drucken Bookmark and Share

by Antonia Alampi and Alec Steadman

Undoing the Present: On Labor Conditions, Economic Survival, and Other Questionable Practices of the Art World

Antonia Alampi in conversation with Alec Steadman

The conversation took place in September 2016; for this reason, important notes with updates have been added to the original text.


Alec Steadman: So we are here to talk about two sister projects you have developed, one delivered in the recent past, one to be realized in the near future. Both in different ways deal with issues of infrastructure, in very pragmatic terms, and not only in reference to the art world. Should we start by establishing the basic parameters of the first? The Imaginary School Program [1] (ISP) was a form of para-pedagogical model you developed whilst working as Curator at Beirut, in Cairo. The most succinct description of the ISP that I could find was “an eight-month cross-disciplinary practice-based theory program designed for twelve participants,” the focus of which was “institutions and forms of organizing,” working backwards from the existing institutional landscape the city had to offer. What made you feel the development of such a program was urgent in Cairo at the time, and what where the biggest challenges you faced in the process of developing and delivering the ISP in such a fluid and contested political context?

Antonia Alampi: The Imaginary School Program was probably an organic conclusion of Beirut’s existence, an institution developed as a temporary experiment with an expiry date, and its ongoing efforts in thinking about institutional structures. It’s hard for me to exactly trace the genealogy of the ISP and when or how its urgency was felt, as our work was constantly bound to the fluidity of the political context and the financial precariousness of a small-scale organization in Egypt. But the following is a possible lineage. In the autumn of 2014, Beirut organized a season (our program was articulated in seasons of three months comprising exhibitions, public programs, etc.) focusing on questions around art and pedagogy, as well as higher educational structures in Egypt. Within that framework, we curated an exhibition titled Writing with the other hand is imagining, featuring works by artists involved in education, both as a practice and as a mode of thinking, such as Luis Camnitzer, Mladen Stlinović, Adelita Husni-Bey and Redmond Entwistle, among others. During the exhibition, we organized a discursive program titled “The Imaginary School Program,” trying to expand on some of the aspects that the exhibition raised by organizing conversations with local teachers, pedagogical activists, and artists to look more closely at various issues that would directly or laterally speak to the educational system in Egypt. We aimed to also look at the ecology of independent educational experiments that had happened in the past (as discussed in a conversation with education activist Motaz Attalla), or in correlation with anarchic-collectivist examples (as addressed in a lecture performance by Adelita Husni-Bey). What emerged out of this program, conceived as a research process, was an urgency in organizing an educational project that would engage students on a programmatic level addressing the questions we were raising and problems we were facing since the very beginning of Beirut’s founding by Jens Maier-Rothe and Sarah Rifky.

The intention of the program was to scrutinize, in order to better understand, the various aspects and dilemmas that characterize the independent scene in Cairo, from an infrastructural perspective, including economic trajectories, issues of legality, modes of governance, and the ideological and cultural frames that existed within them. In a way, we almost anticipated the disastrous scenario that would manifest during the school, and the following programmatic state attempt to dismantle the entire independent scene. Here is a concrete example of the situation at the time, to give substance to what I am talking about. Legally registering your not-for-profit institution in Egypt de facto allows the Ministry of Social Solidarity, the government’s agency in charge of civil society organizations, to interfere with institutions’ structural and temporary decisions, from the election of boards, to staff management and programming. Needless to say, it is employed to enact severe censorship and control over their work. Furthermore, registered NGOs need the government’s authorization to accept funding from abroad. Its approval is likely to come very late or not at all, and the whole procedure might even include interviews with security services. Vagueness and ambiguity permeate this policy, as the law does not even specify whether a non-response to a funding request, after a prolonged period, indicates tacit approval. The logic is clear, to weaken institutions, striking their economic sustainability is a very effective tool.

