Artistic Resistance from a Position of Proximity


by David Brazier

View David Brazier's Biography

David Brazier is a multidisciplinary artist and researcher who is based in Perth.

Artistic Resistance from a Position of Proximity

David Brazier


5 - Barzier_Image1.jpg

Documentation of Virtual Employee (2009) by David Brazier and Kelda Free made during the 1 Mile Squared Residency, Visiting Arts, British Council 2009-2010. Image credit: Ashish Sharma.


In 2009 I was undertaking an artist residency in New Delhi with my partner and collaborator Kelda Free. The residency, 1 Mile Squared, was funded by the British Council and steered by Visiting Arts who select United Kingdom based artists for international residencies in locations such as Beijing, Johannesburg, and Karachi, with reciprocal residencies organised throughout the UK. Artists were asked to work within a specific square mile within their residency location and given a brief which included the ambitious tasks of: "Challenging negative perceptions of different cultures and faiths ... Building contact, dialogue and trust between communities ... Encourage a sense of shared futures and empowerment within communities and across borders." Our square mile in South Delhi surrounded the bustling Khirkee village. Khirkee houses Khoj International Artist Association, who acted as our local point of contact during our visit. While our seven weeks in India provided many amazing experiences, we failed to achieve the unrealistic expectations of the residency brief.

Upon leaving Delhi, we instigated a work which involved giving over these particular residency objectives to the Indian outsourcing company 'Virtual Employee'. Virtual Employee were paid 360 British Pounds, presented with the Visiting Arts' lofty residency ambitions, and given a month to achieve them. As we left India to return to London, Ashish Sharma took on the role of international artist in residence and diligently set about working on the brief. Borrowing its title from the Indian outsourcing company, our work eventually too became known as Virtual Employee (Brazier and Free, 2009)

While Virtual Employee was made a considerable time ago, it became an important platform to think about various themes and concerns surrounding our art practice. We have, therefore, revisited this piece across multiple artworks since the 1 Mile Squared residency. Notable examples include when Ashish took time out from his new profession as a banker to appear on skype from London as part of an installation during an open studio at Gertrude Contemporary in Melbourne, 2014. Ashish engaged with the audience one on one, answering their questions and sharing his experiences of being an international artist in residence. And in 2017, when I wrote a paper about Virtual Employee for the AAANZ Conference at the University of Western Australia. In an extension of the themes of the paper, for the work Double Agent, unbeknownst to the audience I hired TV actor Renato Fabretti to act as my surrogate and to present the paper on my behalf at the conference. He then seamlessly mingled at the conference's social gatherings with great confidence while still acting as me.

In what follows I want to consider Virtual Employee through the lens of resistance produced via an autonomy of artistic labour. While a critique of the autonomy of artistic labour has been a focus of recent thinking (Kester, 2011) (Wright, 2013), in this paper I will look towards Virtual Employee to explore how it might be reformulated as new grounds for artistic resistance.

Historically, the autonomy of artistic labour from normative modes of production has been a powerful tool of negation and an important measure for resistance. Occupying a space that challenged the rules of industrially organised manufacturing (Vishmidt, 2018), the artist was able to sidestep specialisation and the division of labour evident in practically all other fields (Bürger, 1984). For the most part, the artist remained in control of their own work, which gave them a sense of freedom from the oppression of organised waged labour. Free from labour and emancipated from patronage, autonomous artistic activity became an identifying attribute of critical resistance, promising a "vision of human energies as radical ends in themselves which is the implacable enemy of all dominative or instrumentalist thought" (Eagleton, 1990, 9).

Today this notion of the autonomy of artistic labour as a form of resistance is increasingly difficult to sustain. As a major player of the culture industry, attracting blue chip investment in the art market (Lütticken, 2016), speculation from hedge fund managers (Malik, 2007), and serving a myriad of functions linked to tourism, regeneration, and promotion, the idea that artistic labour can somehow be autonomous might now seem absurd. The working practices of the artist have also changed dramatically since the above theories of autonomy were first formulated (Roberts, 2015). Much socially-engaged art, for example, actively critiques the insularity of autonomy by working through sites, contexts, and social forms which loosen the boundaries between artistic labour and other modes of production. Of equal significance is the changing nature of labour itself, which has seen the appropriation of the working practices of the artist, turning their capacity for critical resistance towards something of an "occupational role model" (Steyerl, 2011, 4).

