FUNDEaD: A call to enable an artistic after-life


Text by Anastasio Koukoutas

It all started with the promise of freedom and self-actualisation. Artists became symbols of people who are led by vocation, a sort of divine calling to serve a creativity impulse, a rare gift to perceive work as more than “just a job.” Artistic experiments rarely happen for the love of it or just for the fun of it; we soon realised that love and fun actually meant unpaid labour, the constant chase for funding and the pressure of (i.e., lack of) time. Funding became not just a prerequisite for the realization of any artistic project, but has framed our creativity in order to serve the production modalities of institutional programming. However, the resulting paradox is a surplus and not a lack of creativity.

In capitalist creative economy, ideas count as money but will not always be renumerated for the value they create, or for eventually becoming a source of income. On the contrary, many ideas live a short life, we could say that they "die unfunded." What is true, is that cultural work has become a paradigmatic case of the new labour conditions in the industry; the workers of creative-artistic sectors are now accustomed to give up their ideas once rejected by a funding committee, sometimes without even going through the experience of grief and effectively dealing with the acceptance of loss. A cemetery of artistic ideas lies next to every artistic career, a wasteland of projects which are abandoned with the imperative to carry on making, propose new ideas, circulate the "endless" opportunities art institutions have to offer, make their name known, die like a bee in the art market.

In fact, Yann Moulier-Boutang has conceptualised the mutations of capitalist economy by comparing it with a beehive whose role in the pollination process produces every year incalculable amounts of value. While the bees make honey for the next generation of bees, pollination happens for free, as a side effect of the reproduction of life in the beehive. When “art workers” get consumed in over-producing ideas, proposals, and projects in order to sustain their creativity by getting access to funding, a pollination process—as the one described by Moulier-Boutang—takes place. While institutions get richer, “art workers” become weaker, inevitably contributing to the precarisation of life and work. We are now so accustomed to the multiple forms of flexibility and enforced entrepreneurship, that switching roles between the status of working, unemployed, and unwaged seems normal.

José Guadalupe Posada (artist), José Sanchez (printer), Two skeletons smiling and dancing, ca. 1880–1910. Zincograph. 10.8 x 9 cm.

But even precarity and its broader political implications have been the theme for innumerous artistic projects. We could say that precarity has become a very fashionable term, reproduced regularly in research and curating practices, exhibitions, and art projects. However, when precarity becomes the radical content of an artwork, an exhibition, or a curatorial practice, it is rarely addressed within the material conditions that create it. Precarity seems to be the innate condition of nomadism, flexibility, adaptability and other key aspects of post-Fordist labour; it is the dark side of maximising market liberty and entrepreneurial freedom. It denotes a structural insecurity that has to do with work, but also housing and our lives, how we understand our futures, the viability of our artistic (and not only) identity, the (alienated) wealth of our creativity, and the dreams we have given up (so far). Precarity leads to withdrawal and ultimately to the de-professionalisation of cultural work; it causes exhaustion, both physical and mental, it deprives us of time and pleasure. It paradoxically leads to more work as a way to sustain our right to work.

Could unfunded and abandoned projects have a second life? Not in the sense of creating another hipster hype of profitable upcycling culture, but in the sense of re-directing the abandoned creativity towards empowering the community. Is there a way to mourn rebelliously by re-appropriating the stolen wealth of our creativity? This could take the form of a ‘mourning diary,’ one that is written by and for the community, a process to investigate if the surplus of our creativity that is often brutally exploited by the art market economy could be re-directed in more sustainable forms of work, to become a tool of emancipatory politics, a project to make time for caring, for political life, for overcoming our fatigue, our exhaustion, and depression. If precarity leads to withdrawal and to de-professionalisation of cultural work, then how do we suggest a way to continue artistic practice through strategies of withdrawal? How could we become as much creative as we want, overcoming the barriers of market-led creativity?

What if our creativity is inspired by our grief (both personal and professional)? What if we make it a symbol of our collective mourning? As Cindy Milstein notes, one of the cruelest affronts of today’s deadening and deadly power structures is the expectation that pain should be hidden away, buried, privatised―a lie manufactured so as to mask and uphold the social order that produces our many, unnecessary losses. Speaking openly about those hidden, buried, and privatised feelings opens up cracks in the wall. Peggy Phelan compared this blocking out of feelings with living outside the grounds of one’s own body: “Words walk to the threshold but will not enter the rooms of the body where pain runs wild. Deserted by words, pain lacks temporal sequence or spatial order: it makes a sound that syntax cannot carry.” [1]

José Guadalupe Posada, An elegantly dressed male and female skeleton arm in arm (vignette for the feast of the dead), ca. 1890–1910. Type-metal engraving. 8.2 x 6.5 cm.

Instead of feeling abandoned by words, let’s make a sound, run wild with pain, let’s talk openly about ‘open calls.’ Open calls remind us that the artistic work and the immaterial labour that comes with it do not necessarily happen within the walls of a studio, but occur as a symptom of projects/proposals to ascertain future working opportunities. Therefore, the surplus of creativity has become a prerequisite for working and not the other way round. This paradox is often a price too high to pay in the neoliberal cultural market; it obliges you to subsidize your working conditions by always creating new working opportunities for yourself, to consider the surplus value of your work a starting point for any (well-) paid job that might sustain your way of living, if not provide for your mere survival.

As it is often the case, open calls from major artistic institutions define the beginning of the new season; they come in with catchy keywords which would incite the applicant to self-position him/herself (emergent, groundbreaking, radical, queer, experimental, and so on) or even allow him/her to consider a career shift—open calls in the Greek dance field usually delineate a career transition from dancer to choreographer, although the renaming of the “Onassis New Choreographers Festival” to “Onassis Dance Days” might appear as an example that suggests the opposite (yet it isn’t, since dance practices are mainly considered through the figure of the choreographer). Open calls, also, suggest something more than just a supply/demand problem; their proliferation has signified a structural transformation of time, working in flexible project formats, switching from one working environment to the other (nomadism), maximizing market liberty in order to celebrate the creativity of the “entrepreneurial self” to adapt in drastically changing (and dehumanising) conditions.

However, open calls rarely define the proliferation of creativity within the community; their appearance as opportunities is rather misleading. If Lauren Berlant defined “slow death” as a “condition of being worn out by the activity of reproducing life,” could the constant reproduction of the artistic life cycle via open calls be considered a sign of our creativity slowly dying? Are we blatantly wearing ourselves out just to cope with the enduring precarisation of our lives, a symptom of what has lately been theorized as necrocapitalism? Is there an “artistic after-life” beyond the neoliberal death-drive or have we died already, to rise again as walking dead?

[1] Peggy Phelan, To Suffer a Sea Change. The Georgia Review, XLV: 3 (Fall), 507-525 (1991)

José Guadalupe Posada, Female skeleton playing the guitar (vignette for the feast of the dead), ca. 1890–1910. Type-metal engraving. 7 x 6 cm.