One answer, argues sociologist Kuba Szreder, is that formal art education simply teaches students how to take part in the art market. Here Szreder, who helped set up the Free/Slow University of Warsaw, a set of discussions, strike actions and publications responding to art and academia’s frenetic pace, explores the potential that lies beyond the traditional institutions of art education
When we established the Free/Slow University of Warsaw (F/SUW) in 2009 with a group of fellow curators, artists and thinkers, we had a clear agenda in mind. We wanted to wrestle back time that was otherwise wasted on a relentless churn of artistic and academic projects to reflect upon the wider systemic conditions of artistic overproduction. The F/SUW existed for almost a decade before it naturally dissolved, its initiators and animators transmuted into other collectives. During its lifespan, F/SUW turned out to be – as theorist and one of the founders of F/SUW Janek Sowa quipped – an undisciplined, unacademic zone, a series of intensive, self-organised art-workers’ inquiries that addressed the precarity and exploitation rampant in contemporary art and in society at large.
An ambition to reappropriate time for the sake of the collective and a desire for critical reflection are characteristics of a plethora of self-organised universities, institutes, research centres and schools (often also referred to as mock institutions, monster institutions, patainstitutions, alterinstitutions or institutions of the common). These informal platforms operate at the fringes of global artworlds, even when they are located at the heart of global artistic circulation. They are often driven by activist agendas and geared towards radical self-education – the results of which are applied in their respective contexts, whether Venice, London and New York, or on the former plantation of Lusanga in Congo. They specialise in really useful knowledge, a historically and politically loaded term, referring to knowledge that, paraphrasing Marx, does not merely describe the world, but changes it. This term first emerged in the nineteenth century in protosocialist debates about workers’ education in the UK. and was picked up in the second half of the twentieth century by militant scholars of labour movements. More recently it has been absorbed into the field of contemporary art, influencing debates about the use value of art and its institutions. Research projects, publications and manifestos of F/SUW and other similar outlets for art workers’ selfeducation debunk two socioeconomic and ideological constructs: on the one hand, it disenchants the ideology of artistic autonomy; on the other, it opposes the ongoing neoliberal transformation of contemporary art. I will start with the latter, as neoliberalism sets the strategic stage of these self-organised models of education.
Neoliberalism and the contemporary applications of really useful knowledge
As artist-activist Greg Sholette argues in his 2010 book, Dark Matter, mock institutions often fulfil important social functions, such as research and education, that ‘regular’ institutions are no longer able to deliver due to the detrimental effects of neoliberalism: economic policies aimed at the marketisation of all spheres of life and the weakening of public control over private capital result in the depletion of social welfare (where it exists) and the extraction of resources (where they are available). In the particular context of higher education in the arts, neoliberal transformation has resulted in lower wages; popularisation of precarious forms of employment; overburdening of workers and institutions with bureaucracy; implementation of quantitative and competitive systems of performance review; budgetary deficits paired with the commercialisation of studying, where lower-quality education is offered to growing groups of students (positioned as clients) for higher tuition fees that result in rising student debt. Quite often these changes are met with forms of resistance such as unionisation, student and teacher strikes, absenteeism, picketing, occupation and other forms of industrial action. This neoliberal transformation of the sector of higher education is paired with the identity crisis of artistic education, stuck between lofty ideals of autonomy, romantic trappings of studio practice, aspirational delusions of meritocracy and the delirious reality of a winner-take-all economy. Here, earnings are symbolic, precarity is rampant and the means of exhibiting work are dominated by commercial interests while thousands of debt-ridden graduates are churned out annually. In this context, the usefulness of knowledge is measured against its capacity to support resistance to the market forces at play.
Against artistic exceptionalism
Really useful knowledge might then be a tool to subvert the conventions of artistic exceptionalism so essential to the field of contemporary art. This ideology of exceptionalism is a practically operational and socially grounded system of collective beliefs centred on the figure of the artist-genius who creates discrete collectable art objects, and whose studio practice – even if entrenched in the art market and systems of class privilege – is based on the denial of its own economic and social underpinnings. Art schools are integral to promulgating these tenets of contemporary art. Most teachers and students agree that art is an exceptional calling, deserving commitment and justifying personal sacrifices. Furthermore, art schools naturalise the division of social labour, which is founded on the rift between time needed for daily concerns and time freed for the pursuit of art and knowledge. The problem is that the reality of the contemporary-art sector diverges tremendously from these lofty ideals, and soon after graduation young artists must turn out one project after another, while many are stuck in vicious cycles of precarious, poorly paid jobs at the same time. The only exceptional element of this system is an ideology of artistic exceptionalism that justifies shitty jobs as sacrifices.
