Since arriving in Scotland from Canada as a visiting writer and curator one month ago, I have been introduced to quite a bit of talk on the subject of ‘precarisation’ and labour - specifically, the precarious labour of cultural workers.
There seems to be both a blind valorisation of precarity in the arts and a growing desire for revolution from the precariously dissatisfied. But the theoretical arguments and the day-to-day reality of precarity appear worlds apart.
Precarity, to clarify up front, refers to individuals employed through temporary, short-term contracts. While this was once a choice for workers, the choice is now being made for us as precarity becomes normalised within the current neo-liberalist era.
My own experience working as a full time freelance writer and curator is a dedicated life of never-ending cycles of hustling and networking, where there is no clear distinction between work and life, business and pleasure, or employers and audiences. I do not see myself as privileged or subjugated, as I simply do not fit into the system.
As a precarious cultural worker, my job, life and time is spent questioning and magnifying the fissures in the system, akin to identifying the inevitable cracks in a plaster wall. The job of the artist is to widen these in order to expose the problem before the crack is superficially patched up. And there are cracks everywhere, not just in the art world.
The precarious nature of cultural workers is not so much a devaluation of our skills, but a lack of understanding as to where the demand lies. We work in a field that demands mobility without stability, but inversely, our instability allows us the freedom to address a multitude of subjects.
The nature of most cultural workers is precarious, because few of the systems that offer stability will actually want to be accountable to so many stakeholders.
My current placement is unique in that they believe in a 50/50 approach between the organisation and the town, and that’s how they’ve been functioning since they began as a self-organised arts group with a strong focus on socially-engaged art practices. I am also only here for a fixed span of time, which is also an important factor, because once precarity becomes routinised, as is the case across artist run centres, the working conditions take on restrictive parameters, and suddenly, cultural workers are still without stable incomes or pensions, but find themselves working 60 hours a week for meagre wages on an indefinite amount of time.
For another generation of cultural workers who find themselves painted into a corner, there is a palpable anger and frustration towards the system that has subsumed and regulated our precarity, making us active, although weak and willing participants in the very economic labour system we are supposed to challenge through our ideals and our actions. More likely, we are reinforcing the power of those systems when we let ourselves be bound by them.
No one would deny that this unstable framework has led to an imbalance of power relations both economically and politically, but the question of the day is whether this unstable framework is actually capable of destabilising our current neo-liberalist society.
If neo-liberalism is indeed governing through the action of instituting insecurities, as suggested by the den mother of precarity, Isabel Lorey, the issue at hand is not the precarious nature of labour, but about how this precarity is being culled. To go back to the image of the fissuring plaster wall, if we have moved into an era where we are distracted from even fixing the cracks; rather, we have become dependent on prescribed precarity, on the doling out of scraps of decorative wall coverings, and fighting one another over who can put up what and where in a legitimated realm of instable institutionalised patterning.
A base function of art is to shine a light on areas in our society that have grown dark or invisible. Artists do so by challenging conventions of both form and content, by carving out a space for themselves among these issues by de-territorialising our standardised rhythms and patterns of action and thought.
In continuing on as precarious workers in an increasingly unstable realm, the issue is not precarity, which is a given, but the boundaries set upon our precarious nature that we must be released from.
*First appeared in Line Magazine, Issue 4