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Afternotes – Assembly for Art Workers and related events in Berlin

October 15, 2014

On September 12th ArtLeaks initiated an Assembly for Art Workers in Berlin, with the support of Flutgraben, Haben und Brauchen and the Arts & Economics group.

The meeting began with a consciousness-raising workshop led by the AG Arbeit (part of Haben und Brauchen) in which the participants formed groups that debated personal questions related to their free time, labor conditions, aspirations/reality, challenges. This gave a common ground between participants who came from different cultural/creative fields and had diverse expectations from the meeting. This was followed by an art bonds auction led by Arts & Economics(A&E) members, in which drawings by Vladan Jeremic for ArtLeaks were exchanged. A&E presented on their activities related to their economics of art production and economic activity as a performative art practice. ArtLeaks members presented the new issue of the ArtLeaks Gazette, using case studies from the publication to stir the discussion.

Some of the questions raised during the assembly that followed were: How can we challenge ourselves to re-imagine fairer relationships to institutions, organizations, networks and economies involved in the production and consumption of art and culture? What joint actions are possible in our collective search for cultural spaces and educational platforms beyond the logic of neoliberal economy? What new ways of unionizing precarious labor exist and could they be adapted to cultural workers? How can we politicize voluntary working relations, and in seemingly activist contexts ? What difficulties do we encounter by addressing these relations ? Does a collectively developed practice of politicizing work ethics enable us to pinpoint and face exploitative situations when working with or for institutions?

Some reactions, comments, reflections that emerged from the discussions:

  • The reserve army of labor is very present in Berlin. Berlin has a big mass of registered artists. Art Universities are incubators for the future reserve army of art labor. The problem is that artists do not want to see themselves as workers. Therefore there is a challenge, to burst ideological balloon of anti-workers image of artists. This is a precondition to agitate about.
  • We should distinguish between levels of precarity: for example, berry pickers from Thailand working in the forests of Finland are in a more precarious situation then some art workers. In any case, the intensity of precarity is defined by the position of the precarious worker in the process of production and exploitation.
  • Social institutions of the welfare state are devastated in the East but also in the West; still the west offers better working conditions and labor codes. Unfortunately in the eastern Europe, the labor code is changed in order to maximize exploitation. Unskilled workers are under huge pressure. This also influences art workers.
  • Art workers have to connect with other workers’ unions and can not stay alone in their specialized filed. Trade-Unions are in the crisis, they can not keep up with the speed of capitalist transactions. Artists could help unions and unions could help artists. Traditional unions have tried recently to unionize precarious workers (the case of Verdi in Germany) but those steps are just the beginning. We need to find models for artists on local and on international level. One level without the other does not work. It would be useful to organize a bigger conference  where we could invite professional experts from the trade-unions, who had experience with unionizing precarious work.
  • ArtLeaks continues to develop mechanisms of public pressure against bad practices and employers, both on the local and international level. At the meeting we discussed the recent case of Vienna-based curator Nicolaus Schafhausen who withdrew from the Bucharest Biennale 6 because of the practices of blacklisting, censorship and lack of transparency of the host organization.
  • We need to connect with similar initiatives in the world and to report cases. We need to implement stable coalition. Some list of contacts on our website of traditional local artists unions, but also new initiatives would be relevant in order to connect them all into strong network. It is a huge shame for art-world that only paid mailing lists such as e-flux serve as kind of networking tool. Artworkers need better unionizing tools/ networks that are not profit oriented. 
  •  ArtLeaks’ work is not only related to issues of censorship, but more and more toward labor issues. Therefore, we need some special chapter on the website, like for example ArtLeaks Labor, or a similar chapter where issues on unionizing could be discussed and contacts listed.

