Last January, I was seeking a joyful film at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. When I asked around, one recommended a film about a woman who attempts to flee an asylum. Others asked if I meant a comedy of some sort. Yes to the joy of freedom from being pathologised and incarcerated, and while I would not dismiss a comedy, joy is not exactly a genre. In Radical Happiness, Lynne Segal describes joy as a departure from the “official talk” of happiness and writes that, “In moments of shared political passion, or in what remains today of public festivals, joy is most often associated with experiences that take us altogether outside ourselves.”1 The majority of people I encounter at film festivals are performing the kind of labour that we would conventionally recognise as leisure — traveling, watching and discussing films and socialising into the night. If I could watch a joyful film in this context, I could perhaps momentarily be suspended from the sprawling paradigm of work unbound by time or space. To seek a joyful film is also to seek a restful, but not necessarily a relaxing film.
Tulapop Saenjaoren’s People on Sunday (2020) premiered in a shorts program called True Identity. This work presents as an adaptation of Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer’s silent film Menschen am Sonntag (1930), an early work of German New Objectivity about a group of Berliners who leisure in Wannsee on a Sunday. It is considered the first film to be promoted as “a film without actors” because the people portrayed in the film were played by non-professionals, a collective of young cinephiles who also wrote and produced the film. The monolithic implications of the program’s title contradicts how the identities in the works overall often drew on citation and were shaped by external conditions, particularly cultural history. Morgan Quaintance’s Missing Time (2020) is a collage documentary with his signature mix of well-placed silences, music samples and archival matter that floats the inexplicable pairing of a hypnosis treatment case and the Mau Mau Uprising from their corners of history to their thoughtful abstraction in the film. This depositing of historical threads is also conceptually present in Musquiqui Chihying’s The Sculpture (2019) wherein the artist cosplays André Malraux and maps Sino-European-African soft power relations. The psychic weight of history and a failure to address trauma is further distilled in the tropes of cinematic melodrama, as they are consciously employed in Zachary Epcar’s Billy (2019). The works hold each other up by performing history or the forms that spring from it — at times through identities that are thoroughly mediated to be profiting, and profitable, such as Malraux’s and Arnold Swarzenegger’s in Babeth M. Vanloo’s The Art of Bodybuilding (2020). The program concludes with People on Sunday. While it performs as adaptation, the video goes well beyond mere homage. It’s a double portrait of the neoliberal subject and the lumpen precariat as they occupy their complicated proximities to work and self-care commands. All this is packaged as an art object that I could only imaginably encounter in the very contexts created by embodying the proximity to those things — like an international film festival, or a day off spent researching or looking at art. It speaks directly to the subjects it portrays.
The video begins with a bright technicolour title card, a glowing upbeat tune and a soft affirmative recording that instructs the boosting of self-esteem and creativity. This sharply cuts to a close-up of a woman’s face. A film crew conducts test shots for the meticulous restaging of iconic moments from Menschen am Sonntag like Christl’s head (1930) as it rests on Wolfgang’s palm, and Brigitte reclining in the shade after hooking up on the beach. Saenjaroen’s non-actor appears rather corpse-like in comparison to Brigitte’s post-coital afterglow. The video is first narrated by our neoliberal subject, a bubbly freelancer who decides it might be fun to work as an extra in her free time, then our lumpen precariat, a introverted filmmaker who has a lot of anxiety about the pressure to socially perform. Through the conceptual arrangements of narration and image, People on Sunday animates how Saenjoaren has traced a grotesque progression from Marx’s theory of free time in Grundrisse, liberalism’s corruption of the concept, arriving at a scathing critique of self-care.
In addition to moving image, Saenjaroen’s material practice also includes collage diagrams that correspond to some of his performance and installation works. Notable among these collages is “People on Sunday” (2013), a composition that features cutouts of a family picnic, a boom microphone to the right of the image, a red banner with the title of the German film hovering over the composition, and the silhouette of an industrial-style factory with smoke stacks positioned to appear in the distance behind the family. This marks a starting point for Saenjaroen’s extensive study of Siodmak and Ulmer’s film and how work and non-work have been recalibrated since the film was released, just prior to the collapse of the Weimar Republic.
