Whitney Mallett — Semiotics at Work

Google hangout video. 

10:15 AM NYC time, 4:15 PM Berlin time.

Nacre Journal: I know of you as the person who made the video called Minicom on the topic of Basic Income, shown on DIS, and I wanted to talk about the topic of the video and also about the video itself. First I’d like to ask: how would you describe yourself as a cultural worker? 

Whitney Mallett: I primarily identify as a journalist. Sometimes I say writer, or filmmaker. I have trouble defining it because I like to do a lot of different things and I struggle with how to classify that. But I definitely come to the artworld first as a journalist. Having worked in broadcast news I realized that the way I want to tell stories, with a kind of nuanced approach, it would be best suited to art sphere. I realized that maybe news segment broadcast, this was not the place for me. But I still come from that journalism background, still work for magazines a lot, so I think I still feel like I’m a journalist to some degree. But I’d like to explore other things, like write science-fiction, or poetry, or performance.

N: What kind of broadcasting were you working on?

W: I worked on really low level at big networks like CNN, and Bloomberg TV, and then I freelanced doing stories in America for French channel Arté and Radio Television Swiss (RTS). I did that for like a year. I was working with another producer who has been on staff at Arté for 10 years, so he had the connections to be able to do that freelance. We worked on a lot of 3-5 minute videos that would be on the evening news segment, with subjects on various social issues. And as a print journalist, which is what I do mostly now, I interview artists and also do social journalism for magazines and online publications. 

N: How did you link to the art sphere from journalism?

W: I had exposure to experimental filmmaking from school, like Haroun Faroki, who I feel largely makes non-fiction documentary work, but he’s more in the art world context, because art world lets him be more experimental. And then when I moved to New York I started being more in the art world just socially, like it was just where my friends were going, and there was free wine and things like that.

N: (laughing) That’s quickly fading, free wine no more. So then, this video, how do you see it: a reportage on an economic issue, a research piece, or is it video art? 

W: I see it as a video essay because it is very voice-over driven even though there are interviews. I really like the video essay format. That’s what I usually see in galleries or at a museums: video essays. Adam Curtis is probably the most mainstream reference for my work I can think of… But yeah, I just felt like you don’t have to dumb yourself down for the viewer as much in the artworld. I also really like Hito Steyerl’s early work, like the straight-up documentaries she did.

N: Not dumbing yourself down, I think, depends on which of the artworlds one is engaged with. I can think of several artworlds that indeed require the dumbing down. I wanted to talk to you about your work MINICOM right now, because the Canadian pilot of basic income had been cancelled in Ontario by Ford administration and also because the US elections are coming up as we speak, and Andy Yang is still one of the candidates, who is running on a basic income platform. NY Times recently published an article with the headline: “Andrew Yang’s Debate Pledge: He’ll Give 10 People $1,000 a Month. Is That Legal?”. His is basically an idea that instead of politics, the money raised from his campaign goes to the public, but any personal use of candidate’s campaign funds by any person is prohibited, including people he wants to give it to in form of basic income payments, so that’s an issue. Have you been following his trajectory and these discussions?

W: Yes I have been following his campaign pretty closely, but the thing you are talking about I don’t know about, or about the Super PACs raising money, I am not that well-versed in what they can and can’t do with the money. But in general I have been impressed with him as a candidate. What he said early on was that he even hoped that people will poach his idea and that would be a good thing. Even if he doesn’t get to be the president, even if all he does is gets this idea to a more mainstream level, and someone else steals it for their campaign, he’d be ok with that outcome.

I think the thing with basic income is it depends on where you are getting the money from. Sometimes people who support this model are people who actually want to give less money to the needy. There are basic income supporters who want to get rid of disability support and welfare, and then there are other people who want to give out more money across the board. So it depends on where the money’s coming from into the welfare system or wealth redistribution. Yang’s idea is for it to primarily come out of tax applied to people and tech companies that are benefiting from automation, which makes sense to me. His platform offers a choice, whichever social service you prefer: if you want, you could to stay on welfare or switch to minimum income. I heard arguments against that part of it, but I think it is better than replacing it, saying there’s no such thing as welfare anymore. As a candidate, I think I like that in one of the debates, when they were talking about global warming, he said — well, we’re kind of too late, you just move to the higher ground. I like his other parts of campaign and his personality, I like that he’s like the voice of realism in this professional politician thing.

