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From competition and (self-)exploitation to collaboration and care

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May Congress Art Workers
May Congress Art Workers

Let’s imagine capitalism after coronavirus. Is it a dystopic vision? A hyper-efficient, optimized global labour camp that never rests? Will the precarity of creative and intellectual labour reach new extremes—rivalling the vulnerability of service workers on the periphery of the global employment market? Will creative and cognitive workers be at the mercy of a new, ultra-neoliberal model of artificial intelligence and total control, exercised through network infrastructures and algorithmic interfaces? And if so, will this transparent, super-efficient labour model also provide a buffer—a grey zone of indistinguishability—that will foster a new counter culture? A space comparable to that which was once occupied by bohemians, hippies, underground artists, anarcho-squatters, and art activists. Or will even more people, having withdrawn from the race—because they aren’t flexible enough, because they aren’t able to multitask—become part of a new lumpen proletariat catapulted into a barren, subordinate existence? The fact that these questions come up at all reveals a deeper issue: we are prepared to think about capitalism after coronavirus, after the war, after the apocalypse—but we aren’t ready to picturethe worldafter capitalism. Nothing has changed since Mark Fisher and Slavoj Žižek first voiced this famous dilemma. Might the turbulence of our era—all the doomsday prophecies—expedite the fall of capitalism? Could the coronavirus usher in the “Coronacene era”—in which creative cooperation[1] will replace competition, and human empathy and social engagement will fill the spiritual void that’s now plugged by overconsumption? Or will the vertical global corporations of the capitalist era reprivatize the “general intellect”? The scope of this essay is limited to cultural production and art, understood to be a testing ground for introducing new forms of exploitation and control, as well as a field for applying various kinds of ontological design.[2]

Roman Sergeevich Osminkin is a contemporary art and poetry theorist, poet, performer, and curator. This article originally appeared on the website of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Moscow Office.

This article was translated by Ekaterina Petelina

In her well-known essay, “Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy”, Hito Steyerl identifies the contemporary artist as a “shock worker”: borrowed from the nomenclature of the Soviet Union, the term refers to a highly productive worker, whose labour expresses “enthusiastic labor: shock, strike, blow”. The “shock work” of modern cultural factories also extends to the sensory dimension of shock: an “affective labor at insane speeds, enthusiastic, hyperactive, and deeply compromised”. Steyerl drew this comparison, not only in order to note the general similarities between Stakhanovite labour and modern “creative strike workers propelled into the global sphere of circulation known today as the art world”, but above all to show that in both cases shock production is driven by unpaid labour and accelerated exploitation.

In other words, under semiocapitalism cultural production has become a testing ground for new forms of even more flexible, efficient, and productive work. The modern artist, in turn, has become the “global lumpenfreelancer”: an entrepreneur and a universal content provider who is always for sale in an oversaturated and shrinking market. According to Steyerl, this de-territorialized and ideologically dependent subject is needed to fill the “disaster zones of shock capitalism”, which itself exists in a state of permanent disaster, or, to paraphrase Naomi Klein, feeds on catastrophe.[3] In disaster capitalism, every emergency is a pretext for using digital infrastructure to tighten control. In this panopticon, the contemporary artist is in-demand only as a designer, or as a supplier of anesthetizing daily content—and never as a critical insurgent, or an (anti-)utopian imagination. But worst of all, the structure of the art world makes it impossible to show solidarity, or protect labour rights in cultural production. As Steyerl writes, “opportunism and competition are not a deviation of this form of labor but its inherent structure”, and therefore “there is no automatically available road to resistance and organization for artistic labor”. Creative Stakhanovites’ enthusiasm gives way to burnout, conflict, and rabid competition for limited, ever-dwindling resources in the midst of a mounting crisis.

In our coronavirus end-times, however, many cultural producers are waking up: earlier forms of criticism and resistance have been exhausted, and the “futurelessness of the present” (Madina Tlostanova) has become an aggravated state for those who have found themselves suddenly unemployed, for those whose workplaces—which also happen to be their homes, where they work remotely—have become politicized. They are waking up to a different political imagination.[4]

During the pandemic, which has reshaped the way that art institutions function, contemporary art’s blind spot—that is, its inherent structural flaw—has finally come to the surface. Despite, or perhaps thanks to, governments calling for self-isolation, many cultural producers have felt the urgent need to self-organize and reconcile with their situations.

