Notions of Expenditure: An investigation of scale, numbers, and effects

Laurie Palmer

The upstairs cardio gallery at the gym pulses with the inaudible vibrations of competing headset tunes combined with Fox news and the frenetic energies of 40 bodies pumping up and down on machines. We are working, in a way that used to signify labor, but generating nothing for our work. Each of us may be healthier, but collectively all that energy goes to waste, in fact we are probably drawing more energy to create resistance, an artificial hill, or the little red letters telling us how many calories we have burned in an obsessive/compulsive calculation of bodily expenditure.

In the meantime, the Bush administration is committing egregious acts of violence and injustice too numerous and invidious to list—with the war on Iraq only the most immediately devastating—in order to profit from perceived scarcities of energy.

How do we draw relationships between the one and the many? In this case, between one person’s little cache of body power, and the enormous numbers that quantify our collective energy consumption? Or between our personal cache and the indirect effects of feeding that collective demand for energy, such as the amounts of money spent to wage war in Iraq? (By biking for one hour I might be able to generate enough energy to light one bulb, worth tenths of a cent off my utility bill; the U.S. is currently spending 5 million dollars every hour in Iraq.) My decision to make a call for proposals to redesign exercise equipment to generate energy comes from an interest in investigating some of the contradictions we live with, here, in the belly of the empire—padded and protected, at the seemingly calm center of the problem storm —and to register the results of that investigation at a level we can feel, our bodies sweating. It comes from awareness that effective responses won’t come from individual but collective action, but that that collective action is composed of individuals. It also comes from an idea for public art that engages as many people’s creative forces as are interested and willing to contribute, looking for approaches, analyses, and solutions uninhibited by lack of expertise. On a practical level, this project solicits proposals to convert power from exercise to a useful secondary purpose, to divert it to a collective power storage and distribution system, and/or to redesign gyms as power-generating hubs that could be linked in a massive power network. On a conceptual level, it also solicits designs that draw connections between bodily expenditure and energy consumption in the current context of global environmental devastation and the US war in Iraq. It is intended to seek working solutions as well as to draw attention to everyday energy use, and the links between daily practices and larger social and political events and policies—in a way that we can feel, palpably, in our bodies.
(For more information on the call for proposals, please see:

There is obvious irony in the leisure class paying for the privilege to do physical work that had at other times been accomplished by involuntary laborers. Slaves, epileptics, prisoners, women, children and laborers in the mines all have been forced to generate energy through their bodily exertion, labor that was at least in part meant to remind them of their subjugated status. That some of us do the same work voluntarily now, and pay for the pleasure, seems to epitomize the Foucauldian internalization of disciplinary control. Has the external authority of the warden at Bellevue prison in 1822 that forced prisoners to step on a treadmill for ten hours a day been transferred to our internalized, individualized warden insisting that we pump a little faster for a little longer on the ellipticals?

A small book (James Hardie, The History of the Treadmill, 1824), written by a self-avowed former drunk who found god, quit ardent spirits and took a job as gatekeeper in the prison adjacent to the almshouse where the ardent spirits had led him, outlines the many advantages of the treadmill at Bellevue: no skill is required to work it (women are as useful as men because it is only the weight of the prisoner that pushes the wheel); prisoners can’t neglect their task because all must work equally and synchronize their steps (8 or 10 on the wheel at one time); the power it generates can grind grain to offset the cost of providing food for the prisoners; it is constant and sufficiently severe—but, "its monotonous steadiness, not its severity, breaks down the obstinate criminal spirit." Hardie also points out that the architecture of this mill is such that if the supply of grain were to run out, the prisoners wouldn’t know it, so they could still be employed in hard labor even if nothing was produced. Hardie’s emphasis on this important detail underscores the fact that the prison treadmill was not simply an economic but of course an ideological machine—intended, as he states repeatedly, to reform moral character (docile, cowed, exhausted...)