N: I am not sure I understand what he meant to have said by “moving to higher ground”, what do you think he means?

W: It was the moment in the Democratic candidates debate when they were all doing their spiel about carbon emission tax and he was just like: we are ten years too late for this kind of solutions, it’s irreversible at this point. Like, you know, take your thousand… I mean it was like a marketing ploy for his platform. If you have this thousand dollars you can move to the higher ground. Like physically move to a better place. It was very in style of doomer generation candidate. 4-chan-type guys support him. So there’s definitely nihilism, a segment of people who support him don’t believe in anything but would like a thousand dollars a month.

N: What resonates with you in that? 

W: Well I think on a strategic level if the nihilist 4 chan boys who are behind Trump with the Pepe frog memes, who were kind of ironically supporting Trump, then these kind of swing demographics are going to vote for Yang and therefore vote democrat. That seemed to have been an important part of the last election — this kind of swing demographics giving Trump the momentum. What is interesting about minimal income and in this case in Andrew Yang’s position is that part of it, is a branding thing….

N: … you mean for him?

W: In general, the terminology or what you call something. The people in Minicom experiment in Winnipeg, Canada, felt a stigma around accepting welfare, and Basic Income was something different, that was not welfare. I mean whether it is or it isn’t, there was just a feeling that it was different, because it was called something different and it was new. When you read some of the testimonials, it was something like: it’s not welfare so I’m happy to take it! It’s not a hand-out. Andrew Yang calls Basic Income a “freedom dividend”. So these semantic issues appeal to people who are maybe not democrats and who are not into handouts, and are into patriotism. I think what is interesting about basic income is that it’s ultimately just welfare distribution. What you call something, there are different social, um…

N: …reads, yeah…

W:.. yeah, like people react to these things even though they are superficial but they’re not, ultimately.

N: Yeah they’re not, because they come with a specific history of class positioning. I remember being at a conference on Image Employment at the Goethe Institute in New York, and New Republic’s contributing editor, Evheny Morozov, this was about 5 years ago, and he was saying that Silicon Valley can potentially take over social services, just because they have more, and more quickly accessible, capital and access to marketing data, to quickly adapt to the public demand.Which isn’t necessarily a good thing, it ruins the relationship of the government to its people and to the corporations.

W: It kind of guts it, like the charter school system, where it might offer something beneficial short term, like you want a better school in your neighborhood to send your kids to, but you are gutting the public school system. Same as Silicon Valley offering a bus alternative to their workers, some Silicon Valley companies have done trials of minicom, but it’s a slippery slope of having public services outsourced to companies. It’s like the cliché of neoliberal do-good philosophy. 

There are seemingly positive examples of it. Like Columbus Indiana has a diesel engine company, and the money from the company goes to design schools, libraries, a church, a post office, and it’s hard to find fault with that. It looks good, but it’s a dangerous precedent, like Google if it were to take over the public bus system. Where does it end? If you give these companies all this power what will happen? They are not as accountable to the people as the government is.

N: This connects back to the wealth distribution, to people with, let’s call it, disposable income, who prioritize certain projects and ideas, and who can throw a bunch of money at Notre Dame when it burns down, or build an “elevator to the moon”, so that wealthy people can travel to space. Because here is where wealth distribution again meets global warming, the priorities of Silicon Valley always have to do with this Western, or post-industrial idea of progress, which has to do with development and personal wealth. And, you know, I feel like at large, we have abandoned philosophical reflection on that very process when it comes to policies.

W: Right, so Silicon Valley is this Enlightenment Hangover of unlimited progress and it of course connects to global warming. We have this idea of unlimited progress but we have limited resources, and we can’t reconcile the two. We can’t hold on to the idea that we can have everyone in the world have the same quality of life like we do in the US, because it’s unsustainable with our resources. It’s also interesting how we had to learn this idea of limitlessness, there was cultural work done, to teach people about infinity. It’s not inherent to us, we had to learn it, and by now it has infused our cultural ideology. It is taught to us in many different ways and we need to unlearn it, it’s not real or true, this idea of limitlessness.

