This article presents a sequence of conversation transcripts from the making of Textiles of Resistance: Growing, Weaving, Printing, Archiving, a project initiated by Werker Collective with Gleb Maiboroda & studio bonbon at Sonsbeek 20-24, an art manifestation in Arnhem, the Netherlands, exploring the complex labour relations and inequalities that show who is (un)seen, who is (in)dispensable, who is seemingly worth our applause, and who is fawningly silent.
In 2020 Werker Collective started a series of conversations with art workers, students, undocumented migrants, textile workers, mother artists and queer people around issues of labour, invisibility and counter-archiving as a form of resistance. During these sessions participants shared, discussed and rearranged documents, made natural dyes, and printed images and text on recycled fabrics.
Personal documents proposed by the participants were further contextualised with documents from the Werker Archive. By sharing personal experiences of work, precarity and resistance, new alliances were created. Beyond the art exhibition at Sonsbeek 20-24,the project Textiles of Resistance: Growing, Weaving, Printing, Archiving looks into archives and oral history as tools for community building and self-organisation against capitalist, colonial and patriarchal forms of oppression.
With more than 3000 entries, the Werker Archive has been located in Amsterdam since 2009. It carries the mission of preserving and spreading the legacy of self-organised radical documentary practises that were initiated by several associations of worker photographers in Europe in the 1920’s, following the first experiences of collectivist photojournalism in the USSR.
In November 2020, during lockdown, a group of residents and workers from the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam, discussed their concerns on the labour conditions of the arts, personal health, retirement, income and uncertainties about the future.
12 testimonies were received through an open call [artworkerrights.online]. 30 documents on the topic of art worker’s self-organisation were selected from the Werker Archive. Several conversations took place between different members of the community. 4 banners were designed and collectively printed using iron oxide ink. Onion skins collected by the participants were used as yellow dye to colour the textile banners.
The following fragments are transcripts from these conversations. They are meant to be read and discussed collectively. They bring together different voices, geographies, temporalities and techniques to inspire worker emancipation through processes of self-publishing.
Thinking, scheduling, and preparing for work are some examples of Emotional Labour. This kind of work often passes unnoticed because it is a more abstract form of Reproductive Work than child-rearing, cleaning or cooking. We don’t even realise that we are working when we do those activities in daily life, we take it for granted.
I feel the lack of recognition of what Emotional Labour entails increases my anxiety level. That is why it is very important that we learn how to value the time we spend doing Reproductive tasks. Within capitalist forms of valorizing labour, Emotional Work remains to be an oppressed form of labour, as much as Care Work.
Perhaps just as in the Wages for Housework campaign that Silvia Federicci and Mariarosa Dalla Costa organised in New York in the 1970’s we should claim a remuneration for it; What about a Wages for Mindwork campaign? In my opinion this leads us to a Universal Basic Income. A universal salary could function as a way to recognize the preparation for work that we all do (mental, psychological and physical), before and after any kind of job. Then other more quantifiable ways of remunerating labour could be applied: here I am making a sculpture, or I am making a book, or I am teaching.
How to make visible oppressed labour? After a long day, when I arrive home, I just cannot cook. I’m so exhausted I simply cannot do another 2 hours of work. I also have to think of the new modes of telematic work that the pandemic has normalised, where one has the feeling of never really disconnecting.
One of my closest friends has been working as a commercial designer for the past 10 years and he is always very bemused as to what it is I actually do for work.
A couple of years back, when I received a ‘young talent’ grant from the Mondriaan fund (Dutch art council). My friend compared this to receiving social welfare. I didn’t know how to respond. It was very apparent that he had a very low opinion of my work as an artist. And I started to wonder: outside of our field, how many people have that same impression of contemporary artists?
This conversation really knocked my sense of self-esteem. I was telling myself that just because he doesn’t understand it, doesn’t mean I should take it to heart. But it also came from someone who has been to my exhibitions, who has seen me putting in a lot of effort, and still doesn’t see this as a kind of work that should be remunerated?
I barely have savings. And when I manage to accumulate savings, there always comes a moment where there is a dip and my savings get very quickly depleted.
Even though I would like to one day be a parent, I cannot envision having a stable enough income where I would feel it would be appropriate to be raising a child. I know it sounds really bizarre, but I cannot imagine a time where I will be able to retire. Most likely I won’t have the accumulated financial resources where it would be secure for me to retire.
I’m 30 now and when I have conversations with friends who are working within very different fields they see my choice of being an artist as having a personal lack of responsibility. Like I screwed up in some kind of way. And then I try to explain that this is not just about me as an individual — many people working in the arts are encountering the same kind of difficulties.
What makes art work so precarious? Even in the Dutch context where there is a public funding infrastructure for artists, why do we have to constantly fight for a proper remuneration?
I am all for public funding for the arts, but I ask myself: does this current system jeopardise more traditional forms of employment for artists, for instance permanent positions in art education or properly paid commissions for museums? Isn't this grant system ultimately creating a meritocratic and liberal approach where art workers become competing entrepreneurs fighting to survive in the art market?
As an art teacher at an art academy in the Netherlands, I have been underpaid and on temporary contracts for 8 years already! This is not the case in France and Germany for example where professors have paid hours to do their own research.
When working for museums it is common to receive very low artist fees because museums assume that public grants will cover the production of new work for instance. So there is this dysfunctional system that is making our life a constant negotiation full of bureaucratic and selection procedures.
The collective I am part of has only been together for a year now. Something I am struck by is that once we have to start dealing with funding infrastructures, the practice of ‘being caring’ erodes. Being mindful of the risk of overworking seems sort of diminished.
