Report of ArtLeaks’ First Public Assembly and Workshop, Berlin, June 3-4, 2012
Through Skype: The Bureau of Melodramatic Research, Vladan Jeremic of Biro Beograd and Zampa di Leone collective, Jean-Baptiste Naudy of Société Réaliste, Tanja Ostojic / Art & Economics Group, Marsha Bradfield / Critical Practice
ArtLeaks members organized our first working assembly followed by a workshop around the issues that are at the core of our mission, namely exposing and dealing with instances of abuse, corruption and exploitation in the artworld. These public events presented a unique opportunity to directly engage the conditions of cultural work that affect cultural workers: those from the traditionally creative fields and those involved in cultural production. In doing so we tried to bridge historical connections with existing pre-conditions of cultural workers self-organization, as well as to build on these models towards international geo-political engagement. We strongly believe that issues of censorship and abuse cannot be divorced from specific politico-economic contexts and further, that they should be raised in connection with new forms of class consciousness in the artistic and cultural fields.
Given the current problematic politics of sponsorship in contemporary art and culture, the intense exploitation of cultural labor and widespread abuse and corruption perpetuated by certain cultural managers and institutions, we sought to engage participants in imagining possibilities for transversal alliances and collective activism. We also sought to receive critique on how to improve the way ArtLeaks is currently functioning and to announce the upcoming launch of our online journal, which will be dedicated to cultural workers’ rights and related struggles.
The events were well attended by local and international artists, theoreticians and activists, as well as members of Occupy Museums and Arts&Labor (NYC), Haben und Brauchen (Berlin), Rosa Perutz collective (Berlin), Interflugs (Berlin) etc.
ArtLeaks Public Assembly, June 3rd, Flutgraben
Corina Apostol gave a brief overview of how ArtLeaks came into being, its mission and gave examples of some concrete cases that were submitted in the year since the platform was launched. ArtLeaks emerged out the necessity to address the bad practices we experienced and witnessed at Pavilion UniCredit in Bucharest – but grew to become an international open platform where similar stories could be shared and addressed. Our platform publicly revealed issues which we face frequently in the workplace: dealing with abusive directors and managers of cultural institutions and having to work in restrictive institutional spaces, controlled by corporations and state organizations embedded in a tight mesh of capital and power; the suspension of critical discourse as a result of all these forces, under the pretext of other existing “emergencies” such as lack of funds, disappearing exhibition spaces, the shrinking of public space; instances when those who criticize bad practices are accused that they are not preoccupied with continuity, stability and certain perennial values which have little to do with actual needs, urgencies or demands of a community; instances of isolation, being obstructed or even being laid off for raising one’s voice.
At the core of our mission is the belief that if one doesn’t raise these problems as part of a larger system of inequality and exploitation, things will not change but become more cemented as they are, normalizing abuses, deepening historical pre-conditions that de-professionalize de-politicize our social mission. ArtLeaks’ mission is not only about naming and shaming, but exposing criminal violation of cultural workers’ rights in general – to this end we make an effort to publish both sides of a conflict and invite commentary from the international community. By engendering an open space for discussion and shedding light on difficult situations, necessary tensions are generated and solutions can begin to be formulated collectively.
David Riff emphasized that one of the most important things ArtLeaks should take into account in its development is finding modes of narrations about abuses which are not so obvious, developing borderline cases in which we are all involved, not only blatant instances of exploitation. ArtLeaks should grow beyond exposing abuses by tackling systemic imbalances. He exemplified that there may be cases with very good conditions of productions, but scenarios in which the critical meaning of artists’ work is expropriated by people who are working in the completely opposite directions. It is very important to find ways to talk about these situations, to try to identify more systemic exploitation and create a pressure that doesn’t just lead to the collapse of a project. Tackling systemic exploitation also means tackling capitalist logic, which is the direction in which ArtLeaks should be functioning.