Vladan Jeremic /ArtLeaks

  • Artists are, as much as any worker, subject to ‘austerity’ programs and other exploitative strategies, but their production is not necessary as is the production of food.
  • There was recently a discussion in an art school in the Netherlands, weather students would mind if the school changed its name to replace arts with “creative industries”, and almost no-one seemed to mind.  So maybe if “artists” became “creative industrial workers” they could get more respect from the government. It is a bit of an ironic response, but you all must have noticed that the notion of artistic “work” has spread out to include all manner of activities which formerly would have been excluded.
  •  I think the notion of “creative industrial workers” may have more solidarizing potential in this day and age. People like to call themselves artist and may like to experiment with the idea of withholding artistic services to militate for better conditions. A conference may be a good idea but first you definitely need a constituency which could be served by the militancy the conference will inform.
  • Corruption is not just rampant in the art world, it is undeniably one of its raisons-d’être.  To “clean up” the institutions we need to clean up the ministries of culture, and that is a tall order. Meanwhile there can be a lot accomplished with regard to sexism and other unfair discrimination through whistleblowing.
  • We need a better WWW where cash doesn’t determine what information you see first.  A wiki with a general ratings system for arts institutions may not be a bad idea, where you can give each institution for example 1-10 for transparency, fairness, rate of payment, quickness of payment, etc.  with commentary; a handy reference for all art workers would be salutary.
  • An apocalyptic scenario: we militate for better conditions and then the government shuts down the museums because they are “too expensive to run”. Then we will need to take over the museums ourselves. Hopefully we will do better with the power than our predecessors.

Baruch Gottlieb /Arts&Economics Group

  • How to unionize? is a good question but is anyone seriously trying that, or is it doomed to be a rhetorical question? Maybe it would be better to ask, what are experiences with or with absence of solidarity in the art field, and lets discuss proposals how to solidarise temporarily around certain matters/ locally and internationally?
  • During the final discussion, some proposals were made how to continue awareness raising, or naming and blaming methods towards institutions/ a kind of sign or positive label for those institutions that apply certain standards of wages and fees for art workers etc. Something like these eco food certificates for example. I think that this idea goes a bit in the direction of W.A.G.E. certificates. It would be good to discuss their work in detail. Moreover, they have put so much work in it, why not try to adapt and use their certificate in Europe, too?

 Naomi Hennig/ Haben und Brauchen


The following drawing series entitled “Towards a didactic vocabulary of art workers struggles” (by Corina L. Apostol, Federico Geller, Vladan Jeremic, Juergen Stollhans) was shared freely at the opening of “Artist Fair,” at Galerie Im Turm, curated by Naomi Hennig. This exhibition that focused on the labor conditions of young artists working in Berlin, and especially those who work for large scale events such as Berlin Art Week. At the opening, people were invited to select one drawing from the series as a gift, and discuss them in groups with the artists and each other. As a whole, the series is a visual dictionary, representing a new language that aims to improve art workers struggles.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 16, 2014 2:21 AM

    Thanks for passing this on, guys. I’m happy to say I found the drawings more stimulating than the paper: they bring out a number of interesting conflicts that were “papered” over in the latter.

    In the spirit of a few constructive contributions:

    1) While I appreciate that you stand in solidarity with the “Reserve Army of Labor,” I note that nowhere do you mention the major, potentially divisive element in your stand: Capital. In this regard, your emphasis on the question of wages and cash payments strikes me as a form of evasion: the question, whether one should work for the money alone, or what role the cash nexus plays is not one that a Finnish berry-picker can afford to contemplate. You guys can’t afford not to.

    2) In the same vein, and because I’ve been an organizer, and and off, in four unions on two continents, I’d have to wonder why you feel unions are a solution, since for the most part they serve to reinforce divisions within the Working Class. However, from a purely tactical point of view, you may want to check out the Intermittents in France: a precarious “creative class” (mostly in the Performing Arts) who have been aggressively organizing, albeit to maintain, not obtain, their benefits.


    Paul Werner, PhD, DSFS (Danger to the Security of the French State)


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