The precarious present: A conversation with Gregory Sholette

Door Pieter Vermeulen , op Tue Nov 10 2020 23:00:00 GMT+0000

He was a founding member of the artists' collective Political Art Documentation/Distribution and defended the rights of migrant workers during the construction of the Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi. American artist and activist Gregory Sholette is an important voice in the debate on precarity in the arts. A conversation about the cultural workers in the shadows, the possibility of a permanent crisis and the performance art of Donald Trump.

Gregory Sholette (1956) is incredibly prolific and inspiring, as an author, artist, activist and educator. Talking to him, he conveys an adamant intellectual energy all while expressing a deep concern for our present global condition. Sholette lives in New York City and is eagerly awaiting the results of the presidential elections at the time of our conversation. His (online) contribution to this year’s Freiraum Festival deals with alternative economies and precarious labour.

Precariousness doesn't only apply to cultural workers, but to an increasing number of people including women, students, people of color and refugees. What exactly do we mean by precariousness, how to explain its worrisome evolution and how to face the challenges that come with it?

‘You are right, precariousness is widespread today, though it isn't something new to capitalism, but rather a return to conditions that existed prior to the Great Depression in the 1930s. Prior to the emergence of the welfare state in the West, everyday people lived precariously if they didn’t already have capital, and most did not. Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced social policies in the US that continued until the mid to late 1970s under Jimmy Carter. Confronting a double-dip recession and so-called “oil crisis” capitalism turned to a new model pivoting on accepting unemployment as an economic regulator (as it was before the 1930s) rather than the slogan that both Democrats and Republicans held to, which was always full employment. Deregulation, privatization and individual precariousness mark the beginning of what we now call neoliberalism. So non-precariousness is actually an anomaly particular to the period of time roughly between the 1930s and the late 1970s.’

‘Of course, artists have always been largely precarious unless they already had wealth. Things began to change after WWII when the Master of Fine Art (MFA) degree was created, in part so returning war veterans could professionalize within the cultural sector. So suddenly you have an uptick of people coming from a working-class background into high culture (visual art, theatre, literature etc). This shift has transformed not only the way we look at art and make art, but also the relationship between art workers and sustainability. If you were coming from a working-class background you were dependent on either state funding or commercial success or teaching art. The first of these options dies in the 1980s as well.’

Ironically, it was the much-despised Republican Richard Nixon who ramped up state-sponsored arts funding to its highest level.

‘Ironically, it was the much-despised Republican Richard Nixon (prior to the outgoing current president) who ramped up state-sponsored arts funding to its highest level via the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). In general, Nixon did a lot to beef up the welfare state in the 1960s. One result is that people like me from non-capital possessed backgrounds get into the arts. It was a bit more like the Northern European model at that time. And then, of course, with the neoliberalization of the 1980s, the NEA was slashed, and artists who had some small sense of security, were again faced with the question of how to survive. Today, most artists in the US work two or even three other jobs other than making art just to get by, to pay the rent and so forth.’

‘To underscore this point, when I first came to New York in 1977, rents were ridiculously low compared to now. You could hold one part-time teaching job, get some grant money, maybe do some other work on the side and still have plenty of time to make your art. Today, I know artists who work five part-time jobs all over the city. How do you have time to do anything, including oppositional economies and politics?’

So precarization is a gradual process that is affecting both living and working conditions. Where the self-organized, alternative economy may offer a remedy, its development seems immensely demanding?

‘Yes, it takes a lot of time and work for people to create a collective or co-op. If you're busy just making a living, it's really difficult to set up alternative economies. Organized cooperation does not come about all by itself. Neoliberal policies mitigate against such activity, which is nevertheless made all the more necessary because of these same policies.’

I wonder, in the years ahead, will we even be able to differentiate with any certainty, where the COVID-19 SARS virus ends and the mutated viral symbiote of merged digital platforms and learning establishments begins.

