Considerations, Happenings

Youth in Revolt: Precarious Labour, the Young Curator and Sectorial Burn Out in the Media Arts

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As part of the Media Arts Network of ontario/réseau des arts médiatiques de l’ontario (MANo/rAMo) Evolve or Perish symposium, I was invited to speak about precarious cultural labour from my position as an independent curator and writer. While the mundane struggles of these positions inform my thinking about precariousness as a contemporary social phenomena, what I tried to do with my presentation was circumscribe a much larger field of precarious labour, feeling for the potential of resonance between cultural work and other kinds of “flexible” jobs. Cross-sectoral alliances will be difficult to construct and maintain, and it is clear that things cannot remain the way they are forever (obviously), but precarious living conditions coupled with state austerity seems to be forcing the hand of change now. As the panel that concluded the symposium suggested, we’ve got a couple of options: evolution, mutation, amputation or death. What follows is a transcription of my presentation.


To be precarious in the dictionary sense of things it is to be dependent on something beyond one’s authority. It’s a material or immaterial insecurity that comes from control resting with another–often a set of circumstances or a system incapable of being motivated by care.

Broadly, feminist- and literary-theorist Judith Butler proposes that “‘precarity’ designates that politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death. Such populations are at heightened risk of disease, poverty, starvation, displacement, and of exposure to violence without protection.” (1)

When Butler talks about precarity, she invokes the gender queer and the racialized, and these experiences of precarity are nodes of intersectionality that, in the cultural field, interact with specific labour characteristics such as fluid working hours, high levels of mobility, hyper-communication and flexibility, not to mention, often, shit wages and a lack of benefits. Precarity, as a economic embodiment, is often related to unpredictable, insecure and exploitative labour relations. In this moment of late-capitalism and austerity, precarious work proliferates as a symptom of what has been described as “changing conditions of production, [such as] deindustrialization, outsourcing, declining unionization, and a shift from full-time salaried work to flexible arrangements with weak protections.” (2)

As it is practically deployed, precarity seems to reinforce any number of repressive social forces, such as racism and misogyny. For instance, “whilst women have almost always done ‘immaterial and affective labour, often with little recognition in both fields’ precariousness is only discussed ‘at the moment when the Western male worker began feeling the negative effects of the new post-industrial flexible job market.’” (3) And based on my colloquial experiences, artist-run centres? They are ruled by women. The directorship of large museums? Not so much. Further, in the catalogue The Global Contemporary and the Rise of New Art Worlds, the authors note that “it is immensely important–if the global economy is to function–for the world labour force to be ethnicized, for a correlation to be established between ethnicity and economic role; for example, at the international level by imposing low wages on non-European, Asian, or African workers, or at the national level on immigrants. [Or, as our specific case may be, on Indigenous populations.] The visible classification of labour power and ethnic groups provides the index for income distributions…This institutionalized racism (and it goes beyond xenophobia) is one of the most significant pillars of historical capitalism. Racism serves as an all-embracing ideology to justify inequality.” (4)


On the one hand, the proliferation of precarity could be read as a response to worker demands. Personally, flexible working hours allow me to take on multiple projects (both an intellectual desire to work diversely and a practical consequence of needing to pay the rent), and traveling to art fairs means I can see parts of the world I wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to visit, and I like working from home sometimes. It is not simply market ideology that manifests these kinds of working conditions, but these kinds of “flexibility” certainly do serve the inevitable thrust of capitalism to extract increased labour in exchange for fewer investments in the labour force which powers the economy. On the other hand, the condition of precarity is “unevenly experienced” across the workforce, since while I may value or even choose my contingent work arrangements, elsewhere they are imposed on others. (5) Combined with hysterical debt-loads from post-secondary education and credit cards, and then the mundane costs of living that are subject to inflation at a rate not matched by wages, the lack of security associated w/ precariat flexibility conspires to leave giant swathes of the working class extremely vulnerable. Granted, some people thrive under these conditions, but most of us do something a bit more humble: we subsist. Barely. As Judith Butler points out, “neo-liberalism works through producing dispensable populations; it exposes populations to precarity; it establishes modes of work that presume that labour will always be temporary; it decimates long-standing institutions of social democracy, withdraws social services from those who are most radically unprotected – the poor, the homeless, the undocumented – because the value of social services or economic rights to basic provisions like shelter and food has been replaced by an economic calculus that values only the entrepreneurial capacities of individuals and moralizes against all those who are unable to fend for themselves or make capitalism work for them.” (6) In fact, capitalism requires that it not work for most of us: there can only be so many millionaires. This is not just a problem of the cultural sector.

