Arts & Labor’s Alternative Economies Workshop at NURTUREart, Bushwick.
On Saturday, May 11th Alternative Economies facilitated a workshop as part of the “Cashing Out” exhibition curated by Petrushka Bazin Larsen at NUTUREArt in Bushwick. A diverse group of roughly thirty artists came together to discuss our enchantments and frustrations with the art world as it exists, and to brainstorm how alternative economic models could be applied to the current system, or replace it altogether.
The workshop was structured into two parts. In the first we listed what we liked and didn’t like about the art world. Many agreed that we liked art, being artists, and the artist’s lifestyle. We value the autonomy that being an artist affords, the opportunity to experiment with social forms, and the ability to create new, non-normative identities. On the other hand many expressed frustration with the art world’s exclusivity, it’s lack of transparency, exploitative working conditions, it’s resistance to organization, and it’s competitive individualism. We also disliked our powerlessness in the face of corporate media, and the ways that capital exploits art and artists for it’s own ends, including the use of artists as gentrifiers, and the use of art as a means to create financial gain within speculative markets.
In the second part of the workshop small groups discussed existing alternative economies and how these could be applied to the art world, in our own practices as artists, and to communal life. Thirty-six ‘stepping-stones’ developed by the Center for Popular Economics were distributed among the groups. Each ‘stepping-stone’ is a card which summarizes an alternative approach to the economy and gives examples of how it is currently being used in contemporary society. These cards cover a wide range of examples including: legislative proposals such as the ‘Tobin Tax’ on financial transactions, social movements such as the Zapatistas and Brazilian Landless Workers Movement, co-operative forms such as producers co-ops, land trusts, fair trade and co-housing. The cards also gave examples of labor activist strategies such as worker’s centers and factory take-overs, and forms of communal resource management such as participatory budgeting, creative commons, and common property management, plus many more.
Much enthusiasm was generated as we discussed the possibilities of these new forms of practice and institution building. The workshop was a great way to introduce ourselves to the range of possibilities that already exist and the implications for art and artists.
Alternative Economies is planning to put new economic models into practice. Anyone who is interested in working on a project that experiments with economic structures should come to our next meeting, Sunday June 30th at noon. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Now’s a good time to get involved as we’ll be brainstorming new projects to work on over the next year.
Here’s the working paper I hope folks add to: Poetics of Working People: Toward a (Re)Vision of Labor as Art
When we think of workers, labor, toil, the daily grind of a majority in both America and around the globe—now and past—it may be difficult to conjure with the idea of our work a comparable image of artistry. Yet, as workers, we are intensely, often dramatically and quite impactfully, creative. From the secretary to the bus driver, the sheet rock hanger to the factory worker, the custodian to the adjunct college professor, the fast food worker to the mechanic, and so many more, there rise ideas for how to make work bearable, better, easier, more profitable, and yes, artistic, every moment of every day. These are not acts of selfishness, or worthlessness; on the contrary, they rise intrinsically out of creativity, of need, and so many times, of dedication and love for the jobs we as workers do. But that is not what we hear. In fact, we rarely hear our praises sung by anyone these days. All we do hear, from the Right to Work laws, the at will reminders, is that workers are not even worth their hire. Think about it. We hear every day that the labor movement is dying. The press, the president, the scholarly community, the learned and supposedly “who’s who” of our society tell us that we, as workers, are replaceable. Indeed, they, through the ultimate and most powerful mouthpiece laborers must listen to—the BOSS—tell us we are unskilled, we do not matter, we do not deserve a voice. But if this is true, then why is the service industry—that lowliest of low—growing exponentially? Why are those who toil arguably the most for the least so imperative to how this country, this world runs? I would offer another view of work and workers, a model, paradigm, picture that contests what the powerful are telling their powerless millions: workers are worth what they do, workers are worth their hire. And just maybe, could it also be, that workers—now and in the past—play notes that sing beyond paychecks and time clocks, a song so remarkably poetic that we as a culture must begin to form a new idea, a (re)vision if you will, of labor as art.
But to make such a bold and seemingly incomprehensible argument, one that all those “in the know” and with all the power keep telling us as workers is wholly untrue, we must find a way to alter how we look at, how we perceive work.