Vlad Morariu highlighted the overlap between ArtLeaks and the more canonized types of institutional critique in the West which one reads about in art-historical reviews, such as the Art Workers Coalition, The Guerrilla Art Action Group, Art & Language, PAD/D, Group Material. In this context, he emphasized that institutional critique is not something of the past that has been exhausted, but still holds relevance. Equally significant, ArtLeaks also deals with cases from places like India, Mexico, UAE that are not considered the center of the artworld, and generally ignored from the discussions. Mentioning these cases bears weight on rearticulating institutional critique as a practice whose tasks are constantly reformulated by taking into account the specificity of contexts wherein it emerges. We must also include these other contexts when we talk about an international struggle of cultural workers. Another question is whether exposure is enough, and what can we do after exposing these cases of exploitation, how can we act given this knowledge. Finally, while systemic repression is very important, it is equally urgent to deal with self-repression, which happens before we enter institutional spaces.
Raluca Voinea declared that she joined ArtLeaks in solidarity with the conflict situation around the Bucharest art scene, while also fully supporting the idea of making the platform wider for broader participation. She emphasized that she is also interested in how to take the project further, making it not only about exposure but how to join forces and change a system which is broken. It is not really so much about revealing what is in the open, what everyone knows already but revealing the mechanisms that perpetuates the status quo indefinitely. These are not only the mechanisms of the art world but also the ways in which society works today – and we should also think how we as cultural workers can act in changing the broader systems in which we are functioning. It is also important to recognize that as soon as one steps outside the art system in the West cultural work seems to count less and less, and how culture in general seems to have less of a meaning.
Dmitry Vilensky approached ArtLeaks’ imperative “It is time to break the silence!” through feminist psychoanalytical analysis of domestic violence. Similarly, abuses and repression in the artworld happen inside a system, and like in a family it is very hard to speak up. But unless we articulate the cycle of violence we can hardly move forward to change the dynamic, which is related to everyday systemic exploitation. It is also important to find ways to narrate these cases – for example in the initial case of ArtLeaks around Pavilion Unicredit when the artists and curators experienced incredible abuse and very unprofessional relations from the side of the institution, it seemed like there was no network of support to resist or change the course of events. When ArtLeaks co-founders started discussing this and other similar situations, it seemed like there was a great urgency to generate something collectively. We therefore modestly created an online spot where other cultural workers could share their plights, discuss and have access to this type of information. At this point, ArtLeaks is building an online journal dedicated to labor rights and abuse in art and culture. We want to emphasize that it is not only about particular conditions of production but also about who controls the means of production. Finally, the group identity of ArtLeaks is open to anyone who wants to join us and work alongside us – it is a collective platform for empowerment of cultural workers and the art community.
Vladan Jeremic addressed the issues raised by ArtLeaks from his position as an activist, cultural worker and political worker in Belgrade, Serbia. He joined ArtLeaks as this seemed to him the first direct articulation of the possibility to open up the discourse around conditions of cultural work and reflect on a global level. This is not always possible, as there are a lot of situations of violent corruption and criminal activities that go on in contemporary art and culture about which it is very difficult to speak out without a legal frame. Jeremic believes that the first case profiled on ArtLeaks around Pavilion Unicredit was very effective; nevertheless, ArtLeaks should not focus so much on strictly censorship and freedom of expression, but rather on how these may be politically articulated and contextualized. Otherwise we may run into the situation of perpetuating a neo-liberal, pro-democracy fake discourse that lacks political contextualization and serves hegemonic structures. Jeremic also suggested that a strategy for accountability in the art circuit would be to call all organizers of cultural events to transparently share their budget and the working relation dynamics. As generally people like to see art as ethically innocent, we should observe art production in Marxist terms and introduce the concept of “misuse in art.” Thus we could challenge the petit-bourgeois middle class producers that protect this image of art as “clean” to maintain their own status.
