Vulnerabilities in a Cascading Crisis
The COVID-19 virus is uncanny in so many psychosocial ways: its invisibility, its ever-present potential to spread, the diverse emergency responses from political leaders (or lack thereof), its concurrent conspiracies about whose fault it is (showing ugly faces ranging from anti-Chinese racism to nationalist, anti-Semitic and anti-refugee sentiments). It affects work, leisure and love to an unforeseeable extent. In my research, I have long been interested in understanding how artists and cultural workers self-organize both the conditions of their labor and political claims around visions of the priority and practices of art. These days, parameters of political organization, priority, systemic relevance, understandings of sustainability and solidarity are changing at incredible speed. While many European states have initialized ‘emergency funds’ or immediate support programs for (for a review of 26 European countries, see The Compendium in Times of COVID-19 (1) ), it becomes clear that these ad-hoc measures are incapable of cushioning existing problems. While we cannot anticipate the concrete implications of the virus on the cultural system, COVID-19 severely endangers conditions of artistic and cultural work, production and presentation both in the short- and long-term. This pandemic reinforces existing systemic precarities in the multi-layered ecosystem of artistic and cultural actors, institutions and practices, untenable conditions such as bogus self-employment as well as unsafe and hyper-individualized working conditions. Precisely because of this, it is urgent to push the debate beyond systemic misalignments and problems of the cultural funding system to collectively figure out how to move on from these post-pandemic times.
In the following, I want to first discuss some of the psychosocial implications of COVID-19 on artists’ individual and collectivized practices of self-organized work and self-employment (even though there are certainly artists who are employed by orchestras, ensembles, dance companies or music schools). Second, I want to discuss some early-stage ideas about the notion of cultural infrastructures as infrastructures of vulnerability. While precarity, cultural policy, arts management and administration have all been long discussed in critical discourses of artistic and curatorial practice, the notion of vulnerability might indicate a new direction that not only captures the systemic lack of safety in funding and infrastructural support, but might more actively extend such concerns to all parts of the cultural infrastructure – things, people, bodies, spaces, thoughts.
Notably, this essay is an assemblage of open questions rather than an attempt to provide answers to this existential crisis whose end is yet to come and whose lingering effects are still nearly impossible to assess. While it is difficult to speak or write in this condition, it might be all the more necessary to reflect upon what post-pandemic cultural infrastructures might or should look like. Concretely, I want to contribute to the already ongoing debate about what to advocate for post-crisis to establish the appreciation, promotion and planning security for artistic and cultural work and infrastructures as a system-relevant component of public life.
Individual Vulnerability: The Precarious Face(t)s of Self-Organized Cultural Labor
Due to COVID-19, a wave of employees has been sent into home office. Established as one iteration of the ‘new normal’ (which, by the way, should be neither new nor normal), the pandemic has contributed to shining an almost blinding light on the challenging conditions of self-organized labor. Being familiar with this condition of setting my own routines and work objectives as a temporarily contracted academic myself, artists and cultural workers are often working from home: they may not have the means to afford their own or shared studio or an office; they may be artists in residencies, or might have bodily restrictions such as disability or sickness, which are incompatible with inaccessible workspaces. Artists and cultural workers have long faced the challenge of the blurring of private and professional lives, of being responsible for balancing individual productivity, domestic chores, caretaking and mental health. Now that this individualized, spatially immobile labor in the era of #stayathome has been somewhat involuntarily spread to large parts of the working population, it illuminates the unequally distributed and highly demanding parameters of this kind of work. Self-employed artists with children or with caretaking responsibilities or disabilities have long been left with inventing and developing work-related survival strategies. In the pandemic, these precarious self-organizations are challenged because other infrastructures of public support have been closed off (e.g., childcare facilities or professional and paid caretakers), possibly throwing workers into heteronormative or patriarchal family and partnership models and/or gravely interrupting their workflows.
If anything, the crisis makes visible the apparent disparity amongst self-organized workers, which has already been a pre-COVID-19 problem. On the one hand, there are those who seem to be particularly productive in these pandemic times, showing new work and ideas on social media. For them, the crisis appears as a catalyst to focus, think and do. In this situation, the crisis might offer possibilities to perfect the art of romanticizing work-related stress, 24/7-availability and creativity. It might give space to the ‘creative self’, which Andreas Reckwitz has conceptualized as a type of individual, which arises in the process of the ‘invention of creativity’ as the ideal driver of a highly individualized, output-oriented and self-responsible society. (2) On the other hand, the unforgiving crisis might also bring to the fore iterations of the ‘weary self’ à la Alain Ehrenberg. Depressive moods, loss of focus and stamina, existential questions of why the hell are we all doing trying to work anyways and the bodily-instinctive realization of the Kafkaesque extent of this pandemic unhinge concepts of production and productivity: Do we really need production right now, and if so, which kind of production? For whom are we producing? Are we getting paid?
