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THE SQUABBLES AND STRUGGLES OF THE PROJECTARIAT

Column

  • Jan 16 2023
  • Kuba Szreder
    is a researcher, lecturer and interdependent curator, based in Warsaw. He actively cooperates with artistic unions, consortia of postartistic practitioners, clusters of art-researchers, art collectives and artistic institutions in Poland, UK, and other European countries. Editor and author of books and texts on the political economy of global artistic circulation, art strikes, modes of artistic self-organisation, instituting art beyond the art market and the use value of art.

​​This analytical column is based on the arguments that I develop more thoroughly in the sixty-seven entries in ABC of the projectariat: living and working in a precari- ous art world, published in December 2021 by the Man- chester University Press and the Whitworth, spearhead- ing a new publishing series, The Whitworth Manuals.

 

CHAPTER 1

ISSUE NO. 20

Breaking the vicious cycle: from fast fashion to union making

 

For the projectarians, those freelancers who make one project after another to stay afloat in a precarious art world, unionisation is not an easy feat. One of the main causes of this difficulty is the fast-paced tempo of fashionable trends, which characterises the global circulation of contemporary art. Cohorts of freelance artists, curators, editors, writers, minters and other operators are forced to follow the flow of seasonal fashions. Under such circumstances, time and energy to self-organise are hard to come by, but definitely not impossible to find. Art workers, just as any other workers, could and should unionise, breaking the vicious cycle of artistic production.

The quick precession of short-term trends is embedded in the architecture of flows that constitute the global circulation of contemporary art. The basic law of artistic thermodynamics is: the worlds of contemporary art spin and the projectarians have to turn with them, or be cast aside, as irrelevant as the last season. In the fast fashion art world, every projectarian is both a label and their own product. The quicker they spin, the more successful they seem, because they are only just as good as their last project. Thus, they have to reinvent themselves every season, feeding the artistic mainstream, which is based on structural amnesia and tedious repetition of the next big things: names, themes, ideas and projects. Their eagerness to show off, in a momentary blink of recognition, is not a moral flaw, it is a relation of production, a mode of systemic exploitation that may be as alienating as an assembly line (though it is much, much more pleasant to work in metropolitan factories of contemporary art than in one of the sweatshops of the global South that churn out goods and capital that make the fast fashion art world go round). 

The artistic universe structured by fast fashions is not a place to develop aesthetical or political propositions over time. When market forces play god, projectarians become products of the fast fashions that they help to sustain and promote by partaking in the relentless circulation. The art market advocates point out that even on the market an artist needs to develop an oeuvre to be taken seriously by the most prestigious collectors. However, the toxic mix of superficial ultra-individualism and herd mentality that underpins the sector, proves the contrary. The market is structured by the flow of interchangeable commodities, and collections are most of the time nothing but slightly-glorified storefronts, a display of class distinction by the ultra-rich, shaped in accord with the narrow horizons of expert culture. 

As most middle-class projectarians are just two rents away from homelessness, and it is a short way down the slippery slope from being an independent curator to a call operator, most projectarians are afraid of being swallowed by the yawning gap of the last season. In this landscape, allegiances, solidarities and unions are burdens that one needs to shed, in search of apparent novelties. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with newness, acceleration can be exhilarating, it is awesome when humanity takes major steps or frog-leaps into the future. In fact, the main problem with a fast turnover of projects and ideas is that it does not bring any progress whatsoever, because undertaking major projects of aesthetical and social transformation require structures of mutual recognition, where projectarians stick together in unions, collectives, assemblies, scenes and movements. There, ideas are discussed, recalibrated, honed, and practically implemented. Only such scenes offer the floor to more durable choreographies.

Unfortunately, artistic institutions, which often position themselves as custodians of artistic values, instead of swimming against the current, often contribute to the vicious cycle, willingly or not. They follow the fashion, in fear of becoming out-fashioned themselves. They compete for public attention, the last vestige of their former power (with their laughable budgets they cannot make the market, the market makes them). To stay relevant, they punch beyond their weight by exploiting energies that they cannot afford, by the means of zero hours contracts, endless volunteering and temporary jobs. To capture the flow of youthful enthusiasm, the global corporate museums and biennales spin the merry-go-round of turning trends, where art workers become attention seekers, wasting themselves in competition for gatekeepers’ recognition.

