As global art networks are disrupted by the pandemic, independent art workers need to move beyond individualism.
Just as early decades of this century were an era of independent curators and artists, they will be followed by a period in which interdependent curatorial and artistic practices will emerge, solidify and thrive. (1) This hope is supported by a thorough critique of the political economy of global networks of contemporary art, the natural habitat of seemingly independent cultural producers. In the pre-Covid era of romanticised mobility, the very notion of ‘independence’ has been used to cover up the structural deficits of global networks of contemporary art, their inconsistencies, conflicts, and inequalities. No doubt, the term independent has signified a certain promise of joyful enthusiasm, unrestricted mobility, and creative merit. It is not surprising that it has been, and still is, so attractive, firing up the aspirations of the throngs of art workers who still participate in the global networks of contemporary art, even in its digitized formats.
More for the sake of argument than anything else, I will first construct a straw man of the existing reality of independent cultural production, highlighting its flaws rather than promises. In this way, I will prepare the ground for arguments about more interdependent types of artistic and cultural production. My argument follows in the footsteps of Temporary Services, an art collective from Chicago, who advocated moving from independence to interdependence almost a decade ago already, basing their arguments on practical experiences of building a shared, collective space instead of running a typical, ‘independent’ artistic studio (Temporary Services, 2012). However, clear oppositions such as between “independence” and “interdependence" are easier to maintain rhetorically than they are to embed within curatorial or artistic practice. Oftentimes it is more productive to trace dialectic connections between seemingly contrasting notions - like independence and interdependence – that might be much more aligned than one can be tempted to admit initially. In the end, autonomy must be backed up by collective structures, and it typically is. Even the apparent independence of the ultramobile cultural producers is, as I will argue later, rooted in such collective structures as family inheritance or ‘proper’ citizenship.
"The ideology of independence was based on the false premises of unrestricted mobility, but this delusion is shattered now, as it is simply unsustainable in the reality of climate catastrophe."
However, in ultra-individualistic societies, personal autonomy is lauded, overshadowing interdependent structures that underpin it. (3) The feminist economists writing under the pen name JK Gibson-Graham emphasise that the fundamental interdependence of economic subsystems, agents or practices needs to be recognised and acted upon in order to constitute more egalitarian, mutually beneficial economic systems based on solidarity and cooperation (Gibson-Graham 2006 pp.79–86). Such interdependence, on the other hand, does not thwart autonomy. In contrast - it constitutes a collective support structure that can backup lives and ideas of disadvantaged art workers, who cannot be as independent as their more privileged peers tend to be.
The forced suspension, but of what?
The pandemic forced a suspension of relentless circulation – of events, objects, and people – caused by the COVID-19 pandemic - unearthing an otherwise obfuscated tension between the promises of independence and the material impossibility of their realisation in a world shaped by glaring inequalities. In more usual times however, this friction is glossed over by the rapid turnover of projects, events, and people. Make no mistake, the pandemic is not a death knell for unbridled mobility. After the lockdowns are eased, everyone who can afford it will continue with rampant voyaging, and the art world will once again bustle with activity. However, the pandemic – for which a technological solution is in grasp (though the distribution of vaccines is currently limited to the richest countries, a regime appropriately labelled vaccine apartheid) - pales in comparison to the realities of climate catastrophe, even more drastic inequalities, and the authoritarian spirit of global capitalism. These threats do not loom somewhere beyond the horizon, within a comfort zone of future uncertainties. They are here, very tangible, to be seen by everyone who does not cast their eyes aside, sheltered by privileges of class, race, gender, or citizenry. Middle and upper classes of the global North may still be lulled into complacency by the passing comforts of metropolitan capitalism, ornamented with the remnants of social democracy, longing for the return to ‘normality’. But the poorer inhabitants of the world cannot afford such delusions. Indeed, they are often living next door, in the midst of global cities, where contemporary art galleries are surveyed and cleaned by the same underpaid and mostly not-so-white workforce. For them the old new normal is riddled with precarity, poverty, and barriers to movement and aspirations. This is a well-known and yet often ignored fact. You don’t have to read Picketty or quote academic texts; just keep your eyes open. Or take a look at any of the basic statistics regarding the uneven distribution of wealth: in a world where the richest person nets one hundred billion dollars, 80% of people live on less than ten bucks a day and a staggering 800 million for less than two. Or look for the news regarding recent strikes of Amazon workers or read any feature on the plight of migrants at European borders in euphemistically called detention centres, such as Mória Refugee Camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.
The early decades of the 21st century will go down in history as an age of glaring inequality. At the same time when ‘cheap’ airlines were shipping throngs of jet-setting cultural producers to various mega-events here and there, walls were being erected everywhere. Both political and mental - on the borders of Fortress Europe, in the social networks structured by hate speech, and in public spheres divided by the propaganda employed both by state-owned news outlets, such as public or private TV channels run by authoritarian states or corporations all over the world, and a multitude of alt-right threads on 8chan, Twitter or Facebook.
