This report from Warsaw is a just-on-time response to the disruption caused by Covid-19, including some initial thoughts on its political implications and, more specifically, its impact on the economy of contemporary art. Just three days after the quarantine was announced, Obywatelskie Forum Sztuki Współczesnej (OFSW; Citizens’ Forum for Contemporary Art), a radical art-activist group in Poland, published an open letter regarding the effects of the situation on the artistic precariat.1 Our friends and colleagues who work as freelancers (artists, curators, educators, lecturers, technicians, etc.) have found themselves overnight without any source of income, with no savings, patchy access to health care and no right to maternal/paternal leave.
The same story is repeated across Europe. The field of contemporary art is notorious for contracting freelance labour, enforcing self-employment, outsourcing (even basic jobs like cleaning or exhibition supervision for nominal fees), and either not paying or delaying payment for artistic work. Most art institutions, now faced with temporary closure, have instinctively offloaded these (unpayable) costs on its precarious workforce. Most freelancers barely make ends meet, they do not earn enough to save for the hour of need, and some have been left with literally a couple of euros in their accounts.
In response to this situation, Citizens’ Forum for Contemporary Art is calling on measures to adequately cope with this unprecedented challenge and support the artistic precariat. Firstly, the forum demands that freelancers and the self-employed should be recognised by the welfare system and covered by workplace protection – otherwise guaranteed for contracted employees only. In Poland, this would involve a social wage or minimum income paid by the state. The forum further advocates for:
- Paying freelancers for all contracted projects, as if they had proceeded according to plan – usually freelancers are only paid after a project is completed
- Following up with projects not yet contracted and paying freelancers for initial research and communication. Due to the informality of employment relations in the arts, most freelancers do not have a contract signed in advance of production; usually the agreement is based on trust, which should be not be exploited, particularly now when it is needed most
- Loosening the bureaucracy regulating public grants for individuals and prioritising wages for the conceptualisation of the work rather than other expenses (usually 20 per cent of the grant goes towards honorariums, while 80 per cent is spent on materials, travel, accommodation, transport; these proportions should now be reversed)
- Organising alternative public commissions to replace projects that have been cancelled
- An amnesty for rents of studios. In Poland, these spaces are usually provided by municipalities
- Providing financial support for institutions and enterprises suffering from the crisis
- Ensuring that all subsidies are redistributed to the workers, even if they are not employed full-time.
This response is embedded in the collective process of reflection and action generated amongst art-activist groups operating worldwide: just to name the comrades from the radical collective Plan C from the UK, who also issued a series of demands related to this crisis.2
When I try to think about the consequences of this crisis, I am torn, as possibly many of us are, between two conflicting impulses. One is panic, the other is denial. On the one hand, I am prone to announce that ‘this crisis is going to change everything’. On the other, I am tempted to deny its severity. This is not an entirely misguided response to the highly volatile situation, as the truth is we simply do not know; we are coping with the invasion of black swans. But it is almost certain that this pandemic is going to accelerate tendencies already present and unearth systemic contradictions inherent to globalisation as an economic, social and artistic project.
I am pretty certain that many people are asking themselves currently, does the Covid-19 pandemic spell an end to globalisation as we know it? It feels almost uncanny that just a few months ago I convened, together with Jesus Carrillo and comrades from the Antifascist Year and Keep It Complex, Make It Clear, a summit titled ‘Internationalism after the end of globalisation’, organised at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.3
Last October we discussed fervently what would such ‘end of globalisation’ would entail. For the purposes of our summit, we defined it as the collapse of a hegemonic, ideological concept which dominated the social imagination of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. This inherently neoliberal project promoted the total freedom of capital, paired with globally coordinated attacks on social welfare and workers’ rights. In absence of structures that would ensure international solidarity and coordination, this concept of globalisation was always a projection. It fancied itself as the liberal ‘end of history’, but in practice it was nothing more than a blatant imperialism of capital, an ‘export of democracy’ and an ideological construct called upon by governments to justify military interventions. While falling under the weight of its own contradictions, by the mid-2010s this form of globalisation was further undermined by the international coalition of fascists and nationalists, who used its structural weaknesses to enact political projects of their own, aimed at the destruction of democracy and attempting to roll back the legacy of the Enlightenment. It is important to remember that the same people who currently accuse the European Union of inaction have been the first to denounce any attempts at establishing EU agencies which would be able to respond promptly to a pandemic.
