Isolated Cultural Workers of the World, Unite!

The next great international struggle of our time should be for a universal basic income.

Sanja Iveković, Triangle 2000+, 1979. Photograph (1 from a series of 4). Collection of Moderna galerija, Ljubljana. Courtesy of the artist.

It may be difficult to envision now, but the day will come when the coronavirus pandemic comes to an end. Much will have changed by then, and it has already become a mantra that we should not simply revert to the old ‘normal’ when the crisis is over, because the world was already in crisis when COVID-19 hit us. It’s just that the current state of emergency has made the problems more pressing.

The precarious conditions of modern working life have become abundantly clear. Artists and other cultural workers without permanent positions – including curators, critics, mediators, educators, and technicians – are among those who have been hard hit by the steps taken to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Exhibitions, commissions, and assignments have been postponed or cancelled, and art sales have seen a dramatic decline.

British economist Guy Standing, best known for his book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (2011) defines precariousness as a lack of labour market security (adequate income-earning opportunities), employment security (protection against arbitrary firing), job security (the ability to advance), work security (protection against accidents), skill reproduction security, income security and representation security. Like other freelancers and self-employed people, artists and cultural workers lack most of these security factors. In addition, there are of course further insecurity factors in terms of general expenses, ranging from high rents to production costs, as well as uncertain access to studios and exhibition opportunities.

Due to the coronavirus crisis, authorities around the world have introduced various forms of extraordinary support schemes to keep cultural institutions afloat and to compensate artists and cultural workers for loss of income. But these new measures do not help everyone who needs them. And the very fact that it takes extraordinary measures to compensate freelancers and self-employed people for loss of income highlights the need for truly universal welfare schemes. Regardless of the nature of the crisis, whether it be international, national, or entirely personal, no one should be at risk of being left without any income.

The International Workers’ Day celebrated on 1 May arose out of the late-nineteenth-century international movement to introduce the eight-hour working day. Perhaps a struggle for universal basic income – the unconditional right to financial security – should be the great international movement of our time.

Among those who fall outside the scope of today’s welfare schemes – whether ordinary or extraordinary – we find artists, art students, and cultural workers who live and work in Norway, but who are nationals of countries outside the EU/EEA. According to the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI), by the end of March 2020 this group comprised 12,640 people. Since their work permits apply only to the cultural sector, they cannot apply for other jobs. In an online petition supported by Young Artists’ Society (UKS), this group of artists and cultural workers demands, among other things, that all corona-specific financial assistance schemes must be extended in scope to include citizens of countries outside the EU/EEA who live and work in Norway. They also ask that financial social assistance, unemployment benefits, and other social support schemes be made available without any penalty or adverse consequence for current residence permits and the processing of future applications.

Cultural life is not only characterised by a lack of financial safety nets. The ordinary working and income conditions are generally poor, too. The artist organisations The Association of Norwegian Visual Artists (NBK), The Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts (NK), The Norwegian Association of Fine Art Photographers (FFF), and the Sami Artists’ Association (SDS) recently launched a joint proposal for consideration for the 2021 state budget, in which they explain the precarious situation currently facing the field and make some specific demands. First and foremost, they advocate reform of the exhibition economy, noting that Europe is currently seeing joint targeted efforts among its various artist organisations to improve artists’ financial conditions in connection with exhibitions.

Paweł Żukowski, Cardboards, 2020. Photo: Gosia Białobrzycka & Grzegorz Wełnicki. Part of Artists in Quarantine by L’Internationale.

The proposal also suggests that the precarious conditions found in the cultural field are not only problematic for individuals, but also represent a wider democratic problem because they affect and govern who has the opportunity to express themselves artistically. As stated in the proposal, which was sent to the Norwegian Minister of Culture Abid Raja: “Artists’ income and living conditions must be improved to ensure recruitment to the artistic profession from the entire population on the basis of ability and will, not social and economic background.”

A more existential aspect of the art precariat concerns the fact that despite engaging in collaborative relationships and collective projects, many artists and cultural workers are quite alone in their everyday working lives. It is difficult to make demands of clients when representing oneself; freelancers often simply accept what they get without complaint, for fear of losing assignments. Now that social distancing is the new solidarity, the danger of increased isolation and loneliness threatens the entire population, but it may be particularly hard on those who already had an unstable connection with colleagues and working life in general.

Last year’s Labour Day parade in Oslo boasted record-breaking attendance rates with more than ten thousand participants. This year, in these uncertain and demanding times, the need to stand together is greater than it has been for a long time. Of course, all major rallies and assemblies to mark International Workers’ Day have been cancelled in Norway due to public health and safety measures, meaning that the day will be celebrated online instead.

Perhaps it is only now that we have no other choice that we really get to test the opportunities for organising and protest offered by the internet and social media. Whatever the case may be, the importance of labour-market organisation is quite obvious these days. Trade unions have reported increases in membership in the wake of the crisis, and this is certainly the time to wield the power found in trade unions and interest organisations.

But we can still work with real-life, physical space if we just get a bit creative. The European museum network L’Internationale is currently running a project in which it has challenged a number of artists to create work based on the specific conditions under which they are currently living and working. The Artists in Quarantine project was inspired by Sanja Iveković’s balcony performance Triangle from 1979. During President Tito’s visit to Zagreb, Iveković simply stepped out on her balcony and proceeded to read a book, drink whisky, and make masturbatory gestures. After eighteen minutes, a security guard arrived and ordered her to move into her flat. The question posed by L’Internationale is whether “such domestic spaces still have the potential to be subversive and make a public statement.”

The project, which runs until 7 May, can be followed on L’Internationale’s social media channels. Two of the contributions are particularly relevant as inspiration for 1 May initiatives. Polish artist Paweł Żukowski contributed a banner project which was realised on forty balconies in Warsaw. The banners bore simple slogans like, “we will manage”, “we demand tests”, and “let’s postpone the elections.” The action went viral, and many spontaneously joined in with homemade banners. Slovenian artist Maja Smrekar and her working partner Urška Lipovž placed a speaker on a windowsill facing the government building on the other side of the street. Every day, they play 90 seconds of ‘The Internationale’, which serves here as a form of “civil defense siren tone.” In an Instagram post featuring video documentation of the work, the duo describes the old workers’ song as an “anthem of mobility in times of immobility.” The action was launched on 19 March – when the Slovenian government announced that it would increase the salaries of ministers and secretaries of state by 30 per cent while it had not yet provided any support measures for the rest of the society – and will continue as long as the shutdown lasts.

The call for this year’s 1 May celebration must be to seize all available opportunities to fight for better working and living conditions, and for maintaining and creating communities. Make a banner, sing a song, sign a petition, join a trade union. Isolated cultural workers of the world, unite!

Siniša Labrović, YOU, 2020. Performance, Schwedter Strasse, Berlin. Photo: Vanja Juranić. Courtesy of the artist.
Part of Artists in Quarantine by L’Internationale.