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On emotions, currencies, hierarchies and how to trace power through a global organization for art workers called "L'Union des Refusés"

  • Dec 29 2020
  • Lila Athanasiadou, Mateo Chacón Pino, Luiza Crosman, María Inés Plaza Lazo
    The contributions were written in collaboration with The School of Commons (SoC), a community-based initiative dedicated to the study and development of decentered knowledge, located at the Zurich University of Arts. Promoting a broad, integrative understanding of knowledge, the SoC focus on matters of organization surrounding the production and mediation of knowledge.

    Lila Athanasiadou is currently based in Rotterdam, Mateo Chacón Pino in Zurich, Luiza Crosman in Sao Paulo, María Inés Plaza Lazo in Berlin.


Arts of the Working Class' first workshops around the art workers commons were powered in November 2020 by the Akademie der Künste der Welt in Cologne and the Lothringer13 Kunstverein in Munich. A heterogeneous group of people from around the world came together, some of them carrying questions on labor justice, curiosity, frustrations, elan of change.

We got the chance to reflect on transnational, interdisciplinary and pan-generational matters, looking for what can unite us, as we are all driven by the imperative of taking the arts out of its commodified nature, looming in its hyper-capitalist cage. 

“Ghosts, Traces, Echoes: Working in Shifts” is the frame of the first three sessions, where Eva Bush and Madhusree Dutta bring together legacies of female workers protests of the region, in a palimpsest of learning from the struggles of the working classes of the past (see p. 64). Clara Napp and Jakub Wandzioch made all the technical and logical frames easy for every participant; a very generous role to take. In Munich, Lisa Britzger and Luzi Gross staged the second session of the Union’s encounters in the frame of “Over 13”, a self-reflexive exhibition-in-progress that looks into improving working conditions for members of the Kunstverein, asking themselves when a space turns into an art space.



We embarked on a three-day endeavour discussing the needs, struggles and viability of a possible “Union de Refuses” that rethinks and organizes around artistic labour with all its nuances, oxymorons and contradictions. On November 21, I virtually attended the second session on Emotions guided by Loren Britton and Jonas Staal that centred around strategies to account for emotional labour, undoing oppression and establishing networks of mutual care. 

Loren Britton’s presentation read as an intimate correspondence with their long-term collaborator Helen Pritchard. Urging to pay attention to the New Normal of fast, technologized, solution-driven decisions that our crisis assumed, they reflected on the urgency of their collective practice of challenging CS (Computer Science) through slowing things down and sitting with “not knowing”, echoing the discussions of the previous day on unlearning our conditioned desires. Challenging CS is creating new access riders and multiplying points of contact by carving out spaces, occupying, hijacking CS in all its manifestations:

“Computer Science”, “Chance and Scandal”, “Committed Survival”, “Care and Shelter”, “Chocolate and Strawberries”, “Cushions and Support”. 

Jonas Staal followed with a presentation of work that functions as “organizational art practice”: collective lawsuits, intimate assemblies, provisional unions, and re-iterations of ad hoc parliaments practicing and expanding democracy echoing Britton’s suggestion of “practicing a space of the possible”.  Staal aspires to an internationalist intimacy, inheriting efforts of practices of redistributing power and wealth, seeking bonds that are not based on direct proximity and individual preference but on empathy and a solidarity that only forms when people struggle intimately and infrastructurally. 

Both Britton and Staal have different approaches when it comes to collectivizing, each with their own questions and frameworks of rethinking care and accountability. Staal was very deliberate about composing the missing public. Through the work he reaches out to groups, activists, educators, legislators, organizations, collectivities that do not normally get a seat on the decision table, allowing them possibilities to organize together and have a voice that becomes -even temporarily- public. Loren, on the other hand, proposed indeterminacy as a model for extending hospitality to the not-yet-known and a way to allow for knowledge to emerge outside of what is readily nameable. In many ways, both frameworks of accounting for care and composing the “we” are important within a “Union de Refusés”. 

Naming the public that we consciously know is absent and putting work into creating the space and the infrastructure to actively include them, is an active step towards challenging existing normalized structures of oppression. Additionally, allowing a union to take up undetermined scales and formats, allows the participants to define their own conditions of access and use. It takes up space and creates structures but remains open to a form and a public not yet determined.  