The artist residency is emblematic of a shift away from autonomous artistic production. Artists on residency are encouraged to respond to their residency location, with external expectations often emerging via funding bodies, hosting institutions, and local authorities. Residencies often provide a fee, with artists effectively given a wage for their labour. The 1 Mile Squared residency, for example, offered a significant amount of 5,000 British Pounds for the 7-week residency, as well as flights and accommodation. In my experience, this form of remuneration can produce a tacit agreement that as a 'payoff' for the residency opportunity, the artist will produce something useful for the host. In the case of the 1 Mile Squared residency, this agreement was contractual, and the expectations for renumeration were highly specific. The residency brief coupled with the generous artist fee produced a strong sense of obligation. We were not artists selected to work autonomously for the furtherance of our individual arts practice but hired for very specific agendas. As artists selected via a national body, such as the British Council, the sense of obligation was magnified, and any sense of artistic autonomy made more complex.

Nationally selected residencies contextualise the socioeconomic relations between the host nation and that represented by the artist. Domeniek Ruyters observes that nationally selected artists are not only engaging with the local context of their place of destination but are also serving the international cultural policy of their place of origin (Ruyters, 2005). "Residencies create trans-national sets of relations: like space stations for upwardly mobile self-entrepreneurs" (Steyerl and Buden, 2007). The sense of "transnational limbo" residencies generate is firmly located in the "logic of territorial cultural representation" (Steyerl and Buden, 2007). While the artist does not have the empowerment of political representation as such, this context inevitably affects the kind of art that a national organisation like the British Council will choose to endorse. For Hito Steyerl and Boris Buden, the residency enacts what Jacques Rancière (Rancière, 2006) describes as a "distribution of the sensible" via a selection process that governs what types of artistic practices are given visibility or remain invisible (Steyerl and Buden, 2007). The way in which visibility is given, therefore, "is strongly defined by allocation of origin or cultural background... artists become ambassadors, very often of dubious entities like cultures or even races. They produce location, cultural identity and national pride" (Steyerl and Buden, 2007, para.4). In light of this, the residency model becomes inherently politicised

Given the colonial history, a residency in New Delhi takes this context and reproduces it through specific socioeconomic relations India has with Britain. Artistic production with the 1 Mile Squared residency is in this context shifted from the UK to India, creating a mimesis with the neo-colonial process of outsourcing. A Western artist on residency in India will inevitably enter proximity with this labour practice, whether they acknowledge it, or not. My observation from working on residencies in India is that the use of cheap Indian labour for the production of foreign artist's work is standard practice. For socially engaged artists who employ people through participation in their work, this proximity can become intensified and particularly problematic.

Such problematic relationships would seemingly call for the implementation of autonomy as an act of critical resistance. However, Virtual Employee looked to amplify the proximity to these relationships rather than produce distance. Instead of resisting them, our decision to outsource the residency was about acknowledging and implicating ourselves within these difficult socioeconomic contexts. We were acutely aware of the colonial implications of being British artists looking to achieve the Visiting Arts residency brief in India, and wanted to foreground the relationship participatory art has with outsourced labour. On one level, outsourcing the residency became a strategy of overidentifying with the politics that lay within the expectations of the brief and our means of production. Virtual Employee therefore became political, not because it resisted via a position of distance, but because it acknowledged and intensified the politics within our artistic labour, which were embedded within our cultural backgrounds and residency expectations.

That said, the agency of the work cannot be attributed to overidentification alone. Overidentification here acknowledges heteronomous political contexts which I would argue then requires a process of disidentification to impart upon them some form of negation (Roberts, 2015). Overidentification, therefore, provides a space and context for autonomy to be reimagined, not through defensive disowning (Fraser, 2012), but via a position of proximity. Rather than an absolute refusal, resistance could occur as a problematic or conflicted relationship with the very thing being resisted. In the case of Virtual Employee, autonomy could emerge via the disconnect of outsourcing an artist residency to a Virtual Employee. The contradictions that this coming together produce, seeks to resist the normalised ways these forms have historically functioned. The business process of outsourcing becomes stretched by the demands of the residency and socially engaged art, which are conversely challenged by the act of being outsourced to a virtual employee.