N: For our quality of life: it is not universal, the desire for it. There are people who have not asked for it, but were made to follow the idea of progress or covertly sold the idea, I am here thinking of post-soviet block, as one region that I am familiar with. I also just read Stephan F. Eisenmann 90’s book “Gaugin’s Skirt”, that was both informative and at times pedantic. It talks about Gaugin’s enmeshment with both colonialism and indigenous revolt. There is a passage in the book on persecution of indigenous protest against establishment of “habits of industry among the natives”, where the pursuit of pleasure described as traditional to the territory such as dance, ritual, collective family structure, or even group orgies, was all labeled as morally wrong and as lazy, and “had to be replaced by a new desire to work (“gout de travail”)”. 

Your video MINICOM begins with a sequence that tells us the safety net is broken. Throughout the video we toggle between US and Canada. What safety net are we talking about — American, Canadian or Global, or is it broadly philosophical? The two countries have drastically different realities — political, structural and economical.

W: I’ve only lived in Canada and the States, and when you move to the States from Canada, you do realize how much Canada provides for its citizens. And even non-citizens. But, I still think broadly the social safety net is set up for an idea of full-time 40 hour week employment, that’s what they try to help you find through social services. I just think that the welfare office objective in both countries is still in trying to patch up people towards having a full-time employment, which is not how labor force functions anymore. It’s just anachronistic. 

N: If you are on welfare in Canada you are personally supervised, but the approach isn’t personal. You are sent listings and links, and sent to meetings, but it’s not any kind of real structured support or time spend understanding individual interests of the person in question.

W: Yes and this case manager situation that exists is something that universal income advocates say is not really benefiting a lot of people. That’s like a bureaucrat getting paid. That money could ultimately could just go to the unemployed. I like David Graeber a lot, and his book “Bullshit Jobs”. It’s revealing how the system got so absurd and so out of control, that it’s almost like you have to perform looking busy. Or even, if a person doesn’t have a job, let’s hire this other person to help them find a job. But why, for the sake of shelter and food do people have to go into these jobs where they have to pretend they are busy? 

N: We can still see that a lot in service jobs, folding and refolding napkins, or in retail, folding sweaters, moving things around, on video sets, rolling and messing up and rolling again the cables to look like the efficient guy. A few years ago I did a video/performance workshop on this in NY, which was a hardsell in the city that has so historically fetishized the rat race.

W: Yeah, so it’s a performance as a job. 

N: A reluctant or forced performance. In MINICOM you mention the biggest fear of the experiment was that specifically young men were more likely to stop working under the Basic Income pilot experiment? What was this concern based on?

W: Young men and new mothers did work less, but it was to get an education or stay with their children, so in a larger scope you could say it was beneficial for the society. Highschool age boys decided to finish highschool, and didn’t have to drop out to support their families. And new mothers were able to stay with their children longer, so people could have a primary caregiver, or to have a mother contact for a longer period.

N: I am trying to understand where this idea, of young men being most likely to not work comes from. Like so many other ideas or fears, what is that about?

W: I don’t know. This is really generalized: sometimes young boys need to be motivated. Or maybe these are stereotypes. I just think of my brothers. When I was growing up, I was like – I’ll get a job! And they had to be pushed by my mom to do things, but that’s not a fair assessment of all society. 

But it feels like everyone is always worried about young men: oh, they are playing too many video games, or losing out to feminism.

N: I think I need to think about that one some more. There’s obviously the evidence to support the concern, but I wonder how much of it is a learned idea, just like unlimited progress is. Not just like us looking at them, but also by them. You know what I mean, by boys. A learned behavior as a side effect of an idea projected onto them.

W: Yeah I guess it has to do with the privilege, of this idea of a man-child, where they get to be infantilized, so they act that way.

N: Possible. Moving on, the question I get most commonly asked in my blind support of the basic income is: how does it work, who and how, pays for it? I can’t answer it. My support is blind because I don’t have the economic understanding to articulate my support, but philosophical and experiential. I think from gathered evidence on global debt, gold reserve, and resource use, money is fiction, so why not Basic Income.

During your research, were you able to understand for yourself the economic model of it, large scale, beyond the small pocket experiments – is there an accessible way to summarize it here?