Reflecting on structures of knowledge in relation to indeterminacy, allows us to challenge hierarchies as performed within pedagogical practices. Prioritizing access and embracing unknowability, is questioning assumptions about language, context, culture, cannons, histories, worldmaking. Indeterminacy confronts dialectical traditions and levels the field, embracing the risk of not knowing.  Then to repeat the question posed to everyone in the discussion:  

“How to organize and with whom?”

Organizing on the premise of affirming differences and allowing for contradictions and paradoxes. Organizing through discipline, joy and intention and kinds of knowledge that are less apparent. Organizing with people who share egalitarian politics. Organizing with whoever wants to be present in whatever way they can. Organizing with each other based on infrastructural struggles but also on the level of organizational kinship and solidarity. Organizing in the form of a school, sharing knowledge, resources, labour and time, forming tentative practices of consent that is desperately missing out from our relations to economy, allowing us, perhaps to rewire our desires and be able to imagine otherwise. 

- Lila Athanasiadou, The School of Commons



The workshops on Art Workers Commons took a look onto different forms of value, and how they could serve as a ground for a union countering neoliberal working conditions in the arts and beyond. Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University College London, offered an input for the conversation based on his current writing on speculative communities, being his main concern in his research the economic aspect of communities and the creative aspects of capitalist infrastructure and its operators. As example served the Q’Anon conspiracy theories to demonstrate the building of community through narratives in the technological and financial context of contemporary capitalism; a talking point that centered the following discussion. 

In a second input the economist and design researcher Chiara Di Leone opened up questions on value and currencies in and through art based on a recollection of her personal experiences at Deutsche Bank and their corporate art collection. There is little reason to doubt the abysmal artistic quality of the collection, though a more interesting aspect of it is the use of art as a vehicle to trade different forms of capital; from monetary to cultural. In this exchange, all institutions – galleries, art schools and universities, etc. – act as intermediaries in the relationship between artists and capital and its narratives.

This last statement connected this session with the one from the days before, in which the rearticulation of that very same relationship was discussed in relation to aesthetics and emotions. Upon which the question about artistic labour was raised; both the difficulties of localizing it as employer as well as employee, but also the performative capitalization by contributing to such corporate collections.

The discussion as moderated by AWC aimed to formulate preliminary needs for unionizing and just as many participants we had voices present; a manifold of arguments and perspectives meandered around the nature of truth and its narratives as either excluding or including strategies of forming community and how to either counter or even use for a real Art Workers Union. The arguments may be grouped in a number of categories or fields, that all stand in a circular relationship to each other; labour, trust, truth, community and support.

Under labour we gather questions of labour sharing and division – under which already thought of community and support are linked through the reproduction of structures, support structures, as well as through the transition from singular freelancers to a group –, capitalization or remuneration of labour, e.g. UBI and contracts, labour as reproduction of means of production instead of capitalist consumption of labour.

The counter-conspiracy is the main representation of the questions on trust & truth; a conspiracy theory itself is a narrative that uncovers mistrust in truth, authority, and reason, but also creates horizontal trust in the conspiracy community. Similarly works gossip as infrastructure and within its own social bubbles. These bubbles or communities share trust and labour within themselves as a common practice and basis for support. As a group it was made imperative to ask the question on connections and connectors and the necessity for support for risk but also accountability within the group.

Lastly, the Union des Refusés wants to raise its accessibility not only on a theoretical level, but on a practical level, which means; uncomplicated bureaucratic participation in the union, international organization of the community and its activities, emotional aid and aesthetic learning, and the possibility to include different layers and narratives within the same union. The workshop ended with the question of ongoing participation for a union of those present through an online document instead of a formal inscription and organization. And with this we left with an idea of a global union that asks how to institutionalize itself within its own necessities and through international participation.

- Mateo Chacon-Pino, The School of Commons


What are the hierarchies present in the art world? How do they relate to broader social and economic models of organised labour? In order to be able to build a possible Union des Refusés  – or possible new formats of unionising art workers –at least two steps seem to be urgent and necessary:

The first is to make the hierarchies, connections and flowcharts of the art world visible and to reflect where the artists are positioned within this diagram. Drawing from "The tyranny of the structurelessness", written by Jo Freeman, American scholar and feminist activist, hierarchies and power dynamics are always present in social configurations. Even in less structured groups, social and affective dynamics play a crucial role in shaping networks. While largely part of a precarious work environment, artists (and curators and critics) also profit from cultural capital and power associations that are not available for others in the art work environment, such as cultural producers, institutions' employees and outsourced staff. To make hierarchy visible is to start to envision which are the associations that can be put in place in order to create solidarity and a sense of union amongst the front end and back end of the art system.