In any case, the concept of the ‘end of globalisation’ was not intended to suggest that the world is not connected. In contrast, we believe that the globe is more interconnected than ever, which is only further proved by this global pandemic. Viruses do not respect human borders and the global supply chain is only as strong as the weakest of its links: A man eating a bat in China caused the market crash in New York; assemblages created by the bat-man-stock are intertwined; and global pandemics result from the industrialisation of agriculture, mass production of meat, predation on natural ecosystems, and loss of biodiversity. I am cautious to announce the end of globalisation for it is a matrix of economic, political, social and cultural interconnectedness. But even though its current phase seems to be over – the ideological construct of globalisation has proven its deficiency – it still might haunt us as a zombie sustained by trillions of dollars, euros and pounds pumped into financial systems.
For an illustration of the costs incurred by the recent return of national borders, one only need to switch to the livefeed of Polish border crossings, where cars line up for fifty kilometres and wait for over twenty-four hours. This current situation is a consequence of the inept policies of the Polish government, who in a flight of nationalistic fancy closed all borders on the 14th March. In those cars, Polish migrant workers are waiting to join their families and friends, food is getting spoiled instead of being eaten, parts of machines lie idle instead of being assembled in factories to produce the TV sets that are subsequently sold in Germany.
Borders also prevent the flow of knowledge and resources that can be used to produce the medicine necessary for combating the pandemic. Obviously, the nationalists still try to use the crisis to whip up sentiment, but we will see how proud they actually are when there is the need to import vaccines and the medicine discovered and tested in China, Japan, or Germany. Borders also prevent taking coordinated and sustained action that could combat this epidemic and prevent the next, which is more than a certainty. Countries who use the crisis to reimagine themselves in the fashion of autocratic regimes, such as Franco’s Spain or Ceaușescu’s Romania, will pay the highest price for such misguided politics.
Everybody is talking about the historical parallels to be made with Covid-19, such as the Spanish flu which killed approximately forty million people after the Great War. It was soon forgotten, however, after the war and once the Roaring Twenties kicked in, with its unprecedented levels of interconnectedness. So, in other words, globalisation might have finished as an ideological project, even if haunting us as a zombie, but interconnectedness will surely remain. But what we are lacking today are new forms of international coordination which could act promptly in the face of another crisis. Important to note here is that one of the most reliable sources of information and epidemiological know-how over recent days has been the World Health Organization and not the governmental agencies prone to the short-sighted manoeuvring of politicians (particularly of an authoritarian ilk – just consider the ‘scientific’ units of the British government, who issued two contradictory papers over the course of one week). New forms of bottom-up, inter-border solidarity have also emerged, such as Pirate Care, a self-organised network ‘who stand against the criminalization of solidarity and for a common care infrastructure’.4 Due to the current imposed quarantine, we are potentially more informed than ever by the constant flow of practical information, political analysis, medical knowledge and economic reports, all evidencing our interconnectedness. Possibly, too, we are witnessing the emergence of a new global public sphere based on the politics and experience of the now global precariat. It is our task, then, as the global precariat to make sure that this interconnectedness counters neoliberal dogmas and fascist narratives.
For the time being, the era of ultra-cheap, mass mobility is over. But it is also hard to say if this industry will not rebound, and whether it should be allowed to – that is if anyone in power will allow anything to change; consider the grim realities of the climate catastrophe. The world will possibly become a patchy place of red and green zones for a year or two after the height of the crisis. For the first time since the nineteenth century, the Anglo-Saxon axis of the so-called former West might find itself in the red and remain isolated in this place for a long time if it sticks to the botched idea of ‘herd immunity’ (the events have unfolded at such a speed that the words written on Wednesday are no longer valid on Sunday, now we know that the UK government has made an abrupt U-turn, and yet the US is tempted to follow along with this neoliberal concept).
It is very hard to imagine that countries who are currently enacting very costly politics of containment will simply allow contact with and uncontrolled travel to those countries which have adopted more lax policing. It is also hard to say whether any measures will prove successful in containing the virus. If the world becomes divided into zones, medical checks and quarantines will become the new norm, at least for a while; one can expect to be registered and quarantined after travelling to a red zone, even if the visit was brief. After the bankruptcies of many budget airlines (which is almost certain), the ‘unlimited’ access to air travel – which once seemed cheap and accessible, especially for the North and Western middle classes – will likely become a privilege for the few; obviously, this access has never really been ‘available’ to 80 per cent of humanity. Social distancing too is a middle-class privilege. A blue-collar worker is required at the assembly line or at the logistics centre and so left exposed to the virus. It is important not to forget how unjust the previous phase of globalisation used to be and still is. I write, however, with ungrounded optimism that new forms of international coordination will emerge out of this crisis and that they will be egalitarian, anti-colonial and inclusive.
Before discussing the contradictions inherent to the arts that Covid-19 has starkly shown up, let me make one last note on its political implications. Fascists want to use the virus to strengthen their grasp on power. They are proposing different measures of control, from adopting Chinese surveillance technologies, whipping up nationalism, closing borders, enacting states of exception, to censoring freedom of speech (typically, Hungary has been the first to do this). For the sake of ‘honesty’, they have also come up with more reasonable propositions: for example, in Poland, policies of social distancing were set in place before the actual victims were counted in the thousands. But most of these honest propositions have been taken from either leftist economic textbooks or garnered from the scientific advice of agencies such as WHO. Again, in Poland, the same rightist government, who just a few months ago ridiculed WHO and disregarded medical professionals, now poses as a champion of science. When they try to come up with proposals of their own, these are usually laughable (like herd immunity), irresponsible or inefficient. They are coherent with the thinking of the ultra-right and include closing borders, arousing national pride and refusing to close churches. While museums, schools, universities and all the ‘non-essential’ services were getting shut down, the government argued for the special treatment of churches as ‘spiritual hospitals’ – this policy has since changed, currently up to five people can attend religious services at the same time. Yet, even the Christian flock were not particularly convinced: they too vote with their feet, as they go to the hospital when they are sick rather than to church.
The alt-right have tried to create scapegoats, blame the Chinese or the European Union, and spin conspiracy theories. But in the absence of convincing images, their propaganda lacks strength and influence, at least for the time being. The Polish government is currently basking in the glory of easily scored ‘victories’: closed institutions, borders, the general lockdown. But it is easier to prohibit than to build and authoritarians are particularly inept at building institutions. Instead, they busy themselves with creating sinister networks of political patronage, disregard expertise and undermine infrastructure. In a week or two, the consequences of their incompetence will come to the fore however, as it won’t be possible to gloss over the years of austerity and neglect to the medical infrastructure soon to be stretched beyond capacity.
Considering the circumstances, neoliberals do not have anything interesting to say either, except to peddle pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo about behavioural psychology, followed with their hatred of eggheads and an utter disrespect for science – theories of herd immunity and nudging are possibly sound enough to manipulate people into voting for Brexit, but not to deal with a real crisis. The only coherent response of fundamental neoliberal incoherency has been to throw public money at financial markets, as if the role of the state was to bail out speculators.
The postulates of the left have become a new common sense, like the nationalisation of private hospitals in Spain, rent holidays in France, or even guaranteed basic income – the whispers of which are heard everywhere. Even the British government proposes to cover 80 per cent of wages for workers who are unable to work (after some protest, freelancers will also be included in the programme). A general respect of science shared by a vast majority of the left (even if critical and conditional) is currently on the rise too. Moreover, the pandemic proves the efficiency of the Public-Common Partnership, which was previously thwarted by the aggressive lobbying of academic publishers. Currently, thousands of scientists worldwide are sharing their research, combining computational powers and accumulating scientific findings. One can only hope that these actions will result in prompt discoveries and that they will be shared rather than profited upon, and that this will become regular scientific practice.
It sounds like a bad joke that just a couple of months ago Jeremy Corbyn became a laughing stock for proposing the nationalisation of the internet, while just a couple of days ago the EU Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society kindly asked all internet users not to watch Netflix in high definition. The crisis proves that digital infrastructure and social platforms are too essential to be kept in private hands; this is what motivates the most recent campaign to collectivise Facebook, spearheaded by artist Jonas Staal and lawyer Jan Fermon.5 The digital gap has just got wider and more consequential than ever. Access to broadband and basic internet platforms is increasingly becoming about survival: it enables people to shop, bank, pay utility bills and work from home. Yet, an elderly retiree with a 350-euro pension is unlikely to have an email account or smartphone, or able to pay bills on their non-existent laptop. The general turn to e-learning and video conferencing, which is so in right now, also requires a word of exposure. The branch of the trade union Workers’ Initiative which operates at the Polish Academy of Science and the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw – where I teach – cautioned that the costs of implementing new e-learning methods will be offloaded on the individual teachers and students based on the assumption that everyone has access to broadband internet, updated tech, and the necessary skills to use the platforms and transform their homes into offices – home is not a safe place for some, nor is it a space of middle-class comfort if one has to care for kids.6 The cost of a good laptop exceeds an average monthly salary at the Academy of Fine Arts, and broadband is not a given, but paid for. Less privileged students, who usually have side jobs in hospitality and entertainment, lost their incomes overnight. They most likely have other things to do than to learn about e-learning.
The left seems to have a head start, but the hard lesson of the crisis of 2008–09 is that having the ‘right’ answers does not result in electoral wins or garner influence. What seemed back then as the existential crisis of capitalism was spun into the final blow to social welfare and, subsequently, the implementation of austerity, which has lethal consequences for this time of Covid-19. Conspiracies and lies peddled by the alt-right, when repeated often enough, can become a common sense. Nationalists can use the crisis to strengthen their power. Neoliberals and corporate media have already ensured that the accumulation of capital continues, cheap money is supplied – obviously, only to owners of capital – and hefty profits are guaranteed. Just as author and activist Naomi Klein argues, this moment of systemic bifurcation will be used by neoliberal authoritarians everywhere to come up with some sort of corona capitalism, a new iteration of disaster capitalism based on mass surveillance, control of populations and new enclosures of medical knowledge and social infrastructure.7
I wholeheartedly agree with Staal’s position. He advocates for the networks, institutions and collectives operating in contemporary art to become a force of radically democratic counter propaganda.8 Considering the situation in Poland, which is hovering on the brink of Dark Enlightenment9 propagated by the menacing lobby groups of religious fundamentalists, I strongly believe that one of the main roles of the museum is to contribute to a new, radicalised Enlightenment, based on universal emancipation, equality, solidarity and interspecies cooperation.
For example, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw has suspended the opening of the exhibition The Penumbral Age: Art in the Time of Planetary Change, (presented on L’Internationale Online as a visual essay by Sebastian Cichocki) which features artistic practices coping with the realities of climate catastrophe.10 In my opinion, such exhibitions are more important than ever: they have the potential of becoming platforms for hosting vital discussions about the ecological context of global pandemics and the future of our societies. Yet, this won’t happen if institutions continue to operate autonomously and stay within the range of known exhibitionary apparatuses. The Penumbral Age, for instance, has been planned with various audiences in mind: the exhibition concept is accompanied by an intense public programme and supported by an array of educational activities, including plenary sessions organised by the Workers’ Initiative to discuss relations between ecology and workerism as well as ecological summits organised by student activists. I am certain that after the initial shock passes and the lockdown is loosened, such social activities will intensify exponentially; there is an opportunity here to influence the direction of public debate and, consequently, policymaking. Marxist sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein termed this possibility ‘utopistics’.11 He argued that in a moment of systemic bifurcation – Covid-19 disruption definitely qualifies as this – usually stable systems become chaotic. In such volatile situations, even modest actions may have a great effect. For this reason, it is so important to organise and partake actively in public debates. The constituent museums, usually sidelined in the crowded public sphere yet informed by years of practical experimentation and theory, have the means at their disposal to meet this responsibility.12 As the post–Covid-19 world order is in its nascent stage, individual actions might make the difference between socialism and barbarism.