Jean-Baptiste Naudy spoke on behalf of the cooperative Société Réaliste. He declared that he joined ArtLeaks out of solidarity with the clear case of corruption and abuse around the Bucharest Biennale – which showed how an international art event can mis-use radical artistic discourse while engaging in dirty neo-liberal practices. ArtLeaks currently has a fluid structure, according to which any cultural worker may join and work together with us. We should take this structure to also generate events in public space, collective actions, political interventions outside of virtual space. We need to create a sense of urgency and solidarity around systemic exploitation. Our factories are the factories of art, we must take back our institutions and for this we must fight together. Whether we are artists, art historians, critics, curators, we have common interests – we are all cultural workers working in this economy and we must take back the means of production. We in ArtLeaks should try to remain as communalistic, horizontal and international as we are at the moment. All of must continue, through our own means, to break the capitalist logic that is expressed in the field of art and culture as well as in other fields of society.
The Bureau of Melodramatic Research suggested that we also take into consideration how the capital of emotions is used and mis-used for economic and political purposes. From Plato to Niechzche and beyond, philosophy is obsessed with tragedy – what would it be like it to have a philosophy instead of a melodrama? Here, the members of the Bureau referred specifically to Michel Foucault’s concerns about recovering the concept of parrhesia, the physical and mental space which would allow one to say everything she has in mind. One wouldn’t hide anything, but open her up to other people through discourse. At stake here is a complete and exact account of what the speaker has in mind so that, to put it in Foucault’s words, the audience is able to comprehend exactly what the speaker thinks. What would it mean to adopt the philosophy of melodrama for ArtLeaks? In our case we cannot simply use an external and detached critique which in a way has been characteristic of classical activism and trade unionism – we should explore other ways of action. We have to recognize that standing in opposition implies both financial and emotional aspects. We must address these claims of detachment and distance, which are patriarchal and hegemonic. Instead, the Bureau proposed an acceptance of the internal position that cultural workers have, to accept that we are acting from uncertain ground – we are all entangled in the art system which we denounce – so how do we address the illusion of autonomy, this detached critique?
Reactions and comments from the audience
It is important to recognize that cultural workers are generally afraid to question the system, to question the gallery or the museum, they are afraid to ask for contracts and this is deeply embedded in our relations with ourselves and with institutions.
Blithe Riley from Occupy Arts&Labor emphasized in response that international solidarity is an idea that a lot of activist groups are excited about. At the same time it is very important to recognize that there are many artworlds, not just one and we tend to focus on the top tier, or “the West” more generally. We should strive to connect with different labor groups and explore models for alternative economies. An example of a successful boycotting campaign is the Gulf Labor Coalition: cultural workers refused to participate in museum exhibitions unless the exploitation of the workers building the museum ceased. But it is more common that if a cultural worker refuses to participate in a project because they are not treated well or because the project is dubious in itself, there is probably going to be someone else taking their place. Articulating these instances via ArtLeaks could empower them in the particular situation.
Developing a glossary or a vocabulary would be helpful in adjusting terminology between the current members of ArtLeaks and potentially new members, and also relating our project to historically similar actions. It could also include a regional context index where areas of cultural and artistic work could be framed. The language of trade unions who fight for workers’ rights could be adapted to cultural production workers, which may help these workers to speak openly about their grievances and legitimize them, and thus organize around. This was also one of the successful outcomes of the assembly, as work on such a glossary has already started on discussion groups that were created in the aftermath of the event.
The local situation in Berlin was also addressed, especially the Berlin Biennale. Local activist considered it a very problematic as it presented itself as a sort of left-wing attack on the ways in which the art world normally functions, but under the guise of a very progressive agenda cultural workers were also being abused there and corruption was taking place. We have to recognize that cultural workers also abuse other cultural workers for their own economies or to garner attention for themselves. While the call for solidarity is welcome, we should also think about how to respond to these kind of practices, and our need to gain attention in the art system.
Marsha Bradfield of Critical Practice and Precarious Workers Brigade (PWB) drew our attention to the fact that while exposure, naming and shaming is important it is also vital to give praise to good practices, to celebrate these. Furthermore, what incentives do employers have to treat cultural workers fairly, to have good practices. Unless we answer these basic questions, platforms like ArtLeaks and PWB can become an end in itself, and not generate something useful. So we have to ask ourselves what do we really want and how we can explain this in a straightforward, clear way. ArtLeaks should not be about retaliation, or simple justice, but about a broader concept of justice.
