Nicholas Burman in conversation with Cultural Workers Unite
A recent issue of Simulacrum organised around the theme of levenswerk (life/work) sought to address ‘the layered relationship between the artist, life, and work.’ The labour that goes into the production and reproduction of creative practices has indeed been badly served by the hegemonic myth of the singular genius. Numerous arts workers are bringing attention to the labour that it takes to make art – and not just the labour of those considered artists. Rotterdam’s Cultural Workers Unite (CWU) are one such group reconfiguring who is considered an art worker and how and why culture needs to stop being seen as an ‘industry’.
Since the late 1990s, thanks to the way in which funding is provided and the increasing role of the private sector in the arts, the ‘culture industry’ has been organised around individualist and competitive principles. According to a 2020 report by DISCE, quoting a 2015 article by Bridget Conor, Rosalind Gill, and Stephanie Taylor, the ideology driving today’s culture industry ‘has displaced important questions about working conditions and practices […] let alone issues of equality, diversity and social justice.’
Post 2008, this situation has ill-served the Dutch arts scene. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of full-time jobs across the sector decreased by 11.5%. Workers in publicly funded institutions were especially worse off. That slice of the sector had 14% less full-time staff by 2015 compared to 2010. Proving that austerity bites, this all occurred while the Dutch economy grew by 2.1%. And while secure jobs disappeared, self-employment became the new normal.
In 2014, 62% of artists were primarily self-employed compared to the national average of 16%. ‘Between 2010 and 2014,’ DISCE’s report says, ‘the total amount of work across the cultural and creative sector decreased by 3.5%.’ The pressure upon workers in the cultural sector was compounded by a boom in unpaid interns, and the fact that the sector ‘scores below average on protecting workers for the effects of becoming unfit for work, on providing adequate opportunities for building up pensions, and on protecting self-employed workers against exploitation.’
COVID-19 highlighted the precarious cracks that many cultural workers have fallen into, and has led to numerous activist groups and unions across Europe organising and campaigning over the last twelve months. These campaigns have also been about building solidarity and awareness with the type of workers and work not often considered ‘creative’ but key to the (re)production of the arts. As I have written about in The Quietus, box office staff have stood in solidarity with security who have in turn found support from art school students who are also campaigning against the practice of outsourcing.
CWU is composed of visual artists, educators, technicians, freelancers, people with experience in institutions, volunteers, and more, from an array of countries. As they explained in the course of our conversation, they want to ‘define cultural work as expansively as possible, interdependent on other forms of labour.’ They say this is because ‘you cannot have art historians without artists, and you can’t have artists without all the reproductive labour that goes into exhibitions and publications. It’s all this invisible work, or work taken for granted, that is also often the most precarious.’
While it was founded just before the pandemic, CWU’s activities accelerated following the first lockdown and the news that various workers, such as café staff at Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam, were unceremoniously being made redundant all while such institutions were using words such as ‘solidarity’ as themes for events or as part of social media-oriented branding exercises. Their most recent action has been participating in squatting Havenstraat 231 in Rotterdam alongside various other activist groups. Before their eviction at the beginning of April 2021, they transformed the abandoned building into a publically accessible space that hosted various community-oriented activities, as CWU explain below.
The following Q&A with CWU is taken from a Discord conversation that we then reworked via email in March 2021. We discussed their origins, what was happening at Havenstraat 231 at the time, the role of artists in gentrification projects, the nature and their experience of organising over the past year, and their plans for the future. I started by asking them about their experiences since the start of the pandemic. Note: CWU answers as one.
CWU: Organising over the past year has been a learning curve, accelerated by Covid because suddenly a lot of people were forced to reflect on their precarity. The case of the outsourced horeca workers in the café at Het Nieuwe Instituut especially boiled our blood. Before Covid, people worked, and if they lost work they would rush to find something else, but the pandemic put a break on this process. A lot of work was cancelled, lots of people lost contracts for temporary roles, and there was generally a lot of confusion which caused many people stress and made it hard to plan into the future.
Some of us are freelancers and could access government support which subsidised parts of our activities. For some of us, not having to juggle 2-3 jobs at the same time allowed us to dedicate time to CWU. Perhaps that’s why governments are afraid of universal basic incomes! On the flipside, at times it felt hard to be organised when we generally feel unstable. This has all been about discovering how we care for collective goals while also caring for each other and ourselves individually.
We are looking forward to being able to do things physically again. We have the aspiration of having access to a space and open hours in the way other organisations like tenants rights union Bond Precaire Woonvormen (BPW) and KraakSpreekUur (KSU), a group that gives squatting advice, do.
Nick: Did you work with the BPW and KSU ahead of squatting Havenstraat 231 in Rotterdam?