This crisis teaches us that art institutions play an important role in sustaining artistic ecosystems. They should not be degenerated into glorified supermarkets with art commodities tailored to both niche customers and mass tourism. They should not devolve into outlets for class distinctions, laundries specialising in art-washing, or become mere imitations of private collections which only parrot the evaluations of the market. The art institution is responsible for the welfare of art workers and to serve a broad public considered as active citizens rather than audiences or consumers. L’Internationale is well positioned to advocate for this focus, following its own practical and theoretical experimentation with models of constituent and socially useful museums. They are not alone. Similar models are active worldwide: just to mention two European examples, Tensta konsthall in Stockholm and Casco Art Institute in Utrecht.13 In Poland, institutions such as Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, Galeria Labirynt in Lublin and Trafostacja Sztuki in Szczecin have allied themselves with Citizens’ Forum for Contemporary Art (and other groups like AICA) to formulate a coherent line of argumentation for convincing municipalities and the Ministry of Culture of the importance in protecting the artistic precariat at this time; without this allied advocation governmental agencies might be tempted to use the current suspension of activities to cut the finances of art institutions altogether.
The money saved on transport, hotel reservations and international travel could be reinvested into localised artistic ecosystems and interlocal connections. Just as Citizens’ Forum for Contemporary Art argue, one easy step would be to pay decent wages to freelancers. This, however, would imply a fundamental reconfiguration of how artistic projects are produced. In the culture of eventhood, as outlined by Stephen Wright, projects are simply conceived as ‘events’, and this has to change.14 Institutions could start financing artistic imagination and conceptual development as well as the everyday peregrinations necessary to research and usership. Before Covid-19, these processes were considered mere externalities of the big exhibition which attracted millions of viewers, thousands of likes and hundreds of reviews. But all those events were done so cheaply, because the cost of maintenance (as analysed in the prophetic ‘Manifesto for Maintenance Art’ of 1969 by Mierle Laderman Ukeles15) and the labour invested in artistic research, development and sustenance was covered by underpaid artists, support personnel and distributed art scenes. In these times of reckoning, this labour must now be paid. If the artistic precariat are left to survive on their own, there would be dire consequences for the sustainability of the ecosystem of art.
Recently, I heard an anecdote about a piece by conceptual artist John Latham. There was a requirement for the documentation of his work (a couple of yellowish sheets of paper and black-and-white photographs) to be transported from the UK to Poland in a large crate, with a special truck, and for these items to be kept in protected storage before and after the exhibition. The costs possibly totalled a few thousand euros which could have been spent on supporting the development of new artistic work. It is a telling example of the irrationalities of art ownership, and it is especially striking in the context of conceptual art, which generally regarded ideas as primary carriers of artistic potentials and material documentation as replaceable. Yet, there are other models that can be rekindled after the crisis, just to mention a few: the project by Li Mu (A Man, a Village, a Museum, 2015–16) in the collection of Van Abbemusem, which involved the artist recreating classic conceptual artworks with the help of his home village in central China;16 the practice of Asociacion de Arte Útil, who aim at applying artistic ideas to local contexts;17 and a deviant exercise in institutional loans conducted between Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and Van Abbemuseum in 2017, which included ‘sending’ the concept of Arctic Circle (1982–88) by Rasheed Araeen from Eindhoven to Warsaw, where it was recreated using local means in Bródno Sculpture Park.18
Inspired by Araeen’s Ecoaesthetics: A Manifesto for the 21st Century, 19 and somewhat wishful in thinking, let me float an idea that this current crisis could be used as an opportunity to prompt a second conceptual revolution in art, which would encourage artistic usership, facilitate the mobility of ideas and interconnectedness, reactivate artistic competencies and prioritise quality over quantity. Instead of travelling somewhere for two or three days, one could stay a week or two, be paid properly and establish strong relations with a local community. The sketches and ideas coming from this social practice could be downloaded, copies distributed, pieces recreated, performances re-enacted – art can be narrated and used and not only viewed. All this could be done with smaller yet engaged groups of users, and despite larger gatherings being prohibited for some time. The ideas could be disseminated using digital communication, while the art could be experienced in more intimate settings – imagine a museum that only a few people experience at the same time, in depth, while the exhibition evolves into a living form, activated by artists who are getting paid for doing just that.
