Flexibility, self-management, competitiveness, short-time working relations, problems with bureaucracy and taxation, low fees, instability, no health insurance… this is the normal liturgy of contemporary working conditions. You could, of course, add some concepts used to fight against these conditions, like multitude, occupy and peer-to-peer help, but these are only concepts popping up from contemporary literature discussing conditions of current living and working conditions, and often offer no solutions with any real effect.
Vocabulary for the endless statements and pamphlets on precarious life without connections to lived experiences seems to produce nothing but literature for a lost generation of leftist thinkers, the labor party and art workers. We – artist, curators the precarious actors of the art field, are organizing seminars, talks and publications on work, it’s current repression and inequality. After all this, we feel satisfied; at least something has been said publicly. We can feel even more satisfied if those events have been organized in well-established institutions as then we can add one more nice line to our CVs.
In a recent debate on curatorial discourses and the lack of them in the Finnish contemporary art scene, caused partly by my article Taiteilija maksaa? Kuratoinnin uhka ja muut pelot in Mustekala web journal 16.1.2014) and followed by a public discussion titled Kuratointi – häiriöitä vai välitystä? at Frame Visual Arts Finland (4.2.2014), rather basic and traditional fears that often circle around the relations of curators and artists were brought up; for example, some assumed that curators are only interested in creating their own concepts, walking over artists as well as their practises. Another, more present fear was lurking in the background of the conversations; a question of how there can be enough funding for curatorial activities if there is not enough for artistic ones? There are, of course, several ways to go if thinking about how much artistic and curatorial activity there should be in the society in the first place, but if we bypass this, we seem to end up with one question: is there enough work for everyone?
If all roads and discussions lead us to the issue of work in the precarious art field, how should we deal with it in real life conditions? Nobody seems to have an answer for this. At the moment I am listening to a radio program about the low income of visual artists in Finland. Two of the speakers, artist Antti Majava and Dean of The Finnish Academy of Fine Arts Markus Konttinen, are claiming that institutional money should be given straight to artists and that trust should be put more to artists’ expertise in public matters. Here one can hear the same fear of institutional actors as in the recent curatorial discourse.
Why is the Finnish contemporary art field so split between the institutions and the independent actors? Why is everything here so depended on the representational use of power? Everybody seems to represent some larger group of people whose interests they are fighting for at the cost of someone else’s. If we are gaining something, does it really mean that it’s always out of someone else’s pockets? Off course there are lots of historical reasons for this, when the welfare society is structured with strong interest groups and unions.
In an era when it is hard to tell if someone is working inside or outside institutions and when precarious working conditions seem to be everyone’s present reality, or at least the future, how would it be possible to create common field and find new ideas? Many of the established institutions are forced to find their funding through projects; Finnish National Gallery, for example, was driven to become a foundation and it is now expected to get more funding from private sources.
Curator and educator Nora Sternfeld writes in her article Being Able to Do Something (2013) about Gaytrl Spivak’s readings of Derrida and Foucault, stating that they make us understand that pouvoir (power) and savoir (knowledge) are not just substantives but powerful verbs. Pouvoir means being able to and savoir means knowing how to do something. Combining these words in Foucault’s sense as savoir-pouvoir means, for Spivak, being able to do something. Looking at and taking part in these discussions about precarious (cultural) work, it feels that we have lost our capacity of being able to do something.
On the other hand, after Deconstruction and Foucault, postmodern philosophy and sociology have filled our heads with ideas of there being no common values or narratives anymore; our life is no more based on a shared understanding about a universal reality. Reality is referred to only in its present time and traditions have been lost. In their article Swarm/Disruption/Arbitrary Power (2010), Franco Berardi and Akseli Virtanen state that economical governing, on which the neoliberal precariousness is based on, is indeed pure governing that does not refer to any meanings outside of its own limits. Beraldi and Virtanen believe that in the present situation ethics has become an impossible subject to reach.
I was asked to write about the possibilities of increasing openness and collectivity within the Finnish art world and I am ending up doing almost the exact thing I criticised earlier in this text: proposing one more concept for the fight against precarious working conditions. But I will add a request to activate ethics from a substantive to a verb, though at the same time I am afraid that we are not capable of doing this. The key question, in my opinion, is the following: how to active ethics from a substantive to a verb simultaneously both in the institutional as the individual areas of daily working conditions?
One hopeful answer to this question has been given by curator Miguel Ángel Hernández-Navarro, who sees curating as a negotiation between the ethical demands of institutions, the work of art and the audience. Based on the ideas of philosopher Simon Critchley, Hernández-Navarro sees these infinite, ethical demands as never satisfied, and this is what makes them so powerful; it activate ethics as an infinite state of doing something.
Nora Sternfeld, Being Able to Do Something, The Curatorial: A Philosophy of Curating, 2013
Franco Berardi and Akseli Virtanen, Parvi/häiriö/mielivalta (Swarm/Disruption/Arbitrary Power) , Niin & näin, 3/2010
Miguel Ángel Herdández-Navarro, The Curator’s Demands: Towards an Ethics of Commitment , Manifesta Journal 12