Acting Politically as a Cultural Worker in Russia
In October 2014 I opened an independent gallery in Moscow with a friend. It closed this summer after attempting to show an exhibition about LGBT youth (Be yourself: stories of LGBT teenagers). I say attempted to show because the police turned up before the photos had even been installed, a little reminder of just how ridiculous things are getting over here and how much more ridiculous they will probably get. I learned a lesson from this story, but it wasn’t about queer exhibitions in the Putin era.
The Russian art community has taken part in a string of clashes between cultural institutions and the government in the past decade. One of the most famous cases happened in 2006, when Andrei Erofeev and Yuri Samodurov curated “Forbidden Art” at the Sakharov Center, an exhibition containing images that the Russian Orthodox Church found blasphemous and of the “inciting religious hatred” variety. Erofeev and Samodurov were fined in a highly-publicized trial. The pattern became all too familiar: certain ideas, themes and concepts inevitably drew attention from the patriarchal authoritative figures, religion topping the charts. These run-ins started happening sporadically and gradually leaked into other cultural territories as well, such as contemporary theatre.
The dialogues around such events typically subordinate to several binary positions: the liberal, Western-oriented claim to artistic freedom as the basic right of the cultural worker, and the conservative, right-wing rhetoric of the aggressors. When an exhibition is closed or attacked by radical Orthodox protesters, the Russian artistic community rallies around a set of principles that have become, over the years, somewhat of a manifest of the artists, filmmakers, theorists and activists working in the country today. These principles can be traced through the various letters and petitions that have been signed in collective unison in response to the aforementioned clashes. What I feel is missing from this conversation are bodies.
When I wanted to open my independent exhibition space, all in the name of “artistic freedom”, I was faced with the fact that it would have to be funded without the help of external financing. This meant that I needed a stable job with at least an average income that would allow me to pay rent for the space, my own rent and living expenses. That was how I found myself working for Digital October, an educational startup at one of Moscow’s creative hubs in a former chocolate factory. “It’s very bohemian,” my mother remarked when she came there for the first (and last) time. The sealing deal for me was that this was a job from the real world. No longer would I have to be an unemployed artist, instead I could have the best of both worlds: creativity that isn’t alienated or objectified and a regular income and employment benefits. My tasks at my new job consisted of organizing a short educational program about digital producing, which didn’t even seem that bad. The program finished just as my probationary period did. I was told to continue doing this and that; marketing, video production, curating new courses. I was also told by the company’s boss that I would be fired on the spot for failing to produce content that would generate money for the business. A few people were. Life continued as normal.
It’s hard to say what exactly was wrong with this relationship, because often the line between work, life, and in this case, art, is blurred. Labor relations weave in and out of friendships, personal growth, the sense of stability, attempts at escaping loneliness, small achievements. Sometimes you stop distinguishing between doing well at the place where you are employed and you doing well. In this case, I curated a couple of exhibitions that were very important to me, using the money I earned at my day-time job, and this was certainly much higher on my list of priorities than my relationship with my employer.
Immaterial labour, the term coined by Maurizio Lazzarato, describes a new kind of labour in the post-Fordist economy, one which slips between alienating and empowering. The experience of artistic labour is characterized by terms such as networking, temporary contracts, irregular paychecks, freelance, and the belief that you are talented enough to one day wind up the recipient of a career-boosting Art Prize or in a good Biennale (or, at least, the Moscow Biennale). Working for the creative industries, there are the perks that come with packaging the wonderful human ability to strike the right nerves in people’s hearts into products and services. When the same type of instability and labour relations bleed into the office, into the normal blue-collar world, there just isn’t as much meaning to hold on to.