During an artist talk at Bangkok University in 2015, Saenjaroen described the following dynamics unfolding at the intersection of Menschen am Sonntag’s cinematic image and the conditions for the film’s shooting schedule. Since the non-professional actors had day jobs, the film had to be shot over multiple Sundays over the summer of 1929. The characters in the film appear in the same day jobs as the people who played them — a wine salesman, taxi driver, film extra and record store clerk. Below, I formatted that aspect of his description as distinct algebraic variables, which helped me to see how work and acting are never conflated, but are operating conversely:
Acting as non-acting Working as non-working
Acting as non-working Working as non-acting2
(X as non-X (Y as non-Y
X as non-Y) Y as non-X )
My understanding of his formulation is that there are no images of work, only depictions of work, or the negation of work. There is also no acting to be had either because Siodmak and Ulmer cast non-professional actors, therefore they are non-acting. And because there are no images of work, nor acting in the film (for example, if Erwin, the taxi driver, had been depicted conducting a fare, or if an professional actor were hired) there are no scenarios that can situate “acting as working” (X as Y) or “working as acting” (Y as X).
Cinematically, the jobs portrayed in the film had identifiable labour sites that Brigitte, Wolfgang, Kristl and Erwin could physically and mentally leave. It captures a time when it did not require mental gymnastics to identify where labor begins and ends. Conceptually, Menschen am Sonntag is an innocent foreshadowing of the diffused boundaries of work and leisure that characterises the post-industrial labour force. For the present, Saenjaoren fixes a Foucauldian lens on the semantics of liberty, as it pertains to the political art of liberalism, to examine the corruption of freetime. Drawing from Foucault, Saenjaroen asserts, “It is important to know that liberal thought is enmeshed in the construct of free time and the slippage of the word free.”3
Following his brief analysis of Menschen am Sonntag, Saenjaroen says “I basically made that film”, adding nothing further. He is referring to 2013’s People on Sunday (London), dated the same year as the collage diagram. This initial adaptation narrows in on the picnic sequences by portraying four young people meeting up for a picnic followed by a period of relaxing outdoor activities like reading and listening to music. The entire video was shot in a single afternoon, without use of any narration or digital effects that characterise his recent works. In this version, Saenjaoren adds a concluding scene where the picnickers line up to receive a humble amount of cash at the end of the shoot. The blunt transaction cynically tarnishes the convivial afternoon activities, but offers little in the way of unpacking the economic triangulation between labour, free time and leisure that are refined in his recent titles, Nightfall (co-directed by Anocha Suwichakornpong, 2016) and A Room with a Coconut View (2018).
In Saenjoaren’s earliest short videos, there is also a burgeoning eloquence to the forms that are refined in the recent titles. His first, Tales of Swimming Pool (2008), tells a set of fables as pool denizens leisure and exercise. 2008’s The Return, a speculative realist plot that describes the return of a dead relative (sharing the same production year as Suwichkornpong’s Real — a short that portrays a woman having a casual catch up with her dead mother). 2011’s Klai (Distinction) portrays the dynamic between employer and employee who perform themselves and each other as they reflect to the camera on their working, bordering on personal, relationships. All explore sites of leisure relative to work, or work as non-work (participating in residencies), or non-work as work (achieving vacation goals) or a uniquely deployed form of script and narration.
Nightfall portrays a fictionalised version of the co-director, Suwichkornpong, walking around Singapore while on a residency researching Thai politics. The artist residency is work and non-work conflation perfected. The protagonist traverses underground tunnels and performs a solo karaoke session at the The Golden Mile Complex (an iconic Brutalist mix-use complex that houses a concentration of Thai communities and businesses). We periodically hear a woman’s voice reciting an English transcription of speeches by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Thai Prime Minister Kittikachorn at a State dinner praising each other’s economies ten months before the uprising of the 14 October 1973 popular uprising that overthrew Kittikachorn’s military and anti-communist dictatorship. This coup planted the seeds of the 1976 Thammasat University massacre — this historical event being the primary historical subject of Suwichakornpong’ 2016 feature film By the Time It Gets Dark.
A Room with a Coconut View is also a sort of “film without actors”. Saenjaroen employs no actors, but instead collages footage and a confident deployment of humorous effects, filters and edits, couched in the awkward bounciness of Kanya and Alex’s rapport. Alex is an American guest at a hotel in Bangsaen, a resort town in northern Thailand. Kanya is an automated voice functioning as a tour guide. She elaborates on the images on the screen as part of a “presentation” for her guest. However, Alex wonders about what is beyond the frame of Kanya’s program of leisure. Kanya falls asleep and the narrator switches to Tessa, who recites Alex’s perceptions once he begins to independently explore the resort town, “Alex finds himself touring rather touristy spots — a hell garden, an aquarium, a hill filled with monkeys — he’s never seen these things before but feels extremely bored and indifferent.” Tessa wonders if Alex has ever considered that he is “working on his vacation as a tourist.”
