The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths

Photos courtesy of Justina Nekrasaite. Book design, after an idea of Job Koelewijn, re-done by Till-Michael Hormann

- a performative re-enactment, or a wink and a nod to Job Koelewijn

The stamp, a forgery, said 23 Nov 2017.

There were two more preceding it: 26 March 1996, 10 Jan 2012. This book hasn't seen the light much.

And I say a forgery because Pieter just now placed it on the book's back inner cover page, at my request, as a commemorative dedication to the re-enactment of the action it details within its pages.

The book: Cleaning of the Rietveld Pavilion, dates back to 1992 and is available upon request in the Gerrit Rietveld Academie library in Amsterdam. The original action, a transitory one, took place on March of 1992, 25 or so odd years ago, and it consisted of a clean break with the past made by Dutch artist Job Koelewijn. He employed at the time his mother and three aunts: Cornelia, Jane, Greetje Koelewijn and Weimpje Koelewijn Vermeer, in the polishing, wiping and overall scrubbing of the small pavilion to the side of the Rietveld Academie.

The action can be seen as a tandem of images - the sobriety and functionality of the original Rietveld design, the cleanliness and beauty of the traditional Spakenburgian clothing the women are wearing while in the process of cleaning. A link to the artist's past. It's embodying and paying respect and doing that through a class of work, of maintenance and fighting entropy, which often goes unseen. It's also critical in the most delicate of manners, juxtaposing the bodies of women with the embodiment of modernist architecture.

How can this work be reframed? Where can it come from, when one's aunts and mother can't perform the function? How did it stand up to scrutiny then, in the case of family, the womenfolk, performing it?

What was it a performance of?

What would it be a performance of today?

As cleaning work is increasingly becoming fodder for the platform economy and the identity of cleaners tied less to their traditions, more to a company brand, I wanted to allow the work to be played out through algorithmic mediation, an update of sorts to current conditions. This though brought with it several other questions.

"How does one value something one cannot and often does not want to see? How do contemporary digital platforms and their infrastructures of connectivity, evaluation, and surveillance affect this relationship between value and visibility, when it is mediated through the problem of labor as at once a commodity and a lived experience?"

Niels van Doorn (2017) Platform labor: on the gendered and racialized exploitation of low-income service work in the ‘on-demand’ economy, Information, Communication& Society, 20:6, 898-914, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2017.1294194

Koelewijn's overall array of work speaks of universals. It touches upon the infinite, isolation, loneliness, cleanliness, the intimate memory of the artist, failure, the struggle. It does go into specifics - he, as well as his mother and aunts come from Spakenburg, an area in the Netherlands renowned for its Calvinist cleaning culture and links to the past by still employing traditional attire on a day to day basis - the complications of identity politics, local economies, or historical time, don't seem to figure in the end result. The work is timeless.

I, though, wanted to fill it with time.

November 10th 2017.

"While many commentators have tended to focus on the novelty of what has come to be known as the 'on-demand' or 'gig' economy, this phenomenon forms both a continuous and an intensification of developments that have been underway for nearly four decades. A common critical reading suggests that the recent Great Recession (2007 - 2011) provided the conditions of possibility for the on-demand business model that has been most frequently associated with Uber: under the combined pressures of mass underemployment, fiscal austerity policies, and rising inequality, an increasingly precarious and shrinking middle-class workforce has welcomed new ways to market its assets - even if the only asset available is embodied as labor power (Booth, 2015; Hill, 2015; Mirant, 2014)."

Niels van Doorn (2017) Platform labor: on the gendered and racialized exploitation of low-income service work in the ‘on-demand’ economy, Information, Communication& Society, 20:6, 898-914, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2017.1294194

I'm in the process of re-enacting Koelewijn's performance. I'm an Eastern European migrant living and working in Amsterdam, having been shaped by Dutch artistic education. Two weeks before I've used an online platform cleaning service to book four cleaners which would help me bring the piece to life. The initial experience announced the struggle. In order to better understand the inner workings of the platform, I've spent two months prior being a cleaner myself.

"I never think of myself as a cleaning lady, although that's what they call you, their lady or their girl."

A manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin. 1977

Without any experience, I've jumped through the hoops of making an account, which consisted of precisely two 20 minute long phone interviews and an application for a "Certificate of good conduct" - a way of making sure I'm not, as of known, a convicted serial killer or a nuisance of any other kind.

