It´s 2:00PM and I’ve been awake since 8:00AM.
I am caught up in an avalanche of page refreshes - mostly on news outlets, coronavirus map counters and Netflix´s main page, hoping yet another variation on a popular TV show is getting a chance to live out a short life and I´ll get a chance to see it flop. I am zooming out into a yoga class with a dedicated instructor, now offering a video conference meeting, or a therapist, (should I be lucky enough to have her.) I, at the very least, count myself among the lucky ones that can afford to stay indoors in the Netherlands and take some distance to try and understand what’s happening, whilst changing my pace.
I read a dear friends Instagram story:
"Productivity level: I’m literally just eating pizza all day."
“And at this point in time that is OK.”
I am an artist. Over the past few years, my practice has been formatted around the subject of precarity, my own and that of my generation. I’ve thought a lot about labour issues, about public space, about what it means to live and to work as an artist. To be more precise: what is a contemporary artist´s current condition? At times, I´ve lived with few resources and in insecure conditions; I’ve worked beyond my limits, but I’ve also hypothesized what it means to give up working altogether.
For me, this trip around my home is nothing new. It started before any quarantine was imposed in the West, on January 1st, 2020. It wasn’t triggered by COVID-19, but by the notice from my previous employer - a restaurant and take-away - in an email entitled "Renewal of employment contract", which went something like this:
Thank you for your email and nice to have a vacation to look forward to! Are you going to visit family and celebrate the holidays with them?
About your contract - that's a valid question and I actually wanted to come see you this week or next to discuss it in person as it's quite complicated, but I understand you want clarity so let me give it a go in writing and we can always discuss later if needed.
You may have heard that per 1 January 2020, there is a new law for on-call workers (Wet Arbeidsmarkt in Balans/WAB), which has all kinds of consequences for both employer and employee. I believe this law is a good thing, however, it holds both positive and negative points. One of the major implications is that employers must offer set-hour contracts to all on-call workers who've been employed somewhere for longer than one year. But in your specific case, since you have been working with us for almost two years, it also means that with having to offer the set-hour contract, we also must provide a contract for an indefinite period of time. And we consequently don't have the opportunity for a try-out period.
We cannot yet foresee the exact impact of this new law on our staff costs. The cost of personnel is the second largest part of our total costs, and we need tobe very careful on keeping those costs manageable. We are therefore at the moment not extending definite contracts to indefinite contracts until we have a more clear view on the changed situation. That means that unfortunately, your last day employed by us will be 31 December. We all really wish things were different as you have proven yourself to be a very stable and reliable employee and above all a great person to work with!
We will be seeing each other soon as there is still some time left before you go on vacation, but if you have any questions, please know that you can always call/text/email me in the meantime. I'm sorry I don't have better news for you but please be assured that none of this has to do with your work ethic whatsoever.
I'll see you soon and take care,
Knowing at that time that I could still rely on some form of potential artistic subsidy, on some form of artistic project that I was planning to apply for, and knowing that I had a roof over my head for the time being, I took the sheer audacity of using a law that is meant to encourage employers to hire people as a justification to fire someone as a giant joke.
I used it as food for thought, and decided that if I have to file for unemployment, I will do it gladly and, since I´m an artist, I won’t let it bring me down but use it as fodder for a new project. Art and unemployment. It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? The concept made me trail off into thinking about the way artists work in general. Do they work? Do they rather take leisure? After all, they labour at what they love.
It´s been three months since then. Three months and a pandemic the extent of which will completely reshape our understanding of not just work, but of the way the entire world operates. But our minds haven´t yet grasped the complexity of what lies before us. Our minds are still tired from binge eating and binge watching. Our minds are slow and fuzzy, staring at current day events like they would stare at a 5 car pile-up on a highway. Horrified, but unable to look away.
In the immediate rush of it all, my initial enthusiasm about my brand new non-working topic gave way to worry. As I was riffing philosophically on what it means to give up working altogether, inspired by true events, and re-imagine collectively what it would mean to live in a world without work, life was still going on and sounding off alarm bells. Cultural Workers Unite, a worker-led collective that aims to foster solidarity between precarious workers of cultural institutions in Rotterdam in order to hold the municipality and the institutions accountable for the improvement and the implementation of the Fair Practice Code, announced that Het Nieuwe Instituut fired all of their cafe employees with a fixed contract last Friday, March 27th, 2020 - for those who still keep track of timelines.
This move came as a shock in light of the fact that little more than a week before, Het Nieuwe Instituut organised an online event about the COVID-19 crisis and started talking about solidarity among different working fields. And here I quote:
"Nightlife, eating out and solidarity during the lockdown. How are restaurants, clubs and bars coping now that all gatherings are forbidden? Will restauranteurs and DJs be able to keep their heads above water through home deliveries and live streaming? What are the effects on people’s mental health? And what does the future hold?"
It´s 2:34PM, 30th of March, 2020. I’m stuck to my chair and it feels like the way in which we instrumentalize solidarity and endless adaptation in times of precarity, are features rather than bugs of the strangely built construction that is the art world. We love to incorporate everything into our practices, institutions adore talking about their morals and high standards, employers love to victimize themselves and pretend they’re the only ones that take a risk in all this, but in fact we all need to take a cold hard look in the mirror.
A crisis of these proportions, with ample time on our hands, should make us and our institutions rethink on how to resolve the break that exists between the facades that we put up and the reality that we craft for ourselves and others.