But it isn’t the first time that creative workers have self-organized and sought to protect their rights. We will take a look at two recent instances in Russia. First, there is the ArtLeaks collective platform, initiated in 2011 by a group of international artists, curators, art historians, and intellectuals. ArtLeaks documents violations of labour rights and abuses of power by art institutions. The platform consists of a newspaper and a website, and is continuously updated. And then there are the May congresses of creative workers, held in Nizhny Novgorod and Moscow in 2010 and 2011, respectively. They have the potential to be further developed today. The congresses took a distinctly leftist position, and created—in addition to a website documenting the events of their congress and art theory—a methodological guide, entitled “Creative Work: Legal Aspects”, which is still largely relevant today. Members of the May congresses have since run against the impossible task of applying the strategies of trade unions and labour resistance to the field of art. Their main accomplishment has been to portray—perhaps for the first time—the Russian artist as an employee, as opposed to a romantic genius. But unlike with industrial and corporate employees, creative workers and artistic labourers often have no address for their demands, no target for organized acts of resistance. That means associations designed to protect the rights of creative workers are only situational and short-term.

Today’s outpouring of creative solidarity and resistance—to the mindless exaltation of content production—is significant, in that it implies radically revisions to our beliefs about the nature of art, and aims to develop an alternative to the current system, which has discredited itself in the eyes of both its workers and consumers. Not only have artists begun to criticize art institutions and recognize their situation as precarious workers; they have also started searching for ways to work together and go after the capitalist political economy, and care for the common good. Their agenda covers issues of employment, unpaid and underpaid labour. But they are also making more radical demands, like unconditional basic income, guarantees to social order, and a part of the state budget. They are insisting on the social value and legitimacy of their artistic activities, and fostering self-respect and responsibility. But the first in a string of recent attempts to unite creative workers came from within major art institutions and the film industry, directly before the pandemic hit. The trade union that represents the rights of educators at the PinchukArtCentre was established in Kiev in October 2019. Museum educators, who are the most numerous and least protected members of any art institution, have banded together to demand better working conditions. Anastasia Dmitrievskaya and Daria Getmanova, who have been following the struggle in the last months, have called it “a successful example of a media campaign that made the protest visible and caused a strong wave of solidarity: publications such as e-flux, artforum, and KyivPost covered the conflict; the Polish trade union ‘Workers’ Initiative’ demonstrated their support on behalf of all Warsaw art institutions, as did many artists from Ukraine and abroad”. The conversation began even earlier in the film industry, with the arthouse movie Dau (2019). According to Maria Kuvshinova, who spoke out against it, the film brought to the surface questions about unethical behaviour, the admissibility of violence, and the instrumentalization of the human body, as well as a filmmaking culture that lacks consent and other issues. Ultimately, it exposed the gap between conditions of cinema production in Europe/the USA and parts of the former Soviet Union. There is a new aesthetic and a new language for demanding certain conditions so that people are able to work without being exploited—so that they don’t become malnourished, ill, and overworked. Kuvshinova emphasizes that “today it is impossible to enjoy directorial genius if you know that set-workers were not paid and conditions were poor. Cinema is something people do for people, and the space for experimentation shouldn’t be created at the expense of others.”

In mid-March, the artists and researchers Dasha Yuriichuk and Nastya Dmitrievskaya founded the Internet activist group Ice Cream Cafe. They published a brisk manifesto on behalf of workers engaged in “knowledge production, bodily, emotional and affective work in the arts, activism and academia” and started a Telegram channel, where they actively educate and organize. One of their latest initiatives was a discussion series, called the Union of Sets. It focuses on cultural production and protecting the rights of independent cultural workers. The series has hosted Nikolai Oleynikov and Yevgenia Abramova—organizers of the above-mentioned May congresses—as well as members of the international platform ArtLeaks, the Berlin State Association for the Independent Performing Arts (LAFT Berlin), and others. In addition, ever since the affective economy began receding and the culture and service industries took a nose dive, Ice Cream Cafe has been sharing statements by performance artists—one of the groups hit hardest by the pandemic. They presented a test-project that introduces basic income for all artists, entitled “We count artists so that you don’t count pennies”.[5] The initiators invited independent performing arts professionals to fill out a form about their art practice. At the time of writing this article, 637 people have filled out the form. Their professions extend beyond the performing arts: in addition to dancers and managers, choreographers, producers, composers, directors, actors, and performers, the roundtable also includes curators, critics, digital artists, programmers, writers, playwrights, videographers, and more. On the one hand, this enthusiastic response means that many artists were able to simply emerge from the shadows, to become visible to the art community and the government. But on the other hand, it has complicated one of the initiative’s main goals: to offer financial security in the form of monthly payments, so that these artists can “continue to make art even in the absence of contracts”. Some creative workers might see this demand for government assistance as a kind of victimization of their profession—not to mention, the pandemic has exposed a Social Darwinist attitude towards those even more vulnerable: migrants, retirees, single mothers, residents of neuropsychiatric boarding facilities, and prisoners. But at least one participant in the initiative, the choreographer Dina Hussein, sees the activists’ social-support programme as catalyst for developing art, which other professional and social groups could benefit from.