Thus, try to imagine with me what kind of decisions need to be made when instituting, already from the very first act of your registration. Here comes a highly performative element of independent institutions in Egypt, as under the Mubarak era most of the ones engaged in work ranging from human rights to culture would register as Limited Liability Companies or law firms to avoid being confined and censored by the NGO law. What happened right at the very beginning of the ISP was that the new (non-democratic) government of General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi set a deadline, summoning institutions vaguely defined as performing “civil society activities” to register under the premises of the highly restrictive Mubarak-era law I just described. Soliciting to register was performed in the form of intimidating ultimatums accompanied by threats of violence and prosecution, announcing the possible closure of hundreds of institutions, and the life-imprisonment of their staff. As you can imagine, all people we were working with or aimed to collaborate with, and of course ourselves, were potentially under threat, and thus reasonably shied away from sharing too much information with our students. This, of course, had a heavy impact on how we had conceived the program and where we wanted it to go, while also giving us a sense of even more urgency in discussing precisely those aspects and speculating on new forms of legal existence. That also meant, however, that the focus of the program had to slightly shift as a sensitive and respectful act towards this dangerous situation. In this sense, we faced immense challenges, trying to activate open discourse while being careful not to put anyone into more danger. And, of course, creating an independent educational program in Cairo from scratch demanded experience that we didn’t fully have, so we were learning by doing, every day. For instance, we faced a number of issues when dealing with the students themselves. With an alternative program that has no tangible outcome, such as an academic degree, no history, and is not designed around acquiring the skills of a specific profession, we found it hard to count on students’ attendance, as they tended to prioritize other engagements (mostly university degrees or jobs). We also found that the variety and diversity of the program’s activities at times led to confusion amongst the students, rather than complexity.

Alexandra Pirici, Parthenon Marbles, 2017, commissioned by State of Concept and Kadist in the context of Future Climates, photos by Alexandra Masmanidi

AS: Jumping into the present, we find Future Climates, a platform you have been developing since 2016 with iLiana Fokianaki, founding director of State of Concept in Athens. Future Climates, and its broader thematic framework and context, stems from the daily realities and operational experiences of running and institution within a context such a Cairo, and in particular the difficulties of such a critically inquisitive program as the ISP. Could you say something about the experiences that led you to want to foreground institutional precariousness in terms of the content of Future Climates?

AA: iLiana Fokianaki invited me in late 2015 to curate a project at State of Concept in Athens (the space she founded and directs, and in which she invites a guest curator per year), predominantly because being interested in the Imaginary School Program she had followed it remotely. Future Climates is the outcome of our encounter, of long conversations and heated debates on precarity, on exploitation, on infrastructures, and on unproductive economic and legal frameworks, particularly as cultural workers mostly engaged with small not-for-profit initiatives.

It stems from a consideration of how art and cultural institutions around the world today, and to various degrees, wrestle with economic and more recently ecological sustainability, long-term structural support, low compensation of artistic and intellectual work, precarious labor conditions, complicated or problematic legal, political, and bureaucratic frameworks. Building and running small-scale not for profit initiatives in geographic locations marked by a lack of public infrastructure and support usually goes hand in hand with precarious labor conditions. Workers are either underpaid or not paid at all, which in many cases leads to the life-span of institutions being short, whilst they rely on DIY technicalities and the limited resources of collective sharing, friendship, and generosity. While small not-for-profit initiatives are increasingly invited to take part in art fairs, biennials, and the programming of large museums—thus marking a general recognition of their cultural capital and relevance—cultural policies are increasingly gathered towards mainstream or large-scale events and institutions, putting their life and longevity even more under threat. For these reasons, it is urgent to imagine and implement new ways of existing and operating, clear and ethical parameters that define and regulate acceptable working conditions, in order to emancipate ourselves from old, unsustainable models. The surge of new art and socially engaged, small-scale, and citizen-led initiatives of different kinds that continue to emerge in Athens against the backdrop of the peak of the economic, political, and migrant crisis and the arrival of a huge institution such as documenta 14, make of this city and its agents a paradigmatic context in which to start.

AS: The ambitions for Future Climates are huge (which I love!), described (in brief) as “a platform that aims to propose viable futures for independent cultural practice.” This search for viable futures is something, as you say, pretty much any arts and cultural institution in the world is busy with on a daily basis. Particularly as we witness the dwindling of the post-war model of the welfare state in the European context, the struggle becomes not only one of finding practical solutions and funding for our work, but a new and sustainable ideological framework for artistic/cultural/institutional practice. How will you begin to tackle such big issues? And do you genuinely think it’s possible to find new viable models with such a project, or is that meant more as marking the conceptual territory for your investigations?

