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Report of ArtLeaks’ Second Public Assembly, Moscow, July 15th 2012

July 27, 2012

The second iteration of ArtLeaks’ working assembly was facilitated by Corina L. Apostol, David Riff and Dmitry Vilensky in collaboration with members of the May Congress for Creative Workers: Nikolay Oleynikov, Haim Sokol, Evgenia Abramova, Andrey Parshikov and Misha Lilo.

Our assembly took place at Shkola/ School Pavilion in the Park Iskusstv “Muzeon.” Many thanks to Andrey Parshikov for hosting us!

ArtLeaks’ Second assembly took as its main theme the question “What art system do we need?”  (You can read our open call for participation here.) Thus, our assembly sought to  stress the urgent need to address the dire conditions of cultural production in Moscow in particular and in Russia generally – where cultural workers are faced with violent forms of exploitation of their labor, open cynicism, manipulation as well as severe repression and censorship. Cases published on ArtLeaks from Russia well illustrate the aforementioned ills: see herehere and here.

 

Corina Apostol, David Riff and Dmitry Vilensky gave a brief overview of the urgencies that made ArtLeaks come into being, its goals and presented some concrete cases that were published in the year since the platform was launched. We also underlined some useful resources which we made available for free use, such as a Further Reading section which we update regularly with critical texts that relate to our struggle and the No Fee Statement (initiated by the Bureau of Melodramatic Research) through which we encourage cultural workers to use in order to make visible corporate and publicly funded institutions’ inequitable compensation of their workforce.

We also emphasized how our collective endeavor (which reunited cultural workers from different cultural contexts and fields of activity) began with a specific case of abuse and censorship which we decided to respond to collectively and give as an example, and create a space where instances of repression, exploitation of cultural labor, being obstructed, or even excluded and fired for speaking out could be shared and addressed publicly. While every context may be different from the point of view of political opportunity, economy and disposition of societal forces, ArtLeaks underlines the necessity to analyze the aforementioned problems as systemic inequalities and exploitation, to expose violations of cultural workers’ rights internationally. Moreover, we highlighted that a significant part of our efforts are not only geared towards exposing cases in order to generate necessary tensions but also towards forging alliances and supporting certain existing initiatives (see our Related Causes) in order to collectively formulate solutions. As an example, we gave the outcome of our previous assembly in Berlin where we supported the formation of a Cultural Workers’ Association that continued to organize around the issues that were raised

After our presentation we opened the floor for comments and questions from the audience.

 

Surprisingly some of the first reactions speculated on the scenario in which ArtLeaks would become a powerful institutions, which would need a team of lawyers to protect it and command a serious budget for supporting different initiatives (currently ArtLeaks is not funded) – in which case, the question arose of how we would organize the selection process? In our opinion our platform is still at an early stage of development so it did not really make sense to focus on these issues; however, the assembly participants correctly noted that ArtLeaks has the potential to become a serious counter-institution in the near future.

Another important criticism of the current way in which ArtLeaks is operating was that ironically, we strongly advocate for cultural workers to demand decent conditions of production but at the same time, our project demonstrates that such an ambitious initiative can in fact be based on free labor. We have agreed to respond that we must differentiate from grass-roots political activities while also keeping with the goals of our platform, even in the situation in which ArtLeaks would get proper funding – so that ArtLeaks maintains its mission but maybe also foster certain start-up activities.

Participants at the assembly were also interested in discussing the artistic dimension of the case studies which we presented on – namely that in some instances the cultural workers that used our resources decided to present their situation using different conceptual art strategies – intertwined with a documentary or reportage-type of narration. Our position is that ArtLeaks in-itself is not an artistic project and we do not wish it to be displayed as such (for example in an exhibition or a biennale) – rather we conceptualize it as a discursive, critical work. At the same time, it was pointed out that contemporary art is not limited to the medium in which is comes into being and further, that institutional critique is a welcome and established form of artistic production. Moreover, if ArtLeaks is promoting new forms of artistic reflection on labor conflicts, they should by all means be integrated into appropriate institutional projects, which would enable them to gain a much wider economy of attention. However, it is our position that these materials should not be presented under the name of ArtLeaks, rather our platform should play the role of a distribution hub through which any contributor could use their case in any way he or she wants.

A large part of the discussions were focused on the local situation in Moscow: it was highlighted by the participants that this context lacks a tradition of institutional critique precisely because of the ephemerality and instability of the institutional context, the absence of formal classifications in the field of culture on the one hand and the prevalence of individual entrepreneurial activities which exclude concrete goals, strategies and programs as well as a division of responsibilities and professional ethics. As a result of all this, working without a contract, wage delays or not being compensated for one’s labor are standard practices in the local context. Cultural production is therefore turned into a kind of self-enterprise based on informal relationships, and within these thick layers of informal obligations and responsibilities the power dynamic and the flow of capital are hard to discern. Thus, proper resistance, dialogue or alliances are severely hindered or close to impossible.

The issue was raised that ArtLeaks has a unique chance of undertaking a new stage of institutional critique – previous developments of this strategy were always intertwined with institutions and became incorporated into their operations. As opposed to this, it was noted that ArtLeaks presents an external agency which allows for a new position to be articulated, one that is more political as it falls outside of the borders of contracts, institutions, marketing strategies etc. At the same time, our platform is open for participation to people from different countries where classical modes of institutional critique may be quite inefficient because of the concrete political, economic opportunities on those sites.

We also introduced the idea of creating an on-line journal for ArtLeaks and extended a call to contribute to the participants at the assembly. We highlighted that the main task of the journal would not to be just a survey of different cases that were published by our platform, rather to try to reflect systemic injustices and inequalities and expose how these harm cultural production in general. The journal would also seek to find a common language to foster solidarity among cultural workers and engendering a different frames for involving them in political struggles that pertain to the production and distribution of their work.

The culmination of the discussion was on the concept of democracy as it relates to the organization of contemporary culture. Evgenia Abramova suggested that large-scale projects such as the Moscow Biennale should be run by an assembly of all the participants in the production process. This idea sparked a strong opposition from many of the participants, in particular David Riff who remarked that “Art  may foster democracy but it is not democratic in its form of organization.” Dmitry Vilensky also criticized the assembly-form giving as example the recent Occupy movements, and instead advocated the reconsideration and actualization of working councils as structures with much more political potential for change.

 

Photos by Nikolay Oleynikov and Dmitry Vilensky at the ArtLeaks Assembly at Shkola Pavilion in Moscow.

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We invite others who participated in our Assembly in Moscow  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. 

Special thanks to members of the May Congress for Creative Workers for their support, to Shkola Pavilion in the Park Iskusstv “Muzeon”  for hosting us in Moscow and to all those who attended and participated in the discussions! 

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