CWU: One of us joined the BPW a while ago in order to organise a wijk commissie to preemptively prepare for the aggressive gentrification of the street they live on. BPW helped a lot with writing petitions and sharing resources to resist rent increases during the summer.
The Havenstraat 231 action was actually initiated by Voor14 activists based in Rotterdam, after which a few groups – including BPW, KSU, and ourselves – joined to support the action and maintain the building.
Nick: Often, artists are quite involved in anti gentrification projects but then arts events and galleries are often precursors to gentrification. Is there a way to disentangle the arts from gentrification, do you think?
CWU: It is very much a systemic issue and also very entangled with real estate, art markets, appropriation of community values, and policies. We’re seeking ways to bridge the gap between an art ‘project’ and ongoing action and solidarity within our neighbourhoods. A lot of us have been both displaced by gentrification and also at the same time participated in projects that have gentrified neighbourhoods. It is important we are aware of the way our actions, projects, and economic decisions affect the communities we inhabit. For sure, the arts will always be linked to gentrification, it is a key part of the process. But we need to find ways as artists and cultural workers to actively resist gentrification whilst also holding institutions accountable.
Artists are often in precarious positions themselves, and if someone dangles keys in front of your face for a studio if you promise to produce some art, make a nice mural, or some ‘community project’ which is actually part of a gentrification mission in the neighbourhood, it is hard to judge the artist for taking the opportunity. But then it has to be an informed decision. It is also very common nowadays for large institutions to ‘collaborate’ with smaller community spaces or artists’ ateliers in exchange for gentrification projects.
Being creative in our own neighbourhoods is of course not a problem in and of itself, it is why we do them, who we are paid by, who wants us to do it, and for what goal, that we have to keep in mind. Who benefits from our art? Will it be the housing corporations who will make money from raising our rent?
Large institutions, especially in Rotterdam, are entangled with gentrification processes. For example, many cultural institutions such as art academies, ateliers/broedplaatsen and museums are linked to the Nationaal Programma Rotterdam Zuid. This is a plan for the South of Rotterdam initiated by Marco Pastors. Pastors served as an alderman in the municipality and as a member of the far right wing party Leefbaar Rotterdam. The same party enacted the Rotterdamwet policy which controls who can and cannot live in certain neighbourhoods based on requirements such as levels of income. The Rotterdamwet was initiated to control levels of certain migrants in neighbourhoods and is an aggressive and racist policy.
Nick: And yet some of those same institutions will end up appropriating the language of resistance. You have made perceptive criticisms of how the term ‘solidarity’ has been co-opted by institutions that do not practice it. How do we ensure that it retains power and meaning, and is not just a branding phrase for soulless businesses?
CWU: Everything has the potential to be co-opted somehow! Care, community, solidarity… they become ‘themes’ for institutions to ‘explore in their programming.’ However, solidarity is the act of doing something.
Solidarity is not a theme, it is a commitment to building and maintaining relationships, support, and less ego and power play! When frontline staff were fired from Het Nieuwe Instituut, the Instituut wanted us to participate in a panel discussion about precarious labour or something. They were so desperate to make it into a theme and absolve themselves from the responsibility of structurally dealing with it.
Culture also exists outside of the cultural industry and part of it is about finding space, time, and people to build networks and infrastructures that point to different ways of living, being together, learning, and producing things. The way art schools teach does not help either; institutionalised visions of culture feeds the problem.
Nick: Perhaps it is our perception of what is art and culture that needs to change.
CWU: From one side you have institutions and funding bodies that generally preach community, care, collectivity, etcetera, but they don’t truly support work by collectives. Often, they do not support projects that are beyond a few months’ scope, and they don’t engage with communities on a long term basis. We don’t need art to be guarded by gatekeepers such as art schools, funding bodies, and presentation institutions.
Artists are educated to individualise and are rewarded for competing. But competitiveness is a real drag and hard to unlearn. It’s built on the artificial idea that there is a scarcity of jobs and funding. It requires a very radical rethinking of reality to understand that when it comes to resources there isn’t any scarcity, just greed.
We want to point out we are not just here to deliver institutional critique, and it can feel a bit echo chamber-y to preach to the choir in online circles. We try to focus more on solidarity building and reaching out to people that need support rather than giving free advice to institutions about how they could do better.
Nick: It’s hard to think outside of institutions sometimes. They’re very dominating.
CWU: It’s a struggle. That’s why self organised stuff on the edges can feel so great. They are only dominating because we are hardwired to value their input more than smaller self-organised spaces or community initiatives. They are very good at packaging everything in seductive language.
As cultural workers we are in a very interesting position because our economic interests often align with the working class, but culturally we have a proximity to power through institutions and networks. That can create cognitive dissonance in us. We kind of have this aspirational identity of one day being absorbed by the institutions. But increasingly, that aspiration is not a reality for a majority of artists.
