Part Three. Precarious.

Precarity is a “structure of affect”, according to Judith Butler. She uses the concept of precarity, precariousness and precaritization to talk about how life is arranged and valued in neoliberal society. In “For And Against Precarity” Butler speaks of precarity on different levels, and using the word in different registers. She describes that populations are

“increasingly subject to what is called “precaritization” this process – usually induced and reproduced by governmental and economic institutions that acclimatize populations over time to insecurity and hopelessness. This important process of precaritization has to be supplemented by an understanding of precarity as a structure of affect. And a heightened sense of expendability or disposability that is differentially distributed throughout society.”1


This term is nested within larger ontological questions of finitude and the ultimate precariousness of life. Precarity is positioned as being fundamentally concerned with politics and is the aim and effect of ‘neoliberal forms of social and economic life’2.


The affect of precarity, that of “uncertainty and instability”, is addressed, according to Sarah Sze, by all of her pieces. However, she distinguishes that only some of them are able to “actively perform those ideas.” Some pieces, she claims “in their very existence, they play around with the idea of trying to embody concepts physically”3. Seamless is one of those pieces, and brings together mass-produced items from neoliberal late industrial capitalism that can be seen to perform some of the dynamics present in the value systems they are attatched to. Not only is the stability that comes with a centered viewing experience disrupted by the layout of the piece, Sze fragments this further with an ongoing negotiation between the individual viewer and the objects of viewing because of the unceasing array of forms and materials that distract and block their gaze. This creates an experience akin to the instability of the contemporary moment, where we cannot focus on one element at a time and our veiw is unceasingly obscured by distractions in the way.


One of the criterea Sze uses for curating the items in her pallette is those that have “a throwaway quality, so valueless that it doesn’t have meaning” and arranges them in “proximity that it seems that it has a lot of value by the way we approach it”4

An attention to proximity in relation to the construct of value is theorised by Butler as a significant way in which some lives are more ‘grievable’ than others, which casts a disturbing light on the relational aesthetics in this piece5. Additionally, phenomenon of disposability is not contained in an object, as the social and economic relations that have created their existence also have rendered whole populations with a perceived valuelessness. The disposability of the items captures the disposability of the workforce that is organised within an incoherent system that the complexities and contradictions in Seamless helps us understand.


There is also a palpable existential precarity of life, that is captured in a transitional state, as if caught between growing and dying.

Sze explains that she stages her work to teeter at a point, “where you imagine its creation and destruction. At a point where you don’t know which way it is going to go. There are materials that plan that. Ones that will talk about construction and ones that will inevitably erode. Like a ladder and a live plant. So, we imagine a fragile ecosystem that is both in development and demise.6

These tensions conspire to produce a sense of precariousness, which may go some way to acknowledge a mutual corporeal vulnerability. Butler proposes this shared state as a crucial basis for a new interdependent global political community7. Understanding life as precarious, she says, “suggests that social existence itself depends on interdependency through the care of others. When these systems of care and support are fragmented by the uneven impacts of capitalism and global forms of racism and exploitation, precarity emerges as an acute expression of precariousness”8.

















Tadashi Kawmata, Sydney Big Nest, 2017


Critics claim that the habitats in Kawamata works engage in a process that puts attention onto the kinds of environments we make for ourselves”9. In Sydney Big Nest (2017) the precarious positioning of this nest offers an impossible shelter, without any access provided. The habitats and also the environmental concerns of Kawamata recognises the dependence we have on the environment sustaining our follies. Butler emphasizes the fact that we depend on each other, and on the environment, and on technology, and on institutions, and encourages us to not let these relations of dependence be relations of exploitation10. In how we inhabit the architecture around us, our bodies can either be nurtured or sustained, or put in danger or discomfort.


1Judith Butler, “For and Against Precarity” accessed 10 September 2019.

2Jennifer Shaw and Darren Byler, “Precarity”

3Louise Neri, “Sarah Sze: Infinite Generation”, Gagosian Quarterly (2019)

4Sarah Sze The Meaning Between Things, directed by Per Henriksen.

51/7, Judith Butler: ‘Precarious Life: The Obligations of Proximity. Nobel Prize Museum. Posted 27 May 2011,

6Sarah Sze The Meaning Between Things, directed by Per Henriksen.

7Holly Brown, “Judith Butler in Belgium: Reflections on Public Grief and Precarity in the Wake of the Paris Attacks”, DiGeSt. Journal of Diversity and Gender Studies 3, 1 (2016): 7-16.

8Jennifer Shaw and Darren Byler, “Precarity”.

9“Tadashi Kawamata, Nest.” Kamel Mennour.

10Judith Butler, “For and Against Precarity”.