A Room with a Coconut View recognised the convoluted endeavour of leisure that is haunted by the work of disentangling ourselves from the prescribed narratives of relaxation and enjoyment. If joy is not visiting a hell garden and a hill filled with monkeys in a Thai resort town, then what? On the reportability of happiness, Segal writes, “For anything we call happiness to endure and be cherished, it needs to be recognized and shared with others, always hovering somewhere between the strictly personal and the potentially public.” The tension between the strictly personal and potentially public is a dynamic that often homogenises the former, rather than diversifies the later. A Room with a Coconut View sets up the deep distrust in the canon of happiness that is tied to the trappings of self-care as work which was developed in Saenjaroen’s paper 2015 paper Killing Time, and is underscored in his latest short video, People on Sunday (2020).
Towards the end of his artist talk, Saenjaroen incorporates a performative element by presenting a research paper by utilising a text-to-speech function to recite it to his audience. Killing Time, launches an inquiry into what Marx meant when he wrote that free time is “both idle time and time for higher activity. Saenjaroen asks, how can time be free from work when it is intrinsically linked to higher activity? He posits that free time has split connotations — on the one hand, it is time to do whatever we want, on the other hand, it is time that is given to be “free.” The first has the connotation of freedom, and the second is closer to what can be understood as liberty. The primary difference between freedom and liberty is that freedom is attributed to the individual will, while liberty is freedom that is organised within a society — the absence of oppression, which also needs to correspond to a social apparatus in order to produce that condition.
Saenjaoren’s inquiry draws from Marx’s unfinished manuscript on political economy, Grundrisse. In the broader passage, Marx describes what is at personal stake in the economics of time, which is always also the economics of labour — “The saving of labour time [is] equal to an increase of free time, i.e. time for the full development of the individual, which in turn reacts back upon the productive power of labour as itself the greatest productive power. ” The full development of the individual. Saenjaroen’s alignment of Marx’s thinking around free time with “liberty time” is apt with regard to the organisation of freedom in relation to work, which constitutes an oppressive apparatus under bourgeois capitalism. Marx states that labor time cannot be perceived in the abstract as antithetical to free time. This is a bourgeois economic perspective.4 From the vantage point of the present, Marx wrote rather optimistically when he said that through rest and higher activity, free time transforms individuals into differentiated subjects with the “accumulated knowledge of society”5 and this knowledge is carried forward in the production process, and hence the historical process. What Marx referred to as “free time”, that is, to be at liberty to rest and transform in the interregnum between periods of work, has manifested under late-capitalism as the cult of self care.
Liberalism’s abstraction of governance, or control, reaches its fullest bloom in the neoliberal fantasy that conscripts the individual as their own self-regulating agent of social reproduction. Saenjoaren’s dissecting of free time through Marx and then Foucault’s critique of liberalism culminates in the debasement of Marx’s intentions to cordon off time for the full development of the individual — self-care as neoliberal social production par excellence. In his paper, Saenjaroen describes the corruption of free as the gradual passive, self consenting transformation of non-work into work towards the more legible regimes of work. The non-work is then registered by the individual as a mode of seizing control and creativity to develop personal assets: “The question of work in relation to self-care or self-cultivation is the question of control in relation to self governing or internalization of self-governance.”
In People on Sunday, Saenjaroen reconstructs Menschen am Sonntag’s picnic sequence yet again as a group exercise in positive reinforcement and it’s as if Siodmak and Ulmer’s picnic received a neoliberal software update. Four people with excellent posture are seated taking turns reciting phrases from a provided list — “Seek new experiences”, “Eat wisely”, “Set weekly goals for the future” and others in that vein. The first voice introduced in People on Sunday describes her usual line of work as one that involves extended periods of time on the computer. She confesses that she doesn’t really understand what the project is about but she gets paid a modest amount to act as a person spending time in the park, makes connections of indeterminate value or purpose, and likens working on the set as a kind of vacation. Based on this set of rationale, it is unclear whether she wants to rest or work, though it is clear that she is content to be away from another kind of work, solitary computer work. Neoliberalism is the normalisation of leisure and labour simultaneously — liberty and oppression simultaneously, under the guise of productivity or self-cultivation, which have become the same expression.