Residencies are modes of production that are predicated on the presence of the artist in residence, they expect face to face exchanges between the artist and host communities. They demand a type of labour that is highly performative. The artworld is deeply emersed in performative labour which for Hito Steyerl sees the physical presence of the artist both desired and commodified. The artist's presence becomes "an asset with inbuilt scarcity" (Steyerl, 2015) and the artist residency a form of artistic labour centred around this "economy of presence" (Steyerl, 2015).

While Virtual Employee identified with neo-colonial labour relations within outsourcing, it used this to resist or negate the residency's expectations for performative labour. Outsourcing was paradoxically employed to both identify and disidentify with the performance of territorial representation. On the one hand, the stand-in or proxy appears to be a legitimate device to navigate the economy of presence (Steyerl, 2015). Ashish allowed us to produce a kind of strategic withdrawal, or absenteeism which could equate to a form of critical distance, or autonomy from the demands of performative labour. While it could be argued autonomy was achieved here, it was achieved in a highly entrepreneurial way, exploiting the uneven distribution of power within business process outsourcing. Resistance emerges here via it's mimesis with what autonomy has traditionally looked to produce distance (Adorno, 1970/1997).

This mimesis, therefore, provides the grounds for autonomy as a form of resistance to be reimagined. This is not autonomy as a grand gesture of freedom but a functional glitch within its systems of operation (Lütticken, 2014, 94). Virtual Employee is a company predominately used for measurable back of office tasks such as accounts, IT, and customer support. When we approached them to work for us as an International Artist in Residence, they were extremely challenged by the nature of the employment, and it took several meetings and a lot of encouragement to find an employee willing and suitable.

Ashish was an excellent virtual employee. With a physics degree and a history of working in call centres, he was diligent and highly intelligent. Despite having no prior artistic experience, he took on the residency with great enthusiasm. While he was aware he was involved in our work, Virtual Employee, he responded to the brief in an incredibly vigilant way, attempting three different community projects simultaneously. He described how the project made him see things he would normally allow himself to ignore, and how socially-engaged art was a profession he would like to further explore in the future.

Ashish's first project in the square mile looked to 'challenge negative perceptions' of the local African community who he felt were victims of racism. After a period of consultation, he looked to organise a series of workshops where he would teach Hindi to recent African immigrants. Ashish felt that improving their communication skills would help to bridge the gap between the African community and the local Indian population. Ashish was keen to give the participants in his workshop tools to help them in the task of assimilation and in the process saw the importance of learning about their culture, faiths, and histories.


4 - Barzier_Image2.jpg

Documentation of Hindi language workshop for Virtual Employee (2010) by David Brazier and Kelda Free for the 1 Mile Squared Residency, Visiting Arts, British Council, 2009-2010. Image credit: Ashish Sharma.


The second of Ashish's projects involved working with students at Madarsa, a Muslim school in a predominantly Hindu neighbourhood. As a Hindu man himself, he wanted to 'challenging negative perceptions of different cultures and faiths' that existed between Hindu and Muslim communities in the area. Ashish was concerned that the students at the school were not exposed to any type of ethnic or cultural diversity. He worked to develop a rapport with the students that would show potential for positive relationships between the two faiths.


3 - Barzier_Image3.jpg

Documentation of working with students for Virtual Employee (2010) by David Brazier and Kelda Free for the 1 Mile Squared Residency, Visiting Arts, British Council, 2009-2010. Image credit: Ashish Sharma.


Finally, Ashish worked with a group of young boys who were gambling together as their predominant form of entertainment. Worried that this would lead to problematic habitual behaviour in the future, Ashish looked to befriend the youngsters and challenge them to find more productive ways of spending their time. He successfully worked with their school to conduct a series of workshop which involved making fun stuff, different toys, and all sorts of creative things from scrap and common household objects.


