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The Arts and Precarity: Forging New Solidarities (A Cabaret and Workshop)

Heather McLean, Laura-Jane Nolan and Dave Featherstone (University of Glasgow, UK) and Susan Fitzpatrick (York St John University, UK)

In January 2016, the Arts and Precarity: Forging New Solidarities combined a radical cabaret with a day of academic-artist-activist workshop discussions. Programmed in Glasgow’s Kinning Park Complex, an autonomous, resident-led social centre, the events brought together a transnational network of artist-activists and scholars to discuss strategies for analysing and resisting precarious labour in a time of austerity. These conversations resulted in short films and conversations available online at https://artsandprecarity.wordpress.com

In January 2016, a group of us (geographers and researchers Heather McLean, Laura-Jane Nolan, Ealasaid Munro, Catherine Hastie, and Susan Fitzpatrick with the help of Dave Featherstone) invited scholars, activists and artists to come together to Glasgow to participate in the Arts and Precarity: Forging New Solidarities cabaret and workshop.

Precarity, in its most fundamental form, can be understood as the anxiety experienced by workers who are subjected to the material and existential uncertainty of unstable employment arrangements (Brophy, 2006; Waite, 2009). Precarity allows capital to colonise the domestic and personal spheres, to co-opt affective and creative practices, and to blur the boundaries between life and work, particularly for women and racialized workers (Butler, 2006; Ettlinger, 2007).

With the support of the Antipode Foundation and the University of Glasgow’s Human Geography Research Group, the goal of both events was to examine the normalization of precarious work and zero hours contract employment across multiple occupations. Traversing theory, praxis and performance, the events fostered frank and open public conversations where people explored their personal experiences of precarity. We interrogated whether or not precarity is a new phenomenon for workers of colour, disabled workers, aging workers, working class and women workers. And we asked how these new labour regimes articulate historic and ongoing processes of colonialist and white-supremacist capital accumulation. Long term, we hoped this gathering would encourage solidarities, social relations and networks that spark future discussions and interventions that respond to and resist these dynamics.

Both events were held at Glasgow’s Kinning Park Complex (KPC), an autonomous, resident-led social centre and, as such, an ideal location to facilitate a public discussion about this topic. As an independently run community arts centre, KPC is an example of a grassroots form of activism that has continued to exist in, against and beyond the austerity crisis, and provided a sustained contestation of urban inequalities in Glasgow for over a decade (Nolan, 2015). As part of a wave of funding cuts, Glasgow City Council planned to shut down the centre in 1996. However, local people staged a 55-day occupation to save the space and they have run it independently ever since. As a site of community resistance, KPC challenges the deracinated forms of localism currently promoted by the state. Rather than David Cameron’s ‘big society’, here we found support for migrant justice, anti-racist, queer and feminist organisations, as well as grassroots arts programming .

When planning this event, performance became an important element of how we chose to explore precarity. Taking our inspiration from the historical resistance found in LGBTQI and feminist cabarets, and local initiatives such as Fail Better, a monthly Glasgow-based arts-activist event showcasing grassroots musicians, poetry and performance, we saw cabaret as a powerful tool to stage multiple voices, transgress boundaries and open up debate. As a result, we featured five artists and arts collectives who explore and resist public funding cuts, precarious work and labour inequalities through text, films and other visual media.

For example, the event included a short talk by Toronto-based documentary filmmaker, activist and professor Min Sook Lee, who screened clips from her recent film Migrant Dreams. This provocative documentary film presents the stories of migrant agricultural workers from the global south resisting systemic oppression and exploitation from their brokers, employers and the Canadian government in small-town Ontario. We also screened clips from Francis Higson’s United We Will Swim … Again, a film about community resistance to save Glasgow’s Govanhill Baths pool and the racist policing tactics deployed to shut down these interventions. The evening closed with a gorgeous BSL translated performance by They They Theys (poet Sandra Alland, filmmaker Ania Urbanowska, and musicians Matson Lawrence, Chris Red and Nathan Gale). Through artful moving images, performance poetry and music, this collective explores the effects of everyday precariousness on queer, working class, disabled, trans, non-binary and/or migrant lives in the UK.

The following day, the workshop featured presentations by scholars, activists and arts practitioners who explore precarity in their work. On one panel, feminist geographer Geraldine Pratt discussed her long-standing collaborations with Caleb Johnston (Newcastle University) and the Philippine Women’s Centre of British Columbia and their use of participatory, site-specific theatre to raise awareness of precarious Filipino live-in caregivers working in Canadian cities. Importantly, her talk not only uncovered the race, class and gender inequalities that Canadian labour policies entrench, but the ways Filipino care-givers, separated from their own families in the Philippines in order to make a living, forge solidarities and resist everyday degradation in their places of work. Pratt was followed by a presentation by Min Sook Lee who discussed her documentary practice with activists of colour and migrant workers who contest racist migrant labour policies in Ontario. Like Pratt, Lee also stressed the need for activist-arts research collaborations that expose both the exploitative conditions of migrant work globally and uncover migrants’ own stories of agency and resistance.

