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Organized art workers as an obstacle for capitalist culture / ArtLeaks interviewed in IG Kultur

January 20, 2019

Großmutters Wohnzimmer, Odonien/Köln © Christiane Rath

Lidija K. Radojević

Organized art workers as an obstacle for capitalist culture

An interview with Corina L. Apostol & Vladan Jeremić

The rise of cultural and creative industries (CCIs) has drawn attention to traditionally marginalized and disorganized forms of work. While jobs such as writer, artist or musician were once considered ‘bohemian’ or irregular, they have become widely accepted, conventional career paths. Nevertheless, labour such as ‘creative’ production, ‘cultural’ work or ‘artistic’ creation cannot be facilitated by mass production processes without losing a significant part of their product-value. The growing contribution of CCIs to national economies and the sector’s potential for creating new jobs have led to a situation, in which working conditions are no longer questioned. Instead, governments and other policymakers automatically assume cultural work to be an intrinsically progressive type of labour. With production processes being further fragmented and individualized, collectively organized resistance against systematic injustice has become a rare occasion in a field that emphasizes the virtues of self-reliance, unique talent and personalized work. ArtLeaks, a transnational platform dealing with the abuse of labour rights in the fields of culture and arts, exposes production conditions and applies pressure on art institutions and cultural policy makers. I was talking to two co-founders of the platform, Corina L. Apostol, Ph.D., art historian and curator from New York, and Vladan Jeremić, an artist from Belgrade, about inequalities in the art world and possible strategies against this development.

1) You are known for leaking cases in which labour rights were abused in the art world. Could you tell me about the beginnings of your activities?

These cases have been very important for the political focus of ArtLeaks. In 2010, we published our first campaign targeting the Bucharest Biennale. The organizers of the event refused to respect even the most basic labour rights, resulting in a situation in which the participating artists were exploited and censored. Our practice emerged organically from our wish to fight back humiliation and ill-treatment of art workers in Romania. Later, a core group of voluntary activists decided to continue the work by exposing further cases of malpractice in the field globally. This allowed us to direct our focus on the oppressive system being imposed on art workers. With several workers agreeing to publicize their cases, we were able to celebrate small victories over such power structures. The support of Prof. Suzana Milevska and her right to continue to teach at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna was certainly one of the most important, yet complicated cases in the history of ArtLeaks.

2) Could you describe the initial political agenda of ArtLeaks?

From the beginning, we have been raising several questions: What does it mean to reclaim the space of cultural production, both in physical reality as well as digitally? What are the long-term consequences of disrupting the ‘business as usual’ modes of action houses and large galleries? What could be the result of taking over corrupt state institutions? What forms of art education could be established that goes beyond the scope of private academia? Would such a space allow the creation of social alternatives, support the emergence of new ways of thinking and contribute to the formation of resistant political subjectivities?

Cultural workers elaborate on strategies that allow us to transform culture and society. However, after the decline of the Occupy Movement, activists were confronted with the problem of ephemerality. From our point of view, it seems necessary to connect the art workers’ protests of the past years with each other and to highlight alternatives engendered by these movements. On the basis of post-Marxist theory, ArtLeaks takes a clear stance in the contemporary conflict about labour and capital. We understand that the art sector is a part of the wider economic processes in globalized capitalism.

3) Which strategies and tools have you developed to implement your political agenda?

In the past decade, it has become clear that art workers are seeking social transformation. There are different ways how such a change could be achieved. ArtLeaks intends to highlight the wide range of these ideas. Apart from various calls – from the boycott of certain institutions and events to the formation of new art worlds – we have created publications, workshops, and learning-exhibitions dealing with the topic. We need to renew our understanding of past endeavors in order to create experiences that are capable of raising our consciousness as well as to provide models for an effective organization of art workers.

4) Could you please define your political stance? Do you see any historical references in your own work?

Ever since the nineteenth century, art worker coalitions, syndicates, and communes have placed the political dimension of art production under scrutiny. These often self-organized groups, which have developed against the backdrop of social movements around the world, invented various forms of protest and public intervention. Their main purpose was to defend artists’ rights and to reclaim cultural institutions which are embedded in a profound structure of power and capital. These initiatives sought to establish the historically reoccurring notion of ‘art workers’ in order to shift the labor-relations within the production and distribution of art and culture. Historically, we draw our inspiration from artists and initiatives such as Gustave Courbet and the Paris Commune, Gustav Metzger’s “Art Strike”, Lee Lozano’s “General Strike Piece”, the relentless activities of the Art Worker’s Coalition towards a democratization of museums and, more recently, the Obywatelskie Forum Sztuki Współczesnej (Civic Forum for Contemporary Art, OFSW) in Poland and their art strike strategies. Similarly, ArtLeaks aims to influence public discussion on cultural matters, with a focus on the symbolic, political and socio-economic role of cultural producers.

5) How would you contextualise the practical and political work of ArtLeaks?