It is quite clear that the vast majority of the global proletariat is coerced into accepting the unacceptable by the sanction of hunger, poverty and ideological violence. Projectarians seem to buy into their own precarity. The question remains, why do art workers reproduce the trends of their own oppression? It is a perennial problem of the radical sectors of the artistic projectariat, in their push for unionisation. Breaking the vicious cycle of fast fashions requires a sustained, collective effort. In order to interrupt the maddening rhythms of fast fashions one needs social movements and unions, the emergence of which is prevented by the same organisational logic that they resist. Thus, it is neither sensible nor productive to play a moralistic blame game that paradoxically only reinforces the neoliberal ideology of individualised responsibility. The artistic circulation is a systemic apparatus that evolved in order to keep projectarians ticking, that emerged as a result of myriads of interactions, some of which were driven by dissent. It is not to suggest that circulation is all-encompassing and resistance is futile. On the contrary, it is patchy, makeshift and inconsistent, though driven by systemic undercurrents that work in accord with the forces unleashed by neoliberalism, underpinned by stark inequalities, rampant extractivism, structural racism and global exploitation. 

And yet, unions emerge, as projectarians cling to their connections, get together and self-organise, building collective buffers against a flow of passing fashions. They establish lasting political alliances that aim at major systemic overhaul. It won't be done in one season, and even less so in one curatorial or artistic project. Such transformation requires a collective action of equal proportions, and such struggle can be a hotbed of both political and aesthetical imagination. It prompts and will be prompted by the multiple breakthroughs in ways of thinking, seeing, and acting together. And projectarians, instead of becoming victims of the fashion trends of their own making, can and do contribute to this grand reinvention. 

 

CHAPTER 2

ISSUE NO. 21

A critique of the political economy of grand tours.

 

The season of the grand tour is upon the global projectariat, a mobile workforce of contemporary art that means the flexible assembly lines of artistic factories by moving from one project to another, chasing multiple opportunities at the same time. Freed from the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, artists, curators, art professionals and aficionados are on the starting blocks, ready to flock to Venice, Berlin and Kassel, just to name a few. This year the grand tour will unfold in the shadow of war that looms over Europe; the war that signals the final demise of globalization based upon the false ideology that more connections and exchanges mean less war and death. The brutal war of Russia in Ukraine proves how wrong this conviction is by reframing cultural diplomacy as a mode of ‘artwashing’, which is, in fact, a war by other means. In any case, globalization has always been based on fundamental injustice, between those who can move freely and enjoy the rights provided to them by their passports, wealth, and the fact of not being bombed, and those who are forced to flee and are displaced, and who are – very often – unwelcome, pushed back and deported.

Adding insult to the injury, the global networks of contemporary art are founded on the cult of unbridled mobility, populated to a vast extent by poverty jetsetters who emulate the behavioral patterns of the planetary 1%. It is a paradoxical take on the aristocratic tradition of grand tours, as most of the projectarians can barely afford to enjoy long periods without work, devoted solely to the pursuits of classical beauty and art. In the project-related world, partaking in a grand tour is a professional obligation, driven by the project-related opportunism, understood not as a moral flow but rather as a relationship of networked production. Actually, the global circulation of contemporary art enforces mobility: the more you are able to move, the more successful you tend to be. Projectarians – enjoying their half-baked privileges – need to chase the flow of interchangeable opportunities, and being in the right place, at the right time, and with the right people tends to open some doors that are otherwise firmly shut. It would be naïve to think that just coming to Venice provides access, as it is strictly regulated, and projectarians need to navigate multiple narrow straits, running around Venice as if they were a flock of headless chickens. This merry dance macabre is underpinned by a massive carbon footprint, a swan song of extractivist capitalism, pumped up by ‘cheap’ fuel and massive fortunes, amassed as a result of its extraction and consumption. 

To understand the political economy of it all, it is just enough to scratch the surface and move beyond the façade of pavilions, collections and parties to watch how this spectacle of nationalist posturing and/or oligarchic wealth unfolds. The recently-exposed story of the Russian Pavilion is a point in case: sponsored by a privately-run art foundation established by one of Putin’s cronies, and operated by a private agency that is owned by one of the daughters of Sergey Lavrov together with the daughter of a former FSB general and Russian military contractor. Grand tours are funded with grand money, and that is amassed as a result of exorbitant inequalities. Of course, Russian money should be identified, named, shamed and canceled, a first attempt to identify, name, shame and cancel all the oligarchic wealth out there: be this Saudi, Chinese, German, British, Mexican, Swiss, Dutch, Nigerian, American or Polish. It is just as important not to have this perspective overshadowed by self-righteous resentment. It would not be enough to simply turn the tables, or switch places between dominant and dominated. In fact, such individualistic assumptions are cogwheels of the neoliberal capitalism that entices middle-class aspirations to ensure that the structures of privilege remain intact.   