(Subtitles available at https://artsandprecarity.wordpress.com/category/film/)

On another panel, the Edinburgh/Glasgow-based Cachín Cachán Cachunga! collective of queer and trans people who are also disabled, D/deaf, working class, racialised and/or asylum-seeker discussed the obstacles they faced accessing funding in a time of austerity and since their inception in 2009. In their talk, Iz Alodhami, Sandra Alland and Matson Lawrence described the ableism, racism, classism and cis/heterosexism CCC has faced attempting to collaborate with mainstream galleries, arts funders, charities and third sector funders – who often focus on mainstream capitalist/colonial models and neoliberal tourism in their remits, and some of whom commonly view activist-arts projects as either ‘too activist’ or ‘too artistic’. They also described their critical intersectional approaches to exploring race, disability, sexuality, gender diversity, class and migrant labour politics in performance and visual art, as well as through community events such as picnics, discussions and trans-inclusive haircuts.

On this panel, feminist scholar and arts-activist Richa Nagar also reflected on her role as a “co-conceptualizer, co-organizer, co-facilitator and multilingual co-author of texts” with two communities of struggle in Northern India. In particular, she discussed “creative refusals”, the ways artists and activists living precarious lives find ways to collectively push back at socio-economic, political and epistemic violence. She also reflected on the potential of what she referred to as “provisional alliances and situated solidarities” that allow us to make sense of specific inequalities and the structures that produce them, as well as open up ways to cautiously build a “praxis of hope” that can grow from “deep relationality, reflexivity and travelling together.”

(Subtitles available at https://artsandprecarity.wordpress.com/category/film/)

As part of the workshop, urban researcher, artist and facilitator Gesa Helms also organized a break-out discussion session. In groups, participants reflected for an hour and a half on their personal experiences of negotiating precarious work and the strategies that they have engaged in individually and collectively to contest these conditions. Conversations included personal reflections on negotiating zero hours contracts as women, disabled workers and migrant workers, as well as the daily struggles of getting by as part-time contract university teachers and researchers. Meanwhile, some participants questioned the extent to which ‘precarity’ was a new concept for working class communities that have always faced marginalising labour conditions. Critics were also wary of the extent to which individuals and communities can craft alliances across entrenched class divides in the UK.

The day closed with a panel discussion featuring local activists who reflected on their personal experiences as precarious workers, artists and community organisers. Featuring activist Dek Keenan, researcher Ealasaid Munro, creative producer Stacey Hunter, feminist sociologist Alva Katharina Traebert, and poet Harry Josephine Giles, the panel provided an intimate look into the ways precarious work shapes activism and politics in Scottish arts institutions and universities. For example, Alva’s talk was a poignant and politicized reflection on the emotional toll of conducting feminist research within the hierarchical, patriarchal and heteronormative neoliberal university, organisations rife with hostile, casualized labour practices.

***

On reflection, the cabaret and workshop created tensions and presented power imbalances. The great lengths we went to ensure that the panel workshops featured a range of people with a diversity of organising experience, as well as a mix of scholars and practitioners, presented challenges. These unusual combinations ran the risk of experienced scholar-activists struggling to connect their highly politicized collectivist and transnational work with artists and scholars recounting their personal struggles accessing funding and permanent jobs in the university and arts sector. Conversely, some community organisers and activists felt disconnected from scholar-activists and established artists who seemed to dismiss the entire topic of funding as unimportant/un-radical while also arguably engaging in career-building activism within well-funded academic and industry jobs. Some of the workshop participants prompted conversations about accessing grants, building professional networks, and hustling for creative industry contracts for personal professional gain. But for others, in a moment when workers are barely surviving on zero hours contract jobs in the service and care-giving sector, and community organisations offering life-saving services can’t manage to operate, such discussions came across as rather middle class, individualistic, and depoliticized. Meanwhile a few participants fixated on whether or not precarity was a middle-class concept, and eschewed attempts to forge solidarities as lacking radicality. Moreover, a few attendees expressed suspicion towards scholar-activism in general, and dismissed intersectional methods addressing gender, race, and ability because they detracted from a primary focus on class.

