Worker Replacement Anxiety

Kasimir Malevich and El Lissitzky, 'Study for Backcloth for Vitebsk Committee for the Struggle against Unemployment', 1919
Kasimir Malevich and El Lissitzky, ‘Study for Backcloth for Vitebsk Committee for the Struggle against Unemployment’, 1919

“Not all production is commodity production. Not all production is production for financial exchange. Not all production is determined by supply and demand. Economics is not the best method of examining non-economic production. Economists give artists bad advice.”



Why is it that we are here today? Why is it that we have so much trouble asking, explaining and excusing the lack of remuneration for our services? Why is it that we have got to the point where we have trouble expecting compensation for an art-related project where a technician, director, projectionist, cleaner or handler would be shocked to go unpaid?

My following statement is perhaps stating the obvious, but it seems the obvious tends to go unsaid, or at least unsaid in public. This is a matter of trying to chart some of the inequalities that exist in cultural work, and trying to show the connection (or perhaps point out the disconnection) between the reasons why we work for nothing or next to nothing, and why this has no place within our current period.

The social fluidity, camaraderie, and mates-rates of the artist-run space have long been the single fact of getting shit done. We do it, we also believe that we can rely upon our peers for this support – it is the nature of things that makes the economy of labour in art so nebulous. But this culture of favours is often adopted and exploited within the institutional sphere for short term gains that impoverishes all of us in the end, though some more quickly than others.

Let’s be clear: The primary difference between the artist-run and the institution is that there are divisions between the salaried and unsalaried. Some are paid for their expertise, others are not.

Among many different types temporary institutional workers there are inequalities of payments and fees. This inequality exists not only between artists, but also freelance curators and writers and teachers. Let’s not even go into the poverty of the poet who perhaps sits at the lowest rung. These are individuals, among whom I count myself, who are often called “independent” workers or, to use a more commercial word, “freelance”.

But common to these cultural workers is the financial precarity that is both chosen and imposed. Artists, curators, poets, teachers and designers are cultural workers who are often exposed to financial precarity:

– precarity in terms of working hours,

– the ambiguity around the nature of labour requested by institutions,

– the lack of contracts that validate and articulate the terms and true contents of ones labour and therefore prevent its costing out.

The time-scale of renumeration (if any is to be had at all) is often unremarked.

Unfortunately, this precarity no longer has the hallmarks of its origins – the radical dissent of the 1960s and 70s, where refusal to cohere to mainstream economic viability was a conscious attempt to strike at those capitalistic structures. Then, alternative cultural practices functioned around peer labour to replace the seemingly corrupt systems of financial renumeration. But the financial system has long since adapted to this blow. I would argue that it has wholly absorbed it. While the hallmarks of free labour was a precarity chosen for political reasons, today the plain fact is that this no longer applies. Ironically, it is this counter-culture legacy that stands as the primary reasons why artist’s feel uncomfortable asking for renumeration, and thus lays groundwork for labour exploitation.

Today, our precarity still appears to be a matter of choice, but it is more often enforced due to the long unchanged shadow of this older alternative culture. We have failed to renew our alternative legacy in spite of a changing economic climate. As Isabelle Lorey has shrewdly noted, our culture of precarity – along with its adaptability, diverse skill set, unpredictable cycles of labour – has a striking resemblance to the flexibilisation of the labour market, where competition is geared to benefit the consumer.

But again, let us state the obvious: our roles do not adequately fit “competitive” models. It is highly arguable whether competition has a positive affect on cultural workers, since it is not entirely clear what a real “win” might entail. Do artists pitched against each other improve and rise to the challenge? Unlikely.

I used the word “inequality” previously in relation to the payments and fees of cultural workers. Let me be clear, there are some that are well paid, expect to get paid, and enjoy real budgets. But largely, there is a gulf between those that get their crating, shipping, travel, production and hospitality paid, and those who are told that their fee will be paid in the spiritual richness of good public exposure. We are encouraged to believe that we should take these dubious opportunities to improve our public standing at cost to ourselves, because otherwise, someone else – another “content provider” – will. This is where the notion of competition has edged its way in. Worker Replacement Anxiety is experienced by us all, and while no one can ever say that no-budget institutional solo shows should necessarily be turned down point blank, there is a sense in which precarity breeds precarity. We become part of the enforcement through each acceptance, and our element of choice is each time diminished.

There is a lot of talk about abhorring the word “professional” or “professionalism”, as if this word in some way accounts for institutionalisation or removes the radical potential of art. But we need to admit that, basically, we do want to be treated professionally, and we would like to do the same in return. There’s nothing edgy or alternative about never getting paid. And, if only the people who can afford to forgo payment make art, we end up with a situation where those who can’t won’t. It is simple: we cannot afford to be unprofessional.

As Lorey notes, the acceptance of one’s economic impoverishment as the due cost of cultural fulfilment is ultimately the fantasy of self-liberalisation:

“In a neo-liberal context, they [cultural workers] are so exploitable… Work is meant to ensure the reproduction of the self”

But if we cannot overcome our anxiety, our enforced and chosen precarity, let us at least draw up some distinctions. Let us see if we can agree on a number of things, or at least hold them in mind for consideration when working with institutions:

– A fee does not include or preclude per diems, travel or accommodation.

– A fee is for our labour thus far, and this fee does not offset other costs.

– An institution should never expect to put our fees towards our production. We have probably all done this, indeed I have. But let us try not to in future.

– It is our responsibility to work out the hours of our labour and to communicate them to the institution when working on projects: this includes paying assistants if need be, and certainly paying friends properly. We try to create competitively priced budgets, but the true cost of labour must be communicated.

– Finally, fees for cultural workers should not be judged or weighed in relation to the possibility of the sale of works.

A version of this text was given as a talk at Artists’ Fees: “The cost of labour must be paid for”, organised by Charlotte Prodger and Corin Sworn, hosted by Scottish Artists Union and Transmission, Glasgow, 18 September 2012


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