Time to Self-organise
Having returned to Italy after six years in the UK—during which I attained A-levels, a BA in Photography, an MA in Art History and Museum Curating with Photography, and countless hours of unpaid work experience—I was greeted by a bleak professional landscape. Contemporary photography began to gain footing in Italy only in recent years, and whilst Italian soil is producing a number of great photographers and is thriving with exciting happenings and events in the field, they are mainly led by small-scale, underfunded initiatives and still largely ignored by main Italian institutions. My hopes to teach at postgraduate level or to find job in a museum in order to sustain not only my practice, but my living, have been lowered by the realisation that none of my qualifications are recognised in my home country, preventing me to apply to pretty much anything which is public: research grants, teaching positions, and job openings in museums all seem to be beyond my reach. Before embarking on the painstaking, expensive, and exhausting journey of obtaining a certificate of equivalency (I will not here elaborate on the labyrinthine obstacles of Italian bureaucracy), I decided to ponder my options. Why rely on the public sector when I can offer my services as a freelancer?
Freelancing is sold as the ultimate dream of self-entrepreneurial liberal politics: be your own boss, make a profession out of your passions, dictate your own success, do your thing and the world will be your oyster. Freedom at last! Looking at most of us working as freelancers in the arts sector, whether as writers, editors, curators, educators, or artists (and oftentimes as various combinations of these), the liberal dream of self- employment appears more like a liberal nightmare. In Freedom from Everything: Freelancers and Mercenaries, Hito Steyerl describes the negative freedoms which are all too well-known to cultural freelancers, but that equally apply to most kinds of citizens: “[...] freedom from social bonds, freedom from solidarity, freedom from certainty or predictability, freedom from employment or labour, freedom from culture, public transport, education, or anything public at all.”
And the list could go on: freedom from minimum wage, freedom from paid sick leave, freedom from paid maternal/paternal leave, freedom from pensions, freedom from psychological health.
In our current economic system—and more so in the sector of contemporary arts—the opportunities for employment with a contract of indeterminate duration are scarce and the competition is fierce. Organisations and cultural institutions largely rely on outsourced labour provided by freelancers, comprising short-term, project-based mutual commitments, providing no framework to safeguard freelancers from exploitation or unexpected occurrences.
The risk of outstanding invoices is always around the corner. The recent case of Unseen Amsterdam, denounced publicly by Felicity Hammond1, provides an eloquent example of one of the many threats lurking in the shadows of freelancing. Heavily pregnant, Hammond was commissioned a project that advertised the 2019 edition of the festival and was asked to re-adapt it to form its central exhibition, which she realised during the first three weeks of her daughter’s life. Following the bankruptcy of three quarters of the organisation, Hammond never got paid not only for her labour, but also for the sales of her work made by Unseen during the festival. The same applies to a multitude of other artists, filmmakers, and professionals who worked for the foundation. This example had a positive ending: following Hammond’s open letter to the festival, Art Rotterdam (the new owners of Unseen) announced they will pick up the list of creditors left unpaid by the previous management and pay them with their own funds.2 But cases like this are rare and largely depend on the damaged party’s will to take the risk to expose oneself.
These changes in employment habits not only impact the regularity and reliability of income, but fundamentally change the sites of production and the conditions of labour. Uncertainty, unpredictability, and overexertion saturate nearly all aspects of our working life. Whether writing a funding application, a project proposal, or planning a course, we find ourselves spending weeks of unpaid work for an outcome which is never predictable; we do not know if the work we have done is fruitful or remunerative until an external backer validates the project after much of the work has already been done. Many times the creative and cultural capital accumulated over long periods of work simply evaporates into thin air. A cloud- archive of potential projects which never get the chance to materialise. A friend of mine was recently asked to formulate seven different project proposals over ten days in order to be shortlisted, and hopefully selected, for the ambassadorship of a major imaging equipment company. How can anybody be expected to conceive seven valid project proposals over such a short period of time? And, as in the traditionally individualistic view of the “self-made person”, you are the only one responsible for your success, you are also the only one accountable for your failures.