The precarious university context in which we organised these events also significantly shaped the cabaret and workshop planning process. Shortly after securing funding from the Antipode Foundation, two key organisers working at the University of Strathclyde were made redundant as their institution cut back its programs. Even though they moved away to other UK cities to take up temporary teaching posts, they still participated in logistical planning and provided valuable feedback on workshop and cabaret content.

Furthermore, pre-existing power dynamics circulating within academic and activist networks significantly influenced the conversations that took place in the cabaret and workshop. As the planning process unfolded, divisions emerged between organisers that wanted to forefront critical disability, race, queer and decolonial perspectives in the events and those who categorized such contributions as “liberal identity politics”, or interventions that steered away from a main focus on class and economic inequality. Also, with the exception of a few women of colour and migrant workers from Poland, Portugal and Spain who took part in the events, the majority of attendees were white and UK-based as were the majority of invited cabaret contributors and panellists. This homogeneity reflects the structural race inequalities of predominately white university and arts sector, what Sarah Ahmed aptly describes as a “sea of whiteness” (Ahmed, 2017). Furthermore, according to difficult, but valuable feedback from a few attendees of colour, this lack of diversity resulted in the absence of critical discussions about the structural dynamics of racialized inequalities in some of the performances, panel discussions, and the break-out workshop.

In some ways, these tensions were the greatest lessons to emerge from the cabaret and workshop. A key message that surfaced from these discussions is that efforts to collectively interrogate and resist precarity must take an intersectional standpoint seriously. This includes examining the material inequalities racialized, gendered and classed individuals and communities, as well as disabled, queer and trans individuals experience within such an exclusionary neoliberal labour regime. An intersectional approach also offers opportunities to learn from diverse creative strategies to resist precarity and forge solidarities across sites and scales. Moreover, such a perspective uncovers possibilities for understanding and challenging unequal labour conditions within our work places and arts practices, as well as crafting affinities and alliances.

There is currently a wide range of inspiring collectives engaging in arts-based activist strategies that critique and resist precarity to learn from. For example, the London-based Precarious Workers Brigade facilitates performative and participatory interventions to address unpaid labour, internships and volunteering in the arts and education sectors, as well as foster collectivity. Importantly, while the Brigade addresses inequalities in the culture and creative industries, it also works in solidarity with service, custodial and construction sector workers. In Glasgow, the non-hierarchical Glasgow Autonomous Space (GAS) makes room for an eclectic mix of activist and arts projects that work against precarity. Current activities include offering up space for work/unwork solidarity day, a day for anyone “unemployed doing applications/unpaid/low wage/isolated/demoralized/organising around work”. Similarly, PIE – Oficina Precaria Edinburgh, based at the Autonomous Centre Edinburgh, provides attention, solidarity, support and advice (free legal support) for migrant workers in precarious employment situations in Scotland. Meanwhile, Scotland’s Better Than Zero campaign, a group of young trade unionists from the hospitality sector, are taking action against exploitative bosses. Using the skills and creativity they learned through the 2014 referendum campaign, Better Than Zero is collectively fighting zero hours, zero rights, and zero respect workplaces. All of these examples point to the potential of collectives confronting precarity in practices that, as Sylvia Federici describes, encourage a multiplicity of voices to foster “sociality organised according to the principle of social cooperation” (Federici, 2010).

To conclude, Richa Nagar writes, “through constant interrogation of the contradictions that remain within us, we want to steer away from simplistic claims about equality among us; but we also believe that if people sitting in unequal places will not come forward to build alliances then gulfs between our intellectual and material struggles will continue to widen” (Nagar, 2014: 148). The Arts and Precarity: Forging New Solidarities workshop and cabaret ignited difficult conversations but ones we hope contribute to the ongoing struggle to make sense of and respond to the difficulty and diversity of precarity.

Heather Mclean (University of Glasgow, School of Geographical and Earth Sciences) and Catherine Hastie (University of Glasgow, School of Critical Studies)

Thanks to Sandra Alland (Cachín Cachán Cachunga!) for helpful feedback and editorial advice

References

Ahmed S (2017) Living A Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press

Brophy E (2006) System error: Labour precarity and collective organizing at Microsoft. Canadian Journal of Communication 31:619-638

Butler J (2006) Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso

Ettlinger N (2007) Precarity unbound. Alternatives 32:319-340

Federici S (2010) Feminism and the politics of the commons. In C Hughes, S Peace and K Van Meter (eds) Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements, and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United States (pp283-294). Oakland: AK Press

Nagar R (2014) Muddying the Waters: Co-Authoring Feminism Across Scholarship and Activism. Champaign: University of Illinois Press

Nolan L J (2015) “Social space and political communities in crisis: Kinning Park Complex.” Unpublished manuscript

Waite L (2009) A place and space for a critical geography of precarity? Geography Compass 3:412-433

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