At least in theory, artistic autonomy should be oppositional to the neoliberalisation of contemporary art and artistic education, as it enshrines an alternative value system: art is important because it is art and not because it sells well, embellishes class distinctions or decorates nationalist identity. In practice, however, artistic exceptionalism is structurally convergent with the neoliberalisation of contemporary art. This social illusion obfuscates the reality of exploitation in the arts, justifying the self-precarity of artists and pushing their hyper-individualisation. The romantic ideals of singular genius promote a winner-take-all economy while undermining efforts at collective organisation. For this reason, the really useful knowledge of contemporary-art workers contests romantic ideals, and many of the groups presented below are animated by self-described art workers, a cohort labelled as the artist-precariat by British theorist Angela McRobbie, and whom I tend to discuss as the ‘projectariat’. Below, I would like to discuss three distinctive features of art worker inquiries that aim at reclaiming time, imagination and resources to generate knowledge. The usefulness of which is defined by its capacity to foster new, intersectional and cross-class alliances geared towards social transformation on both micro- and macroscale.
F/SUW: reclaiming time
F/SUW adopted its cheeky motto, wolny bo powolny (free because slow), to underline an urge to reclaim time, and to spend recuperated time on collective reflection about the conditions of artistic production. Hence, many of the activities and research projects of F/SUW originated in situations that weren’t your typical academic settings: picnics, summer camps or walks that often fed into published readers, podcasts and web entries. Imagine a picnic organised in July 2009 in front of the Ujazdowski Castle – a main Polish centre for contemporary art – where a few dozen artists, curators and academics discussed ways of organising their work–life balance. There they listened to a lecture by the late Martin Kaltwasser, an artist from Berlin, who climbed a ladder as an impromptu stage, describing how he tried to match his obligations as a parent to freelance artistic practice. An array of books about art and care labour would testify that this is not an easy feat; this thread of unequal gender hierarchies in contemporary art, which stem from an unequal distribution of care labour that largely pushes women artists to focus on caring for others ahead of their own pursuits, would recur as a focus in F/SUW studies, spearheaded by Joanna Figiel. When F/SUW organised a summer camp in Northern Poland in 2011, an international cohort of art workers responded to an open call and came together to make bonfires, take walks, cook, eat and talk about the conditions of artistic labour and the systemic critique of cognitive capitalism. The idyllic setting served as a backdrop for inquiries that eventually led to a string of research projects and publishing activities.
Importantly, the art workers’ inquiries of F/SUW were part of a larger cycle of labour struggles in contemporary art in Poland. These actions took place in the wake of a post-1989 ‘shock therapy’, the neoliberal transformation of Poland that resulted in the impoverishment of large swathes of society and lasting class divides. F/SUW participants partook in the collective efforts of Citizens’ Forum of Contemporary Art and has engaged in unionising, wage negotiations and protests against censorship. One of the most performative forms of self-education was an ‘art strike’ organised by artist Kasia Górna and other activists at the Citizens’ Forum for Contemporary Art in dozens of cities across Poland in 2012. On this occasion the artistic community at large reflected on its own precarious condition and lack of access to social welfare, contextualising it in wider debates about precarious labour. The Citizens’ Forum published The Black Book of Artists in Poland in 2015, a textbook denunciating poor labour conditions in contemporary art.
The forum’s strike and collective research prompted wider efforts at unionisation in the sector of contemporary art. Over the last decade, cells of the radical trade union Workers’ Initiative have been established in major art institutions (for example, Ujazdowski Castle, Museum of Modern Art and Zache˛ta National Gallery of Art, all in Warsaw), and art academies (such as the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, University of the Arts Poznan´ or the Academy of Art in Szczecin). The workers of these institutions try to self-organise to resist various forms of exploitation, while partaking in the wider alliance of trade unionists and activists of precarious labour. For this to effectively happen, the ideological tenets of artistic exceptionalism and neoliberal fixations with individual success need to be revamped, if not entirely discarded. And really useful knowledge, engendered through the process of such a range of art workers’ inquiries, serves this function.
Art for UBI: reclaiming social imagination
Establishing such cross-class and intersectional solidarities is not an easy feat in the current landscape. In this dog-eat-dog world, solidarity is hampered and social imagination is limited by what late theorist Mark Fisher labelled capitalist realism – an ideological construct organised around the old Thatcherite slogan: there is no alternative. In this context, the usefulness of knowledge is defined by its capacity to move beyond narrow ideological horizons, to reclaim and reinvigorate social imagination. An interesting example of such intervention is provided by the published manifesto Art for UBI (art for universal basic income, 2022), spearheaded by the School of Mutation (SOM), an offshoot of the Institute of Radical Imagination (IRI). IRI operates between autonomous art centres and institutions – mostly in Italy, Greece, Spain and Russia. Its peer-led investigations are dedicated to the notion of the commons in contemporary art and beyond, propagated in theory and action. Here, really useful knowledge is directly interwoven with the practice of occupations and working within autonomous art centres, such as s.a.L.E., Venice. The discussions and seminars of SOM, organised online between 2020 and 2021, were directly embedded in labour disputes – and subsequent occupations – organised during and in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic in Italy and Spain. SOM contributed to these efforts with online seminars, public assemblies, performances and teach-ins. The results of these self-educational activities, summarised in Art for UBI, proposed the implementation of a universal basic income, not just for artists but for everyone. This multisectoral approach informed the educational performance One Income, Many Worlds, orchestrated by members of SOM and IRI in Madrid in 2021 and Milan in 2022. Riffing on the forms of didactic, militant theatre developed by Brazilian Augusto Boal during the 1970s, the scripts of these collective public readings are based on group discussions and interviews conducted with a cohort of precarious workers, whose testimonies are then publicly performed by the interviewees themselves. Precarity is unearthed as a condition shared between people of different classes and walks of life – artists, designers, activists, cleaners, illegal workers – who not only dissect their conditions but also discuss OBI, among other, more pragmatically inclined remedies. The multivocal script of these performances does not gloss over differences between forms of oppression, such as those based on race, class, gender and identity, but proposes a unifying and intersectional (even if utopian) platform for those struggles. Advocating for OBI for everyone as something to aim for in the future, their models of participatory and militant self-education prompts solidarity here and now.