As a result, making a customer account on the same cleaning platform is now a problem. Whether an intended measure or just an oversight, I can't use the same email account when trying to book my cleaners. Rarely had I discovered such a clear division of roles. You either pay to get cleaning help, or you are the cleaning help. But, ever the optimist, I chuck it up to clumsy programming.

I've set the time of my cleaners to 10:30 AM and submitted to the conditions of the platform by booking a one time cleaning of 3 hours per person (less wouldn't have been possible) at the announced rate of 19,90 Euros an hour, which surprises me.

"Some 1 million households in the Netherlands employ a cleaner in house. More than 97% of these services consist of black market work. Black market work is often cheaper. The average wage for cleaning aids on the Dutch market is around € 10.50 per hour (Panteia, 2014). On the white (formal) market, the customer pays around € 21 gross per hour for this (Advisory Services Committee house, 2014)."

My own rate, after website commission, was 11,50 Euros, which makes the charged commission on a single cleaning a staggering 80%. The platform paid no tax on my behalf as a worker, neither will my booking money now go towards any benefits.

"on-demand platforms share a number of strategies that enforce the immunity of both the buyer of a service – usually referred to as a customer, a client, or a requester – and the company that owns the platform, protecting these parties from the obligations that commonly pertain to an employment relationship. Most conspicuously, this is accomplished through the increasingly contested practice of worker misclassification, in which on-demand companies mobilize their Terms of Service (ToS) agreement to designate workers as independent contractors rather than employees. Here, the platform and the contractor are stipulated to be in a commercial relationship where the former provides a service to the latter in the form of a software-generated market lead to a potential client for the service offered by the contractor – a service that is categorically distinguished from the one provided by the platform. As commentators have pointed out, this arrangement prevents on-demand companies from having to pay employee benefits, compensations, and insurances, which can save up to 30% in labor costs (Cherry, 2015; Rogers, 2015). Yet it severely downplays the level of control these companies exert over the workers they ‘serve’ via their platform and it obfuscates the mutual dependency that marks their relationship, both of which would indicate an employment situation (Rogers, 2016)."

Niels van Doorn (2017) Platform labor: on the gendered and racialized exploitation of low-income service work in the ‘on-demand’ economy, Information, Communication& Society, 20:6, 898-914, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2017.1294194

I pause while making the booking. With all the complications of my own previous work done through the service which amounted to canceled clients out of the blue, I reckon I would spend for this re-enactment a bit over what I've already earned. I click on to the next page and allow capital to flow through me.

There's a slight flaw in my plan. The booking is made out to 1076ED, Amsterdam - the location of the Rietveld Academie and its pavilion. I quickly get 4 cleaners assigned via the algorithm.

We chat, the cleaners and me, and for the sake of symbolism, a parallel to Koelewijn, I ask them to bring over the same green colored t-shirt which their platform touts as an identity. The request for multiple cleaners is not outside the platform's norms, it coming from a cleaner/artist which recently decided to close her own working account, and is set to a building which is a school and not a home, means though that it's being closely monitored. Within 2 days of the booking, I get a call asking me for my intentions and being told that my t-shirt request was odd. With that, I get the slight sense that all my communication through the platform is being read through. Scratch that, I get the certainty. Minutes after I receive a formal letter announcing that the booking can't go through. I flinch. Then regroup. Decide to set the meeting site across the Rietveld, to a friend's house, then make my way to the cleaners to the Pavilion, if all agree. I make a new account, I remake the booking, all the while leaving my personal data in clear view.

4 new cleaners: Mirthe, Farciana, Alexandra, Bernadette. November 10th, 10:30 AM.

On the 9th, just hours before, I get again a series of 4 cancellations, initiated by the platform and call all 4 second batch of assigned cleaners. I manage to convince 3 out of 4 to still come and book their hours at a later date using the platform. 30 minutes later, it's only 2 out of 3. One doesn't feel comfortable having a stranger that just canceled their appointment and is afraid I won't be able to pay up. With the 4th cleaner, it's a different business altogether. An old account, set up in 2014, with no reviews and therefore no previous customers, she contacts me outside the platform via SMS asking basic questions about the job. When the second cancellation goes through I reach out to her via telephone and on the other end get nothing but an answering machine. I listen in on the name and it doesn't seem to match the cleaner's name. Intrigued, I call again twice and write the name down. On a later quick online search matching the platform's name with the name on the voicemail, I make the connection. The account is run by the platform's director of communications. I do a double take. No matter. With 2 cleaners still agreeing to not play by the rules, 1 cleaner fearing for the safety of her earnings and one fake monitored account, I push through.