When something is not going right at that place where you produce surplus value for your boss, you dream of the power of physicality. I’m probably the only person who savored the moment everyone at the office came to present the boss with a gift for his newborn daughter, jokingly chorusing that they had all decided to simultaneously quit. Of course, organizing a strike or occupying the physical space where capital is produced to demand your rights isn’t something that seems feasible in an office in a trendy downtown red brick-walled factory. It’s strange because other things seem just as unfeasible: when you are repeatedly asked each month by the well-meaning secretary to donate money for your co-worker’s birthdays, but your boss is, of course, missing from the mailing list. The designer is walking home today because he just maxed out his credit card, chipping in on a gift for Anna. You just wish the boss was on the list too.
One day I was told the company wasn’t doing well and I probably should start looking for a new job. This happened a few weeks after the police came to my gallery. Bizarrely, my first reaction was to start questioning my apparent complete failure as an artist. Where, I thought, will I go when I’m depressed and can’t talk to anyone but just need to sit around people? How does not having a stable salary after having one categorize me as a person? Good thing the gallery closed, what would I be doing if I had to pay rent for it now? On a whim, I went to a lawyer specializing in trade law.
Some of my friends found this all to be terribly entertaining. Apparently, I was one of the only people in the cultural industry in Moscow who had never been cheated out of money. Everyone had a collection of stories to tell about the time they were paid 50 dollars whilst assisting on a movie for weeks on end or exhibited their work in a prestigious exhibition where the artist’s fee was spent on champagne for the opening night. The only problem was that I wasn’t even employed in the cultural industry. I had been fucked over in the real world. I had become, without even noticing, an independent contractor.
The scheme my employer working by was simple, and quite common in Russia. Instead of hiring me in accordance with the Russian Labour Code, which guarantees all workers 28 days of paid vacation, a probation period not exceeding 3 months, paid overtime, paid sick leave and protections against dismissal, I was hired as a temporary contractor, with a civil law contract. These type of contracts have special criteria that sets them apart from full-time contracts, and specifically regulate temporary work. Employees get none of the aforementioned benefits, but do not have to comply with a company’s internal policies, do not come into the office, and only work on a certain task within an agreed timeframe.
According to Russian law, companies are not allowed to sign a civil law contract with a worker when the employer/employee relationship is in fact of an employment nature. However, a lot of businesses in Russia don’t follow this rule, as this allows them to save money on worker benefits and, basically, fire people whenever and however they want. With the Russian economy slipping further and further into recession due to the Putin government’s increasingly bizarre foreign and local policymaking, a lot of people are glad to have any sort of job at all. Which, of course, is the reason why companies like Digital October can get away with this sort of treatment. Recent attempts at creating independent trade unions have illustrated just how dangerous it is to be involved in the labour movement in Russia today. The media has all but ignored the story of the Sheremetevo Trade Union of Airline Pilots, who were set to win a case against Aeroflot which would result in over one billion rubles being paid to overworked Aeroflot employees. Three of the key figures in the organization were jailed before the ruling.
The gallery I ran for a whole year, a space that was supposed to foster critical thought and artistic freedom, turned out to be a lesson on the painful relationship between politics and art. Trying to escape the under-funded Russian arts industry, and the consequent state of fear, uncertainty and instability that stems from precarious artistic labour, as well as needing to be independent from sources of funding that would potentially restrict certain artwork from being shown created a very narrow definition of the political; concerned with representation, dialogue, exhibition-making and the materialization of progressive ideological discourses. The political should have first and foremost been concerned with bodies, not ideas, and how these bodies are forced to function in capitalist structures without protection or political awareness.
The trade lawyer I went to told me that although my situation is widespread and the government recently toughened laws that target businesses refusing to properly employ their workers, courts in Moscow generally side with the employee, and taking your boss to court is expensive. This is a struggle outside of the current ideological war tearing Russia up into Pro-Putin and Pro-Freedom camps, where every single person becomes a target for their beliefs. Maybe Russian cultural workers and activists should start looking past ideologies for a new definition of “acting politically”, looking for a way to unite society, rather than divide it further. Beyond political beliefs, we are all actually in the same position.