This view drastically reduces the accountability of the State and institutions, which are supposed to support and protect us and which, instead, exploit us and subject us to inhumane requirements and conditions of labour.
The ideal freelancer is an endless multitasker, a passionate, self- oppressive, adaptable, flexible, driven worker with no needs. Corporations and larger institutions prefer hiring one freelancer to cover a variety of roles in order to save money on specialised labour; founders of smaller, underfunded initiatives are obliged to cover all the roles needed to make a cultural initiative function (marketing, research, project planning, delivery, etc.) or to delegate some of the jobs to equally unpaid and overexerted interns and volunteers, creating a vicious circle of exploited individuals, which perpetuate the cycle of exploitation. Needless to say, these work conditions are unsustainable in the long-term. Pervasive precarity, permanent uncertainty, unregulated working hours, and the fusion of professions result in the vast majority of cultural workers being chronically stressed and anxious whilst at the same time having to continuously push themselves to be motivated, active, positive, and productive. Eyes on the target, no matter how far or how unattainable it might be. But keeping your eyes on the target can become an impossible task when you are struggling to get out of bed in the morning or juggling multiple jobs to pay your rent.
Of course these conditions do not apply equally to all freelancers, as geographical, economic, personal, and sectorial variations impact the sustainability of freelancing. Of capillary importance in these geographic variations is the visibility (or invisibility) of art workers to the eyes of the State: the legislative differences employed by different countries to recognise, legitimate, protect, and valorise cultural workers. The state of emergency and economic crisis caused by the spread of COVID-19 provided a useful vantage point to observe the measures implemented by European governments for the protection of art workers, some of which have been more successful than others in softening the impact of the lockdown on cultural workers. Italy launched the decree ‘Cura Italia’ (Cure Italy) addressed to museums and entertainment venues (such as theatres and cinemas), leaving behind the most vulnerable segment of art workers (freelance artists, small galleries, and non-profit associations). Whilst freelance workers equipped with a VAT number are entitled to claim a 600 euros allowance provided to all self- employed workers, the heat caused by COVID-19 brought to surface a bubbling mass of pre-existing issues that afflict cultural workers in the country: an intolerable level of undeclared work, alternative forms of remuneration (such as ‘visibility’), and a severe lack of regulations, which leaves workers with barely any bargaining power when stipulating contracts and agreeing on wages.
Ultimately, the (un)sustainability of freelancing is defined by the lack of governmental structures and legislations for the protection of workers, which results in “the affirmation of an elitist system [and] the implicit encouragement of self- exploitation regimes.”
The liberal ideas of freedom which consist of “the freedom of corporations from any form of regulation, as well as the freedom to relentlessly pursue one’s own interest at the expense of everyone else’s” are not the freedoms any of us want. In A Future with No Future: Depression, the Left and the Politics of Mental Health, Mikkel Krause Frantzen argues “when bodies take care of each other, when responsibility is redistributed, and individual collapses are transformed into collective intimacies, the future can be (re)built in the name of a communist, shared and sustainable one.” These are the freedoms I want: freedom to be mutually responsible, freedom to share accountability, freedom from precarity, from the pervasive privatisation of resources and public services, freedom from invisibility to the eyes of the State. When I was writing the first draft of this text three months ago, the perspective of any legislative change for the protection of cultural workers felt utopian, but today I return to it with renewed hope. Whilst COVID-19 left most of us out of work, it also provided a most precious resource: the time to self-organise. These two months have seen the birth of Art Workers Italia (AWI)3, an “informal, autonomous and non-partite” union of art workers, demanding “the recognition of the profession of contemporary art workers, the regulation of employment relationships, the redistribution of resources and the reform and restructuring of the entire sector.” AWI truly stands out for the quality of their methods, the clarity and obtainability of their demands, and their commitment to research, leaving me with a great deal of optimism for the future. Only time will tell whether we will achieve what we long for, but the birth of this group already marks a significant first achievement. In the meantime, I will wield my spear and continue to offer myself as a freelancer, a little less reluctantly, with a little bit more hope, and with something to look forward to.