‘So it’s a lot of organization on top of your regular job and everything else. But there can be a benefit to it, making the sacrifice worthwhile. And yet, given what is happening now with COVID-19 and its second wave, I would say that this type of cooperative organizing is much more difficult because meeting online, while convenient on one level, lacks the experience of embodiment, and of being in a space with others where everyone can be sensitive to gestures and so on. Perhaps learning a whole new way of reading people’s digital presence will emerge, and maybe it has already done so for some, though I suspect not everyone will be able to pass through to this permanent state of the new abnormal. Still, this is what the neoliberal edu-factory has sought to introduce to us for a decade or more. Now, like the gift of the Trojan Horse, a non-living, but highly reproducible contagion, this dreamed-of day has arrived with a thud. Just think of all the expensive real estate, classrooms, labs and studios and other facilities schools can now eliminate. I wonder, in the years ahead, will we even be able to differentiate with any certainty, where the COVID-19 SARS virus ends and the mutated viral symbiote of merged digital platforms and learning establishments begins.’

Working in the Shadows

Let's go back to the art world. In your eponymous 2010 book, you introduce the idea of ‘dark matter’ or the shadow economy of the art world. Could you clarify that notion a bit more?

‘It was coming out of my own experience as an artist and my involvement in artist collectives, so not from the point of view of someone who only understood the art world theoretically. I realized that art historians didn't pay a lot of attention to collective work practices. I began to investigate that and catalogue the art collectives that I knew about, particularly here in New York, primarily from the late 1960s onward. I realized that all these groups of people were doing an enormous amount of work, adding value to the art world, yet they remained almost completely in the shadows. The question that I asked myself was this: why does the majority of people who produce culture remain unseen?’

This mass of people, working in the shadows, maintain and reproduce the architecture of the art world.

‘The traditional answer is that great work rises to the top like cream, and everything else settles out. You only get one Jackson Pollock, Jörg Immendorff or whoever per generation. This standard answer is questionable in so many ways, even if you look at the way people become famous. It is just not that simple. But more importantly, I have sought to flip the question around and ask what all these people (and their labor) do for the art world. My proposal was that this mass of people maintain and reproduce the architecture of the art world that we see and assume is normal, even natural. In other words, without the mass of unseen creative dark matter, the visible part of the art world wouldn't exist or be able to function. I end Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture by pointing out that despite this fact, dark matter was getting brighter, asserting itself, challenging the status quo. This illumination has only increased ever since.’

Artistic labor is not only undervalued but more often than not also highly underpaid. We have seen many initiatives pleading for a ‘fair practice’ or financial code of conduct in the cultural sector. There is W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) in New York, founded in 2008. Similar platforms emerged in Europe over the past years, such as Kunstenaarshonorarium in the Netherlands or State of the Arts in Belgium. What do you think about these initiatives, are they compelling or binding enough?

‘I think it is important to understand the context of the US, which is different from Europe and even Canada. The people who started W.A.G.E., including Toronto-born artist Lise Soskolne, took their model in part from the Canadian system known as CARFAC, that seeks to regulate the payment of artists by state-supported cultural institutions. At about the same time this organization was founded in Toronto, here in New York City (circa 1968), a group of artists, art critics and others got together and created a very informal organization called the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC). AWC included my professor Hans Haacke (conceptual artist and leading figure in institutional critique, pv) but also my friend Lucy Lippard (a prominent American author, curator and activist, pv) and lots of other people, many with different political views and ideas about how artists should be treated.'

'Nevertheless, they ultimately presented thirteen demands to the New York City art world, which included such things as proposing museums to sell off some of their collections in order to provide a social security system for artists. It is really interesting to see the stuff they came up with, for instance they insisted that there should be a museum wing for women artists, another wing for Puerto Rican artists. The museum, AWC proposed, should also operate outside its large institutional structure and get out into the community. All kinds of ideas, many we take for granted today, including the establishment of a weekly free day for visitors to NYC museums, were in fact an AWC innovation. But at the core of their intervention was the idea that artists should be looked upon as workers who produce the exhibitable material (artworks) that the museum displays to the public. AWC was like a proto-trade union. The real challenge for W.A.G.E. is that in the US, as opposed to Canada, it's mostly the commercial sector that drives the art world, and not the public sector. How do you bring private collectors and museums into line with a fair pay system?’

Labor Migration

You also share a concern about the rights of migrant workers. Their precarious conditions are precisely what activist groups like Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC) or Global Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F) aim to remediate. Could you tell us a little bit more about those initiatives and your involvement in them?

‘With Gulf Labor Coalition, our primary target was the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (GAD) in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The project, designed by superstar architect Frank Gehry, was situated in the Saadiyat Island Cultural District, a desert island being terraformed from a sandy patch of land off the coast of Abu Dhabi, into a fabulous wonderland of high-priced condominiums, golf courses, gyms and universities (and much of it has been realized already, including a new Louvre Museum and New York University). Opposition to this development was initiated back in 2010, when the Lebanese artist Walid Raad and cultural theorist Andrew Ross expressed concern about immigrant laborers’ working conditions in the UAE. Ross is faculty at New York University (NYU), and he was already active protesting the university’s presence in the region.’

