Affect and Art’s Alternative Workplaces: A Research Overview
In 2014, the Dutch art organisation Casco Art Institute launched, in collaboration with the artist Annette Krauss, the project Site for Unlearning: Art Organization. The project aimed at carrying out a collective analysis of the working patterns that shape the art institution, which are often routinely replicated without paying attention to underlying values and dogmas. Site for Unlearning focused on the deconstruction of long internalised social structures and dynamics, starting with bi-weekly meetings in which the members of the organisation discussed issues relating to their personal and working habits. Along with the meetings, the staff also carried out a series of exercises designed together with the artist to practically experiment with new modes of operating and relating. Exemplary in this sense are the exercises Cleaning Together, specifically meant to highlight the devaluation of reproductive labour, and Care Network, in which staff members were asked to map the care relations that bond the group. One of the most interesting results of the project was not only the development of different forms of collaboration but the rethinking of the art institution from the perspective of care, overturning the established understanding of ‘productive activity’ and putting reproductive labour, and its redistribution, at the core.
By discussing art projects and experiences that try to reconsider the way we work and cooperate as well as the work of female artists and curators since the 1970s, my research project uncovers the impact of women’s labour on the development of socially engaged art and independent instituting.
To do so, social reproduction and affective labour are two key analytical concepts throughout my study. Drawn from feminist theory, and especially Marxist feminist groups, social reproduction encompasses a range of tasks and social processes aimed at caring for and supporting the reproduction of working subjects (people) and society. Historically assigned to women and restricted to the private sphere, the ‘invisibilisation’ and naturalisation of reproductive work as a labour of love are understood as functional to the reproduction of the capitalist system. Hence, social reproduction theory aims at developing a more unitary theory that could integrate the sphere of production and reproduction, assuming a broader conception of labour and expanding the scope of the analysis outside the domestic sphere to incorporate global mechanisms of exploitation and inequality.
Entailing both physical and psychological support, I also engage with the concept of affective labour, that is the management of emotions and relationships as well as the ability to present proper moods and behaviours in accordance with a given context. The ability to attune and create a suitable atmosphere is essential to what has been called the post-Fordist regime of production, characterised as centred on the commodification of communication, relationships, and social interactions. Also, in a socio-economic context characterised by debt and precariousness, love and empathy become instrumental to the support of the entire system, intervening in situations of social and emotional crisis to ensure individual and collective well-being. This is particularly crucial in the art sector for reputation and human capital are major factors of success, determining the employability and thus visibility of an artist and/or curator. Then, art practitioners who engaged in socially driven practices, especially if women, often find themselves having to face several contradictions and dilemmas deriving from the political nature of their commitment as well as the material conditions that sustain their work.
As social reproduction has come to represent a fundamental space of capitalist exploitation, it also became a privileged site of struggle and resistance for transnational feminist and social movements as well as for artists and curators. Experimenting with different modes of alliance, production, and (self-)organisation – as in the case of Casco Art Institute, the research collective Manual Labours or the curatorial collective WHW – art practitioners have sought to scrutinise art as a field of gendered and racialised precarious labour, as well as their role and position in the system. In these experiences it is often possible to detect a great influence of feminist politics and organising, both as concerns and the values and strategies adopted. Yet, these relations have largely been overlooked in canonical art history and critique.
My research revisits the theoretical production around emancipatory practices and independent instituting through the lens of feminist politics. The main expected outcome is the production of a feminist critique capable of recognising and historicising the influence of women’s labour to the development and reproduction of the artistic sector. This, however, should not be understood as a quest for visibility or for the creation of a new canon for inclusion can easily turn into processes of commodification and tokenism. Furthermore, whilst I hope to identify promising examples of sustainable and fair organisational practices, I don’t aim at finding definitive solutions, for it would require more time and resources to properly test the validity of such proposals. Still, I anticipate the PhD to generate findings that posit feminism as a propositional politics in the art field, which would outline the basis for future research.
My doctoral research is developed in the context of the research network FEINART – The Future of European Independent Art Spaces in a Period of Socially Engaged Art and is the only doctoral project focused on gender. News and updates on my work and that of my colleagues, along with a prominent public programme, are available on the project website: https://feinart.org/ The project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 860306.
Fabiola Fiocco is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie PhD fellow at the Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh. As part of her academic and curatorial practice, she has focused on art and activism, feminism and biopolitics, and the social and political agency of the contemporary art museum. She has worked in independent art spaces, museums, and foundations – both in Italy and abroad – and collaborated with various online magazines. You can find me on twitter @fblfiocco or contact me at email@example.com