And yet, across the field of precarious labour, cultural workers carry a special kind of social capital; our jobs are cool. However fragile my financial stability is or however guaranteed my human rights are, I get to pass through the world with certain privileges, one of which is working in the cultural sector. It feels gross to say this, but in a way, we are the popular kids at the precariat high-school. In these kinds conversations, we cannot be inward looking only. It is our duty, really, our duty, to align ourselves with the aspect of this struggle to which we belong the least, which is to seek positions of advocacy outside our cultural cache. At minimum, this means recognizing that experiences of precarity in the cultural sector may not be representative of the experience of precarity elsewhere, and that our experiences may not be the most suitable upon which to build cross-sectorial alliances that could address the larger phenomena of economic and social insecurity as it is experienced today. In this respect, it will involve a lot of listening (and not necessarily so much talking).


And to take this one step further, I’d like to quote the writer Jacob Wren: “There is all this discourse about how the freelance artist is the model for the precarious worker, and it must be true, but for me what’s actually the real criminal problem is not that information workers are working 24 hours a day, it’s that people in China are working in the conditions they’re working to make the computers and the iPods we are working on. All this talk about immaterial labour is a mask for the material labour behind it, which has actually gone back to pre-union factory conditions…You have these mass suicide protests in China at Foxconn, where the people putting together the iPods, hundreds of them, are committing suicide to protest their labour conditions. And how bad do your labour conditions have to be? I think we have no idea…With immaterial labour, the material labour is still happening, but the pure exploitation has been moved off the immaterial labour and onto the material factory worker in another country, who we don’t see.” (7)

It seems that our precarity is of a different sort, a slow death, by inertia or obesity or ennui, and I would like to propose our precarity in relationship to the precarities that allow ours to exist. (8) When we work all our waking hours, tap tapping on our laptops, texting on our smart phones, sending emails all over the world in English, our precarity comes to be seen as rather the justification for a level of precarity many of us have probably not ever had lived contact with. It is just not the same to spend all your time thinking about exhibitions while making slightly more than minimum wage then it is to work 16-hour days in a factory that you cannot leave, and when you do, with mere dollars in your pocket. Our precarity is on the backs of other precarity, much more precarious than ours. And because changing systems of globalization, slavery, racism and capitalism are so daunting as to be paralyzing, we excuse our inaction with the claim that nothing can be done to effectively change things.


I feel like the increasing ubiquity and severity of precarity is the perfect consequence of capitalism. How efficient or futile will our advocating for different ways of organizing labour in general (or cultural production in particular) be within capitalism? Kinda seems impossible, especially given the claim, reiterated by Slavoj Žižek and Mark Fischer, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. And yet! We operate within different economies everyday, such as when we cook for our lovers or trade documentation for artwork or volunteer. The failure of our imagination that Žižek and Fischer diagnose comes when we place every type of labour in a capitalist framework, ignoring the fact we simultaneously work in multiple economies all the time. Plus, come on, capital is in a moment of crisis. I’m not sure if this is the revolution Marx foretold of, but at the very least, this moment can be one reconsideration.

Put another way, what does the crisis of precarity make possible? As the availability of economic and natural resources declines, how about a different architecture of how these remaining resources move?!


