WORK. Documents of Contemporary Art
Anthology about work's relationships with art.
Included an interview of Friederike Sigler
to Adrian Melis, 2017

Copublished by Whitechapel Gallery
and The MIT Press

Adrian Melis
In Conversation with Friederike Sigler // 2016

Friederike Sigler: For Dreams Production Plan for State-run Companies in Cuba (2010-12) you asked workers to write down the dreams they have while falling asleep during their work time. To sleep during work seems a paradox, specially in the context of modern production logics. Can the sleeping workers be considered as strikers?

Adrian Melis: Sleeping at work seems like a paradox in the western world: in Cuba, however, it is completely normal. In the work of Dreams Production Plan as well as in all my works I select and deal with existing issues within stablished socio-economic structures. In Cuba the state has complete control over the economic structures and means of production. It projects the illusion of productivity, even if these structures it has set are useless and do not function. I call these structures “ghost production structures”. Cuba is an island where the paradoxical occurs naturally. It is prohibited to fight for your labor rights - even just placing a complaint is usually not an option- and no one has the courage publicly to make a demand for change. Simply put, we pretend to be productive within an unproductive system, and for this reason sleeping during work hours changes nothing; we wake up caught in the same cycle. The system is not affected in any way, because productivity is dispensable for it to continue working as it is. Imagine that your duty is to be in a battlefield, provided with the right ammunition, well prepared, eager, everything is set but there is no war happening and no war is coming. The workers “dormant” state is a consequence of the State, since there are no means to protest for one´s labour rights as there are in other countries, so sleeping is the only thing you can do.

In addition to showing the dreams of Cubans, one of my main objetives for this project was to achieve a production line that would allow me to demonstrate in tangible form that the dreams of socialism are a marketable product, a merchandise that can be mass produced and exported. Dreams Production Plan is a critique of the establishment. It presents an alternate system that allows for productivity to happen using the existing structures, without changing or interfering with the day-to-day work rituals. The workers know by now how to use the system to their own benefit, in fact, it is not the workers who are striking, it is the government that is striking and struggling to stop western ideologies from infiltrating Cuba. The government is in constant “strike” and the workers are the pawns of this play. In a capitalist system no margin exist to question the definition of productivity, since it has already been firmly established through an ideology of growth, advancement, evolution, expansion etc. Productivity in Cuba is still a fluid term.

Sigler:  A similar version of “non-work” is presented in The Value of Absence (2010-2012), a collection of various excuses for staying away from work.

Melis:  The difference between Dreams Production Plan and The Value of Absence is that in the formar, I created a product without intervening or changing the employees´regular day at work. In The value of Absence the excuses of the workers become the engine that drives the work beyond this façade of our reality and into a platform wherein the workers don’t only stop working but are paid to do it. The payment was equal to the amount they would be paid had they gone to work. If we consider the consequences that this activity could bring, The Value of Absence could be considered as an attack against the establishment, in Cuba as well as in the rest of the world. The excuses allowed 114 people to miss out on work, to be precise altogether 327 working days, with approximately 90 euros which at the time was close to 127,70 Cuban pesos. Imagine if I had a budget of 3,000 euros at my disposal. I could have paralysed Havana. In a capitalist context I would have been put in jail but in Cuba, I could have paralysed the capital without anyone noticing, because the system is already paralysed.

Interviews with 28 contemporary artists by
Jerôme Sans and Laura Salas Redondo
editoriale: Rizzoli


Subvertiing conditions of work, by Jerôme Sans 

Jerôme Sans: How would you describe your work?

Adrian Melis: My work aims to find a different way of understanding our reality. In my works, I use concepts, phenomena or social behaviours as a raw material in order to create a parallel reality; a dystopian and surrealist world in which people and social production systems behave differently. From the beginning, I have been interested in the concept of usefulness of what we produce not only within the art world but also in the daily life of those people given over to the god of “work”. In this sense, there is an attempt of turn absence into presence, the invisible into the visible, and silence into sound. The procedural nature of my work makes me put into practice the creation of new production structures that feed on the absence of real structures. I see my work as a graphic scheme where the actions and lines are interconnected in order to reach a certain conclusion more typical of a person who comes from the world of business and statistics than from the world of art.

JS: How do the contemporary socioeconomic realities of Cuba influence your work?

AM: I was always interested in the paradoxes of the context that surrounds me, especially in a country where everything works in a surreal and illogical way. In Night Watch, a video I made in 2005, I had to steal wood from a state carpentry shop in order to build a surveillance post for the same workshop’s security guard so that he would have the ideal conditions to monitor that carpentry. That’s when the concept of the “state” and the lack of commitment to work by the state began to draw my attention. On the other hand, when I started in college, one of my main concerns was that I was going to produce (within the context of art) in a country where nobody is interested in producing anything. That apathy and detachment at the social level led me to ask myself why we produce and for whom we do it. When one of the workers of the factory in the video The Making of… questioned me, he said: “Dude, there are no materials here, there are no jobs, there ain’t nothin. What do you want me to produce?” It is a crucial question that even today I still try to answer.

