THINKING CITIZENSHIP, ACTING TOWARDS DECENTRALIZED GRASSROOTS GOVERNANCE
Spaces of action in Berlin and beyond.
Why is it so hard to communicate in Berlin?
Berlin has been a divided city, and still is a divided city. Berlin is multilayered. Multilingual.
Berlin is extreme. A city of extremely concentrated cultural wealth, and extreme poverty.
But it is not only Berlin: we see a precarization of life everywhere in the world, and this economic and social devastation is more and more visible, as you see today more and more people sleeping on the streets. The deregulation of financial markets and the public funding of their speculative operations by cheap money, has led to such a global rise in rents that today it is not only artists, but even galleries who can no longer afford the inner cities.
The ecosystem of the arts has lost its source of innovation, which has always been based on the constructive confrontation between the opportunities within economic wealth and the wealth of imagination.
So, three years ago, Alina Kolar, Paul Sochacki and I created a tool for productive conversations between arts and politics, between the rich and the poor, between fiction and reality. Not by charity, but by a much more sustainable device: economy. That means, dignifying work opportunities and sustainable investments.
It is called Arts of the Working Class.
What you are holding in your hands comes out every two months, with contributions from artists, academics and activists from around the world, published in multiple languages, writing about and through artistic practice about what brings us together as a global society. Every issue is a polyphonic assembly fed by the wealth of imaginative thinking worldwide.
It contains no superficial illustrations, no bullshit, and it is given for free to anyone who would like to sell it. Vendors keep 100% of the revenues, there is no registration needed, you just come to one of our pick up points in Berlin, London or LA, take as much as you want, and go earning. How is it financed? By curated advertisement and media partnerships. Like for the most recent issue, with the German Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennial, Savvy Contemporary, Superrr Lab and Berlin Questions.
What vendors get is a product that people like to buy, not because of benevolence, but because they want to read it. Also because it looks extremely good. What clients and partners get is a place in a gathering of interesting and challenging perspectives and positions, creating awareness for the role and relevance of their work not only within the art world, but in wider society.
What we get, as Arts of the Working Class, is the most inspiring and rewarding workplace that we could have built for ourselves and others. And from the very beginning, we made it a priority that everyone contributing is being paid.
You might wonder what it means to squat-slash-occupy the historically loaded term of the Working Class.
We have faced criticism for playing with it all too lavishly and ironically, and for aestheticizing historical, painful, deadly gaps and struggles for the mere taste of today’s hedonistic escapism. But, to be honest with ourselves, the term Working Class was already hijacked long ago, and there is an urgency for revisiting the problems of those for whom it can stand.
So let me tell you a little bit about us. Paul Sochacki, sensitive mind and artist with migrant parents from Poland. Having endured structural racism in Germany since his early childhood, he deals with the mechanisms of discrimination and power depravation of people in his paintings.
Alina Kolar, daughter of a Union organizer in Graz, granddaughter of Slovenian migrants in Austria, experienced the same caravane of underpaid freelance gigs as an art historian, as a curator, as an art critic, as a gallery assistant. Crossing the invisible borders of labyrinth without escape, the so-called art world, just like thousands of others, just like I did.
Being from Ecuador, both my father’s and my mother’s families have experienced what it means to lose everything that generations have built up before. This might contribute to me always giving and asking maybe a little bit too much when it comes to justice in organizing and sharing common goods.
Without the security of German citizenship and the privilege of being offered German grants, we cannot afford a comfortable, moralizing outside gaze, and we also are not interested in offering comfortable seats in this global spectacle of morals.
Arts of the Working Class offers joy in communally navigating the actual contradictions of the actual economies we are working in. We offer to consider aesthetic and intellectual refinement not as something to oppose, but as something to be shared and spread with everyone. We offer to organize the actual redistribution of dignity and wealth on a peer-to-peer level. Mutual respect.
If we consider the working class as everyone earning less than the average income - in Germany, €3.975 before tax monthly - it’s massive. We are a part of it, and many of you are as well. Arts of the Working Class is called Arts of the Working Class because it counters the invisibilization of class struggle by culture, which contributes to its joyful escalation. Arts of the Working Class is out there to be distributed not only in Berlin, but in all the streets in the world.
Today, the concept of diversity is defined from the center. Those who have the power say what it is to be diverse, and formulate where and how those occupying marginal positions should deal with themselves.
