by Arran James


Open Letter: ‘Untitled (Labour)’ symposium at Tate Britain (Full Version)

Here is a longer version of the Open Letter published in Art Monthly July-August 2012 issue on the ‘Untitled (Labour)’ symposium at Tate Britain.

As members of the Precarious Workers Brigade we would like to clarify our position at the symposium ‘Untitled (Labour)’ at Tate Britain in March 2012. We commend Larne Abse Gogarty’s report on the event (Art Monthly, May 2012 issue). We agree that whilst the symposium highlighted many interesting points around immaterial labour and its relationship to artistic production it did not address issues of precarity and labour conditions in the active and practical way so urgently needed.

As a group, PWB were invited to take part in the symposium as members of a panel. But this is where we faced a dilemma: as a collective that campaigns against free labour in the cultural sector we turn down invitations when an event charges for tickets or is in receipt of public funding, but does not pay fees to contributors and organisers. In discussion of our code of ethics with the organisers, we asked the following questions:

Is there a fee for participating?
Is there a fee for the public attending this event?
Who else is presenting?
What are the labour costs of the event? Please provide an inventory.

Along with the respective answers, their response included: “It may also be interesting for PWB to intervene and question the nature of such events and our discussion of labour.” This sparked an internal debate: should we accept this invitation to participate for no fee in order to raise the issue of increasingly precarious conditions of labour in the arts? If so would we be perpetuating those very conditions? As we didn’t want to perform activism or pre-emptive antagonism, or become cultural capital for the Tate, increasing their radical cache, how could we make our withdrawal visible, our ‘non-participation’ active and critical? What forms of agency were open to us within the auditorium and the staging of the event?

After debating these questions, we decided to attend the conference not as panelists but as members of the audience who spoke from the floor during the time designated for Q & A. Instead of asking a question we proposed to announce our campaign to help interns claim back their wages.

On the day we were silenced. There was no space made for this comment. We were asked instead to address a question to the panel. When we then asked directly about the finances of the event in the hope of starting a debate about the labour conditions present in the auditorium, it went unanswered. This could have been an excellent opportunity to open up a more transparent debate about labour, exploitation and immateriality in the arts. Instead, the contributors were kindly thanked for their generosity and the event closed.

Did it matter that none of the panel members or organizers were paid? Was it okay that a large part of the budget was made available by the Tate to fly in a big-name artist (who in the end did not take part in the conference)? Speaking about money and real labour conditions still seems somehow distasteful and goes against the playful criticality that many artists are encouraged to inhabit.

We are all implicated. The systemic nature of precarity works across institutions and individuals and we understand that people delivering policies are also precarious themselves. Caught in difficult positions they are made to feel that criticisms are personal when they are in fact structural and aimed at the framework. The condition personalizes, individualises and allows individuals to internalize the institutional, pitting us against each other. It is perpetuated precisely through silence and invisibility. The question is therefore: how can we practice the kind of solidarity needed to break through the consensual code of silence?

Precarious Workers Brigade, June 2012