In the cultural (political) context, the keyword #essential might allow us to shift focus to revisit the temporal, distributive and mental health-related capacities of artistic and cultural labor: How, by whom and for how long are artists supported in their daily survival? What modes of conditions or unconditionality are applied to self-organized cultural work (e.g., in the forms of artist grants, scholarships, residencies etc.)? The crisis gnaws on the parameters of what makes labor and productivity possible in the first place. It has fast-tracked a conversation about the conditions of (im)possibility of self-organized labor. COVID-19 might raise new questions about how public art funding aligns itself with conditions set on individual artistic and cultural work and in what ways it provisions opportunities of caretaking and access to mental health, to make artistic work possible and sustainable. For cultural political discussions and agenda-setting processes after COVID-19, current experiences with self-organized and self-determined work, which have unexpectedly collectivized artist-workers with a larger part of the working public, there might be a chance to create identification and political leverage to advocate for better support against individual vulnerability in self-organized labor. The crisis not only shows how self-motivated and self-responsible artists work in all situations of life, but could raise awareness for the psychological strain that is inherent in this kind of work – to stay focused and motivated despite difficulties to juggle the logistics of an underpaid life and to fight against the seemingly immutable assumption that artists need to be competitive to succeed.
Collective Vulnerability: Towards Cultural Infrastructures of Care
While we all anticipate that the crisis will linger for a very long time and leave us in very different economic, political, psychosocial states, this cannot only be a time of waiting. While we cannot know in which ways cultural spaces, initiatives and individuals will be hit by this crisis – some spaces might not survive the struggle to remain in gentrifying neighborhoods, some emerging artists might simply stop trying – we know that we need to prepare to shape the social imagination of public life with arts and culture, rather than without. In view of the silent and creeping destruction and decay caused by COVID-19, which affects and will continue to affect both publicly and privately funded cultural institutions (the latter of which are unsurprisingly quick to let go of inessential personnel, but surprisingly open-minded about accepting public monetary support), we need material and political investment in diverse and sustainable cultural infrastructures. The latter should always be thought of in the plural, encompassing people, bodies, things, spaces, places, feelings, thoughts, technologies. All these components are contributing to maintain and nourish a cultural system of production and presentation, which is already vulnerable, but which actively takes a stance to integrate vulnerabilities into the development of new funding structures, modalities and expectations. To spend public monies on these infrastructures is a problematic functionalization of the arts and nothing short of an investment in the critical and democratic foundations of society. Again, a framework of vulnerability – in contrast to the stigmatized concept of precarity – might consider and establish a notion of the working human as a struggling, fragile being, able to collectivize and collectively care rather than individualizing struggles.
To actively embrace vulnerability, rather than precarity, demonstrates that the psychosocial challenges imbricated in self-organized (cultural) labor are not an individual concern (a problem or weakness) but a collective concern in a public consciousness that values arts and culture as system-relevant in a decisively different, but no less essential ways than health care workers, supermarket employees etc. To enact these cultural infrastructures of both individual and collective vulnerabilities, we need cultural policies, and administrators who creatively execute them. Thinking cultural production, policy, and funding through a lens of vulnerability shifts attention away from the obsessive focus on artistic excellence, competition and quality, in lieu of attending to various forms of resilience (3) in and for the cultural field. The latter approach underscores one of the mandates of arts and culture to promote public health, which fosters a sense of collective psychosocial well-being.
As New York’s Queens Museum director Sally Tallant recently put it in hopeful words: “This is a time to consider museums as places of care — not just care of collections, but care of our communities, staff and artists — and the careful creation of spaces to make and express collective and individual experiences as we recover from living through a prolonged period of isolation and loss.” (4) I would like to expand Tallant’s reference to museums as ‘places of care’ to an understanding of various types of cultural institutions as places of care. In the framework of cultural infrastructures, ‘care’ would mean to encourage taking care of oneself and others as workers and caretakers, to advocate that public institutions increase efforts to grant access to services of mental health and caretaking. These cultural infrastructures of vulnerability and care could thus create both new ‘streets’ (i.e., structural conditions, funding instruments, budgetary commitments etc.) and new ‘means of transportation’ (i.e., flexible, modular, experimental funding support and residency models) to navigate the many faces of the 'new normal'. The political aspect of this crisis could then manifest itself in the active negotiation of vulnerabilities — because both the structure and subjects of culture are inevitably already vulnerable. Placing care and vulnerability at the forefront of future cultural infrastructures, the crisis could, in the best case, contribute to more strongly anchoring the importance of arts and culture as essential public goods, which we need to carry and support with an awareness of our shared, yet unequal vulnerabilities.