When it comes to a more nuanced critique of the political economy of such events, it is important to consider the ambivalent position of projectarians. In spite of their (often muted) capacity to self-organize and enact cross-class solidarity; they often fall for the aspirational trap, imagining themselves as if they were able to climb up the ladder, and somehow in the undefined future, get to the very top of the artistic pyramid. The issue with this ideologized self-understanding is that one cannot join the 1% but is born into it, for it is a global aristocracy we are talking about. Meanwhile, we can acknowledge that projectarians are not bound to follow the aspirational flow, but also self-organize, strike, struggle, occupy, and act in solidarity with other workers. For example, Venice is home to the S.a.L.E. Docks, a squatted alter-institution, operated by intermittent art workers, which engages directly with anti-fascist and anti-extractivist campaigns that create and animate intersectional alliances. One of the most recent campaigns of activists affiliated with S.a.L.E. is the campaign for the Universal Basic Income and socialized commons, spearheaded by the international Institute for Radical Imagination (IRI). Let’s collectively imagine that the empty Russian Pavilion in Venice (the artists pulled out in protest against the Russian war in Ukraine a few days after the invasion) is occupied and repurposed permanently as the Displaced People’s Pavilion. It would be a form of accessible commons, breaking the nationalist matrix that has defined this event since its inception in the late 19th century. The critique of the political economy of grand tours would then boil down to a three-liner: tax the rich, (art) workers unite, refugees welcome.

The question remains whether it makes any sense to indulge in grand tours, if you do not live in one of the places on which these parasitical events feed. It is still to be tested whether such huge events like documenta or the Berlin Biennale, enmeshed in the burgeoning economy of the art market and mass tourism, can become platforms for bottom-up solidarities, reappropriated as means of global connectivity, collectivizing resources and redistributing visibility among the causes and movements that need it in order to build a truly planetary perspective. I certainly hope so, as I am inclined to grant all the critical art workers out there the benefit of doubt. 

 

CHAPTER 3

ISSUE NO. 22

The rhythms of the projectariat.

 

To understand and analyse rhythms, one has to let go, through illness or technique, but not completely. There is a certain externality which allows the analytical intellect to function. Yet, to capture a rhythm one needs to have been captured by it. One has to let go, give and abandon oneself to its duration. Just as in music or when learning a language, one only really understands meanings and sequences by producing them, that is, by producing spoken rhythms.

Translation of Henri Lefebvre, “Seen from the Window” 

 

In his autobiographical essay “Seen from the Window”, Henri Lefebvre describes, lives through and analyses the urban rhythm of Paris, his home city, as viewed and experienced through the window of his own flat. When invited to write about songs of the contemporary proletariat, I embarked on my own exercise in rhythmanalysis, focusing on the rhythms of the no-spaces in which projectarians dwell. What are the intervals and tempos of the interrupted rhythms of contemporary artistic production? How many beats per second has this rhythm? These soundscapes are not easy to be tracked and recorded, as projectarians are sometimes here, next week there. But then – wherever they go – they are always stuck to their desktops and mobile screens, exposed to a monotonous cascade of alerts: new emails, messages, e-calendars, counterpointed by melodic ringtones of incoming calls and hushed voice messages. Tap-tap-tap, fingers swirling on keyboards, another email, another text, another chat, another short message. 

The plunderphonics of disaster capitalism sometimes release themselves in the storm of noise, dissolved in a broken rhythm of dance floors, bass that moves your pants and penetrates your body, just dancing non-stop. Friendly faces, a good talk here, a chit chat there. Another round. Another cheer. Another tune. 

The buzz is a background noise of the contemporary apparatuses of artistic production. The elevator music of contemporary art is made by a random generator of art talk, bits and pieces of theories and commentaries reshuffled into a constant whisper at the back of our heads. Sometimes a buzz intensifies into a rumble of inflamed commentaries, a stampede of trolls, a growl of social media. 

The murmur of art talk is counterpointed by the deadly silence of exclusion, a vacuum of dark matter, when no invites are coming, a lack of contact, a gap in communication. And then, in the middle of the night, one listens to the hum of one’s own flat, a hotel room, or an Airbnb apartment. Nights filled with anxious heartbeats. Counting sheep or reshuffling a litany of to-do-lists, bills to pay, applications to fill, and deadlines to follow. 