With AWC, we’re currently rehearsing a different model of governance in an effort to redefine union work through a decentralised, peer-to-peer model of care. The devastation of the pandemic enhanced the urgency for thinking further about global governance from the perspective of the experience and dignity of every single citizen of the world. So, in 2020, Alina, Paul and I founded the Union des Refusés, named after the Salon des Refusés founded in imperial Paris in the early 19th century to house all artists too progressive for the taste of the court. The Union des Refusés calls for all art workers, from guards and cleaners up to museum directors and successful gallerists, to rethink their working relations and their relations with society as a whole and to develop more sustainable models of care for the shared aesthetic and intellectual infrastructure.
I quote from our call in November 2020:
Long enough have artists, curators, academics of the arts fields assumed a special moral authority, legitimized by their relative independence from concrete economic, political, and religious constraints. That independence reveals itself as an illusion today. All museums are closed and all museum workers are on furlough the moment the institution can’t sell tickets. Art critics lose their positions in national newspapers, the niche is celebrated as the last bastion of safety, of aesthetic and discursive exchange. That’s a poverty trap right there. One that has brought many into the programmed obsolescence of capitalist trends making freelance work even considerable. So, we call you, dear all, to consider this time to redistribute the wealth that has been deprived from art workers for too long.
In contrast to the centralized model of union work, which has led to a disintegration of working class interests into a competition between many individual fights for an often-symbolic appreciation, the Union des Refusés explores a decentralized grassroots model that goes back to workers’ self-education circles in the 19th and early 20th century, where a working struggle still meant taking the freedom to think of the whole as based on individual experience.
Instead of carrying protest signs through the streets, L’Union des Refusés so far meets in darkness, away from spectacularization and representation, in personal relations of radical intimacy.
It implements a method for community building that was introduced by hospital and care workers within Solidarity Clinics in Greece, in places where the impoverished state had left a vacuum.
This method, The Hologram, groups four people together who meet regularly to understand and discuss each other’s personal and professional concerns and needs. Everyone serves as each other’s coach and therapist, learning less from institutionalized methodologies and more from each other. This means that there’s nobody occupying a place of power through hierarchies of knowledge.
In its change of perspective from state supervision to interpersonal, mutual learning, The Hologram proves an incredibly productive methodology for escaping superimposed routines of how to organize and grow an actual class consciousness, with a lively exchange between theory and everyday struggle. It is a model that can be taken up by any organisation genuinely interested in learning from its members and in improving its ways of working. It’s also an inspiring model for rethinking global citizenship, starting from the viewpoint and the measure of each human being.
Questions that we face with our holographic groups are:
Is this possible without experts?
Is this possible without a physical space?
Is this possible without money?
Is this possible without stability?
Is this possible when we are all a little sick?
Is this possible when we have been taught that we can only trust experts?
Is this possible when we don’t even trust ourselves?
L’Union des Refusés meets every 21st of the month, and you are all invited. For a union for art workers, citizenship and decentralized grassroots governance. Art allows small openings and ways out of hegemony. Ways out from the passivity in which citizenship is today confined, in a technocratic world.
So let us have a look at the current issue of AWC, which just got into my hands yesterday night.
For over a year now, the German Pavilion’s futurist vision, 2038 – The New Serenity, has meticulously drafted a story between fact and fiction. In a series of films, it tells multiple stories of a near future where things have turned out well.
It’s been a challenging pleasure to edit these contributions, together with the visionary precision of Olaf Grawert, Angelika Hinterbrandner, Christoph Roth and Manuel Bürger. As with most of the time, we actually have two covers. The other features the New Now, pleading for a commonization of architecture.
I am happy to sit here today among city representatives. I take this humbling opportunity to talk not only about the power that we need to challenge the status quo, but also about the vulnerability that we need to acknowledge, to survive capitalism. Vulnerability is what carries this issue on the streets today.
Vulnerability, in its beauty and potentiality, and mostly when trading cultural and economic values for aesthetic and social ones, invites us to look for alternatives to the exploitative models of labor within the cultural realm. To give the most vulnerable in society the opportunity to engage in that fundamental, collective practice of imagining a future where cities can be governed by citizens’ initiatives, and where citizenship is granted to everyone who lives, anywhere.
The wealth that Arts of the Working Class offers grows from vulnerability. Homeless people offering an avant-garde magazine called Arts of the Working Class is not only a means of redistributing the wealth accumulated by underpaid creative labor and concentrated in institutions. It is also an open question passed over to everyone: how do I, as a citizen using the publicly maintained and privately exploited streets, relate to and within the dichotomy of poverty and privilege, of dignity and invisibility?
If you would like to work together and see Arts of the Working Class circulating on the streets and reflecting on the poverty in your city, here’s our email.
This speech was held in the frame of Berlin Questions 2021 - Metropolis: The New Now