Last week at deSingel in Antwerp, Michael Helland and I worked with a group of 37 participants for one week, creating a framework in which each individual would give one hour of their time to one person, and receive one hour of time from another person in the group. The project was called Vita Activa. The goal was to create a small, alternative island of non-reciprocal time-based exchange which would be very different from the reciprocal monetary forms of exchange with which we are all so accustomed. At the end of the week, we held a performance for the public in which each individual recounted whatever they found most impacting or provoking about their experience.
Before we started the week, I had no idea how it would received by those involved. As we were seeking people for this project, the outreach had two particular terms that produced some misunderstandings at the outset. First, it was said that the workshop would be led by “choreographer” Daniel Linehan. But I wasn’t really planning to make a dance in the normal sense of the term. Conceptually, I considered that the organization of these time-based exchanges would be a kind of choreography of interactions between people that would form one large circuit of exchange among the whole group. But this is not really a choreography that can be seen. Only tiny parts of it can be experienced from the inside. At the beginning, it seemed that many participants were expecting that I would lead them in a dance experience. So I was a bit nervous that many people who had come expecting a dance workshop would be disappointed that there was not very much “dance” involved. But I was glad to be dispelled of my doubts as the week went on, as most of the participants expressed real enthusiasm about their time exchanges, and had very interesting stories to tell about their experiences.
The other misunderstood term in our outreach was “unemployed.” This is partly my own fault. In the beginning, I wanted to work with a group of unemployed people, but I used that term less because unemployment was a major theme that I wanted to deal with, and more for practical reasons, because I wanted to work with people who had the availability in their schedule to participate in this workshop for a week. My use of the term “unemployed” was also an attempt to rethink how we use it. The word implies a negation and a lack: it implies that these people are lacking something, as if they have a problem and this problem needs to be solved through employment. Of course, many of the unemployed do consider that they have a problem; they would like to work, but they cannot find any work. But this was not true for everyone. Some of the participants did not feel particularly troubled about being unemployed at the moment, and they did not really identify with the label “unemployed.”
It was not that I wanted to cast unemployment in a positive light, but I wanted to take the focus off of the term as a mode of defining a particular group of people. If unemployment is a lack, then it did not really seem to be a good way of defining the participants of the workshop. They obviously did not lack the skills or ability to offer their time to each other. Everyone named something they would like to receive and something they would like to give, and everyone had something that they could give to another person which that person wanted to receive. So for me, the workshop had nothing to do with unemployment, and everything to do with the capacity that each individual has to exchange something valuable to another person. What is this valuable thing? Time.
My biggest fear is that by using of the term “unemployed,” I led the public to regard the participants as a group of 40 unemployed people. But I think the performance gave the audience a very different impression. “Unemployed” was not at all an important aspect of their identity as a group. By the end, the group’s identity came more from the experience of the time-based exchanges which linked every person in the group indirectly to every other person. I hope my call for “unemployed” people did not stick these people more firmly in this category, because my experience of the week was that everyone escaped this category. In the end, I remembered what each participant gave to another, but I was not always sure if this had anything to do with their profession or with what they normally to do earn a living. And I count this a great aspect of this project, that the participants were not relating to each other based on a professional label, nor on the label of “unemployed,” but they were relating to each other simply on how they chose to exchange their time with one another.
So, let me state for the record: We did not work with unemployed people! We worked with enthusiastic, committed, activated people! I was very touched by the deep level of commitment that everyone brought to this project, and I was amazed that the exchange of only one hour with a stranger could bring about such interesting stories and such meaningful encounters.