Anperforming the Practice of Playbour



1. Premise

This essay investigates the relationship between play and labour, proposing that the notion of ‘anperformativity’ misaligns productivity standards. The analysis  employs Jan Verwoert’s observations on the pressure to perform and Andrew Hunt’s theories of criticality to re-think the notion of ‘play’ – and its derivative feature of ‘humour’. The activity of play can frustrate capitalistic expectations and this is exemplified by the playful, ‘anperformative’ practice of artist David Sherry. This artist positions himself in the interval of the question do you accept or reject high performance culture?, sublimating this binary condition through a dialectical process of negotiations and improvisations. His anperformativity is disclosed through an absurdity, which resists any answer. As high performance culture focuses on goal-directness, self-realization, and competitiveness, Sherry dismisses predictable and purposeful behaviour and chooses preposterous and humorous situations to re-frames the ethics of play outside of capitalist co-optation.

2. Fun at work?

The “fun” is coming back. At least, this is the prediction of Deutsche Bank, which has recently announced a restructuring plan, including posters extolling cheerful devotion to corporate work. Promoting joviality is the ultimate goal of the corporation, which invites new generations ‘to have fun’ performing corporate unpaid activities. Is this not a deceptive imagery of fun at work? To get on it, one has to first scrutinize the relation between play and labour. As Arwid Lund suggests, “on a conceptual level, play and labour are each other’s opposites: a qualitative non-instrumentality and a quantitative instrumentality” (Lund 2015: 67). Within high performance culture, attributes of play, such as fun and entertainment, but also immersion and repetition have been assimilated into firms and playing has been transformed into a goal-directed activity that contributes to a corporate bottom-line. We acknowledge the blurring of boundaries between labour and play and also to all those partitions of industrial capitalism, where play was distinguished from work. This dualism fell apart over the post-industrial economy, when the two realms intertwined to produce a more attractive surplus service. The tendency is reaching its zenith, with all aspects of life subsumed under the “cognitive bio-capital” (Fumagalli 2015: 174). We are not asked to choose between work and play, rather to play the game of labour. 

In the case of Deutsche Bank, the synthesis of leisure and labour acquires such an enhanced form, that one can adopt the term ‘playbour’. Coined by video-game theorist Julian Kucklich, this portmanteau initially refers to a form of leisure — mainly video games or social networks —, which is co-opted as a form of labour. The playbour pivots on the willingness of web fans, “who do not necessarily see their input as being directly valuable, or themselves as being exploited as a source of free labour” (Goggin 2011: 358). It is a strategy to turn drudgery into recreation, and to capitalise on players’ skills. As for Deutsche Bank, playbour is just a management strategy. Employees perform by assuming the behavioural attitude of the player. Why not transform alienation into immersion? Why not embed corporate values into fun activities? This vision presents limits, which consist of a misinterpretation of play as game. As Arwid Lund says: “gaming is often characterized by the same feeling as playing, it can be fun, thrilling and passionate, but there are also other feelings related to ‘serious leisure’, self-realisation, and strains of different kinds” (Lund 2015: 66). In fact, game is formally a voluntary activity that is defined by serious commitment and constrained by social pressure. Whenever Deutsche Bank considers its activities fun, entertaining, enjoyable; there is a disturbing manipulation of sense, feeding into the “culture of fun” (Goggin 2011: 358). Is ‘playbour’ just an unwritten way of performing a new behavioural automation?

3. Play is Battle and Battle is Play

Artistic practice might help to mark out differences between play and labour. Among others, David Sherry’s practices seem sensitive to this issue. His attitude frustrates capitalist expectations because of its unpredictability and seeming pointlessness. His work presents a “qualitative non-instrumentality” (Lund 2015: 67), which is not present within labour. It is indeterminacy unmasking the limits of capitalism without rejecting it.

