Productivity in Times of a Pandemic
by Sarie Nijboer
Since March 2020, the term ‘productivity’ has taken on even greater significance. Being productive suddenly meant being online, working from home, continuing our daily jobs, organizing online exhibitions, webinars, adapting to social protocols, cancelation of events, and, at the same time, dealing with our own emotions being affected by all these changes.
My fear for the unknown, fear for the future, ultimately led to not being in contact with mind and body. I could feel the pressure to continue, no matter what, until I could no longer. It felt as if there was no possibility to take a break from producing more art, more exhibitions, and more articles.
In an interview with the news organization Truthout, theorist Judith Butler talks about vulnerability — “the shared condition of social life, of interdependency, exposure and porosity”1— and the process of mourning that this pandemic exposes. Butler describes this process as one that raises challenging questions related to life, death and the state of the world — questions that are at the core of art, culture and history. According to Butler, “It is no wonder that people are turning to poetry and song, writing and visual art, history and theory to make sense of their pandemic world, to reflect upon the question: When the world as we know it falls apart, what then?”2
And I, too, began to wonder what, then, the museum will look like, what, then, art practice will be. Are there different ways to sustain the art industry beyond virtual screens? How can museums, institutions, and art spaces today reflect upon questions like “What then?” Or should we rather ask ourselves: “What if?”3 Is there a possibility to imagine alternative ways of “using” our products, called art?
The Württembergischen Kunstverein directors Hans D. Christ and Iris Dressler in March 2020 published a seven-page statement followed by a Shutdown Program on the consequences of the health crisis and the already precarious working conditions in which the art business has been operating for decades. It addresses, in particular, exploitation, the lack of financial security and — despite the fact that the support packages (at least in the case of Germany) were able to cover the fairly serious damage caused by the cancellation of exhibitions and events — that we must prepare for a worsening of the situation. The statement accurately describes the already damaged system and the fear of financial cutbacks that this pandemic will bring, for a sector that already has insufficient financial resources. Appropriate fees for artists, as well as for freelance curators, mediators, graphic artists, technical teams, assistants, authors, translators, restorers, research assistants, interns, security and cleaning staff, most of whom are now employed as temporary workers, should be one of the main focuses for thinking about radical changes. But also for transforming the public art institution and letting go of the credo “more is more”.4
Art Workers Italia (AWI), an informal, autonomous, and non-partisan group of contemporary art workers formed in response to the current crisis, was part of the Shutdown Program5. The principles that the group underlines are inclusivity and sustainability as fundamental prerequisites of ethical conduct. The strategic purpose of the “collective undertaking”, according to their online manifesto, is “to focus on the recognition of the profession of contemporary art workers, the regulation of employment relationships, the redistribution of resources, and the reform and restructuring of the entire sector.”6
While many public art institutions were actively launching online programs, only a few used this time to critically question the status quo. The newly appointed directors Anna Jehle and Juliane Schickedanz of the Kunsthalle Osnabrück wrote a letter in April 2020 on the institution’s website, stating that this pandemic will be used as a moment to critically question how the institution functions and what can or should be changed. The institution has now launched a new website, also in simple language (and a simple design), an annual program on the theme of disappointment, as well as a diverse program that includes an online event on sustainable curatorial practice that addresses questions such as: What impact has the pandemic had on curating exhibitions today and in the future? Does the art business have to rethink itself in order to do justice to the principles of sustainability? 7
Already since March 2014, the Site for Unlearning project at CASCO Art Institute has been organising weekly unlearning discussions, an ongoing collaborative research by artist Anette Krauss, to question the social norms and structures that we internalise and therefore sustain. Unlearning is here used as a tool to collectively reflect on institutional habits and move towards a more common practice. This is also viable in the work of The Luminary Arts, a nonprofit arts organisation, which states in its Manifesto for an art organization we can live in and with: “To embody and enact structures that are sustainable, just, conceptual and diverse in idea, manifestation and act. Many things exist, exhaustingly, so we must propose new forms, as well as adopt and extend old forms that work.”8
Taking these institutions as examples of “pausing”, of “reflecting”, we can see that an alternative form of production arises, one that is capable of critically understanding institutional habits and actively imagining alternative approaches. Standing still in this context could mean to take the time to think about ways to sustain art practice differently. It can be a moment of reflection, to think critically about, and learn from, our previous actions.
1 George Yancy in an interview Judith Butler, Mourning Is a Political Act Amid the Pandemic and Its Disparities, Truthout, April 30, 2020.
3 In the book “From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want”, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2019, the Transition movement cofounder Rob Hopkins argues that we are failing to effect dramatic change because we do not use our most critical tool: human imagination. As defined by social reformer John Dewey, imagination is the ability to look at things as if they could be otherwise. The ability, that is, to ask What if? According to Hopkins imagination is central to empathy, to creating better lives, to envisioning and then enacting a positive future.
4 STATEMENT, Hans D. Christ, Iris Dressler, March 2020.
5 Art Workers Italia (AWI), Manifesto, 1 May 2020.
7 The IKT 2020 Virtual Meeting, Sustainable Curating in Corona Times took place on 17/18 October 2020.
8 The Luminary Arts, Manifesto for an art organization we can live in and with.
SARIE NIJBOER’s practice moves between curating, designing and art writing. Within her projects she seeks alternative approaches to exhibition making and art writing by challenging the function of language and institutional structures. This is reflected in a multitude of projects exploring the relationship between objects, text and audience, with an emphasis on “performative”, “discursive” and “process-based” projects. Sarie is co-founder of textur and was previously co-organizer of Conversas Berlin. She has collaborated with, among others, Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig, Willem Twee Music and Visual Arts Den Bosch, Zönotéka Berlin, Lage Egal Berlin and Het Nieuwe Instituut Rotterdam. She participated in the Pink Island Research Residency in Jeju, South Korea and is a former fellow for the art coordination at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart.