Useful Work versus Useless Toil is the second publication of the MsHeresies series from the Amsterdam-based Rietlanden Women’s Office, a collaboration between graphic designers Johanna Ehde and Elisabeth Rafstedt “which engages in self-initiated, research-based graphic design, and publishing from a feminist perspective.”
The magazine’s main text is a remediation and republishing of the lecture “Useful Work versus Useless Toil” given by William Morris in 1884, accompanied by text and image material from the book The Sisters’ Arts, which examines the working relationship of sisters Virginia Woolf (writer) and Vanessa Bell (painter). This issue continues the project of the series’ first installment—Conditions for Work: The Common World of Women—to investigate the topic of work and the possibilities of collaboration from a feminist perspective.
“We definitely go into our work with singleness of heart,” says RWO. “This means that the text we are working on is constantly present in our thoughts and conversations.” This process defines the outcome, and as a reader you get the sensation that every word has been spoken out loud and dissected from every angle before being put back in its place. This energy seeps into the publication itself, giving it a sense of burning assertiveness and making it, as RWO says, “a new piece of work through its republishing.”
A glossary of keywords is found on the back cover to redefine and link William Morris words to the present by a weaving of texts by writers such as Anne Boyer, Bernadette Meyer, Hélène Cixous, and Audre Lorde.
In a recent conversation about MsHeresies, we discussed fast-paced and profit-driven work culture, touching upon topics such as social media activism, commodified feminism, and the importance of looking towards history when questioning hegemonic structures.
Marie Hoejlund (MH)
A central concept in the text is the word “ornamental,” for which you have written a beautiful definition and which echoes visually in your design approach through the use of Vanessa Bell’s paintings and drawings/illustrations. I am curious if you see this word and way of making in opposition to modernism, or what your thoughts are on publication from a more traditional design perspective?
Rietlanden Women’s Office (RWO)
We have discussed modernism a lot—as designers there’s no way around it. Perhaps when we speak of modernism in the context of graphic design, we often imagine an aestheticized, even fetishized, “surface” version of some sort of sleek, “balanced” Swiss type. And even though this white, western, male design tradition is nowadays mainly idealized and reproduced within commercial graphic design and advertising, it is surprisingly present as a reference point within art institutions as well. It still holds high status, and is considered “good” design. But if we speak of modernist ideas as disconnected from aesthetics—modernist as content/material first, resourcefulness, sustainability, simple production, etc.—our work and our publications could very much be seen as subscribing to these ideals. To answer your question, we try to avoid making design decisions out of spite, or as a reaction or counterpoint to something else. We want to work constructively and with lust in our work. Our focus is really on the texts we publish. We try to go deep into a text, read it over and over, and design through that reading. Perhaps plurality, complexity, collectivity, and even ornamentation comprise our era’s equivalent to the modernist pioneers’ methods of relating to content.
And, yes, our definition of the ornamental is key here. It does have something to do with decoration and the actual making of ornaments, drawings, and paintings as seen in the publication. There are many interesting aspects of the ornamental and its different statuses throughout time, considering gender and colonialism, for example. Why is one practice seen as craft and others as design, why is this deemed necessary and that superfluous? We try to give ornamentation agency in our publications. Agency to make a mess, be laborious, at times ugly, and a bit in the way. The ornaments in the publication push and hyphenate the text in various ways, because we have let them affect the text area. Image/text hierarchy is completely interchangeable. And so, giving form becomes an interplay between typesetting and reading, where we let the ornaments impact how the text is broken (and read). Typesetting in this way involves trying things out, reading them out loud, and then making changes thereafter. Every change made also affects the text on the pages following. Working with this organic, unbound text area (as opposed to the usual and uniform square) is both tedious and interesting—most of all, it lets us get to know the text really well through the different forms it takes. This is a very concrete role the graphic ornaments have in the design.