When the narration switches to the director of the set, his voice is deepened and distorted, yet more relatable in his anxious monologuing about being on mood stabilizers and overspending mental and physical energies in order to participate in mundane social economies. The director expresses that shooting “behind-the-scenes” footage would demonstrate his value, if a person’s value is measured in work. He describes how the camera’s movements articulate his labour as a director, and excuses him from interacting with people in ways that aggravate a “debt I can never clear no matter how much I pay.” While these narrators contrast in disposition both voices have a financialised sensibility when describing their decisions and feelings. The “cultivation of the self” is the shaping of the marketable and always or imminently working self. People on Sunday demonstrates that modern identity hinges on shaping, maintaining and performing an identity that will grant us admission to the free (that word again) market labour economy. The voice of the director takes advantage of the camera as a device that produces an authoritative barrier between him and his subject in a manner that actually reproduces the distancing effect described in Saenjoaren’s Foucaldian analysis of liberalism — a kind of governing from such a distance that it neutralises its authority and it becomes an extension of the person who moves it. He socialises with it, his instrument of work, not the director himself.
Despite the video’s dry comedic quality overall it unsettles as a capitalist realist6 caricature of toxic positivity with alienation and imposter syndrome heaped on top. After the shoot is wrapped a grey screen card appears counting down from one minute — an blatant interlude of “free time” embedded in the video. Then, this brief offering of breathing room cuts to a panic-inducing montage of random and lurid video clips narrated by the first voice, but now dramatically different in tone because she is back at her computer desk. She expresses that she has recurring anxiety that feels like a brain leak as she sits at a computer hugging a dog shaped pillow and wearing a face mask. We are watching material that was accidentally left on a hard drive she received, “something from the last folder of BTS footage I’m hired to edit…probably something the BTS guy collected and forgot to delete it before sending me the external harddrive.” Tired and unbothered by questions of who or why the frenetic collection of footage, she closes the folder and begins recording instructions on how to export a Colour Relaxation Therapy video. We learn that she is a freelance video editor contracted by the extremely popular Korean boy band BTS and an instructional video YouTuber.
It must be apparent by now that People on Sunday was not the joyful film I was seeking. During that minute of free time smuggled into the video I started wondering about the prefix, “true” in combination with “identity” in the program’s title, and was briefly confronted with a minute to sit and think with no apparent strings attached. It’s a gesture that risks being too obvious, yet striking as an experiment in liberating a minute of our time. In writing this, I learned that I share Saenjoaren’s suspicion of prefixes when he pursued what Marx meant by “free” in combination with “time” — I also detected optimism in the prefix “true” in combination with “identity.” People on Sunday is a work that is so elemental in its appropriation, yet does not reproduce its source, while its theoretical underpinnings subvert the truth of identity attributed through sheer inheritance or even reflexive identification. Under late capitalism, identity is thoroughly mediated by labour and time, as much as freedom of time is captured by a social apparatus as “liberty time.” Distinctly, People on Sunday does not insist on agency over cultural identity or exhume its history beyond an individual’s choice to critically examine and expand a single work of cinema for nearly a decade. The construction of identity certainly begins with the fragments, but they are fragments that this apparatus gives us access to, that we perhaps gravitate towards under the mere impression of personal sovereignty. Identity can therefore be no more true, than time can be free.
- Lynne Segal in Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy, Verso Books, London/New York, 2017, e-book. ↩
- See Tulapop Saenjaroen in “Tulapop Saenjaroen: WORKING TITLE,” Songcharoen Media Group. November 12, 2015. YouTube video. ↩
- Ibid. “Liberalism problematizes the principle of government while simultaneously constructing its own form of governmentality. The liberal art of government started to govern from a distance through the process of rationalization and naturalization and establishes itself as the norms to govern.” So, the notion of free time as a state of being liberated while governed from a distance, reflects the logic of liberty time, in its attachment to a social context. It’s opposite, libertarianism, albeit sharing the same etymological roots, is not examined through the semantic approach the Saenjaroen takes in his paper. ↩
- See Karl Marx, trans. Martin Nicolaus. “Chapter on Capital (continuation)”, Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy), Penguin Books and New Left Review, 1973, e-book. “It goes without saying, by the way, that direct labour time itself cannot remain in the abstract antithesis to free time in which it appears from the perspective of bourgeois economy.” ↩
- Ibid. “Free time – which is both idle time and time for higher activity – has naturally transformed its possessor into a different subject, and he then enters into the direct production process as this different subject. This process is then both discipline, as regards the human being in the process of becoming; and, at the same time, practice (Ausübung), experimental science, materially creative and objectifying science, as regards the human being who has become, in whose head exists the accumulated knowledge of society.” ↩
- See Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism, Zero Books, London, 2009. Fisher did not coin capitalist realism but understood it as something that could not be “confined to art or to the quasi-propagandistic way in which advertising functions” in the way that we understand the role of Socialist Realism under Soviet Communism, “It is more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.” ↩