Another challenge I had as an artist was to prove that Cuba institutions could do without the labor force without absolutely anything happening. Why? Because they stopped working a long time ago. This type of workplace I usually call “ghost companies” and Cuba is full of them. The Value of Absence was the answer to this question. All the participants in that piece wanted to miss work and invent the most incredible excuses in order to achieve it. After that challenge, I had another on even more difficult not only as an artist but as an individual grown and formed in the decline of the revolutionary ideal in the 90s. Can one as an individual live and satisfy this personal needs in a socialist system like the Cuba one? As a social individual, I would say that the answer is: NO In Dream Production Plan I would try to find a solution to that question. Rather than only exporting sugar, coffee or nickel, we could also export dreams. My answer was a follows: converting the dream of a worker who sleeps during working hours into an exportable and profitable commodity in the art world. I remember one day I said to my brother: “Normally in Cuba, you can live well if someone helps you from the capitalist world.” My idea was to achieve the opposite, in my own way to convert an unproductive system into something productive. Unfortunately, I have been able to apply this concept only in my own world and my work.

JS: Do you think the expression of an artist can influence the world of work affected by unemployment, corruption, and bureaucratic inefficiency?

AM: From my point of view, the artist does not change anything outside the field of art itself, as much as it inspires other fields, it is not about changing or generating an impact, but about looking for a different way of approaching and communicating a position or positioning.

In my work, I have always tried to use art as a tool to creat an appearance of productivity in a totally unproductive system.

I mean, when the machine operator in The Making of Forty Rectangular Pieces hears his voice making the noice of a cement mixer, he exclaims “Look, the factory works, we have achieved it, and it works! You are a genius!” That’s when you realise that an economic system like the Cuban one could only be productive within the sphere of the artistic. This is where art becomes the ideal platform to turn that lack of motivation into its opposite: a production system works only in a parallel reality: art. This does not mean I am criticising the inefficiency of the Cuban administrative system, but I am simply using an exiting reality and subverting it to make utopia possible. The objective of my work has never been criticism, I was never interested in criticising anything, and reducing a reading to that level would be an oversimplification. Cuba is a very complex set of hierarchies and different ways of understanding reality, very different from the West. In both cases, I have always sought to observe reality not on the visible side, but on its dark side. This allows you to create structures that work in an unusual way. When I lived in Spain the reality was clear to identify: there is no work, there is unemployment. That’s what I saw. There are so many unemployed people that if we put them all together there is enough material to carry out a new production structure that, in turn, generates a different kind of employment.

JS: Would you consider your work political?

AM: To be honest, I’m more interested in journalism, anthropology, and statistics than in politics. “political art” is a totally unfocused and confusing concept that, in my view, has that curse of nostalgia for the historical past where utopia, commitment, and hope for change where valid approaches. Art, in my opinion, is super elitist, it has always been, and it is useless for anything other than art itself. It has that quality of being “useless” however much it tries to mix with other practices such as activism or so-called “community art”. In spite of that, I do believe it offers the possibility of seeing reality from another perspective, and that seems to me, more interesting than criticism of elitist activism (within art). Obviously, everything is political, but in my case, I never considered my work a political gesture. There are other tools to analyse a socioeconomic system beyond the concrete political positioning of the artist. We live in an overly politicised world and tend to see things in black and white when in fact there are many more nuances. That is why I have always been interested in a more multifaceted type of work open to interp

The Value of Absence highlights a secondary dimension of the Cuban reality that changes the rules of the game that other westernised countries are playing, and that is the significant lack of motivation. The worker decides to miss work because he/she just doesn’t want to go, and that is a form of protest a silent underhanded protest. Whether he/she goes to work will not affect the existing structures or change her/his life. Reality in Cuba is different, it cannot be analysed through the eyes of capitalism; such a comparison would just be too simple an approach to take. The capitals system drives people to work, and if you systematically miss work you will be fired and considered as lacking work ethic. However, in Cuba, if you are being to productive and complain about the inefficiency of the system you are extracted from it and considered to be an obstruction to the system. The government knows people don’t show up for work but it ignores this phenomenon, because it acknowledges that this is how the system they have created functions; here and there people will wander. Ironically we have some freedoms in Cuba that do not exist anywhere else.

The subject of The Making of Forty Rectangular Pieces for a Floor Construction (2008) are workers, who - “due to a shortage of materials to produce” - are basically waiting for the end of their work time as there´s nothing to work on.

