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THE STRETCH OF THE CULTURAL WORKER

A dialogue on the international inadequacy of social security systems for hybrid professionalism.

Loise Braganza: Hi Mateo, really nice to meet you online: you in Zurich, myself in Mumbai, India. I just finished a 3-week intensive summer school at AEMS (Alternative Economic and Monetary Systems). Also online, the school taught and introduced me to some very interesting new ideas. I would like to refer to one of the lectures given by Alexandra Strickner, a political economist and a part of the global justice movement. Her work and ideas reminded me of our endeavors at LUDR (l’Union des Refusés), as she spoke about economic democracy and an economy that allows a good life. I find it very interesting that we’re at a moment in time where we’re all searching for alternatives to our current socio-economic cultural systems, don’t you think?

Mateo Chacon Pino: Hey Loise, good to chat with you again! You’ve been working on a questionnaire for LUDR, and I did an enquiry in Switzerland last year into art workers and COVID-19, and the last time we spoke it came up that we share the same issue of defining art workers. Besides the challenge of differences between national economies in terms of us comparing our realities, it also seems that the current economic systems, both globally and locally, fail to adapt to contemporary labour, social and ecological needs.

LB: Yes. For instance, we do not yet have a Universal Basic Income. This is still only just being researched and thought about as a needed, serious policy in developing countries, for example. As a freelancer, costume designer and artist, I would benefit greatly from policies of Universal Basic Income. As art workers, we have to stretch ourselves and position our practices between multiple forms of
employment to support ourselves. In India, no contracts are signed and the fee is defined by whoever holds the money. There is no stability between payments for contractual jobs. There is no baseline minimum fee payment system to adhere to. This also leads to a complexity of positionality in terms of who we are as artists. We are teachers and artists, or artists and care workers, or artists and waiting tables in a restaurant etc. We have to supplement the artist’s life with another profession to financially support the artist’s work. This thereby leads to a dilution of the economic position of the artist, which then inadvertently affects the other aspects of artisthood.

MCP: Also here in Switzerland, artists and art workers need more than one economic leg to provide economic stability. I write and curate mainly, and others work as art handlers or assistants. That is where this dilution happens: is an artist who works as an art handler and who never exhibits, still an artist? Is someone an art worker when their main income is generated through non-artistic labour that feeds into or relates to art? Here we need to think also beyond the economy, and include personal investments. Additionally, the economic realities and cultural policy of our two countries, India and Switzerland, mean different frameworks that inform both artistic practices and labour opportunities: while Switzerland has a larger quantity of governmental art funding and private foundations spending money on art, India has no comparable support system. Swiss and Switzerland-based artists can develop a whole career without ever looking beyond the border – something also visible in the nationalistic and retrograde discourse that we experience here – while internationalism seems inevitable for Indian art workers in order to secure their financial needs.

LB: Yes, this is true. I have started to connect how this all relates to and underlies how we must define the art worker based on our current economic system. I wonder what would happen if we did not have our existing, imbalanced system - how would the artist be?
And then, would the art worker be confined to these definitions of trying to fit within an ingrained and predefined system of the art world, which is based on a power structure of the economy, galleries and art markets? The pressure to exhibit or to make art that is validated by the art market is perhaps one of the deeper causes of the problem. From my position as a costume designer and an
artist, I also struggle within the confines of a pre-decided creative system that is defined by the ideas that the fashion industry sells. This is exactly why I do not define myself as a fashion designer or costume designer: because I do not make work that can be commercially sold in a shop. However, I realize that the artist is also commercially driven. And so with the LUDR we have formed a union, to try to find ways to address this exact issue of this imbalance; of where this gap lies. What exactly is this gap, and how do we address it?

MCP: Yes, this contradiction between the liberal promise that every subject may do as it pleases, and the economic realities that enforce informal artistic rules, is completely dissonant.

LB: Yes, I agree. I think many of us struggle with the same issues, which is where I find commonality with the art worker. I think that we as art workers have somehow failed to address this issue, or have ignored it for a very long time. At the same time, it is a problem that needs to be addressed from different angles. To apply ideas of a democratic economy, the focus should be about bringing together art workers to rethink how an art worker should live a good life. This, instead of being condemned for the choice of being an artist, be it as a curator, transdisciplinary artist, visual artist, costume artist, sculptor or art researcher.

MCP: So, the question is rather one of which economic system is able to provide the means for these artistic existences, without exploiting what is left of the world. The UBI and localised economies give one proposal while also considering personal necessities, be it related to health or reproduction. However, they also imply an adaptation of artistic practices: UBI also means financial limits and thus a limit to the size of artistic projects. What I mean is that any economic system other than the current one will also impose rules and limits, while maybe less violently or maybe more defined, and they should be discussed as tools for forming the world that we imagine. For that reason alone, it becomes imperative that we organise ourselves and also insist on the fluidity of our work.

