War Primer 3: Work Primer


I know Monday is usually the day I post a bit of critical writing and so I apologise to anyone (if anyone) waiting on tenterhooks for this. I just wanted to share something I’ve been working on over the last few days, in response to the issues raised by many interesting conversations about the value of photographic appropriation, exploitative intern use in the art world, and the worthiness of this year’s Deutsche Börse prize winner.

War Primer 3: Work Primer is a reworking of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s Deutsche Börse winning War Primer 2 (2011) itself a reworking of the 1998 English edition of Bertolt Brecht’s 1955 book Kriegsfibel. In this unique exploration of photography and conflict Brecht sought to extract the hidden meanings behind Second World War photographs with short poems modeled on the funeral epigrams of the ancient world. Broomberg and Chanarin in turn updated Brecht’s book, by introducing images from the War on Terror, each intended to resonate with Brecht’s original texts.

While brilliant in some respects, Broomberg and Chanarin’s followup was also deeply problematic, for a variety of reasons some of which I have outlined in my review here. I felt particularly uncomfortable with the book’s existence as an expensive, editioned art object, and the use of unpaid, uncredited intern labour in its production, both things Brecht would most likely have baulked at.

In response to this, and in the spirit of Brecht’s playful invocation not to ‘start with the good old things but the bad new ones’ I have reworked the digital edition of Broomberg and Chanarin’s book into a ‘work primer’ on economics and labour, past and present, at home and abroad. To do this I have replaced Brecht’s original epigrams with text from his poem A Worker Reads Historya meditation on history’s forgotten, and reordered the pages of the book to loosely match the words of the poem. To these pages I have added new text and images. The result is a small tribute to the forgotten of today, the unacknowledged workers, labourers, and slaves that keep the engine of the world, even the fine art world, turning.

More on the project here.

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