The rise of the global far-right in the midst of 2010s will be remembered as one of the glaring cracks in the deceivingly optimistic façade of liberal globalism, whose agents - just a couple of years prior - used to peddle the vision of the end of history creative class. In the 1990s and 2000s, even suffering cities of the various global rust belts used to erect museums or philharmonic halls to compensate for the reality of pawnshops, closed factories and badly paid, temporary jobs. In Eastern Europe, the cultural producers of my generation happily roamed the freshly opened metropolitan corridors, trying to build their own, precariously independent trajectories in the global networks. Their independent careers were dependent on tapping into the stream of always tenuous opportunities, like curatorial projects, artistic commissions, and academic jobs. To secure them, they frequently had to migrate to other cities or countries, moving too quickly to realise what was happening in their own backyard, until it was too late.
Mobility and its discontents
They had to learn the hard way that an apparent independence of artists or curators is typically rooted in the privileges stemming from class, race and gender. You can move as much as you wish as long as you afford it, have a proper passport, are not stopped and searched only because of the colour of your skin, and do not have any dependents for whom you have to care on a daily basis. Just as art markets are hunting grounds for HNWIs (high-net-worth-individuals), the networks used to be a habitat of aspirational singles and DINKS (double-income-no-kids), their independence sometimes founded on the firm basis of family trusts (in case of elites), or other forms of middle class privilege (good schooling, fluency in English, social networks helping with professional advancement, apartments in city centres provided by supportive parents, family-backed credit cards, etc.). Or in exceptional situations – on sheer talent and extremely hard and precarious work. In the end, it is a privilege to work in the field infamous for exploiting the unpaid or underpaid labour of cultural producers, which is structured by a totally skewed distribution of income, where winners take it all and the rest compete for crumbs.
This seemingly meritocratic world of independent freelancers is underpinned by tremendous precarity, more biting with every moment spent on free artistic labour. The dark matter of the art world (Sholette 2011) is composed of dropouts and burnouts, or simply people tired enough to stop getting caught up in vicious cycles, competing for access, and overdoing one project after another. But in their most exploitative forms, artistic networks always desire fresh blood, dependent on a supply of young people who get invested in unsustainable trajectories, expecting to reap future returns on their current precarity. This setup becomes even more suffocating with every opportunity lost – due to the austerity of the late 2000s, the ascendence of authoritarian cultural policies, or last but not least due to the disruption caused by the pandemic. As a result, freelancing becomes even more constricting for people who are not able to afford working like this. One hears stories about actors turned builders or opera singers reinventing themselves as accountants and understands that change is in the air. But still, the calamities of the early 21st century not only disrupted individual trajectories, as regrettable as that is, but more specifically undermined the aspirational ideology that promises future returns on current precarity. And this element of pre-pandemic ‘normality’ should not be missed by anyone but those who exploit interns, zero-hours curators or ‘independent’ artists.
Modes of collective resistance
Power sparks resistance. Even though art workers are being peddled aspirational dreams, they only rarely accept them at face value. In the past two decades, they were often amongst the first ones to occupy squares, protest austerity and gentrification, address inequalities at home and abroad, organise against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. The multitudes of cultural producers partook in various social movements demanding other, better, more just and truly free alter globalisation. One example amongst many would be Occupy Movements of the early 2010s. Commenting on the mass participation of young creatives and artists in those occupations, US artist Martha Rosler spoke of an ‘artistic mode of revolution’, contrasting it with the artistic mode of production, a neoliberal mechanism aimed at gentrification and property speculation (Rosler 2014). Also in the region of Central – Eastern Europe, art workers unionised and self-organised, both against precarity, and in defence of women’s rights and democracy, against racism, homophobia, transphobia and authoritarian policies.
Art workers living in countries such as Poland and Hungary were exposed to the double pressures of networked capitalism and authoritarian states that seemingly limited their options for independent careers. Paradoxically, they managed to come up with new solutions for the shared, more emphatic, and self-organised systems of interdependent cultural production, some examples of which will be described below. (2)
"In their most exploitative forms, artistic networks always desire fresh blood, dependent on a supply of young people who get invested in unsustainable trajectories, expecting to reap future returns on their current precarity."