The political articulation of ArtLeaks is closely related to the anti-austerity movement in the wake of the global financial crisis after 2008. As a result, we have witnessed an increasing politicization of students and art workers worldwide, leading to the emergence of initiatives such as Precarious Workers Brigade, Haben und Brauchen, W.A.G.E. and, not least, ArtLeaks. Initially, we did not regard it necessary to strive for alliances with established unions. Instead, we thought of ArtLeaks as tactical media intervention rather than being an organization restricted to one specific political sector. Unfortunately, the resources of ArtLeaks are rather limited. Moreover, the people involved in the project live in different cities. For these reasons, ArtLeaks has always been an online project on the basis of trust and quick reactions. We did have several physical meetings in order to discuss our basic principles and to decide on modes of collaboration. While our initial gatherings took place in Berlin, Belgrade, and Moscow, we later started to develop our own practice in the course of presentations at exhibitions, conferences, and workshops.

6) Whom does your work address?

According to the logic of creative industries, production is extracted from various entrepreneurs who are isolated from each other – with the artist being one of those. Hence, it is neither sufficient to question the status of cultural workers, nor to criticize state regulations on public funding, education or taxation. Instead, it is important to consider privileges, as well as challenges practitioners, may be facing as a direct consequence of institutionalized market ideology.

In defining a cultural worker, ArtLeaks rejects a sharp division according to the institutional position, legal status or cultural sector. In our view, anybody who is related to the production, distribution, and communication of an art product can be considered as an ‘art worker’. Drawing on Marx’ definition, art workers are subject to categories of class and the relationship between those classes. Thereby, it becomes clear that the analysis of class structure (its relation to the means of production) and the productive process of subjectivization (in the course of class struggle) involves objective and subjective factors. As a result, art workers can be defined as those who struggle against hegemonic positions, who denounce instances of abuse in the realm of cultural labour, who confront repression by dishonest management, who refuse to accept the normality of precarious conditions and who resist the appropriation of politically engaged art, culture and theory by institutions that are embedded in a tight mesh of capital and power.

In 2015, we organized the ‘Trondheim Seminar’ in Norway. In the course, participants tackled problems such as the organization of art labour, the definition of precarity and the separation of art and labour. However, the question remained of how to break up the social division of labour, serving as the basis for the separation of art and labour as distinct categories. Moreover, the participants agreed on the importance of supporting artists to get involved in a joint struggle.

7) Due to its transnational nature, ArtLeaks reflects on labour relations in economical core regions as well as in a sub-ordinated periphery. Could you please describe your perspective on the discrepancy between core and periphery in terms of structures of power and dominance in the field of cultural production?

In fact, the transnational practice of ArtLeaks already reveals a significant imbalance in the relationship between the center and the periphery. It is important, however, to keep in mind that the term ‘periphery’ cannot simply be associated with nation states or regions; the center/periphery-relations are not fixed on certain territories, but should rather be understood as a process being subject to constant change. We must be aware that these changes can happen very slowly so that we might get the impression that the center and periphery are related to certain territories. We could, for example, describe Russia or the Balkans as peripheric, while certain spaces in Moscow or Bucharest are clearly in a core position. Accordingly, the situation for art workers in New York under the Trump-government or in Berlin with its strong gentrification processes might be more precarious than in places that would traditionally be considered peripheral. It is important to note that ArtLeaks addresses a broad range of labour rights in the cultural field instead of supporting only one isolated group of art workers.

In relation to the periphery, the center fulfills several functions: it fosters the hegemonic discourses of modernisation and cultural development, colonizes so-called “small cultures” and attracts skilled labour which is thereby absorbed by the core economy. The advancing integration of global financial markets and the culture of social media have further accelerated the colonisation of the periphery. Even though our interventions concentrate primarily on the internet space and on new media, ArtLeaks goes beyond a temporary, tactical media practice. Instead, we consider ArtLeaks as a strategic tool to expose labour conditions in order to raise the pressure in favor of the periphery, the precarity, and oppressed labour.

8) How do you define the role of ArtLeaks in the formation of a broad alliance supporting the struggle of workers?

ArtLeaks appreciates the international character of the growing movement for labour rights. New forms of resistance make it necessary to rethink art production, to develop creative strategies for organizing institutions and, more generally, to establish a new kind of politics. Thereby, ArtLeaks claims a virtual space that allows art workers to translate their aspirations into a renewed cycle of struggles. In some of our most recent publications, we have attempted to actively coordinate different struggles by sketching out how an international union of art workers might be structured.

At the moment, the most prevailing problem seems to be the local isolation of quite similar struggles, which all too often renders the activists’ efforts ineffective. ArtLeaks intends to raise awareness of own activities and to support the work of similar groups such as W.A.G.E., Precarious Workers’ Brigade and Wages For Wages Against. Through a web of online channels and public space activities, ArtLeaks will continue to promote a larger, international body of resistance and solidarity for the labour rights of art workers.

This interview appeared in German in IG Kultur 1/18 “Prekär Leben.” The ful issue is available for download here.


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