AA: In Italian we say “la speranza è l’ultima a morire” (hope is the last to die)! Our objective is to put together a cohesive group of participants coming from a broad range of relevant disciplines. [2] We will then ask the group to apply their diverse bodies of knowledge to explore fields such as law, economy, policy-making, and, of course, culture. This process will begin by asking them to research, contextualize, and ruminate, but moving forward we want them to really imagine new forms of sustainability. The group will take as a starting point the very concrete context of Athens, in particular the realm of small-scale cultural organizations, looking back to 2008, a paramount date in relation to the Greek financial crisis. [3]

So, the first manifestation of Future Climates will really try to be defined, with clearly marked frames and focuses, concentrating particularly on economics and structural funding, with all that implies and involves. Not reaching a solid conclusion [4] might be a risk, but for us this is the beginning of a larger project, and even just getting to collective and open discussions substantiated by research, facts, and figures could be a good place to start. Methodologically speaking, investigations will involve field research, the opening of archives and particularly budget sheets, interviews with key actors of the scene; from funders, via politicians, to directors and curators. [5] We also will work with artists such as Alexandra Pirici, Navine G. Khan-Dossos, and Alexandros Tzannis, among others. [6]

AS: How do you work towards imagining and developing viable alternative independent futures, when you are stuck fire-fighting every day. Just trying to keep an institution alive and to get paid to keep yourself alive, housed, clothed. Especially when so many “opportunities” in the system come with an expectation that you give your time, your ideas, your labor for free (such as this interview we are doing now). With Future Climates, a project trying to find these sustainable institutional models as its focus/content, you yourselves are just as (if not more so) precarious than the institutional examples you will look at/work with. What are your strategies for creating the breathing room (practically and financially) for yourselves to carry out this investigation?

Navine G. Khan-Dossos,
Navigating the Numbers, 6 x 3m, 2017. Site specific wall painting in gouache commissioned by State of Concept in the context of Future Climates, photos by Alexandra Masmanidi

AA: I believe so much in the need to change this system that I am donating my own time to it, but for my own cause. What I mean here is that this project is technically responding to my own experience and situation of precariousness, while knowing of course how this difficult position is shared by many, many more. It’s so difficult to economically survive in the art world that is not market-oriented and not private that it is becoming, or maybe simply it is still, an extremely elitist context in which you basically have to be able to afford to work, and for which you have to accept impossible working conditions (I am consciously generalizing). You juggle a million other jobs simultaneously, which might include bartending, translating, film production, baby-sitting etc… In short, jobs that pay you better by the hour. There was recently an interesting and sarcastic article on Hyperallergic by Benjamin Sutton [7] mentioning how an assistant curator at Tate would survive better by being “team leader” at Tesco. The piece in essence was highlighting the difference between the enormous amount the museum had recently spent on enlarging its premises (£260 million) and that are put into marketing or salaries of high-profile figures (the salary of its director Nicholas Serota reaches £165,000 and £170,000 per annum, which is anyway super low compared to museums in, say, the USA), versus the younger or even simply lower level workers of the “content-producing” departments who earn (much) less than the bar or restaurant workers of the museum (an entry salary for an assistant curator is £13 per hour before taxes and life in London is ridiculously expensive). And this is the context of a big museum. I am sure you know others in the city operating in a similar way. Exploitation of intellectual or artistic work is an old debate of course, but it’s still totally unresolved… The absurd circle here being that not having enough time (and personal or institutional resources) to research, travel, do studio visits, etc. will undermine your professional practice as well, which obviously means that your possibilities to find a better job in the field will shrink. I guess I want to fight for more equality, coherency, ethics, and solidarity. It is as simple as that in a field that has very high societal and political claims but often ends up reproducing exactly those neoliberal exploitative models it theoretically fights against. It’s too easy this way. Talking only about a distant example and not really intervening in our own, small, mundane, and banal surrounding is hypocritical. To be clear I am not talking about the “evil” art market here, but about the “good” politically engaged not-for-profit sector. It goes without saying that I am hyper-critical of big spectacular events that drain all funding for only temporary projects. Lastly, with regard to my personal situation, to diversify my income I opened up a restaurant with a few friends, with a little bit of starting money and a bank loan. It is a ramen restaurant in Florence (Koto Ramen). [8]

Antonia Alampi, iLiana Fokianaki and Evita Tsokanta during the opening conference of The School of Redistribution, the first chapter of Future Climates, Athens, commissioned by State of Concept in the context of Future Climates, photos by Alexandra Masmanidi

AS: Somehow the ISP seems like it was more hopeful in its tone (textually at least). It was about institution-building as a radical political act. Looking both theoretically, and very practically in terms of legal registration etc…. Attempting to understand what materially constitutes an institutional form as a legal and political body, in order to subvert those processes for radical effect. My understanding of Future Climates on the other hand is that it is more about trying to find ways out of a bad institutional situation, out of precarity, finding models and strategies for existing institutions to build viable sustainable futures. Its still incredibly utopic in a way, but seems to come from an understanding that building radical institutions alone isn’t enough when faced with harsh financial and political realities. Would you see it that way?

