An Archive of Exception – Carles Guerra Curator and critic Carles Guerra writes about the politics of film and struggles over archives

An Archive of Exception – Carles Guerra

Enthusiasm, the latest work by Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska evolves from an industrial environment that, in Europe at least, is an increasingly distant means of production; the factory. My intention is not to explore the factory as an institution that regulated life in industrial societies, but to find out what workers were reacting to when they gave free rein to their enthusiasm. An enthusiast is someone who follows their passions, in unwaged, personal free time, a time remaindered by labour. Consequently, the enthusiast questions the division of labour, the distribution of time and the way in which it is valued. This is, in short, the problem revealed to capital by the enthusiast: how to convert the production of individuality outside of work, an exception, into a resource.

The state of exception, occurs as a figure deployed by philosopher Giorgio Agamben and Antonio Negri. It refers to a suspension of the legal order, where a provisional measure put in place at a time of crisis, becomes the rule. It’s a practice currently used by many governments – through states of emergency, or war on terror- apparently to safeguard democracy.  Agamben recognises that a state of exception has a tendency to outlast the initial crisis; and proposes a time to come – if it has not already – when a state of exception will become a normal rule of government. The logic of the state of exception could easily exceed the strictly political, and infiltrate the economic and cultural.  Cultural practice, economic logic and political force have merged to the extent that it is impossible to tell them apart. As a consequence, cultural production loses its autonomy.

However, the possibility of generating exceptions is threatened by the extraordinary capacity of assimilation inherent in capitalism. We are faced with a semblance of maximum freedom at local level, yet subject to tight control at a global level. Perhaps this paradox explains how the humble creativity of the enthusiast (who frequently acts locally) often leads to a revitalization of capitalism (which develops globally). The phenomena of an amateur film movement in Poland from the 1950’s through to the 1980s could ostensibly, be a precursor for the further development of global capitalism.


On the outskirts of a city previously known as Leningrad, in early 1988 (during the initial phase of Perestroika) you could still visit a museum devoted to the economic and social achievements of the former USSR: a former church had been converted into a museum, housing machines, tools, statistics and heroic workers’ portraits. Religious icons had been replaced by photos of workers to transform a place of worship into a temple to the cult of work. In the late 1980s, this public museum was exhibiting the communist worker as a saint.

While this representation of the worker may have been far-fetched, its effect was very clear; the images maintained the illusion of full employment guaranteed by the State. Work was a blessing rather than a punishment imposed as State discipline. To paraphrase philosopher Michel Foucault, it is not the origin of that norm that counts, but the effect it has on the population. In those early years after the collapse of communism, the official consecration of work and the worker kept its faith; beyond work, there was merely more heroic work.

In contrast, ‘work and non-work’ have for many years sustained a binary opposition in countries defined by capitalist practice. As the theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote in the mid-1970s, this opposition held the promise of ‘a revolutionary theme’. At the same time, Baudrillard foresaw the assimilation of this difference ‘into the programmatic field of the new society’. As a result, the production of value would no longer be strictly confined to work. Non-work would provide ‘the repressive desublimation of labour power’. In short, the exception represented by leisure (‘freedom for the individual to produce himself as value’ or ‘an empty form to be filled finally by his freedom’) would gradually lose its revolutionary potential and become absorbed into different forms of capitalist reproduction.


The political philosopher Antonio Negri, one of the foremost instigators of the large-scale mobilization of workers in Italy during the 1970s, recalls how important it was for him, and his generation of intellectuals, to visit factories. ‘It basically meant getting up before dawn to present yourself at five o’clock outside a big metal works or chemical plant, textile or car factories; Fordist factories with shifts that started at six and went on all day. Going to understand the problems of the people there.’

The image of the worker leaving the factory is so banal that its constant repetition distracts us from any deeper implications. And yet what is often involved in the course of this movement is the production of individuality outside of work; the exception.

How are we to represent the final step that enables workers to leave the factory behind? There is a genealogy; from the Lumière brothers, who 150 years ago filmed a group of workers crowding out of the factory gates, to Allan Sekula, who in 1972 photographed the employees of a Californian aerospace factory at the end of the day shift. These two sets of images are dominated by the liberating effect of turning one’s back on the rigours of industrial labour.  More recently the filmmaker Harun Farocki has produced a montage of excerpts from different films in which workers leave factories, called, simply, Workers Leaving the Factory, 1993. He suggests that ‘the factory gate forms the boundary between the protected production sphere and public space’ and that it ‘is exactly the right spot to transform an economic struggle into a political one’. As an example he cites Andrzej Wajda’s The Man of Iron, 1981, where ‘a group of non-workers […] camped-out in front of the gates of Gdansk’s Lenin Shipyard during its occupation […] to show the police that it was impossible to clear the workers out of the factory secretly’.