Boris Groys once remarked that artists traditionally have not been preoccupied with saving the world; instead, they’ve been absorbed in mourning it, burying it, or building a life in it after the apocalypse. Today we could say that art uncovers the most unexpected scenarios for saving, if not the whole world, at least some of its most fragile or sick parts. Recently, an independent international group which included Russian media artists Ildar Yakubov and Elena Nikonole, organized a series of digital conferences, called “Saving the World!”. It was designed to “help representatives of creative industries left without government or business support find new opportunities and solutions in the current circumstances, as well as to become a platform for uniting creative minds”. Two different episodes of the conference featuring leading theorists and practitioners of art & science and IT, as well as artists and media activists, gathered more than one-hundred thousand views each. A different recent initiative, known as the [6] discusses, in addition to professional matters, broader ontological issues, asking questions like, “What will the world be like after the pandemic, and what new forms of community or disunity will arise in the wake of understanding its consequences? What ethical and aesthetic tasks should be addressed by current culture and art in this regard?” Now the Assembly has launched a discussion series called “Changing landscape: a turn to care and a new collectivity”, which will be available on the Sigma platform’s YouTube channel. In the fall, the Assembly plans to open its own project space, which will be located on the Petrograd Side of St. Petersburg.

We would now like to switch gears. Instead of introducing the reader to cultural events and projects concerned with protecting the rights of creative workers and, more broadly, all living things—with which we are indeed much more closely intertwined than we knew just a few months ago—we will now give the floor to representatives of a few of these self-organized creative platforms and projects. Our questions went out to Daria Yurychuk and Anastasia Dmitrievskaya of the Internet activist group Ice Cream Cafe, Anna Averyanova and Natalia Rybalko, who coordinate Rosa’s House of Culture, and Maria Dmitrieva, the co-organizer of Studio 4.413.

  1. How has the pandemic affected you personally? How has it affected or transformed your community? Has it caused the group to be more distant, or led to its disintegration? Or has it brought people together?
  2. What new or nearly forgotten older forms of creativity, communication, and self-presentation has your community rediscovered? Can the Internet help create stronger, horizontal communities, which are international and stable? Does it provide more opportunities for grassroots self-expression? Does it make people more or less isolated? 
  3. How do you envision your community in the future, once the pandemic has come to an end (if it ever does)? Please share with us your fears and anxieties, your visions for society and dreams.

Nastya Dmitrievskaya and Dasha Yuriychuk (Ice Cream Cafe):

  1. ND: The first two months of self-isolation in Moscow were both difficult and surprising. Several events that would have allowed me to pay the rent and buy food were cancelled. But thanks to the fact that we were isolated with a friend and could shared expenses, we had just enough to pay for housing and meals. Failed plans, small new joys, restrictions, danger, scarce social contact, attempts at inventing things, seriousness—all this threw me back to my childhood experiences and interactions with reality. The Ice Cream Cafe emerged just as people started getting sick in Russia, according to official data. But we’d been planning to make a Telegram channel since December. So the whole Ice Cream Cafe experience is coloured by the pandemic. Around that same time, other initiatives began emerging, designed to unite the efforts of creatives struggling to secure work. These initiatives naturally became the main focus of our coverage, and we also addressed their evolution in a Russian context. It’s important to be aware of what’s already been done, in order to know what to do next. As for the internal dynamics of our group, we started calling each other and planning a lot. We also practice joint writing and mutual editing; it’s hugely supportive and keeps you from getting stuck for a long time in solitary longing and procrastination. 

    D. Yu.: We’re all trying to hold on somehow and not get discouraged, but let’s be honest: THINGS ARE VERY BAD. In recent months I’ve been plagued with anxiety about how I’ll earn money. Theatre work and tours, which accounted for a significant portion of my income, are now a completely unreal and ghostly idea. I spend most of my time worrying about what I’m going to eat and how I’m going to pay my rent next month. I imagine the kind of work I might end up doing in different crisis scenarios. Obviously, I’m not the only one. My colleagues at independent theatres, performers, and other artists are really barely making ends meet—we’re all living in a state of constant anxiety.
  2. ND: We radically adhered to self-isolation, so we didn’t hold any underground meetings or seminars. Personally, I really liked that during the isolation period we all had the broadcast platform we deserved. I’m talking about Syg.ma, the open online lecture hall. It’s more of a tool for broadcasting than for communication. I would be happy it if it continued to exist. I would also like to keep the Zoom reports (the only Zoom function worth keeping).