W: One, is the idea of improving the efficiency of the existing economic and welfare system, getting rid of the bureaucrats. That’s one place where the money can come from. But then those people are out of jobs so they need to be supported too. But I do think there are many inefficiencies in the system that can be streamlined, and you can tax corporations, value added tax, whatever you want to call it, it’s gotta come from somewhere. And when you look at this US election right now, people have different plans, whether you have your healthcare paid for, or you’re getting a check, right now I pay a penalty, a few hundred dollars on my taxes for not having insurance. It’s almost like the candidates are squabbling over a small amount of thousand of dollars, but it’s not magic, it has to come from somewhere, it’s just a matter of establishing process and what it looks like for the working class person receiving it.

Most important to me is that I hope that people supporting it are planning to give people more money, not less. What has to be fundamentally different is the adjustment to the idea that we all deserve a good quality of life without having to perform labor, just by being members of the society, being born into it. I think that’s what’s different about basic income as opposed to welfare or other proposals, almost like, psychologically. It’s getting over the idea that you have to do something to deserve it.

Also from David Graeber book, he says: there were all these technologies in the 70’s that meant it would be easy to get a 4 hour work day, and it seemed like it was where society was moving towards, innovation, progress, hoping to live more comfortable lives, but then for some reason it shifted. Only some people were able to get the benefit from this automation and change, like 12%, and everyone else is now left without a job to do, and still society has an idea of doing this many hours to deserve — life. That’s the broken part, the mentality of that.

N: …as the result of distribution of resources through unregulated financial speculation. But also it has to do with the idea of individualism, and economic growth for individuals. Berrardi, in his book Poetry and Finance, talks about how it has been long the case where, technically, we shouldn’t have to work as much as we used to. There is a generational change though, our generation, it has a different approach to work, we don’t see it as a noble pursuit of working more…

W: …I think the opposite, right now, in America, there’s a lot of hustler mentality. I still struggle with it personally, like: I’m working so hard! 

N: …and then leisure is monetized and documented too, and that whole thing also becomes a job: to perform success and luxuriating repose. What I was referring to as change to work culture is the freelance lifestyle.

W: With the gig economy culture there are these apps, I forget what this one is called, but you can find little graphic design jobs on it, kind of like TaskRabbit for vaguely cultural workers. In it, all the ads are: you are a hustler, you never sleep!

N: And then it’s an endless cycle, because on top of it all, you also have to self-represent as an opulent persona. It’s not sexy to be middle-class.

W: Like people who pay to take photos on private jets.

N: It’s not my habit of looking at this type of accounts on social media, but someone I follow linked to one of the Kardashians and I went down that rabbit hole and, it may not be my interest, but I can’t live like it isn’t happening.

W: It’s part of the culture and it trickles down.

N: The verbose and de-intellectualized “content” fills so much of our life and gives rise to philistine surface rhetoric that’s then reflected in how permissively inarticulate various figures in positions of power or positions of high visibility can be. Political figures are an obvious examples, but it also affects culture and art spheres, the range of participants and the type of work that is propped up by the systematic support.

W: It’s interesting to think about which jobs have moral integrity attached to them, that’s something David Graeber talks about too: the idea of different working classes. Like upper class is working in arts or philanthropy, and middle class is like a nurse or a teacher, and then for a lot of working class people the job that has any kind of social value and moral integrity is then — being in the army.

N: Going back to the quote from Gauguin in a Skirt, I’d like to talk about the myth of a lazy individual that you touch on in your video essay, where the spoiler alert is “and no one stopped working”.

W: Yes, it’s also important to note that the trial for basic income was done in this small, run on primarily agricultural labor, town. So as automation and outsourcing happened, they experienced early precarity of what we now experience in many other sectors. But their way of life was always centered around crops and tending to animals, and has been in place for a long time. So they were not going to stop doing it if they were given a little bit of money as a base. Everyone’s worried about someone becoming a couch potato, but I think there are so many positive things people could do with their spare time. I don’t think everyone needs to be a famous artist, but people could go to an evening art class together, I think it’s generally therapeutic. Like the woman who was in charge of the study, Evelyn Forget, she makes honey, which I thought was poetic because she studies work and bees. They are referred to as worker bees, just an example. People could pursue more of their own thing. Grow a vegetable garden, all these other positive things people could do if they had more free time and base financial support. 

N: Right, because at the moment this thing of pottery classes, rooftop gardens and farmers markets and all that, is not affordable for those who are really pressed for time and money. Keeping up with that appearance of leisure and sustainability is unaffordable and exhausting to many without the economic means. So the current situation or results of the ideas of progress come with side-effects which repeat other instances in history, of siphoning wealth and resources into the hands of the few. This is a good time to talk about healthcare, you also talked about stress in your video.