2 - Barzier_Image4.jpg

Art making workshop documentation for Virtual Employee (2010) by David Brazier and Kelda Free for the 1 Mile Squared Residency, Visiting Arts, British Council, 2009-2010. Image credit: Ashish Sharma.


As a means of meeting the residency's objectives, in many ways, Ashish's employment made perfect sense. While we walked around the square mile distracted by the overwhelming sense of difference it offered from the UK, Ashish was able to identify important local social issues that we as foreign artists had missed. His understanding of the local culture and ability to speak the language gave him far greater access to the community than we had managed. As a consequence, he was much more capable of achieving the objectives of the brief than we were. Without any previous experience working as a socially engaged artist, he achieved a great amount in a short period of time.

Despite his successes, Ashish came across several challenges worthy of reflection. During his time as international artist in residence, Ashish's agreement with us meant he was contractually required to liaise with host organisation KHOJ in New Delhi to meet the residency demands, and report back to us and the residency organisers, Visiting Arts, via Skype twice weekly. While Visiting Arts were fully aware of Ashish's status in our work as a virtual employee, they nevertheless provided him generous advice and support. Sometimes their conversations stretched for well over an hour as Ashish shared his experiences but also his frustrations with the project and its demands. We had several similar recorded conversations with him ourselves. It was during these, and in his weekly written reports, that Ashish's frustrations began to illuminate some of the disconnects that outsourcing the residency produced.

Perhaps it was the fact that Ashish was trained to work as a virtual employee and not an artist that made him approach the brief in such a literal way. While the other artists on the 1 Mile Squared program read the brief with a degree of artistic interpretation, Ashish viewed each facet of it as his contractual obligation. Other artists also had the benefit of their art practices which allowed them to work in parallel with the residency expectations. With no prior artistic experience, Ashish, on the other hand, only had the brief to work from. Coming to terms with the nature of his employment he remarked during one of our early skype conversations: There's art...and there's social work...and then there's can these things be related? The difficulties he experienced illuminated some of the problems with the residency demands, and by extension, some of the issues with ameliorative socially engaged art. In one of his conversations with us Ashish described how:

There is a gap that you can't bridge over a conversation, or over a month, or over a year. You have to be really close to someone to welcomed in their family, to take pictures of their home, to record their conversations. There needs to be a level of trust.

Ashish identified a central concern of making community-based art in a residency situation. Perhaps his projects would have really flourished given more time to gain community trust. But the opportunity to gain trust and any potential for amelioration is limited by a residency's longevity. As Ashish alluded to, the ambitions of the residency might require years rather than weeks, and any inroads made will be inevitably cut short by the length of the placement. Faced with such limitations, Ashish wasted no time, going from door to door, introducing himself and his project to the local African community. He described drawing on the communication skills he learned as a call centre worker. But, in his attempts at gaining community interest, he ended up feeling like a salesman selling a service that nobody particularly wanted:

In this kind of world, no one cares about no one. And then there's me turning up to people saying that I'm here to help you and to know you. Obviously, they'll be surprised, and shocked, and rude ... to get rid of me.

Compounding Ashish's problems was that the community could not comprehend his motives, which made them all the more paranoid. Specifically, they could not understand that his service was not driven by money. When Ashish insisted that it wasn't a financial exercise, the response was that it had to be, in some way, self-serving. That people would only do this kind of thing to help them feel better about themselves.

Given we had engaged with the same brief in the same location, the community responses toward the residency ambitions were highly revealing. They were suspicious about what agendas the residency 'services' would ultimately benefit, which in turn undermined the potential for trust the brief looked to achieve. While the brief makes assumptions that these communities have assimilation problems which require the address of external forces, in Ashish's experience, they were quite happy living their lives. After a group of African immigrants failed to turn up to one of his Hindi language workshops, Ashish concluded: People don't want to change. They don't want to mix. Admitting a sense of defeat, he confided: they think what I'm doing is a waste of time.