    D. Yu.: Coincidentally, during the pandemic I found myself truly living alone for the first time. I’ve been lonely before, but self-isolation has made it especially hard. At first, I was happy to keep my own company, but I quickly realized the extent to which my life relies on certain social structures that were suddenly no longer there. I spent April in a rather difficult mental state. The Ice Cream Cafe and other initiatives that emerged during the pandemic (attempts at organizing a trade union, seminars and conferences on Zoom, a discussion series called Union of Sets), as well as almost daily calls with Nastya, gave me much needed support.
  3.  D. Yu.: I hope that our anger, as well as our desire to support one another, won’t be extinguished by frustration, cynicism, and a lack of resources, and that we’ll be able to come up with new ways of living that will allow us to sleep at night and survive the anxiety. I wish this, not only for the artistic community, but for everyone who’s lost their job, who’s struggling with the burden of underpaid or unpaid work. I hope that people who still have some resources, regardless of how little, will be prudent and care for those who have absolutely nothing left.

    ND: Yes, I absolutely agree with that last wish. We will continue questioning how resources are distributed in artistic and intellectual production, and under what conditions. And, of course, we would like to encourage our friends and colleagues to band together and leverage their influence.

Natalia Rybalko and Anna Averyanova (Rosa’s House of Culture or RHC):

  1. Natalia: While self-isolating, I managed to focus on what really matters, to organize my thoughts and my daily routine, and keep calm. During this time, the RHC space became distant and seemingly unattainable, and thus all the more desirable. I’m glad that RHC was able to host online events and care for its virtual guests. Now we need to think of ways to get everyone offline again, hopefully without losing anything we’ve gained.

    Anna: Self-isolation and radical immobilization were an integral part of my routine, with periodic cathartic breaks. But with time, as the pandemic came into full swing, everything shifted online. For cultural workers it was almost a relief to get a break from managing events at an accelerating speed. Binary thinking doesn’t work in a pandemic; it’s now impossible to draw a clean line between inside and outside. That’s made it more difficult to take care and let go of control, push the limits of what’s permissible, and step back and reflect on new technologies. Our community has crossed an imaginary threshold, redefining the self and friendship, thanks to this new web routine. Not everyone has handled self-isolation well; nevertheless, the experience of courtesy and a poetic tension might someday prove fruitful.
  2. N: All lectures and seminars had to be moved to Zoom. This new online mode has made us question our old in-person format. Should we return to hosting offline lectures when things settle down, or is it more convenient for people to be able to listen and participate in discussions without having to leave the house? Now every lecturer and we as curators will have to answer the question: what do we have to offer? How can we justify having an offline event? We coped with self-isolation by seeing it as a kind of game: we came up with tasks for each other that could be completed alone, and revisited the physical objects around us, experienced a kind of intimacy, and spoke up about our anxiety and sense of helplessness. I don’t think we can speak in terms of “more” or “less” here. This is different, and it requires a different attitude and a new understanding. The online format might allow us to rethink what it means to be “live”, to reinvent communication with loved ones, and redefine personal boundaries.

    A: We did everything we could to keep the RHC circles up and running on Zoom, but our mission failed. The Zoom-quarantine coincided with the end of an intensive collective research project in post-Soviet studies, based at the School of Engaged Art. Its online format called for disciplined communication. It had an impact, and gave us the chance to hear from people who would have found it difficult to express their position in other circumstances. Tactics of avoidance and the meaning of absent and present have become more complex. Some found this unbearable. We have yet to begin making art collectively; that will offer us a way out of the quarantine. I really hope that the process will be organized offline. There were attempts to recreate transgressive events—online dance parties, for instance. Even Zoom-bombers were invited: the network was open. I am grateful for the support that we gave each other, by listening to one another and connecting friends who were going through similar things.
  3. N.: Our task is to provide those who are isolated with a platform to communicate—and, of course, take all necessary security precautions. We’ll now have to restructure the events and update our offline format. I’m afraid that the Internet will finally swallow us—but I still have hope that, after this, everyone will be even more eager to meet in real life.

