Dossier 1: Quarantine edition

Get fired! An artist’s view on work, precarious labour, and the far-reaching demand for flexibility from artists.

With exhibition spaces and museums closed all around the country, and a cancellation of events until at least the end of August, artists and cultural workers have seen major changes to their working lives. Some have seen a complete disappearance of work like performances or lectures. While others have been asked to translate everything into the online world, from teaching to dance parties to exhibitions. Way before the quarantine, artist Alina Lupu had been dealing with the relationships between precarious labour, cultural work, and the platform economy in her artistic practice. I interviewed her for our Quarantine Dossier (over email, of course) to get her perspective on the impact of the quarantine on her own work, the platform economy as a whole, solidarity between workers, and the invisibility of essential work.

Margarita Osipian: When you graduated from the Rietveld you had to take on a number of ‘side jobs’ to survive. Instead of seeing these jobs as something that was next to your artistic practice, you incorporated these jobs into your artistic practice—opening up dialogue about the precarity of the labour economy and gig-based work. Now that we are in the middle of a pandemic and many people are under quarantine, what effect has this had on the kinds of work you do?

Alina Lupu: At the beginning of 2020 my practice as an artist and writer was about to enter a new phase. Rather than infinite growth, I was already applying a good amount of degrowing 1 to it and to my life in general. From less unsustainable travel, to less participating just for the sake of visibility, to consuming less and producing differently. Or simply, when I was overproducing I would incorporate that as a statement into the pieces I was making (see Quality, Speed, Consistency: a piece in which waste—of time, and of produce—was part of the concept of the work). Or Division of Labour, where traces of consumerism were integrated into the piece and made visible in the form of all my shopping invoices during the year). 2020 began with the ending of an artistic stipend that I had received and with a dismissal from the restaurant job that I had held onto as my more stable source of income for almost two years up until that point. I considered applying for unemployment. And since I use much of my life as a starting point for reflection in my work as an artist, unemployment would have been taken up as a field of study, not just as a necessity. I started reflecting on what it means to be an artist applying for unemployment, but I never got around to materializing my thoughts before the quarantine restrictions came into place. What followed were three weeks of pure confusion and scrambling to make sense of it all. During those initial three weeks I made no work. I couldn’t even think. And rather than push myself towards an online turn and transform the pieces that I make, and which rely heavily on social interaction, into online pieces, I decided to refuse the need to maintain normality and just observe the world instead. This crystallised itself in written form. I started a collaboration with TAAK, sending written and recorded pieces of reflections on an almost weekly basis (though the pieces are allowed to not have a regular schedule) and I’ve also sent in a dispatch from the quarantine to the Institute for Network Cultures.

My practice as a conceptual artist has turned to writing for the time being. It has also slowed down in terms of output and reduced the pressures associated with itself, which tended to have to do with public moments. Whatever works will be materialized in the months to come will most likely contain reflections of the changes that the COVID-19 crisis has triggered on the labour market. Unsurprisingly, unemployment will be a key element to be debated once the urgency of the pandemic subsides, with unemployment numbers worldwide rising at an alarming rate. The other thing that will need to be taken into account will be a potential societal change, the higher valuing of the professions that became vital during the pandemic and a discontinuing of superfluous professions, which will trigger a gap in professional busyness that will need to be filled with new meanings. There’s an artistic practice before the crisis and one after. I don’t dare assume how that will look like for me.

MO: I read online that you’ve been employed and contracted by Deliveroo, Helpling, Foodora, Uber, Hanze Groningen, Willem de Kooning Rotterdam, de Taart van m´n Tante, and Poké Perfect. Many (if not all) of the jobs on this list are part of the gig-based work of the platform economy. Some of these platforms like Deliveroo and Foodora are obviously benefitting from the influx of home food deliveries, but other platforms like Airbnb and Helpling must have taken a hit as they involve work that is no longer allowed. What impact do you think this specific moment will have on the platform economy in the longer term?