Le Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise (CATPC, the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League): reclaiming resources
In the context of several former palm-oil plantations in Congo, the usefulness of art worker inquiries is defined in more pragmatic terms, measured against their capacity to reclaim resources and reinvest them to build a collective farm, research centre and art centre in Lusanga. The radical pragmatism of the Institute for Human Activities (IHA) and CATPC is informed by a sober assessment of the global chains of artistic value, mapping the relations between the poverty of plantations with the affluence of the global metropolis. As IHA’s argument goes, the extraction of resources from plantations in Congo subsidises metropolitan infrastructures in the North, including art centres and academies, while depleting resources for local people so that even primary education remains a luxury. Despite these systemic conditions, CATPC and IHA have managed to create platforms for self-education and former plantation-workers’ inquiries – facilitated by Kinshasa-based artists Michel Ekeba, Eléonore Hellio and Mega Mingiedi, as well as Dutch artist and IHA initiator Renzo Martens. Together they have helped former plantation workers find means of self-expression and acquire knowledge of the global chains of artistic value. Such knowledge is useful if one wants to recuperate resources by securing a footing in the ultracompetitive art industry.
The intrinsic relation between self-education, militant research, artistic practice and economic operations is exemplified by the Balot NFT, CATPC’s most recent project. Inspired by an idea from Congolese historian Charles Sikitele-Gize, this NFT is a digital edition of the indigenous Congolese sculpture of Maximilien Balot, a colonial agent killed in the course of the Pende uprising in Congo in 1931, currently in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in Richmond. The museum has refused repeated requests from the CATPC to loan the Balot sculpture and present it in the place of its origins in Congo. Challenging this decision, the CATPC recuperated the image of this sculpture to mint a limited NFT, sold to buy back plantation land. This conceptually charged and economically effective action does not reproduce the conventions of artistic exceptionalism in the Western guise, but rather twists and subverts aesthetic conventions regulating authorship, usefulness, spectatorship, ownership and expert assessments of artistic quality. The Congolese art workers collectivise the results of their cooperative production, reclaiming resources from the global chains of artistic value to buy back land and establish a centre for art and research that will contribute to actual, and not just rhetorical, decolonisation.
Radical pragmatism of really useful knowledge
The ambitions and manifestos of the self-organised collectives mentioned here are quite often strategic in scope and radical in rhetoric, from decolonising the global artworld to demanding UBI for everyone. The daily operations of engendering really useful knowledge, however, are embedded in the practical ethos of radical pragmatism. These organisations piggyback on existing institutions, grants, opportunities, infrastructures and knowledge. But they are not merely reformist or opportunistic. They move between official, artistic and academic institutions and communities of struggle extrinsic to the field of art. The emergence of really useful knowledge is a pragmatically situated endeavour: self-organisation, campaigning and commercial activities are interwoven with researching, reflecting, studying together. This should not be mistaken with neoliberal instrumentalisation; instead, knowledge here emerges following the withdrawal of art workers’ productive forces, who now strike against the exploitive systems they were meant to reproduce to reclaim time, imagination and resources.
The usefulness of the knowledge generated is defined by its placement in wider social struggles, as the self-educational collectives discussed here work against social and political currents of global proportions. The magnitude of these challenges (neoliberal capitalism, precarisation of labour, colonialism) exceeds individual agency, artistic or otherwise. Hence the political edge of these inquiries, which transgress the conventions of artistic exceptionalism and contribute to the construction of wider social fronts. The ideas of autonomy, freedom and self-realisation are applied beyond the domain of art, recontextualised as shared faculties of radical social imagination, helping people to view the world differently and – potentially – act on this collective vision. Getting to understand the systems of oppression and exploitation is not enough to change them, but ignorance is bliss only for people who can afford it. Struggle or perish, as the saying goes; and here really useful knowledge may prove its benefits. Just as former plantation workers need to cognitively map the global value chains to recuperate resources, art workers in Warsaw or Venice – instead of running on mills of individualistic aspiration – will need to stop, think and unionise to break the vicious cycle of precarity and exploitation.