Beyond precarity

It is a concept that has become a popular buzzword in the art world. The notion of precarity was delicately referenced by the Art Gallery of Peterborough’s incoming Curator, Fynn Leitch in her talk in June 2014, in regards to funding formulas that compel arts organizations to be ever ready to “redefine everything all the time.

I came across an article by Isabell Lorey, (translated from the German) in e-flux entitled Becoming Common: Precarization as Political Constituting that deconstructs the concept of precarity in some detail. (I’m being only slightly facetious when I say I highly recommend reading this article aloud, voce forte, to fully experience the deliciously baroque artspeak that could nearly be classified as a dialect and the propensity for run-on sentences that rival my own. I would dearly love to see a smack-down between the author and a spelling and style check widget.)

But joking aside, there is nothing precarious about art and culture. In fact, art repeatedly outlasts our human lifespan as well as entire civilizations; in fact, there is no known human civilization that has ever existed or exists now that has not had some form of music; in fact, we still assign enormous value, financially and emotionally, to both contemporary art forms and their 40,000 year old counterparts.

What actually has precarity is our human perception and the context of information around us, and it is precisely because of that, that we need art. Art reminds us of who we are, who we’ve been and who we can be. Even culture from ancient eras and remote civilizations remains highly relevant to us.

So why do we so easily buy into the idea that precarity is acceptable in building and maintaining our cultural landscape, the one thing humanity does that provides consistency, truth, joy and meaning from millennium to millennium?

One reason may be that cultural workers are rarely interested in power. They aren’t interested in becoming kings, queens or presidents, acquiring millions or minions, so much as exploring, creating, reorganizing, revitalizing and redefining the world around them. That in itself takes up a surprising amount of time and energy, so waging a war, a political campaign, or a corporate takeover often gets put on the back burner.

Before the recent provincial election, the Media Arts Network of Ontario sent out a query to the candidates of 3 parties on their arts platform and some of the statistics they reveal about the value of the arts as an economic force in Ontario are significant – the arts generate $1.7 bil­lion in taxes, employ 252,000 Ontarians, and play a critical role in tourism, despite the fact that most artists live well below the poverty line.

But another perspective puts arts precarity at the forefront of socio-political change. It is precisely because artists adapt to marginalization that makes them nimble in the face of financial and political uncertainty.

Our current arts funding model will only ever support a certain sector of arts workers and not necessarily the best. First of all, the artist or arts organization must identify the round hole of a grant into which they must fit their square peg. Secondly, creating a work of art is not like building a machine. There isn’t a blueprint; much art-making involves trial and error, and the proof of artistic success can never be objective or definitive. Therefore, the process of providing a detailed description of an idea that is still in a state of germination in order to secure funding is essentially problematic. Could you or would you want to describe and define your in utero child before it is born?

But more chilling is that the language and framework of public sector funding continues to shift under our feet. The current climate wants arts organizations to become market savvy and lean into the private sector for financial independence. To me the implication is that as artists we are authors of our own debility, due to our reluctance to get with the mainstream economic program; that it is an inherent flaw in our process that we have failed to develop business acumen. A quick introduction to social media and some corporate partnerships should fix that, right?

Precarity also prevails when there are few opportunities for education and growth or when too much insularity breeds stagnation. When cultural workers have no other option but to seek employment and educational opportunities outside of the region, the community loses irreplaceable cultural capital.

Stepping around precarity in arts funding these days is like farming in a field of landmines. As arts organizations and artists struggle to keep up with the subtext and death by 1000 cuts, it begs the question: what limbs of our cultural body are we willing to live without? Or are we able to shift our perception and truly begin to nourish the arts as the legitimate core of our society? What comes after precarity?

I don’t know of an artist who has been able to turn precarity on its ear like Chicago’s Theaster Gates. Frustrated by his marginalization even within the art world as an Afro-American craftsman, Gates devised a conceptual piece. He engaged local tradespeople to create the ceramic artifacts attributed to a slave he called Dave the Potter, and complete with gospel choir, the exhibit was received with resounding success. From there he went on to embody concepts like Radical Hospitality and the Soul Manufacturing Corporation by buying and transforming derelict buildings in his own run down Chicago neighbourhood as well as those in other states and reinventing them with salvaged libraries, small-scale manufacturing facilities, artist spaces, workshops and communal dining experiences. He states, “Artists have the capacity when we gather to do things that nobody else in the world can do. .. out of nothing, out of detritus, artists have a way of connecting belief and ability and are willing to work at a thing longer than most would so that there is heat … what we found is that people want to be wherever artists were. If artists could manage some of that cultural capital that we have, we can be the real transformers of communities.”

Gates paints with human resources, music, food, and the architecture, history and spirit of abandoned neighbourhoods. He djs soulful mixes of history, craft, education, urban planning, recycling, manufacturing, labour, economic systems and community. His practice demonstrates an inspiring, living model of sustainable culture as the core of social and economic redesign and renewal. He shows us that we can, and how we can, move beyond precarity.

 More on Theaster Gates »


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