‘What was at stake exactly? In a word it was, and remains, the Kafala system, which consists of actively recruited laborers from Southern Asian or northern African countries, including India, Pakistan, and Sudan. Workers arrive in the UAE thinking they will be making X amount of money to send back to their families, and they will have good working conditions and decent pay as promised. But when they arrive, immigrants first must pay back their recruiter, which can take up to two or three years of their income. This means that the money you thought you were sending home is already gone. Frequently your passport is confiscated by authorities, making it impossible to leave. And if you start organizing with other workers, there is serious repression for such illegal activity (in fact, workers will intentionally break the law just so they could be deported to return home). Nevertheless, these very brave workers often do organize, go on strike and take other action to try to improve their lot.’

‘Our argument with the Guggenheim was twofold: first, we are contemporary artists and since contemporary art is the focus of this planned UAE museum, the institution’s practice there impacts our community; and second, as part of the broader art community the Guggenheim Museum must guarantee to treat immigrant workers fairly by applying the rules of conduct of any large construction project that takes place in Europe, the US and other democratic nations.’

The Guggenheim management soon called for a meeting to dissuade us from pursuing the boycott. At one point they even suggested we should make an artwork about our concerns!

‘Once Raad and Ross raised this issue within the progressive and activist art community, a number of artists, myself included, joined with them to create Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC). Soon we called for an artists’ boycott of the GAD. The leverage we had - and it's not unlike the AWC - was that many of the artists who signed the boycott letter were from the Middle East, precisely the cultural producers that the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi hoped to collect and exhibit in its new museum. So that resistance, which was published in The New York Times and other major news outlets, put a serious kink in their plans. Director Richard Armstrong and curator Nancy Spector soon called for a meeting to dissuade us from pursuing the boycott. At one point they even suggested we should make an artwork about our concerns! Just to say how much “institutional critique” has been defanged by the very institutions under examination.’

‘Pushing back, GLC actually proposed the use of existing contracts created by the International Labor Organization and other organizations that assured the fairness of the immigrant labor construction system. Though Armstrong and Spector agreed with us, they declined responsibility, blaming the problem on UAE policies. Long story short, we kept escalating our engagement with them, including launching the year-long project 52 Weeks in 2015. The idea was that every week, someone would produce a critical piece about immigrant labor in the UAE and GLC would circulate this on our website. Out of this initiative came Global Ultra Luxury Faction (G.U.L.F.), essentially a fraction of our larger group, dedicated to making direct interventions in the Guggenheim in New York and later in Venice.’

Now you see Decolonize This Place pressuring museums to think about their relationship to the colonial legacy, and we also see a wave of unionization going on amongst museum workers across the US who are demanding better pay and actual labor contracts.

Looking back, would you say those actions were successful?

‘I would love to say that we successfully shut down the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, but I don't think that's correct. When global oil prices recently fell through the floor, the GAD project was put on hold. Though Armstrong insists in interviews every now and then that the project is still coming along, it seems little has progressed since about 2017. Still, should oil prices ever go back up, I suspect the project will be revived.’

‘What Gulf Labor did manage was to create a stir by raising the issue of working conditions within the global art world in general to a higher level of visibility. Now you see Decolonize This Place – some of whose members come out of G.U.L.F. - pressuring museums to think about their relationship to the colonial legacy, and we also see a wave of unionization going on amongst museum workers across the US who are demanding better pay and actual labor contracts. That's an unusual phenomenon because the only museum I know of that was unionized before was the MoMA in New York, and that happened simultaneously with the Art Workers’ Coalition actions in 1968. So maybe, the ideological conditions that are allowing people to think in these terms is a shift that GLC at least helped to introduce into the art world’s discourse and practices.’

Radical Change

Do you consider this kind of activist practice to be in line with the tradition of institutional critique?