AA: Indeed. More than a temporary school, Future Climates is a research project structured like a school, and it is in a way more realistic than the ISP in its ambitions, by trying to focus on more determined aspects. [9]

AS: In relation to the broader thematic framework of this issue (Spaces of Anticipation), which explores “the role and potential of artistic and cultural institutional models,” Future Climates offers an interesting and critical position. Namely that for art, curatorial and cultural institutional practice to have any agency effecting the social and political conditions of its constituencies, it is crucial that it simultaneously addresses (and actively works to change) its own internal conditions of exclusion and exploitation. You seem to imply (or maybe I’m reading into this?) that too often institutions that are engaging with social and political issues as part of the content of their program can be really bad offenders in terms of the daily realities of their teams. Is this contradiction between content ambition and internal reality of art institutions what led you to want to convene a group that includes people with non-art backgrounds for the Future Climates core group? And was that where the ambition for it to directly engage with fields “outside” of art, such as law, the economy, and policy-making, stems from?

AA: I don’t think that labor exploitation or neoliberal working models, etc., pertain only to socially engaged institutions, of course, but when this contradiction exists in this type of institution (and it does very often) it’s much more disappointing and hypocritical. To quote Mia Jankowicz in an article on Mada Masr, “The question that remains—as ever for the art world at large—is whether the ends justify the means.” [10] And truly, in many cases, I really don’t think they do. Working with people and professionals outside of the art world is a decision based on the fact that we need a certain type of competence that is outside of our context. We need people who are proficient in the legal system of Greece and its cultural politics, who have a knowledge of economics, who have financial literacy, who can bring in a variety of models, drawing both from the not-for-profit but also from the for-profit sector. [11]

AS: For me, there is a necessity for an active process of un-doing for any attempt to envision or construct more equitable futures. I’m thinking here of Walter Mignolo’s propositions of de-coloniality, de-Westernization, and de-linking that make clear the need to actively undo modernity in order to overcome its inbuilt oppressions, exclusions, and divisions. In essence, our current system is inextricable from oppressions of gender, race, class etc.… As such we can’t just “anticipate” the future, but have to work hard to actively undo the present. It seems like this is where you are trying to get to, by addressing a specific element of a much larger set of questionable relations, and one that you are directly engaged with, so you actually have potential agency. Perhaps that’s a good place to finish?

AA: x


Antonia Alampi is a curator, researcher and writer born in southern Italy and currently based in Berlin, where she is Artistic Co-Director of SAVVY Contemporary, a space wherein epistemological disobedience and delinking (Walter Mignolo) are practiced, and a space for decolonial practices and aesthetics. In 2016, she initiated with iLiana Fokianaki the research project Future Climates, which first manifested in Athens in March 2017, by focusing on how economic fluxes shape and determine the work of small-scale initiatives in contexts with weak public infrastructures for arts and culture. Since 2017, she has also been curator of Extra City in Antwerp, with a three-year program focused on the manufacturing of the notion of European Citizenship. From 2012 to 2015, she was curator of Beirut, an art initiative that existed in Cairo in that time-frame, reflecting on the paramount moment of transition the country was experiencing at the time. There, she conceived and directed the educational project The Imaginary School Program (2014/2015) looking into forms of organizing and institution-building in the city. Between 2009 and 2011, she was the co-founding director of the art initiative Opera Rebis and prior to this she worked for the Studio Stefania Miscetti (Rome), Manifesta7 (South Tyrol), and the Galleria Civica di Arte Contemporanea of Trento.

Alec Steadman is a curator and researcher living between Yogyakarta, Indonesia and London, Europe. He is currently Co-Chief Curator at Cemeti - Institute for Art and Society, Yogyakarta, collectively exploring the possibilities for a gallery to act as a site for civic action. Previous roles have included Curator, Arts Catalyst, London (2015/16); Artistic Director, Contemporary Image Collective (CIC), Cairo (2013/14); and Head of Exhibitions, Zoo Art Enterprises, London (2005-2010). In 2015, he was Exhibition Studies Research Fellow at Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong, and Curator in Residence, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, in 2013. He participated in the De Appel Curatorial Programme, Amsterdam (2011/12), and completed an MRes Art: Exhibition Studies at Central Saint Martins, UAL (2015/16). His writing has been/will be featured in publications such as Metropolis M, Arte-Util.org, OnCurating, and Shadow Files.

1 The Imaginary School Program existed between October 2014 and May 2015, in Cairo as part of Beirut’s program. It was directed by Antonia Alampi with the assistance of Lotta Shäfer. Core contributors included Amr Abdelrahman, Jasmina Metwaly, Jens Maier-Rothe, and Sarah Rifky. See http://beirutbeirut.org/Beirut/projects/535d217255627576a7180000.