In a sense, this way of working has become an homage to what we imagine was the nature of collaborative work between sisters Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. In fragmented and reworked forms, their collaboration is juxtaposed with Morris’s text throughout the publication. We have remade, repainted, redrawn, and collaged their work with our own. The Sisters’ Arts (“Sisters’” referring not only to their actual sisterhood, but also to the siblingship of their respective art forms) has been an important source for us. The author, Diane Gillespie, describes how Woolf and Bell—one a writer, the other a painter—informed and influenced each other in very intimate and intertwined ways. A painting by Bell could inspire a text by Woolf and vice-versa. This has been very interesting to us, considering our definition of graphic design and what it can be. Graphic design as a collaborative practice, existing somewhere in the broken middle of reading, painting, and publishing, calls into question dominant ways of thinking, seeing, and organizing.
The presence of their collaboration in MsHeresies also stands as a reminder and inspiration when it comes to defying the common belief that there must inherently be rivalry between women. People seem so eager to proclaim that there must be competition and deceit involved in any work done among a group of women. This plays a part in withholding women from a common world, from truly being able to participate. Of course, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy within a patriarchal structure (where women too learn woman-hating), but as a general rule that couldn’t be further from the truth. In the words of Adrienne Rich (from the first issue of MsHeresies), “Working together as women, consciously creating our networks even where patriarchal institutions are the ones in which we have to survive, we can confront the problems of women’s relationships, the mothers we came from, the sisters with whom we were forced to divide the world, the daughters we love and fear. We can challenge and inspire each other, throw light on one another’s blind spots, stand by and give courage at the birth-throes of one another’s insights.”
To talk about the ornamental in a broader sense, in ours (and Morris’s) definition, entails something that isn’t simply—and can never be—an add-on to inflate value. The ornamental is intertwined with work done under conditions that involve rest, agency, and variation.
This leads to one of the most important aspects of this text—the critique of work itself. Or “toil,” as Morris puts it. Technological advancement—Morris was actually an optimist as far as technology goes—could result in shorter working days. But rather, it seems to have compelled us to work even more, leading to burn-outs and climate change! Only to sustain the profit market! It is no longer just our bodies that are exploited for capital (as it was under industrial capitalism), but also our minds, our attention, our mental energy. There’s nothing ornamental inherent in this sort of toil—in Morris’s words, it is “slaves’ work—mere toiling to live, so that we may live to toil.”
The most radical thing to do would be to stop. To collectively stop toiling and consuming, and just rest. We need a good Animal Rest. This is rest in abundance and completely free from anxiety. It can not be achieved on an individual level, it is not a private matter of self-help, wellness, and mindfulness – that’s toiling too. It is the rest that the “beast-like pain,” inherent in all work demands! It’s a collective, radical rest.
Throughout the publication, you draw out words and sentences from William Morris’s text as “proposals” for a feminist design manifesto. Can you share your thoughts behind positioning these propositions in the gutter?
The manifesto propositions are a detail of the MsHeresies project, which, as a series, is a manifesto about design, publishing, and collective work from a feminist perspective. We find propositions and slogans really interesting, but we are not interested in depicting them as timeless and final. It is almost as if the truest slogans are the ones oozing with the most mediocrity. And so we see the manifesto propositions that run through the gutter of the publication as both hidden and highlighted in a sense—they are important, but also interchangeable, negotiable. Plus, we like the idea that you could potentially cut the publication along this gutter and end up with a very oblong and unhandy manifesto book.
The reason why we speak of manifestos at all is because we are interested in figuring out ways of working collectively as feminists and designers. At the same time, we problematize the simplified and absolute aspects of the manifesto form. We see a commodification of activism, which merely constitutes the propagation of easily consumed messages, and it is done with the intention to build identity. A point or statement from a manifesto is perfect for the social media version of activism! Social media as a hotbed for moralism (different from ethics) is something we have come to see more and more as a problem. Moralism focuses on the individual and, consequently, measures who is the best or worst at being woke, feminist, etc. (as opposed to discussing, in broader terms, how to create the conditions for a woke, feminist society on a structural level). This becomes anti-intellectual, as it leaves little room for discussion or questioning.