LB: Yes, Alexandra Strickner mentions that a democratic economy is by and for the people, aiming to meet the essential needs of all while balancing human consumption with the regenerative capacity of Mother Earth. In her book The Making Of A Democratic Economy, Marjorie Kelly outlines seven principles of a democratic economy: Principles of Community, Inclusion, Place (keeping wealth local), Good Work (putting labour before capital), Democratized Ownership, Ethical Finance and Sustainability. I think these can perhaps
connect to the plight of the art worker. We need to include and frame aspects of the art worker from and through community, economy, good work and sustainability, moving beyond the art worker’s practice and thinking about these other co-relating aspects that perhaps confine the artist. When we limit the art worker to just the practice, we forget about all the other ill-defined existences in which the art worker is involved.

MCP: So, those other existences of the art worker that you mention are overdriven by our current liberal model of internationalism, while the locality that Strickner mentions seems to promise to weigh those aspects of (art) workers more, right? That circles back, too, to your question above of what an art worker may be and what their practice would look like in our imagined world. It certainly wouldn’t adhere to the plain ideas of a genius.

LB: Yes. Now we are overdriven mainly by a pre-existing power structure that is determined by money, and what sells and what
does not sell in the art market. This therefore defines a successful artist, and the artist that is not. Defining then who the artist is, and who is not. However, if the art worker could set the terms and conditions from the bottom-up, this would allow for empowerment and less control over who gets to define who an artist is, and relieve the idea of a successful artist as determined by institutions, art fairs and powerful art buyers. All artists need space to create and think through their practice, but somehow the pressure to create for money restricts the creative process. I am not thinking here about those that perhaps might abuse the notion of ‘the artist’. Rather, I am thinking of ‘the art worker’. And so a union makes sense for me, a first step towards bringing together art workers to start the
process of (re)thinking: What do we need? What are the gaps? Where are the struggles? Laying it down, and breaking it up. The art worker therefore begins to take back control of the system, by defining. We get to decide by ourselves what we need, what we can
do and what needs to change, how to change.

MCP: One big difference is that we do not talk about artists but about art workers. Only one who sells, exhibits, and lives from it is an artist. But one who depends on existing differently, economically speaking, is only partially an artist, at best. What changes when we focus instead on the other aspects a person might have? What if we could be mothers, brothers, lovers, daughters, friends, allies, carpenters, educators, cooks, and so on, that happen to make art too? I have recently been thinking about the power of non-professional artistic practice in world-building: the narratives that are told through the works of people who do art because they need to for themselves. By no means do I think through the terms of naïve or outsider art – they only judge in comparison to our current art world – but rather in terms of art being nested within someone’s necessities, or even a community. Maybe this is even a practice that is
more responsive to those local realities. So, what if we can do art without being artists or curators or writers as our primary identity?

LB: Absolutely, I agree with you. I think there is a need, however, to be validated and recognized for our output. If that validation is external, as in from the world, or even if it is intrinsic, there is a need for validation. Irrespective of the art market, however, we still need to formalize ourselves and find common ground to bring about a good life for those persons struggling with having time to make or have an artistic voice. I, for one, am tired of the validation bestowed on artists by the art critic. I would like to read about
other aspects of the artist, not only their exhibition and installation in the gallery. Perhaps that would be an interesting read, now that I think about it… What I also found interesting in what came out from the AEMS school is how there seems to be a parallel between who the economist is and who the artist is, both qualitatively and from an ontological perspective. I had always thought that the economist’s profession is defined by monetary systems, until I was told that certain economists follow other theories that do not necessarily involve the monetary system. This I relate back to the artist and art worker. We can no longer clearly define who the artist is, accepting
that there are many ideas of the artist and what they do and who they are. Today, everything has now become cross-disciplinary and interlinked, and we have gone beyond the global to hyper-global. Our current crises have to be looked at through many different lenses and disciplines for us to address them. This is also the complexity of the artist, who remains at the height of all professions.

MCP: Being an artist usually means being professionally international, as it is implied by the current economic system; hence, we might want to turn towards more localised forms of recognition to counter the hegemonic enforcement of contemporary art as a non-engaged
aesthetic form. I firmly believe that more local artistic practices can engage with the needs of a community, and become critically stronger than what we currently exhibit in shielded spaces such as white cube galleries and institutions.

LB: Yes, I absolutely agree. And while we bring forth art spaces outside the white cube and institutions, we can bring forth more solidarity towards these art practices as a union. This is where we can strengthen these local artistic practices as a bottom-up approach of the art worker defining their own terms of artistic practice. Simultaneously solidifying these terms as examples that work towards a larger goal of bringing about better working conditions, payment stability, decent living conditions, ideas and solutions and contractual
advice or, let’s say, networking opportunities. To build more local artistic practices that do not need to be defined by the art critic, let’s say.

 

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