Art and Work Within and Beyond Crisis. Introduction.

April 2020 – ongoing

by Brett Wallace


This ongoing web document/labor notebook attempts to explore and map artistic responses to crisis at the intersection of art, labor, and the economy. Its purpose is to explore how work and artistic practice – as a form of work – are reshaped under the conditions of employment in crisis to acknowledge and share new alternative forms of practice that foster collectivity, care, generosity, solidarity, and revolution.

This is a rough cut start to what I hope to be an ongoing generative project. It is a project inspired by many artists and activists around the world who work towards imagining and building new possibilities and paradigms towards a more just and inclusive world.

This notebook was created in the April and early May – therefore the crisis it refers to is the COVID-19 pandemic. It does not yet incorporate the movement for racial justice that sparked protests around the world from the murder of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020. I stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. And, I will be updating this notebook to incorporate my perspective within it.

A note about me

I am a white male artist. I grew up in a working class family outside of Boston. I acknowledge this notebook is coming at this topic through a U.S. based lens and is rooted in my own experience as a white man. I also acknowledge the knapsack I carry has provided me certain privileges. For example, I am not an essential worker and was able, and am still able, to work on this notebook in a safe environment distanced from front-line work (reducing my potential for infection from COVID-19). This concept was not lost on me as New York City went into pandemic lock down for much of this year, while essential workers kept the city going. In addition, I was not constrained by the growing digital divide in working on this project – I have steady access to internet and technology. As a part of my ongoing work, I am committed to helping expose such inequalities in labor and society. Lastly, and something I don’t share much about, is while I have a disability, it is an invisible one outside of my immediate family. And, while it requires my own attention, it goes unnoticed and does not impact my relationship to society. The knapsack I carry has afforded me a certain degree of privileges I choose not to ignore and I work to close those gaps.


The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the systemic challenges facing workers over the last four decades.  The last half century has seen real wages flatten while workers take on increased spending in the form of housing, transportation, fuel, food, healthcare, and education costs, as well as debt. Wealth for the 1% has increased substantially while 50% of American workers are living paycheck-to-paycheck and many small businesses exist on the brink of collapse with only a few months of payroll on hand. Labor protections from the New Deal have been rolled back by the perniciousness of neoliberalism, a situation further exacerbated by the gig economy. Many front-line workers lack the appropriate healthcare or housing they deserve as a human right. Racialized capitalism continues to present inequalities through the asymmetrical distribution of pandemic funds. The economy has come to a near halt, and the playbook of corporate bailouts, reminiscent of the 2008 bailout of the big banks, has been redeployed to save systems over people.

While survival and health are paramount in this time, this crisis has also exposed the inequalities in survival and health. When I started this piece, the main pandemic I was writing about was COVID-19.

In late May, a second pandemic, the continued murder of Black citizens at the hands of police brutality, rose up in revolution. On May 25th, George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was murdered at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I learned of the deaths that proceeded this tragic event, such as Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, who has murdered on May 13th, and Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old Black man who was murdered on February 23rd by three white men. I also learned about Tony McDade, a 38-year-old Black transgender man, murdered by the Tallahassee Police Department on May 27th. Despite our anger, the list of deaths continues to grow.

The deep, systemic inequalities that underpin both pandemics is why I believe we need to take steps that go beyond reforming the current system — and to take steps to revolutionize the capitalist system from its ideology and its systems of oppression across racial, gender, and class lines.

To stay healthy, to care, to deconstruct, and to revolutionize are all part of the skilled work of communities – including artists – around the world. It’s critical we nourish communities, the activities they pursue and make space for bottoms up coalition building and revolution.

This evolving document includes the following sections –

Part 1- the landscape – how is the landscape of work changing in this crisis?

Part 2 – art worlds – how will the art world(s) be reshaped?

Part 3 – potential responses – what are potential artistic responses toward self-care, collectivity, autonomy, and sustainability?

The first public presentation of this notebook took place on May 13, 2020 in a conversation hosted by Elizabeth Ferrer at BRIC.

If you have thoughts to share or questions, please feel free to contact me.

  • email:
  • @brettwallacenyc

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