What it at stake here is also a different type of art community, not just abuse of labor laws. We should also discuss about how people that clean up our exhibition spaces are treated; or how interns are being exploited so frequently and violently – as they are largely treated as a reservoir of free labor.
Cultural workers need to reclaim their dignity, and this starts with the professional protocol in our workplaces. Nowadays it seems like it’s a shame to be an artist or a curator or a writer – that it is more important to be a social worker, to solve conflicts, to be useful in other ways. We are demanded results and effectiveness. So we should first clean-up our art factories and then find common ground with trade unions and other factories and workers.
Another important issue is what comes out of exposing and how we can link this to mobilization. Are anonymity or identification along class lines productive ways to organize around art workers’ struggles? And how safe does one feel to expose something on ArtLeaks.
ArtLeaks proposes that one has to have courage to expose, to take this responsibility. Furhtermore, in the art world it is almost impossible to be anonymous. We are in the situation of living in a close knit community, like that of a small town – unlike the exposures we read about on Wikileaks. We all know which projects go on at a given moment and who is involved in them– so it makes no little sense to hide, although we respect anonymity when cultural workers request of us.
It may be that it is precisely the close-knit, leakish nature of the art world that makes exploitation possible at the same time that makes it impossible to hide. It is perhaps useful to have international observers comment on local cases to break this cycle – to have problems stated from the outside of a local context.
Most cultural workers are struggling to survive and to do their projects – mobilization is very difficult therefore, but it is important to try to organize these kinds of gatherings and build coalitions in the future. There is a lot of interest in continuing these kind of projects of emancipation and solidarity, but in the end it usually happens that a very small group of people end up doing the basics, the ground work. There are many uplifting ideas around what needs to be changed and great possibilities but one has put in the effort to make them happen.
Workshop with Interflugs, June 4th, West Germany
The main focus of the workshop was to discus editorial strategies for the forthcoming ArtLeaks journal and continue exploring possibilities for coalitions and direct actions.
Corina Apostol, Vlad Morariu, David Riff, Dmitry Vilensy and Raluca Voinea raised the following main points to work on regarding the ArtLeaks journal: the structure of the journal itself, what narrative strategies could be used to expose clear cases of abuse as well as less obvious ones, and how to link these to systemic inequalities; continuing to expand on narrative devices, including visual narration and media activist materials; producing comparative analysis of cases and formulating methodologies; in what ways we can exert pressure through leaking information and what is to be done after exposure; the question of confronting institutions, demanding that they be responsible for more fair treatment (for example, making them sign the No Fee Statement introduced on ArtLeaks); discussing the Berlin Biennale as a concrete situation, in a certain historical moment.
Reactions and comments from the audience
The idea of an art assembly was introduced by Ivor Stodolsky of Perpetuum Mobile. The mission of the art assembly would be to analyze and solve cases: inviting both sides of a conflict and anyone that may be interested, presenting the case of aggrieved cultural workers in front of a jury which then extracts from that particular situation the criteria according to which this or that has been done wrong, and how it could be done differently, to turn it into a positive situation. This would ensure more transparency and open the process of “leaking” towards a form of peer-reviewing. It could also help us trace systemic imbalances by comparing cases which are similar and push the project towards formulating methodologies.
The idea of an art assembly may be useful in some cases, but ArtLeaks members feel like it is not important to focus so much on finding a reconciliation organ, but to also build outrage and indignation. An art assembly may placate some of the people involved but instead of remaining trapped in too much dialogue, we should also work towards a steady rise of indignation and an intensification of struggles. We also believe that there may be circumstances in which aggrieved cultural workers may want to engage in a thoughtful dialogue, but this is not always possible. We emphasize that different context require different mechanisms or methodologies that may not work in other places.