3.1 Homo Ludens’s legacy

To better contextualize his research, it is relevant to take a step back and scrutinise how the relationship between play and labour has been perceived in the cultural sphere from the past century to the present. During the 1960s, the transition to the post-industrial era has been marked by the discourse of play and labour, mainly read as automation (Lütticken 2012: 3). In his anti-capitalist city, New Babylon, artist Constant Nieuwenhuys aimed for an abstract visual order lead by leisure. This would be possible only by rejecting goal-directness production and alienation. This social a-structurality would have a situationist tendency, reminding us of the “continual negotiations and improvisations” of a “not predictable activity” (Lund 2015: 65) such as play. This theorisation has been later put into action by Situationist International (SI), which strived to devise a release from daily life through jolly environments. Society inhabiting this semi-fictitious realm of playfulness has already been theorized by Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens, back in 1938. Although the pure sense of Homo Ludens faded away in the SI movement (Lütticken 2012: 3), its legacy survived – with some contradictions – in other provocative movements, such as Provo, founded in 1965 by Robert Jasper Grootveld, Roel van Duyn and Rob Stolk. With a hodgepodge of non-violence and absurd humour, the Provo triggered an awareness of automatisms, which in the Holland of the mid 1960s translated into widespread platitude and apathy towards environmental issues, sexual education, and tobacco industry legislation. The Provo adopted theatrical happenings to stage public dissent by using ludic imagination against power. This provocative attitude faded away once the government offered the movement seats on the City Council in Amsterdam, and moderate liberal politicians started to support their ideals. This placid consensus deprived the group of its main reason for being. The Provo movement did not survive its assimilation into neoliberal norms. Although initially conceived as an utterance of rejection of post-industrial standards, it could not defeat its subsumption within the nascent post-industrial society. This is the same form of subsumption we assist nowadays, which assimilates any activity leaving no other options. Are we ready to play the game of labour? Yes or No?  

3.2 Martin Kippenberger

Jan Verwoert proposes other options to this monolithic situation. He suggests latency as an alternative. Latency as a state of suspension beyond affirmation or rejection is produced by artworks. An artwork brews up a short circuit of imposed values. This suspension is a moment of paradox between play and labour, actualised by the creative act. In What is Philosophy?, Deleuze and Guattari argue about creation, referring to Martin Kippenberger’s production in particular as an act of pure creativity. What they pinpoint is his ability to “raise the absurd to the highest level of thought” (Deleuze and Guattari 1994: 65), and, in doing so, create pure sense. Over his career, Kippenberger showed a restless attitude toward artistic production, raising questions yet to be asked (Garnett 2010: 4). If we come back to the question do you accept or reject high performance culture?, we can see how Kippenberger overcame the constraints of Yes or No. There are features we can trace back to Kippenberger, as he is a key figure of the humorous aesthetic. As Robert Garnett suggests, his first concern is ‘playing the scene’; he avoids aligning with any “prevailing doxa” (Garnett 2010: 3). It is this characteristic, which distances his work – even in the present – from the “contemporary ‘post-modern’ irony” (Garnett 2010: 3). Garnett addresses this to an artist such as Liam Gillick. He exactly matches high performance culture standards by reflecting “an always-timely art-world professionalism perfectly reconciled with its epoch” (Garnett 2010: 4). Conversely, Martin Kippenberger said that, “assuming roles is something that simply won’t work for me, since I don’t have a style. None at all” (Kippenberger 1991: 2). If we refer this feature to the issue of defying the pressure to choose, we can say that this indeterminacy opens other options beyond affirmation and rejection. Secondly, although Kippenberger has been considered “prolific to the point of garrulity” (Cumming 2006), his production never fitted neither capitalistic expectations nor standards. It was given by varying strata of humour, rather than a counterproposal, as Provo did. Indeed, this survived to subsumption and assimilation due to its fluidity. When there is no pre-existing placement, artwork becomes ungraspable, and as play it is an unpredictable activity. Features observed in Kippenberger’s work helped to progress towards a definition of ‘anperformativity’ as misalignment to the high performance culture. In order to have a round sense of this notion, we have to understand the Duchampian perception of the ‘anartist’.