W: This is another thing in relation to where the money comes from. There’s also money saved, for a country like Canada where they pay for people’s healthcare. This study in Manitoba proves that basic income model saves on healthcare costs, so it’s a forward program where the money you put forward generate savings elsewhere down the line. 

N: And mental health care costs dropped too…

W: All of the healthcare spending basically dropped. People are not tired on the job, they are less likely to drop something on their foot, or have work-related injuries, and their stress level is down from worries like: will my kids have something to eat tomorrow? All these stressful situation obviously build up and exasperate any other health issue. And yeah, basic income alleviates depression… that’s a big thing.

N: What was the response to the video if any? 

W: I feel like there’s a case of positive bias, that people who reached out to me have been positive, no one who hates the idea got in touch. I am doing a talk in Baltimore in two months from now, so maybe I’ll get a more of a broad reaction. It’s going to be interesting to see the effect of the show: the video has been in the Baltimore Museum of Art for over a year and it’s kind of right there when you walk in, so it’s been seen by more people than I would have expected. Maybe I’ll get more feedback after the talk. But so far it was only people who liked it who got in touch. 

N: What do you think about the video being distributed by DIS as a platform? They have a very large audience, but my impression has been that DIS caters a certain attitude geared to fashion conscious cultural consumers. A recent DIS video that parodies Gossip Girl and critiques neoliberal capitalism is sponsored by a luxury Montreal-based retailer SSENSE, who in turn have their very own “magazine” platform. On it, a recent Aisha A. Siddique’s eloquent and seemingly critical article on Track Pant Globalism , in a feat of wild and, so omnipresent that it’s opaque or expected, dissonance, links her words direct to, not just an illustration, but to the sales of luxury tracksuits on their very own website. Having spent a decade working as a fashion designer myself, I am still amused and amazed with the ways in which fashion performs “self-reflection” or change.

W: Yeah SSENSE, critical of fashion to sell luxury products, it’s very ironic… DIS, when they really blew up, they were part of that moment: we are critiquing corporate branding by that accelerationist thing of “let’s up it to the Nth degree and make it absurd”. And I saw this across the world, like John Rafman had a video with Kool-Aid mascot, Cory Archangel had Applebee’s gift cards, there was this moment that was going on, but it very quickly loses its teeth. 

I think DIS also tried to pivot, when Berlin Biennial happened [and a lot of negative publicity followed], that was like the final straw. What they were doing I think reached the point of exhaustion, and they consciously shifted to moving to video. I still think there’s that sense of irreverence to a lot of what they do, but I also think they are expanding to not just being ironic. I hate using the word ironic because it is actually meaningless at this point. But sometimes I don’t know what other word to use…

N: I know what you mean. Because irony… it’s almost like irony has been co-opted by a tendency, or a trend, as if there’s a use-manual. But it’s fine to be ironic, it’s more like the foregrounding ideas of how it is used that are often cynical, or facile, as opposed to ironic in some of these cases we’ve been discussing. 


DIS | A Good Crisis, Baltimore Museum of Art.

W: At the Baltimore Museum, the exhibition consist of several DIS-produced works that are shown in conversation with each other about the current post-recession moment: spanning the neo-feudal rent in Manhattan financial district, financing, renting, renter’s class, capitalism. And there’s another video that puts in conversation the PREP pill (that you can take as HIV prevention) and UBI [Universal Basic Income], and how both of these are ideas can be described as a “magic fix”. So I think I liked it being released on that platform and in conversation with these two other videos. Together it becomes a nice meditation on post-recession, and the economic reality we are all in now. 

N: Yeah, so definitely a new pivot…

W: Yeah I think they say they’d like to be PBS for Gen-Z.

N: (laughing) Right. I like that. My only wish that this video was not behind a paywall.

W: I don’t have a subscription myself! But at least it’s a fake pay wall, because if I just give someone a direct link they can see it.

N: Can we talk about it? Can we reveal the fact that it’s a fake paywall?

W: Yeah, you can link to it if you are publishing online. I think you’re right, it is ironic to keep the video on basic income behind a paywall.

Images throughout the interview: Stills, Video, MINICOM, Whitney Mallett.