On a more systemic level, the crisis unearths the very contradictions inherent to the political economy of contemporary art; it is a lesson in class consciousness for the artistic precariat.20 Covid-19 is a catalyst that reveals the fragile underpinnings of cherished autonomy and unbridled mobility. It shows that independence always stems from interdependence and relies heavily on accessible public infrastructure, maintained by the invisible, often underpaid labour force of women, who are quickly revealed as essential in times of crisis. Just as the capitalist economy relies on the exploitation of care labour, the global circulation of contemporary art is underwritten by the precarious labour of artistic ‘dark matter’, which, as activist and author Gregory Sholette argues, is not recognised and valued for the substantial role it plays in reproducing the infrastructure of art.21 The majority of contemporary art production has been run on the fumes of enthusiasm to date, as the artistic precariat used to expect a return on their current precarity, count on delayed rewards, accept the payment of symbolic recognition. The current crisis reveals just how risky such ‘investments’ are: one cannot eat symbolic capital nor be fed by mere aspirations. It has become clear that freelancing is not a promising prospect of unrestrained mobility and youthful creativity as it was once thought, but rather it is an extremely vulnerable existence. This fundamental truth used to be glossed over by the empty promises of future careers, hidden behind the glittery surface of openings and hushed by the competitive rush of hectic mobility, where everything and everyone moves so that nothing can change.
I doubt that we will be faced with a shortage of artistic labour in the future – there will be enough privileged kids to fill in the ranks – but we will likely witness the collapse of the ideology that once sustained the exploitation of artistic dark matter. In the best possible scenario it may prompt a realignment of class affiliations. Artistic freelancers of the global North-West, in accordance with their mainly middle-class upbringings, nurtured an ideological illusion of a classless society and meritocracy. They aspired to becoming the 1 per cent, or at least to become like the 1 per cent. Even if they were not as rich as the ultra-rich, they moved with budget airlines rather than private jets, and roamed the globe in search of new opportunities. They fancied themselves as independent producers, as rootless as the capitalist class they copied, and relied on a privileged access to infrastructure, goods and technologies, produced and maintained by the even more precarious labour of others. This illusion is shattering. Due to the disruption to global supply chains, some things and services of life before will become much more expensive: a luxury that not everyone will be able to afford and definitely not a badly paid artistic precariat.
Moreover, it is probable that the art market will be stripped of its remaining pretensions for intellectual cultural importance. But this is a less plausible hypothesis. Though, it will be very interesting to see how the prices will fluctuate in response to the attendant financial crisis (if it unfolds), the cancellation of larger events and the suspension of mobility. In such times, the social function of the art market is seen to be an outlet for furnishing luxurious bunkers with ultra-expensive artistic commodities. The super-wealthy (or notorious tax dodgers), who once fancied themselves as disruptors, innovators, global leaders, tastemakers and art aficionados, have evacuated to their hideouts. So, perhaps it is best to overcome ungrounded class affiliations and aspirational delusions. It is possibly more rational to start acting in accord with the interests of the global precariat, instead of being paid for art-washing tarnished reputations or providing luxurious embellishments for bunkers, in which one will never be granted a permanent residence – unless one aspires to be a court jester, but that is not a very safe position nor particularly respectable.
In this time of Covid-19, there are assemblies, collectives and trade unions who are actively providing support to the arts, by advocating for wages, negotiating with institutions, and offering legal and financial advice. At this critical moment, art workers must unionise and act with other groups of the precarious too, not as ideological patrons, but as comrades. Together, we can struggle for a universal social income, demand access to public infrastructure and ensure that social resources are redirected to generate common rather than hefty private profits. Strategically, the artistic precariat should aim at securing political influence to strengthen the weakest links in the global mesh of connections and learn (the hard way, under these difficult circumstances) that independence always proceeds from interdependence.