"Hsieh Tehching: New immigrant labor", Ray Langenbach's take-off point for his intervention on labor during the conference

Thinking Aloud: Ray Langenbach's take-off point for his intervention on labor at Rethinking Labor and the Creative Economy: Global Performative Perspectives, the Fluid States event taking place in New Dehli, India, in February and March 2015.

During the last 2 decades of the 20th century, Hsieh Tehching (more generally known as Sam Hsieh and Tehching Hsieh) created a series of live actions or performance works that presented a core concept of new immigrant labor. Most the works were in fact done by Hsieh when he was an illegal immigrant in the United States, having jumped off a commercial freighter on arrival in the United States, making his way to New York City to stay with other members of his extended family. The most paradigmatic of these works was the second of his "One Year Performances" : One Year Performance 1980-1981, during which he punched a time clock every hour on the hour, 24 hours each day for one year.  He began the performance on April 11, 1980 at 7pm and ended it on April 11, 1981 at 6pm. The year before he had incarcerated himself in a cell in his studio for one year, and the following year he lived on the streets of New York without voluntarily entering a building for the period of one year. And a year after that work he spent a year tied at the waist by a rope to another artist, Linda Montano.

Tehching Hsieh One Year Performance 1980-81. Photograph and C. Tehching Hsieh.

I have previously described Hsieh's work in the following terms:

"So in this reading Hsieh's performances represent the abject but tactical proletarian immigrant who imposes on himself those deprivations and privileges  that his adopted nation might deploy in the process of articulating his identity and commodity value as illegal/worker/subject." (Langenbach 2002 cited in Heathfield 2009:26). This reading of Hsieh's work was then countered by Adrian Heathfield in his book The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh, as too strategic and delimiting. " For the moment then, it would seem to important  to suspend judgment  on the question of the work's political efficacy, in order to explore what it might be doing and saying about  the nature of agency and speech in relation to the question of freedom." (Heathfield, 2009:26) But I would argue that a more ontological reading of  Hsieh's acts strips the poignancy of his position as illegal immigrant and international art-worker. The sheer materiality of his statutory presence is misted and numbed.

During the year when Hsieh was carrying out his Time Clock piece, I visited him in his studio, and invited him to visit the Maximum Security prison in Massachusetts where I was teaching through an NGO, the Prison Art Project. I thought a dialogue was possible and could in some way be fruitful, between Hsieh, whose incarceration was a product of his artistic volition, and the inmates at the prison, who almost universally represented their incarcerations as involuntary and imposed upon them by the legal apparatus of the state. 

How do we define the various registers of labor in this case? Certainly 'crime' can be a form of labor, or it can be described as a form of 'dark play', depending on the socio-economic context in which it takes place. The formation of para-military groups on the streets of Boston by Black liberation groups who had recently arrived back from serving in Vietnam, was another register of labor. And their infiltration and dismemberment by the FBI and Police was also a form of state-legitmated labor. But were, then, their life-sentences  and their 'reading of law' inside the prison, so as to carry out their own legal defense, or their conversion to Islam to produce group solidarity... were these also forms of labor? And how do we describe Hsieh's actions, as illegal immigrant, and his self-incarceration, that seem to run parallel to the lives of white motorcycle gang members and black militants -- all of whom inhabit cells, but cells of an entirely different order. It is almost as if each is a 'dream state' of the other.

In the JNU conference, I would like to return to this extraordinary co-incidence of conditions of incarceration, spatial and temporal metrics, to flesh out the difficult and subtle ways that these examples both enforce and subvert notions of labor –alienated and unalienated.

*The intervention could change by the time the conference is held in February 2015.

Tags: Audiences Spectators Spectatorship in Performance  Class Labor Economy and Performance  Performance Studies  Performance Studies in Asia  Politics the Public Sphere and Performance  Race Ethnicity and Performance  

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