While the brief appears full of wonderful intentions, as Ashish observed, the community never asked for help and his offers of assistance ended up feeling to them like an encroachment and personal criticism. At the end of his residency, he concluded: It's not about changing people's lives or interfering in people's lives. It's about bringing things to people's notice, so that people know what's going on and know the solution to the problems. Rather asking the community to change, which puts onus back onto them for their problems, Ashish felt the issues may be better served by addressing the broader systemic inequalities responsible.

We have hours of recorded conversations where Ashish delivers similarly poignant observations of his residency experiences. While his successes were accompanied by many frustrations, these frustrations delivered an insightful critique of the ambitions of the residency and socially engaged art, while providing an eventual resolution of how such ambitions could better function. So, while it was difficult hearing Ashish's struggles, it was perhaps here where his work gets productive and not just within the three projects he undertook. While his lack of artistic background presented extra challenges, it conversely enabled him to produce an unbiased analysis and critique. The act of outsourcing the residency exposed the limits of outsourced labour, the residency itself, and the ambitions of socially engaged art. Resistance emerging via the functional contradictions this coming together produced.

One of the issues facing artists today who look to produce resistance, is doing so through platforms and processes which in many ways appear complicit with the very things they look to resist. But this complicity also reproduces power structures within art's means of production and access to what art has traditionally looked to delegitimise. Post-autonomous practices are perhaps privileged in this regard, not because they can represent the political as happening somewhere else (which they often do) but because their expanded modes of production have within them an inherent politics. It is here that resistance can be reimagined, not as a defined sense of separation but as a site of struggle between art's autonomous and heteronomous determinations.

The task remains to of make these resulting contradictions productive. Rather than an absolute withdrawal, what might be required is a more modest form of resistance which operates from within, functioning as a systemic glitch (Lütticken, 2016) to produce a sense of "being out of joint" with its place in the world (Roberts, 2015, 56). This is a resistance that acknowledges that we are part of the problem and do not sit outside from that which we seek distance (Lütticken, 2016). It necessitates an avowal of the proximities within one's practice, implicating oneself within structures of power. While these are relationships which have been historically disavowed in art's attempts to resist them, I am arguing it is through an acknowledgement of them that gives art a political context that lies deep within its means of production. And it is from this proximity that artistic labour can then resist the existing disciplinary boundaries, not only of labour, but also that of the production of art itself.

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. A&C Black, 1970/1997.

Brazier, David, and Kelda Free. "Virtual Employee." Performance. Khoj Internation Artist Association, New Delhi: 1 Mile Squared, Visiting Arts, 2009. Residency/performance.

Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Vol. 4: Manchester University Press, 1984.

Eagleton, Terry. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Cambridge, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 1990.

Fraser, Andrea. "Autonomy and Its Contradictions". (2012).

Kester, Grant. The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context. Duke University Press, 2011.

Lütticken, Sven. "Autonomy as Aesthetic Practice." Theory, Culture and Society 31, no. 7-8 (2014): 81-95.

———. "Cultural Revolution: Aesthetic Practice after Autonomy". Sternberg Press, 2016.

Malik, Suhail. "A Boom without End? Liquidity, Critique and the Art Market." Mute: Culture and Politics After the Net 2, no. 6 (2007): 92-99.

Rancière, Jacques. "The Politics of Aesthetics". Mute Magazine (2006).

Roberts, John. The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art after the Readymade. London: Verso, 2007.

Ruyters, Domeniek. "Commentator or Tourist, the Artist in Residence as Contemporary Phenomenon". Metropolis M 3 (2005).

Steyerl, Hito. "Art as Occupation: Claims for an Autonomy of Life". eflux, no. 30 (2011).

———. "The Terror of Total Dasein: Economies of Presence in the Art Field". Dis Magazine (2015).

"The Artist as Res(Iden)T" B-CHRONICLES, 2007.

Vishmidt, Marina. "Anomaly and Autonomy: On the Currency of the Exception in the Value Relations of Contemporary Art." Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 81, no. 4 (2018): 588-600.

Wright, Stephen. Toward a Lexicon of Usership. Van Abbemuseum, 2013.