Nights like those are filled by a longing for calmer lands, the desired soundscape of life-work balance. Retreats filled with chirping of birds, buzz of insects, whistling of wind, sighing and groaning of trees, resounding noise of waves. Some projectarians hate it. Others love it. I am in the second camp. 

A projectarian breathes in exotic soundscapes of different places, overridden by the all-present pidgin English, broken and mutilated by an international art crowd, and penetrated by global pop culture. Similar hits may be played on radio stations all over the world, similar songs please crowds in different cities, local flavours are redistributed, all over the place. The cities have different vibes, but all are being underpinned by the frenetic rhythms of overarching hyper-modernization. Projectarians add their own notes to the ambient noise of late capitalism by overproducing projects, pushing announcements, uttering their own trajectories, voicing themselves into being, in the never-ending quest to kill the silence that may kill them. 

But generally speaking, projectarians are urban animals, you need to tune in or drop out. Either you publish or you perish, you are tasked with procuring too many hits per season, or not invited at all. And you move, baby, you move. You bump, and you woosh, you listen to gate calls and to the rattle of starting engines. You take Easyjets. And trains. And Ubers. One after another. Always on the road. 

From time to time, some of the projectarians start to whistle tunes of disobedience. This collective refrain of dissent does not necessarily emerge in a chorus of protest or as a crescendo of critique. Often it is a softer sound, more tranquil, not as noisy, and yet even more prevalent, like a song that people sing at work, to ease their toil, or like a comradely murmur made by a bunch of friends who talk their talk when walking a walk. Those are melodies of everyday resistance. 

 

CHAPTER 4

ISSUE NO. 23

TAKING A BREAK

From the ABC of the projectariat.

 

Every projectarian knows that we live in the era of hyperproductivity. One project after another. Many at the same time. Yet another meeting, yet another Zoom, yet another grand tour, yet another extra mile. It is necessary to be always present, self-affirming, looked upon and looking for. Total immersion. Spread too thin. 

It is not surprising that projectarians long for a break. It is often a matter of basic need, of self-care, especially if one suffers from burnout and overextension (and most projectarians do). But not everybody is able to afford going on holidays: It depends on one's station in life. It is much easier to take a break if one is independently wealthy; is a successful NFT speculator, or lives off the rent, or work, of others. If one needs to make money by selling their own labor, and especially if one is enmeshed in the project-based systems of production, such breaks tend to be much shorter and intermittent. In the age of hyperproductivity, even holidays need to be spent on productive idleness. In the hypercompetitive world, every contact counts; every chit-chat may offer new opportunities. Hence, every projectarian is tempted to spend their “free time” on more of the same: Networking, seeing people, visiting international art events, maintaining old or creating new semi-professional relations. A networker feels an urge to capitalise on every second of holidaying, otherwise wasted on slothful come-togethers or on simply doing nothing. 

The other side of this conundrum, sometimes practiced by more mindful entrepreneurs, is a total switch off from networked life. For those maximalists, even taking a break must be perfected, carefully planned, and executed without remorse. They pay a lot to go to no-phones-allowed yoga retreats, wandering to exotic places where mobile coverage is limited (which possibly requires flying to a remote continent or travelling to one of the less touristy places where nobody even cares to provide coverage, inhabited by populations too poor to be considered worthy access to the grid). After a few days or weeks, these shock-workers of vacationing come back to email boxes swollen beyond recognition and calendars packed with new dates.

Possibly there is a midway.  We can try to switch off our emails, put on auto-responses, and just simply stop caring about this, that, or something else. My personal plan is to give a good old damn for about a month. It is not a particularly political act, but rather, a gesture of self-preservation. In fact, it does not make much sense to make a virtue out of every necessity. Even though the projectarians’ ingrained need for a pause is a result of the socioeconomic conditions of our hyperproductive era. Going on holidays is just that: Having a break. But in the project-craze, taking a couple of weeks off requires an almost heroic act of self-restraint. Combating their own internal FOMO, projectarians have to break with the habit of being everywhere, meeting everyone, and doing everything. They need to stop indulging in the fantasy that the world requires our continuous attention (or that it cares about what we do). They have to thwart the Protestant conviction that overwork is a means of personal salvation. 

