Jack London was not only known as a journalist and one of the most successful writers of his time, but also as an avowed socialist. In his essay What life means to me1, the “born working class” reflects on his longing for social advancement, which began at an early age. He describes the structure of society as a building where he grew up in the basement. His goal is to reach the higher floors of the societal building. London believes that in finding a life more worth living, that he will know more selflessness, noble thinking and intellectual dominance.
London earned the title “The Prince of the Oyster Pirates” at a young age. His piracy reputation sparked from nightly boat trips in the Bay of San Francisco to plundering the oyster beds. Whether you might call it theft or illegal redistribution, but his inherent idealism despises the fact that capitalism is always built on the disadvantage of others. London's attempts at striving for wealth always bring him one step up the social ladder and yet two back again. Physically exploited, he has to realize that education or “brain work” must be the more sustainable path into higher society.
As a writer, Jack London uses his failures as material for his stories, which results in his capital. When he finally arrives in upper society, he is faced with crime driven by capitalism, instead of selflessness and morally like-minded people. He returns to his roots and to the working class with the words: “It is the foundation of the edifice that interests me. There I am content to labor, crowbar in hand, shoulder to shoulder with intellectuals, idealists, and class-conscious workingmen, getting a solid pry now and again and setting the whole edifice rocking.” London was smart enough to realize that the structure of the social building could not be torn down, but that it could be remodelled.
Mathias Weinfurter's exhibition project Prinz der Austernpiraten, which was on display from October 23 to November 11, 2020 at BPA space in Maastrichter Strasse, Cologne, gives the previous metaphor a visual manifestation. A three-meter-long steel beam hangs from two silver iron chains in the small elongated room. From a distance, seen through the large window front, it appears to float horizontally in the space. Illuminated in blue light, the beam stands out from the concrete wall. The roughness of the dark material, its rusty flaking, the complicated-looking mechanics of the suspension, all of this fits seamlessly into the cold and bare atmosphere of the parking garage, in which the gallery is located. A digital crane scale is installed between the suspension and the steel beam attached to a traverse: the display shows 105.5 kilograms, glowing in big, red numbers. Every vibration of the building, triggered by cars entering the parking deck above, causes the beam to experience gentle, barely noticeable vibrations and make the steel appear almost weightless.
Taking a closer look at Weinfurter's work, one finds that dealing with questions of accessibility, resources and property often play a major role in his practice. It may be a fitting coincidence that the material steel and steelwork are of particular importance in the Rhine-Ruhr region, where this work is being shown for the first time. With the late start of the industrial revolution in Germany from the 1840s and the associated steelmaking in Essen and Duisburg (Rheinhausen), the Ruhr area became a particularly leading industrial region. As a result of industrialization, more people have been moving to the cities in search of labor. On one hand industrialization brings jobs, free enterprise and technical progress. On the other hand industrialization has many challenging long term effects: it brings exploitation, social tensions, capitalist power structures (specifically the one-sided distribution of property, replacing feudalist structures that were believed to have been overcome). Mass housing for the workers arise whose monotonous and debilitating work day can last 12 to 14 hours. The challenges of industrialization bore fruits of social organizing. The beginning of the industrial revolution was without representation of interests for the working class, trade unions or social legislation. Over time workers become aware of their own class and the need to organize. The labour movement’s lasting revolutionary concepts can be felt today in its continued commitment to improve their economic, social and political situation.
One is inevitably reminded of the resilient workers when looking at the video accompanying the exhibition and can be accessed via QR code on your own smartphone. The video shows a group of five people carrying the heavy steel beam on their shoulders, walking along a dusty path. It's gray and windy, left and right, nothing but fields. The steady sound of their heavy steps and wheezing are the only indication of the effort they have to make to move the beam. Nobody speaks, everyone stares at the ground, focusing on the task that unites the group: making progress. None of them seems to question their mission. A change of perspective and the view from above turns them into little ants, which could also carry a piece of wood into their burrow. The group wanders through the darkness of the night. A fluorescent liquid marks their hands and faces, here and there, it has already rubbed off onto the steel beam. Or could it be interpreted the other way around? In any case, their capital seems not to be the material on their shoulders rather than the power of their combined muscle. United strength within the working class was a resource that Jack London did not have in his days as a worker.
A steel beam this size weighs 105.5 kilograms and the display of the scale does not get tired of reminding the viewer of this fact. In a performative gesture, which can be seen as the third act of the project Prinz der Austernpiraten, Weinfurter takes on the steel beam again. During the course of the exhibition, it will be cut into 15 identical pieces. These individual fragments are stacked on top of each other in a pyramid shape and rearranged, so their weight is evenly distributed on scales that function as plinths. Like London's metaphor of the social building or the history of the labour movement, this final act suggests that if an oppressive structure cannot be completely and easily abolished, it must be changed, piece by piece.
1 Jack London: Revolution and other Essays: What life means to me, The Macmillan Company, New York 1910.