"Beyond the discretion afforded by ToS agreements, another immunity strategy mobilized by on-demand platforms is the orchestration of information asymmetries that skew power relations to the advantage of requesters rather than workers. The provider interface usually offers very minimal information about service requesters and frequently even the most basic information becomes available only after the provider has accepted the request and thus commits to taking on the gig."

Niels van Doorn (2017) Platform labor: on the gendered and racialized exploitation of low-income service work in the ‘on-demand’ economy, Information, Communication& Society, 20:6, 898-914, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2017.1294194

I couldn't sleep the night before and I wake up earlier than sunrise ready to make my way through the city and to the Pavilion. Around 8:30 AM I'm already on my bike and halfway through the ride. I'm asked to confirm the address by one of the remaining cleaners, which I do, and receive an SMS cancellation from the second. Minutes later, the remaining one also apologizes and is afraid she won't be able to make it after all. When asked, I'm told, in writing, that the platform representatives called her that morning and let her know there was a problem with my payment. The night before, forced to act as a representative of the black market, I took out money from my account, 4 piles, and decided I would pay the remaining cleaners the full amount plus platform commission when they would show up. The money is left burning in my pockets.

The Rietveld Pavilion is a three parts glass, one part brick display structure around 5 meters in height, 6 and 5 in width, an almost cube. It's at once isolated and exposed. Explaining its history and the history of Job Koelewijn's piece in relation to it is an easy feat. I hold on to the book I took out from the Library and make my way to the third floor of the Academy where I detail my plan and decide to allow the piece to engage in a different kind of dialogue. Failure doesn't figure into it. 10 minutes later I have my 4 cleaners. They're students, have never worked as cleaners, and are more than happy to help.

But where does that leave me?

"Koelewijns project is a critique of architecture´s functionalist principles and the social aspects of labor. The industrially produced glass and steel characteristics of the functionalist movement - typically seen as tough and rugged - are portrayed as light and delicate in Cleaning the Rietveld Pavilion. The costumed cleaners are almost redundant - they have no trouble keeping the Pavilion clean - but they establish an important visual opposition with the glass building."

Maintenance architecture by Hillary Sample, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusets, 2016

As work becomes an increasingly autonomous task, platform mediated, similar in that sense to the apparent autonomy of artists, it also tends to become invisible yet again, engendering division and bringing about an impossibility of understanding its mechanisms when one looks at it from the outside. This results in an inability to value it appropriately. In both the case of cleaning and art making, actions should matter more than the image that they make.

"Housework concerns the significance of work in at least three capacities: architectural practice (labour), aesthetics (the artwork), and how buildings ‘work’ (their performance). These significations are enfolded in ways that uncover the limits in how architecture is practiced and generally perceived, ultimately concerning the production of ‘values’ in capitalism."

The Critical potential of Housework by Catharina Gabrielsson. KTH Royal Institute of Technology

My new cleaners, Rietveld students, put in the effort and get to do what few platform cleaners have done before them - they work together, not in isolation. They think they know intuitively what the task presupposes as artists they have a flexibility of mind, though one can wonder whether cleaning activates it. They labor over tiny corners of the building, overgrown with weeds, which they take the decision to leave up, among the concrete. They sweat and bitch and fill the structure with their laughter.

Once two hours pass, we come to an agreement that each part of the building had been covered with either a mop, a piece of cloth, a sponge or a window wiper. The structure now smells of stale water and alcohol. I stare at it once the action is completed, allowing the sun to break through the floating glass, the story of which I heard on my first day at the Academy. The Rietveld buildings glass was reckoned to come from my home country. I wondered if the same held true for the Pavilion. On top of the glass, large straight stains from the window wipers trail as displaced matter. The building, though lovingly cared for, beautifully framed, is dirtier than when we started. That we can all agree on.

In spite of this, I reach for my backpack and place in each student outreached palm the equivalent of 2 hours of work within the platform economy, plus the platforms fee.

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