The temptation to outsource commentary on a poetry collection, the contents of which have themselves been outsourced by the nominal author, Nick Thurston, is strong. Outsourcing is technically accurate: the poems were subcontracted to workers who were paid pennies for their creative labor through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform (AMT). Each poem in Of the Subcontract is the work of a ‘Turker’ completing a Human Intelligence Tasks (HITS) on demand in a matter of minutes, even seconds, before moving on to the next task requiring human rather than machine intelligence, whether that be the transcription of a receipt or the writing of advertising copy. Thurston orchestrated a system for the production of this book, designing the procedures by which the expressive work would be done by other people, amateur writers temporarily employed for this specific purpose. He is thus author in the ordinary sense of origination—he has produced the idea that led to the presentation of the poems to a reading public—and author as legal, historical entity, the holder of copyright. For the introduction to the volume, McKenzie Wark himself subcontracted the work to a freelance writer in Lahore, a $75 textual gambit almost immediately apparent to anyone with a basic familiarity with Wark’s writing, but only directly acknowledged in Darren Wershler’s very fine concluding essay. The art historical context for such an exercise in conceptual writing is threefold: procedural or rule-based poetics; uncreative writing (Kenneth Goldsmith); and the turn toward what Claire Bishop has named “delegated performance” in contemporary art.
Outsourcing, subcontracting, or delegation in contemporary art practice differs from that of the Warhol factory era in the use of nonprofessionals to participate as themselves, in this particular instance to write in their own voice. However contrived the verse, the poems lay claim to authenticity and immediacy and seem to challenge academic suspicion of voice and persona as mere artistic constructions. In lines such as the following, for example, it is difficult not to register the primal scream of the precariat, however masked by the performative irony of doggerel verse.
Am I blind, or maybe dumb? To see TWO cents has made me numb.
Would you do work for this measly amount? Would you take it seriously, would it even count.
This is insulting in so many ways.
It is precisely the doggerel in these lines from poem 0.04 in the collection, numbered as such because it was the wage in USD earned by the writer, who has produced one text at the hourly rate of $13.09 that makes the sincerity apparent. The intense frustration a writer is likely to feel about the particularities of circumstance (the devaluation of one’s labor, the humiliations of socio-economic necessity) might seemingly be undercut by the cynicism of comic poetic form, but it is precisely the mechanical rhythmic production that communicates blunt, unadulterated anger: “I do not mind writing when the prices are right, / But two cents is insulting and not worth the fight.” Even with the well-learned lessons about the falsity of lyric in mind, readers cannot but be cognizant of the actual people inhabiting the first person so as to earn pennies to sustain a life. In lines such as “I am worn out with dreams,” “I just cant believe you are gone,” “My lovely baby, my cute baby / You are so precious for me,” one hears the voice of the writers, the ‘Turkers,’ rather than that of the coordinating author, who is present as curator or, more precisely given the platform, employer and data manager.
Of the Subcontract poses questions about the gift economy for the creative industries, wherein a culture of volunteerism disguises the exploitative aspect of unpaid internships and artists are asked to accept the notion of reputation as currency and regard working for free as “opportunity”—“no payment and a rejection are sure to come”—or reduced to busking through PayPal tip jars. So too the practice of subcontracting for a creative project such as this directly reflects and comments upon...