators accepted offers to franchise and monetize private concerns, money would have been exchanged for labor already done. The institutions in question would have ceased to be decommodifying and would have relied instead on a familiar organization whereby some labor would be done without wages — namely, the bartering relationships — but out of that lack, surplus value would be generated via the organization itself. Here we must remember Marx’s point that “the secret of the self-expansion of capital resolves itself into having the disposal of a definite quantity of other people’s unpaid labour.” (Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 377).

a change in the value composition of capital will necessarily result in a change in how labor is valorized

With both and, the offers out of decommodification were rejected. Woolard and her collaborators concluded that if someone gets paid, then everyone should get paid. And once everyone gets paid, not only do expenses increase exponentially, but increasing time must be devoted to organizing, disbursing, accounting for, and tracking payment. Then the artist really does become an entrepreneur, and not the philosophical type memorialized by Foucault. Rather, she becomes a kind of payroll manager. Money has its own expenses and introduces its own scale. The old adage that it takes money to make money is certainly true, but so is its converse: it takes money to break even or operate at a loss. Money takes money. Woolard and her collaborators at decided that no commodification was a better state of affairs than some commodification, because some money generated through commodification would have demonstrated that there really was a scarcity of money, that all members really could not be compensated for their labor.

Woolard and her institutions adhered to their decommodification. They believed that such a choice gave their institutions more freedom, more inclusivity, indeed, even an ability to be perceived as art. But then, decommodification cannot be hailed as a “solution” in any way beyond the boundaries of the aesthetic. When commodification is the regime, decommodification may offer a pause, a temporary respite, and it does so only in relation to prevailing social conditions of commodification. After running for six years, came to a close; the New York City branch of TradeSchool. coop shut down, and Woolard and her collaborators passed the management and software development on to a new generation of artists and activists. The conclusion of these projects in some sense furthers their status as artworks. As Claire Bishop questions of a different socially engaged art project, also a school, run by the artist Tania Bruguera, “Why do you need to call it a work of art? Can’t it just be something you do in Havana? For this to be a work of art, you have to finish it. It can’t be ongoing.” (Finkelpearl, What We Made, 205)

Without money or sale, without incorporation of some sort, parts of these institutions ended. And yet, other parts continued. This ending seems a likely consequence of decommodified labor. But it also reasserts a kind of singularity so important to the aesthetic. Woolard’s work provides a decommodified aesthetics that is itself a decommodification of some of our most important commodities: labor and education. In Epsing-Andersen’s original formulation, the welfare state decommodifies certain goods and services so that its citizens may socially reproduce outside of certain market constraints. In the post welfare state, however, this relationship is inverted, and enterprising citizens, in a Foucauldian gesture, structure their own decommodification to achieve a certain freedom. We are not yet prepared to qualify this freedom as misplaced or genuine; rather, in keeping with Foucault’s less often examined language of neoliberalism, we can only say that in this moment it is understood as a certain freedom by those who practice it. Those momentary freedoms are aesthetic, par excellence.

Leigh Claire La Berge, PhD, professes at the intersection of arts, literature, visual culture and political economy. She is the author of Scandals and Abstraction: Financial Fiction of the Long 1980s (Oxford University Press) and Wages Against Artwork: Decommodified Labor and the Claims of Socially Engaged Art (Duke University Press, 2019). She is Associate Professor of English in the Department of English at BMCC CUNY.

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