Given that precarity manifests across a range of factors, such as class, race and gender, there is the difficult potential of building solidarities amongst us. And I say “difficult” because if these alliances are to be fruitful, they must not erase the power differentials and social inequities that mark these varied experiences. It would be to understand what we have in common without effacing the very real differences of how precarity is experienced. I think about this as holding a space for not-knowing that is something more than polite deferral, and something more than the strategic mobilization of what is common for the benefit of the few. For us, as cultural workers, I think the first step might be to be attentive to (and not impose) fellow-feeling that may come from the very different experiences of, say, janitors, migrant labourers, office temps, service workers et cetera.

Maybe this is unrealistic? What do you think? Do you think that addressing precarity as a systemic condition of late capitalism will require collective address?

While I believe that labour precarity is somehow the perfect expression of capitalism, there are things being done already, within this system, to address the deleterious effects of living with so little security, such as:

  • Co-working spaces, such as Bento Miso, offer medical and dental benefits to its members.
  • NDP MP Andrew Cash has introduced a bill to the House of Commons called the Urban Worker Strategy (which is a strange name, but okay), which is a policy meant to address some the structural mechanisms that perpetuate precarity, and it includes proposals for expanding access to employment insurance; taxation reform; expanding access to pensions; enforcing labour laws for temp agency workers; strengthening enforcement of rules around internships; extending supplementary health benefits to the precariously employed; and working with provinces to prevent job misclassification, the legal sleight of hand wherein employers hire workers as independent contractors to evade employment standards. The bill hasn’t passed (yet?), but as has been pointed out, “for many workers in unstable employment, policy is one of the few mechanisms for improving their social and economic conditions.” (9)
  • And speaking of policy, there is the incredible proposal currently being debated in Switzerland  for a guaranteed basic income to all citizens, which in this specific formulation is the work of an artist, Enno Schmidt.

And then, here are some wild imaginations with the caveat that I don’t know how to make any of this happen:

  • In this moment of a shifting funding landscape, we can re-imagine what we would have our artist-run centres to be. Do we even want government funding, with all the things that brings with it, such as organizational calcification and programming to council mandates, as well as the capacity to make and present works free from market constraints?
  • What if, somehow, subsistence support was offered to people to not make work for the sake of making work? So many people I know labour creatively at jobs they hate, producing Facebook games the deploy addiction mechanics in their design decisions (and not some lofty idea of passing-time pleasure), or doing social media upkeep for plastic surgeons (gummy-bear breast implants, anyone?), or in production crews making shitty knock-offs of consumer products that no one needs anyway? What if we paid people to not contribute to the deluge of cultural crap that chokes and drowns us, both in the making and in the consumption?
  • Instead of mourning job security within a capitalist framework, which was never sustainable anyway, this far-reaching experience of precarity could be used to imagine the thing that comes when late-capitalism comes to an end. Maybe the experience of precarity will be the thing that allows for an economic revolution?!

(1) Butler, Judith. “Performativity, Precarity and Sexual Politics,” AIBR. Revista de Antropología Iberoamericana, vol. 4, num. 3, September-December 2009.

(2) Cohen, Nicole and Greig de Peuter, “The politics of precarity,” briarpatch magazine, 01 November 2013. 

(3) Fantone, L. (2007). “Precarious changes: gender and generational politics in contemporary Italy,” Feminist Review 87, pages 5-20. As quoted in Gill, R. C. and Andy Pratt, “In the social factory? Immaterial labour, precariousness and cultural work,” Theory, Culture and Society #25, page 18.

(4) Belting, Hans, Andrea Buddensieg and Peter Weibel (eds.). The Global Contemporary at the Rise of New Art Worlds, USA: MIT Press, 2013, pages 23-24.

(5) Andrew Ross makes this point in “The New Geography of Work. Power to the Precarious?,” OnCurating Journal #16, 2013.

(6) Butler, Judith. “Fiscal Crisis, or the Neo-Liberal Assault on Democracy?,” Greek Left Review, 12 November 2011. 

(7) Lee, Yaniya, Chris Kraus and Jacob Wren. In Different Situations Different Behaviour Will Produce Different Results: A Chapbook, Toronto: Paperpusher, 2013, pages 23-24.

