On Being Able To Do Ethics

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