Art and Work Within and Beyond Crisis. Part 3 – Artistic responses.

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What are some potential artistic responses and positions around the topics of care, collectivity, autonomy, speculation, sustainability?

We are all coping with this crisis in different ways. This mapping project is an ongoing personal reflection, offering a series of questions, meditations, and work based on values of care, collectivity, autonomy, speculation and sustainability in solidarity with artists, art workers, and international workers. For me, it is a form of relief to reflect on such subjects in conversation with peers. Please share, use or discard any of this as you see fit.

This page is a work in progress to document examples of artistic response. It is not an attempt to fully capture how artists are responding to crisis, the public health crisis or other crises, nor is it an attempt to aestheticize such responses.

Artists, given their critical and creative skills, are in a position to engage with their local communities to help reimagine/reframe/reshape/rebuild models, frameworks, modes of production, and methods of survival. Artists exist in every part of the economy, and I believe that the more ways artists can respond to issues of socio-economic justice and enter society, both within and beyond the art world, the more artists can add to the momentum of creating a more just and inclusive society.

Despite the deep self-isolation of the pandemic, a recent survey revealed 82% of artists will deploy their creativity to support the recovery – more than half whether they get paid or not. (1)

The cultural aestheticization of politics. In times like this, corporations, such as Amazon, can’t seem to hide the hypocrisy that comes from their economic interests. Last I checked in May, Jeff Bezos made $24 billion during the pandemic. Some companies and institutions will use the crisis as a way to promote values of generosity and compassion to boost brand value. While it’s nice Amazon thanked their employees in a public YouTube video, behind the scenes they continue to execute well-documented poor labor practices.

Given this context, here are some thoughts on artistic response.

Guiding principles

  • The ways artists respond are limitless and shifting
  • A refusal to make art (and do something else) is a form of artistic response.
  • As noted by John Berger, all art is political. This includes whether one is politically active in their practice, or not. Practices that are not directly political can offer space, hope, refuge, and reclamation. That said, art operates with unique logic and criteria than direct action and activism.
  • Art that includes activist tendency within it can be most potent and authentic when it originates from the site of politics, not from the studio. Otherwise, the work of art operates as removed from the broader cause and risks aestheticizing the subject (a concept I attribute to Ben Davis). In addition, I think this concept can also be recognized in the many panels within the culture industry that open big topics, but avoid accountability. In activist groups, action is paramount – if you share ideas, there is an underlying assumption that you will help carry out the tactics.
  • The work of art emerges from the ideologies, modes, mediums, and mechanisms it is created within. Therefore, I think of questions, ideas, fragments, and developments as a part of artistic practice.

Questions

  • How do we, as an artist community, build momentum in demanding changes that will help all artists, such as universal healthcare, and debt and rent cancellation? How do we impose deadlines and accountability on these demands?
  • Where do other deadlines that we impose on ourselves come from? Which ones are required or not? How can slowness be a response, an ethic, and an aesthetic? How do we end the pressure put on ourselves by institutions?
  • Caring for oneself and others is work and comes in many different forms. What do you care about most? How do you like to be cared for and want to care for others?
  • What efforts are underway – or in need – that you could plug into and serve?
  • How can we think about re-skilling or redeploying our skills?
  • How would we reshape/reprioritize/reorder our work accordingly? How do you imagine yourself and your work differently? What do you care about most?
  • Are there new projects or previously unimaginable ones that are now more important to you? How does your home reshape your work? This includes the virtual space you create from within the home. How would you present your research or visual work in a virtual space in a way that’s appropriate to your work and ideas? How does your use of material and methods shift appropriately to the ideas in your work?
  • What could an artist-run space in the home, shed, yard, garden, woods, online, etc. look, or feel like?
  • How to practice open-source, sharing, and communing without placing the burden on someone else?
  • Taking stock of your sustainability and self-care. How much money do you have right now? How much do you owe? Who around you could offer you flexibility? What could you offer others?
  • Who are people you could connect for their mutual benefit? Who are people with whom you could practice reciprocal care?
  • What are new alternative ways of removing or avoiding the ontology of ruthless business thinking – profit, efficiency, individualism – in the arts?