The more we isolate ourselves by emphasising our differences as individuals, the easier targets we become. This is what our current system does, dividing us into individuals to manage us more easily. Perhaps this is connected to the general belief that we as individuals can consume our way out of everything—even global warming. We speak of climate anxiety, when in reality it should be capitalist anxiety. Gender inequality is also very related; we are troubled by how corporatized and commodified feminism has become. We see these mechanisms as obstructing a collective political change for equality and sustainability. It goes a bit like this: we buy a T-shirt for €12.99 from some high street fashion brand that reads “FEMINIST.” This T-shirt is sewn by a woman in a factory in Bangladesh, where the trash-dumping of that same production pollutes the environment and where the roof is about to cave in. It does not matter how “feminist,” inclusive, or whatever the products or campaigns claim to be—these corporations can only pretend, but will never care for anything but profit. And by making us believe otherwise, late (“woke”) capitalism has killed feminism, in the sense that it seems to have become more about building a bought identity than about politically organizing.
How do you think about the act of republishing and the correlation between past and present?
There’s perhaps not such a clear-cut antagonism between past/present, new/old. We would also be interested in designing, editing, and publishing a text from today. The thing is, there are so many great texts already written that deserve further reading and might serve some unexpected purpose with different contextualization. Moreso, our treatment—the design, editing, and publishing—makes MsHeresies a “new” work as well as a republishing.
As feminist designers we’re quite weary of how patriarchal the writing of history is. An alternative writing and reading of history therefore becomes crucial to any feminist work. It is this history that “has our back,” so to speak. So in bringing our work and our take on a historical text to the forefront, we’re trying to contribute to this alternative history where a looking back becomes a way to look ahead. Past generations have created work with care for future generations. Caring for these past generations is a reminder of this, a worrying for coming generations that feels important in regards to the future difficulties we face today. Morris says it so well, “Memory and imagination help her as she works. Not only her own thoughts, but the thoughts of the people of past ages guide her hands, and, as a part of the human race, she creates.”
In our context there’s a sense that linear “progress” permeates everything. Especially in the fast-paced, youth-obsessed culture we work in. A text written today is old tomorrow—or even in a few seconds—in a busy, scrolling feed. This progress, this speed of things, is connected to consumerism and economic growth, and that goes for texts and images, too! But, in fact, we might even be going backwards—or in circles—as far as feminist “progress” goes.
The central theme of the publication is work—how has reading, discussing, and immersing yourself in thoughts about work shaped your own way of working (and, in this context, living as well?)
It feels like we could give a whole lecture series on our methods, the process of working on this publication, and what it has meant for our collaboration and lives. We definitely go into our work with a singleness of heart: the text we are working on is constantly present in our thoughts and conversations. We develop different ideas in the text, such as words and concepts, and tie them to whatever else it is that we read and see daily. For the last half a year we have been working together for two days a week, and on these days we use a very specific vocabulary as we work. Words and concepts from different texts are merged with made-up technical terms in this vocabulary, and probably sound nonsensical to people from outside. All of which goes into the publications.
Finally, you are using images from your studio environment in this issue: images of stacks of sponges, towels, coffee makers, and drawers. These feel fun and yet quite intimate at the same time. How do you think of these?
Yes, what you see are details from our studio in Amsterdam. Our stuff. Perhaps we wanted to bring some of our intimate reality to the publication, to bring some nuance to what might be read as slightly pompous ideals. It’s a commentary on the “ornamental” in a way, and it’s confessional—we too consume, we are part of this oppression, we speak of rest but worry and work all the time. All the while, we are very fond of our studio and thought it would be fun to bring the place where the publication was made into the publication itself.
The new issue of MsHeresies will be sold largely through distributors in Europe, but also in some cases overseas. It can also be ordered online at womensoffice.nl for €10. This issue of MsHeresies is offset-printed by Drukkerij Raddraaier, Amsterdam in an edition of 500.