Work HarderBetterFasterStronger

by Ilana Novick

Were he around in 2015, Karl Marx might say that productivity, rather than religion, is the opiate of the masses. That was my first thought on seeing artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s mural How to Work Better, currently on view at the corner of Houston and Mott Streets, sponsored by the Public Art Fund. You can’t open a web browser without being bombarded by lists of so-called life hacks. Effectiveness and efficiency are our new commandments; the gospel written by productivity gurus like Tim “Four Hour Workweek” Ferris. How to Work Better may be 30 years old, but it feels tailored for right now. 

The numbered, ten-point list is printed simply and starkly in dark blue, slightly irregularly shaped capital letters against a white background. The buildings around it are in shades of what I think of as 19th Century Tenement Grey/Brown, against which the white background is even brighter. The list includes advice like “Do One Thing at a Time,” “Learn to Distinguish Sense from Nonsense,” and “Ask Questions.” It’s so simple, but instead of courting cliché, it feels downright revolutionary in our multitasking times. 

Fischli and Weiss originally found the list on the bulletin board of a Thai factory. The original sign was hand-lettered. Its public debut was on the side of an office building in Zurich in 1991, and it’s since appeared on postcards and books, among other forms, before coming to New York. According to the Public Art Fund’s website, the artists created stencils of the original typeface from a photograph they took of the original list, to keep the irregular style. 

In addition to this (free) public work, Fischli and Weiss have an exhibit at the Guggenheim. That might make them unlikely candidates to appear on a site devoted to underground art. How to Work Better certainly isn’t underground because the makers are undiscovered, but because the piece is both art and manifesto in disguise, hiding in plain sight on Houston Street. 

How to Work Better is on view through May 1, 2016. For more information, visit publicartfund.org.