Actually, in early 2010s Poland there was a short period of market-based ‘stabilisation’ that produced careers and art as uninspiring as folders advertising new gated communities or trips to Zanzibar, where the bohemian bourgeoisie loved to dwell. I do not particularly miss this kind of art, and I do not lament the demise of this shallow circulation. This development was dictated by necessity rather than choice. I rather think that such amazing instances of social and cultural creativity like Off-Biennale in Budapest or the Polish Consortium for Postartistic Practices, with which I am aligned, would have never emerged if not for authoritarian disruption. In the overtly consumerist networks of commercial art, there is less space for such coalitions as the Anti-Fascist Year, a joined effort of more than a hundred Polish art institutions, self-organised collectives, and individual artists. Between 2019 and 2020 this coalition co-organised hundreds exhibitions, workshops, seminars, and direct actions that promote antifascism, feminism, economic and environmental justice, queerness, empathy, and cultural plurality. If not for the authoritarian crisis, the same people who organised the Year would have been busy elsewhere pursuing their own independent careers. Instead, they created an interdependent alliance of antifascist art workers, this time rotating in their own backyard.
The ideology of independence was based on the false premises of unrestricted mobility, but this delusion is shattered now, in the time of pandemic, as it is simply unsustainable in the reality of climate catastrophe. So the pandemic, at its best, can be considered as a training for the future where distances expand back to their pre-aviation proportions. One will have to be much more prudent in spending carbon miles (looking at it from perspective, it is simply ridiculous to fly thousands of kilometres just to deliver one lecture), selective in establishing connections, solidifying friendships and creating lasting alliances rather than one-off-project-stands, intensifying research rather than making one superficially flashy project after another in search of passing fashions.
It is a weird feeling that currently peripheries are at the bleeding edge of new developments in understanding, practicing, and organising art. It is not a whimsical development that architectural and artistic collectives are nominated or receive the Turner Prize, or that the next Documenta will be collectively curated. Neither it is surprising that ruangrupa establishes connections with the self-organised artistic initiatives from the entire globe, such as Fondation Festival Sur Le Niger (Ségou, Mali), Gudskul (Jakarta, Indonesia), INLAND (various locations, Spain), Jatiwangi Art Factory (Jatiwangi, Indonesia), Question of Funding (Jerusalem, Palestine), Más Arte Más Acción (MAMA) (Nuqui, Choco, Columbia), OFF-Biennale (Budapest, Hungary), Trampoline House (Copenhagen, Denmark) and ZK/U – Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik (Berlin, Germany). These groups participate in a collective curatorial structure called ‘lumbug’. It is named after the Indonesian tradition of collective stockpiling of food, that is shared amongst members of the community in times of famine.
In this context, it is important to remind ourselves that this connection between the so called second world of real existing socialism and the third world of neither industrialised capitalist nor socialist countries was pretty well established in the post-war decades of communist blocks, non-aligned countries, anti-imperialistic and decolonial struggles. Precisely this reality of the interconnected world was forcefully erased from human memory by neoliberal globalisation. The semi-peripheric alliances connected the curators in the CCA Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw with the Indonesian Jatiwangi Art Factory, engendering the productive flow of inspiration that informed an interdependent exhibition of self-organised practices from the entire globe titled ‘Gotong Royong. Things we do together’ that was organised in the CCA between 2018 and 2019 (Dobkowska and Łukomski 2020). As if people who were not able to afford independence were more inclined towards interdependence, not only out of sheer sympathies with a cause (as laudable as unreliable) but also following their properly understood material interests. Thus, the Indonesian practices of ‘lumbung’ or ‘gotong royong’ (doing things together), when translated into the curatorial and artistic context, are very easily, almost intuitively, taken up by other people dwelling in the twilight zones of global networks – such as geographic semi-peripheries of Eastern Europe or Southern hemisphere and semi-autonomous clusters of radicalised art workers. Specifically in the country such as Poland, these terms are easily mapped into the informal collectivity of pitch-in culture, indie scenes or samizdat publishing. This region of the world – that always thrived to be modern, but was never as modern as it wished for – has a quite good recognition of informal collectivism, and yet it also longs for establishing better, more reliable and transparent institutions that can potentially become common, and stabilise otherwise overtly precarious informal networks.
The interdependent economics
It is not a regional specificity, as establishing interdependent support systems must involve discussions about economic underpinnings of such systems – both on a micro and macroscale. One example of a more general approach to the problem is the proclamation Art for Universal Basic Income, spearheaded by the international Institute for Radical Imagination (Institute of Radical Imagination 2021). This manifesto rightly emphasises what should have been obvious for everyone, if not for the manufactured consent of capitalist realism. Namely that dire times require radical solutions, such as the universal basic income that would solve the problems of – not only artistic – precarity, and provide a material basis for autonomous interdependence, once and for all. It is rather clear that universal basic income on a global scale still remains more of a utopian political horizon than an easily implementable political programme, and that such a grand transformation would require a global political movement of equally massive proportions.
"The notion of interdependence suggests values like loyalty, empathy, firmness of convictions and devotion to a cause, which are at odds with the ethical flexibility of the networked world, where everything moves so that nothing can change, convictions are peddled, causes swapped, and loyalties are transactional."
