28-30 March 2017
ASCA Workshop 2017, organized by Laura Vermeeren, Rowan Parry, Wang Shuaishuai
 
There is an inherent negative ring to the world useless. For a person or object to be useless, means it does not serve its intended, or any other, purpose. In becoming useless, purpose is lost. When something turns out to be useless, it has failed intrinsically. The inherent negativity of uselessness is directly linked to a supposed obligation for everything and everyone to be useful, at all times, everywhere.
As much as anyone feels useful at a given time, it is a precarious state that can disappear any moment. A day that was intended to be useful might turn out to be unproductive, wasted, useless, followed by shame, guilt and remorse. On a more fundamental level you might wake up one day and realize that machines more efficiently execute your craft and your labour is no longer required.
Unrealizable demands for economic utility, desires for social recognition, and quests for spiritual meaning, haunt us, and it appears that feelings of uselessness are an inevitable aspect of contemporary life.                                                                                                                              
This inherent inevitability of uselessness requires us to reconsider our understanding of uselessness in the contemporary world. As the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi noted some 2300 years ago, seemingly useless things contain hidden qualities, and the useless can simultaneously be useful. This philosophy has seen endless reincarnations in making the useless useful, like; recycling, freeganism, “get back to work” projects for the unemployed, making art from trash etc. But at the same time there are also movements countering the idea that things must be useful at all; conspicuous consumption, idle living, refusal of work, art for art’s sake.
In this workshop we seek to interrogate the notion of uselessness in culture, politics and aesthetics both empirically and theoretically through four broad interconnected themes; the everyday, space, the body and objects. By approaching uselessness through these four themes, we zoom in on the four main factors that create utility, take it away again, and are at the receiving end of being classified as useless.
Potential topics could include, but are not limited to:
The Everyday
How can we complicate notions of useless hobbies, obsessive collecting or hoarding, and conspicuous consumption? What to make of the phenomenon of bullshit jobs? Why do counter cultures embrace ideas like slowness, idle living, and what do they do to our understanding of being useful? What does it mean to waste time online? How do seemingly useless digital activities like watching cat videos or playing Pokémon Go shape and give purpose to our lives?
Spaces
What makes a space useless? What to makes of a space that stores useless objects like a rubbish dump or an attic full of unused stuff? Can being in a certain space render one useless? What do refugee camps, prisons or holiday parks do to our conception of being useful? Recent programs of rewilding all over the world are counteracting former modifications of landscapes driven by the urge to make nature serve human needs. Can we perceive of initiatives like this as an impetus for a paradigm shift in the way we think about empty spaces and their utility?
The Body
What purpose do the bodies of the millions of people who work behind desks serve? What is the emergence of Artificial Intelligence doing to our understanding of what it means to be useful? How do gyms, fitness routines, and paradigms of healthy living alter or reinforce our views on the useful body? What purpose does a healthy body serve? What happens to our body when we become one with the Internet? What role does uselessness play in narratives surrounding suicide? What does it mean to be useful through the act of dying, martyrdom or giving oneself to a cause? Can we continue to be useful or useless after death?
Objects
Trash? Rubbish? Garbage? How are innovation and the inexorable drive for newness rendering all kinds of objects like computers, cd’s, mobile phones, clothes, furniture, etc. useless at an astonishing speed? What are the consequences of rendering objects useless? Why do people try and make useless things useful again in the knowledge that that chair or piece of art made out of trash will still end up in the trash one day? What to make of the creation of purposefully useless objects?
We invite scholars from all disciplines to present papers related to the topic of uselessness. If you are interested in presenting at the workshop, please send an abstract (max. 300 words) and a short bio to l.vermeeren@uva.nl (with cc to asca-fgw@uva.nl). Artists, inventors and musicians who would like to give non-academic presentations or performances are also encouraged to submit their ideas (max. 300 words) and a short bio to l.vermeeren@uva.nl(with cc to asca-fgw@uva.nl). The deadline for submissions of proposals is 21 October 2016. Accepted papers will be circulated before the workshop and will have to be submitted by 15 January 2017.