2 Participants were Denise Araouzou, Jane Fawcett, Ioli Kavakou, Laura Lovatel, Federica Menin, Giulia Palomba, Sol Prado, Rosana Sánchez Rufete and Aris Spentsas, Sara Santana, and Dora Vasilakou. However, quite a few, like Laura Lovatel and Federica Menin, participated only minimally.

3 The whole group was guided by Evita Tsokanta, who was head of research of the program, with the assistance of Maria Konomi.

4 Actually a few concrete proposals came out of this project, in particular tapping into collectivizing financial tools and using these as methods for sustaining grass-roots initiatives. We will publish most of our findings in an upcoming publication that will be licensed under creative commons and free to download online, so please bear with me for more information. But also, on November 24, 2017 at Kadist Art Foundation, we engaged with some particularly interesting cases of experimental practices in this regard, with people we have either already been engaged with or will be working with in the future.

5 We encountered or had workshops with an incredible wealth of contributors, people, institutions, and collectives such as: Victoria Ivanova, Maria Lind, Temporary Academy of Arts Athens (Glykeria Stathopoulou, Elpida Karampa, Despoina Zefkili), Nikos Arvanitis and Anja Kirschner (Circuits and Currents), Emily Pethick, Julieta Aranda and Anton Vidokle (e-flux), Nato Thompson, Tania Bruguera, Bik Van der Pol, Nora Sternfeld, Nicoline van Harskamp, Olav Velthuis, 3 137 (Kosmas Nikolaou, Paky Vlasopoulou, Chrysanthi Koumianaki), Enterprise Projects (Vassilis Papageorgiou, Danai Giannoglou), SNEHTA Residency (Augustus Veinoglou), Radio Athenes (Helena Papadopoulos), Fokidos (Sofia Stevi), EHESS, Paris in conversation with the Open School of Immigrants, Peiraious, Katerina Nikou, Polyna Kosmadaki, Kostis Stafylakis, Jens Maier-Rothe, Jonas Staal, Angela Dimitrakakis, Theo Prodromidis, Sophie Goltz, James Bridle, Mohammed Salemy, Libia Castro and Olafur Olafsson, Stella Baraklianou and DIY Performance Biennial Athens (Vasilis Noulas, Gigi Argyropoulou, Kostas Tzimoulis), PAAC (Assembly Platform of Catalan Artists), Enric Duran plus the artists (Studio Markus Miessen, Martha Rosler, Navine Khan Dossos, Alexandros Tzannis, Alexandra Pirici).

6 Now that everything has happened: due to the fact that we managed to raise much less money than we hoped for (less than 18,000 euros, with State of Concept Athens having to support the project financially and provide its local resources for free. The artists commission program became more modest (in the number of artists, not in their quality). We commissioned a new fantastic piece from Alexandra Pirici inspired by the controversial story of the Parthenon Marbles. Navine G. Khan-Dossos realized a mural inspired by the orientation of our research, and Markus Miessen designed a discursive space for the program. We also had two films by Martha Rosler, and contributions by many many artists, in public programs, talks, and conversations…

7 Benjamin Sutton, “Wanna Be a Tate Curator? Don’t Quit Your Day Job!” Hyperallergic, August 24, 2016, http://hyperallergic.com/318850/wanna-be-a-tate-curator-dont-quit-your-day-job/.

8 And just to confirm this side-note I—and iLiana, too—ended up working completely for free for this project, while deciding to pay everyone else involved in it.

9 The second chapter of Future Climates that recently took place as part of the exhibition State (in) Concepts that iLiana curated at the KADIST Foundation Paris, looked into the first part of the research and the failures in relation to pinpointing a particular root of the problem for Athens as a case study, and tried to offer possible scenarios of how to monetize precarity in order to survive, with excellent contributions from WAGE, Victoria Ivanova, and Vermeir & Heiremans, together with many not-for-profit small institutions in Paris that we learned face similar conditions.

10 Mia Jankowicz, “The knife-sharpener’s wheel: A review of Ayman Ramadan ’s Mere Real Things at Townhouse West,” Mada Masr, October 22, 2015, http://www.madamasr.com/sections/culture/knife-sharpener%E2%80%99s-wheel-review-ayman-ramadan%E2%80%99s-mere-real-things-townhouse-west.

11 Disappointingly, we only managed to involve a handful of people outside of the art world, the reasons for which we will address in the upcoming publication.

Go back