Jeremy Bentham’s famous Panopticon (1787) envisioned an economically self-sufficient prison on the model of a slave labor camp that supported itself through internal factories worked by the inmates. Those inmates included children; the factories would be powered by mechanisms attached to the children’s seesaws, swings, and merry-go-rounds, translating play into work. Engineers in the remarkable village of Gaviotas, Colombia, designed in the 1970s a children’s seesaw that pumps water, and a recent invention in 2003 by Raj Pandian, engineer at Tulane University, transforms the energy from children’s seesaws, swings, and merry-go-rounds into electricity. Both the Gaviotas version and Pandian’s project were intended to contribute a partial solution to affordable and sustainable energy in places that had little or no industrialized production so far, and where consumption was on a much different scale than that of the US today. Gaviotas’ and Pandian’s humanitarian inventions come from a do-it-yourself approach altogether different than Bentham’s top-down utilitarianism, though all of them attempt to translate play into work.

The Notions initiative, which seeks to translate a kind of adult "play" into electric power, shares a similar structure but not quite, as working out for some adults is truly hard work, and not especially fun. In any event, the monotonous repetition that was considered worse than pain but useful for squashing the spirit of resistance is now at least tolerated for the sake of other individualized priorities, like health, beauty, energy, vanity, an opportunity for flirtation, or simply offsetting boredom. "Notions of Expenditure" acknowledges a cultural moment when individual interests are elevated above the collective. Why not parasitize those voluntary expenditures to (if indirectly) build a collective resource?

Maybe the question is not why not, but could it be effective? Membership in health clubs in the US reached 36 million in 2002. In his essay on the history of the treadmill, biologist Steven Vogel estimates an average healthy male body can sustain production of about 100 watts/hr (enough to light a single bulb) over an eight hour day of treadmill labor. Shorter bursts of activity can of course generate higher numbers. But working with just this lazy figure as an average, and the 2002 health club membership, if each of 36 million members worked out one day a week, for one hour, at 100 watts/hour, we could produce (by my rough estimates) enough energy to supply two U.S. citizen’s average yearly energy consumption, which is about 1 million kilowatt hours per year each. (Though this figure doesn’t come close to an individual’s share of the country’s total, which is 3.602 trillion kilowatt hours per year, if you include non-personal expenditures, such as industry). Double or triple those production numbers by members working out two or three times per week and we supply four or six persons’ yearly consumption. The U.S. population now stands at 293 million.

These are not exactly inspiring figures, but I don’t really trust the numbers. It’s not just that I don’t trust my math, or statistics borrowed from various websites, but more importantly I don’t trust the power of numbers as the end limit of sense, as the reason to do something or not. Part of what can happen with large numbers as well as with complex systems with multiple variables, as we know from chaos theory, is auto-poiesis, the forming of unexpected patterns with their own unpredictable effects. 36 million people on exercise machines conscious of the fact that they are generating energy creates a different situation than 36 million people not thinking at all about the energy they are burning. More realistically, thirty people thinking about and working out designs concerning a crucial question of scale—how the enormous quantities of energy we consume (and therefore have to find a way to produce) might be brought into relation to the body’s felt expenditures, or, more abstractly how the one relates to the many—creates thirty new potential situations, each with their own unpredictable effects.

I am writing about a project that is still just an idea, and will mostly remain an idea, and what is called for in this issue of Journal of Aesthetics and Protest are concrete examples of real effects, as well as methodologies to accomplish change. I am also looking for this, especially now, in the realm of activism, but I am also always looking, in the realm where art and politics meet, for methodologies that insist on remaining responsive, invitational, open-ended, and in a sense, inconclusive.

Bentham’s utiliarianism haunts the Notions project and insures an echoey ambivalence inside it. Nothing I write about or for the project is quite in earnest. This is partly because there is so little promise of actual return, numerically speaking, next to what is claimed to be at stake. The puny oomph of each of us next to the enormous quantities and costs of our ongoing consumption, and its implications, seems ridiculous. But I also wonder about the logic of this harvesting and the quantifying of the harvesting—how it fits so conveniently into the calculations of calories and watts already measured and expressed on many machines, how the machines have already been designed to mete from us measurements of our worth in mini-increments, not to be applied to solve the inequitable distribution of resources around the world, but to keep us focused short-sightedly on those little red letters, or perhaps (and maybe worse) to power the TV.

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