While The Man of Iron narrates the events that contributed to the fall of communism in Poland in 1989, on the other side of Europe during Spain’s transition to democracy Joaquín Jordá filmed a group of workers who occupied their factory. Jordá’s film, Numax presenta, patiently documents the many meetings and works committees during the occupation, as well as a celebratory party when the workers finally decide to abandon their action. Meeting for the last time, the workers explain straight-to-camera why they are leaving the jobs they previously defended so resolutely. One by one, they expressed their personal hopes, and instead of calling for social justice or expressing traditional labour politics, they surprisingly used their last words to declare that work had become completely meaningless. In a recent interview, Jordá admitted that rather than resisting, the workers he filmed desisted: ‘Numax presenta didn’t have a dramatic ending – quite the opposite; it was a story that led from initial euphoria to the giving up of a struggle. At the beginning, the workers’ aim was to keep worker power inside the factory, until at the end’ […] ‘they had second thoughts and said: we’re going to give up this simulacrum of power and choose life.’


The young Numax workers understood, without mediation or propaganda, what was happening in the realm of factory labour; a historic form of working organization had reached obsolescence. The separation between the factory, as the place where production was contained, and wider society, was being eroded.  So, as worker movements grasped the mechanisms of their own exploitation, capitalism set out to dismantle Fordist and Taylorized industry.

In Europe, capitalism dissolved the hierarchical factory assembly line, and set about making the whole of society productive; it appropriated ‘the creativity and the intelligence expressed in the [worker] struggles’. Social connectivity could provide greater profits than industrial production, which led to the birth of the social factory, a term used to refer to a form of network production whose assets are knowledge, and its reproduction.

The enthusiast embodies opposition to a job ‘without content’ (as Marx referred to the assembly line) and the desire to recover time outside of the productive process. But if the social factory has replaced the productive factory, the logic of the enthusiast disappears along with what he/she was escaping. The end of work, post-Fordism, immaterial work, or cognitive capitalism are all terms used to disseminate (to paraphrase Baudrillard) the programme of a new society; a society in which many of us are full-time enthusiasts. The exception, formerly guaranteed by discipline and clocking-in, is increasingly difficult to detect; to all intents and purposes, the exceptional has been thoroughly integrated.


In recent years Cummings and Lewandowska have undertaken a series of projects that explore points of contact between institutions that regulate exchanges of value. Despite the apparent disparity between Selfridges department store and the British Museum, Tate Modern and the Bank of England, each project is concerned with institutional forms of accumulation and circulation; of consumer goods, value, historical artifacts, works of art, and capital.

In his catalogue essay for Free Trade, presented at the Manchester Art Gallery, critic Julian Stallabrass cites Adorno in order to remind us just how exceptional art is in comparison with other forms of commerce. Adorno believed that the unlimited freedom of art stood in contradiction to a lack of freedom in all other social spheres. Stallabrass concludes his essay by suggesting that ‘to break with the supplemental autonomy of free art is to remove one of the masks of free trade’.


Enthusiasm centres on a network of film clubs that existed inside State factories in communist Poland. The vast output of films found and collected by Cummings and Lewandowska is growing into an archive and an exhibition. The value of these films resides in the way in which they constitute a collective act of self-representation. Therefore the archive tries to avoid any nostalgic urge, and concentrates instead on documenting the traces of exception.

The exception characterizes a moment at which, to take an enigmatic phrase of Walter Benjamin, ‘work itself has its turn to speak’. And here, when work has its turn to speak, it does so outside of the factory, outside of production, in a language that has nothing to do with the familiar militant discourse of the worker. These film makers discover that they have no voice of their own – they have not been educated to have one – and that they express themselves like an admirer who borrows the styles of others; professional film makers, and each other. This is how the enthusiast takes the step that Benjamin called for in his ‘Author as Producer’ text from 1937, in which he suggested that spectators should become producers.