ArtLeaks should develop a structure that is more open for broader participation and continue organizing meetings with concrete goals depending on the context or specific conflict situations. ArtLeaks should challenge and provoke institutions but also to build constructive relationships and alliances with them. Institutions are not our main enemy, instead we should have in mind broader, systemic problems that need to be rectified or transformed. ArtLeaks should also develop in the direction of mapping different activist responses to conflicts and abuses and sharing these experiences across localities, as there are diverse politics at work in different parts of the globe.
After general discussions, the workshop split in two main working groups which discussed the following topics
- Writing about specific cases and modes of narration that are politically effective
- Anonymity and representation
- Alliances that cultural workers are trying to build for fighting together, to reclaim the factories of cultural production
- Creating a board of standards for ethical behavior
- How to address systemic problems and inequalities, how to recreate or re-establish art and culture
- Berlin Biennale as a representative case for finding possibilities of criticism in the context of the Berlin art community
Conclusions and comments of the two working groups
- 3 main distinctions: what ArtLeaks can do concretely, what it concretely represent to an international community of art workers, how it can be used to exchange local knowledge and experiences with an international community
- This very meeting can be used to forge more sustainable connections with artists groups internationally; ArtLeaks can’t solve everyone’s problems, it has to work in tandem with other self-organizing initiatives
- This moment is a very interesting situation: through ArtLeaks’ initiative a lot of international cultural workers came together; this moment should be used to create a platform that could work independently of Artleaks, uniting groups presently in the space
- ArtLeaks is a tool to expose and mediate knowledge – a form of investigative journalism that can be used to form alliances – but the moment of exposure cannot fully address self-organization
- The recognized urgent necessity for syndicalizing, unionizing at the local level and forming cosmopolitan alliances
- Concrete plan of action for cultural workers in Berlin: to create a mailing list, a group platform that would facilitate staying in contact and forging connections – a Cultural Workers Association; organizing a meeting in the next two weeks to deepen the connections that were already formed with the occasion of these events
- Suggestions for ArtLeaks: to create a mailing list on google where people can subscribe, cases could be discussed, context could be clarified, there would be inner accountability; this would open ArtLeaks to a peer to peer review, which could be a good way to broaden project, make it an overarching coalition structure.
- The problem of narrating cases is related to knowledge and local insight, which should be developed more on ArtLeaks; finding a common frame for discussion is related to translation and languages used: for example, creating a basic glossary for concepts and local contexts descriptions
- Editing and narration problems can be solved through peer to peer reviews, sharing concrete experiences, and by suggesting not one, but several courses of action
- There is a necessity to have an ethical system, methodology, tools for emancipation – to answer the question what do we want as a collective?
- Problems that commercial tendencies are defining more and more our reality
- We need to distinguish between universal ethics which most of us reject and how a different ethic system(s) could be formulated
- We should also address the fact that art is producing a lot of discussions related to leftist culture, but almost always according to capitalist logic
- Human life should be more important than the cultural products
- Finding ways to discussing and experiment, arriving at concrete proposals, while also keeping in mind that creating emancipatory knowledge is a way to start to changing the world
- Problem of legitimation in ArtLeaks should be addressed: who decides which cases are important, who can participate; ArtLeaks should develop a system that is more accountable by opening itself to more participation
- Diversifying ArtLeaks – trying to exert some kind of pressure on the system by trying not to be the same people all the time who are at the forefront of these activist projects
A branch of cultural workers who participated in the ArtLeaks assemblies decided to continue and meet each other in Berlin. They constituted a ‘Cultural Workers Association’ which is currently open for participation to anyone who would like to solidarize around cultural workers’ struggles in the local context and globally. The members of the platform will be involved, in the next several months, in the organization of a series of meetings, whose purpose is to make the project known and invite possible collaborators to join the cause.
Photos by Olga Egorova (Tsaplya) at the ArtLeaks Assembly at Flutgraben, Graphics by Federico Geller in response to the discussions
We invite others who participated in our Assembly and Workshop that would like to add any information that may be missing from this report to contribute by leaving us comments below. We will incorporate these into our report in a timely manner.