AL: We’ve been undoubtedly subjected to a reshuffling of priorities during the corona crisis. There are the gigs that now become more prized, and by prized I mean they can still operate and are in demand (food delivery, for example), while others are restricted (Airbnb). With limited travel and increased supervising to maintain hygiene, apartment sharing through Airbnb is dropping in demand, and even reorienting in scope – a friend has recently brought to my attention that Airbnb listings which offer workspaces have started popping up on the platform, highlighting the need for space in which to focus when one is crammed in with family in isolation for long periods of time. Platforms, or rather the individuals operating through them, tend to spring back and follow the good old entrepreneurial mantra of endless adaptation. Cleaning might be temporarily limited, because of the worries of contamination if one lets strangers into their house, but cleaning, provided there is the needed disposable income for it, will most likely be one of the first to bounce back once the quarantine restrictions are needed, given how much of a basic element of Dutch household life it is.

What is somewhat worrisome to discuss, if we are to take food delivery for example, is the fact that this field was already plagued by issues of lack of sick pay, low fees for the riders, and overall professional insecurity. These issues were discussed before the pandemic and, in the case of Deliveroo, a new trial date was even set to happen mid-March in Amsterdam, in order to win riders proper recognition as employees rather than independent contractors. It’s been a years long battle. In the meantime though, all non-vital trials have been suspended, so that Deliveroo trial never happened. Though from one new trial date to a decision and to its implementation there is a long way to go, it’s fair to say that this crisis has discontinued this form of justice offered to the riders and it has shown once again how precarious their situation is. The workload for food delivery riders has increased. They have become invaluable workers during the pandemic. But the possibility for their financial security and for them maintaining their health during the crisis are ever more distant.

MO: There have been a lot of memes going around online about how we are now realising who the essential workers of our economy are (nurses, maintenance workers, cleaners, grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, doctors, teachers, etc). Do you think this understanding will help us to create more solidarity among workers and a better understanding of what we should be valuing in our economic systems?

AL: Those initial three weeks in which I was in stupor, trying to process what this historical moment means, was a time in which I consumed more memes than ever before. I have them scattered all around me, on my desktop, in my Downloads folder, on my phone and in random online chats. For a brief moment in time I considered meme makers vital workers as well, though I honestly hoped a Universal Basic Income would be applied to us all so that they could be rightfully compensated along with everyone else. But, yes, nurses, maintenance workers, cleaners, grocery store workers, delivery drivers and riders and teachers, agricultural workers as well… and as of recent, teenagers that wipe down the handles of supermarket and hardware store carts, these are the professions that have risen to the top of what is of value in society on a worldwide scale.

Night after night, all these people received applause, flowers or pizza were bought for them and light shows were setup to show gratitude to them. But one thing that became obvious is that these are also some of the lowest paid professions in every country. I haven’t yet seen memes turn into raises. In fact, I’ve seen the opposite of that when an Albert Heijn branch in Leiden posted a picture of a chalk-message thanking supermarket employees. Originally the message had included a plea for a higher minimum wage, as part of the ‘Voor 14’ campaign2, but they had brushed this part away digitally. I’ve also seen the PostNL workers taking their employer to court due to an increase in workload as a result of the quarantine restrictions, but no increase in pay. And most alarmingly I’ve seen Romanian agricultural workers being flown into Germany as a seasonal labour force, in what are deemed “asparagus flights”. These workers have no true opportunity for solidarity, since they are allowed, or rather even encouraged, in the middle of a pandemic by their country’s government and the government of the country they will end up working in, to work with few protections, for minimum pay, and in isolation.

Memes might be the beginning of revolt, but these memes better transform into political action as soon as possible. And this political action shouldn’t just come from the workers themselves, but from the ones that profit from their services, us, the consumers and users, as well. We need to show solidarity with the ones that make our existence possible during quarantine while risking their own health and wellbeing, by reducing our presence in public space, by reducing our shopping of unnecessary items and by advocating for better pay for these workers.

MO: In articles that I’ve read online and talks that I have seen, there is this overarching idea that “crises clarify” and that they make visible what was previously ignored and put under erasure. The circumstances of the current crisis make visible the precarious lives of working class people, those relegated to the margins, and those on the periphery. At the same time, it still feels like the kind of precarious (and dangerous) work that many people still need to engage in (cleaning, delivering food and packages, working in Amazon warehouses, etc) is still made invisible. Take for example, the April issue of De Groene Amsterdammer showing an empty calendar, illustrating how we can embrace doing nothing in quarantine. To me, this emptiness again makes the kind of work that is still being undertaken invisible. Have you noticed this tension as well between the visibility and invisibility of certain kinds of labour?