Meditations

  • It’s enough to try to stay healthy.
  • Listening.
  • Think small. Think local.
  • Not doing work. Establishing boundaries with production.
  • Talking is a start to organizing. Getting organized in local issues that serve your community can be incredibly helpful right now.
  • Accepting your previous work may be upended and now may be a time to do something new collectively.
  • Feeling anxious.
  • Being hypervigilant.
  • Small ripple effects count tremendously (hat tip to Phong Bui).
  • Demand to be paid and paid fairly.
  • Join in solidarity with fellow arts workers for social progress.
  • Invisible asymmetries can be made visible through art (thinking about artists such as Allan Sekula, Martha Rosler, and Fred Lonidier).
  • Accept all the imperfections, mistakes, and disruptions that come with experimenting in your practice.

The following passage written by an anonymous colleague for A Call for Complaint captures a feeling of this moment.

“This is the time, we hear, that artists move. We continue to draw on support and energy outside of institutions, outside toxic positivity, outside power. We claim the speech that crisis makes possible. That speech from the gut, stirred, unearthed, and drawn up to the surface. And so: resist the pressure to forget. Resist the demand to accept this as the way things are. In this transition, we break. ” – anonymous


Artist organizers have created egalitarian forms of community support. In the NYC Low-Income Artist/Freelancer Relief Fund, Shawn Escarciga and Nadia Tykulsker have collectively crowdsourced $138,538 in funds from over 1,000 donors to provide emergency and preventative resources for low-income, BIPOC, trans/GNC/NB, queer, undocumented, immigrant artists and freelancers in NYC effected by the pandemic.

I am inspired by how alternative models contribute to community, care, solidarity, and resiliency. Woodbine, a cooperative autonomous group, has mobilized mutual aid in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens by converting their space into food pantry. For months, they have distributed fresh food and vegetables every Wednesday and Friday.

Cooperative structures have a long history. And, co-ops can be seen in almost every sector from a bike repair company; a film collective (New Day Films); or an arts and education platform, such as OurGoods. Other examples include alternative tech startups that are platform coops

I am interested in how more cooperative projects could form and what further ones will emerge to build international solidarity.

Image courtesy of Woodbine – more information on Woodbine here


Related writings, projects, and resources:

As this project evolves, I continue to collate a list of  projects that respond in various ways and formats to the topics of care, collectivity, autonomy, speculation, sustainability. Please feel free to send me comments or suggestions at brett@brettwallace.com

Quaranzine – Public Collectors. A daily printed zine in collaboration with artists.

Americans for the Arts Survey Data

Image above – Jon Schipper. NYC needs mobile testing. I drew this up as a possible low cost solution. The shed provides safety for the health worker and it can be deployed on streets throughout the city making it safer for people to get tested on their block. Easily made, easily moved.

Davis, Ben, Understanding Why Nobody Made Great Art About the Previous World-Shaking Pandemic + Two Other Illuminating Reads From Around the WebArtnet

Artists’ Literacies Institute

Kopel, Dana, The Museum Does Not ExistSSense

Haiven, Max, Revenge Capitalism, Pluto Press.

Arcenaux, Michael, I Don’t Want To Die Poor, Simon and Schuster

Sutton, Benjamin, Liberate Tate Activists Look Back on Six Years of Fighting BP Partnership, Hyperallergic

A Call for Complaint for Sick Speech – Anonymous

No Artist Left Alive – Max Haiven

Art and Labor Podcast – Episode 77 – Plague World updates

Documentation of wild plants – Sarabel Santos-Negron

Artfully Learning – Adam Zucker

Nook Gallery – Oakland, CA

Covid Magazine – Murat Cem Mengüç

The Hologram (ongoing project on distributed care) – Cassie Thornton

queerachive – Paul Soulellis

http://wellnow.wtf/ – Lorna Mills, Faith Holland

Sharon Louden has been doing ongoing work to surface the varied ways in which artists are working in the many nooks and crannies in society.


A recognition of those artists doing work in other ways – farming, caring for someone, delivering food, checking-in with community members, raising funds, sharing information with neighbors, talking and organizing, and other forms of labor.


Sarabel Santos-Negrón , Ir y retornar, día 57
11 de mayo de 2020

 y Retornar (Going and Return) is a project for the arrangement and daily documentation of wild plants that heI randomly selects and isolates as an exercise of meditation and reflection in response to social distancing for the COVID-19 pandemic. The project was started on the first day of quarantine in Puerto Rico on Monday, March 16, 2020.


Endnotes

  1. Data from The Economic Impact of Coronavirus on the Arts and Culture Sector and The COVID-19 Impact Survey for Artists and Creative Workers, as of April 21, 2020.
  2. Max Haiven, “Revenge Capitalism” forthcoming May 20th, 2020 – Pluto Press.