While in the context of our friendship we would always be very quick to point out to one another that: “hey, I think you’re taking on too much work”. But somehow when we are all dependent on submitting an application, by the deadline, this attentiveness becomes eroded by the need to ensure that the deadline is met. Even if it means that one or a couple of people become very much overworked. This is seen as an acceptable compromise on behalf of the whole collective.
I often say: we need to think about how we distribute labour. But if I say the word ‘labour’ there is already a necessity to elaborate what is considered labour. In my mind, the time of pondering and thinking and ruminating, in terms of not switching off immediately, is part of that continuity.
Say that tomorrow morning I will begin writing an application. The whole day beforehand I will be dwelling and thinking about it. Which is work to me. My mind isn’t detached from the task. It takes a certain mental energy, and by extension it drains a physical energy as well.
All this I would consider a kind of work, a kind of labour. But that isn’t something that would immediately come to one's mind when you use the word ‘labour’ — which I think is often associated with something very visible, easily measurable, maybe something that needs to be certified by an evident degree of expertise. How much of each other's time do we take for granted?
Work is a term used for something quantifiable. Something which has a beginning and an end. And something which (within the capitalist model) has a certain relation to the expertise of the worker. I find it helpful to separate work from ‘labour’. Labour is something that includes the care you do for your body on a daily basis. Labour is the headspace that is taken up when you do other things.
So in collective spheres, when you have to think of proper remuneration - the labour needs to be taken into consideration, and not only the work.
“Arendt is interested in vita activa, the active life, as contrasted by vita contemplativa, the contemplative life, and concerned that the debate over the relative status of the two has blinded us to important insights about the vita activa and the way in which it has changed since ancient times. She distinguishes three sorts of activity: labour, work, and action; and discusses how they have been affected by changes in Western history.”
Perhaps, what is needed is to differentiate between labour, work and action?
We have to invest a great deal of effort in the arts to make visible the injustices of an economic system which only rewards certain, but not all, necessary forms of work to maintain our society functioning. Reproductive or cultural work for instance need to become more socially valued and also remunerated accordingly, by a non-commercial logic— like for instance by state institutions.
How the global economy functions at the moment is that there are activities that produce a lot of wealth, because those activities we’ve managed to valorise and make quantifiable. But there are other facets of human activity, like reflecting or contributing to a critical understanding of cultural processes, or cooking and cleaning in the household. Those activities which are not directly part of a productive economy should, with taxation, reward the bodies that are dedicated to them. Which, if we hold onto a leftover sense of a welfare state, one that tries to balance economy and reproduction of life, that would indeed be a form of subsidy or a Universal Basic Income.
Recently there has been a public discourse, mainly on social media but also in opinion pieces in the newspapers, on how VVD, the main ruling party in the Netherlands, prioritises opening shops belonging to giant corporations over the country’s musea.
I would also say that this policy is connected to lobbying. This government is very prone to be affected by lobbying. And the national organ that takes care of musea has not been as successful at their lobby as the organisation for shop owners, for example.
Indeed, when we were coming out of the stricter lockdown, Primark would be open before a museum. Although there is probably a much lesser risk of contamination when, during a designated time-slot visiting the controlled environment of a museum, than going to Primark. Where there isn’t much ventilation, it’s enclosed, and much more likely to be crowded.
Towards the end of the first lockdown, when museums were partially open again, I became much more aware of how going to museums benefitted my mental health. Which makes it so jarring to me that ‘retail therapy’ is encouraged before cultural engagement. “You can just buy something and it will make you feel better” - when maybe you just actually need to go to a museum?
Art institutions should be based on maintenance, not on spectacle. But in most institutions, everything you see is connected to shows, exhibitions, and public events. You don’t see the archive for instance.
So most resources in the context of not-entirely-publicly-funded-institutions go to these outwardly visible activities. It becomes about constantly showing off, which creates a lot of precarity and anxiety in cultural work.
How could we think of reorganising art institutions from the premises of maintenance and care of its collection, workers and visitors? I'm thinking of the archive in terms of ecology. Creating our archive over the past 15 years has been a lot of work. And, financially, I’m working for nothing. Archivists are often not valorised enough in institutions because they are part of maintenance work
To think about labour, invisibility and collective forms of working and creating knowledge is a way to believe in the public nature of the arts. We have a responsibility to disseminate emancipatory forms of cultural language. The opposite would mean the existence only of cultural expressions which are capitalistic, oppressive, or charged with wealth interest.
Museums should be those spaces where people can go to share with one another their concerns about knowledge production. To renegotiate and analyse and think of those questions together. I think it’s necessary to have a space designated for image analysis and celebration, because we are constantly mediated by images and language — but there is no such a space!
Despite being constantly subjected to images, as a society we are quite visually illiterate. That makes us vulnerable and so easily influenced by all sorts of content that is thrown at us, even more now with social media. So there exists both an excess of images and a lack of spaces for media criticality.
For example, this is a magazine called “The Woman Worker”, from the Soviet Union. This is a calendar produced by Sindillar, a self-organised union of migrant domestic workers in Barcelona. This is the paycheck of a textile worker in Tilburg from 1983 and this is an image from a textile factory in Enschede in 1956. The possibility of bringing together different narratives, temporalities and subjectivities in the archive opens valuable spaces to think together in the Here and Now. What can we learn from past struggles? Archives are the commons, not the past (A.A.Azoulay).
'Future Practices' is the framework for a series of publications on current topics that stimulate or question intercurricular education at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie. Various interdepartmental or interdisciplinary duos and teams have been asked to create a contribution in a format of their choice, such as a podcast, a text, a workshop or an audiopiece. These collaborations originate in the two Open Calls of the Editorial Board through 2020 & 2021. Because of the many promising proposals, the editorial board decided to select an handful of collaborations that didn't become an educational platforms, and asked these to publish their research via extraintra.nl