Melis:  In the Making of Forty Rectangular Pieces something occurs. When I went to the factory to produce the work, I had to go through the administrator. He took me directly to the workers who were sitting, drinking rum, playing dominoes and not doing much else. He ordered them: “Hey, listen up. Since I can’t put you to work, he (the artist) will put you to work.” At that moment they exhaled and sigh of relief. I guess they were happy to do something useful, something that would motivate them and that was not related to their routine. That day they worked incessantly for eight hours to achieve the best outcome, a perfect soundtrack simulating a faint memory of a reality now nonexistent. They were the musicians in an orchestra of which I was the conductor. The work acquired another conceptual dimension, a parallel dimension, in which they could be productive within the confines of art instead of reality. When the workers saw the final cut they exclaimed: “Look! Everything works! We´re working! You´ve done it! You´re a genius.”

That´s when I realised that the concept of work is more closely related to art than reality itself. To be unproductive is not a mode of protest, it is a way of reading a parallel reality, where it is possible that art is a motor of productivity within a paralysed context. My work does not pretend to change anything but I believe that it is a way to question not only those who believe that work dignifies man, but also a point of reference for the Cuban establishment to observe through the eyes of the Cubans how the system they have created operates, or doesn’t.

Adrian Melis, interview with Friederike Sigler for this volume, 2016
First published in  Work (Documents of Contemporary Art), ed. Friederike Sigler (London: Whitechapel Gallery/Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2017) 135–7.

JS: Wh are you artistic, political or philosophical influences?
The artists to whom you feel closest?

AM: I’ll say it from the first line, although many try to deny it. Tania Brugera’s Cátedra Arte de Conducta formed my generation and helped to expand our knowledge of the art world considerably in the artistic context where there were not many options to nurture. On the other hand, I grew up in a somewhat ideologically divided family; my parents believe in the Cuban Revolution and my grandmother not so much. On the contrary, she hates it. That evidently created a bipolar disorder in my perception, but at the same time, it helped me to look for the nuances of both ideological positions, positioning myself more in the center than on one side or the other. I also had to, as we say in Cuba “scare away” many books and essays by Marx and Engels, by Fidel, by Che Guevara, related to work and socialism and man in Cuba and their letters to the workers. To be honest, I always had more influences outside the art world than inside. I also, at an artistic level, discovered artists such as Anri Sala, Santiago Sierra, and the Semefo group with Teresa Margolles, who obviously influenced my way of perceiving art. However, I consider that the activist group “The Yes Men” had a great influence in the ironic, parodic and brilliant way they have of influencing reality and using it in their favor, and it is striking that, despite being considered activists and not artists, I found a lot of art in the things they do.

JS: Your work supposed the intrusion into the daily routine of workers. How do you mange to be accepted in these particular contexts?

AM: The relationship between a certain social group and my position as an artist depends on each project. For example, in The Value of Absence a curious thing happened, the first 15 workers I contacted to miss work were already friends from the Timba neighbourhood in Havana. They knew that I studied art, but, despite that condition, I approached them in a different way, I told them I had a business that could interest them: free time paid in exchange of the audio of their excuses to miss work. There was not much more to explain. In less than two months these 15 workers contacted a total of 114 people willing to collect the miserable amount that the state allocated, but in this case not going to work. I did not make up the phenomenon; reality was present, the State is permissive and the workers apathetic and that paved the way for the network of contacts. No one asked me why I wanted those recordings, they all wanted to get paid without leaving their homes. If I had had more money, I would have brought the whole neighbourhood or maybe the province to a standstill. In most of my projects, one thing I always try to respect is the nature of those groups, being part of them without forcing anything. I use the situational dynamics in my favor.

JS: How wold you describe your artistic practice that evokes the methodologies of a historian, a sociologist or an anthropologist?

AM: I have always been interested in a type of art that not only speaks about itself but feeds on other fields of knowledge. Self-referential art seems boring, monotonous and repetitive. On the contrary an art that, when you are thinking about it, makes you doubt what you are doing and which genre it would fit and even then it isn’t clear, is a more organic type of art since your approach is based not on the mere form or on the perfection of a certain genre, but also on the content and on the desire to break the barrier of the “politically correct”

There is an element in my works that always stands out and in which Im particularly interested; the way in which people that are not from the world of art act or produce things that can be considered art. To understand and take advantage of the different levels that reality offers you, you need other tools that “art” in its most traditional sense des not offer you and you have to expand those borders to other fields that study the ways in which we relate.

JS: How do you see the future of Cuba?

AM: There is a very interesting book called The Making of the Indebted Man that raises the concept of “debt” as the engine that gives shape to all kind of systems of social relations of production, not only at the economic level but at the subjective level and, of course, political. Cuba is a particular context that only has as reference a memory of the past and we are anchored to it since there is not machine that would generate a future memory. Our debt is no longer with the past, as we wanted to instils for many years, our debt is to the immediate present and nobody finds or wants to find the button to activate future memory. We lost the notion of feeling useful because the Cuban government does not want us to feel useful, but at the same time, nobody des anything to achieve something different, either out of fear or comfort or cowardice. We love ambiguity and double standard, they educated us like that; we are in charge of taking an economic and social system to its maximum imperfection.