3.3 Unperformativity

In Art, Work and Politics in Disciplinary Societies and Societies of Security, philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato focuses on the rejection of work pioneered by Marcel Duchamp, who dissociated himself from conventional notions of creation and production, through the ready-made. For Duchamp, a ready-made was a ‘non-activity’ since it did not ask for particular skills, and more importantly, it could be effectively considered a ‘non-production’, since it did not feed the market with surplus commodities1. Duchamp attempted to distance himself from elitisms concerning artistic genius, introducing himself as an ‘anartist’ or simply as ‘a breather’, namely someone whose main concern was living, in a way not different from a businessman or any other worker. He can be considered a knowledge worker, ahead of his time, committed to positioning his research beyond tags of affirmation or rejection. Thus, it seems essential to refer to him when talking about anperformativity. This neologism can be intended as a way to produce anything but what already exists, by playing with ‘nonsensical juxtapositions’ (Garnett 2010: 5). More than rejecting high performance culture standards, an anperformer adopts them by beheading ultimate purposes. It is a non-finito strategy aiming at nothing but frustrating an expectation of success, complaisance, and productivity. Traces of anperformativity can be found in the artistic production of David Sherry.

4. David Sherry 

Lumping together odd experiences and popular culture references, David Sherry enacts farcical streams of consciousness, which reveals contemporary society conundrums. Far from taking critical superstructures into his joke-works, David Sherry takes an endless humoristic attitude. His works produces neither significance nor statements, but a radical openness for possibility, where ultimate sense is produced through nonsense. There is nothing critically to detect, just “fumbling around-ness” (David Sherry 2010) and hyperbolic masks. Probing the bowels of comedy rather than post-modern irony, the artist opens a wound on paradoxes of behaviour by mocking broadcast media frivolity, career aspirations, and motivational speeches. David Sherry challenges us to distrust “strange rituals we call normality” (David Sherry 2010). Within the boundaries of high performance culture, the most undisciplined act is not asking whether one accepts or rejects the game of ‘playbour’, but where each of us positions his/her own breaking point. How far can you go until you realise paradoxes of your condition? David Sherry dismisses predictable answers; he proposes works that do not turn a blind eye on capitalist co-optation. Devoted to the eccentric and situationist practices of the 1960s, he presents his performances in a Cagean way, as “to be performed in any way by anyone”. This permits him to adopt a pop imagery and avoid any form of authority and thus capitalisation of his work. Sherry’s prolific production tends to sabotage the market by exchanging useless values, which become captivating through promoting and self-designing strategies. This can be noticed in performances such as Total Crap (2015), where he performs the role of a sales man, selling empty boxes and mocking the art market. As the artist says, “I sell my Total Crap telling the audience that […] this performance has been made at Manifesta, Tate Britain and I am going to sell Total Crap at MoMA and Milan” (Sherry, 2017). David Sherry follows high performance culture standards of self-realisation and personal branding just to deprive them of their strengths through humour. To use Garnett’s words, this comedic approach “permits no escape […] it allows the windows to fly open onto our tragic condition” (Garnett 2010: 3) of selling everything and, above all, promoting yourself to survive.

5. Conclusion 

David Sherry embodies the contemporary anperformer. He avoids alignment with the prevailing standards of high performance culture by refusing the question do you accept or reject high performance culture? Following Martin Kippenberger’s model, he does not ‘play the scene’, but uses comedic humour to unmask behavioural paradoxes. Sherry deconstructs the dogma of capitalism, resisting the finality or goal-directness. His practice re-frames ethics of play, distancing it from the distorted notion of playbour. Does he accept or reject high performance culture standards? He simply anperforms them.

1This condition drastically changes when talking about knowledge economy, in which the main commodity is knowledge that generates immaterial value.



Giulia Colletti is currently working with Marco Giordano to curate his projects, the most recent being Conjunctive Tissue. Colletti is the founder of Falte Projects. She is currently in residency at the Pandeo gallery, Mexico City. More information on her independent work can be found here.