Nick: Is there a reason you did not join a traditional or already running union?
CWU: Some of us are individually affiliated with some unions, some are in the FNV as educators, or in Kunstenbond as artists. We value solidarity building through actions and skillshare building, so grassroots groups like the Amsterdam based Vloerwerk inspire us.
We think United Voices of the World in the UK are great; they are grounded in direct action. In traditional unions you need the majority of people from a workplace to agree to strike, but in modern workplaces you have 5-6 different contracts, people who are outsourced, people in zero hour contracts, freelancers, etcetera. In these environments, it is really hard to unionise in the traditional way. But UVW or more grassroots organisations, such as Vloerwerk or Voor14, do not require homogeneity or people to be in the same trade, but just the acknowledgment that struggles are infrastructural and work is interdependent, like how the struggle of library workers who are outsourced affects the teachers, affects the students of an institution, and so on.
Nick: Let’s talk about the squat on Havenstraat 231. I haven’t been able to keep up with all the news, so what’s the situation with it right now? Is anyone living there or is it purely for work?
CWU: Someone has been living there since the start, this is a requirement from a legal perspective in order for us to have any chances of not getting evicted. Unlike other squats that are for housing and keep a low profile so as to not be evicted, we wanted to make a statement about low wages, and increasingly unaffordable housing and spaces for work and culture.
Nick: Do you have long term plans for the building or is the legal situation too difficult for this to be a possibility?
CWU: The building used to be a community center owned by the municipality, then it was sold to Woonbron, a housing corporation who over the past few years have left it to become dilapidated.
It is hard to make long term plans, but we planted vegetable seeds if that counts! We have also taken care of the building, fixed the heating and leaking roof. We spent a lot of time fixing the gutters, plumbing, and electricity – it is really unrecognszable now. And there’s the energy that goes into maintaining a community, the collective effort of a group of people that put their labour, time, and resources together. There’s weekly meetings, events like a DIY bike workshop, a gardening club, banner making workshops, a vegan eetcafé, and activities for children. We are also trying to open up discussions about union building outside of the trade unions.
Nick: Sounds like you’re making it more appealing for people not in the arts, while also using the skills you have as arts workers.
CWU: Yes, that’s a good point. Our skills at making banners and posters have come in handy. We read a quote by Toni Cade Bambara that the role of art is to make the revolution irresistible.
Nick: How is the space being run?
CWU: We meet once a week as a group and have different smaller working groups for specific things like maintenance, media, and legal activities. The idea is that there are regular activities free and open to all and there are moments where our neighbours are more involved – they are welcome anytime but have not organised events themselves yet, although there is a lot of support from the neighbours. A lot of other activist groups have used the space for political organising. The garden has also been used by musicians for jam sessions.
Nick: This riffs on things you’ve already talked about, but you’ve also been participating in Black Lives Matter protests and, more recently, demonstrations around International Women’s Day. How do you find your campaign intersecting with these movements?
CWU: Well, our participation with those is similar to the reasons why we stand in solidarity with Vloerwerk, Voor14, anti-racist groups, sex worker unions, and other groups we respect and support. Labour rights activism needs to be intersectional – we don’t do ourselves any favours by oversimplifying! There are a myriad ways that precarity intersects with racism and classism; Labour solidarity does not end with labour day, feminism does not end with the 8th of March, and commitment to antiracism does not end with BLM.
Nick: What are your aims for the next twelve months?
CWU: Apart from earning enough to pay the rent… focus on more in-person gatherings to get to know more people to work on campaigns together, grow a stronger worker solidarity network in Rotterdam. While we are in Havenstraat, we aim to start untangling the thread of gentrification and culture’s role in it.
Nick: What are the most important lessons you have learnt over the past twelve months? Perhaps they can be personal, too.
CWU: That it is okay to take breaks. Initially, we felt this duty to keep overextending when it came to being informed in every single thing institutions were putting out there, gathering information, updates on labour laws, answering emails, posting, planning events, interviews, and everything else, and when we slowed down there was a sort of capitalist clock telling us we should do better, but that is the reason people get burnouts. We have tried to unlearn the guilt that comes when we don’t feel ‘productive.’ Things like walking or gardening, just because it is not a paid job does not mean it is not valuable. We’re keeping in mind to not think of CWU as a job, because then we will end up hating it. It’s more valuable than that.
Activism is not always about holding banners or going to protests, it is also about looking after people and supporting a community. And sharing the labour of doing the dishes and making the dinner!
You can follow Cultural Workers Unite’s activities, get in touch with them – and get involved – via Instagram [https://www.instagram.com/cultural.workers.unite/].