‘In fact, Hans Haacke is also part of GLC, and his mentorship proved indispensable to the group. My contribution to the Freiraum Festival was focused on the very question you raise: institutional critique. My argument is that a lot of the individuals who work as staff in museums, and who are now organizing into unions, are younger people who received their MFA (Master of Fine Arts), or maybe they hold an MA in Art History. Which means that they inevitably studied institutional critique at the university. My feeling is that they're actually carrying out institutional critique now as installers and registrars and coat check personnel, though not as artists. In other words, this wave of institutional critique is taking place within the actual working mechanisms of the institution, not as part of an exhibition. I think that is a new level of institutional critique. I use the expression of the “chickens coming home to roost”. And it is focused on a more radical level of change even than AWC, including demanding “toxic” board members to resign their posts, even succeeding in this on occasion.’

Talking about a new generation, my students, and probably yours as well, have grown up with a situation of crisis as their “new normal”. The exception seems to have become the rule. How do you expect them to a solid worldview from that, without resorting to cynicism?

‘I certainly share your experience. I recently came up with the proposal that there’s been a mutation in Mark Fisher’s notion of Capitalist Realism and we've now entered into it. I call this new phase the unpresent. With Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, we were convinced that repeated cycles of crisis and their return to normal were merely a natural part of our modern condition. With the unpresent, by contrast, I'm suggesting that this cycling has ended and we've gone off into a delirious state of permanent, uncanny crisis, a detour that has no promise of a return, no matter how troubling that condition already seemed.’

With the unpresent, I'm suggesting that the cycling of time has ended and we've gone off into a delirious state of permanent, uncanny crisis.

‘However, there is also this other phenomenon that I would call “monumenticide”, involving the taking down of racially and historically offensive monuments all around the globe. It has a destructive aspect to it, yes, but, at the same time, it's as if a younger generation is saying: We don't want to live with the image of society that you are providing us, we are going to remove that one, restart the motor and rethink what we're doing. Monumenticide, and other related movements including decolonial activism and museum unionization, crack a small hole in our sense of an absolute present, aka the unpresent. And maybe it is in these moments that we glimpse a space and time beyond the unpresent, one that has a future, or at least the possibility of a future, and one that is different from the present. But also a glimpse of a radicalized notion of the past that significantly differs from the endlessly repeating sense of now-time. This is what the unpresent has robbed us of: both past and future as propositions of difference and hope.’

What possible role could artists play in this whole story? Do you believe, for instance, in the radical emancipatory potential of art as social practice? I heard you say earlier - in a conversation with curator Iliana Fokianaki - that artists can’t change society through their art and that they’d rather follow politics than reinvent it.

‘Traditionally, at least since the mid-19th century, artists have been imagined as playing a very important role in transforming society. Henri de Saint-Simon’s idea of the avant-garde, for instance, was one in which industrialists, scientists and artists worked together to create a new socialist society. This idea was powerful at the turn of the last century during the emergence of the Soviet Union, and with the Berlin revolutionaries, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. My argument here is that, generally speaking, artists get caught up in these revolutionary movements and contribute to them. They are not necessarily those who found those movements, or upon which these movements rest.’

Look at the outgoing American president. Can you imagine a more extreme performance art practice?

‘I think that is still true today. I think a lot of artists now are following Black Lives Matter or the decolonial movement, finding ways to express their own work in relationship to those movements. What has changed, is the total aestheticization of our reality, which has been accelerated even more by the COVID-19 crisis as we relearn life in a digitally visual medium. Everything is now mediated through a cultural framework, at least in developed countries for sure. Look at the outgoing American president. Can you imagine a more extreme performance art practice? This total aesthetic idea is also found in Fisher and Boris Groys, as well as Guy Debord. So, perhaps artists may now be in a position of – quoting the late David Graeber – prefiguring an anarchist or horizontal social commons precisely because the line between art and non-art has vanished. Artists and the art world are now fully open to the conditions of the world they once sought total autonomy from.’

Walter Benjamin also warned about the aestheticization of politics, and claimed we need to move on to the politicization of aesthetics.

‘You're right. With the aestheticization of politics, you can't easily separate politics from activism or from culture. That is both a good and a bad thing. Here in the US, we see that people believe in activism, but they don't believe in politics. Every American believes it is natural to proclaim your personal cause, to do so in public, even with guns slung over one’s shoulders. But when it comes to trusting in the idea of governance, or the state, the US populace is far less cheerful or trusting. This split between activism and politics has everything to do with the person now leaving the White House. The big question for me is, how do we start to rethink the idea of the state, of governance, and therefore of a society? I think that is where leadership on the Left is really lacking.’