And second, to think through the possible propositional aesthetics of this systemic enterprise. This would necessarily have to experiment with a composition of tools, protocols and techniques that could move beyond current operational hierarchy stratification. Juggling transparency and opacity – acting as stealth agents – artists should aesthetically and systemically experiment with peer-to-peer collective network (low and high) technologies that distribute and decentralize decision-making, profits, resources, authorship and so on, into their expanded work environments.

- Luiza Crosman


Trace Power

Being cared for is never a one-way street. In order to receive care from other people it is crucial that you help ensure that those people are cared for. It is not optional, it is required.

How would you identify yourself if you never had to have a “job” as a curator, a museum’s worker, as a designer, as an artist again? What would you do all day if you didn’t need to “work” in order to live? How would you value your time if it was discon- nected from money? How would you cooperate and contribute if you could do so in a way and in conditions you chose? What would your role be in the post-work, post-capital future? What would a satisfying day feel like?

From within the lockdown and after we have a chance to change some of our habits and patterns, so we don’t have to go back to an expensive and violent normal. It’s interesting to think about the world we want to live in in a theoretical way, but now we have a chance to experiment with how we live our daily lives and how we value ourselves and each other, and let those practices define the future.

Let’s create new habits of creativity, without the pressure created through the arts' old patterns, broken down to aesthetics, emotions and currencies. Let’s become triangular, a hologram. Each one of us. This is how we propose to localize common and individual interests, resources and actions to let L'Union des Refusés be able to intervene at a local and global level.

The term L’Union des Refusés” attempts to occupy the eurocentrist academic tradition. It refers to the Parisian "Salon des Refusés" of 1863, which was founded as a parallel exhibition to the official “Salon de Paris”, an annual exhibition of members from the École des Beaux-Arts, where those who showed their paintings here were recognized by a conservative jury respective to Napoleon III’s second regime. Amost 40 percent of the artworks were rejected.However, the Salon des Refusés was not founded by rebellious artists, but the ruler himself. Napoleon III ordered the academy to found the alternative salon. He couldn't do much with modern paintings such as Édouard Manet's now world-famous Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863), although he found it offensive, the moralist.

Napoleon III wanted to be regarded as a liberal ruler, to appease the art world without major political sacrifices, and at the same time to show that these images were rightly rejected. In fact, they were shown hung tightly, like in a cabinet of curiosities. Nevertheless, the show was a huge success, a much hotter ticket than the main event. Many see this salon as the beginning of modernity. The emperor's decision could be also seen as a political intrigue: He found the École des Beaux-Arts acted too independently. The protests of the rejected painters were perhaps a welcomed opportunity for him to turn this institution into a state school. 

It’s easier to change history’s course now.

- María Inés Plaza Lazo


These texts are part of the series of contributions presenting L'Union des Refusés; a foundational prototype, a trust for aesthetic, social and economic values, an interventionist group for a joyful transformation of exploitative and precarious working conditions in the arts, a community-driven response to our shared vulnerability.

Lila Athanasiadou, Mateo Chacón Pino and Luiza Crosman were part of the workshops on Art Workers Commons at the Lothringer13 in Munich. Together we traced the desire for a trade union for art workers back to earlier ideas about collectivity and a public dimension in the arts, in line with a Marxist conception of society. When the salons des refusés in France and the art associations in Germany emerged in the 19th century, they paved the way for the interest groups of in-ternational modernity in the 20th century.

Arts of the Working Class draws on these experiences of community to set up a trade union for the provision of mutual help and support, developed in collaboration with international artists and thinkers, experts and amateurs. Art workers all over the world are invited to share their privileges and concerns within a not-for-profit organization for emotional, political and financial exchange, which aims to leave capitalist pressures and patterns behind.

    Andrea Büttner, Shepherds and Kings, 2017, slide show with 160 analogue 35 mm slides.
    - Details from: Annunciation to the Shepherds and Adoration of the Magi, fol. 8r, Omne Bonum, vol. 1, Absolucio–Circumcisio, circa 1360–75, tinted drawing on vellum, 34.5 x 19 cm, James le Palmer Photo: British Library, London, UK / © British Library Board, all rights reserved / Bridgeman Images



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