(8) Lauren Berlant uses the idea of slow death to describe the experience of living in this stage of late-capitalism, which she explores in-depth in “Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency,” a chapter in her book, Cruel Optimism.

(9) Cohen, Nicole and Greig de Peuter, “The politics of precarity,” briarpatch magazine, 01 November 2013.  


10 thoughts on “Youth in Revolt: Precarious Labour, the Young Curator and Sectorial Burn Out in the Media Arts

  1. I love everything about this. But I also have one question that always comes up when I think about the issue of affective/emotional/immaterial labour vs. paid/quantifiable/utilitarian labour, which is whether the difference between these two things actually necessitates a whole new system of valuation for work and time perhaps (as you suggest) outside of capitalism. Because I think about how the most straightforward solution to all of this precarious, unpaid labour that is about feelings and affect would be to actually clock all those hours spent returning emails and text messages or, more importantly, cooking meals for someone, or looking after their kid, or painting their walls. But then I know that that is not enough: that that quantifying would actually cheapen what that labour really *means* to me and the people I know who perform it. That labour exceeds work and payment. It’s about how to be in the world in some way. I guess I don’t have a question here, so much as a comment about how affect and work fascinate me because the lines between public and private life are so blurred.

  2. Saelan says:

    Love this, cheyanne!

    WRT what Gabby said, isn’t it a tenet of Hardt & Negri’s thinking that the emancipatory forces that inhere in immaterial labour arise from how it escapes the calculus of value? Certainly, capital is constantly working to quantify and commodify more things (and quantification is definitely linked to commodification, which is why I think, as Gabby says, that trying to clock all of this unwaged work is the wrong idea) but the value of a lot of work that’s part of the continuity of immateriality (especially care work) is its contribution to the well-being of the commons. Precarity is just one strategy of capital’s to drive down wages, reduce investment in reproduction, and extract more value, but one sort-of hopeful thing to consider is that it really isn’t possible to measure the value of a lot of digital labour. The profits that Facebook and Twitter and Google reap might just be a pyramid scheme, given that they depend on free labor and ad sales — but all those ad sales are banking on future revenue that may not exist. Loots at this article in the New Yorker about Twitter’s IPO, for instance:

    Not that we should just sit back and bank on capitalism caving in on itself. I particularly like the emphasis here on tying our relatively privileged cultural work to the hyper-Fordism that makes the machines we do it on. There was some good discussion on this theme at the PCond conference this weekend, especially from Trebor Scholz, whose edited anthology on “Digital Labour” I recently read and enjoyed a lot. I thought Andrew Ross’ was the best piece in it, in which he extensively discusses how precarity is a continuum that connects digital free labour, the growth of internships, and freelance cultural work to the rise of hyper-Fordism in the Global South.

    So much to think about here about how we need solidarity without false equivalence.

  3. how lovely to read these words. cheyanne, you raise the question of alliances, of hybrid formations, of an ‘art world’ that might reach across (perhaps, only) like-minded orgs to find common cause with… well, i wonder who exactly? anti-poverty groups? ocap?

    it’s hard not to notice an inward implosion of orgs as they develop, and social media hastens the spiral, how many times have i arrived unannounced at an artist run centre only to find staff looking panicky, omg, a live human being, not a hashtag or an electronic message, but a face issuing sounds. now what? and as arts councils (heaven sent) continue to add layers of “accountability”, the interface between artist and org grows more distant. where are the orgs that are running out into the city trying to find what people might want or need, instead: what can you do for us here? what would an org based on these collabs look like? perhaps the new director of trinity, whomever that might be, could take this up. even heed the advice of tent folding if necessary.

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  8. laura kate says:

    Cheyanne! Did I ever send you this article?

    Bad-ass lawyers in NYC formed a ‘freelancers Union’. Their motto? ‘The union makes us less weak’.

    In all seriousness, an inspiring read amidst the piles of depressing statistics about decreasing average wages, stagnating minimum wages, inflation and the the dragging public image, with varying degrees of truth, that unions have become stagnant and myopic.

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