Before it happens, every social movement looks for someone to animate, and they rely on available support structures. They do not live in a social vacuum, they have to dwell, work, and eat somewhere. Art workers, just as other workers, need means of (artistic) production, and these have to be organised in one way or another. The competitive systems of ultra-mobile networks are incompatible with more strategic approaches to social change. Instead of supporting transformation, they cater to the flow of interchangeable fashions and curatorial projects, their expansion based on the exploitation of artistic dark matter. Artists and activists need alternative modes of organising, and it is here that I see an important role that can be potentially played by a multitude of collectives, cooperatives, social enterprises, occupied art centres and progressive public institutions. They engender hands-on economic interdependence. In this context, I cannot stop thinking about June 2019, a moment from a seemingly different era, when interdependence was floated as a unifying concept for an international network of feminist economists, cooperativists, and artists who met at a summit in Northern Italy. The workshop was organised by the Community Economies Research Network, and was hosted by La Foresta, a cooperative of radical social designers, in a small cottage in the Italian Alps near Roveretto in Trentino. Over a sunny weekend a group of feral traders, community gardeners, feminist economists, social geographers, drink producers, social designers, and architects gathered to discuss ways of reclaiming the economy to nourish their communities. Located on the slope of one of the wilder valleys in the region, surrounded by pine trees and waterfalls, we discussed mapping fog banks, indigenous astronomy, and devising cognitive tools to better understand the nebulous realm of diverse economies that account for both monetary and non-monetary inputs and outputs, in order to balance them all. Out of collective brainstorming, a concept emerged to formalise this shared affinity as an international network called The Interdependence. An early version of the definition of the interdependent was written down in the summer of 2019 by feminist economists Katharine McKinnon and Katherine Gibson:
‘The Interdependence is envisioned as a way to bring to the surface the ubiquity of community economy activities by inviting affiliated organisations to add a mock business identity to their organisations name: to use ‘Idt.’ (for Interdependent) instead of Ltd. or Inc.. The ‘Idt.’ would signal membership of “The Interdependence” – an identifier that could connect and make visible the scale of community economy initiatives. The interdependence is a response to the naysayers who respond to our examples of community economy practices and initiatives by saying “that’s nice, but is it scalable?” In response we can say ubiquity is our scale….join The Interdependence….. a multi-local contagion.’
Currently, the Idt. is being formalised as an international network of like-minded initiatives, affiliated with CERN, temporarily operating on the community economies web page, but soon to acquire its own site and identity. I am aligned with this initiative, on both practical and theoretical level, as I look for the interdependent models of organisation, alternative to the pursuits of – wrongly conceived - independence. Moreover, the Idt. – as an organisational model and an expression of intent – sets focus on the economic foundations of self-organisation, which is far too often overly reliant on underpaid and voluntary labour. As the problem is widely acknowledged, it is not surprising that even manifestos – such as the one that was mentioned before - put such a strong emphasis on the pragmatics of artistic labour, linking it with more radical demands, such as universal basic income. Here and now though, interdependent art needs radical social enterprises, just as British cultural theorist Angela McRobbie suggests (2011), that would supply decent jobs and stabilise incomes. An exemplary solution is offered by Company Drinks, an artistic enterprise based in the eastern boroughs of London, established by Kathrin Böhm, as a result of her artistic pursuits (Böhm and Pope 2015). The Company Drinks specialises in sustainable production of sodas, beers, and syrups, all made from fruit that is collectively picked at the commons or gleaned from larger farms. The company provides a stable income to a couple of cultural producers and it reclaims economic circuits by artistic means, whilst supporting more general research into artistic economies, cooperating with CERN, and spearheading such initiatives as Idt. (Szreder and Böhm 2020).
Adopting the notion of interdependency to the realm of contemporary art, allows one to reimagine modes of thinking and acting that move beyond the obsessively individualistic pseudo-independency. This conceptual and practical shift opens new avenues for interdependent curators and artists, embedding their practices within the organisational ecosystems co-organised by human and non-human agents, collectives and institutions, to which interdependent cultural producers owe their allegiance. This shift of optics – from an individual to an ecosystem – has ethical and political consequences, as art workers cease to be invested solely in ‘their own’ trajectories, but rather indebted to others, with whom they share bonds of mutual obligations. Such interdependent practice recognises and fosters systems of social collaboration that always underpin the artistic circulation, but that are otherwise exploited in pursuit of individual profits. The notion of interdependence also suggests values like loyalty, empathy, firmness of convictions and devotion to a cause, which are at odds with the ethical flexibility of the networked world, where everything moves so that nothing can change, convictions are peddled, causes swapped, and loyalties are transactional. This is not to suggest that projects and networks should be abandoned, there is no chance for that, but rather that their limitations can be surmounted by interdependent alliances that work for the benefit of multitudes, and not just the small clique of a highly networked few.