    A: What do we know about the magic of teaching and passing on knowledge? What rituals are behind every event? Which production methods can be easily technologized, which theories don’t require a collective body? What is the metaphorical “borscht” that will help us grow and develop? Recently, at the “Aesthetic Kinship” seminar with Anastasia Ryabova and Katerina Beloglazova, we discussed the movies that we hate. We chose Harry Potter and called on the imagination to radically rescue it. I hope we’ll be able to feel the importance of collective discussions and maintain a sense of awareness and stay sharp. I hope that translocality, which we’ve been dreaming about but have lacked the resources for, will become our main strategic direction and a source of support. The collective routine will acquire a special aesthetic status. It won’t be sacrificed for artificial needs. We will become accustomed to being immersed in different environments simultaneously, and this conscious approach to organizing communicative assemblies, events—even the randomness of it all—will stick. A dusty caramel will wink from behind a bookshelf.

Maria Dmitrieva (co-organizer of Studio 4413)[7]

  1. Studio 4413 stopped its events programme for two months when the pandemic hit. We didn’t move to an online format, because we were overwhelmed by the huge amount of digital noise out there. I didn’t feel like compromising by offering online meetings or events. During the period of self-isolation, it became clear that our platform is very much based in the physical world. It is fragile, and in many ways, personal. Interaction in real life has previously influenced our decisions on events, meetings, seminars, parties, and laboratories. We’ve never had a dry curatorial schedule; we manage the space in a very vital way. Simultaneous events always happened at random—a matter of mixed up time and spontaneous communication. In many ways, we were driven by curiosity and desire. Targeted planning accounted for a mere 15% of our total activities. Because we weren’t able to meet in person during the pandemic, all our plans came to a halt. We were forced to cancel scheduled events for an indefinite period and were awash in uncertainty. Some of us were wrapped up in ongoing projects, others were busy mastering new technologies. It was difficult to make plans. We held several events in town for Studio 4413 residents and continued communicating offline with Katrin Nenasheva about her projects, as well as with the Paideya School of Contemporary Art. Our residency was closed to external participants.
  2. The city’s empty streets were an interesting field for exploration. Zoom made me feel sick. Three or four conferences a day became the new norm and, after three weeks, I started hating it. It was convenient to glide through the digital corridors and exit without apologizing, but I was overwhelmed by the ambiguity of what was happening. One obvious advantage was that people were generally more available. But using the Internet to communicate with friends who lived only ten minutes away left me feeling depressed; I missed the physical presence of certain individuals—their smell, physicality, and the work we did together. It was painful. But online events do make it easier to unite different disciplines—you only have to look at the diversity of the conference participants to know this is true. The boundaries between academia and grassroots activism, practice and theory became blurred. But it’s difficult to talk about strong or close-knit relationships—any kind of social bonding at all—without physical presence. It’s possible, but it will take time. We will have to forget previous experiences. Now is the right moment to launch and develop large online initiatives aimed at strengthening and shaping transnational projects that overcome existing political and cultural constraints. The forced digitalization of everyday life may prove to be a very radical filter. We seem to have consciously chosen which friends to break the rules of isolation with. That choice was hardly made at random, except in the case of forced domestic cohabitation.
  3. We’ve always considered the studio to be in a state of becoming; rather than being an end-result, it was perpetually evolving—its actors and circumstances forever changing, so that nothing could possibly go “wrong”. In the last months, the urgency and advantages of that transitional state have become clearer to me than ever.


[1] See Jeremy Rifkin, “The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World”. In particular, see his use of the term “collaborative commons”.

[2] The concept of ontological design was developed by the Australian design theorist and philosopher Tony Fry. In his book Design in the Borderlands (2014), Fry defines it broadly as working with the natural and social human—with all their fragility and limitations. That means questioning what it means to be human in relation to other humans, as well as artificial and natural objects, and taking social and human experience—including time, space, embodiment, and performativity—into account.

[3] See Naomi Klein The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. As well as her recent article "Coronavirus Is the Perfect Disaster for 'Disaster Capitalism'" www.vice.com/en_us/article/5dmqyk/naomi-klein-interview-on-coronavirus-and-disaster-capitalism-shock-doctrine

[4] For more information, see Madina Tlostanova, How to return the political imagination? Untenable theories, local practices and the “mutopia” of a post-democratic world.

[5] “We are a group of artists and curators of performing arts. We are now writing a letter to the government proposing a pilot introduction of a basic income for independent artists, those of us who are not in permanent public service and do not have other permanent jobs in the art sector. We want to reach out to the government with an initiative backed by numbers — and that's why we are gathering a database of independent artists.” readymag.com/u3108917560/ubiart/=https://syg.ma

[6] "A space that combines the features of an inclusive creative laboratory and an institute for the development and study of various artistic, research, and discussion practices. We are interested in and encouraged by flexible interdisciplinary formats at the intersection of contemporary art and social life that can produce new forms of knowledge and experience within themselves."

[7] Dmitrieva’s answers don’t necessarily reflect the views of the collective