The scope, unevenness, and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on cultural work has been widely acknowledged. This article turns to how sections of the cultural industries responded to the onset of this crisis. We gathered news reports, impact survey results, policy recommendations, open letters, event announcements, and other grey literature generated by a range of organizations in the cultural sector, including trade unions, professional associations, and activist groups. Framed by the concepts "labouring of culture" and "policy from below," our thematic analysis of this material reveals that cultural workers responded to the pandemic by surfacing the idea of cultural production as work; by enacting practices of care and mutual aid; and by proposing policy changes. These collective responses are marked by multiple tensions, particularly between rehabilitating the status quo in the cultural sector and radically reimagining it for a post-COVID-19 world.
Any vision of sustainable prosperity must include a notion of better work, not just more work (and less unemployment) and John Bellamy Foster’s essay is to be warmly welcomed for putting the question of what constitutes ‘good work’ on the table. But I fear that by arguing – at least in part – that good work looks like creative work or artistic work, it risks perpetuating certain ideas about artistic production that will harm, rather than aid, the struggle for good work. In drawing on William Morris (and indeed Marx’s) ideas of artistic production as unalienated labour, we risk idealising a model of work which is individualistic, self-exploiting and ultimately, exclusionary.
Letters & Handshakes, eds. (2014) Precarious: Carole Condé + Karl Beveridge. Waterloo, ON: Robert Langen Art Gallery. Image credit: Chris Lee
This article sets out to both illuminate the precarious conditions of nonstandard workers in New York’s vaunted creative sectors and identify emerging collective responses to precarity in this city. Three areas of labour activity are focused upon: fashion industry frictions, art world agitations, and independent worker initiatives. Under each of these headings, the article profiles two organizations that are variously exposing, resisting, and mitigating precarity among flexible labour forces in the arts, the media, cultural industries, and beyond. Challenging the assumption that getting by in informal cultural labour markets obliges individual coping strategies, this article reveals scenes from a metropolitan laboratory of precarious labour politics. These initiatives are inklings of a recomposition of labour politics in which flexible workforces in creative industries are important participants.
Crunching numbers during a marathon board meeting lacks the drama of an artist reclaiming his sculpture from New York’s Museum of Modern Art. But Takis’s heist, which in 1969 inaugurated the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC), is not entirely disconnected from the budgeting policies developed by the activist group Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E.). The group’s project – to certify non-profit art institutions that pay artist fees – is informed by lessons from the AWC archives, some of which, incidentally, are today housed at MoMA. The short-lived AWC and its disparate supporters voiced a multitude of demands, ranging from better representation of artists of colour to making museum admission free and extending artists’ control over the exhibition of their work. W.A.G.E.’s gambit focuses on one specific goal: getting artists paid.
In May of 2012, cultural workers in Milan occupied an abandoned 31-storey skyscraper in the northern part of the city. Named MACAO, the new space was intended to give workers in Milan’s creative industries a space in which to pursue their labour without being subject to the finnancial austerity and precarious working and existential conditions gripping the city’s cultural sector. Cultural Workers Organize interviewed one of the workers in the organizing group, Emanuele Braga, shortly after the occupation to find out more about this audacious collective gesture.
Toronto-based visual artists Carole Condé and Karl Beveridge are internationally known for their staged photography rooted in workers’ experiences, labour struggles, and social movements. Condé and Beveridge’s work, a critical response to unfettered capitalism and ecological crisis, includes such recent pieces as Scene Otherwise (2012), a photomontage based on the Occupy encampment in Toronto; Precarious (2010), a series addressing unstable employment among college support staff; The Plague (2009), a tableau of the recurrent convulsions of finance capital set in a quintessential space of flows, an airport terminal; and Fall of Water (2006–2007), a photographic epic, based on Pieter Bruegel’s The Fall Of The Rebel Angels that depicts the planetary water crisis and the political conflicts surrounding it.