A Grant to Do Nothing Questions How We Value Work

What would you choose if you were paid to not do a specific activity? Reflections on work, value, society, ecology and personal/social experiments

A University in Germany announced a grant in August this year, offering €1,600 to do nothing – a near equivalent of the universal basic income being discussed in Germany to not do a particularly interesting thing in a particularly interesting way. Naturally, this sparked massive interest across the world. While the creators of the “idleness grant” had expected to receive 50-odd applications from within the country, they ended up attracting about 2,600 applicants from all over the world.

“I have to explain that the grant was called a grant for ‘doing something not’, and not idleness grant,” clarifies Friedrich Von Borries, the creator of the project, at the very outset of our conversation. A professor of design theory at the University of Fine Arts, Hamburg, Borries is everything you would imagine an arts professor to be – he has a calm and collected demeanour, an openness to discuss ideas, and most remarkably, the archetypal scruffy hair. Through his ruminative yet intensely present gaze, he explains what got lost in translating the name of the grant from German to English: “My aim was to make a seeding of an idea – that we should stop to talk about what we should do and what we should not. When students get a grant from the University, they receive a crown because they’re very smart, very intelligent; they make the best grades and so on. We used the absurdity of giving a crown for doing nothing to spread the question about this idea. And it worked quite well.”

The question of what we value as work and strive for with regard to productivity has been raised by thinkers since the industrial era. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in their magnum opus Das Capital, laid down the self-destructive logic of commodification of labour to propose communism as the next, more stable form of social organisation, after capitalism was slain; Max Weber studied the symbiotic relationship between the ethics of ascetic Protestants and modern capitalism in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, to show how our obsession with the idea of productivity was fuelled by existing religious beliefs of Calvanists, who looked at material success as proof that they were chosen by God to be saved and not damned; while Bertrand Russel, in one of his essential essays, In Praise of Idleness, deduces that “the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organised diminution of work.” This question continues to live on in the public imagination through management and spiritual gurus alike, who deliver lectures about four-day work weeks and the importance of taking time off to allow our brains to process everything we have incessantly downloaded onto it.

Borries, however, draws a sharp but sophisticated distinction between idleness and doing nothing. “It’s not like Bartleby in Herman Melville’s 19th century novel, where he refuses to work and isolates himself from his co-workers. That is very passive and depressive. This is an active decision to be inactive in a world where you are often forced into a form of activity which, in many cases, produces ecological problems and social imbalance. We are interested in this idea of activity,” Borries explains.

He first thought about the ideas of consequence and action while attending a workshop with environmentalists and artists in Germany, where they were trying to assess the success of the environmental movement so far. “We’ve been reading about climate change for say the last 50 years or so. Then why do we still have it?”, they asked. The environmentalists believed that the communication strategies employed to reach out to the public had been ineffective, and hoped that the artists might be able to help them relay their message better, in a more affectual manner. But the artists refused. “Art is inconsequential,” they asserted, claiming that art was not an instrument for politics but something to be created for its own sake.

“I think one of the big questions I have as a teacher at an art school is that more than half of our students, or even more than 70%, are political, critical, left-leaning and have an activist background in some way or the other. But still, it results in nothing; not that much is changing. And that is something that I’m reflecting on through the School of Inconsequentiality: Why is art aiming sometimes for so much and resulting in so less?”

He thinks the answer lies in how art has conventionally tried to connect with the people. “I have the impression that doing exhibitions is changing nothing,” he says. “Art has to leave the museum; it has to leave the exhibition; and also, it has to leave the self-proclaimed public space, and it has to go into companies. I’m thinking about and currently trying to start a consultancy, which will work with artists to consult entrepreneurs and companies to change their thinking.” This may or may not be successful, he admits, but it’s something worth trying, nonetheless. Housed in the same School of Inconsequentiality (though not an art project, Borries stresses), the doing nothing grant takes the first step towards such an endeavour: “In our society, where everybody is looking for success, for doing something for gaining more money, gaining more social status, and so on, we have to calm down and to think about what all these activities are doing.”

The one question that still remains though is, what about the money? Why pay someone to do nothing? And where would that get us? Borries explains that this is an attempt to overturn the flawed logic of capitalism itself: “Normally, in a capitalist economy, we make a specific link between money and value, which is a lie. There is no reason why somebody who’s taking care for children is earning less money, and somebody who’s taking care of my business portfolio gets more. My children are more important to me than my business portfolio.” While many news stories about the grant connect this aspect of the project with the idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI), especially since the amount offered is very close to that being discussed for UBI in Germany, Borries says he’s “not a big fan of such basic income because it has a logical problem. It is still based on the idea of income.”

The radical difference between the concept of money and income we know and that offered by this project is of how we value work. “While all the immaterial work people do would get validated [through universal basic income], like the work done by artists, mothers, friends, caretakers, ecological heroes, and they would receive enough money, the problem is that we value only a specific kind of work.” Our concern with the question of Universal Basic Income is not whether we are doing the work that is needed in society today, but whether the work we have come to recognise as important is getting remunerated as per the existing framework or guideline of value. And that, for Borries, is a problem: “The general Basic Income idea is still trying to fit into the economic logic we are all suffering from. It’s not really turning it upside down. Maybe because the activists of the general Basic Income think they must fit into the system. But that is exactly why, I think, it won’t be successful… But I think it’s an important debate to be had. We are all targeting the same problem, maybe with different approaches. And so, I’m always willing to support people who are fighting for general basic income, whenever I can. Even as I’m saying it’s not the right one; the perfect way.”

The solution the grant offers to this problem is manifold. First, instead of privileging time, the grant privileges the insights or new knowledge that it can potentially create. “It’s not that we are giving €1600 for one month, no. It could be a 10-minute experience, it could be a two-year experience. It’s up to you.” What they are looking for instead are the forms of knowledge that might be revealed through such an experience, and what formats the communication of this knowledge could take. “We have selected three applications. We have one from a person who doesn’t want to work anymore, in order to have more time for social contacts, but in a very gentle way. I like it very much. And we have one for a person with a very radical experiment about confronting other people with their idea of how she should behave. And we have one grant for someone who refuses to use social media and the Internet for a fixed period of time because of surveillance issues and to avoid becoming an object of big data, capitalistic exploitation, etc. So, one grant is linked to the money, because somebody says that she wants to stop work. But the others could do it without the money.”

So, it’s not about providing money to enable their experiences, but as a token to value the experiment taken on by these applicants, in response to sensitively recognising what is needed in society today. Also, it isn’t only about the applications that have been selected, but also the ones that shared their own interpretations of what a grant like this could mean. And that diversity and possibility is beautiful.

As we conclude, Borries tells me about other projects that the School of (In)Consequentiality has been engaged in – a film on consequence, a publication describing these reflections, and an app which helps people learn to be patient. The exhibition that was meant to announce the three winners and present their works has been delayed until December, because of the pandemic, and will open at Hamburg’s Museum of Art and Design, by the name ‘The School of Inconsequentiality: Exercises for a Different Life.’

As we wait to see the insights these experiments may reveal, our brains have already started imagining this new world, and what we might want to stop doing in order to build it.

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