All things considered, taking a break – at first glance, a rather mundane act – is not an easy task. Just think about such a simple thing as a mobile phone. This multifunctional device helps us navigate the social and physical universes. Even meeting old buddies in a hometown is done via social media. At the same time, a smartphone is a harness that binds us to the world of work, with all of its clicks, beeps, and notifications. Always a disturbance. It is not surprising that some people pamper a fantasy of the total switch off. Others, such as myself, look for a middle ground, with only partial success. 

However, even if going on vacations does not need to be presented as an act of political disobedience, the right to rest is unquestionably a result of past political victories. The legal guarantee of the basic human need to rest and the right to paid holidays definitely cannot be taken for granted. In fact, all forms of labor endemic for the projectariat, such as zero-hour contracts or temporary, project-based assignments, have been introduced to nullify these rights.

If anyone really needs a political reason or justification for simply going on holidays (a perception only hyper-politicised projectarians would ever have), one can simply consider that securing the universal right to rest would require enormous efforts of global magnitude. This will take a lot of collective energy, hence the necessity to charge one’s batteries before charging to yet another battle. One can start with simple steps, though. For example, respecting others’ need for rest may be a simple act of courtesy or comradely care. Yes: People have families. They have lives. They need to take a break, and not respond to yet another super-urgent email in the midst of the summer. Projects can wait; networks will spin relentlessly whether we are in them or not. Maybe it is better to empty time in order to create a space in which one can simply breathe in and breathe out, care for oneself and others, and be recharged in waiting for yet another wave of struggles, as come they will.

This analytical column is based on the arguments that Kuba Szreder develops more thoroughly in the 67 entries in The ABC of the Projectariat: Living and Working in a Precarious Art World, published in December 2021 by the Manchester University Press and the Whitworth, spearheading a new publishing series, The Whitworth Manuals. 

 

CHAPTER 5

ISSUE NO. 24

The CHASE, the SPRINT and the LONG MARCH.

 

Chasing after opportunities, jobs, and projects is a sport-of-necessity for the majority of projectarians. In order to handle the ultra-fast tempo of the global art scene, they must have a knack for quick runs or being naturally born sprinters, otherwise they fail. Some of them even love the thrill of competition and of exhilarating speed or eventually they come to like it, as a result of the long years of training – internships, low paid jobs, applications. In both cases, the competition is cutthroat as the places on the podium are limited, desired by many but acquired by few. In the winners-take-all economy of contemporary art – those who are not fast or privileged enough (art is not a sport for masses after all) are left with naught but their own unfulfilled ambitions. In reality, most of the medals are made of the fools’ gold, and even if they are tokens of merely symbolic recognition, they still matter in the reputational economy, where access is mediated by prestige. But this symbolic capital is a mere excuse for not paying in real cash. 

These hunger games are organized for the enjoyment of the patrons, who watch combatants from the safe position of “impartial” arbiters, commenting on the contests with the lofty disinterest of people who can afford to lose their bets – even when their favorite horse falls out of the race. Not surprising that quite a few projectarians feel as if they are hamsters on a treadmill. Especially when the youthful enthusiasm dissipates and they are faced with their own bodily, psychic, and social limits, it is impossible to keep on with the routine of a frenzied rodent running in vicious circles. Such a regime is not for people who have collective obligations and they have to care for others instead of running from one project to another, nor for people who are not “fit”, “able” or otherwise privileged. 

Some projectarians try to cope with competition and stay in the game for a long run. Looking for greener pastures in academia or institutions, they start to exercise for marathons. To their dismay they find out – sooner rather than later – that most of the jobs on offer are anything but short-distance sprints, and their training goals misplaced. Few projectarians try to leave the rat race, at least disinvest their own psychic energies from it, although they depend on it economically. Whenever they can, they indulge in collective drifts, ramble around with friends and comrades, go here or move somewhere else, with no goal to reach. Walking and talking about matters more or less important, in their own rhythm, they catch a collective breath. These rare moments of respite allow them to charge their batteries, and sometimes these energies burst in a wild dance of spontaneous joy or in a demonstration of righteous anger.  At least in Warsaw, womens’ strikes or antifascist demos often resemble street parties. 

When projectarians radicalize, they embark on a long march of mutual support and political campaigns. This ultimate form of teaming up is inevitable if the playing fields are leveled, the racetracks rewilded, the podiums flattened, and the tribunes turned into meadows. Only then, the competitive sprinters of yore will be free to indulge in the sports of their own choice, or just to take it easy. 

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  • Image caption
    .
    Jimmy Robert, Untitled (Hanging), 2017.

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