AL: A meme I stumbled across yesterday went something like this “What covid19 has taught us: Half our jobs can be done from home. The other half deserve more than they’re being paid.”

I’d argue this is only partially accurate. It’s the bullshit jobs which are being willingly left out of this calculation. For those bullshit jobs the April calendar in De Groene Amsterdammer might ring true. So, some jobs surely need to be cancelled and an alternative of life support needs to be considered by the government.

“Other jobs, jobs in the cultural sector as well (and here I count my own), while important, need to take a step back. The hope is that they will also receive the needed support and not become more precarious than they already were. At this moment though, some of these jobs need to allow themselves to sacrifice visibility for the greater good.” Cultural workers can take some inspiration from academics, which drafted and signed a letter demanding they should not be deemed a vital profession in the Netherlands in order to not overload the maintenance staff and imperil their own health.

MO: Many museums are going online and creating digital content; events that have been cancelled in the physical space are being live streamed; and art academies are figuring out how to teach online. There is this push to keep going, to keep creating content and moving ‘forward’. I noticed on Facebook you’ve been posting a lot about how we do not need to be productive during this pandemic. What do you think we need to be doing during this time? Where should our focus lie?

AL: Many museums which are going online and creating digital content, and galleries which are making virtual showrooms, are also beginning to fire their educational staff and/or their horeca staff in bulk. Events that have been cancelled are being randomly put together as livestreams which fail to load for hours and need to be rescheduled because nobody should be pushed to perfect a completely different skill while they suffer from income instability and they are grieving the deaths of tens of thousands of people alongside the rest of the world. In order to fuel this move to the online, artists (students and pros) are asked to provide video content from their archives for free. Since it already exists, what’s the difference if it’s streamed one more time in a virtual showroom? Art academies have asked their teachers to adopt security flawed video streaming solutions and to put together curriculums that are pandemic proof, all the while not having left any breather in between the shock of the quarantine restrictions and the move to the online, all the while subsisting on one day a week teaching contracts and the same hourly rates as five years ago.

Students are asked to believe that they paid tuition at the beginning of the academic year (be that hundreds of thousands of dollars, tens of thousand of pounds or thousands of euros) to not have studio space, to not have workshops and to receive training via Zoom. And I get why there’s a widespread belief that this move to the online is, how can I put it, “not that bad !?”. We want to maintain some ritual, some semblance of normality. We want to visit the same people and places, even if just virtually, just to make sure they will still be there once the quarantine is over. But what’s suspicious in this move to the online is its speed. There is a distinct lack of space to process the complex emotions that this crisis has brought to the surface. There’s such incredible numbness, I feel it every other day, which translates into a lack of criticality towards such radical restructuring. This is the art world. And artists are known for being flexible. We will adapt. We will overcome. We’ll fucking use the time to learn a new skill, program our website, sell our work on a virtual marketplace, network in videochat rooms, goddamit!

The funny thing though is that a crisis of this magnitude will inevitably hit all of us in spite of our flexibility. It will hit our bank accounts, it will hit our psyche, it will hit our very sense of self. And it will hit us even harder if we resist it. I think our only way to survive it is to listen to what we feel and allow ourselves to feel it. It’s OK if you don’t feel like going to an online lecture. It’s OK if you feel like dropping out of your class’s Zoom meeting today. It’s perfectly reasonable if you don’t have an appetite to go on a pixelated museum tour just yet. And it’s orders of magnitude better if you feel like writing a letter of solidarity with fired museum workers. It’s ideal if you want to organize a rent strike online instead of reading a virtual quarantine zine. And ultimately you have my full respect if you’d rather just nap instead of redacting art school curriculum because you’d rather not get fired. Get fired! You were never properly respected as a teacher before this crisis anyway. Make your absence hurt.

Allow yourself to feel your precarity, but rather than considering it a flaw, see it as a starting point for across the board solidarity.

References   [ + ]

1. Degrowth is a political, economic, and social movement that advocates for the contraction of economies by scaling down production and consumption. “Degrowthers” aim to maximize happiness and well-being through non-consumptive means like sharing work, consuming less, while devoting more time to art, music, family, nature, culture and community. Read more here.
2. “Voor 14” is a campaign that advocates for a minimum wage of €14/hour.