Although Benjamin envisaged the press as the ideal setting for this transformation, film was able to provide this function in Poland. Today, we look to the electronic music scene and software development to find something similar, where innovation no longer lies in the cult of originality, but in appropriation and collaboration. These tactics in turn can be ripped, copied and burnt. As Paul D. Miller, alias DJ Spooky, says, ‘that’s what makes this kind of electronic music just as fun to create as to listen to’. Curiously, DJ Spooky’s words could be attributed to any of the members of the film clubs included in Enthusiasm. Furthermore, the collaborative features of this contemporary peer-to-peer musical practice provide a key with which, to interpret the films. Both practices are marked by an eagerness to socialize with other people’s creations; so even here, in the shadows of history – a place where the memory of amateurs tends to disappear – continuity can be found.

On their webpage Cummings and Lewandowska propose Not Hansard: the Common Wealth, 2000, as a forerunner of Enthusiasm. In this project, they collected printed matter that was not commercially available from ‘local and national clubs, societies, hobbyists, collectors, enthusiasts, and associations’. If Enthusiasm is a project in which ‘work itself has its turn to speak’, the collection of publications compiled at the Hansard Gallery documents attempts at self-representation. As Cummings and Lewandowska explained, ‘The collection [of printed publications] opens a parallel space of publication – a space where representatives no longer speak on your behalf – but where the quiet passions of social life find form.’

Projects like Enthusiasm and Not Hansard offer a challenge to those who have accepted the figure of the consumer, as a model of freedom and popular resistance. This freedom has been appropriated by capital, and then re-presented back to the shopper as something totally new for consumption – the right to choose.

And the same might be said of the evolution of work practices. The sociologists Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello, have researched how political criticism and demands for greater autonomy, creativity, authenticity and liberation have been appropriated and put to use by capitalism. To distinguish  these demands from traditional social criticism, based on methods of opposition to capitalism devised a century and a half ago, Boltanski and Chiapello  coined the term artist criticism.  And because of the success of artist criticism, what was provisional has become suspiciously stable.

Franciszek Dzida (one of the amateur film-makers interviewed by Marysia Lewandowska during the research for Enthusiasm) confirms this tendency. Remembering his and his colleagues’ consciousness as amateur filmmakers, Dzida remarks ‘It was a chance to mark our presence. Being an artist was one way of marking that presence. It felt like a great honour. Today everybody is an artist, so you have to look really hard to find true artists.’


Here then is the cruellest irony, the most spectacular developments within capitalism occur without any planning whatsoever, and then, only after the fact are we able to recognise them. These bands of enthusiasts-filmmakers, hackers, DJs, social activists and anonymous agents who initiated these developments, at the point when they should receive our acknowledgment, have already cease to exist. In this respect, it’s crucial that Enthusiasm has rescued film material from geographical dispersion (the films come from at least 20 amateur film clubs, from a total of perhaps over a hundred) guaranteeing recognition for a scattered cultural production.

Altogether, it’s a psychological rather than a historical moment that these films represent. The three categories that the films are grouped into for exhibition by Cummings and Lewandowska, Longing, Labour and Love resist the imposition of strict classification. Rather than compartmentalization, Longing, Labour, and Love indicate a flow of images, connections and experiences that must be protected from the taxonomic violence of the archive.  These slippages produce a similar effect to that which Freud suggested when he defined love and compared it with work: ‘[love] perpetuates its function of bringing together a growing number of beings with greater intensity than that achieved by the interest of the working community.’ 

In the Enthusiast’s archive, work finds its place in a constellation of experiences of a private and intimate nature; it draws us closer to the inherent indeterminacy of love and longing (the other two categories brought into play). Here then, we find an echo in the manifesto of the Industrial Workers of the World, written in 1905, that warned against segregation: ‘Craft jealousy leads to the attempt to create trade monopolies’.

The play with classification on which Enthusiasm is based, is not mere accident but a constituent feature; it defends the archive from an excessively authorial voice; it preserves the potential of the exception.

It is inevitable that when working in these conditions, or when trying to interpret them, we come up against the absurd nature of work. Like in Tadeusz Wudzki’s beautiful short film, Syzyfowie [Sisyphus] from 1971; in barely five minutes, it shows how work creates endless cycles of self-perpetuation. The enthusiast is someone who is inside this cycle, yet simultaneously an exception.